Category Archives: Game Thoughts

Who Would Make The Best Investigator?

I was playing some Criminal Case earlier today, and I just saw this pop up:



It brings up a pair of Facebook friends and asks you to pick one, then it puts it in the “New Recruits” box. Once you fill all ten, it asks you about sending the invitation requests to them, then says that they’ll join you soon! Of course, you can press the “skip” button, which cuts it out, but still.

This is a really clever thing to do! Most games just ask you to check off all of your friends in a gigantic list, but this turns it into an interesting game. What it’s really asking you “Who would probably be more into this game?” and shows you their pictures. Instead of a simple yes/no, it’s asking you to make a comparison and pick an answer. This is an acquisition mechanic that’s actually kind of fun!

I obviously don’t have the numbers to back it up, but my guess is that this method has a pretty sharp jump in invitations. The only thing I’m a little iffy about is that it asks you to select ten recruits at a time. A player might lose interest before completing it, and they might end up sending invitations to no one instead of the entire batch of ten. Still, this is probably the kind of thing they’re still gathering data on. I’ve been playing for a fair amount, and I only just saw this pop up today.

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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Acquisition, Game Thoughts, Social


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Hard Currency

You’ve been playing a game for a while, and you see something that you really want. You go to buy it, and you have a look at the price. Odds are good that the price isn’t going to be in dollars or your country’s local currency. Instead, it’s going to cost you an in-game currency. There are two general types of in-game currency; Soft currency and hard currency.

Soft currency is the type of money you might expect to be in games. This is the money you win after RPG battles. You get a constant steady flow of soft currency as you play through the game.

Hard currency, on the other hand, is tough to get. In fact, in many games, you only start with a limited supply and can’t earn any more through play. The fastest way (or only) way to get hard currency is by spending real life money.  These are things like Riot Points in League of Legends or Gold in Candy Crush Saga. The best items in the game are going to cost hard currency, and this is how the game makes money.

So why use hard currency? I’ll get the cynical answer out of the way first. Converting dollars (or your local currency) into hard currency obscures the value of the real currency. $5 American gets you 650 Riot Points. That’s 130 points per dollar. The Forecast Janna skin costs 1820 Riot Points. That’s $14, but it’s not a calculation people can intuitively perform. It works, though it’s cynical, and to me, it’s the least interesting part of hard currency.

When a game has a hard currency, it opens up a lot of interesting design spaces. If you have a hard currency, you can start the players with some. It’s awkward to tell a user “We’re giving you a 60-cent credit toward in-game purchases”, but it’s natural to say “We’re giving you 100 gold.” You can also have sales and discounts on hard currency, encouraging players to fill up their account instead of making purchases as they go. You can allow players to slowly earn hard currency through gameplay without worrying about them feeling insulted at the hard currency to real currency exchange rate.

I’ll go further in depth on these things you can do with hard currency (and possibly speculate on why Valve and Blizzard don’t use hard currency in their freemium games), but for now, I hope this serves as an introduction to the possible uses of hard currency. 

What do you like or dislike about hard currency?


Posted by on August 28, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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On Board Games

As a designer, your job is to shape human experiences. You need to keep an eye out for design lessons everywhere. It can be hard to figure out what you can learn while waiting in line at the DMV, but there’s an easy source of design influence that many people overlook: Board games.

I’ve seen a few people roll their eyes at the thought that tabletop games could teach them anything, but even if you don’t like to play board games, you can’t ignore them. Game design wasn’t invented after the transistor. Game design has existed alongside human civilization for thousands of years. If you take game design seriously at all, you need to at least consider sports and board games.

Anyway, let’s talk about practical stuff. As a designer, you need to see a lot of different games. If you stick with video games, there’s only so much of the game that you, as the player, can see. In almost every case, there’ll be some part of the game that’s hidden away in the source code, like enemy AI or exactly how random numbers are weighted. Don’t get me wrong; you should still play as many video games as you can, but recognize that there are many layers of the game that you’ll never be able to peel back.

This is not true of board games. Board games, by necessity, make all of the rules known to players. If you own a board game, you can see all of the rules. They’re all laid out for you in plain text. On top of that, board games don’t have the luxury of cutscenes or voiceovers. The art and the mechanics have to carry the the game’s themes.

There are a lot of board games out there, but I’ll give you a few for starters:

Love Letter


Love Letter is a card game with only 16 cards. It plays lightning-fast, so even if your friends aren’t normally into tabletop games, you can probably convince them to spend five minutes of their time. It’s seriously impressive what the game can achieve with so little.



Dominion is a card game where you can earn cards to put in your deck during play. The goal is to end the game with the most Victory Point cards in your deck. However, those VP cards don’t do anything to help you otherwise, and if you load up on them, your hand is going to be full of cards that don’t do anything. It’s about developing an intuition for powerful card combinations and knowing when to push for victory.



Poker really doesn’t need much of an introduction, but here’s the important stuff to pay attention to, design-wise: Poker is heavily dependent on luck, but it’s considered a sport, some players are clearly better than others, and there are actual tournaments with huge prize pools. If you want to take a good hard look at how random chance coexists with skill, look at Poker.




Before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out; Monopoly’s box says the game takes 60-90 minutes. Have you ever played a game of Monopoly that lasted 60-90 minutes? That’s because you’ve probably never played it as written. I could dedicate an entire post to this (and I probably will at some point in the future), but I’m just going to highlight a couple points.

  • When you land on a space, you can either buy it for its listed price or auction it off.
  • No money ever gets put on the Free Parking Space, ever.

Think about what that does to the game’s length (remember: It ends when people get bankrupted), and you’ll start to scratch the surface of what the house rules variants do to the game.

You know, I like these recommendations, and I think I’ll highlight more in the future.

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Posted by on August 27, 2014 in Board Games, Game Thoughts


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Appointment Mechanics

When I talked about energy mechanics, I briefly mentioned that energy refilling with time was an example of an appointment mechanic. What is an appointment mechanic? It’s something that just tells a player “Hey, come back and play again later!”

The purpose of appointment mechanics is to make make playing the game into a habit, a routine part of your day. Remember that a free to play game lives or dies based on its ability to retain paying players, and a player is really only likely to become a paying player if they stick with the game for longer periods of time. It’s impossible to emphasize this enough. Retention, retention, retention. This isn’t limited to free to play games, either. If you’ve ever played an MMORPG, you’ve probably seen daily quests. Games with a focus on multiplayer or social elements may also have these, such as Animal Crossing’s fruit, Pokemon’s berry plants, and Nintendogs’ contests.

Come to think of it, all of those examples are from portable Nintendo games. I’ll have to examine this more closely in a future article.

Anyway, let’s look at some examples of appointment mechanics in games. I’m going to use Marvel: Avengers Alliance as an example here because it’s managed to retain me as a player for over two years, and I just hit the level cap this morning.




The game, like most free to play games, has an energy system. It costs 10 energy to initiate the core game loop (fight a battle), and it caps at 60 energy. Energy replenishes at a rate of one point per six minutes. This all boils down to a player being able to fight one battle per hour. A player gets up in the morning, burns through a few fights, goes to work, burns through some fights over lunch, returns to work, goes home, then players some more. That’s habituation right there.


Specialized Energy Systems


In addition to the regular gameplay, ranked PvP battles and puzzle-like simulator challenges also require the expenditure of energy. However, this is a specialized form of energy that does not take away from the regular energy pool, so a player that engages in PvP or simulator challenges  loses nothing by engaging in the normal mission structure. I should note that “practice” PvP matches do not cost energy, but also provide no experience.


Remote Ops


Players can use the flight deck to send their collected heroes off on remote ops missions. The heroes are unusable for a while, but when they come back, they’ll get a little experience and currency for your trouble. The experience your heroes gain might seem to break the “No experience without an energy cost” rule, but hero experience and player experience are different things. The real point here is that they bring back silver, M:AA’s soft currency. It’s like an invest/express game where you plant a crop, wait for some time, then collect your money. The real benefit here is that players get to choose their own timer and set their own appointment and expectation of when they’ll play the game again.


Training Time


When heroes get enough experience to reach their next level, they need to train before they can gain more experience. While training, a hero can’t be used, but once you’re done, you can unlock new skills or equipment slots. This gets people looking forward to coming back. The higher a hero is in level, the longer it takes to train them. A hero that’s been used a lot is going to be missed more, and the player is going to be even more invested in seeing that hero come back from training.


Helping Friends


Once per day per Facebook friend, you can go visit their cities and collect rewards. This is especially valuable when special events are running that require a special resource called Unstable ISO-8 to participate.

Gift Limits


There’s a limit on how many gifts you can claim from friends each day. This is separate from the friend-visiting mechanic. I’ll go into this in more detail when it comes to social mechanics, but the general point here is that if you see a lot of a resource that you want (especially Unstable ISO-8!), you want to claim the gifts as often as you can.

Random Daily Login Reward


It’s our old friend, the Random Daily Login Reward!


Daily PvP Quest


While a PvP tournament is running, players can earn a random daily prize if they manage to win five battles. The player isn’t just being asked to come back to the game. The player’s being asked to participate and really get involved.


Daily Consecutive Login Rewards

Not only do you get a random reward for logging in, you also get a daily reward that improves in quality based on how many consecutive days you’ve logged in. This is an extremely powerful appointment mechanic that really deserves its own article.

Whew! I covered a lot. I hope this was educational. Still, that’s ten different types of things a player is waiting for, and that’s just in this one game. On top of that, only four of those things are tied to daily resets. Everything else is on a visible timer that ticks down while players watch and wait (Or break out their wallets to fast-forward). Like with energy mechanics, these can be monetized, but their real purpose is to make a game into a habit.


Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Columns, Game Thoughts


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Energy and Retention

Let’s talk about a popular retention mechanic: Energy.

energy (1)

Sims Social Energy Icon

That’s right. Energy is a retention mechanic. It can be used to monetize (and do social stuff), but it’s primarily a retention tool.

Let’s define energy mechanics, just so we’re on the same page. Energy is a time-renewable resource consumed when players initiate a game’s core gameplay loops. It’s a rough definition and needs work, but it suits most of our discussion purposes.

I’ll break this down a little further, to make it clearer. Energy is a resource consumed when players initiate a game’s primary gameplay loops. A game’s core gameplay loop is what people would consider to be the broad actions of playing a game. Planting crops, solving puzzles, launching missions, investigating crime scenes, etc. When a player initiates this, the energy is consumed. Variations do exist, although they are still tied in concept; in Candy Crush Saga, your energy resource (“lives”) are only consumed if you do not successfully complete a puzzle. However, viewed from another angle, one could say that lives are consumed for attempting the puzzle, and your reward for beating it is to have your life refunded.

In any case, should a player exhaust all of their energy, they are unable to initiate the game’s core play loops. They may be able to do other things with the game, but these actions are usually limited to acquiring consumable resources. They cannot gain experience or see new content. The actions that cost energy and the actions that don’t cost energy aren’t decided arbitrarily. This is very deliberate.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Note how it costs SHIELD points, silver, and time to train Emma, but it does not take energy.

Like I mentioned earlier, energy is a retention mechanic. Let’s think about what would happen if players didn’t have energy. They would start a game, and if they liked it, they’d just keep playing and playing. Eventually, they’d hit a point where they were done with all the content in the game. No more quests, no more puzzles, no more reason to keep playing. That’s when they quit. Even if you do have enough content, they can play until they burn themselves out and quit. That’s bad news for a game. A game needs money to live, and players aren’t usually willing to pay money until they’ve been playing for a while. The game needs player to come back every single day, building up a presence in that player’s life, being a constant source of fun and generating a feeling of good will. That’s when a player might decide it’s time to return the favor and give some money to the game.

That’s why energy can run out, but energy doesn’t just bottom out at zero. Energy has a cap; from casual observation, usually five iterations of the core play loop if it isn’t an invest/express game like Farmville, but in general, you get a play time of 15 to 30 minutes out of a full energy bar. I’ll save the talk about the specific numbers for a future talk, but the point is that energy can top out, and time that you spend with a full energy bar is energy that you’re losing by not having enough space in your bar to hold it. That triggers something called loss aversion. People don’t like losing things, and while a player might not literally be losing something here, they’re losing out on gaining energy, and that encourages people to check back throughout the day, see how they’re doing, and burn off some energy. This is something called an appointment mechanic. Appointment mechanics include things like rest XP in World of Warcraft, but it’s something I’ll talk more about later.

criminal case energy

Combined, those two are the main point of the energy system. Slow a player down so they don’t see all of a game’s content too quickly. Provide an incentive for them to play the game regularly. It’s both simple and effective. That said, energy can also be used for monetization and acquisition. Many games will allow players to spend money to buy energy. Used carefully, this can generate a lot of money, but you need to be careful of making sure players can’t just burn through all your content. On the other hand, if priced so a player spends more than the expected lifetime value burning through the content, maybe this might work out for you. The fact that practically every game will sell energy for money suggests that it usually works out for the best.

Energy is also used in many games as a social mechanic. You can ask your friends to give energy (or rather, click on a button that causes you to gain energy. They don’t actually lose any of their own). You can give energy to your friends. You can invite friends and get energy for it. You can visit your friends and collect energy. There are lots of ways this can work out, but it all boils down to players asking their friends to sign up and incentivizing them to play the game after they’ve signed up. This results in organic acquisitions, better retention, and an actual community of players who will talk to each other about your game.


The player is being asked to wait, ask friends, or spend gold for additional lives.

It’s easy to see energy as primarily being a monetization mechanic, since players usually only see it as a popup that asks them for money, but its power as a retention tool really can’t be overstated. It’s simple and effective, and it’s no wonder that so many games use it.

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Posted by on August 22, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention


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Puzzle Design: Spaces in Tile Swapping Games

Back to puzzle games. Let’s talk about levels in puzzle design. For now, let’s ignore special objectives, special tiles, and that sort of thing. The number one most important tool in level design is the shape of the level itself. When I broke down level 65 of Candy Crush Saga, I mentioned that tiles on sides and corners are harder to match. I figured I’d zoom in on that specifically, since a level’s shape informs everything else placed in it. 

In a tile-swapping match-3 game, your basic verb is to swap tiles, and you can only swap tiles if they’ll make a horizontal or vertical match. Because this is your only verb, all objectives in tile-swapping games are based on matching tiles, whether your goal is to make specific types of matches or to make matches in particular areas of the board, which may become easier or harder depending on the board’s shape. On a micro level of design in this area, difficulty is controlled by how many usable spaces are adjacent to a tile.




The space containing the dark blue tile is adjacent to four other spaces. I don’t think any official standard terminology exists, so I’m going to make my own and call it an open space. The dark blue tile can’t be matched with anything right now, but it’s certainly got a wide variety of options. It can be matched horizontally or vertically, to its left, its right, its top, or its bottom. It can be one of the edge pieces of a match, or it can be the middle. It has the widest flexibility for matching.


  • Matches Up
  • Matches Down
  • Matches Left
  • Matches Right
  • Can be middle of horizontal match
  • Can be middle of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match

Cookie Jam

Cookie Jam


Let’s remove one of those possible adjacent spaces and see what happens. Look at the spaces with the blue tiles in the center. I’m calling these walls, though depending on their orientation, they could be floors or ceilings. The first image is much less forgiving than the second, but they’re the same either way: They cannot be matched on their right side. This means that any horizontal match involving them must use them as an end piece and not a middle. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only list the traits of walls oriented to the right. The same principles apply no matter what direction the walls are facing.


  • Matches up
  • Matches down
  • Matches left
  • Does not match right
  • Cannot be middle of a horizontal match.
  • Can be middle of vertical match.
  • Can be end of horizontal match.
  • Can be end of vertical match.
Candy Blast Mania

Candy Blast Mania


There are actually two possible configurations under which a tile may only have two adjacent spaces. The first is the corner. In this example image, the space containing the green tile is a corner. Let’s examine this one:

Corner Space:

  • Cannot match up
  • Can match down
  • Can match left
  • Cannot match right
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Cannot be middle of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match


The other is the hall. These can be vertical or horizontal. The purple piece and the lower blue piece in this image can be said to occupy hall spaces.

  • Can match up
  • Can match down
  • Cannot match left
  • Cannot match right
  • Can be middle of vertical match
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Can be end of vertical match
  • Cannot be end of horizontal match

Like the corner space, the hall space is disqualified from four of those traits listed.

Candy Crush Saga

Candy Crush Saga


Finally, we have the nub, called so because they can only protrude from a larger mass by itself. These only have a single adjacent space, which severely limits their matching options. The central yellow space can only swap or be matched with whatever happens to be on its right. Matching nubs is especially difficult. Let’s break this one down too.

  • Cannot match up
  • Cannot match down
  • Cannot match left
  • Can match right
  • Cannot be middle of vertical match
  • Cannot be middle of horizontal match
  • Cannot be end of vertical match
  • Can be end of horizontal match

This one looks really hard to match! You’d have to be very lucky or very skilled at exploiting opportunities to take it, but there’s one more kind of space you need to look out for!

Cookie Jam

Cookie Jam


That’s right. There are games with tiles that have zero adjacent spaces next to them! Zero! I call these Solo Spaces! What can possibly be done about them? I’m not even going to bother running down the list for this one, because you can’t ever make matches with them or swap them.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever collect them! Many tile swapping puzzle games grant you the ability to create special tiles that can clear an entire row or column. If you see a level with a solo space, that means you need to make very careful use of your special tiles, because those are the only way you’re ever going to touch tiles on a solo space.

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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Puzzle Design


Making Monetization Fun

Games try to be fun. Games also need to monetize. Do these two needs have to be at odds? Can monetization be fun? Monetization isn’t something people usually think of as fun. At best, it’s like filling up the gas tank: An exchange of money for relief. At worst, it’s like extortion: Nice village you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.

I thought for a while and rewatched the Extra Credits video on the harm that bad monetization mechanics does to the free to play industry. I rewatched it a few times, actually. The video was primarily about how to create monetization that at the very least, does no harm, but they did mention a positive example of monetization: An unnamed Korean MMO with a money bomb item. Players could throw it down, and it would explode into loot piles that everyone but the purchasing player could pick up. This led to money bomb parties and a lot of social attention. I’d write more on that, but I haven’t played the game in question, and searching for that game proved fruitless.

That’s when I realized that even if I didn’t know that game, I already knew a game with a similar fun monetization mechanic: Team Fortress 2.

Welcome to Mann Up Move

Alright, enough reading advice. It’s man-to-man talk time. I am not going to lie to you: I am going to have to lie to you. You men are absolutely prepared to deal with this, and you are going to be just fine. Right. End of lie. Now get ready to absorb some bullets so they don’t hit my factories. — Saxton Hale; TF2 Official Website

You didn’t think this blog was entirely going to be about casual games and self promotion, did you?

A bit of background (Skip this paragraph if you already play TF2 and know what MvM means): Team Fortress 2 is a team-based first person shooter that was originally sold for money, but is now a free to play game. On August 15, 2012, the game debuted Mann vs Machine, a brand new game mode where a team of six players takes on wave after wave of AI-controlled robots. This mode is playable for free. However, players may also purchase Tour of Duty Tickets for $1, which allow them to play MvM in Mann Up Mode. In Mann Up Mode, players play on official servers and can earn cosmetic items. A ticket is required to play, but it is not consumed until you successfully beat the mode.


Tour of Duty Ticket

Squad Surplus Voucher

Squad Surplus Voucher

The Tour of Duty Tickets are nice, but this article is about a different item: Squad Surplus Vouchers. These cost $2, and you can choose to activate them when you join an MvM game in Mann Up mode. If you fail, you can keep the voucher and nothing else happens. If you win, the ticket is consumed and every player in the match gets a random item drop. Random items in Team Fortress 2 are normally rationed out; you only get so many drops in a week before item drops are reset, so the voucher is a method of breaking this rule.

Because the Squad Surplus Voucher benefits the entire team, it has significant social value. A player who joins in the middle of a match may be considered a lesser team member because they have contributed less toward victory, but they might activate a voucher as a peace offering and enhance the reward if the team wins. It can also be used as a negotiation chip: A skilled player may be uninterested in replaying a particular MvM map, but the promise of Squad Surplus Vouchers might convince them to change their mind.

The most exciting use of the voucher, however, is the “Full Voucher Run”, when everyone on the team decides to play the mode and activate Squad Surplus Vouchers. Every player involved will gain six items upon successful completion, an entire week’s worth of loot! When someone in a group chat announces  full voucher run, Mann versus Machine transforms from a game mode into an event. Players get excited and buy vouchers so they can join in the fun. All the players are excited and motivated to push through to the end, and upon successful completion, the players get their goodies, and Valve removes $18 worth of consumables from the game economy: Six vouchers worth $2 each and six Tour of Duty tickets worth $1 each.

Even ignoring the considerable revenue, let’s look at the player experience. When a player buys a Squad Surplus Voucher, they aren’t spending money on an item drop. The personal material benefit of the voucher is marginal at best. What a player is buying is the expectation of an enjoyable future experience. The player is buying a social bargaining chip. The player is buying anticipation.

That’s what makes the Squad Surplus Voucher a fun monetization item. With any other item purchase in the game, a player is spending money on weapons for tactical flexibility or cosmetic items to customize their avatar, but the voucher is the purchase of an experience and social gratitude. In the context of a mode like Mann versus Machine, where tightly-knit teamwork is more important than ever, it helps to drive home the feeling of camaraderie. You are a team, working together, and someone just brought something awesome to the table.

The lessons learned from the Squad Surplus Voucher can apply easily to any game that has a play context where players are able to work together. It takes full advantage of human social behaviors. In the context of a single player experience, or a multiplayer experience where players are only comparing or competing with one another instead of cooperating, I admit the lessons are less directly applicable, but it does prove one thing: There is a monetization method that players think is fun! There are people who disagree with the $2 price point, but nobody wishes the voucher weren’t in the game. If one fun monetization technique exists, there must surely be others out there just waiting to be designed.

PS: You have no idea how hard it was to talk about TF2 and monetization and avoid mentioning the word “hat” outside of this sentence.

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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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Monetization Tool #1: Advertising


I was at a Silicon Valley IGDA meeting last night, and the topic of advertising came up, and it’s been sitting on my mind. Let’s talk about it. TV lives on advertising. Websites live on advertising. Magazines and newspapers are full of advertising. Phone books are almost entirely advertising. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that it’s the most widespread method of content monetization in the world.

It’s much rarer in games. When you do see ads, they fall into two general categories: Ad banners and video ads. Ad banners don’t really make much money. People have been trained to ignore them from years of internet usage, and they rarely click through. 

Video ads pop up in plenty of mobile games, but the strange thing is, they only ever advertise other mobile games. Stranger still, they often advertise games that belong to competitors. That seems short-sighted, since you’re presenting your players with your competitors’ games. That aside, though, advertisers are missing out on an opportunity. Many mobile games are integrated with Facebook, and advertisers can get loads of information to tailor their ads to those players.

I realize that video advertisements are seen kind of annoying. Ads break the flow and pull you out of the experience. However, when it comes to TV, we put up with it. Why is that? My speculation is that this is because TV shows build the ads into their flow, pausing at dramatically appropriate moments. It’s my belief that if games want to use video ads, they need to work them into the design.

Game experiences are heavily reliant on pacing and flow management, and AdventureQuest Worlds discovered a unique method of integrated advertising into that pacing and flow. When you die in that game, players have to watch a short ad. What a clever idea! You usually want a small break after a player dies in the game, a moment to let the death sink in. That’s a moment when a player is highly engaged with the game, so their attention is at a high point. It’s prime temporal real estate for an advertisement! Not one that’s too long, but it’s a good spot nonetheless, and I’m surprised we haven’t seen more games try to emulate this.

There are also games like the now-defunct Sims Social, which had events advertising real world products. This had the benefit of integrating the game into the world itself and creating a limited-time event item. Ads can’t always be tailored specifically for games like this, but it might be the ideal way of integrating advertising with a game.

With all that said, if a viable method were found to support a game entirely through advertising, in-app purchases could afford to become less central to a free game’s design. Sure, in-app purchases might still exist, but the entirety of the game would no longer have to be chained to the habits of the 1% of players who pay money. Free to play games are often accused of being exploitative and soulless, and many of those accusations are based around the in-app purchase monetization model built around this 1% of players. I think there’s certainly a place for in-app purchases in game design, but if companies could discover how to elegantly integrate advertising and monetize the 99% of players who don’t pay, then the game could be designed without the assumption that in-app purchases are its lifeblood.

Unfortunately, the situation right now is tricky. Advertisers aren’t making ads for games, and people who make games with in-app purchases are wary of experimenting with them, and rightly so: It’s hard enough to get players and convert them to paying players. Why take a huge risk, show them ads, and drive them away from the game? 

Eventually, someone’s going to figure it out, but let’s not be passive about this. This isn’t just about making money. It’s about freeing designers and giving them more creative flexibility to create better games.


Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Game Thoughts


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Retention Tool #2: Random Daily Login Rewards

So you got someone to play your game. Congratulations! If you’re running a free to play game, though, your job’s just begun. You need to keep them coming back as often as possible. You want this new player to become a regular player. How do you get them to come back every day?

candy crush wheel

Free stuff! Everyone loves free stuff! In Candy Crush Saga, there’s a wheel in the lower-left corner. It spins and does whatever it can to catch your attention. If you give in to your curiosity and click on it, you get a much bigger wheel that you can click on. It spins and spins until the little clicker thing stops on a space, and you get that prize.


Marvel: Avengers Alliance has a random daily reward as well. A space is highlighted and it rotates quickly through all the different prizes until it slots down and stops on one of them. This isn’t limited to social or mobile games, either. Look at Warframe.


It just cycles right through the rewards until it hands one over. Let’s take a moment and think about these random daily login rewards. For discussion’s sake, let’s go through that phrase backwards:

Rewards: The player gets a goody. Players love that.

Login: The player has to log into the game to get their tasty prize. It isn’t something that just builds up in their game account until they come to claim it.

Daily: This is the really important part. The whole reason this exists is to get users to come back every day. This cool prize is just waiting for players to collect them, and players can’t just log in every few days and collect a backlog of prizes from last week. They need to be in the game every single day. If they don’t show up, they don’t get anything!

Random: This is the part that really fascinates me. You have a daily login reward already. Why have a random element? The job’s done, isn’t it? Technically, yes, but it’s the random element that really makes the random daily login reward (I’m just going to call  it RDLR, not because that’s a real industry term, but because I’m getting tired of typing it.) so effective.

If you look at that Candy Crush image, you’ll see a big box labeled “Jackpot”. One of the spaces in the Marvel: Avengers Alliance image has Loki’s staff, just like in the movie! These RDLRs aren’t just prizes: They’re a VARIETY of prizes. They can be energy, or some premium currency, or a time-limited goody, but there’s always one prize that the players really want. In many of these games, the RDLR that players end up getting is usually a minor expendable resource, but there’s always the chance of getting something incredibly valuable. If the user skips a day, they aren’t just giving up a free energy refill. They’re giving up the chance to get that big prize!

The games make a big show of the random element, as well. A big wheel spins. A light cycles through the options. There are ticks and beeps and other noises that slow down and build suspense. The player might almost get that big prize, only for a last-moment shift that settles on a different reward.

Those “near-misses” are carefully-engineered. Like modern slot machines, there aren’t any physics involved. They generate a random number, likely in the thousands or hundreds of thousands, and have that mapped to a prize. They play an animation to make it settle on the pre-determined prize, and the ticker slowing down near the jackpot is an intentional tool to raise suspense. It reminds the players that those big prizes exist, and that maybe tomorrow, they’ll be luckier.

The daily login reward might seem minor, but it’s a small moment of excitement, right when you start the game. It’s an experience! It’s four to five seconds of fun! It sets the mood for the entire rest of the play session, and it gets the user thinking about coming back tomorrow.

PS: Look at that “Try Again”  button on the Avengers Alliance screenshot. They figured out how to monetize the RDLR! Brilliant!

Addendum: After attending tonight’s SV IGDA meeting, it was brought to my attention that it need not be random at all. It only needs the appearance of randomness. For example, a player who hasn’t logged into the game in a while might log in, and to encourage them to stay with the game, they might be presented with the highly-desirable item.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention


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Retention Tool #1: Fun

If you want players to keep playing your game, it needs to be fun. It has to be something they want to play. This sounds obvious, and it is, but it’s impossible to stress this enough. People play games to be entertained. Never lose sight of this. People want to have fun. People like to do things they think are fun. 

I could talk for the rest of my life about the nature of fun and never come close to really describing it, and since I intend to update as often as I can, I want to leave some stuff for later. For now, I’ll just cover it in broad terms.

The traditional video game approach to fun is by presenting challenges for the players to overcome. If a challenge is too difficult, the player becomes frustrated. If a challenge is too easy, the player becomes bored. A player’s skill at playing the game rises with continued play, so the game needs to present challenges of increasing difficulty to keep players from getting bored.

If a game’s difficult rises with player competence at a 1:1 ratio, players might still become bored because the experience is too similar whenever they play. A game needs challenging parts and  easy parts to shake things up a bit, and what’s challenging or easy is relative to a player’s skill.

When a player faces challenges that grow to their skill level and present easy parts to let them exercise their mastery, and hard parts to present them with memorable challenges to overcome, that’s where engagement and fun happens. This is by no means the only method of having fun, but it’s a baseline common to many games.

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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Retention