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Paying for Fun, or Paying to Win?
by Johnathon Swift on 08/22/12 06:50:00 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.


"Monetization" is a very hot word in game business right now. It means, when it means something at all, how to get people to pay for stuff. A big question is what you're getting people to pay for, and there's an important distinction here that relates to almost the same problem in game design. And that is "Winning" versus "Fun".

The problem has cropped up in game design in any game that has a goal or objective. Once you give people a goal they're going to want to complete it in the most efficient manner they can. Even if in doing so they're avoiding the "fun" way to play the game.

Their are numerous examples of this happening in game design. Often this happens in poorly designed combat systems. If one move or weapon is always the best option then people will tend to use that all the time, breaking down all that hard work a game designer might have put into everything else.

E.G. in the game Resistance 2 there was a gun that allowed players to see and shoot through walls. So players would enter a level, shoot every enemy in it, which wouldn't even move thanks to their AI not being active far away from the player, and then walk through the level unopposed. The "game" was ruined, but it was the most efficient way to get the objective of getting through and killing enemies, so players did it anyway.

Poor monetization strategies can fall into the exact same trap. And one example is Diablo 3's auction house. Diablo 3, much like its 2 predecessors, derives much of its "fun" from finding new items for the player's character to equip. Finely honed (perhaps too much for some players) through more than a decade of such games Diablo 3's loot system is a well crafted machine of getting players new items that they're excited to find.

But the auction house breaks this. By selling items directly you are selling the "reward" that the players go through the "work" of killing enemies for. In its own way this is the flip of the above Resistance 2 example. There the "reward" was to get to the end of the level, and the fun "work" was to combat enemies while doing so. Here the reward is new items to find, and the work is to combat enemies to do so.

But now the reward is gone. Players who buy the items already have their rewards of rare items, meaning there's less fun to be had with the game because the carrot at the end of the stick is gone. But they buy anyway, because if they have the money its the most efficient way to get that carrot. And doing something in a purposefully inefficient way isn't much fun for most people.

So when considering monetization it's important to design such that you are providing players with more and newer ways to have fun; and not to get them to pay to just skip over what's supposed to be "fun" about your game to begin with. That sort of thing smacks of people paying others to play Farmville for them, and we can all watch how that sort of design has helped Zynga.

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Darren Tomlyn
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(As usual, all my replies are based upon the contents of my blog:
s_NEW.php .)

This particular problem exists for one, fairly simple, reason:

People do not fully understand and recognise competition, which then affects how they perceive and understand games, (which are naturally competitive activities).

What's happening, is that people are only recognising competition by, and based upon, the goals/rewards that are being competed for, not the process of competing (trying to gain any particular goal/reward, (even if subjective), at the expense of, or in spite of, someone or something else), itself - (which can be perpetual).

Although rewards can be used to promote such behaviour - (which is what gamification is about, though is not so specific about what kind of behaviour) - as soon as the emphasis changes from the process to the end result of the process, from a story being written by the player(s), to a story being told to the player(s), the nature of the activity changes, from being a game, to a competition - (an activity in which people compete to be told whether or not they have won or lost).

The confusion between, and influence of, gambling with games, (even though the two (as activities) split from each other a short while ago), is also a symptom of this - (most activities used to enable gambling are competitions on behalf of the gambler(s)).

The underlying problem, however, is that competitions are generally better for their creators, (especially financially), than for the majority of those taking part.

Unfortunately, because of this, some of these products are now moving away form being games entirely, and become competitions, sometimes consistent with gambling in a basic (even if not legally defined/recognised) manner.

And anyone who does not know and understand the difference is therefore part of the problem, not the solution.

There is room for games, competitions, puzzles and pure works of art, but the differences are NOT being recognised, taught and informed consistently to people or customers, which is why behaviour consistent with gambling and competitions is so problematic for games in general.

And the moment we're talking about the presence and influence of real money - these differences really matter.

Mark Kotlyar
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I think this is kinda related:

Robert Ling
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Great topic. There's a lot of push in the direction of Monetization, and feel it is happening without enough research, discussion or even prototyping of alternatives. I've been trying a large number of Fremium & Monetized games over the past while to figure what draws me in and why. I rarely stick with a Fremium game, as most of them eventually have something that puts you in the hot seat to pay for something, whether it's a subscription in order to wear your gear in an MMO (a design cop-out in my opinion), or an item for my character in order to be able to efficiently progress.

The second thing that makes me drop the majority of these games within the first day, if not the first hour, is the lack of PLAY. Facebook games are the worst culprit in this category, as it has become "normal" to have an energy based system that essentially lets the user play for about five minutes a day before being prompted to buy more energy with real money. This boggles me greatly. Why would you want to take the core thing that makes a game a game away from the user? The whole purpose of a game is to play it.

I think there needs to be much more thought put into the design & development of Fremium/Monetized games, and I think in order to grow beyond the cookie cutter "It worked for X so why not do it ourselves" pitfall, gameplay needs to be returned to the forefront of what we do. If it's fun, and users can play the snot out of it, then the extras become much easier to consider.

Things to consider:
1) Will adding this to the game break the compulsion loop?
2) Will adding this to the game break gameplay?
3) Will adding this to the game be detrimental to the overall fun factor of the game? (I realize this is a much harder question to answer, but I strongly believe it is a necessary one to ask.)


Jeremy Reaban
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I think in reality, things are far, far more subtle than that.

MMORPGs typically have levels, which is used to gauge the difficulty of the game. Yet since there is a lot of parallel character development besides level - things like gear, stats, skill trees and so on, level doesn't necessarily describe the power level of the character. So they have to come up with a baseline for a typical character for a given level.

This is where monetization can be insidious - all a company has to do is nudge that baseline of what a "typical" character is for a given level, and it will force players to run to the item mall to boost their characters.

Jeffrey Marshall
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Most people that read this site, including myself, tend to be against paying-to-win because it destroys the concept of a game that we have come to accept. We are gaming purists.

But I think that we have to accept that there are people out there that legitimately enjoy paying a little extra to get ahead in a game. My first thought when I heard that Zynga was allowing people to pay real money to save weeks of time in Farmville was that Zynga was targeting weak-minded-fools who were too unsophisticated to know that they were paying to play a game less. But the reality is that most of them aren't that dumb at all. People willing to pay-to-win just have a different expectation of what they are getting out of a game and that's ok.

Hakim Boukellif
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While I'm not sure I agree with it being OK, the fact that these people exist or that they're being catered to isn't really the problem here. I mean you don't see anyone here complaining about the gaming industry (note: "gaming" industry, not (video)"game" industry) making lousy games for people with glazed over eyes and more money than sense.

The problem is that this thing is starting to infect the industry as a whole and it does affect how games are designed in ways that negatively affect the experience for those who do expect their games to be games.

Victor Perez
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Gaming is an experience.... you have to pay for those experiences, free is pure marketing tool to let people know you and what are you offering.... whatever is the way to do it.

There is not grial, there is not unique way to have fun.... why win should be the unique way to keep people playing? it is true... carrots? what carrots in social gaming?

We should do in the same way a FPS than a Race game? each gameplay, each experience has its own way to be monetized.

Alexander Kraus
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One of the things I keep forgetting that what people like about stories is their "journey" part, not the conclusion or finale of whether Hermoine hooks up with Harry at the end of the "Harry Potter" books (spoilers: They don't). I think this explains what would make a game "fun" is by making the "journey" through a game exciting and memorable. "Portal 2" is a game that is fairly linear in terms of story and level design, but the amount of options and enjoyment of solving the problems make it an exciting journey.

Part of the appeal to roguelike games (and the first two "Diablo" games) for me is the unpredictable element in them. You don't know whether you are going to go around a corner and see a deep-sea creature with a hunger for brains; or if you are going to stumble across a scroll that lets you permanently wipe out all dwarves in that campaign. It was fun not knowing what you would find in the chests or loot dropped by monsters in these games as they could give you new tactics to solve problems, or enhance your current strategies.

I guess cash shops like the one in "Diablo III" contradict this as you can now search through a list of items to better your build instead of finding them from a tough boss battle. Your "journey" in the game is to look through a list of what items could enhance your build with a character that has little difference from other 35th level monks in the game. Part of the appeal of RPGs for me is to make a unique character build through time an effort, not by the biggest wallet.

Kevin Fishburne
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How about something as simple as you get one free life. When you die you must pay to get a new life. You could optionally subscribe and get infinite lives if you decide you really like the game.

Gregory Marques
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I can't help but wonder if we (games industry professionals, especially makers of hardcore games) aren't just sour grapes-ing over lame "activities" that are making a lot of money. We all want Zynga to go down because they made a bunch of activities, called them games, and made a huge pile of cash. We hate playing these activities, but lots of people are happy to put money into getting their next-level cow.

The top-grossing iPhone game Rage of Bahamut is a great example of a pay-to-win activity. I hear they are making millions on that every month. I sure would like to make that kind of money with an iPhone app. I'm offended as a game designer that something with so little game in it can call itself a game. I don't enjoy playing it because it's so obviously pay-to-win.

What are we really mad about? That we didn't make these products because we thought they were beneath us? Isn't that our own problem? Are me upset because other people are too dumb to recognize the evil, shallow, and lame activities of Castleville and Rage of Bahamut for what they truly are? Perhaps we should work on reforming our education system then, instead of working in an entertainment industry.

As much as I am jealous of the money, and as much as I don't enjoy those activities, it still looks like we, as an industry, are crying about getting beat by a popular product. As games become mainstream, we have to learn to live with the popular kids invading our nerdy little clubroom.

Kevin Fishburne
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That sounds just about right, as far as gaming purists (most indies) are concerned.

My theory is that the explosion of new "gamers" caused by ubiquitous mobile devices are simply naive. They just don't know any better. It's like some jungle-dweller visiting New York City for the first time and happily helping the panhandlers thinking he's doing God's work. Once he realizes they're largely just lazy and never stop asking for money they'll start avoiding them like ebola.

Hopefully at some point the phone zombies will learn to recognize which beggars are career and which ones are genuinely down on their luck. I hate to see vampires get rewarded so handsomely, not necessarily because I envy their revenue, but more because it's damn embarrassing and sad.

Alexander Kraus
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I think another reason why Zynga and other pay-to-win games work is the social aspect to them. Nearly every MMORPG to me plays similarly to hack and slash action RPGs like "Diablo II" with their loot drops and repetitive actions, except online with multiple people. For me being somewhat reclusive and have little friends that play online I don't get into them much and prefer offline games.

But when you want to improve your score against your friends/rivals, that is where they nickel and dime you. I seen it with my brother and mother when playing "Runes of Magic." They would try to get as much Diamonds (in-game currency) to purchase the best gear so they can survive or perform better in PvP. It was getting very stressful on them as they were not doing so well regardless of how much money they put into the game against 14 year olds who steal from their parents. Thankfully they stopped and never turned back to that game.

When you got guild members, PvP, or any kind of social activity that keeps track of a score system associated to your account, you want to perform best. That seems to be where Zynga is getting most of their money from.