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A Free-to-Play World, our brief for IED students at the RCA

A while ago, we were invit­ed by John Fass to come up with a play-focused brief for stu­dents of the Infor­ma­tion Expe­ri­ence Design pro­gramme at the RCA. De-Com­pu­ta­tion is a theme run­ning through a lot of the work there, so we though it would be it would be inter­est­ing to ask the stu­dents to decon­struct a log­ic preva­lent in the games indus­try (F2P) and to then apply that log­ic to a real-world sys­tem (in this case, a Lon­don trans­port) service.


Stu­dents worked in groups on the assign­ment over the course of two weeks. With­out a doubt, we chal­lenged them with the assign­ment as it not only required them to digest a con­cept from a field not cen­tral to their area of study, but to also for­mu­late a design using tools and tech­niques from that field. Nev­er­the­less, we were pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by the out­comes. Here are some highlights.

Jaekyung Kim and Car­rolynne Hsieh, going slight­ly off-brief by clev­er­ly sug­gest­ing tele­pho­ny trans­ports voic­es, pro­posed a new life for Lon­don’s phone box­es in the form of a loca­tion-based free-to-play game. I am remind­ed of the com­mon ges­ture of check­ing for coins left in the dis­penser before mak­ing a call and like to think this design breathes new life into it. That phone box­es can be a viable plat­form for gam­ing has been shown in the past by games as I Love Bees and Nike’s GRID.

Carrolynne-JaeKyungKIOSK1924presentation 7-07

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Carrolynne-JaeKyungKIOSK1924presentation 14-14

Francesco Tac­chi­ni, Michael Pecirno and Emi­ly Groves pro­posed an alter­na­tive to TfL’s Oys­ter in the form of Gold­en Wheels, a tiered sys­tem sure to height­en the ten­tion on dai­ly com­mutes. Par­tic­i­pants try to achieve gold sta­tus by play­ing com­pet­i­tive games against oth­ers. Gold users get perks such as free cof­fee but are required to con­stant­ly pro­tect their sta­tus from chal­lengers in the low­er tiers. Cer­tain­ly dystopi­an, but not that far removed from some of the shenani­gans air­line com­pa­nies engage in on a dai­ly basis with their loy­al­ty programs.

FrancescoMichaelEmilyPresentation 13-13

FrancescoMichaelEmilyPresentation 4-04

FrancescoMichaelEmilyPresentation 5-05

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FrancescoMichaelEmilyPresentation 16-16

Below is the brief we came up with. We cer­tain­ly enjoyed doing this, pre­sent­ing the brief and see­ing the stu­dent work after­wards. We think it could be devel­oped fur­ther in the con­text of oth­er stud­ies and are very keen to run it again with oth­er groups of stu­dents. If you’re an edu­ca­tor and this is some­thing you’d be inter­est­ed in, get in touch.


The games indus­try has been tak­en by storm by free-to-play. As a busi­ness mod­el, its sim­ple premise is that play­ers do not need to pay for access to the game. A wide range of oth­er tech­niques have been intro­duced to gen­er­ate rev­enue instead. For exam­ple, a free-to-play MMO (mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er online game) play­er might pay real mon­ey to obtain a pow­er­ful in-game item with­out hav­ing to go through the drudgery of obtain­ing it in-game. In recent years vir­tu­al­ly every game genre has been re-imag­ined as a free-to-play game. While clear­ly a com­mer­cial suc­cess, it has also received crit­i­cism. For exam­ple, peo­ple have argued free-to-play leads to exploita­tive game design. (In many free-to-play games a very small part of all play­ers gen­er­ate the major­i­ty of revenue.)

Expe­ri­ences with dig­i­tal media con­di­tion our expec­ta­tions of how the world works. Peo­ple might be annoyed (or relieved) to find a sim­ple ser­vice such as a bak­ery oper­ates accord­ing to some­thing oth­er than the free-to-play log­ic. On a dif­fer­ent lev­el, free-to-play as a ‘busi­ness mod­el’ is a per­sua­sive idea. Entre­pre­neurs, tech­nol­o­gists, artists and design­ers might be seduced to imag­ine new prod­ucts, ser­vices or expe­ri­ences that oper­ate on the free-to-play log­ic. For exam­ple, one could argue col­lab­o­ra­tive con­sump­tion ser­vices such as AirBnB are free-to-play. Things can be free at the point of sale when the val­ue of the object is reim­bursed in a non-mon­e­tary way.

Any­thing can be framed as a game. What hap­pens when we delib­er­ate­ly think with a gam­ing mind­set as we (re)design a thing? Does this triv­i­alise the beau­ty of play? Is this dystopi­an game design?

We chal­lenge you to decon­struct the log­ic of free-to-play and to apply it to a trans­port ser­vice oper­at­ing in Lon­don. This could be a pub­lic or pri­vate ser­vice con­sist­ing of one or more modes (air, rail, road, etc.) aimed at the move­ment of peo­ple, ani­mals or goods from one loca­tion to anoth­er. Rein­vent such a sys­tem so that it becomes free-to-play. In doing so, we will ask and pos­si­bly answer the ques­tion: Who does the code of free-to-play com­pute for? The play­er, or someone/something else?

Suggested activities:

  • Visu­al­ly map the net­works of actors and inter­ac­tions of both free-to-play games and the trans­port ser­vice of your choice.
  • Cross-breed and mutate such net­works, invent­ing new forms of play.
  • Rapid­ly pro­to­type your sys­tem. Phys­i­cal­ly act it out; body-storm, don’t brainstorm.
  • Write up your free-to-play sys­tem as the rules of a phys­i­cal game. Test it for intelligibility.
  • Design and pro­duce the mate­ri­als required for your free-to-play system.
  • Tell a short visu­al sto­ry of a per­son­’s expe­ri­ence with the system.

Suggested reading

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