Author Archives: Grant

Astral Diamonds: Balancing Hard Currency and MMORPG Economies


Today, I’d like to talk about a fascinating intersection of MMORPG economies and hard currencies. More specifically, the Astral Diamond system in Neverwinter. Most hard currencies are regularly used by only a minority of players in games, but Neverwinter is designed for a constant flow of Astral Diamonds from players of all kinds, and with a player base of over two million players, that’s got to be bringing in some serious revenue.

So, what is an Astral Diamond? It’s a currency that acts as an accelerant for Zen, the game’s hard currency. This’ll take a little explaining, so bear with me. It’ll all make sense in the end. Astral Diamonds can be earned through play, but there’s a hard limit on how many a player can earn in each day. On top of that, when players do earn Astral Diamonds, they earn them in a form called Rough Astral Diamonds that can’t be spent. These need to be refined into normal Astral Diamonds first, and a hard cap of 24,000 Astral Diamonds can be refined per player per day (Presumably to limit the speed at which Astral Diamonds can enter the economy and keep it from being devalued too quickly).

Astral Diamonds can be used to buy high-value items, but where this gets really interesting is with the auction house. In Neverwinter, the only currency accepted by the auction house is the Astral Diamond, and thus the main currency exchanged between players. Astral Diamonds are the lifeblood of the game’s entire economy. Each player that exists can add a maximum of 24,000 Astral Diamonds to the game’s economy per day, and each transaction in the auction house removes 10% of the Diamonds from the economy. Astral Diamonds can be spent on other goods as well, but my belief is that the auction house is primarily responsible for removing Astral Diamonds from the economy.


Now, let’s talk about the actual hard currency  and how it relates to Astral Diamonds. The hard currency is called Zen, and it’s used by other games published by Perfect World. Players can use Zen to buy premium MMORPG goods such as character slots, boosters, high quality gear, etc. It works just like you’d expect a premium currency to work.

However, there’s one final key feature to this equation: The Astral Diamond Exchange. Players who want those goods but don’t want to spend real money can instead offer their Astral Diamonds to other players in exchange for Zen. Players in need of Astral Diamonds can buy Zen and exchange it for someone else’s Astral Diamonds. Players who don’t pay money can still enjoy items that cost hard currency, but someone somewhere still contributes revenue. I’ve seen this in Puzzle Pirates and a few other games, and premium currency exchanges have always fascinated me, especially since the prices are player-controlled and fluctuate to meet supply and demand.

If you combine the existence of the Astral Diamond Exchange with the presence of the Astral Diamond-only auction house, you get something magical. The auction house is full of desirable goods, and the transaction fee creates a constant drain on the number of Astral Diamonds in circulation (offset by the creation of new Astral Diamonds). Players who want to trade Astral Diamonds for Zen will become very active on the auction house, selling whatever they can and contributing to the game’s community and economy. The value of the Zen is tied closely to the Astral Diamond; if the market has many Astral Diamonds, the value of the Astral Diamond falls and the Zen can be traded for more Astral Diamonds (capped at 500 Astral Diamonds per Zen).


Some might be bothered that a player can get premium currency without spending real money, but it doesn’t matter if a player can benefit from Zen without personally spending money on it. What matters is that the Zen is purchased, creating revenue, and that the Zen is spent, removing it from the economy. A top-performing free-to-play game needs to have monetization intertwined with the game design at its most fundamental levels, and by creating a careful tie between the premium currency and the economy, Cryptic has built something fascinating.

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Posted by on September 27, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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Touchy Controls

Mobile games have been pretty big for a while, and they’ve got a variety of unique challenges and benefits. I’ve been playing a lot of them lately, so I figured I’d talk about a couple of mistakes that have been jumping out at me lately. I’d like to use Shin Megami Tensei and Hay Day as examples. These are not bad games. In fact, they’re excellent examples of their respective genres. They just use some questionable control decisions.

Don’t Use Fake Gamepads

If you’re making a control scheme for a mobile game, please don’t do that thing where you superimpose a fake gamepad over the screen. Design your controls for the device your players are actually using.


My thoughts exactly.

A gamepad control scheme works for actual gamepads because the players can actually feel the edges of the buttons. Until apps are able to cause parts of phone screens to push outward to create tactile feedback (and I’m guessing we’ll see this within 15 years), you’re just going to remind people that a gamepad would be a much better input device for the game.

Design Around Fingers

A more widespread problem is that fingers are going to be covering large parts of the screen, and you need to design around that. Take, for example, Hay Day. It’s doing really well for itself. It’s currently the eighth highest grossing app in iTunes. However, it’s got a bit of a problem when it comes to designing around fingers.

Let’s say you want to bake a loaf of bread. To start, just tap the bakery. This brings up a little radial menu of items you can bake. If you hold your finger over the loaf of bread, you can see how many ingredients it needs and how many ingredients you have. To actually make the bread, you need to drag the icon over to the queue along the bottom.

Here’s what the screen looks like:


It doesn’t look so bad, right? Hold on and think about this for a moment. You’re probably gripping the left and right sides of your phone. Those baked goods icons are in the center, so you can’t comfortably reach them with your thumb. Your hands shift positions a little. Let’s assume you’re right-handed. Your left hand supports the phone, and your right hand positions itself to use your index finger to touch the icon.

The ingredients will only be displayed for as long as your finger is on the bread icon. Unfortunately, as long as your finger is on the bread icon, it’s also going to be over the numbers! If you want to actually see the numbers, you need to shift your head or your phone around to get a different viewing angle. This doesn’t sound like much, it does pull them out of the game a little, and over time, the little things add up.

A good user interface is unobtrusive. The player’s finger is now a part of the user interface. The finger should never be positioned in a way that blocks whatever the player is trying to look at. Mobile match-3 games ask you to put your finger over the screen all the time, as do plenty of other mobile games, but this never really takes you out of the experience.

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Posted by on September 21, 2014 in Game Thoughts


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The First Time User Experience

Let’s say you got a player to install your game. Hooray! You’ve got all sorts of hooks in place to keep them playing for weeks and months, but before the player encounters any of those, there’s a much more important retention concept you need to run through: The first time user experience.

The first 15 minutes of your game need to be stellar. During this time, you need to teach the player how to play the game, convince them to come back for a second play session, and make sure they have a fun time. On top of this, you might want to do other things, like ask them to invite other friends on Facebook or associate the account with Facebook or Google Plus. The first play session is the most crucial, and I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is. Criminal Case spent 30% of its development time doing nothing but working on the first time user experience! A team of 25 people spent six months working on an experience that isn’t even an hour long! It might sound ridiculous, but Criminal Case managed to keep 9 million daily average users after just six months!

You can have the greatest game in the entire world, but unless you make a fantastic first impression, that’s going to be of limited benefit. That first time user experience is crucial. Every second of that first experience needs to be carefully designed and tested over and over. You can’t get someone to play for months without getting them to play for hours.


Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Game Thoughts





I’ve beaten every single level in Angry Birds Stella. It’s got two episodes, each containing about 70 levels. I’m going to give myself a little time to think it over a bit. I’ve also started playing League of Legends more seriously. I figure I should try to achieve a decent level of skill in at least one competitive game, and League seems to have the largest audience. Expect a return to my usual update schedule soon.

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Posted by on September 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


Bird Looks Like A Lady

Last week, Rovio released Angry Birds Stella, the latest game in the Angry Birds family. I’m going to be talking about this a lot over the next week, but for today, let’s talk about the first thing that clearly jumps out, the thing that we can’t ignore (nor should we).


The protagonist of Angry Birds Stella is female.

Her identity is core to the game’s identity. Her name, Stella (written in smooth, flowing strokes), dwarfs the Angry Birds logo (written in rough blocky lettering). On the loading/title screen, she takes up nearly a third of the screen space. The game’s icon, which represents the game to all its players, is a confident shot of her face.


Angry Birds is enormous, and using a female protagonist in its latest game is a major step forward in an industry unfortunately dominated by a single gender and where protagonists are male by default. Stella has been placed in the spotlight, but has she been placed there responsibly?

The first thing that’s bound to come up is that she’s got an awful lot of gender signifiers on her. Her name is written in pretty flowing lines. She’s got prominent eyelashes. On the app icon, one of her head-feathers is bent over her face, suggesting long hair. Also, she’s pink. I realize it might be a silly question to ask if this female protagonist is too female, and that’s not really a question I think I can answer. We live in a society where beings are assumed to be male by default. Signifiers have to be added to indicate that these characters are female. We don’t live in a world where Pac-Man needs a mustache so we understand that he’s male. We look at Pac-Man and make a completely arbitrary assumption that he’s male.


On this subject, I feel that it might have been an unfortunate necessity to go heavy on feminine signifiers to communicate without any doubt that Stella is a female bird, or people would assume she was male. However, it may have gone a bit far. One friend assumed that all of the other birds present were males. Stella’s female signifiers were so strong that it ended up overshadowing the female signifiers in the other characters; her pinkness drowns out everyone else’s eyelashes. At least she isn’t wearing a bow.


The second question that comes to mind is this: Is this just Angry Birds For Girls? There’s a lot of “For Girls” versions of things, and I think it’s unnecessarily harmful to assume that toy products are, by default, for boys. I mean, take a look at this thing:


It’s Jenga. “Girl Talk” pink Jenga, advertising itself with phrases like “Solid wood blocks are pretty in pink!” I’m sure the product designers meant well, but when you release a special Jenga for girls, you’re saying that regular Jenga is for boys.

Fortunately, Rovio didn’t intend this. Blanca Juti, Rovio’s Chief Marketing Officer stated, “Just as I hope people don’t think Star Wars is for boys, I hope they don’t say this is just for girls.” In fact, she takes it a step further.  “We want to challenge stereotypes, both on girls – that they only play easy games – and on boys, that they don’t like anything pink. We really want to challenge this, and there is already a bit of a movement around it.” I’m pleasantly surprised by this stance. They intend to challenge stereotypes going both ways! From what I’ve played, the game is certainly about as difficult as your regular Angry Birds game, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Outside of the main character being pink instead of red, it looks just like any other Angry Birds game, albeit with a tropical flair. The map selection uses flowers to represent levels, but I associated them more with the tropical theme than with being girly. It didn’t even occur to me that they could be read as feminine until I was about to hit “Publish”.Screenshot_2014-09-05-11-07-43Screenshot_2014-09-05-11-10-46

Over half of the people who watched the game’s trailer on Facebook are men, so maybe this game will be a force for positive social change. However, I admit I’m not completely certain of that; men and boys are not the same thing. While the trailer has attracted a lot of male attention on Facebook, Facebook’s users are not, primarily, children. I love the pink protagonist, but I’m not sure that a little boy would. If we end up with a scenario where Stella enjoys an adult male audience but not a young male audience, I suppose that would count as an improvement, even though it falls short of my hopes. At the very least, I hope that a boy who isn’t interested in Stella might reconsider if he sees an older relative playing.

In spite of all this ambiguity, there’s one element that I feel is a clear step in the right direction. Stella is a powerful heroine of action.

When the Stella character first debuted in Angry Birds Seasons, her special ability was that she could blow bubbles to trap blocks and pigs. Now, she can change her trajectory in mid-flight at a moment’s notice, turning into a ricocheting meteor that smashes her way through physical and social barriers. She’s an active protagonist with energy to burn, and she feels powerful. Sure, she’s pink and girly, but I think that might ultimately work in her favor. She can be a fun and powerful protagonist without having to abandon feminine traits or adopt masculine ones, and if audiences of all ages and genders can embrace that, that would be fantastic.

I realize I’ve brought up a lot of points of contention in this post, and I just want to make it clear that I feel that Angry Birds Stella has a lot of positive social potential. It’s a game with a female protagonist who carries power while embracing stereotypical femininity, they’ve created a deliberate link between stereotypical femininity and power, sending a strong message that being a hero is not exclusively a masculine trait. Stella is being welcomed by men, so maybe we’ll see more female protagonists going forward. It’s not perfect; while her signifiers embrace femininity, it might be playing too close to stereotypes, and might also turn off some male gamers. Still, I feel that if a male and female gamers alike can enjoy a popular game with a heroic female protagonist, that’s a great step down the right path.



Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Game Culture, Game Thoughts


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Extra Credits is good and you should watch it.

I mentioned before in my post about advertising that the free to play model would benefit tremendously from new revenue streams. The Extra Credits video series just put up a new video voicing all of my concerns far better than I could.

Summed up, the aggressive targeting of whales is getting out of hand. Whales certainly have their place, but if games cater exclusively to them, there’s going to be a death spiral. This situation isn’t just bad for those games; it’s bad for the entire free to play industry, which is picking up a pretty bad reputation. Things don’t have to be like this. Blizzard, Riot, and Valve are making money through free to play without having to target such a tiny fragment of the population.

I think we should all consider what is necessary for the free to play industry to remain sustainable. There’s a lot of potential for good here, and it’d be a shame to waste it.


Posted by on September 4, 2014 in Game Thoughts



Let It Flow

I’m a firm believer that in most cases, it’s best for a freemium game to give the hard currency (or items obtainable only through hard currency purchases) away for free every once in a while. At first, this might seem counter-intuitive. Why would players pay money for something they can get for free? Two big reasons off the top of my head: 

Reason One: It gives them a taste.

If you’ve been to Costco or a farmer’s market, you see this all the time. A player is much more likely to make a purchase if they know for a fact that they’re going to like it, and nothing sways a decision like first-hand experience. If a player is on the verge of buying something, a positive memory could be the deciding factor.

Reason Two: It creates a mental exchange rate.

This is a little trickier to explain, but here goes. If I’m playing a game and I look at the store, my mind filters the store’s items into two categories: Soft currency items and hard currency items. I separate the game’s items into “Regular items” and “Items for people who pay money.” If there’s no method to gain hard currency for free, and the game has yet to convince me to pay, then those hard currency items don’t even occupy my mindspace as something I could buy.

However, if I do get a slow trickle of hard currency, I can’t really ignore those premium items anymore. Something happens to the way I process that information. The hard currency doesn’t just have a dollar amount tied to it. The hard currency also starts to represent time spent playing the game. 

Here’s an example: Clash of Clans is the number one top-grossing iOS game right now. You can build structures, but those structures take time to build, and you can only have as many active construction projects as you have Builder’s Huts.


Buying a third Builder’s Hut costs 500 gems. You can pay $5 for it, but you can also slowly earn those gems over the course of days or weeks. That third Builder’s Hut is no longer something “for paying players.” It’s a thing that anyone can get if they put the time into it. A player starts having to ask themselves if it’s worth spending weeks grinding in order to save $5, and the answer is obvious. 

Would as many players convert into paying players if gems couldn’t be earned and they never had that mental exchange rate? I have my doubts.

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


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