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Category Archives: Game Thoughts

I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar

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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.

Mario

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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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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Astral Diamonds: Balancing Hard Currency and MMORPG Economies

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Game Thoughts

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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:

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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.

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

 

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