F2P monetisation has to stop relying on 'tension' and 'desire', says Quark Games
Shawn Foust explores a hybrid alternative
Funny thing about monetisation it's tough to figure out when you're giving your game away for free.
I'm not saying I long for the days of $60 up front pricing, but there's a pretty substantial risk to releasing your game into the wild without a financial backstop.
Things get particularly interesting when you consider the wide range of pricing models you can implement in a free to play game. For the purposes of this column, I'm going to focus on two systems: tension and desire.
Some explanation is probably required.
The tension headache
Tension systems try to monetise progression. The goal is to create various roadblocks in the play experience where a player is forced to choose between progress and their pocketbook.
I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying humans are impatient and rather enamoured with the idea of being successful in their pursuits.
Content gates (often tied to either time or in the social days, friend invites) frustrate us precisely because we are impatient and like to accomplish things.
Alleviating this frustration has a value. A good tension system prices that value at the maximum point on the demand curve.
Now, a tension system creates a number of interesting side effects.
First and foremost is the frustration tight rope. The game developer needs to create enough frustration that a player values alleviating it, but not so much that the player heads for the exit.
Finding this balance involves a complicated interaction between the pricing curve (if alleviation is mispriced, even attached players will not monetise), play time (they need to like your game before they'll value continuing playing it) and game balance (progression, particularly where it grants power, can rapidly diminish the play experience).
Screwing up any one of these variables can turn a potentially profitable, enjoyable game into a miserable economic catastrophe.
Another wrinkle comes in multiplayer games, where accelerated progress generally equates to a power advantage.
A by-product of this is that the player base separates into haves and have-nots, which can create any number of community and balance problems within a game.
On the community side, players who have invested substantial time generally dislike seeing a newer player of means surpass that investment with a few bucks.
Folks are somewhat understanding here, because they like playing the game and would prefer to it remain free, but if monetisation results in a high degree of imbalance, the 'cannon fodder' effect sets in.
What's the cannon fodder effect? It's when the 95 percent of players who don't pay a dime start to feel like cows in a slaughterhouse for the 5 percent of players who do.
Even more problematic is that value in a competitive ecosystem is relative. That is to say that a person who spends $10 dollars is a god right up until their neighbour spends $100. This can create haves, have-nots and have-alots.
Not surprisingly, the haves can get a bit upset when the have-alot moves in. Pay-to-win systems have historically cannibalised their own user bases (have-nots fleeing the haves), which can undermine the sustainability of a game's business model.
Solving these issues isn't easy. You can insulate yourself from relative power issues by protecting player assets making sure people don't lose anything meaningful even when a very powerful player attacks.
This diminishes the value of monetisation by preventing a player from capturing an absolute advantage, but it still permits the heavily monetising player to rise to the top of the ecosystem.
Bleh I don't like games where there isn't some competitive risk involved.
I prefer to even things out by creating a heavily social ecosystem. A single player may be able to acquire substantial power individually, but in a game where players act in groups of 25 or more, this individual power is somewhat less important.
This permits a player inclined to monetise to alleviate frustration and progress without putting the game into a imbalanced state or removing the risk from decision making.
Honestly though? I don't really care for these systems.
They have the capacity for profitability without cheating the player but the interaction between balance and money makes me queasy. I'd also rather not be accused of making games that are pay-to-win.
In search of desire
Rather than emphasising tension points, a desire system focuses on a monetising a player's positive feelings toward a game.
By removing tension as a key monetisation point, a desire system is required to focus on areas unrelated to the player's interaction with the rules of the game (buying power or progress). Essentially, you're looking to monetise decoratives.
The best example that comes to mind is Valve's skin system attached to DOTA2 players have access to all champions in the game, but they can purchase new visuals to show off with.
Going for desire takes some guts. A player has to not just like your game, they have to love it. They have to care about the game so much that they're willing to pay a premium for a virtual good that conveys no advantage.
You're monetising status. A player with a cool/rare skin gains a certain prestige in the eyes of other users, and the value of that prestige is determined by community perception.
If players view the game as a casual experience, then players spending money for decoratives will appear try-hard. In order for status to become a valuable commodity within an ecosystem, the players must take the game seriously.
This means you're betting not just on quality (which is enough for a decent tension system), but also depth and longevity of the game.
A decent tension game can monetise the consumption of content, a desire system assumes that the player has access to all of the content except decoratives.
A player will be disinclined to spend on decoratives until they've been fully immersed within the game and its community so they can understand and believe prestige has real value.
That can take days or potentially weeks, which stretches out the monetisation curve and creates real issues if the game cannot sustain heavy play for months.
So what's the upside of all of this misery? You can make a highly tuned experience that doesn't pit monetisation against balance. This engenders a positive community experience as it eliminates the haves versus have-nots divide and makes every player feel welcome in the ecosystem.
I love the theory, but it's bordering on financial suicide. Very few games are so deeply engaging that they can survive on decoratives alone.
Here's the sweet spot for me. You start with a simple high level goal: game balance is sacrosanct. You then work back from there to incorporate both tension and desire into the monetisation framework.
For example, you permit buying progress, but you ensure it doesn't grant additional power relative to other players. You allow a player who is fully committed to the game to show off through the purchase of decoratives.
Your goal is to allow people to experience the game the way they want so long as they don't break the mechanics. Best example? League of Legends.
LoL gates champion purchasing, but acquiring a new champion does not grant the player a sizeable advantage versus other players. The player gets the opportunity to experience the game in a new way, but not in an unbalanced one (ideally).
Players who grow particularly attached to a particular play experience can enhance it through the purchase of decoratives (skins in this case) for their chosen character.
This approach allows League of Legends to capture value from both a tension and a desire system. Of course, there are a lot of design constraints under this model. The game needs to be multiplayer, and ideally competitive.
Furthermore, monetising style of play rather than power requires a significant investment in depth and balance. The game needs to offer players meaningful options for play rather than pure advancement.
Designing a game with that sort of depth and diversity isn't particularly easy, and significantly increases the costs of development. It's high risk for a high reward.
But let's be honest, the maturation of the mobile market seems to be nudging things in that direction already.
So what does it all mean?
The hybrid model is the future for mobile and tablet games. We've been hung up on tension systems for too long.
It's understandable. In an environment where game development is cheap and users are plentiful, volume plays centred on pure frustration systems are a viable way to build a gaming empire.
But things, they are a changin'. Being competitive in this day and age requires a substantially increased development and marketing budget. Moreover, rising user acquisition costs are altering the metrics around sustainable DARPU and retention thresholds.
In an environment where every user is critical, simple content consumption systems focused on tension will be at a disadvantage versus games capable of delivering a deep play experience with a supportive community.
The Hybrid model offers a viable alternative that resolves a lot of these issues, so long as a company can put together a game that can live up to it.
To find out more about Quark Games, take a look at the company's website. For moment-to-moment updates on everything Shawn Foust, you can follow him on Twitter.