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A Purchase Makes a Promise
by Ethan Levy on 10/18/13 10:39:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


I will never buy a Ps Mini again. I was recently exploring the interface of my Ps Vita, looking for a novel diversion to buy while waiting for insomnia to dissipate. After browsing through the catalog of Ps1 games I thought, “Hey, I’ve never bought a Mini before. They’re always mentioning them in the list of new releases on Podcast Beyond. Maybe I ought to try one out.”

I found one with an intriguing name and icon, Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims. I clicked the icon and was disappointed with the amount of information the Vita gave to help me make a purchase. Here I was, looking for an excuse to open my wallet and there was no video, no screenshots, no Metacritic, no clear explanation of genre.

I know the name and player rating, which is a solid 4.26. I know it is a shooter, but do not know what style of shooter and can only guess it is a 2d scroller. I do not know what the game looks like, but based solely on the icon I am expecting a unique, watercolor style. Under normal circumstances I would balk at the paucity of information. But I was in the mood to spend money and I was willing to skip a cup of coffee if the game was not fun. I hit the download button.

When consulting on free-to-play games, a saying I have is “a purchase makes a promise.” When the player decides to spend money on your game, you are making a promise to him of an increased level of enjoyment he will have as a result of giving you his hard-earned cash. If your game delivers on that promise, your player will be happy to have spent his money and is more likely to do so again in the future. If your game fails to deliver, you are likely to have churned your most valuable user – the rare 1-2% player who is willing to spend money inside your game.

My Ps Mini purchase failed to deliver on two fronts. The first was technical. After I added funds to my wallet and agreed to purchase Floating Cloud God, I was stuck on the preparing to download screen.

I waited for minutes on this screen and nothing happened. I pressed the Home button and got the warning sign in the top, left corner. I canceled and was stuck with a grey overlay blocking all screen input. I had to restart my system, and when I did, my game was not downloaded. I needed to be savvy enough to know to return to the Ps Store, click the ellipsis button in the lower right corner and go to my download list in order to get my purchase onto my device. Otherwise I would be contacting customer service about my missing money and potentially leaving a negative review for the Ps Vita on Amazon.

The importance of a technically smooth purchase flow cannot be overstated. This poor user experience not only makes the player unlikely to purchase a Mini again, but hesitant about the idea of spending money at all in the Vita’s digital ecosystem. A disastrous effect for a platform that is more digital than physical. As an aside on the technical front, I have a hypothesis that the laggy new Ps Store interface for the Ps3 – though beautiful – has a measurable, negative effect on daily digital revenue.

The second promise my purchase failed to deliver was the game itself. As I said, I had limited information when I made my impulse purchase. I was expecting some form of 2d shooter with a unique, watercolor aesthetic.

The game delivered a shooter, with a nice little innovation in gameplay, but the art style did not live up to the promise set by the icon. Though beautiful, the style did not deliver the unique look I expected. The game was a fun little diversion for a few minutes until I was able to get back to sleep, but I was disappointed nonetheless. I had unmet expectations and as a result, did not feel that I could trust the Ps Mini store as a place to spend my money in the future. It will take a strong recommendation from a trusted friend to convince me to return to the Mini section of the store.

Contrast that to the Steam store. If I want to purchase Fallen Enchantress in the current Steam Sale, the product page has all the information I need to make an informed decision. Genre, video, images, description, technical requirements, Metacritic score, stock price and current discount, community recommendations and more. When I am primed to spend money, Steam makes it easy for me to spend that money wisely.

This same principle applies when I evaluate and consult on games with in-app purchases. A simple example of a purchase that delivers on its promise is the gold multiplier in Dead Man’s Draw. Although the “Get 2x Multiplier!” button that leads me there is slightly misleading (it should state “Buy 2x Gold Multiplier!” or similar) the purchase dialog makes a clear promise.

When I spend $2 I will earn double gold, allowing me to use consumable traits more frequently. As a player I know I have fun when I use the traits and as a result, win a tournament. When I made the purchase I expected to have consistently more fun in Dead Man’s Draw because I could use my consumable traits more frequently. And the game delivered on this promise.

Every time the player makes a purchase in your game, you are promising him more fun in the future. Delivering on that promise is the key to unlocking a long-lasting player relationship that is critical to achieving success with in-app purchases.

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Christian Nutt
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The new PS3 store is unbelievably dismal.

Ethan Levy
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I have to imagine a product manager somewhere within Sony screaming his or her head off about how much poor technical performance is hurting them in sales each day. If I am wrong, then perhaps my hypothesis does not apply when a player is locked within a walled garden.

Ron Dippold
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I was trying to find the new Ratchet and Clank game last night - apparently you can pre-order it at Amazon but not on Sony's own store. Or maybe you can, but I couldn't find it and bailed out as fast as possible.

I have a very fast connection. The PS3 is more than fast enough to handle what the store is doing. How is it possibly so slow? The only thing I can think of is that they went enterprise beansy and offloaded /all/ the logic to the servers and at that point the latency kills you.

Gord Cooper
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While I agree that the technical issues surrounding the PSN are sound, I disagree with you that the game itself objectively failed to deliver. You are mistaking the delivery of the information (the PSN) for the game itself here, which is the fault of the user.

Literally just typing the name of the game into a Google search bar brought me the developer's webpage, an array of Youtube videos, and the Metacritic page for the game itself.

The responsibility of the user cannot be overstated when it comes to content selection, even if it is an impulse purchase. Additionally, fronting a post with the hyperbolic 'I will never buy a Ps Mini again' is only self-defeating. Accept the fact that you relied on imperfect information rather than doing 2 minutes of homework, and allow yourself the ability to make mistakes.

Ethan Levy
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@Gord, I am trying to write explaining not just how I behave, but how I expect an average player to behave when evaluating a purchase decision. I understand that I could have easily researched the game by switching devices or exiting the store and using the Vita's browser. But this is a level of friction that will likely result in me (as a common user) not returning to the product page.

I disagree with your regarding the responsibility of the user. It is their money we are asking for. They are our boss. As game developers, we work for them and cannot hold them accountable to make informed purchase decisions.

In my opinion it is Sony's responsibility to improve the purchase experience to help a player make a more informed decision. As a player, I did not get what I expected when I handed over my money. As a game developer I can accept responsibility for my mistaken purchase, but if I did not regularly buy games for research I would never have a reason to look at the Ps Mini store again.

In short, it is our responsibility as game developers to easily allow the player to make an informed purchase decision at the time he is evaluating spending money. Anything less results in player churn.

Gord Cooper
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@Ethan, I agreed with you regarding the dismal state of the PSN, but I took issue with the fact that you blamed the game for not upholding what you expected, based upon imperfect information.

Blaming the developer/game for something you made an assumption about is blatantly incorrect - it is, in this case, judging a book by its' cover.

While the user is 'the boss', the ability to make informed decisions has to be factored in somewhere - you are presenting a worst-case scenario, and blaming the game itself for the misconception of the user based upon the delivery method.

If you go to see a film based solely on the title, and you are unsatisfied, where does the responsibility lie? If you assume that Tree of Life is going to be a film based on the book of Genesis, are you in the wrong for this, or is the filmmaker?

Not trying to play devil's advocate here, just concerned that you are placing the responsibility of meeting unspoken expectations on the developer who has no ability to do this.

Ethan Levy
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Thank you for the response(s), I appreciate the discourse.

To be fair, it wasn't title alone, it was also icon and game description text, which are likely up to the game developer (or their marketing department if they have one). As game devs selling our games on other people's platforms, we have to craft our message with as much care as we do our levels.

In this specific instance, I thought I was getting a shooter (which I did) with a water color painted art style (which I did not). Since the art on the icon was the primary motivator of my purchase over, say Velocity, I was disappointed when the games art did not meet the style communicated by the icon.

To your point, this disappointment is entirely self generated. But in today's app-focused gaming marketplaces, the importance of putting your best foot forward with the right game name and icon cannot be overstated.

E Zachary Knight
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I read this article not as a gripe against the developer, but a gripe against the PSmini store. What happened was a lack of information *in the store* led to a poor customer experience. If that lack of information was because Sony did not allow for images and gameplay video to be included in the product page, that is the fault of Sony and Sony alone for the bad sales experience.

However, if the PSmini store allows for such content and the developer failed to include it, then it is the fault of the developer for not providing a good representation of the game in their sales page.

I also agree with Ethan in that forcing a potential customer to leave the store to find out more information about the game is poor form all around. Imagine if you were looking to buy a tv and the only thing that Best Buy offered was a textual description of the tv, would you really buy it? Would you buy a TV site unseen? Not being able to look at the layout of the inputs, not being able to see the remote, not being able to toy with the volume and picture settings? I doubt it. Why expect someone to buy a game without at minimum some screen shots of said game?

Federico Figueredo
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I think you folks are straying from the point a bit.

This article is most useful for the company maintaining the platform and interested in its success. From this point of view, it is irrelevant if the user made a mistake (regardless of how big this mistake was.) The better your interfaces are, the more unlikely is for the user to err.

I say this because dealing with these kinds of issues is my job. When this is your job you never assume the user is at fault (even when they are); there are two reasons for this:

1) It's an outlook that puts you in a position of power and responsibility. You focus less on the errors of a 3rd party you can't control and more on the things you can do to make the experience the best you can.
2) Because these things impact your platform, regardless of who is at fault. You can sure trust that a user won't come back if they had a bad experience... even if they were the sole architects of that experience.

If I had to talk to Ethan *as a user*, on the other hand, I would definitely counsel him to perform quick search on Google/Youtube even when making an impulse purchase.

Great piece Ethan. Thanks for the input.

Keith Thomson
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Part of the issue is that it's a Mini, and thus is running on the older generation of PSN. The newer PSN types do have the screenshots that you're referring to. Vita games, and PS Mobile games, for instance, both have screenshots right in the store. If you had looked around, you could have found Cloud God saves the Pilgrims HD for the Vita, and looked at the screenshots for it. I imagine the PS4 will have the same, and even more.

Yes, it's a problem, but it's a problem that they fixed for new games last year sometime. That won't help you for looking up older game types though.

My solution? Follow and look at their playthroughs and reviews of games. Back in Feb 2012, they had a video of this game up for you to view. They tend to review a lot of obscure titles on PSN that most sites won't touch. I almost always look online before buying a game from any store.

James McWhirter
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I'm glad someone has brought to light the poor shopping experience offered on the Vita store. While navigation is smooth and the UI is fairly standard (nothing straying from what you might see in a smartphone app), the amount of information offered to the purchaser is abysmal.

I did notice some games (about 5% going off memory alone) have more than text descriptions, but even then the screenshots provided are incredibly low res, and the pages are just so poorly presented.

An even better comparison of how to do things right (outside of smartphone App Stores, of course, which generally present far more information, even if they aren't entirely transparent about IAP), would be 3DS's eShop, which has pleased me since it launched and was a huge step up from the poor, slow, and information-starved pages on Wii/DSi.

All content for a game is lumped under the game's title instead of in separate pages (Sony list add-on content and demos as separate items), there's 3D screenshots to view, there are trailers and videos to check out, Nintendo promote quality content through themed shopping racks to keep older content relevant and so on. What an effect it has on sales is unknown, but I'm sure relative to the Vita store it's sure to get some impulse buys through -- I for one purchased SteamWorld Dig (before any reviews went up) based on this content alone.

While a good point in this comments thread has been raised about how responsibility is ultimately down to the purchaser, the problem here is that a lack of information presented to the player as they browse the store may translate into lower sales to publishers, because this makes the obtaining of information costly in the average player's eyes (especially when most indie games are sadly not mainstream anymore), in terms of time taken to search for the content and evaluate a purchasing decision.

And the less said about the PS3 store, the better. It took me 70 seconds to access the store a couple of weekends ago, which is frankly unacceptable, and the overall shopping experience was dire, with a framerate that drops over time and a poorly laid out storefront/UI. Shopping generally felt like a chore, and it was a big step back from the (generally decent) old Store, which, like the Xbox 360's interface, integrated store content into the XMB itself, without being a separate 'app'.