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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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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.

Builder_Hut

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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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?

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

 

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