CSR Racing is currently the number 1 grossing game in 70 of the world’s App Stores, including the US and the UK. It’s some achievement for a game made by a team who had previously worked exclusively on blockbuster console games like Pure, Sudeki and Split/ Second.

Last week at Develop, Hookshot Inc. had the opportunity to speak with Jason Avent, founder and managing director of CSR Racing’s developer, Boss Alien. We took the time to ask Avent about the game’s use of ‘Energy’ the somewhat controversial monetization mechanic that we have been discussing on the site in recent weeks.

As the most successful freemium game designer in the iOS world this week (in terms of earnings, at very least) as well as a critically-acclaimed traditional game-maker, Avent is uniquely positioned to talk about freemium and the rise of ‘Energy’-based games.

His perspective is both interesting and persuasive.

Hookshot Inc.: At this year’s Develop conference you spoke about how Boss Alien is working to introduce ‘Skill’ back into the free-to-play iOS dynamic. Can you explain this a little?

I’ll start by leaning on the excellent Gran Turismo for PlayStation as an example. The structure in that game allowed you to race forward through the career for maximum rewards if you were great at the game or to go back to old races for lower rewards if you didn’t feel confident enough to face the ever-increasing challenge.

The developers recognised that players brought two currencies to the game: their Time and their Skill. Poor players could progress by spending TIME going back to old races repeatedly to build up the smaller prizes into better cars. Meanwhile while good players could use their SKILL to beat the more difficult races and get higher rewards. The net result was the same – progress to the next car.

To date, most, freemium games required no skill and the two currencies that players brought with them were TIME and MONEY.

Although the interfaces are simple in CSR Racing, there is a skill in timing your starts, gear changes and triggering nitrous. There is also strategy in choosing the right cars and upgrade path through the game. So we’ve made a freemium game that has all three currencies: Time, Skill and Money. I’d like to bring more skill to our future games while retaining a low input intensity control scheme.

Why do you believe ‘Skill’ is an important addition to this style of game?

I think that all of the best games require skill. You feel good about yourself when you develop new abilities and master a game.

CSR Racing is thoughtfully designed, and uses ‘energy’ (known in the game as ‘Gas’) cleverly. But there’s still a sense for me that monetization has driven the game design. Would you agree?

The game has a tight 30-second play loop. You race, upgrade your car and then race some more. This repeats until you can beat a crew member and ultimately the crew bosses. The interface is slick and so it’s easy to enter into a state of Flow playing the game. It feels satisfying to have goals and meet them regularly. That’s the core design.

The ‘Gas’ mechanic provides a reprieve for a natural break. At that point you can either pay for Gas or leave the game to recharge. The short-sharp play sessions mean that you’re happy to come back and have another go. This design fits with the play patterns of people on the move. That’s really what drove the design.

Do you think this style of monetization harms the game in design terms at all?

As long as you consider monetization up-front then I don’t think it harms the game design. We have a lot of reminders in the game that help to keep you on the right track and progress. Relatively few of these actually mention money. However payment does fit in neatly where it’s appropriate. It’s never compulsory to pay though and I think that’s key. You can play CSR Racing forever for free if you want to. If you’re really into it though you can buy all the cool stuff and show off to your friends. These kind of choices occur in real life all the time. I could buy some £1.99 shades from a street-seller or I could spend £100 on some nice Ray Bans. They do pretty much the same job. It’s all about offering people a choice.

As a respected designer who has worked on traditional console games, what’s your take on the shift towards microtransaction-driven games?

Personally I’m tired of spending £40 on a game and then realising I only want to play it for a couple of hours. I think most people are. That’s why the second-hand games market is so popular and why some people justify piracy. Micro-transaction-driven games give us the opportunity to choose what games we pay for and how much we pay. I’d liken it to pay-as-you-go mobile phones. Modern consumers demand flexibility in how they pay for and consume products. The beauty of downloadable games is that they cost nothing to distribute so they can be given away for free. It’s also very easy to add things to a digital product.

It seems that it is currently easier to make money designing games with an Energy mechanic at their core. Do you believe all games will be designed in this manner moving forward? Will we see these kind of mechanics creeping into console titles? How do you feel about that?

Designing a successful freemium game is if anything more difficult than designing a traditional game. You really have to understand the play patterns of your users and cater to them much more closely. You need to make something fun but also wind in many more motivations. You need to balance the game for free-forever players and those who are happy to spend a lot of money to rise above other players. That’s a tough challenge in terms of balancing.

It’s my belief that freemium can work for all types of games and all types of consumer. The model will morph to fit the sensitivities of each market. I think it will mature generally and we’ll move towards more pull-based models rather than the current push-based marketing used in most contemporary freemium games. In a few years I don’t think people will recognise a game as being freemium. It will just be. The goal clearly is to allow people to pay whatever they want to, but in a way that feels natural and un-intrusive.

What is the thing you miss most from working on blockbuster console titles?

I actually don’t miss anything from working on Triple A console titles. The teams are bigger and more cumbersome, the games have to be bloated with me-too features and the development cycles are really long. I like the fact that we can deploy teams of just 10-15 again and still make games that reach millions of players. I like the fact that we don’t have to wait for a year for our games to finish and that when they’re done, they’re on the app-store a week later. With a console game you have to wait three months for the ship date once development is complete. Then you have to wait a week to see how you’ve done when the charts come out. On iOS, it’s great to be able to track sales and behaviours instantly. It feels lean – like nothing is wasted. That’s really refreshing. I find it exhilarating.

What is the thing you enjoy the most from working on iOS titles such as CSR Racing?

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of learning a new platform and a completely new pattern of play. Now CSR Racing is released, I love the fact that we can see what people use and what they don’t. We can respond to our players quickly. It feels like game development has had an upgrade. Everything about the business is quicker, faster, slicker and better.