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Paying to win
by Ethan Levy on 08/19/14 09:25:00 pm   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 was 9 hours into playing a mobile, free-to-play, build and battle game when I made the decision. I was going to pay to win. Not necessarily because I was loving the game so much as I thought it would be interesting to document. If I spent $100 on in-game currency, how far would my money go? Was it enough to ascend to the highest levels of that week’s PvP tournament leaderboard?

The tournament was only a few hours old. Having spent about 7 minutes fighting PvP battles, I was currently ranked #13,909 on the leaderboard. 7 days later, I will have spent over 6 hours and $60 in energy costs to finish in 15th place.

As a monetization design consultant, I have learned many lessons from games in the build and battle genre whose top contenders are permanent fixtures of app store highest grossing charts. I explain the importance of having a social elder gamer such as the PvP tournament I participated in for those games where it is appropriate. The game I played in this instance is not especially important. There was a city that served as an appointment center. There was a single player, PvE campaign, and what I will call pay-for-participation events including the PvP tournament, a form of guild warfare and a PvE boss battle system. There was energy gating. There was gear fusion. There were prize chests. It could have been one of any number of games, but I will say it is not currently on the top 150 grossing chart in iOS/US.

As an organic player, I am not a heavy spender in free-to-play mobile games. Spending $100 on in-game currency with the specific purpose of topping an event leaderboard was an eye opening experience. It taught me just what it feels like to be the sort of high value player that drives the app store economy.

Pay-for-participation tournaments

The game in question uses a primarily stat based combat system. Forces take turns auto-attacking each other. The player has some agency in the form of a power attack he can trigger during combat. But the outcome is largely a product of stats of the gear equipped by each player’s forces and how it has been leveled up through a gear fusion system. An individual PvP combat instance is asynchronous – AI controls the opposing player’s forces and there are no modifications to standard battle rules.

The event I participated in is what I call a pay-for-participation tournament. Initiating a battle costs PvP energy from a meter that takes 2 hours to fully recharge. The player is heavily incentivized by win streak rewards to spend premium currency on PvP battles. For every battle they win, the player accrues points which add to their total. Leaderboard ranking is determined by these victory points, and at certain victory point milestones the player is rewarded with virtual goods. At the end of the tournament period, the player is rewarded based on their band on the leaderboard.

Although a free player can initiate plenty of PvP battles during the tournament period without opening their wallet, placing in the top reward bands for a tournament requires spending premium currency on energy. As victory point totals are additive, the more a player is willing to spend on energy the higher they will be able to place in the tournament with suitably powerful forces. Hence, this is a pay-for-participation system.

Methodology

I had been playing this game for 9 hours at the time I chose to start spending money on premium currency. I did not choose the most efficient $100 package, instead opting for two $50 purchases during the next 10 hours of play. At the outset I spent $40 worth of premium currency to open a number of prize chests, granting me some rare and powerful gear. I spent $62.40 worth of currency on PvP energy, and a small amount of premium currency on upgrades, appointment completion and participation in a guild vs guild tournament. In total, I spent slightly more than $100 worth of premium currency as I was awarded currency at various points during my 19 total hours of play.

During my time as a high value player I won 750 of my 752 PvP battles, as compared to winning 162 of the 178 PvP battles as a free player, and generally chose stronger opponents when possible. I used premium currency to purchase PvP energy 20 times and spent just over 6 hours in PvP battles. The other 4 hours of play were split between city management, gear fusion, PvE battles and participation in a guild vs guild event.

The 6 hour figure surprised me. It was not as though I plunked down my money and hit the big, red Win button. Once I had all that premium currency, it took dedication to empty my account on PvP battles. I didn’t have to hit the Win button once, but over and over and over again.

At my highest I ranked #4 on the PvP leaderboard. But once I ran out of premium currency, I stopped engaging in PvP battles. In the final 3.5 days of the tournament after I ran out of currency, I fell to #15. I finished in the 3rd reward band for this event.

Paying to win

How much money would it have taken to top the PvP leaderboard? This was the biggest question I had going into the investigation. The #2 player in the tournament accrued 180,000 more victory points than me. Based on my records, I would have needed to win 1,137 more PvP battles to top this score. Doing so would have cost me an additional $103 and 9 hours 15 minutes of dedicated PvP play time to accomplish.

And the #1 player? The one to win momentary notoriety and the exclusive top reward band? This player accrued 230,000 more victory points than I did. I would have needed to win 1,453 more PvP battles to top this player, at a cost of $131 and 12 additional hours of play time. And no doubt, if the #1 player wanted to win this bad, a challenger would have provoked a spending race that would have pushed the two of us to spend even more money.

Based on my performance, the top PvP player spent nearly $200 on battling other players for 18 hours over the course of the 7 day event. This is an incredible investment of time and money in the name of bragging rights and virtual rewards.

Was it fun?

I began my time as a monetization design consultant with a series of lectures explaining my theory that all in-game monetization is emotional in nature. If a free game convinces a player to open their wallet, it is because engaging with the game is emotionally rewarding. This emotion may or may not be the same brand of fun a hardcore gamer experiences as they boot up a high powered computer for their 200th hour of Skyrim, but that does not mean the paying player’s emotional experience is to be dismissed. In fact, acknowledging and embracing these emotional needs will help a game team design better free-to-play games for their audience.

Playing this game was not necessarily an efficient way to have fun. I spent $10.20 per hour of PvP battles chasing a leaderboard position. Compared with the 26 hours I recently spent playing Rogue Legacy on the Vita – at a cost of $0.65 per hour of play – it is not a terribly cost effective method of having fun compared to my true hobby of core gaming. But as a player, no one was forcing me or the other top 25 players on the leaderboard to spend money inside of the game. We each could have continued enjoying this particular game free forever if we had no internal drive to top the leaderboard.

I would not say I was having the same brand of fun as I have when playing Rogue Legacy. But I did enjoy my time playing this game, in a fashion. It was a mindless, second screen diversion as I caught up on a backlog of podcasts and TV. As time was running out on the tournament, the game started a flash 30% off sale on premium currency. Having invested so many hours that week in climbing the PvP leaderboard, I had to stop myself from typing in my iTunes password, buying more currency and making a run for #1.


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Comments


Andreas Ahlborn
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Interesting piece, you describe yourself as more of a core gamer, so I guess you have an opinion on the fact that monetization seems to leak more and more in that type of gaming.

Ubisoft and EA have practically adapted it in all their recent titles, at the moment its mostly time-saver microtransactions, trying to monetize even big franchises like COD with the Elite program seem to have failed.

Why is it so hard to for even the most thickly budget PR Departments to come up with a surefire strategy to transform their cashcows into milkpipelines?

Part of the reason imo is hidden in what you hint at with "the same brand of fun".

The F2p business thrives on its customers wish to "disengange" by means of gaming, whereas the "core gamer" is always looking for engagement.

Core gamers get easily enraged by the fact that a game is Pay-to-Win and most of these types of games (like the one you evaluated above) don`t even bother to hide the fact, that they are, because their customers mostly don`t care or are easily tricked into thinking they have achieved sth. when they bought their way up to the top.

There is also a new type of meshup starting to gain ground, that I would call Pay-to-learn or Softcore. These types of games even if they are free, need a certain amount of money investment to reach a leveling playground where you feel it actually matters what you do as a player.

(Hearthstone is imo a good example for that)

Ethan Levy
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"You describe yourself as more of a core gamer, so I guess you have an opinion on the fact that monetization seems to leak more and more in that type of gaming."

As my free time becomes more and more precious to me, my willingness to spend inside of premium games has increased dramatically in those instances where it is tastefully implemented. In fact, many times I WISH for in-game purchases in premium games that would allow me to cut through the grind.

A good example of this is Dragon's Crown, which I loved. Playing through it was a blast, but once I got to the end boss I simply was not leveled up enough to beat it. If my memory is correct, I needed to grind quests for an additional 10 hours before my characters were strong enough to beat the final dragon in single player. I should have just put the game down, but I felt internally motivated to complete the game as I was so close to the credits screen.

I gladly would have spent $5 to skip the grind (or accelerate it dramatically) in order to beat the boss.

However, this could lead to a dangerous precedent where instead of just bad difficulty tuning (which I attribute the end boss in Dragon's Crown to), premium games are intentionally tuned in a way to promote spending. Although, I believe this would lower the review scores & word of mouth on a game in a way that reduced sales more than increased incremental revenue through in-game purchases.

TL;DR I see nothing wrong with in-game purchases in premium games so long as they are tastefully implemented. Respect for players is critical when designing for monetization.

Robert Green
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It's hard for me to imagine a situation where paying to skip the grind in a premium game would constitute respecting the players. I understand not having as much time to play games as you'd like, but then no one requires that you either finish Dragon's Crown (or any other game) or finish it within a given period of time, so as you identify, what you'd be paying for is circumventing bad design.

It's absolutely the case that some of the biggest multiplayer games (e.g. Call of Duty) have tried to increase the length of the experience by stretching the unlocking of content out over as long a time period as possible, and then turned around and tried to charge players more money if they just want to skip all that. It's a catch-22 though - some people want that experience, and they can't just have an 'unlock everything free' button for those that don't, because it'd make the game worse for the most hardcore players that want to earn it.

John Flush
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The thought of spending money to leave grind behind is an unfortunate reality of where the market has brought us. Fortunately for me, and my wallet, I view grind as bad design and usually put the grindy games in the 'do not play' pile seeming the developers couldn't find a way to not waste my time based on my initial purchase.

the line in the sand of course being is an upgrade DLC for $20 to skip the grind worth as much as paying $20 in the first place and having a well balanced game?

E Zachary Knight
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"I should have just put the game down, but I felt internally motivated to complete the game as I was so close to the credits screen.

I gladly would have spent $5 to skip the grind (or accelerate it dramatically) in order to beat the boss."

This is what I miss about the days of the Game Genie. I would use that thing to speed up the grind once I would get to the end of a JRPG. It almost never failed that everything was dandy until you hit that last boss that required another 5-10 hours of grinding to beat even though the last boss leading up to him gave you no issue at your present level.

Christian Nutt
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"During my time as a high value player I won 750 of my 752 PvP battles, as compared to winning 162 of the 178 PvP battles as a free player"

"The #2 player in the tournament accrued 180,000 more victory points than me. Based on my records, I would have needed to win 1,137 more PvP battles to top this score. Doing so would have cost me an additional $103 and 9 hours 15 minutes of dedicated PvP play time to accomplish."

What I don't get is this: Why would you NEED to spend that money if you had such a reasonable win-record as a free player? Can you elaborate?

Ethan Levy
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Happy to elaborate. In this game, you are heavily rewarded for a win streak of X games. As a free player, I was very careful about choosing my opponents, even though the information shared was limited. I would pick the opponents with the lowest victory points score, assuming this would mean a low level player. When playing as a free player, if I was close to completing a win streak and I lost, it really stung. Win streaks are time limited, so after every win you have X amount of time to keep your streak going. If I wanted a full win streak I would often need to spend the precious premium currency along the way.

I have no method of verifying, but I believe that the system also serves more difficult opponents to choose from the further you are into a win streak.

As a paying player, I was able to just pick the first player on the list. And I won almost every time, and completed the full win streak in all but two instances. After spending $40 on gear I was able to just blow through opponents.

The initial spend was to stat up via gear. After that, the majority was spent on energy. If I had not been willing to spend money on energy, I may have been able to rank in the top 1000 players but certainly not the top 25. Buying energy not only allowed me to participate in more battles, but also to complete win streaks. You earn more victory points the further into a streak you are, and cannot complete the full streak in time without buying energy.

Christian Nutt
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Aha. So in the end, they do create systems that you can literally only participate in if you pay, and the rationalization is that only the "truly competitive" care enough to participate in them, I guess.

Gord Cooper
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Additionally, imagine that some companies include algorithms that weight your win/loss ratio based upon your activities and spending habits.

TC Weidner
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so
"During my time as a high value player I won 750 of my 752 PvP battles" so do you think it was fun for the people who were a collective 2 -750?
Who the hell want to waste life playing a game in which all you are in cannon fodder for some people who decide to spend money?
Thats the real question.

Ethan Levy
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The battles in this style of games are asynchronous, and as far as I can tell, there was no battle log for me to see how many other players had beat me up while I was away. Occasionally, I was given the option to revenge battle another player who had beaten me.

Even though I was paying to win, I was doing so in my own bubble where the only external indication was my leaderboard score.

TC Weidner
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question still remains.. do you think going 2-750 was fun for people?

Jamorn Horathai
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@TC
The question is irrelevant since players don't know that they lost when they lose because when you are attacked by a stronger player and lose as a "defender" you are unaware of the loss. The game never shows this to you, so they can't find it "unfun" to lose, since they didn't know they lost.

Wolfgang Graebner
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This sounds exactly like Knights & Dragons down to the smallest details.

Gord Cooper
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The formula is so prevalent now, it could be any one of hundreds, genre notwithstanding

Wes Jurica
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You aren't the first monetization consultant to post here on how rewarding it was to spend loads of money on a f2p game. You'll have to excuse me for not taking to heart how much fun that was for you. If I had just woke up from a 5 year coma and then read this article, my burning question would be, "WTF happened to gaming?"

Gord Cooper
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I'd like to think the takeaway here is 'This game in genuinely addictive in its' core loops, so what could be done in the event this was a Premium title rather than F2P'.

It would be much more informative and enlightening if the article were to posit where this kind of experience exists in the premium space, and how it makes that transition with the same addictive nature intact.

Wes Jurica
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I see what your saying but I didn't see where Ethan tried to make those points. I'm sure what his point was to be honest. He seems to be just recalling his time playing.

It would be very interesting to see if players that aren't willing to pay hundreds to be competitive are having as much fun.

Matt Robb
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I think he was not trying to specifically make a point, only to describe the experience. More of a news report than an editorial.

Ethan Levy
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Over the past two and a half years, I talk to and work with a lot of developers making free-to-play games. Most of them are, like you and me, core gamers who are following their dream of making games. They are not always fans of free-to-play games, and as a result do not do enough research into the successful business models they are chasing.

The purpose was twofold. First, to give a first hand account of what it feels like to be a high value player. I think many game developers underestimate the time commitment these players are making alongside their spending. Second, to explain the mechanics of a pay-for-participation, PvP event. My goal was to write a resource document for a developer who is making a F2P game with a PvP event system, and does not have the time or desire to invest 19+ hours into research.

Ethan Levy
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If you have read the article, I have a question. What do you think of the comics? Do you appreciate the attempt at humor in a business article? Would you like to see more comics in future articles?

Wes Jurica
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If you continue with them, keep the minimalism. I think they're great.

Ethan Levy
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Thanks Wes! It's the only style I can do since I literally can't draw.

Gord Cooper
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I appreciated the comics. Use of Steve Ballmer and 'An Actual Prince' made me laugh, as did the reference to Bachelor in Paradise. A+ for comedic effort.

William Pitts
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Good piece, just wondering for comparison sake if you will spend the same amount of time in the next tournament without spending money and see how far you get. Some of these PVP are difficult to keep up with unless you start when everyone else does. Wait so are most FPS, and a lot of other online experiences.

Ethan Levy
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I continued playing this game, but much more casually. I am using it as my "gap moment" game for the time being. In the most recent tournament, where I did not spend nearly as much time playing PvP and was focused more on building up my city's income, I ranked roughly #9,000 on the leaderboard. I spent no in-game currency on energy during this period.

Juan Fernandez
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These "games" are just disguised slot machines. Even the ones your input actually matters like Candy Crush are designed to make you feel the urge to pay.

I believe this is evil game design, and Dragon's Crown is bad game design. One is bad, the other is much worse.


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