The Immutable Laws of Game Mechanics In A Microtransaction-Based Economy
I originally posted this article in 2016 on Huffington Post. Over the past 4 years, some things have changed and others have not, which we'll address in this update.
Once upon a time, we put a quarter in a machine and played a game for awhile. And life was good. The rise of personal computers and subsequent fall in the cost of microchips allowed some of the same chips found in early computers, such as the Zylog Z80, to bring video game consoles into homes across the world. That one chip could be found in the ColecoVision, Nintendo Game Boy, and the Sega Genesis. Given that many of the cheaper early computers came with joysticks or gaming at the time, the line between personal computer and video game console seemed natural.
Then came the iPhone, which brought an explosion of apps. Apps were anywhere from a buck to a hundred. We weren't the least surprised by the number of games that exploded onto the platform. Nor by the creativity of the developers. When the Apple App Store and Google Play added in-app purchasing and later in-app subscriptions it all just seemed natural. But it has profoundly changed the way games are purchased, distributed, and the entire business model of apps.
The Evolving Business Model of Gaming
Video games were originally played in arcades, similar to pinball. The business model was each game was a quarter or token. With the advent of PCs and video game consoles, games were bought in stores, as were records or cassettes that included music. The business model was that the store made money (40-50%), the distributor who got the game into a box and on the shelf in the store made money, and the company that made the game got some as well. And discounts to sell more inventory usually came out of someone not called the retailer. By the time everyone involved got a piece, it was common for the maker of the game to get between $5 and $10 dollars per unit sold for a $50 game.
No one was surprised that there was a whole cottage industry of software piracy. Especially given that most games could be defeated in 40 to 100 hours. This of course spawned a whole industry to thwart piracy, eating into margins but theoretically generating more revenue per game created.
Industries evolve. Console and computer gaming split (although arguably consoles have always just been computers) and the gamer-verse further schism'd between those who played various types of games. Some games were able to move to subscription models and some companies sprang up to deliver games through subscriptions or as rentals (game rentals over a modem was the business model that originally inspired the AOL founders). And that was ok for the gaming industry, which slowly grew to the point that gaming was a larger industry than the film industry.
Enter Mobile Devices and App Stores
Then came mobile devices, disrupting the entire gaming industry. Apple began the App Store model, establishing that the developer got 70% of the sale - much better than 5%. Steve Jobs had predicted the coming App Store in a 1985 and then when the iPhone was released tried to keep the platform closed but eventually capitulated and opened up the App Store to developers.
Those first developers made millions. Some developers were able to port games to mobile platforms and try to maintain a similar pricing model to the computer or console versions. But the number of games created a downward pressure that kept games cheap, and often free.
The number of games in the App Store grew (today there are over 5 million apps between Apple and Google). With a constant downward pressure on price, the profits dropped. Suddenly, game developers forgot they used to get 10 percent of the sale of a game a lot of times and started to blame the stores the games were distributed in on the companies that owned the App Stores: Apple, Google, and in some cases, Steam.
The rise and subsequent decrease in popularity of Pokémon Go was the original inspiration for this article in 2016 but since a number of games have validated the perspectives. These free games provide a valuable case study into how the way we design a game to be played (known as game mechanics) impacts our ability to monetize the game in various ways. And there are lots and lots of bad examples in games (and probably legislation on the way to remedy abuses) that also tells us what not to do.
The Microtransaction-Based Economy
These days, game developers get us hooked on the game early, get us comfortable with the pace of the game and give us an early acceleration. But then that slows down. Many a developer then points us to in-app purchases in order to unlock items that allow us to maintain the pace of a game, or even to hasten the pace. And given that we're playing against other people a lot of the time, they try and harness our natural competitiveness to get us to buy things. These in-app purchases are known as microtransactions. And the aggregate of these in-app purchases can be considered as a microtransaction-based economy.
As the microtransaction-based economy has arrived in full force, there are certain standards emerging as cultural norms for these economies. And violating these rules cause vendors to get blasted on message boards and more importantly lose rabid fans of the game. As such, I’ve decided to codify my own set of laws for these, which are follows:
All items that can be purchased with real money should be available for free.
For example, when designing a game that has users building a city and we develop a monument that users can pay $1 for and place in their city to improve morale of those that live in the city, that monument should be able to be earned in the game as well. Otherwise, you’re able to pay for an in-app purchase that gives some players an advantage for doing nothing more than spending money.
In-app purchases do not replace game play, but hasten the progression through the game.
For example, when designing a game that has users level up based on earning experience points for each task they complete, we never want to just gift experience points based on an in-app purchase. Instead, in-app purchases should provide a time-bound amplification to experience (such as doubling experience for 30 minutes in Pokémon Go or keeping anyone else from attacking a player for 24 hours in Clash of Clans so we can save enough money to buy that one Town Hall upgrade we just can’t live without).
The amount paid for items in a game should correlate to the amount of time saved in game play.
For example, get stuck on a level in Angry Birds. We could pay a dollar for a pack of goodies that will get us past that level (and probably 3 more), so we can move on. Or we could keep hammering away at that level for another hour. Thus, we saved an hour, but lost pride points in the fact that we didn’t conquer that level. Later in the game, we can go back and get three stars without paying to get past it.
Do not allow real-world trading.
This is key. If it’s possible to build an economy outside the game, players can then break your game mechanics. For example, in World of Warcraft, you can buy gold, and magic items online for real money and then log into the game only to have another shady character add those items to your inventory. This leads to people writing programs known as bots (short for robots) to mine gold or find magic items on their behalf so they can sell it in the real world. There are a lot of negative effects to such behavior, including the need to constantly monitor for bots (which wastes a lot of developer cycles), bots cause the in-game economy to practically crash when the game updates (e.g. a map) and breaks the bots, and make games both more confusing for users and less controllable by the developer.
Establish an in-game currency.
You don’t want users of the game buying things with cash directly. Instead, you want them to buy a currency, such as gold, rubies, gems, karma, or whatever you’d like to call that currency. Disassociating purchases from real world money causes users to lose track of what they’re buying and spend more money. Seems shady, and it very well may be, but I don’t write games so I can’t say if that’s the intent or not. It’s a similar philosophy to buying poker chips, rather than using money in a casino (just without the free booze).
Provide multiple goals within the game.
Players will invariably get bored with the critical path in your game. When they do, it’s great for players to find other aspects of the game to keep them engaged. For example, in Pokémon Go, you might spend 2 weeks trying to move from level 33 to level 34. During that time, you might as well go find that last Charmander so you can evolve to a Charzard. That’s two different goals: one to locate a creature, the other to gain experience. Or you can go take over some gyms in your neighborhood. Or you can power level by catching hundreds of Pidgeys. The point is, to keep players engaged during long periods with no progression, having a choose your own adventure style game play is important. For massive multiplayers (especially role playing games) this is critical, as players will quickly tire of mining for gold and want to go, for example, jump into the latest mass land war. To place a little context around this, there are also 28 medals in Pokémon Go (that I’m aware of), which keep providing more and more goals in the game.
Allow for rapid progression early in the game in order to hook users, so they will pay for items later in the game.
We want people to play our games because they love them. Less than 3% of players will transact an in-app purchase in a given game. But that number skyrockets as time is invested in a game. Quickly progressing through levels early in a game keeps users playing. Once users have played a game for 8 or 9 hours, if you tell them they can go to bed and for a dollar and it will seem like they kept playing for another 8 or 9 hours, based on the cool stuff they’ll earn, they’re likely to give up that dollar and keep playing for another couple of hours rather than get that much needed sleep! We should never penalize players that don't pay up. In fact, players often buy things that simply change the look of their character in games like Among Us. There is no need to impact game mechanics with purchase if we build an awesome enough game.
Create achievable goals in discrete amounts of time.
Boom Beach villages range from level 1 to level 64. As players rise through the ability to reach the next stage becomes logarithmically more difficult given other players are paying to play. Goals against computers players (or NPCs or AI according to how we want to think of it) are similar. All should be achievable though. The game Runeblade for the Apple Watch was based on fundamentally sound game mechanics that could enthrall a player for months; however, there’s no way to get past a certain point. Therefore, players lose interest, Eric Cartman-style, and went home.
Restrict the ability to automate the game.
If we had the choice to run every day to lose weight or to eat donuts and watch people run and still lose weight, which would most people choose? Duh. Problem is that when players automate your game, they end up losing interest as their time investment in the game diminishes, as does the necessary skill level to shoot up through levels in games. Evony Online was such a game; and I’m pretty sure I still get an email every month chastising me for botting the game 8-10 years after anyone remembers that the game existed. As a game becomes too dependent on resources obtained by gold mining bots in World of Warcraft, the economy of the game could crash when they were knocked off-line. Having said this, such drama adds to the intrigue - which can be a game inside a game for many.
Pit players against one another.
Leaderboards. Everyone wants to be in 1st place, all the time. Or to see themselves moving up in rankings. By providing a ranking system, we increase engagement, and drive people towards making in-app purchases. Those just shouldn't be done to directly get a leg up. It's a slippery slope to allow a player to jump 30 people in front of them to get to #1,000 in the rankings only to see those people do an in-app purchase and create an addiction to the in-app purchases in order to maintain their position in the rankings. It's better to make smaller amounts and keep players around than have them hate a developer once they're realized the game was making money off addiction. Sounds a bit like
Don’t pit weak players against strong players unnecessarily.
In Clash of Clans a player builds a village. As they build more cool stuff in the village, the village levels up. The player can buy rubies to complete buildings faster, and so you can basically buy the village levels. But, since a player can basically buy levels, the levels can exceed the players skill. Therefore, in order to pit matched players in battles, a second metric was introduced to match battles that is based on won/lost ratios of battles. By ensuring that players of similar skill duel one another, the skill of players is more likely to progress organically and therefore they remain engaged with the game. The one exception to this rule that I’ve seen actually work well so far has been in Pokémon Go where a player needs to be physically close to a gym rather than just close to the gym while sitting in their living room playing on a console. That geographical alignment really changes this dynamic, as does the great way that gym matches heavily favor attackers, driving fast turnover in gyms and keeping the game accessible to lower level players.
Add time-based incentives.
If a player logs into a game every day, they should get a special incentive for the day that amplifies the more days they log in in a row. Or if they don’t log in, another player can steal all the stuff. Players get a push alert when another player attacks them. There are a number of different ways to incentivize players to keep logging into an app. The more we keep players in an app, the more likely they are to make a purchase. Until they get so many alerts that they delete your app. Don’t do that.
Incentivize pure gameplay.
It might seem counter-intuitive to incentivize players to not use in-app purchases. But not allowing for a perfect score on an in-app purchase (e.g. not allowing for a perfect level in Angry Birds if you used an in-app purchase) will drive more engagement in a game, while likely still allowing for an in-app purchase and then a late-game strategy of finding perfection to unlock that hidden extra level, or whatever the secret sauce is for your game.
Apply maximum purchasing amounts.
Games can get addictive for players. We want dolphins, not whales. This is to say that we want people to spend what they would have spent on a boxed game, say $50, or even that per month. But when players get into spending thousands per day, they're likely to at some point realize their error in judgement and contact Apple or Google for a refund. And they should get one. Don't take advantage of people.
Make random returns on microtransactions transparent.
There has been talk of regulating randomized loot boxes. Why? Because the numbers don't add up. Rampant abuse of in-app purchases for random gear means that developers who publish the algorithm or source code for how those rewards are derived will have a certain level of non-repudiation when the law suits start. Again, if those rewards can be earned during the game as well (maybe at a lower likelihood) then we're not abusing game mechanics.
The above list might seem manipulative at times. Especially to those who don't write code for a living. And to some degree it is. But it can be done ethically and when it is the long-term returns are greater. If nothing else, these laws are a code of ethics of sorts.
These are lessons that hundreds of companies are out there learning by trial and error, and hopefully documenting them can help emergent companies not have to repeat some of the same mistakes of others.
We could probably get up to 100 of these (with examples) if we wanted to! What laws have you noticed?