Javier Barnes, senior product manager at King and F2P specialist, discussed the “quite cryptic” principles to balancing your game economy at the Google x Deconstructor of Fun Istanbul Gaming Event. But first, he urged the audience to recognise its central importance. “Why even care about game economy? Apparently its only objective is that it has to not break”, noting this was especially true for hypercasual games with short lifespans.
But the true value of game economies needs to be recognised when creating games that stand the test of time, at which point it becomes incredibly important – game economies manage reasons for players to remain engaged, to pay and keep paying, to trade, and to not cash out and sink the overall value of the game.
“When we think about game economy, we think about the system. But players use game economy to think about the decision of investing time and money.” As you would expect, different audiences require different economies – puzzles games may require a lower number of currencies with a low IAP price point, whereas MMORPG players want greater complexity and this can be reflected in more intricate currencies and IAP that support activities such as PvP.
Many ways to make money
Looking at the divide between puzzle and RPG players, Barnes looks at the common assertion, ‘midcore games would make more money if they were more aggressive and P2W’.
“This raise the question, if your player – let’s say a kid with $15 a month – if your game is made competitive based on extracting as much revenue from the players, this player is not going to be able to keep up and be alienated. Clearly, a lot of games pursuing this audience are based on battle passes and focus on retaining players through asking a specific revenue per month.
“Whereas some games value competition above all else, and expression through cosmetics,” with Barnes namechecking League of Legends.
Barnes cautions against quickfire evaluations of game economy. Looking at claims of Axie Infinity’s imbalanced economy. Barnes, outlining recent protests of inflation, profiled both an easy fix – sinking acquisition of currency through different mechanics – and the deleterious impact on the player base.
“If they did this, the returns on the players would decrease and trigger an abandoning of the game. In other words, fixing the system is pretty easy and making sure it makes sense for the player is real hard.”
Barnes stresses the importance of the player perspective, and recognising the most valuable resource for the player is fun: “Have you ever wondered why someone would pay in a game that is free? They pay because they love it,” and indicates players are highly engaged, regardless of perceptions of value from an external audience.
As such, economy and monetisation should not block fun, but reinforce, accelerate, or delay it. “Otherwise, you are sacrificing your most valuable resource.” Similarly, if monetisation blocks players from deriving enjoyment, Barnes states this is now selling your most valuable resource, and will push players away.
Economy, game complexity, and agency
Through his experience moving through complex titles to casual audiences, Barnes noted how complexity and comprehension informs how players engage with game economies – specifically, only if they understand the rules. “If you’re working with older demographics, even understanding the most established tropes of gaming is challenging.”
Looking at the UI of Love & Pies and Brawl Stars, Barnes emphasised the difference in how information – text size, detail complexity and volume, and quantity of features – is delivered.
This looped back to player agency within games, wherein enabling more player choices will enhance the complexity, but also create meaningful decisions and places the responsibility of failure – and internal perception of blame – on the player. “This opens the door for premium and non-premium options, and if you’re into Web3, this is key, as players consider different inventories key to trading.”
Ensuring players have a perception of value will help players assess and compare their value, even without direct in-game influence: “In Brawl Stars, the legendary brawlers are not better than the starter brawlers. But they are scarcer and harder to obtain.”
This is also reflected in how currencies interact with each other, and carefully displaying IAP options can help skew perception – pairing IAPs with decoys make customers overvalue products when compared to another, although Barnes stresses monetisation strategies should not be overly reliant on this: “Despite what we see in the news and on Twitter, people are rational. Give them solid reasons to spend, don’t just trick them. It moves the needle, but it’s not a game changer.”
During a Q&A session, Barnes was asked about fixing an unsustainable game economy after launch, and solicited a very emphatic response: “That’s really difficult! First, do it in a way that is transparency: say to your players, we want to fix the economy.
“Second, rather than sinking resources by making things more expensive and diminish the rate players acquire resources, which will trigger a negative reaction, by advice would be to expand the economy. Add new ways to use resources, I think Axie is moving in the right direction, which is experiencing an inflation problem but is introducing PvP and means of upgrading your Axies. This can be a significant source of players getting invested.
“Look at real-life solutions to hyperinflation. Instead of trying to fix currency inflation in Brazil, they introduced a new coin that created a healthy environment.”