Events: The Harrowing 2014

Yesterday, I put in a good number of streaming hours playing League of Legends for the Extra Life 2014 charity event (which I am breaking up throughout the week), and I figured I’d talk about their current event, The Harrowing. It’s an annual Halloween-themed event. Looking at their promotional page for it, I’d like to break it down and describe what it does for the game.

First, let’s have a look at the event page itself and go down.


There, you’ve got the name of the event, an evocative background, and some text to set the mood.


Scroll down just a little, and you get a cinematic to build it up even more, along with a few links you can use to share the video with your friends. Now that the mood is fully set, they start introducing the new features of the Harrowing event. First up are a pair of skins for the champions. These are premium items, so they’re going straight for the flashy stuff to bring in revenue.


Ravenborn LeBlanc is introduced with some fantastic art and given a price, and there’s a link to read more about that particular skin. If you head over there, there are screenshots of the skin in-game and an animated gif of its idle animation. You also learn that the skin is going into the Legacy Vault on November 4. In other words, this is a skin that can only be purchased during the limited window of this event. She’ll probably be made available for purchase again next year, but she won’t be as new and exciting.


Scrolling down a little further, you see the Underworld Wukong skin. It’s introduced like the LeBlanc skin, but it sweetens the deal a little more. You’re given the price of 1350 RP (the game’s hard premium currency), but you’re also told that it’s on sale for just 975 through the 28th. Not only is it a new skin, it’s a new skin that’s worth more money than the skin before it, but you can get it for the same price as the previous one if you act now.

One thing I’d like to see improved here is to explain Underworld Wukong has a higher base price than Ravenborn Leblanc. I get that I’m saving money by buying Wukong now, but I haven’t yet been sold on why I should get him over LeBlanc.


Moving on, they step away from premium items and start moving towards things that are free for all players. The Shadow Isles Crest Icon is a transitional step. It’s introduced as being available for 1500 IP, the game’s soft currency, but it’s only purchasable for IP during the event. Afterward, it’ll cost 250 RP. Now,icons aren’t terribly exciting, but it’s clear they wanted to present all premium options first. It also keeps the icon from becoming lost or forgotten after the next item, the Hexakill gameplay mode. Normally, an event-exclusive gameplay mode is given higher billing, but because it’s a returning mode from previous years, it isn’t going to be as exciting to write about.


The game does, however, provide an incentive to play: The Mark of the Betrayer icon. Win three Hexakill games, and it’s yours. The Harrowed Puppet icon is also present for players who give gifts to another player. This is done with Riot Points, so that’s another way to encourage revenue.

There is, of course, a sale, and that’s big enough to deserve its own page, since the event page is meant to be a quick summary of the whole thing. They close out with a quote to close out the Halloween mood, and that wraps it up.

So, looking it over, the event has:

  • A new limited time skin
  • A new limited time skin on a discount
  • A new icon free for a limited time
  • A seasonal game mode
  • A new icon for participating in the seasonal event
  • A new icon for buying a gift for another player
  • A sale

What do these do for the game? The new skins generate buzz and revenue, and give a face to the event. The Shadow Isles Crest icon is a little something to get players in a spending mood, since it’s cheap, and players don’t even need to spend real money. In fact, I’d say its real purpose is to get players to visit the store. They might not intend to purchase anything else when going there, but getting them to step inside is going to make them interested in browsing.

The seasonal game mode provides something novel for players to engage with the game itself, not just the store. League of Legends normally consists of 5v5 matches on a large map. Hexakill mode uses a map normally used for 3v3 matches, then raises the number of players to make a 6v6 match. That’s a lot of player density, which means there’s going to be a lot of kills and chaos.

Some players who have played Hexakill in previous years might not be as interested in playing it again, but by creating a new icon for winning three matches in Hexakill mode, you encourage them to give it a shot for a few games, at least. It’s free and it’s available for a limited time, so why not? This helps drive player engagement.

Finally, there’s an icon for buying a gift for another player. Exchanging mystery boxes with another player is popular, so this encourages purchasing, even for players who might not necessarily want anything specific. Presenting that at the end also gets the players thinking about the store again, which is when they bring up the big thing: The sale.

The sale gets its very own page

The sale page starts off on a strong foot: Flash sales. Some skins will be on sale for six hours, then those will rotate out to be replaced by another set of skins. Players leave their clients open during the event and periodically check the store to see if a skin they’ve had their eye on is going to be discounted.

Next, they talk about the two new Halloween skins, then come some big-ticket bundles with the skins from previous years. This is one of the things I like about seasonal events, where the longer the game runs, the better the seasonal event becomes with every new year. New content for old players and an enormous amount of content for new ones. One thing that I notice is that the 2013 bundle is only two skins, and in 2014, they also only introduced two new skins. My guess is that because skins require development time, they’re spending that time creating new skins that will generate revenue throughout the year instead of spending it on items that will only roll out in late October. Of course, I’d like to see more holiday skins, but more than that, I’d like to see more content throughout the year.

Legacy skins and ward skins are, of course, available for sale again. The whole thing closes out with a final mention of the mystery gifts, which now drop Harrowing content at twice the normal rate. The gifting is, of course, encouraged with the new summoner icon for giving a gift to people.

So, yeah. That about covers it. New content, new sale items, sales on previous items, an incentive to keep the client open, an incentive to buy things for other people, and a seasonal game mode. It’s all limited availability, so it’s all urgent, encouraging the players to check it out ASAP. There’s stuff in here for free players and paying players alike, and free players aren’t penalized for participation at all.

As usual, leave whatever comments and questions you like! Happy Harrowing, everyone!

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Posted by on October 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


Extra Life 2014 Game Streaming

My Extra Life 2014 stream is live! Check it out over here.

Also, please consider pledging to the Oakland Children’s Hospital and Research Center.

Current game: League of Legends

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Posted by on October 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


Extra Life

This isn’t strictly related to game design, but this Saturday, I’ll be starting an Extra Life stream to raise money for childrens’ hospitals. Starting at 8 AM, I’ll be streaming 24 hours of gameplay (broken up through the weekend). My goal is to raise $100. If you’d like to pledge, please head over here and sign up!

I’ll add a link for the stream later. I haven’t decided fully on the games I’ll be streaming, but if you have suggestions, please let me know!

My current ideas are:

  • Neverwinter
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth
  • League of Legends
  • XCOM: Enemy Within
  • Typing of the Dead: Overkill
  • Spelunky
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Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Uncategorized


I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar


In late February, Hong Kong hedge fund manager Seth Fischer called on Nintendo to start developing mobile games and to “just think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher.”

Now, one thing I’d like to make clear ahead of time is that I don’t actually think that there should be a Mario mobile game where you pay 99 cents to make Mario jump a little higher. That’s a horrible idea that would taint the brand and reeks of an exploitative attitude. This entire post is a thought experiment.

For the sake of argument, let’s take Mr. Fischer up on his suggestion. Let’s think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher. Let’s start by dissecting his sentence. His idea is made of three parts:

  • Pay 99 cents
  • Mario
  • Jump a little higher

Pay 99 Cents

99 cents is not a lot of money. Adding additional moves to a Candy Crush Saga level costs 90 cents worth of hard currency. This is the price you charge for for something minor or temporary, like a convenience feature.


Everyone knows Mario, but more importantly, everyone knows what Mario does: Run and jump. Mario’s been in games that don’t involve that, but for the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume Mr. Fischer is talking about a platformer where Mario runs and jumps. Those are the two primary verbs.

Jump a little higher

This is self-explanatory. Mario can jump a little higher. Maybe a block or two of height, with a block being defined as half of Mario’s height.

Putting it all together

When all three sections are placed next to each other, the game design implications start to get complicated. Platformers are all about traversing levels, and jumping is one of the tools players use to get around. When you’re giving Mario jump height, what you’re really giving him is access. You’re giving Mario access to higher platforms with powerups or access to new routes to progress through the level.

What this means is that when you sell users additional jump height, you aren’t selling them anything with inherent value. The only benefit that players get out of additional jump height is whatever benefit comes in the level design. Every single level has to be designed for someone without that jump boost and for someone with that jump boost. There has to be level design effort directed into creating content that is inaccessible to non-paying players, which I must emphasize will make up at least 90% of your audience.

Let’s say you start trying to solve that by making those parts of the level accessible to people without the boost, but only if you do some tricky platforming challenges. Players with the jump boost can bypass this. Now you end up with another problem. Challenges are fun. What you’re doing now is asking players to pay money to skip the fun part. The game is now more engaging if you don’t pay money. On top of that, players will now be able to burn through your content more quickly, which is bad in a business model where you want to keep players playing as long as possible.

Some might suggest that jumping makes Mario better at fighting enemies, but in over 20 years of playing Mario games, I struggle to come up with examples where additional jump height would be a valuable asset. There are enemies that fly or are hard to reach, but I certainly don’t feel any particular need to be able to jump higher to hit them. Being able to take additional hits or having ranged projectiles, sure, but jump height is not high on my list of demands unless we’re talking about Lakitu. Lakitu is best used in levels specifically built to include ways to climb up and fight him, so then you run into the problem of users paying to skip the fun part again.

There are also issues of a more mechanical nature. Mario can correct his jumps in mid-air, but how much extra leeway does he get with this extra jump boost? If Mario can jump higher, is his air time the same? Does this mean he goes up and lands faster? If not, how do you deal with hazards like giant Banzai Bills where you want to be back on the ground as quickly as possible? Is the extra jump height dependent on how long you hold down the jump button, or is it just a flat multiplier to jump height that permanently increases your minimum jump height?

I could go on and on about these all day, but you get the idea. Mr. Fischer wanted people to “just think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher,” and I did. A 99 cent jump boost introduces a major split in design work, forcing levels to be designed around boosted and unboosted players. It’s like introducing a power in an MMORPG that would allow a character to phase through walls. It provides an unclear and inconsistent benefit to players who buy it. These are just the practical problems associated with his notion. There are a host of game design problems that probably don’t even begin to make up for the revenue brought in by that dollar. As bad as all of this is, it doesn’t even get into broader problems like the immediate ridicule it received when the idea was first introduced.  How much angrier would people be if they saw it in an actual game?

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Posted by on October 8, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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What have you been playing?

Stepping aside from the topic of game design, I’m curious about what people have been playing. Here’s my list. I tried to figure out the line between playing for research and playing for entertainment, and it’s pretty entangled, so I’m not going to try to differentiate them.

  • League of Legends
  • Neverwinter
  • Super Smash Bros.
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer
  • Marvel: Avengers Alliance
  • Criminal Case
  • Candy Crush
  • Cookie Jam
  • Hay Day
  • Clicker Heroes

On top of this, I’m thinking about sinking more time into XCOM or Civ 5. I dumped 500 hours into those, but they’ve still got their hooks in me. A new Civilization game is coming out later this month too, and I know I’m probably going to disappear into that game.

So, what games have you been playing?


Posted by on October 3, 2014 in Uncategorized


Dungeons & Dragons: Content & Consumables

Yesterday, I talked about how monetization is best when a player wants to spend money. Before you really sell something to someone, though, you need to understand what you’re really selling. Let’s have a look at this GDC Vault presentation on D&D Online: Stormreach.

Quick history lesson: D&D Online: Stormreach started as a subscription-based MMORPG. They went free-to-play, and their monthly active users multiplied by 10 and their monthly revenues multiplied by 5. On top of that, they managed to monetize 20% of their players, which is an incredible conversion rate.

Now, let’s have a look at their top-selling items from September 2009 through February 2010.

Top Sellers by Units Sold

  1. Siberys Spirit Cake (Consumable. Resurrection item)
  2. Major Experience Elixir (Consumable. XP booster)
  3. Moderate Heal Potion x50 (Consumable. Health potion)
  4. Copper Sigil of Leveling (Upgrade. Raises level cap)
  5. Medium Jewel of Fortune x5 (Consumable. Loot booster)
  6. Best SP Potion x10 (Consumable. Spell Potion)
  7. Greater Siberys Spirit Cake (Consumable. Resurrection item)
  8. Greater Experience Elixir (Consumable. XP booster)
  9. Bell of Opening (Consumable. Unlocks locked chests and doors without need of a rogue)
  10. +1 Full Plate (Equipment. Survivability)

The biggest trend that jumps out to me is that all of these items, with the exception of the +1 Full Plate and Copper Sigils of Leveling, are consumables. Two of those items are resurrection items, two are XP boosters, and two are related to getting more treasure.

(As an aside, the Copper Sigil of Leveling has since been removed from the game. Previously, its function was to raise a character’s level cap from 4 to 8. The designers wisely decided that it was better to retain a free player than effectively tell them to stop playing if they didn’t convert after a certain level.)

The biggest lesson we can take from this is, in retrospect, obvious. The items that sell the most units are ones that players will frequently use and are consumed upon use. You can sell these items multiple times to each player, they’re often cheap, and they save the players some time.

Now let’s have a look at the biggest earners.

Top Sellers by Revenue

  1. 32 Point Build Characters (Power. Character stats.)
  2. Major Experience Elixir (Consumable. XP booster)
  3. +2 Tome of Supreme Ability (Power. Character stats.)
  4. Siberys Spirit Cake (Consumable. Resurrection item.)
  5. Favored Soul Class (Content. New class)
  6. Drow Race (Content. New race)
  7. Character Slot (Upgrade. Additional player options)
  8. +1 Tome of Supreme Ability (Power. Character stats.)
  9. Monk Class (Content. New class.)
  10. Veteran Status Characters (Convenience. Higher starting level)

When you look at this list and compare it to the previous one, you’ll notice that this list only has two consumables: An XP booster and a resurrection item. The other eight items are comprised of three content unlocks, two power upgrades, and a convenience upgrade. There’s a lot more diversity here, but the general trend I’m noticing here is that the top revenue earners are dominated by permanent upgrades.

You can charge a lot more for permanent unlocks, and they bring in a lot of revenue, but you do need to be a little cautious with them. For one, their effects are permanent. If a permanent upgrade provides paying players with an extreme advantage, you face the risk of alienating other players. This is especially risky in the case of games with a heavy player versus player element. Every time that permanent unlock is used to the detriment of another player, it’s creating a negative experience. That permanent unlock won’t just be used once. It’s going to be used dozens of times. Hundreds of times. You need to make sure that unlock makes the game a more interesting experience for everyone, even the person it’s wielded against, or the price of your revenue is going to be the lifetime of the game.

The other big thing you need to watch out for with permanent unlocks is that you can only sell them so many times per player. If a player pays to unlock a new class, they can’t unlock it a second time. This is obvious, but it is something to consider. In order to sell it again, you need to convince another player to buy it. Not everything is going to appeal to everyone, so if you want to monetize through unlockable content, you need to release more of it. I want to be clear that this isn’t a warning against using permanent unlocks. Not everyone is willing to buy consumables, and adding new content in particular adds to your game’s value and feature set. Every time League of Legends adds a new champion, the game gets a little deeper and people start talking, and with 27 million daily active users, they have to be doing something right.

So, to wrap things up. Monetized consumables provide a steady stream of revenue because players use them all the time and can buy them over and over again. Monetized unlocks provide bursts of revenue as long as you have players capable of buying them. Consumables provide you with a safe and stable source of revenue that you can always count on, and unlocks are literal game-changing features that can hit those high numbers.

Before we stop for now, though, don’t underestimate consumables! That Major Experience Elixir is number 2 on both lists, and Candy Crush Saga is nothing but consumables. Until next time!

Addendum: I should note that if I had the sales numbers, I’d be able to draw more detailed conclusions (or perhaps entirely different conclusions!). These numbers are also about four years old, but when it comes to publicly available monetization data, you take what you can get.

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Posted by on October 3, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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Ethical Monetization

Lately, I’ve been reading Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. I appreciate game design of all sorts, and thought that a book about the design of slot machines would be enlightening.

I’m not done yet, but I’ve been thinking about two big things in the book. The first is less relevant to this post, but I found it interesting, so I’d like to share that. Contrary to my expectations, people who are habitual slot machine players know that they aren’t going to win. Their goal is to play the game itself, keep engaging in the loop, and enter a meditative state of flow that one player termed the “Machine Zone”, where all that exists is the player and the machine. This effect is so strong that the book relates a story where a man suffered a heart attack at a slot machine. Paramedics were called in to take him away, but during the entire scene, no one else on the machines noticed. They were just completely absorbed into the flow.

The second major thought on my mind are the ethics involved, and how the free-to-play game market is facing a similar reaction. The slot machine industry talks about how gamblers need to take personal responsibility to not spend to excess, while simultaneously researching and refining techniques to keep players on the machines for longer periods of time. The cognitive dissonance is concerning. You can’t have it both ways. Players can’t be in full control of their own behavior while at the same time having their behavior controlled by a designed experience.

Game design has the power to shape human behavior. It’s important to be ethical about it. Slot machines have the power to make ordinary people oblivious to a man in need of immediate medical attention, using nothing but flashing lights, spinning reels, and controlled probability. If you’re designing monetization features, you need to treat your players with respect. You want your players to give you money. In fact, you need it. People need to be paid, and the servers need to be kept running. You need to convince your players to pay for the game, but there’s a fine line between persuasion and coercion.

To me, the greatest monetization happens when a player wants to spend money on a game. They play the game, see something they like, buy it, and come away with happy thoughts. The next time they see something they want, that happiness is reinforced. Compare that with a player who doesn’t want to spend money on a game, but feels that they’re forced to. “Ugh. Fine,” the player says as they roll their eyes. They might pay for the game again and again, but when they eventually stop playing, how likely are they to come back? How likely are they to recommend the game to their friends? What happens to the reputation of the free-to-play space as a whole? Monetizing responsibly isn’t just about ethics. It’s about effective long-term sustainable business practices.

The line between good monetization and bad monetization is difficult to draw, and there are a lot of gray areas. My current mental model is that it comes down to the attitude towards the players when it’s designed. Good monetization is designed to have players asking themselves “If I buy this”, and bad monetization has players asking themselves “If I don’t buy this”.

“If I buy this new weapon, I can do some cool stuff with my friends.”

“If I don’t buy this new weapon, I’m going to get destroyed in PvP.”

“If I buy this kitten, I’ll have an adorable animal companion.”

“If I don’t buy this kitten, it’ll be sent to a kill shelter.”

The best monetization is about selling players something they want, not about threatening the players if they don’t buy something. It’s difficult to draw a line, since convincing someone to buy something is also based on creating a desire for it (which is why I made the examples that I did), but what I’ve laid out here is a general guideline. This is subjective, but it’s a solid starting point, and if more free-to-play games are designed with more respect for their players, then the industry could shed its exploitative reputation.

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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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