Like many people, we’ve managed to download Sonic Runners early, and while we’re holding off reviewing it until there’s an official release, we’re still playing it in the meantime, so we’ll fill you in on our thoughts as we go.
We’ve already covered how the free-to-play nature of Sonic Runners has turned it into a pop-up riddled ’90s Internet throwback, but something else that’s been popping up frequently in our early hours with the game has been numerous urges to get us to connect our Facebook account and start inviting friends to play.
A free-to-play game makes its money in player acquisition, plain and simple: you have to get as many people into the ecosystem as possible to keep a revenue stream going. One way to do that is through word of mouth — people recommending the game to their friends — but rather than let that word of mouth develop naturally, many developers opt to incentivize it by offering in-game bonuses. It’s not a terrible strategy if it’s done in a respectful way, but there’s nothing respectful about how Sonic Runners handles it.
Sonic Runners forces the issue at every turn, with pop-ups that interrupt the flow of playing the game and having fun to encourage you to invite your friends to get rewards or share your new rank or high score with your Facebook friends, as though they’ll care.
That’s not how you earn word of mouth — and truly, the key word there is “earn.”
It’s not fun to have a game pressure you to annoy your friends so you can earn rewards. It doesn’t make you feel good as a player to know that you had to spam friends and family to get “10 Red Star Ring(s)” or whatever other pittance they’re offering in exchange for your digital soul. When was the last time someone sent you a Facebook invite for some free-to-play game and that made you want to play the game yourself?
The easiest way to separate the wheat from the chaff on Facebook is to delete anyone that sends you a request from games like Farmville, Candy Crush, Trivia Crack, or Sonic Runners. That includes you too, Mom.
This one isn’t Facebook spam, but it’s yet another attempt to get you to leave the game to recommend it to others, a surefire way to get you to never recommend it to others.
Straight-up, with a free-to-play game like Sonic Runners, the key to player retention and good word-of-mouth is to focus first on making a fantastic player experience, something that doesn’t include interrupting the game every few minutes to poke and prod the player into a Facebook post. In fact, that’s the exact kind of move that people cite when explaining why they don’t play free-to-play games.
If you look at Crossy Road, an extremely successful free-to-play mobile game, it does focus on delivering that fantastic user experience first. It’s fun and addictive. It starts quickly, ends quickly, and doesn’t bother you to bother your friends. None of the content you can buy fundamentally gives you an advantage or even changes the gameplay all that much, and the game randomly offers you freebies that you’d otherwise have to pay for. That generosity has been rewarded by its player base; the game is currently estimated to be generating over $23k/day in revenue many months after launch — when most free-to-play games have already died off.
Sonic Runners is not a bad game, and in fact, it’s often quite fun when you finally manage to get past the pop-ups and Facebook spam, and that’s what makes Sega’s greed most tragic; it makes the game something to deal with rather than something to play. We’ll be covering what it’s like to actually play Sonic Runners in the near future, but for now, it’s important to highlight what corporate greed will do even to games that are genuinely good otherwise.