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Systems of Control in F2P
by Ramin Shokrizade on 05/16/13 01:42:00 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.


Historical Systems of Control

Systems of control have been around as long as civilization. One could argue that a civilization is defined by its systems of control. Ancient systems of control tended to promote massive wealth disparity, with a King and associated nobles controlling the vast majority of a nation's wealth. Maintaining such wealth disparities is very expensive, as the military power required to maintain them gets geometrically greater as the disparity increases.

Thus advanced societies have tended to go one of two routes to maintain control. One way is to reduce the wealth disparity and demobilize their military. This yields greater per capita productivity because militaries themselves do not produce income except through pillaging or coercion. If you are under threat by a militaristic neighbor, this may not be an option.

The other way to maintain control is by making the control less obvious, more subtle. When a person goes to a casino, they are offered the opportunity of empowerment in the form of a jackpot if they play. Of course the fact that the house always wins over time, and that if one player wins big that means a lot of other players lost, these details are often obscured by the number of layers you need to understand to see what is really going on.

When a person says they “own” their own house, but they have a 30 year mortgage, the situation is far from ownership. The bank owns the house, and the bank allows the occupants to stay there during the 30 year term if they agree to perfectly repay typically 5 times the loan amount during the term. If the loan is not repaid perfectly, then the real owner (the bank) will evict the occupant and any funds invested by said occupant are forfeit, even if they far exceed the original value of the loan.

Of course the true relationship is never explained like this when you “buy a house” or visit a casino, because these are systems of control that benefit others at the expense of the participant. The more complex the terms of the control, the easier it is to hide it. Technology is constantly making this easier. If a collector had to come to your house every month to collect your tithe then the system would look and feel like Feudalism. Modern technology allows the tithe to be extracted painlessly from one's bank account automatically every month without any sort of human interaction ever being needed.

This provides the citizens of modern societies the feeling that they are “free”. While they may indeed slowly be gaining more freedoms (possibly at the expense of others), this varies by region and caste, and a full discussion is not necessary for the purposes of this paper.

Dynamics of Control

People generally enjoy a certain amount of control. They welcome it. Without it they feel disoriented, uncomfortable. Thus they will tolerate control to a point, but will rebel if the control becomes “excessive”. To better explain what is going on, I am going to introduce two terms:

Visibility of Control (VoC): This is how obvious the controlling system is to participants. If A leads to D directly, then VoC will be high. You can reduce VoC by adding intermediary steps that cloud the relationship. So by having A go to B go to C go to D, then the mechanism of control between point A and D becomes more subtle and effective.

Tolerance to Control (TtC): How much control a participant can tolerate, or even crave, represents their TtC. Some people are more tolerant to some kinds of control than others, and their TtC can change over time, especially as they become more familiar with complex forms of control that they may not understand at first. The “A to D” example above is an example of this. Some people will recognize the relationship between A and D very quickly, even with a number of intermediaries masking it. Others may never figure out the relationship.

So here is what I am getting at:

if VoC < TtC then transaction proceeds

if VoC > TtC then transaction is rejected

Treating Consumers Like a Disease

Imagine that in the old days a game consumer would spend $60 to go from A to D, and get a game they could do whatever they wanted with. You know, back in the dark ages of gaming, like 10 years ago. Now we do something like this instead:

A ---> B (free)

B--->C ($1)

C--->D ($500)

Because we include a “free” step, from A to B, we call this model “Free to Play”. The second step, from B to C we can describe as the “Lure”, because we know that once a consumer spends any amount of money, no matter how small, they are then much more likely to keep spending. I will call the third step the “Hook” because once we find a consumer who cannot recognize the relationship between C and D, and thus A and D, they can be farmed fairly mercilessly. These players have very high TtC, for whatever reason, at least initially. Also, by layering our monetization we are attempting to lower our VoC as much as possible. Thus if we can keep VoC below the TtC of enough customers, and milk them rapidly before they realize what is going on, we can make a lot of money.

There is a “real world” system that mirrors this very well. It is our battle against disease where we use antibiotics as our weapons. By hitting diseases with new antibiotics we can wipe them out before they have a chance to adapt. If you could wipe out every last disease this way, this approach would work long term. The problem is that some diseases survive and over time they become more resistant to our antibiotics. Eventually the only new antibiotics available to us might kill us too, and at that point we lose this war despite winning so many battles. The other alternative, removing the source of the disease, is not receiving serious consideration in the USA. This is why we get less bang for our buck in medical care than any other country.

By attempting to trick our consumers into paying much more than the value of the product they are receiving, we are angering our customers. Over time their TtC goes down, and they become much faster at identifying the “A to B to C to D” mechanism. Our industry is very rapidly adopting a strategy where we reduce product quality (and cost to produce) but attempt to maximize our income by adopting an “A to B to C to D” version of F2P. While I could call this “layered F2P”, I think I am going to just call this Coercive F2P.

So in my analogy we are feeding Coercive F2P (the antibiotics) to our consumers (the disease) in order to make money in the shortest and easiest way possible. This has led to some early victories against the consumer. Here I will point to pretty much the entirety of social network game makers, with rare exceptions. Mobile is quickly following the same battle plan.

Note that the current Coercive F2P models that we use now were developed and iterated in Asia starting in 2001. There were successful there (and still are) because on average the consumers there have a much higher TtC. In the West, our average TtC is much lower and due to the way we are treating our consumers their TtC is getting even lower.

Because consumers have the option of not purchasing products that they perceive as coercive, given their TtC (which is lowering), the end result of this business strategy is the extinction of Coercive F2P. This trend will take much longer in Asia because of their higher initial TtC. The only way it could not also happen in the East is if non-coercive business models were outlawed by the state, a situation that seems improbable.

Note that F2P is not in and of itself coercive. F2P is potentially incredibly empowering to our consumers. It is entirely possible to explain to customers up front how you plan to sell to them. I am also of the opinion that low TtC consumers tend to be more wealthy than high TtC consumers. Thus the issue is not only that the number of convertible consumers using Coercive F2P is approaching 0%, but that as that percent gets smaller, we are tapping the least wealthy tail of the consumer market. This group may give till it hurts, and do so profitably in the East for a few more years, but this whole approach is heading for extinction. 

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Jonathon Green
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Thank you.

simone donnini
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Nice article, thanks

Gord Cooper
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Been following your posts for awhile now. As a designer in the F2P mobile space, I must say that while I don't necessarily agree with everything you've posted, I find your writing intriguing, thanks very much for things to think about on the day-to-day!

Jesse Tucker
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What things do you disagree with?

Kevin Hogan
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Since you believe that consumer's TtC is getting even lower does that mean that you are seeing reduced conversion rates in the live games you are working on? If so, I'm not sure it is consistent with the general trend across the industry.

Jannis Froese
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Without knowing the general trend in conversion rate, I would expect developers to get better at decreasing the VoC. That would lead to increasing conversion rates and revenue until a tipping point where you don't/can't decrease the VoC fast enough to compensate a falling TtC.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I don't, or at least rarely do, optimize games after they launch. I build games from the early stages with non-coercive monetization models. Big games take a while to make, and the first big one using my models will be revealed at E3. It is a matter of fact that conversion rates in social network games are going down. PC F2P games are holding steady as you see the ascendancy of hybridized models like League of Legends and World of Tanks (which I have written about extensively).

That said, my products don't experience the deleterious effects of lowering TtC because my models are transparent. I don't try to trick or coerce my consumers.

Zach Zebrowski
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Can we get a follow up on which game that was?

Kevin Hogan
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That's a shame that you're not working on a live game as the feedback can be invaluable in understanding real user behaviour.

When you say "it is a matter of fact that conversion rates in social network games are going down" which social networks are you referring to? Facebook saw 27 million of its users monetize during 2012 versus 15 million during 2011. The quality bar has been raised and poor games may not be monetizing as well but be careful about assuming that is reflective of the industry as a whole.

Tricking or coercing your consumers must obviously be avoided if you are looking to create long term value. No developer worth their salt is doing this though so it's a bit of a moot point.

Good luck with your upcoming game! It certainly sounds like you've put a lot of thought into it so I hope that there are no flaws in the logic that you took.

Ramin Shokrizade
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As investors shift close to 90% of their funds to social and mobile games, there is very little left for AAA development. This has led to a flood of cheap social network and mobile games, and very little in the way of quality products. This is occurring at the same time that the number of gamers world-wide is exploding. Thus you see a huge surge in the number of games being made and played under F2P monetization models, even at the same time that conversion rates are dropping. Thus, while Facebook would like you to think that more people paying on Facebook represents a healthy business environment for them, this statistic you parrot from them really is just the result of how much game creation is occurring in that space right now, and a lack of quality competition.

This is not translating to conversions, which is why these investors are being punished, as I predicted in my 2011 "Zynga Analysis" paper.

I would add that this move to lower quality games is not being driven by consumer demand for low quality products. It is purely being driven by producers thinking they can make huge ROI on cheap goods in this space. This is causing an ever-increasing mismatch between what we as an industry are providing and what our customers are seeking.

Kevin Hogan
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No offence, but unless you a working on a live game I don't think you are in the best position to understand consumer's needs. Your subjective measure of "quality" is not a universal truth that can be applied to the whole market.

Public companies like Facebook are obliged to release their numbers every year which makes it easy to see certain market trends. In 2011 they had 205 million gamers of which 15 million monetized (7% conversion rate) while in 2012 they had 235 million gamers of which 27 million monetized (11% conversion rate).

Separately, there are Morgan Stanley figures out there showing 10%+ conversion rates in the Japanese mobile space. Those conversion rates were not so high 10 years ago and they are forecast to rise further.

How are you measuring conversion rates Ramin? You need to back up your opinion with stats here as it is not consistent with what I am seeing in the field.

Is this "Zynga Analysis" paper the same one where you predicted that CivWorld could be the next big Facebook game? I try to stick to peer-reviewed papers that are based on facts where possible so forgive me if I don't give it the weight you think it deserves.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Kevin, if a player on Facebook played 15 games in a month (an arbitrary but not unrealistic number in the F2P environment) and spends $1 on one of them in a month, that is 100% conversion rate the way you are measuring it. Numbers, depending on how you interpret them, can lead you astray. The Japanese market is certainly different, especially in the mobile space, and there are even some mobile products in China that are hitting 50% conversion rates (per product, not "all products aggregate" like you are citing).

Thank you for reading my Zynga Analysis paper, and that was written for 2K Games at the time I was analyzing their CivWorld product. There were some revolutionary things about the game, but within a few weeks of writing Zynga Analysis I identified some flaws in the virtual economy and reward mechanisms that I deemed not worth repairing. I recommended to Firaxis that they stop development on that project and focus on others. They followed my advice and their company is doing very well right now.

I am currently consulting to companies with a combined market capitalization of over $300B USD, and these companies like having proof also. They also know they need to pay for this proof so in each case they are working on at least one pilot game using my models to test alternative ways of delivering F2P products. The first of these major products will be announced at this year's E3.

Richard Black
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Any good accounting or statistics course should educate you in the many ways there are available to adjust numbers to your liking simply through presentation. When there's money on the line I rarely take anyones business reports at face value.

I'm hoping after e3 you'll point out which games monetization you designed Ramin as I'd be curious to explore how it works myself.

Randy Angle
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I like the formula a lot - I can see where retail paid games that are too short or poor quality, or subscription games that no longer add new content can easily fall into the same category of abusing the players. I have seen a natural increase in players acceptance of F2P - along with a natural maturing of the players expectations - which I believe will lead to better quality F2P games. I do not believe F2P is a bad business model - just a business model that can be abused like others. Don't play bad games - and certainly don't pay for them.

Joe E
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great read, you hit the nail on the head. mobile games (clash of clans et al) follow the exact same pattern, and everyone else is following suit (partly in thanks to the headlines on this website: "studio X is making obscene amounts per day" but they leave out the "by exploiting and alienating customers in an unsustainable manner").
Note that unsustainable is not "evil", just dumb.

Spencer Franklin
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Thanks for this Ramin. Now, if only some of the industry pro's I have been around would wise up to this stuff... It's almost like they have no clue of how to see tings from the consumer angle.. or maybe that is intentional.

David Ngo
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Interesting analogy. No proof it's true.

Tyler Shogren
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To some extent we've seen this with MMO subscription fees already. Consumers have learned the value is not commensurate with the cost.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Tyler: The issue with "buffet style" subscription models is that people treat them just like they would a restaurant using the same model. People take time off of work (if they are motivated) and rush in and slam the game hard the first month (which is included if the game has a retail front end) and completely use up all the content during that first month. After that they quit and move on to the next product. Unless there is a strong social component (seemingly a dying design art these days) then there is little to retain the consumer.

So getting them to play one month is not the problem, it is keeping them longer that is difficult under the traditional subscription model. Further, that model has no discriminatory pricing so you can't tap players with bigger budgets.

Michael Joseph
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@Ramin Shokrizade

Thanks for another great article.

I wonder, do you think F2P game devs have been acting too much like there are few competitors in the marketplace and that their customers are somehow without recourse or real alternative choices?

Because maybe if there really was very little competition, their actions would be appropriate from a tactical business perspective. Maybe this also speaks more generally to how businesses are run (and/or how business leaders are taught) in the age of consolidation and relatively low competition. In other words, they enter an ultra competitive industry like games and their education is suddenly revealed as lacking.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Well right now a developer has the option of entering a market where 90% of the competition is (social and mobile) or one where less than 10% is (AAA and console). This is the flip of what it was only a few years ago. The savvy businessperson goes where there is little competition. Knowing that almost everyone is going into mobile now does not mean it is the new hot place to be. It means it was the hot place to be the last two years if you beat the crowd. Now, ironically, the hot place to be is AAA but a lot of the bigger companies shot their wads trying to compete in the social space right before the implosion.

Even if you are quick to catch on to how this works, bigger games take a while to create so you have to have predictive capability to be in the right place at the right time with the right product.

Right now there is very little recourse for players in the mobile space. They can play the deeper titles and agree to be abused by the business model and fellow players, or they can just choose to pick a new hobby. As the big boys enter mobile (and trust me they are), more options will open up to consumers and these cheap gimmicks will have a hard time being profitable.

Richard Black
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You're nicer than I am as I frame coercive more often as extortive. The mmo's I frequent more often than not going into f2p seem to favor a system designed to limit you in every way possible unless you go back to a subscription model, a system they should already have realized appeals to fewer people or f2p never would have gotten off the ground. Putting the screws to you till you go back to the monthly plan they liked always seems a ridiculously bad idea to me, but it still seems to be the go to model. I'd imagine the money they get off customization would equate to far more in the long run as well as keeping their player base happier and more willing to spend money, but except in a few games it seems largely ignored.

In mobile games I'm even more suspicious but the money sinks more often than not are obvious and off putting while those that offer a free version to give you a sample and then a full version for 3 to 9 dollars have been a nice diversion for me on my phone. Then again an emulator and old SNES, Genesis, or Playstation can be awfully diverting on your phone these days, as well as nostalgic, and you already know most of those are good.

Biff Johnson
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Great article. I got quite an education. Thank you. F2P normally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Reminds me of a "Zip car". It's works, it's ethical (most of the time) but "true" ownership is sorely missed. I've been playing games since the early arcade days and have been through the various models transformation the industry has propagated.

Yet the current model(s) is what we have and it's kind of take it or leave it. Hedging on 50 yrs old, I'm leaning toward "leave it".

Again. Great article. You have a solid grasp on the market and your client's needs.


Kevin Nolan
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While your blog concentrates on Tolerance to Control and Visibility of Control, I feel you skimmed over the all important Amount Of Control. It's very important because Free To Play gives the customer a lot more of it than, say, paying upfront does.

With pay upfront, the customer has to come up with all the goods and buy the whole experience or he gets nothing. He must go all the way from A to D. Visibility of control may be extremely high, but Amount of Control over what he spends, when and what on is very low. With Free To Play the player can choose to pay nothing at all (ie. he can stop at point A) or he can throw 500 quid at his pastime. Adding each extra step from A to D gives the player more control over how much he spends, and that's why Free To Play is so popular.

Advanced societies have tended to go one of two routes to maintain control, but they have also gone the third route of giving some of the control back to the citizens, eg. they become democracies.

Similarly, Amount of Control is much higher with mortgages, hence they are far more popular than trying to buy houses upfront. People mostly don't feel like slaves to their mortgages like they used to be slaves to feudal lords because they're _not_ - they're protected by laws and have a higher amount of control over how they pay the money back and when.

But I agree that some things in Free To Play must change with increasing customer savviness and experience. Attempts to rip the customer off with poor quality in-game goods, shoddy game quality, constant 'buy this cool thing' nagging, advert barrages and trying to con young game players out of their parent's money - these are what will have to go.

Ramin Shokrizade
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When I say " F2P is potentially incredibly empowering to our consumers." in the last paragraph I meant it.

I like it when I present a simple construct and readers want to take it a step further, so let's take a look at your "Amount of Control" dynamic. To me at least, all of the examples you gave are illusory in that they pretend to give control to the recipient.

In a Zynga game you would need to buy your way past a L4 government building, believing you would get access to the game content past that. All this does is mark you as convertible and so you just get blocked by a L5 government building that is even more expensive.

In Candy Crush Saga you only have to pay 3 Facebook bucks to get past the first bridge, thinking this is a reasonable fee to get more content. But having been marked as convertible, you are then exposed to crushing difficulty that most likely requires you to buy very expensive consumable boosts to progress though the content you just "unlocked".

Mortgages might seem to be empowering for those that could not buy a house any other way. But then here comes along the "Adjustable Rate Mortgage" and now what appears to be more empowering (you get to pay less up front) just becomes a foreclosure vehicle since it becomes highly unlikely you will be able to afford the crushing difficulty of the loan rates later in the payment scheme.

You might even believe you live in a democracy. In the USA we have a Republic, we have never had a democracy. I can't even think of any democracies off hand. Republics give the illusion of empowerment and control because you can "choose" who will represent you. The two people you choose from are almost always very similar and in any event much more beholden to lobbyists than constituents. Even if you "vote" them out they just come back as lobbyists at 10 times or more the pay rate.

But in all these cases, if you feel more empowered by these systems of control then that means they are working :)

Please know that I'm not trying to shut you down or discourage you at all. I want you to go deeper.

Richard Black
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You should keep in mind you also get a lot more from free players as well. If nothing else they flesh out a game world and give you people to play with as well as the illusion of an active community you could potentially want to be a part of. What a frequently see as the failure of a lot of coercive/extortive games is that they limit the power or equipment of these free players in the attempt to get them to buy a subscription, which then limits anyone elses desire to play with them. If you have to essentially carry out a job interview to figure out what kind of content you might be able to take on you'll likely severly limit the health of your games community. Since most games these days are pretty transitory and content is consumed so quickly you should encourage free to players to stick around and they make the game more full for the people who pay. Hopping in and out of games each month is pretty normal, the trick seems to be to provide them with things they're actually interested in paying money for while playing your game for however long you keep their interest. All too often the controls are most visible when they're there to keep you playing, which is counter productive as such obvious need for control is more likely to send people elsewhere. A sense of freedom is far more appealing and if you cater to that it's likely far more profitable.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Richard: My research indicates that above all else it is social interaction and cohesion that maintains retention and willingness to spend in online games. Yea I realize that is not an earth-shattering conclusion, but designing games (and monetization models) to promote this is apparently harder than it sounds. Most of the inertia in the industry is in the opposite direction.

What got me into virtual economics in game design in 2005 was a realization that inter player trade was a tremendously valuable component of social cohesion. This opens up many layers of complexity. Since 2005 a lot more games have included trade mechanisms (which can be complex) but they also try to remove the social element from it, perhaps not realizing this undermines the whole purpose of these mechanisms.

Kevin Nolan
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Cheers for the reply Ramin. Let's go deeper :)

In a Zynga game (yeah, I hate many of them too!) you can buy your way past an L4 building then, feeling you've been ripped off by pretty much the same sequence coming up again, you can opt not to pay any more money. I agree that they exhibited control over you by conning you into making that purchase thinking you'd get a better experience, but that control is far weaker than if you had bought the whole game and couldn't return it no matter how badly it sucked.

Likewise in Candy Crush Saga you can just stop playing at the point when you feel they've taken enough money from you and you've stopped having fun. Their control over you is weak.

Frontierville (shudder): Low Amount of Control (over the customer), low visibility of control
Crap PS3 Game: High Amount of Control (once you've bought the game they have your money), high visibility of control

I can certainly conceive of mortgages with a very high Amount of Control over the customer, low visibility of control and it doesn't matter what the customer's tolerance of control is, he's helpless once he's signed up. But that doesn't describe all of them.

The Amount of Control you have in the USA is far more than I feel you give credit for. For example, you have just criticised your president and the whole political system without fear that you will lose your job or be thrown into a labour camp. You are free to make money and keep it, or travel the world. The country's control over you is also comparatively transparent. You're probably not worried about your friends informing on you. You have an idea where the strings are.

USA: Medium Amount of Control, Medium Visibility of Control
China: High Amount of Control, Low Visibility of Control
North Korea: See China but add 'Very' where applicable.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Kevin: I am very careful not to give political opinions. I realize that at some point my work (especially in the area of game addiction) could be used for political purposes and I am careful to steer clear of such motivations. Thus I must protest your attempt to politicize my work in your last post. Even Nate Silver, who engages in predictive analytics as I do, does not do it for partisan reasons even though his domain is politics (mine is game development).

I realize this article could be a bit controversial since it discusses subjects that are generally taboo outside of academic discussions. Nonetheless, I felt it necessary to discuss these subjects in an attempt to advance our industry.

Kevin Nolan
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Sorry Ramin, I understand. It was a good conversation anyway.

Joseph Blower
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I appreciate this article and agree with most of what the author writes. I think that the term "Coercive F2P" should enter the thoughtful gamer's lexicon. Personally, I have despised every F2P game I've tried (I've played 5-10 or so). I consider the games to be similar to gambling.

Michael Tiambeng
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Great read! Social components for F2P games are vital for success. Not only does the company have the coercive element built into the game via power-ups, boosts, etc., but friends and family that play this game spur on that natural competitive drive within a player, at least, from what I've experienced. Your concept of a coercive F2P is very interesting and thought provoking.

Henry Chiu
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Great article. What is your opinion on lockboxes, and where do they fit in to the A-B-C-D model?

Personally I see them as being no different than online casinos except you win materially nothing.

Ramin Shokrizade
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By lockbox I assume you mean a chest that requires a premium key to open? This is just one of many mechanisms for delivering a random reward in a game. Even a dragon is the equivalent in World of Warcraft, except there you have two layers:

1. The dragon drops a random reward from it's loot table,
2. There is a social random layer we often call DKP (dragon kill points) where they players then have a chance at the loot that dropped.

We use these mechanisms because the unpredictability of the result increases dopamine release. Games (casinos included) are ultimately dopamine release services, provided to an ever increasingly dopamine dependent species. I would assert that this, combined with increased exposure to blue light, are why our species sleeps less every year.

Chris Londrie
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I actually signed up to Gamasutra and finally quit lurking to ask you this question directly Mr. Shokrizade:

What are your thoughts on monetizing the drops of content with some obvious changes:
A) Give each player their own private, undisclosed loot from this proverbial dragon.
B) Allow players to buy rerolls of this loot, say, once per dragon-kill.
C) Have a flatter system that resembles EVE Online's Meta 5 items and lower.

It's been very interesting reading your materials, and very comforting to see that on the whole, my independent ideas line up very closely with much of what you say. Thank you for articulating your ideas for the community.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Chris, sorry I took a while to notice your post. There are some times when you can hide loot between players, but there is a social element to loot distribution that can also be very powerful. You should only give up this effect when it might cause a negative peer to peer effect. An example of this would be when a player is allowed to "enrich" their reward due to spending as you suggest here. I'm not sure "B" as you describe it is the best way to handle this, but I think you are on a path that could be productive for you with some more work. Putting a cap of "once per dragon-kill" as you mention is essential to avoid pay to win situations. I'm sorry that I'm not familiar with the complexities of loot in EVE in 2013, as I'm required to evaluate so many products that I can't focus on some products like EVE or WoW annually.