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Emotional Monetization - Driving Rev Through Emotion
by David Hom on 11/27/13 12:21:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article was originally posted to the Chartboost blog. 

When I talk to game developers about their games in various stages of production, the most common question I get is “what is the best strategy to make more money?” The most obvious answer (to them) is “analytics”-- gathering behavioral data and analyzing player behavior to understand actual consumer game play and maximizing revenue potential. However, as a game designer by trade, I usually always focus on the gameplay rather than the monetization tactics. After all, if the game isn’t fun, game over. This is why I’d like to introduce a concept I call Emotional Monetization

Analytics simply can’t quantify or measure emotion, and emotion is what will ultimately help your game monetize. Some developers think that monetizing is all about A/B testing, segmentation and return rates. It’s not. You need to establish an emotional connection with your players through engaging gameplay and amazing design. By definition, games are series of decisions, designed to create emotional attachment and be fun. Art and science become a game when a developer constructs game mechanics that allows gamers to make their own decisions with skill, strength or luck. For example:

  • Skill decisions are a series of chess moves: move the pawn or knight to take the rook?

  • Strength decisions are a series of physical and mental moves in sports: pass or shoot the ball?

  • Luck decisions are a series entries when playing slot machines: max bet or one coin?

Games are played to temporarily escape from current life by role playing a life as a treasure hunter, elite athlete, or puzzle solver. Through role playing, gamers can experience emotions, such as: overcoming challenge, defeat, success, and camaraderie.

So, make a decision, reap the reward, and repeat. Think about monetization through a similar lens. When do you introduce the decision, or in this case the point of monetization? Again, you want to create an emotional attachment and present the decision at the right time. Too early in gameplay and it’ll be a turnoff to your players. If you incorporate it too late, you may be giving up on an opportunity to drive revenue. An example of precise timing can be found in Candy Crush where after 15 levels, the player is forced to decide to either pay $.99 or ask three friends for help. Would your players’ emotional attachment be different if it were 7 levels instead of 15?

Now that question is, what technique or monetization gate do you use? The game genre may lend itself to a particular technique, but there are definitely no hard and fast rules. Combining and mixing them can make your game different and compelling. Indie devs are great at this.

Here’s a rundown of the different types of monetization gates you can incorporate into your game:

Time Gates

This type of Gate places timers on various components within a game, which include pay to bypass the timer or wait for the timer to elapse. This is a commonly used tactic in mobile games that represent something being upgraded, built, recharged or repaired.  An example is Real Racing 3 where there is a timer placed on the car after upgrading before it can be entered into a race.

Time Gates enables a level playing field for paying and non-paying gamers who are patient.  However, you need to offer other things for the player to do while waiting for the component, otherwise they are unlikely to stay for the long term. Real Racing 3 does this well where one car is under a timer, but the other cars can still enter races.

One thing to watch out for is that many gamers know how to bypass this mechanic by changing the time and date settings on the device. If you want to limit cheating, put the timer in your server and remove it from the client.

Probability Gate

The probability gate can be presented to the gamer in various forms such as: landing a critical hit, reward loot, a treasure chest, or pack of cards.  Instead of receiving a known return for a decision, the reward a gamer receives is left to chance.  This game also emphasizes rare items, which can be used to make games feel special but are difficult to acquire without payment.

The ideology of the unknown is a powerful tactic. Creating an emotion where gamers are excited to have the opportunity to receive something rare keeps gamers coming back for more.  You can use this concept in standard game mechanisms as well by replacing static variables (e.g. 20 coins for a victory) with a randomized range (15-25 coins).  

Hay Day is a good example.  It’s great to collect resources from a lot of farming, but not as great when the gamer runs out of room to store it.  Every time a crop is picked up there is a chance to collect rare pieces to upgrade the barn or silo.  Even better, there’s the opportunity to find the barn pieces in the Roadside Shop. The patient player can eventually get the pieces required, but the urge to speed up the process with an In App Purchase (IAP) is strong.

Grind Gates

A common gate used in all free to play (F2P), which allows for users to decide to play the game a lot (for free) or pay (to advance faster). This type of gate is usually the easiest to implement into a game once a virtual economy and store is established. IAP items such as coin doublers and coin triplers, are levers used to reduce the grinding necessary for gamers to enjoy a game.  Subway Surfers does a good job with integrating a virtual economy and IAP store. Gamers can play a lot and enjoy the game or they can buy coin packs to bypass some gameplay.

Games that focus on grinding have a difficult balance of having fun versus monetizing and are heavily dependent on the virtual economy. If there’s a low or no positive player feedback early on, the gamer could lose interest quickly. Devise ways to avoid repetition without emotional rewards and look into methodologies that would allow game variables to be tuned remotely because when gamers are asked to grind, loop holes are found and used.

Look into methodologies that would allow game variables to be tuned remotely. When gamers are asked to grind, loop holes are found and used.

Premium Gates

This type of gate is analogous to the old term shareware or lite, where a player is not given access to features or levels unless they pay.  Games with premium gates often reflect a previously paid title that hasn’t been as successful as hoped.

Fortunately, we’re seeing less and less of these types of games recently in favor of F2P games that offer rich experiences to non-paying users.  In most cases, when forced to decide to pay or not to continue the decision made is often go find another game.  If you add a premium gate, make sure gamers have the opportunity to play previous levels or give other options to enjoy and consider paying to move forward.

Candy Crush is a good example of a premium gate that hasn’t turned off players.  After beating about 15 levels, there comes a point where gamers have to pay or ask their social network for help to unlock. While asking a social network for help may sound easy to do instead of paying for more, this action helps keep more players playing the game.

Gambling Gates

This type of gate is pretty self explanatory with slot and poker games. There is an obvious gray layer here with games that mix traditional games with other mechanics. For categorization methods, it’s easier to stick to traditional methods of gambling with virtual poker and slots. Examples: Zynga Poker, Big Fish Casino, and Slotomania

In conclusion, F2P monetization is not plug-and-play, rather a blend of art and science, or “Emotional Monetization.” You need to sit in your players seat, get in their head, and truly understand what they’re feeling. Practice sending the emotional shifts in your select games and more importantly ask other people the same questions about games. Every game will trigger different emotions for different people, and gauging emotion can make all the difference in the world.


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Robert Green
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Can you explain the difference, in terms of the player emotion, between the first three? Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but it seems that in the case of time gates, probability gates and grind gates, the monetisation comes from exactly the same feeling - "The game has locked off something I want, so take my money and give it to me now". In each case, it's trying to avoid the frustration of waiting or grinding that's triggering the purchase, isn't it?

James Wang
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The time gate forces you to not play, which imo, is among the most frustrating.

The grind gate forces you to play, which, in some cases, is actually the best, because the game itself ought to be really fun to play.

The random gate is most often used in conjunction with the time gate or grind gate.
- Keep grinding until you get that random powerful weapon that you need.
- Keep using energy until you get lucky and get the candy configuration you need.
- Keep playing, and once in a while you'll get some random extra boost which makes you more powerful!

Often times these systems are layered into one another in a way that can be even more compelling, although it's debatable whether that's a good or bad thing from the player's perspective.

Robert Green
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Those are the mechanical differences between them, but not the emotional differences, which is what this blog post was supposed to be about. What I'm suggesting is that in all three cases, the emotional impulse to spend real money is the same. In fact, I'm not really convinced that anyone in the mobile F2P market has found any other emotion that monetises well.

Sergio Garces
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Everytime you pay it's because you want something. The question is what feeling is making you want what you're buying.

The time gate monetizes on a combination of impatience (I don't want to wait) and power (I need this upgrade now to be powerful enough).

The grind gate monetizes on convenience (I could grind for this, but that's too much work).

I do think the probability gate is a tool, and the monetization strategy depends on how you use it: what you're making random. I would add another gate, which seems to be what the article is thinking of when talking about probability gates: the power gate. It monetizes on greed or simply power (I want a better weapon, because it's cool or because it's going to make me more powerful).

I also think there are many other emotions that can be tapped into to monetize. For instance, buying shield in Clash of Clans buys you peace of mind. Another example would be buying decorations because of vanity.

David Hom
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Sergio--thanks for your added feedback.

I like your point about the Power Gate, but I don’t necessarily define this as a Gate but more so an emotion a gamer has when monetizing AT a gate.

Robert Green
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@Sergio "Everytime you pay it's because you want something. The question is what feeling is making you want what you're buying."

Yes and no. There are many different reasons to want something, but in the situation where the game will give you that thing for free, those reasons are distinct from the reasons why you might be willing to pay for it. You'll notice that in most of David's examples, he's still presenting exactly the same situation of "you can have this for free if you can wait, or you can pay for it now if you're impatient".
Your Clash of Clans example is a good counter-point though, because in a persistent world game (and especially in a persistent world multiplayer game), the state of the players game might not be the same if they wait to unlock something without paying.

David Hom
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Hey Robert--thanks for your comments. The emotion ultimately boils down to creating the “I want it” feeling, but to Sergio's point there are subtle differences between all of them.

The point I like to focus on is the timing of when a gate presented and generating emotion--there's usually a direct correlation.

- Real Racing: you just won a big race that gave you enough money to buy your new car. You are excited to drive your new car, but now you have to wait. Do you wait or pay now?

- Hay Day: your Silo is at full capacity, and you have all these crops waiting to be picked up. Do you wait to find these last 5 screws needed to upgrade the silo or do you just pay now?

- Subway Surfers: you’ve leveled up your magnet boost and notice a huge improvement. Now you want to work on more improvements. Do you play more games to earn enough coins for the next boost or buy coins now?

- Candy Crush: you've been working on a puzzle for days, maybe weeks, but this time you only need one more move to complete the puzzle. Do you pay to get 5 extra moves or do you start all over from scratch?

Moritz Hofmann
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I think you forgot one dramatically important way of monetization, I'd call it Show off Gate.

It's about buying extra stuff for the game, like weapon- or player skins, mini pets etc. Mostly visual stuff, that doesn't directly effect the gameplay in terms of Pay 2 Win.

One of the greatest F2P done right examples for me is League of Legends, which does exactly that.
In League of Legends there's no time, gambling or premium gate, it's Show off Gate with a little bit of Grind Gate.
You can buy skins, rune pages and champions with real money. While you can also buy champions through playing it long enough (that's the bit of Grind Gate), the rest can only be bought with real money.
Nonetheless, none of these items gives you a competitive advantage.

So if you're really into the game, and want to show that, you can buy the extra stuff. If you're not so interested, you don't care how exactly your champ looks and you still have the whole experience for free.

Basically the whole paid content is for showing off, so speaking in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the Show off Gate targets the esteem need.

It's a fantastic, in my opinion probably the most fantastic way to do F2P without turning off players while still earning money. It requires some kind of multiplayer game, though, as you can't show anything off if you play the game alone.

best wishes!

Brian Peterson
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You should also check out Dota 2 for a F2P game that is 100% Show Off gate. There are gambling and grinding elements involved in obtaining cosmetic items, but nothing purchasable affects gameplay: all ~100 of the heroes (champions) are available from the start, and nothing persists from one game to another, unlike LoL's rune pages.

One of my favorite examples of creative monetization for Dota 2 was the Compendium, a virtual item created over the summer for their 3rd annual International tournament. $10 got you a virtual playbook for following the tournament, making match predictions, and creating a fantasy team.

I wasn't interested in the pro scene at all, but I still purchased it because of its Kickstarter-like system of increasingly valuable rewards that unlocked as more players bought it.

One of these rewards was a "battle bonus": at the beginning of each 10-person game, you got a bonus for each player in the game who owned a compendium. This bonus allowed you to earn free cosmetic items at a faster rate. Players got a notification of how many Compendium owners were playing at the start of each round. I tracked this over a few dozen games, and if my results are at all representative of the entire audience, Valve had at least a 30% conversion rate on players (playing on the US East server) making this purchase.

On top of that, the Compendium actually helped get me interested in the pro scene. At the start of the summer, I didn't know a single pro Dota player, and never watched a pro game. At the end, I had a favorite team, favorite players, and had watched the entire tournament, and I know I'll be buying next year's Compendium in whatever form it takes.

David Hom
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Moritz--appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you about League of Legends, although, I ultimately categorize your Show Off gate more as a social tactic to multiply an emotional drive.

Examples that use this tactic would be anything socially connected--beating your friend’s high score, having the rare hat that only drops once a day, contributing to your clan ranking, etc. The social mechanic comes in many forms and ultimately drives the gamer to make a decision to monetize. Derived from the social accomplishments comes bragging rights.

Yelena Vakker
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I think that emotions are one of the core abilities to drive the gamer to a purchase, but they have to be somehow adressed within the head of the player.
This topic is very interesting: i wrote a Master Thesis in november 2012 - "Colors in Games as a Factor of Player Engagement". The aim of this thesis was to create a theorethical model of emotional dependence from colours – ‘Colour Influence Model’ – by adjusting the game element appearance within the in-game shop – to influence the player’s engagement through emotional reaction on the subconscious level and to show the possibility for increasing the profit and giving the best player experience.
I combined aspects of monetisation, motivation, emotions and colours. Motivation and psychological influence - as a basement for analysing the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, behavioural triggers and ability based on curiousity. Emotional influence and the response strength are the next piece of this model - emotions trigger the instincts and these push the player to act in the game. It keeps the balance between the human intrinsic perception and understanding. But to connect the emotions to the game an output is needed. To achieve more emotional connection between player and the game, David Freeman developed a classification of techniques – Emotioneering – ‘term for a body of techniques to evoke a breadth and depth of emotion in games, as well as immerse a player in a role or in a game’s world.’ But it is necessary to know the emotion relevance from the human side. Plutchik has developed a psychoevolutionary theory of basic emotions where he explains what are emotions as a part of human being. As for Freeman and for Plutchik, both of them come to a conclusion, that despite ability to express emotions as a intrinsic reaction to the outer world, it is – in real and in virtual reality – important to have external triggers that can provoke an emotional reaction and steering the intensity of it. The intensity of the experienced emotions is a relevant point to speak about within the games. It is necessary to achieve a chain reaction of emotions from the beginning of the experience through playing the game till the last screen of it. This is the ultimative challenge for the game developing teams – to prolong the emotional experience beyond the level of fun (as form of pleasure with surprises) and gameplay repetitions.
When it comes to an addictive gameplay, where the game providing more than that we can speak about another relevant aspect within the games – the feeling of complete and energised focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment – the Flow. Colors are on the other side the output (of all this theories combined) - Visual Path - that directly influences how the user is perceiving the game and reacting to it. That is the core of idea, my thesis is based on.
The whole CIM process described in short: picking the target emotional state of the user and choosing the type of motivational influence – it is possible to directly find the needed colours and connect them to the colour palette to use in the game. The expected effect of this approach is a higher game usage, longer play sessions, increasing in-game purchases and an enhanced emotional state.
‘Colour Influence Model’ can be a seen as possible framework to set the target emotional state of the player through designing the game in early stages by relying on the colour-emotion (Plutchik´s) palettes system and building the Visual Path along with the gameplay and game mechanics.
I think using "Gate system" may be usefull as a basic idea of technical side of the monetisation but it has to exist in combination with some visual output to reach the same reaction as product designing and product placement in the supermarkets - group and wish/need targeted product developement, with the same goal - to increase the profit.