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Energy and Retention

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

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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.

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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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Monetization Tool #1: Advertising

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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.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Game Thoughts

 

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