Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
arrowPress Releases
July 23, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


 
The Top F2P Monetization Tricks
by Ramin Shokrizade on 06/26/13 08:16:00 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.

 

[UPDATE: Alex Dale, the CMO of King.com, has graciously taken his time to clarify a few points related to CCS, and I have edited this paper in a few places using italics to show the updates]

Coercive Monetization

A coercive monetization model depends on the ability to “trick” a person into making a purchase with incomplete information, or by hiding that information such that while it is technically available, the brain of the consumer does not access that information. Hiding a purchase can be as simple as disguising the relationship between the action and the cost as I describe in my Systems of Control in F2P paper.

Research has shown that putting even one intermediate currency between the consumer and real money, such as a “game gem” (premium currency), makes the consumer much less adept at assessing the value of the transaction. Additional intermediary objects, what I call “layering”, makes it even harder for the brain to accurately assess the situation, especially if there is some additional stress applied.

This additional stress is often in the form of what Roger Dickey from Zynga calls “fun pain”. I describe this in my Two Contrasting Views of Monetization paper from 2011. This involves putting the consumer in a very uncomfortable or undesirable position in the game and then offering to remove this “pain” in return for spending money. This money is always layered in coercive monetization models, because if confronted with a “real” purchase the consumer would be less likely to fall for the trick.

As discussed in my Monetizing Children paper, the ability to weigh this short term “pain relief” vs. the long term opportunity costs of spending money is a brain activity shown by research to be handled in the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain typically completes its development at the age of 25. Thus consumers under the age of 25 will have increased vulnerability to fun pain and layering effects, with younger consumers increasingly vulnerable. While those older than 25 can fall for very well constructed coercive monetization models, especially if they are unfamiliar with them (first generation Facebook gamers), the target audience for these products is those under the age of 25. For this reason these products are almost always presented with cartoonish graphics and child-like characters.

Note that while monetizing those under 18 runs the risk of charge backs, those between the age of 18 and 25 are still in the process of brain development and are considered legal adults. It seems unlikely that anyone in this age range, having been anointed with adulthood, is going to appeal to a credit card company for relief by saying they are still developmentally immature. Thus this group is a vulnerable population with no legal protection, making them the ideal target audience for these methods. Not coincidentally, this age range of consumer is also highly desired by credit card companies.

The exception to the above child targeting would be products making heavy use of Supremacy Goods, which I will discuss near the end of this paper. These products target a wider age range of users that are vulnerable to such appeals.

King.com was generous enough to point out that their target demographic for CCS is middle aged women. 80% of their players are women, only 34% of their players are under the age of 30, and only 9% are under the age of 21.  

Premium Currencies

To maximize the efficacy of a coercive monetization model, you must use a premium currency, ideally with the ability to purchase said currency in-app. Making the consumer exit the game to make a purchase gives the target's brain more time to figure out what you are up to, lowering your chances of a sale. If you can set up your game to allow “one button conversion”, such as in many iOS games, then obviously this is ideal. The same effect is seen in real world retail stores where people buying goods with cash tend to spend less than those buying with credit cards, due to the layering effect.

Purchasing in-app premium currency also allows the use of discounting, such that premium currency can be sold for less per unit if it is purchased in bulk. Thus a user that is capable of doing basic math (handled in a different part of the brain that develops earlier) can feel the urge to “save money” by buying more. The younger the consumer, the more effective this technique is, assuming they are able to do the math. Thus you want to make the numbers on the purchase options very simple, and you can also put banners on bigger purchases telling the user how much more they will “save” on big purchases to assist very young or otherwise math-impaired customers.

Having the user see their amount of premium currency in the interface is also much less anxiety generating, compared to seeing a real money balance. If real money was used (no successful game developer does this) then the consumer would see their money going down as they play and become apprehensive. This gives the consumer more opportunities to think and will reduce revenues.

Skill Games vs. Money Games

A game of skill is one where your ability to make sound decisions primarily determines your success. A money game is one where your ability to spend money is the primary determinant of your success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, for obvious reasons. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.

King.com's Candy Crush Saga is designed masterfully in this regard. Early game play maps can be completed by almost anyone without spending money, and they slowly increase in difficulty. This presents a challenge to the skills of the player, making them feel good when they advance due to their abilities. Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills.

Note that the difficulty ramps up automatically for all players in CCS when they pass the gates I discuss later in this paper, the game is not designed to dynamically adjust to payers. 

If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.

Reward Removal

This is my favorite coercive monetization technique, because it is just so powerful. The technique involves giving the player some really huge reward, that makes them really happy, and then threatening to take it away if they do not spend. Research has shown that humans like getting rewards, but they hate losing what they already have much more than they value the same item as a reward. To be effective with this technique, you have to tell the player they have earned something, and then later tell them that they did not. The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect.

This technique is used masterfully in Puzzle and Dragons. In that game the play primarily centers around completing “dungeons”. To the consumer, a dungeon appears to be a skill challenge, and initially it is. Of course once the customer has had enough time to get comfortable with the idea that this is a skill game the difficulty goes way up and it becomes a money game. What is particularly effective here is that the player has to go through several waves of battles in a dungeon, with rewards given after each wave. The last wave is a “boss battle” where the difficulty becomes massive and if the player is in the recommended dungeon for them then they typically fail here. They are then told that all of the rewards from the previous waves are going to be lost, in addition to the stamina used to enter the dungeon (this can be 4 or more real hours of time worth of stamina).

At this point the user must choose to either spend about $1 or lose their rewards, lose their stamina (which they could get back for another $1), and lose their progress. To the brain this is not just a loss of time. If I spend an hour writing a paper and then something happens and my writing gets erased, this is much more painful to me than the loss of an hour. The same type of achievement loss is in effect here. Note that in this model the player could be defeated multiple times in the boss battle and in getting to the boss battle, thus spending several dollars per dungeon.

This technique alone is effective enough to make consumers of any developmental level spend. Just to be safe, PaD uses the same technique at the end of each dungeon again in the form of an inventory cap. The player is given a number of “eggs” as rewards, the contents of which have to be held in inventory. If your small inventory space is exceeded, again those eggs are taken from you unless you spend to increase your inventory space. Brilliant!

Progress Gates

Progress gates can be used to tell a consumer that they will need to spend some amount of money if they want to go further in the game. If done transparently, this is not coercive. For the purposes of this paper, the focus will just be on how this can be layered to trick the consumer into spending on something they may not have if they had been provided with complete information.

Now let's break progress gates into “hard” and “soft” types. A hard gate is one where you cannot advance if you do not pay up. The central buildings in Zynga builder type games are a good example. All other buildings in a town/city/base are capped by the level of the central building, forcing a hard progress gate. What makes this coercive is that the player is not told that if they pay through that gate they will just be presented with another hard gate soon that will cost even more money. Thus the consumer may assume they are getting more pain relief for their money than they are.

A soft gate is one where the player can get past the gate, eventually. Clash of Clans uses this type in making building times ever longer and allowing the user to spend to complete them. This is a method presumably borrowed from games made by Zynga, Kabam, Kixeye, and others since it is a common Facebook game convention. In order to improve the efficacy of the soft gate, these games also make it so that resource generation in-game increases faster than the player's ability to spend these resources (because building/spending takes so long). Thus these “earned” resources are lost (taken away) if real money is not spent. This is a method of combining reward removal with a soft gate to increase the pain level while at the same time layering, as the consumer may be gullible enough to assume these effects are coincidental or due to some strategic misstep they took earlier.

Another novel way to use a progress gate is to make it look transparent, but to use it as the partition between the skill game and the money game. Candy Crush Saga employs this technique artfully. In that game there is a “river” that costs a very small amount of money to cross. The skill game comes before the river. A player may spend to cross the river, believing that the previous skill game was enjoyable (it was for me) and looking to pay to extend the skill game. No such guarantee is given of course, King just presents a river and does not tell you what is on the other side. The money game is on the other side, and as the first payment is always the hardest, those that cross the river are already prequalified as spenders. Thus the difficulty ramps up to punishing levels on the far side of the river, necessitating boosts for all but the most pain tolerant players.

In the mobile version of CCS (which I did not test) a player does not need to spend money or "social currency" (friend invites) to progress past the gates. There is a "quest" option which acts as a soft pay gate. According to King.com, 70% of all players who have completed the game have never made a currency payment.  

Soft and Hard Boosts

The purpose of a money game is to promote Boost sales. Boosts that have an instant one-time effect are “soft” Boosts. Those that stick around either forever or until they are converted to something else are “hard” Boosts. The $1 “un-defeat” button in PaD is a soft Boost, as are all of the power-ups sold in Candy Crush Saga. The obvious advantage of soft boosts is that you can keep selling them as long as the player stays in the money game.

Hard” Boosts include things like the random rare creatures that are sold in PaD for $5 each. Having these in your stable effectively lowers the difficulty of the game enough to allow you to get a little bit further with each purchase. A technique that is very popular in Asian games with hard Boosts (PaD included) is to allow hard Boosts to be “merged” to allow for even bigger hard Boosts. This makes the math involved in figuring out exactly how expensive a very high quality hard Boost will be, daunting. It may even be completely invisible to the consumer due to the various drop %s being hidden. Thus the best hard Boosts in these games typically cost thousands of dollars, a fact that is hidden to the user until they are already invested for at least a few hundred dollars. This puts the consumer in the difficult position of giving up and losing the equity already purchased, or going “all the way” and spending some unknown large amount to get the top Boost. Some of these techniques, sometimes called “kompu gacha”, are already facing regulation in Asia due to their excessive layering and lack of transparency.

In money games that contain a social layer, this social layer is used as an added incentive to show off your “skills” to other players that may still not realize they are in a money game. This is the purpose of the mini-leaderboards in Candy Crush Saga, to make it look like you need to try harder to beat your more “skillful” friends. Even the “word-o-meter” in Words with Friends can be considered a soft Boost in a money game disguised as a skill game. This would, of course, depend on if you considered it to give an advantage. If it didn't then why are people buying it?

Ante Games

As described in detail in my How “Pay to Win” Works paper, the key to these games is to start off with the appearance of a skill game and then shift to a multiplayer money game that I call an “Ante” game. The game could proceed as a skill game but never does since once one player spends enough money it becomes a money game. At some point players keep raising their antes, hoping that the other players will fold. The “winner” (and loser) is the player that puts in the largest ante. It is not unusual for winning antes to be over $5000, and some Asian game developers that make only ante games like IGG have “VIP” member sections that you have to spend $3000+ per year for the top level of membership.

The target audience here tends to be non-hardcore competitive gamers who need the self esteem boost that comes with winning a skill game, and who for whatever reason never recognize the game as a money game. Some of my peers in the Asian gaming industry suggest that there this is merely a form of conspicuous consumption. I would love to see some age demographics for these “whales”.

Last Thoughts

The above mechanics are not meant to be exhaustive, but give a basic overview of key techniques used in coercive monetization model based games to defeat a customer's ability to make informed choices about the costs and values in these products. The more subtle the hand, and the more you can make your game appear to be skill based the more effective these products will monetize. Currently I would consider Puzzle and Dragons to be the state of the art. While it's gameplay mechanisms are simplistic, the depth of its reward mechanisms and its adherence to most of the best practices listed in my Supremacy Goods microeconomic model make it quite elegant. Its fantastic use of reward removal in particular is quite impressive.

While it is possible to make commercially competitive games without using coercive methods, this is a lot more work. In the current market, especially with most adults and children not familiar with the nature of these products, the environment is still ripe for fast profits, and likely will continue to be so for a few more years. Note that while these methods can be very successful with young and inexperienced gamers, they find less success with older and more experienced gamers, and this population represents a group with potentially very large gaming budgets.

Finally, I would like to relay that King.com feels that their use of data in their game is for the purpose of "optimizing fun", not profits... 


Related Jobs

Xaviant
Xaviant — Cumming, Georgia, United States
[07.23.14]

Senior Quality Assurance Analyst
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany
[07.23.14]

Quest Writer (m/f) for The West
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany
[07.23.14]

Software Developer PHP (m/f)
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany
[07.23.14]

Team Lead Online Marketing - TV (m/f)






Comments


Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Note that as a rule I do not publish my F2P monetization models. In this case, I am publishing the methods used by others to make money games, and since I only make skill games, I'm not creating any competition for myself. While the information I have provided here should lower the barrier to entry for commercially effective money games, I hope the discussion will lead some of you to consider making skill games instead.

Shea Rutsatz
profile image
Always enjoyable to read your work. Smart and thoughtful!

Christopher George
profile image
Excellent article!

Tanya X Short
profile image
Great article! Even if somewhat depressing, heh.

What games have you made? And did any of them have in-app purchases?

Henrik Strandberg
profile image
Thanks Ramin for the article and insights! As you point out yourself, and as I'm sure we've all experienced, F2P monetization is a rapidly evolving field and I'm very curious to see what the "established norm" will be in a year, two or three. Personally I predict a massive amount of consumer fatigue once "ordinary consumers" figure out what's going on here (as Facebook has experienced...). New models will take the place of what you describe above - and this is why I personally find this business model so fascinating and interesting! There's a giant blue ocean of innovation and creative opportunity out there, and understanding some of the basic mental processes that drive user behavior helps enormously.

James Liu
profile image
Great article! Thank you for sharing. I also favor skills games.

Laguna Everett
profile image
Great article, thank you.

Matthew Eyraud
profile image
Please recommend a skill-based game or two for iOS.

I don't mind paying for a good game, I just want to feel like I've accomplished something other than proving I will pay to win.

Samuel Green
profile image
Great article, although I'm not sure how correct this Candy Crush statement is;

"Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills."

The game is just generally difficult. I don't think it flags spenders and changes the drop patterns of candy or the initial positioning to make it harder. Perhaps I'm wrong and King is being very devious, but I believe the levels are an even playing field (just a very very difficult playing field).

Neil Sorens
profile image
No, the "blocker" levels that rely on luck (or RMT-obtained powerups) for completion start out very infrequent and grow in frequency steadily over the course of the game. Eventually, you simply have to be really lucky or spend money to progress. Skill is often only a minor factor, especially in levels where there are typically only one or two matches to be made at any given time (and thus deciding which one is best is a simple matter).

Robert Green
profile image
I think you're both saying the same thing really - that the 'flag' for determining someone is a spender doesn't have to be an explicit one that makes the game behave differently. Instead, it's implied based on how far the player has progressed through the game, because anyone who has reached a certain level has either recruited a bunch of friends or spent some money, due to the nature of the progress gate. Past that point, the more of the [intentionally] difficult levels the player has passed, the more likely they are to have spent real money.

Megan Swaine
profile image
My bf's in the 200's and he's never spent a cent. I know other people who are also in the 200's, and haven't bought anything. Yes, the game is largely random, but there are a number of strategies that can aid in progress.

Seriously, it's not that hard of a game. I enjoy it. I have occasionally thrown money at it BECAUSE I enjoy playing it. The game has value to me, and therefore I don't have to be tricked into spending money on it. I'm perfectly aware of what I am buying and how long it will help me.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Josh Levitan
profile image
Another great article, Ramin. I thought some of these techniques were mildly sketchy before, but seeing them explained in great detail and all in one article really lays out how manipulative they are.

Totally agree that Candy Crush lulls you in with a false sense of mastery; then the rest of the game becomes super-hard and almost random. They're obviously killing it in terms of revenue, but they could probably make even more if they let you pass some of the mid- to late levels in a reasonable number of attempts. I don't buy the $.99 extra moves because there's almost no case in which I'm even close to beating a level but don't. I either pass the level or am so far off that an extra few moves won't help at all.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Josh, I consider you an expert in the social dev space. When I first tried to talk to you about some of this stuff a couple years ago you seemed dubious. Either I'm communicating more effectively (likely) or the Zynga stars have faded from your eyes :) Nothing in these games happens by accident. Companies like King have so many data analysts (probably on par with actual designers) that the actual game mechanics becomes secondary to trying to optimize monetization.

Maxime Dion
profile image
They could take inspiration from Pac-Man championship Deluxe, when getting into a collision path with a ghost the game goes into bullet time mode, slowing everything down and effectively keeping the tension at its peak.

Apply to this context they could implement an AI built to recongnize incoming fail state and help make sure the player can't fail between 70% and 95% of the stage with either random striped candy or favorable incoming candy, ensuring that the extra move purchase always seems like a viable option.

Alan Boody
profile image
Ramin,

That's what makes me sick about the current industry. Optimize monetization > game mechanics. Devs do need to make a living, but companies like King make EA look like an indie developer in it for creating great games.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Alan, interesting comparison. Everything that I have seen from EA leads me to the conclusion that EA is 100% in on money games and will copy King if they can figure out how to. Big companies just are not as agile, it takes them time to ramp up.

Alan Boody
profile image
Ramin,

I agree completely about EA and copying King when they figure it out. I didn't mean it, literally. But, I do think it'd be an interesting discussion on if EA is already too late to the business model you discuss in this article. Do you think this would be another of case of EA being late to the game?

Alan Boody
profile image
monetization models* and I didn't mean EA as an indie developer compared to King. I was just emphasizing the point of how game companies are so focused on ways to extra money from customers that they forget that their primary job (imho) is to create great gaming experiences.

Brendan Prettie
profile image
EA produced Sim City for Facebook, so I'd say they are already well on the way towards figuring it out.

Eric Finlay
profile image
EA has the rights to Tetris on Android right now. If they can figure out a way to monetize it the same way King monetized Jewels with Candy Crush, they'll be off to the races. Unfortunately for EA that seems like a significantly harder task. King has a Tetris-like game called "Startris", but it's used for pure skill gaming (cash tournaments) on desktop browsers rather than the mobile F2P model.

Francisco Valdenebro
profile image
Great article. Being against bad uses of F2P, I've thought and blogged about it a few times, but this level of insight really blows my mind.

Sir, you're brilliant. Hoping to see more in the future.

-----------------------------------
Francisco Valdenebro
www.vtbrothers.com

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Great! This spares me a lot of time explaining my friends why the games they play are awful, now I just have to give 'em this link.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kyle Redd
profile image
Is this a piece of criticism or a how-to guide?

Christian Nutt
profile image
Yes.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Eric Robertson
profile image
Great info! Thank you

John Gordon
profile image
Great article!

I'd say that most of these techniques you describe can basically be summed up as "bait and switch". The makers bait you with an engaging skill based game and then switch to a money based game.

Maxime Dion
profile image
Good article as always, but I got to admit I'm a bit intrigued with the secrecy behind your actual work. You say you don't want to create competition for yourself and I understand it can be beneficial in the short term, but aren't you scared that in the long run end it might stiffle your progress in the field of in-game economic? As a scientist don't you agree that theory are meant to be tested and challenge by your peers? Or do you fear your monetisation models would get a bad reputation if they were to be poorly implemented by other game studio? Or maybe you believe that the competition would only copy them and never come up with more effective variation or provide better understanding? Perhaps you had some bad experience in your career.

Adam Spragg
profile image
*squints*

Can't tell if real or satire...

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
I had the same sensation when I watched Roger Dickey's video for the first time in 2011...until I realized he was dead serious and that others would take him seriously. Which they did. His statement at 4:41 into the video: "If you have fun pain, then that's the best place you can be". This was the line that launched a thousand money games, and I've been tracking the evolution (with sick wonder) for the last two years.

WC Budzianowski
profile image
Interesting article, Ramin! Could you point us to some of the peer-reviewed research that you reference? In particular, I'm interested in this: "Research has shown that putting even one intermediate currency between the consumer and real money" and anytime you mention what the brain does.

Robert Green
profile image
I'm not sure which research he's pointing to, but I'm sure I've seen plenty of examples over time, probably through writers like Dan Ariely. Certainly the assumptions about intermediary currencies seem to be in effect in things like casino chips and MS Points, which thankfully they're dropping soon.
Now that I think about it, another aspect of intermediary currencies that he didn't cover in this post is that you can sell them in different allocations than they're used in. To give a memorable example, Microsoft used to sell MS Points in units of 1500, when the XBLA games they were selling were 800 or 1200 points. So you'd end up with 700 or 300 left over, which isn't enough for another game, which in turn means that those points go to waste unless you buy even more.
I haven't done a lot of research into this, but perhaps Ramin could answer this - is it common that premium currencies aren't usually sold in the number of units that the first thing you'd want to spend them on? i.e. would you usually have some left over, that would encourage you both to keep playing and to later buy more to avoid the ones you have going to waste, like in my XBLA example?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
@WC: I'm travelling atm, but Robert is correct that Dr. Dan Ariely has done a number of experiments on what I call layering, where he replaces currencies with something that does not look like currency and it totally changes behavior. I recommend studying his research if you have interest. I list some general references to brain research in my Monetizing Children paper (linked in this paper) and I ran my interpretations past a relevant PhD mentor to make sure I was not overstepping the current research.

WC Budzianowski
profile image
@Ramin: Thanks for the reference, coincidentally, "Predictably Irrational" is next on my list after reading Kahneman's "Fast and Slow."

Jurie Horneman
profile image
Thanks for this article. Regarding the reward removal in PaD: IMO one of the reasons why this works is the metaphor that is used. You're in a dungeon, so it 'makes sense' that you would lose all of your loot if you were to 'run away'. I would argue that in a different context, the same mechanics would seem nonsensical or exploitative. I feel that the power of using the right metaphors is underestimated in game design, particularly in casual games.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Jurie, yes clearly in order to pull of something so, erm, cruel, you have to create a design that makes it look like the player's fault if you take away what they "earned". If you made it obvious that this was part of the con then players would exit the game. Thus when you build a game around this type of monetization mechanic you have to think of an appropriate way to layer it in such a way that it looks like a skill game.

In Candy Crush Saga the pain of loss is not so great because you only lose the screen you are on. Here by linking 10 challenges in a row, and having you lose just the last one but losing the rewards from all 10 challenges really hooks the player effectively.

Jason Gage
profile image
What I find interesting is this same mechanic can be employed in a non-money game. There is a similar reward removal in the completely free game Candy Box. Anything acquired on a "quest" is lost if the player is "defeated" during the quest.

In that game it seems to result in a higher likelihood of using the "escape" items or the various power ups you can buy or construct, which feed into the in-game economy's systems. The only thing separating it from a money game is that it's impossible to put real money into the game. It does, however, seem to create the same behavior in the player.

Mike Upton
profile image
This is also described in a lot of papers as "Loss Aversion". And I'd like to share that we use this a lot in synchronous multi-player games, particularly ones with longer session lengths, as a way to incentivise a player to continue even in the face of certain defeat. If that player who is sure to "lose" the battle continues there is still a reward for finishing which can be really huge. So not a monetisation scheme, but a way to maintain the fabric of the game experience for everyone.

Alan Boody
profile image
Do you think this will become even more the norm -perhaps even in console games- as the industry moves forward?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
If we all go for the easy money and make money games, it will become the norm and our consumers will be forced to surrender to the model if there are no alternatives. If even just a few of us can make high quality skill games (like League of Legends and World of Tanks) but bring them to the social and mobile environments, the money games in those markets would quickly lose market share, ending their reign of..."fun pain". As far as I can see money games are 99% of the market right now for F2P in social and mobile, so it could stay like that for a while.

With F2P skill games like World of Tanks moving into the console space, I don't think that environment will be nearly as friendly to money games as social and mobile is now.

Alan Boody
profile image
I guess if this is the direction consumers want to go then there's no real argument against it other than from an ethical standpoint of targeting younger audiences with coercive monetization tricks.

My concern going forward is that when the bubble bursts on all this what will happen to the gaming industry. This generation of young gamers will expect free games going forward, but will eventually wise up to the monetization tricks these companies use. I see the money gravy train that current game developers envisioning for years to come derailing and possibly hurting the industry into the future.

Maxime Dion
profile image
Alaan, it's sad to say but nothing has a right to exist and the gaming industry is no exception. Which means that as people react by spending less, we will have to offer more genuine value to our products. Something similar is happening in the field of marketing giving rise to the concept of societal marketing were the focus is on providing the customer with what they want and need in a way that meets the compagnie's requirements while benefiting the rest of society.

Philip Minchin
profile image
Alan, in response to your "if this is the direction consumers want to go", the whole point here is surely that the consumers don't WANT this (in the sense of independently expressing a preference for an option which they believe will benefit them), but rather are being heavily manipulated.

This kind of thing makes a total mockery of the economic rationalist assumption that market actors dispose of their resources rationally in accordance with their own best interests. Instead what we see quite clearly is that entities with large sums of money can afford access to psychological, communications, and iterative systems design expertise to gain an unfair market advantage by manipulating the process of decision-making and intentionally subverting rationality, with a degree of precision and power that is simply inaccessible to the average person.

To treat this as a simple matter of honest customer preference is at best totally incorrect.

Nick Terry
profile image
Ramin has this exactly right. Consumers gravitate towards quality, at their own pace, mind you.

I'd be interested in seeing a demographic breakdown on these F2P games. Consider, more people are playing games now than ever before in our history. Games have taken the place of the soap opera even.

Doug Creutz
profile image
Ramin, I have to ask: how much have you actually played P&D?

Because having played it intensively for about 3 months, I can tell you that you can get an enormous amount of mileage out of the game without spending one red cent. With a decent amount of skill and some help from strategy resources available on the internet forums, there are no real roadblocks to progress for the vast majority of the content. There are many dedicated players who take it as a point of pride to never have made any IAP.

The monetization happens largely because the game is sufficiently fun that it's easy to justify spending a few bucks for a shot at rolling a really powerful character from the game's lottery system, or refreshing stamina in order to get more runs through a limited time dungeon. It's a carrot method, not a stick. Using currency to undo a 'game over' is actually a very rare occurrence - I would bet you it accounts for < 5% of monetization.

In contrast, the difficulty spike in CCS at ~level 27 or so (which occurs within the first several hours of play) is horrendous.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
@Doug: As Sheldon Laframboise pointed out in his review of Candy Crush Saga this week, he has gotten to level 170 in that game without spending. Dedicated players with high pain tolerance can continue to advance indefinitely in these games, making it a sport of turning a money game back into a skill game. This is especially true of those over 25. I am going to take a wild guess here and say you are over 25. You are not the target audience of this monetization model. You are a necessary evil that must be encouraged to maintain the illusion of a skill game for others with less willpower. Your selfishness in not spending (yes I am being satirical here) would be quite aggravating to the dev team except that you are necessary to show evidence that the game is, indeed, a skill game when it is not.

I'm not saying PaD is not fun, because it is. I'm not saying it does not have very deep reward systems that can continue to provide carrots to players for months, because it does. Without these you can't effectively deploy the techniques used to monetize in PaD, especially reward removal. The game is very polished. Some other companies will read what I wrote here and attempt to reskin PaD using the same techniques. They may still fail if they don't put the attention to detail that is present in this high quality state of the art money game.

Doug Creutz
profile image
@ Ramin: I guess having played both - both of which have color matching as their core mechanic - I see a vast difference in the difficulty scaling in one vs. the other. While it is possible to play CCS without monetization, it is extremely difficult (and based largely on luck - you yourself admitted you couldn't progress without spending), whereas it is far simpler in P&D (and based largely on skill/research).

I guess I just disagree that P&D's main (or even relatively important) monetization mechanism is reward removal.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
There is a strategy layer in PaD that is not present at all in CCS. There is no arguing this. The opportunity thus presents itself for hardcore gamers like you and me to progress if we have the patience and the motivation to "cheat" by looking up all the strategic information that is hidden, on websites external to the game. I don't have access to their data to see how many people use the various "$1 clicks" in the game, but I doubt it is as low you you suggest. When evaluating a game like this I have to use the mind set of a relatively inexperienced gamer (this takes practice) while at the same time studying all the sophisticated systems that are going on in the background that would normally be invisible. I don't think you are at all the typical player. Here in this paper I do my best to explain the exceptional qualities of the monetization model that make this game the number 1 game in the world. Obviously if everyone spent zero like you do, we would not be talking about this game right now.

Doug Creutz
profile image
Except I haven't spent zero. :)

I'm kind of surprised that you single out over 25s as less likely to monetize. The mid-core folks I have talked to single out older gamers as their best monetizers - because they have more money than time and therefore are more willing to spend. Under 25s are more willing to grind their way through content and avoid spending because many of them don't have jobs or families. Perhaps things are different in Japan, that I don't know.

I think P&D monetizes well because the game design is -that- good, not because of the monetization design. In fact I would say it is the lack of aggressive monetization that has led to its wild success by making it extremely accessible.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Mid-core games currently use the "pay to win" model in multiplayer ante games, and as I mention in the article these tend to go after an older demographic. The relevant paper I mention in the main article goes into more detail. I don't really think PaD qualifies as midcore either on strategy level or inter-player competitiveness, but it could attract some of the same gamers looking for a quality mobile experience.

Michael Schiff
profile image
Are you at liberty to reveal which E3 game you worked on?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
I'm the only one in my first party studio that is not allowed to discuss my involvement, at least for a few more months.

Jenna Fearon
profile image
What an absolutely fascinating read, thank you!

Eric Finlay
profile image
First off, excellent article Ramin, I'm really intrigued by the monetization methods that you aren't talking about, but I'll just have to wait for that article to come out.

Do you think King's ability to monetize CSS so well is a bit of a surprise? Their primary business still appears to be cash tournaments in desktop browser based games. You can enter Candy Crush cash tournaments - that killed a weekend for me, personally. (The model they use on desktops is part of the inspiration for my startup www.foosler.com - shameless plug, I'm a bad person).

Why wouldn't they bring the skill gaming cash tournament model onto mobile phones, why try a new model?

Craig Jensen
profile image
Great article!

Doing articles like this is much better than commenting on other people's articles and mentioning in the comments your article. >_>

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Craig, I have 45 published papers in the last two years that cover many aspects of monetization design in a fairly comprehensive manner. When I see someone asking questions about subjects I've covered, I mention that this or that paper is available as a reference. People who might want that information can seek out that paper if they know about it. If they don't want to they don't have to. Not everyone reads Gamasutra regularly and knows that these resources are available. Those who find these references repetitive or annoying, I apologize. It is not my intention to annoy people, just to provide an educational resource. Monetization is a hot topic right now, and a lot of people have a lot of questions about it. Back in 2011, very few of us were talking about it. In 2009 people would look at me like I had a third eyeball when I would talk about it. Now not a day goes by on Gamasutra when it is not the subject of discussion.

Most of you find money games in poor form, but that is what is getting funded. For many of you, that means a choice between doing them or going without work. It is a tragic situation caused by misinformed investors and management. Only education or tragedy will change the situation, and education is cheaper.

Nick Mitchell
profile image
No Craig, no.

Ramin is helping people out sharing his wealth of information all over the place. Why would he only do it in a few articles? A lot of people would be at a loss if he wasn't so generous with his wisdom.

Vic Peters
profile image
The only time I have a problem with this is when he references the closed papers that I'm not able to see. It's a little disappointment every time I'm reminded that I can't read more.

Chris Clogg
profile image
Another epic article Ramin!

Stephen Chow
profile image

Stephen Chow
profile image
If one product successes not everything is great design. The lose battle reward unless retry is real hardcore. I wouldn't recommend it to western game. In some other reference, battle lose still give some reward but certain rare loot must require mission complete is better choice.

The success of PD in JP doesn't mean it works for western game. The game is super hardcore. It's hard to train western play different puzzle unlike bejewel, it's hard to let player understand how to level up, fuse, upgrade cards. Just check their grossing and ranking compare with other western game.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Stephen, you make excellent points. With any of the techniques explored here, just knowing how they work does not mean one knows how to deploy them successfully in a game. As Doug Creutz was explaining, he has played successfully for 3 months because he actually *studies* the game strategy on the internet. This is the kind of hardcore activity you used to only see with MMOs and AAA single player games. PaD is perhaps the first of what might be called "Big Mobile Games". You can't just slap a game like this together in 3 months like mobile game studios are used to doing now.

It will take Westerners time to adapt to games like this, but of course a better tutorial would make that easier for them also, along with in-app documentation.

Note also that while Western games of this type rely on Soft Boosts, Eastern games have been using Hard Boosts for some time. This allows the player to build equity in the game, which is a strong method of reducing churn.

Chris Clogg
profile image
"You can't just slap a game like this together in 3 months like mobile game studios are used to doing now."

I hope one day the app store will be rid of these lol. The question is will consumers ever figure out that they're playing business models, not games...

But an even bigger issue is app discoverability. Top charts just reinforce who is there (as evidenced by the Starcraft 2 custom map system). Got to have some more community driven systems.

Kartik Sanghavi
profile image
Great Article Ramin would love to read the other 44 papers you have published. can you please provide a link to them?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Clicking on my name anywhere here takes you to the appropriate links.

Jay Anne
profile image
Great article. I find it funny that people complain that most video games are made for young males. If some of the highest monetization comes from mixing competition and reward removal, then it makes sense that it will be young males who are most susceptible, and the market will change to exploit that. I wonder if there will be many more examples like CCS that successfully straddles audiences.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
These types of "which came first, the chick or the egg?" questions are difficult to answer. The advantage to consumers of F2P models is that the minimum price is zero. The disadvantage of these models to consumers is that the maximum price is infinity. The evil part of this is that a model with an infinite maximum price for services is going to be most effective against the least mature members of our society. Finding success in games, other industries are likely to find ways to adapt the same methods to their business, and if profit is the only consideration then young consumers are going to be targeted.

Randy Baker
profile image
I've admittedly enjoyed the legacy Candy Crush on King.com...or did until they began their monetization binge. Mind you I avoid the gambling matches where you play against 1-4 other players like the plague -- it's just bad business. It's still possible to play for free without "power-ups" but you're not competitive with most players if you do that. But winning isn't everything for some. They recently jacked the price of power-up to $.06USD from $.01USD. So it's $0.18 a game if you want the three power-ups. Which is compared to Candy Crush Saga more reasonable in the long haul. I should mention it's a well designed, immersive "skill-typ" game still on Kong.com because a good player can really tear it up. Any doubts just take a peek at YouTube. I've buried the lead and here it is. Candy Crush Saga like you suggest is a dastardly rip and I removed it from my IOS devices within 15 minutes of downloading these "FREE!!!" games.

And while I am on about King.com ... they had what I consider to be the most perfect game in the world with "WordLink". I got better and better at it for months and even years and got tot the point where I could run with the big dogs (crossword puzzle solving , Boggliscious, word savants from the UK! and US) and it was perfectly fun. Then they re-purposed it, added a monkey and monetization and the world lost a truly great way to keep your wetware firing on all 8 cylinders. I used to use the game to "warm up" before important calls and it never failed to make me sharp. Now --- pffft. It's a sham.

In fairness there are still a couple of cool games left on King.com where they haven't gotten greedy but I have to assume they too will jacked up by the analysts soon. And over the years I probably dumped $100 into King and sent a lot of folks there for the first time. No more.

I'm going to be sending links to this excellent article to all of my silly friends that are currently hooked on Candy Crush Saga. In the end, the best thing to do is vote with our feet. Life is too short and there are too many excellent alternatives to douchey games like CC Saga. People will figure it out soon enough and thanks to this article I believe you'll accelerate that process Ramin. Bravo.

Marc Schaerer
profile image
Very interesting article. I was aware of various of these aspects but others are that dark on their ethical background that I am unsure if I really want to remain being associated with this kind of people and business morals in the more distant future as the general public will not always look away, at which point the reputation of all devs could become a victim of this, not just zyngas and EAs reputation.

Game developers normally are smart people and smart people have to follow and comply to the technology ethics and general human ethics or they are no better than gun wielding drug dealers due to their willingness to kill existances for their own profit.


It is also somewhat worrysome to see how broken the US legal system is if CC providers are able and allowed to hunt for such targets even if it were passive. Developed countries are meant to have dept limitation laws in place to prevent the youth from destroying their existance before even turning 25 due to depts they will never again be able to pay back.
But this also explains why different of these mechanics don't work very well globally, especially in europe, as other countries have such protective laws in place, basically cutting those target individuals from credit cards altogether due to their combined dept level.
At that point they have to get physical itunes cards and alike, which make it obvious how much cash they spend as it requires a physical effort to get new cash to buy virtual cash to waste it on thin air.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
While possibly a bit off topic, I am sure I am not the only one that has become a bit alarmed at the amount of student loan debt that the next generation is piling up at a time when they are being told that this is the key to their future, but increasingly these debts are not being recovered by employment gains. The Millennials are really taking it on the chin from many directions from people with superior math skills. We run the risk of leaving them with so little that they cannot function competitively in our society or against others in the global market place.

In other words, the trend you are seeing in our industry is not isolated to our industry.

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
What happens when life expectancy increases dramatically? Way off topic. And equally scary.

Judith Haemmerle
profile image
Great article. It's possible to play Puzzles and Dragons without getting sucked into the pay model, though. There are three players in my family - the one who is spending money is ahead or us in rankings, but the two who are committed to playing without spending (mainly to see if it can be done) are making quite acceptable progress and having a lot of fun. It is a state of the art game in more than monetization.

Teut Weidemann
profile image
The problem of this article is that it mentions kids and monetization which will cause unnecessary discussions all over the place. Why doing so when you know that most of your payers are older than 30? Why cause the stir unless you want traffic?

You also mention that in 2009 everyone looked at you like being an alien when discussing this - just for reference it should be listed that f2p is over 10 years old in China and over 7 years old in Europe where we had those discussions already.


So this might be new to the US companies but it isn't for companies doing f2p since years.

However it explains it nicely and easy to understand. The problem we, as f2p designers have, is to demystify the methods to make money in games we give away for free.

Also notice that Dan Ariely uses his methods to explain classic retail sales which use those "methods" since they exist. Ask anyone studying retail, they know how this works.


Minor quirk: referencing own article as source for theories is kinda weak :) Also the original research doesn't mention kids, or did I miss something?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Teut, I do reference my previous papers since I am building a new science around commercial F2P dynamics, and my students and their professors tell me I am the best source for information in this new field. I do not have a PhD, I tried to convince various universities for 3 years to allow me to progress down that path before I decided it was not going to happen. I was told I was academically qualified but could not convince various universities at the time that this research was needed. Now obviously it is needed and people would be more comfortable with my work if I had a PhD. Please do not fault me, the system is not designed to encourage scientific innovation as much as it is iteration. I am doing the best I can to bring the community the information they need in a timely manner, not 5 years after you need it.

You may be interested to know that I was working with Nexon in 2001 when they started developing F2P. Nexon is an Eastern company, not a Western company. I started considering alternatives to Eastern style F2P back in 2001 but did not fully commit myself to doing so until 2005. 2009 marked the year when I had alternative F2P models ready to go, in writing, for industry. This was not because I am an out of touch Westerner that just woke up in 2009 and decided this would be a good idea. It took me 8 years of very intense work to get to where I was in 2009.

I realize this article is controversial. It is my opinion, based on my 14 years experience in the field. It is meant as a good place to start a discussion in the community, and if academia wants to weigh in I think that is needed. I think these issues are real enough that they need to be discussed and further investigated. Please don't take my work as "the truth", but merely a flashlight that can illuminate things that might otherwise be hidden (sometimes on purpose).

You will never convince me that discussing kids and monetization is an unnecessary discussion. While the PC space may be dominated by adults, the presence of a mobile device in the hands of almost every child in the West is rapidly changing the demographics of who is paying in the mobile space. We know children are charging against the credit cards of their "over 30" parents, but to suggest this is a "payer over 30" is deceptive.

Philip Minchin
profile image
My partner is a primary teacher and she plans to use this article as a major source for an ICT lesson with her students about precisely these tricks. She sees firsthand the significant real-world problems arising from children encountering these systems.

(And while it's great that 8-and-9-year-olds will be learning about cognitive bias, I think it's pretty shameful that they're having to do so as a precaution against manipulation by the games industry.)

Ramin, thank you for writing an excellent - and necessary - overview. That it can be used by a non-game-designer adult as the basis for a class with children, but was nonetheless well-written for this much-more-sophisticated readership, testifies to an outstanding ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and accessibly. Kudos.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Philip, thank you for all the compliments. I taught high school for a number of years and having been an interactive media journalist on and off since 2001, it is important for me to communicate in plain language that those in the industry can use immediately. It takes a lot of time to refine my words so that complex ideas come out in a way that makes sense intuitively. I think the profound reaction to this article is because I've finally expressed in one article what has been bothering many people, but it has been difficult to talk about because so many things are going on at once.

Rune Vendler
profile image
Ramin,

Regarding Candy Crush Saga, you write:

"Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills."

Do you mean that the game internally tags you as a spender and dynamically modifies its levels/difficulty/other factors as a result? If yes, can you provide a reference for this, please?

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
The game is very different on the other side of this gate. I emphasized in my article that this gate itself is a partition between the skill game and the money game. You are by definition a spender (or at least a "friend sacrificer") once you clear this gate. This removes the need for dynamic adjustments. This is what makes this technique so elegant.

Chayuth Pirotesak
profile image
Great article. Although I know and familiar of these methods for a long time (and sometimes implemented unconsciously) but I haven't seen one explain the mechanics in detail like this article.

These techniques, if used artfully, as you suggest, might be good, but using them too much can risk losing customers. The problem is: To what point should it be used? Speaking as a casual gamer, I gave up many games (such as Kabam's The Hobbit) at a point that I think I spent money too much regardless what reward I got or loss. My view is that you can have both skill game and money game at the same time and should not 'punish' players too much, actually allowing some players with really good skills be top-ranked. There exists some good players who do and will not spend one penny with their game at all but still important to the game environment. You cannot just force them to give up just because they don't pay.

Player who are not forced to pay might play the game longer and extend the life cycle of the game, and you will have more chances to implement soft coercive models along its life.

(I have no back-up research or reference but I observed pattern of many friends of mine over years when it come to payment for games.)

Teut Weidemann
profile image
Sorry, I didn't mean not having a Phd is a bad thing, nor do I and yes, thats a problem whenever you publish research. If you find the articles about my talk here on Gamasutra you'll see how controversial that was taken, although I just tried to simplify the approach to MTX for developers.

Re Kids I still disagree, and please note that I have 4 kids, all own iOS devices or computers, I can research them daily :) Note that outside the US Kids do not necessarily charge iOS IAP vs. their parents cards. Most of them use prepaid cards they buy with cash. The problem here is not IAP or MTX, its the absent control mechanisms of the kids devices for parents.

"Do you mean that the game internally tags you as a spender and dynamically modifies its levels/difficulty/other factors as a result? If yes, can you provide a reference for this, please?"

Zynga does this and proof can be found in their forums. they also give you less drops, less bonus offers etc when you already spend.

Jarrod Epps
profile image
Great post Ramin. I wondered if you had considered another model for f2p monetization - in game player to player wagering. We've found in our research that there's a great appetite among gamers to be able to up the stakes when playing against friends, and this method obviously lends itself to skill games. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Ara Shirinian
profile image
Ramin, I am curious if you have anything noteworthy to say about Real Racing 3 with regard to these tricks. Here I played the 'don't spend any real money game' for about 80 net hours until deciding I wasted too much of my life.

For me the game seemed to quite smoothly transition from skill game to ante game (and their ante game appears to be pretty insidious since you are always racing against other people's times). This transition was so gradual, it took me maybe 20 or more hours to realize where I was, in the ante game.

Before the ante game I was seduced into believing that I was in some magical space where skilled players could enjoy success at the skill game, with my real money expenses subsidized by the nonskilled who paid money to compete with us.

Incidentally, once I was deep in the ante game the experience became so unsatisfying, I had already amassed almost 2 million in in-game currency from wins, almost 800 of the premium currency, and was nearly to the point where I could afford the most expensive cars in the game before I uninstalled the entire thing. It became so unpleasant that I didn't care to even cash in to see the fruit of my labor.

In retrospect, discounting what I learned about how their systems work, I regret that I spent the amount of hours that I did on this, even not having paid for the experience.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Ara, I just bought my first iPad just over a month ago, at the request of a client. I am still in the process of translating my domain expertise from PC/social gaming to mobile gaming. This paper is my first on the mobile space. I'm sure I will have more to say as I evaluate more mobile products.

Kim Lund
profile image
Thanks Ramin,

Excellent article as always. One thing I, as someone trying to forge an attractive and fair free-to-win model for a skill game, think is important to add to the conversation is the attitude towards paying that these tricks create. Doug Creutz nails it in his comments above.

What happens when game designer retort to "tricks" like these is that the insightful player, like Doug, will ultimately create a meta game out of not paying. For a mass-market "softcore" game this Candy Crush, like you point out, may just be a nuisance that can be exploited by offering it as evidence that the game is still a skill game.
But for people like me (and you I would presume) who target core gamers that can be a huge issue. Those players, due to the lousy practices of others, tend to bring that meta game with them.

Not wanting to pay is a natural reaction one might argue, but I'll argue that that's not the usual reaction when looking at triple A across the counter games for example. Harcore gamers, in many cases, are proud to pay what they pay for their favorite franchise game.

To overcome this barrier and establish a new mental contract with players where they see the IAPs as natural and fair part of gameplay and NOT contributing as borderline cheating (if you dock enough game time of course) is a great challenge if "better" F2P monetization is to grab a bigger share of the market.

One my greatest concerns is that my model will ultimately not be able to be without exploitable weaknesses (in order to be properly free-to-win) and that exploiting that weakness will be see as fair game by the hardcore players that I am targeting who are very capable (and used to) exploiting such weaknesses.
As someone with ten years experience of the online poker industry I've seen the deterioration of players' morale and their disconnect from their own actions (and warped justification of them) in desperate pursuits to do ANYTHING to beat the game first hand.

I get the feeling, without knowing enough to really have an opinion, this is one of the reasons why CCP for example has had so much success with EVE online. They managed to overcome that hurdle. But maybe I'm just naive and/or lacking in knowledge about their particular model.

Either way a great summary of a very important topic.

Jean-Charles Frenette
profile image
Ramin, there's one thing I'd like to correct in your article concerning Puzzle and Dragons (I'm an incredibly avid player of that game, and in fact is the very first F2P game I actually am thoroughly enjoying).

You mention the fact that when completing a dungeon, you gain eggs and that you are forced to buy new inventory space or you lose them - this is actually false, as you do not lose them at all. What you are forced to do, however, is to clear your inventory until you are at a max capacity at a minimum before you can run dungeons again. You do not explicitly lose anything, you are just forced to manage your inventory.

This is actually a much better way of doing things than the possibility of losing them, because there's a clear choice for the player: do I increase my inventory capacity (because I feel like I need to) or do I sell/fuse certain monsters because I do not need them?

Puzzle and Dragons excels in this capacity in essentially all of it's monetization methods: every time a player monetizes, it's because he WANTS to, not because he is FORCED to. Players spend inordinate amounts of money into the rare egg machine because they want stronger, rare monsters, not because they need them to survive. When you play Candy Crush Saga, you effectively reach a point where you feel forced to buy powerups - in Puzzle and Dragons, you are never forced into doing that.

You want to have more inventory space because of the clear and tangible benefit it brings you (it makes farming for materials much more effective). You want more friends because a bigger amount and variety of friends makes different team makeups more possible (or you'll just get more of a specific monster you need as a friend). You want to replenish stamina because you want more of a time-specific dungeon. As you said, you want to continue when you lose because you don't want to lose what you gained so far in the dungeon.

This is what I find brings it more to the forefront, and is a big alternative and monetization model to the typical model found in games like Clash of Clans, where competition is a big monetization driver: what do you do when you have players who do not enjoy this type of competition? Mid-core and hard-core players who hate the "pay to win" mechanisms?

Curtiss Murphy
profile image
There are many challenges that small developers face. Here's my four biggest:

1) Build a quality product
2) Pick a catchy name that is searchable!
3) Have beautiful icons, screenshots, graphics, descriptions, ....
4) Design a compelling monetization strategy.

Even though I want to spend all my time on #1, I've learned that a product must also have catchy titles and sexy graphics before it can be considered high-quality. And recently, I've turned my attention squarely onto #4 - monetization. I've tried a number of strategies, and I've read many of your papers. I think things are beginning to make sense.

And yet, this article made me unsettled. I feel as if I've been given a chocolate bar, wrapped in golden foil. Only, when I peel back the golden-foil, I uncovered a rotting darkness instead of sweet chocolate. It's the ugliest parts of humanity opened up to be studied, dissected, exposed. It leaves an ashy smear on my fingers, and yet, I know I need to unwrap the rest of the foil so I can truly study it. I wonder if I'll need to take a tiny bite, off the corner, to truly appreciate the flavor. I'm unsettled and I need to go wash my hands.

(Thank you for sharing these well thought out and superbly written articles.)

Steven Reinhart
profile image
Great article, Ramin.

As much as I agree with your assessment on most fronts, I feel that there may be even more credit due King in the design of Candy Crush. That is, the game is built in such a way that it may forever remain a skill game without making the shift to a money game. Myself and several friends are well into the game (beyond level 100) and have never made a single purchase. The difficulty undoubtedly increases (I have spent several days stuck on single levels), but for a player who has resolved not to spend money, the game remains a skill game, and the act of progressing through the game without using any money arguably becomes the "true" game.

The fact that Candy Crush can appeal so thoroughly to both spending and non-spending players is a further testament to its design. Non-spending players make an undeniable, and also unquantifiable, contribution to the game in terms of player community, word-of-mouth, Facebook spam, organic downloads, etc. which in turn contributes significantly to the popularity, valuation, and ultimately sales of the game.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Steven, any money game can be played as a skill game by a player determined to do so. That is why I was very careful to define skill and money games the way I do. Candy Crush Saga is a money game the way I define it, and many players take it as a personal challenge to see how far they can go purely on skill, even though they know they are at a substantial disadvantage to their paying peers.

Grétar Hannesson
profile image
"Just to be safe, PaD uses the same technique at the end of each dungeon again in the form of an inventory cap. The player is given a number of “eggs” as rewards, the contents of which have to be held in inventory. If your small inventory space is exceeded, again those eggs are taken from you unless you spend to increase your inventory space. Brilliant!"

I'd like to correct this. If you exceed your inventory space you are given a chance to fuse those monsters right away at no penalty at all. This consumes the monsters in return for making other monsters stronger. For the average monster in the game this is the point of it's existence anyway, so nothing is lost.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
This is true, but still the opportunity to spend is there,and there is strong incentive to do so, at least a few times. No F2P monetization technique can force a player to spend, it can just make it very convenient for them to do so. You are correct though in pointing out that there are non-pay options other than losing the reward when it comes to inventory.

Ruben Gerlach
profile image
So basically you explain in detail how to rip off people and everyone gives applause. Impressive.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Ruben, realize I am opposed to all of these methods, though I use layering myself. My question to you, and the community, is this: Armed with this knowledge what will you do? Will you use this information to rip off people, or will you resist this pervasive trend and go a different way? You can't fight what you don't understand.

Ruben Gerlach
profile image
Judging on the comments, it does not seem that your audience is too skeptical.

Lucifer Morningstar
profile image
Wow. This. Is. Evil. 
Pure.
Would You Consider Working Directly For Me?

John Byrd
profile image
This article reminds me a bit of this New York Times article on Vinny Bruzzese:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/business/media/solving-equation
-of-a-hit-film-script-with-data.html?hp&_r=1&

Bruzzese has developed an analytical model for determining the bankability of screenplays, down to the level of telling us not to include a bowling scene in your movie, because movies with bowling scenes do poorly at the box office.

Like Shokrizade, Bruzzese is in the business of selling doctoring services for your media project. And as with Bruzzese, I wonder why, if Shokrizade has successfully mapped out the formula for making money off F2P, why isn't he just making hugely profitable games himself and retiring in a few years, instead of repeatedly pitching his papers on Gamasutra.

Now this is not to say that the dude isn't right in his analyses. For what it's worth I think he probably is. But I do think a word of caution is in order for anyone who sees game design exclusively through a F2P/monetization/spreadsheet lens. The extremely inconvenient truth is that ALL games (especially the AAA franchises) are art, and can succeed or fail financially for a plethora of reasons not yet fully documented by anyone. Advertising? Art/sound quality? Infrastructure? Subject matter? "Fun"?

It is fantastically difficult to create merely a good game, let alone one that makes money via F2P.

William Goldman, in Adventures of the Screen Trade, wrote that "Nobody knows anything," in reference to knowing what kind of screenplay or movie would make a hit. Don't underestimate the intelligence of gamers, including their ability to respond intelligently to a novel F2P conversion scheme.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
John, I don't use spreadsheets. Gameloft tested me a couple years ago and told me "your Excel skills are lacking"! I do have an equation with a lot of variables that I call "the Engagement Equation". I'm considering publishing it inside a book. As far as what I am going to do with this stuff... I'm looking for a good home with a company that has a common philosophy. I think I have found that so fairly soon I may no longer be "independent". I may also write less after that, so I'm trying to get out the things I do want in the public space now.

Josh Heard
profile image
I made an account just to make this one comment.

Thank you so much for this post, i used to frequent these f2p games, until i realized what they were doing.

Now i go though looking for the games that are truly free to play instead of trying to revolve the game around micro transactions. I even started an argument in one of these such games trying to coerce the players into not playing the game, but i received so much negative feedback from the games community i eventually deleted the post.

The typical responses i received were along the lines of "Paying for convenience" or "Supporting the servers" Supporting the servers is typically understandable when a game is not backed by a multi million dollar company like SONY.
The paying for convenience i tried to argue that the game is built around micro transactions, that you hit "walls" in the game that prevent you from moving forward unless you spend "x" amount of money on the games cash shop items.
If you would like to judge for yourself on whether this game has a P2W monetization the game is called Wizardry Online.

Game developers are moving away from the "Pay for Power" market and now seem to be getting alot more clever in their strategies of raping your wallet.
So now in future arguments i will source this post as a better explanation than i can make on what companies do to get players money.

Thanks again - Josh

mike amerson
profile image
A fantastic breakdown of F2P monetization strategies. I suppose it's all a question of ethics in the end. What we personally believe is acceptable and fair. I employ some of these strategies in my games, but its always a balancing act between maximizing their efficiency for drawing revenue, and offering good value for the player.

Leonid Knyshov
profile image
There is also the social pressure aspect in instance dungeons when you are playing as a team.

I am enjoying playing games as a skill player in a money game that is heavily PvP. You can participate in the PvE portion of the game without upgraded equipment. That keeps the illusion that the game is a skill game going. As soon as you enter the PvP arena, you realize you are hopelessly outclassed unless you find other ways to defeat the ante players.

The game is usually vague in explaining what various equipment stats mean. Players naively think it's a translation problem, but it's not. That results in a skewed perception of value. For example: a +110 basic ring is 50, but a +120 special ring is 2700. I am not making up these numbers. The difference is staggering. I get messages all the time asking why my items are still basic even though I am at the maximum level. I've also sold many of my special items at abnormally high prices because I like to play markets.

There is real satisfaction in beating players who spend money. I just thank them for letting me play without any resentment that they choose to spend money. Others, however, realize they are up against ante players and feel cheated and yet continue playing anyway. They feel disadvantaged, but the game is sufficiently well-made that they still continue to play.

Anyway...

I play as healer class.

If I die at the end of a dungeon, not just my progress is lost but so is the entire team's. This can easily represent 1 hour or more of play time. The elite loot is, of course, only given by the final boss and only very rarely. You keep the stuff from the 3 sub-bosses, but you don't get the chance at the jackpot. You can endlessly retry for free to defeat the boss, but the team's patience will eventually wear thin.

This may result in the player no longer being invited to participate in team battles and not being able to join a top guild or clan. This, of course, increases the pressure to upgrade equipment and can introduce the player to the ante game.

This gets even more competitive when the boss is in a world PvP arena and the opposing race can interfere with your race. Now the boss battle can easily last over 2 hours and it's mostly ante players vs. ante players with the rest of us sidelined. You are not just keeping 5 people alive but also a part of a 30+ people attack.

Why are we sidelined? The boss loot goes to the team with highest damage. How do you increase your damage? ;)

As a healer:
I can revive my team members when they die with no consequences to them.
If I die at the final boss with 5% of HP left, it is very likely that everyone else will die within a few seconds. If I return before everyone dies, we will defeat it. If I fail to return fast enough, everyone dies and the boss's damage goes to zero.

Now, I get 3 "instant revive" pills as a bonus every 5 levels. If I take that pill, I can continue as if nothing happened. If I happen to get addicted to that drug, they are available for purchase for premium currency.

There are other drugs available, like +10% HP that lasts an hour. You can buy them with in-game non-premium currency but eventually you will need more in-game non-premium currency. Purchasing items with premium currency and selling them for in-game currency is more convenient than farming in-game currency.

I also have a free mount. The only drawback to that free mount is that it's slower and has a 2-second delay between mounting and riding. There conveniently happens to be a premium mount that has no delay between mounting and riding.

To continue the illusion that it's a F2P game and not a money game, there is a small chance that this premium bike drops as loot.

My options at this point thus become:
1. Be a skilled healer and keep people from dying, but there are limits to what I can do if everyone's equipment is not upgraded beyond a minimum level of survival
2. Have a faster mount and increase its speed to get back before everyone dies
3. Purchase more of the drugs
4. Have team members who are absurdly powerful (ante players)

1. While there is quite a bit of skill involved in keeping 5 people alive, this becomes easier if they have upgraded equipment or invested skill points into innate defense attributes.
2. The free mount can be upgraded to fast speeds, but a +10 mount will only be as quick as a +7 premium mount. As the levels rise, the chance of successful upgrades drops unless you happen to use insurance items and luck boosting items, which as you might expect, only exist as premium items with a minuscule chance of being acquired through loot. Getting to +6 is easy. Getting to +10 is mostly for ante players or those with a lot of tolerance for pain. You can also purchase these items through in-game currency at an auction market from other players, which is how ante players convert premium currency into in-game currency.
3. The instant revive pills are sometimes also consolation prizes for purchasing a chance item that has a chance to either give you a high value item or one of several consolation prizes. "Well, at least I got instant revive drugs" runs through the mind of an ante player.
4. Ante players are perceived as more powerful and skilled and get invited into team raids more often. They also form top-ranked guilds.

As a healer, the perception of my performance in the eyes of my peers would go up if I had a +10 mount and I used the instant revival drugs more often. The +10 does not matter as much as the instant action does. And while they see it as a +10 mount, that is only a +7 on a premium mount, which is very easy to achieve. Those 2 seconds of riding delay are brutal on the team.

As a damage dealer, if I had higher level armor, I could afford to not allocate my skill points to my core defense attributes and instead invest more into my attacks. That would increase the perception of my performance.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Asia has been iterating these models since 2001. What you are experiencing is a very sophisticated late generation version. As an analogy, internal combustion engines are extremely advanced these days, thanks to over 100 years of iteration. But, they are killing us. Electric cars, while having been around at least as long, were not iterated nearly as much and are still primitive. We know we should be using electric, but dang ICEs are just so much more reliable right now.

The gaming industry is in the same situation. They know customers want skill games, but the technology to deploy skill based F2P is in its infancy. Money based F2P is just so much sexier right now, at least until skilled F2P catches up. This is from the developer perspective of course.

Vijay Varadan
profile image
Dan's opinion piece on coercive monetization: https://plus.google.com/u/0/105363132599081141035/posts/Cyi2Am8gqGq

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Vijay, realize I am pro-F2P, and not enthusiastic about retail business models for games. In the retail model the only thing that matters is a "Time = 0" sale. You don't care what the consumer experience is after time=0 because you already have their money. So while I understand Dan is being satirical, I actually am in agreement with his assertions. But I'm most interested in games that generate revenue at T > 1 Year. In fact, I think it is time that we start thinking about making games that *increase* their revenues over time, not drop off after a quick revenue extraction. EVE Online's ability to maintain a fairly flat revenue curve shows just how powerful even that half step is.

Katsu Yamazaki
profile image
I am an individual investor, not a gamer at all. I came across this article by chance while researching on some companies.

First question that occurred to me while reading this article: Are some hit games really made having these difficult concepts in mind ?

When I read the opinions of management and creators of such games as CCS and Puzzle and Dragons, the utmost importance is placed on making a fun game, not money. So I get a very odd feeling reading this article.

The writer of this article will best find a good job with Zynga, which is managed by money maker and not fun creator.

In mid-April it was announced that Puzzle and Dragons will be released for Nintendo'd DS this winter. So
'coersive' theory will lose its persuasiveness.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
I do not make money games, and for years I have declined all work offers to make "Zynga-like" monetization models. If you are attempting to convince me that Puzzles and Dragons is not intended to exploit children by telling me it is being ported to the Nintentdo DS, this strikes me as odd. If the game adopts a fixed price, with no in app purchases for children, that would be a very positive move. The game is, however, designed from the ground up to generate money via these in app purchases.

Christian Nutt
profile image
I believe the point he's making is that, yes, the 3DS version will not have in-app monetization and be fixed-price.

3DS does support DLC but I do not believe it has (thus far) had seamless IAP of this nature. But I also doubt that this is impossible...

I also think it's a different game, though I'm hardly an expert. Judge for yourself from these movies posted by GungHo:
http://pad-3ds.gungho.jp/movie.html

Seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison, and if Yamazaki is trying to imply that PAD's developers are not this analytical about the game's audience and monetization, but instead focused on fun because a non-IAP version of the game could be produced, well... that seems a bit naive to me.

Personally, though, I don't have an opinion on smartphone PAD's monetization model. I haven't played it yet.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Janet Thaeler sent me this link to an infographic on Puzzles and Dragons, that has some very interesting information. 10% of Japan's population play this game and it pulls in over $50M a month!
http://www.download-free-games.com/infographics/how-puzzle-dragon
s-makes-millions-everyday

Cassidy Fink
profile image
Ramin, thank you for writing such an outstanding article. It was so well written that I plan on reading the majority of your others now as well =p

Like most others, I also prefer skill games to money games, both as a gamer and as an ethical person. I've been playing money games for about a decade now, and am extremely familiar with them and how they work, so it would be relatively easy to create one myself. The thing is, I don't want to. I'd much prefer to make an actual f2p game, where you can buy customization options and other things that don't actually affect gameplay or give you an edge over other players, but I'm not sure how to make that type of model generate the same level of income as a money game. Could you point me in the right direction of some good articles that might lend me some insight into this, or perhaps respond with some of your own ideas?

Becky Lo
profile image
Ramin,

I'm an avid (if not rabid) follower of your 'published' papers (on Gamasutra) as well as your numerous, lengthily worded comments on other 'published' papers (on Gamasutra).

Would you mind just revealing who you work for? I'm sure NDA's and employment contracts rarely, if ever, prohibit one from saying, "I'm a working for ". If anything, your position and current employment would only add more credibility to your existing reputation.

I believe secrecy is usually reserved for spy agencies, and even then, if you work for the FBI or CIA, they'd generally say, "I work for the FBI or CIA"...although, there may be another reason why there's secrecy, but I highly doubt it would be that in your case, considering your knowledgeable posts (papers).

I've tried to look up your employment history on LinkedIn, but have only found your past employment at game studios never lasted more than 4 months, while your current listed employer seems to be a "A Big Game Developer" as well as "Another Major Developer".

I would love to know that your past and current experience can add more credence to your papers, as would most of the other Gamasutra readers that follow your articles.

Ramin Shokrizade
profile image
Becky I am embedded into a large 1st party studio where I am deploying my technologies to a major company. Because I am synonymous with advanced F2P models, this would signal a strategic shift in business strategy on the part of this company. For this reason I am the only member of that team who's identity is covered still by the NDA even though the project has been announced.

I have been in interviews with another major company, and it took about a month just to get permission for a reference to that second company due to the secrecy of my work. I suspect I will be able to tell you (and the many others that are curious) much more by September. Trust me, I would love to disclose my work but my reputation is very important to me, and I do not betray the trust given me. I want more than anything to put my models into the public space so that the community can begin debating (and copying) them. At the same time, there must be a grace period to commercially reward the early adopters, who are taking the big risks.

Troy Lonergan
profile image
"Note that the difficulty ramps up automatically for all players in CCS when they pass the gates I discuss later in this paper, the game is not designed to dynamically adjust to payers."

I recall reading the original article and being absolutely astounded that, in the previous text, it was being touted that King would dynamically change the game according to player spend.
I'm glad this has now been clarified, apparently by King, as firstly I would pour huge doubt on any claims that any responsible company would do this.
Secondly the previous statement was absolute speculation, there was not any way that could have been proven.

It was flying pretty close to the wind, and the retraction certainly helps the piece.

Dantron Lesotho
profile image
Ramin, excellent article, as always. One thing I found missing though is how there is further abstraction with mobile games in terms of their purchasing models, because a purchase gets added to your phone bill rather than having to make an at-the-moment purchase with a credit card number. The convenience of these "pay-later" models in my opinion adds to the potential success of mobile F2P's over others like on PC. I would have also mentioned the timewall in CCS where you have to pay to get the extra lives or just wait a period of time to play again. This is the first game I've run into with this model implemented and it struck me as very, uh, hostage-taking? The flip side of this is that it forces me to stop playing so I can't binge (good for me) but I wonder if it then lengthens the profit tail for most players (good for the developer) since it artificially lengthens the game time. I would love to see the statistical data behind CCS.

Another thing I noticed while playing CCS is just how many times I come eerily close to beating a level where it would take just one more move to get it done. While that wouldn't necessarily fall into a F2P discussion, I find that it provides a powerful motivator to spend money on an item to continue just slightly more. Everyone knows the feeling of JUST BARELY making it to the end and wishing you had something to help out a bit more. I suspect that the developers had tons of automated or people-powered focus testing to find out how many moves it takes to beat a stage and set the bar just under that on some(most) levels. Also, there is another powerful motivator in that the stages come in groups where some are easy to beat (get a high score in an amount of time) and some are infuriating (clear the jelly) providing a superb positive/negative reinforcement cycle that only enhances the already aggressive pay scheme.

Darius Xym
profile image
I'm playing CCS right now and in response to some comments that wonder about the hardness of levels etc., I think it just boils down to statistics. Level difficulty can be tuned during design / testing via simulation and live testing to ensure that it would take the average player X number of goes to complete it. Where X is determined by the amount of pressure they want to put on the player to buy boosters. So they can adjust the frustration as the game progresses.

As it's relatively playable even without paying I give them something of pass.

I'm far less forgiving of time management games which are such a wretched genre that they should be wiped off the face of the earth. They could be skinned as The Hobbit or The Simpsons or anything else and fundamentally they're just the same awful mechanics. I had to laugh when I tried out The Hobbit and Thorin and the rest of the characters spend most of their time building houses and farming.

Most offensive to me at the moment is Minion Rush where some costumes (costumes!) cost 7000 tokens which in real money amounts to about $50. A costume in a mobile phone game that costs as much as a full retail game. Now that's sick.

Michael Vandendriessche
profile image
I believe all f2p models should find ways to monetize non-paying users.
Ultimately to the point where the game is sustainable on non-paying users only. Paying users would be considered extra income. (That would be best case scenario, kind of utopian right now I think)
I'm surprised I don't see more product placement in f2p games.
Ofcourse some games are more suited for it than others.
I wouldn't mind seeing Mcdonalds and Pizza Hut's in GTA or Need for Speed. (I am not sure if they have done something like that in the f2p Need for Speed: World; they did: http://nfsworld.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_Product_Placement%27s_in_N
eed_for_Speed:_World)
Ofcourse having flashy billboards in the middle of grassy plains reminding you to buy the newest smartphone in a medieval setting fantasy-game is a no-go.

I think the inclusion of Pizza Hut in the anime Code Geass was really succesful, as a consumer.

I have played Candy Crush Saga and have also noticed the jump in difficulty after the first game.
Skill does help but the game is now more dependant on luck than on skill. I have made masterfully crafted combos to then fail the level because I had only 1 or 2 useless movement options for several turns. And I have randomly clicked the playing field to see everything chain together and destroy almost the whole playing field. leaving me with a grin afterwards but the thought that I can just as well randomly click instead of spending time thinking about the best strategy.
The game is mostly luck based but skill definitely reduces the amount of luck needed to succeed.
Being in level 30-something now, the game is over it's peak for me. I enjoyed the beginning of the game (which was too easy for what I was looking for but serves a good introduction) and now it is too hard /too luck based for me.

I am the type of player who never spends a cent(without counting rare exceptions) in f2p games (Which is why I think they should monetize non paying players somehow) and makes it a sport to beat buffed up players while clearly at a disadvantage. Which does not often succeed, but is very rewarding when it does :)
Mostly I play €60 singleplayer games though. Or cheaper for older games.
I find it fascinating that I would gladly spent €60 on a 10-hour singleplayer game and at the same time am disgusted by the thought of paying a single € for a free game.

Just the fact that it is called "free" makes me not pay for it.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Carter Carter
profile image
Really great article. Thank you for so skillfully breaking down these complex techniques.

Here's what I wonder... At what point are companies who use these techniques engaging in fraud? There has always been a thin line between acceptable marketing practices and consumer fraud, but I feel like we currently have the perfect storm in the gaming industry. I've seen customers spend money on premium items, earn premium rewards, and then not receive those rewards - the company doesn't even respond to the customer's request for help. I've also seen companies employ bait-and-switch techniques with premium items. And low-odd lottery premiums (odds are never listed) are rampant.

How long before companies are sued left and right because consumers feel tricked? And how long before consumers win those lawsuits? The same developers who struggled to earn fair wage may actually end up worse off than before if/when consumers begin fighting back. As a creative professional, I'm intimately aware of the weight of consumer perception and how it can make life wonderful or seriously difficult. I'm also aware of the many gray areas involved in art as well as in marketing.

What type of consumer protection, if any, should be in place to keep 'money games' from becoming 'fraud games'? Where is the line?

Heather Stark
profile image
I like your analyses and find them thought provoking. But I have to disagree with your assertion that Candy Crush Saga suddenly becomes a money game as opposed to a skill game. It does require luck as well as skill. Neither mere luck nor mere skill will get you through. But it doesn't require money. One key ingredient of their secret sauce, according to my own deconstruction of it, is in way their design blends and *changes* the mix of skill and luck required, throughout the game. And not monotonically, either. It's more interesting than that. I like their experience engineering and I actually find some of it laugh out loud funny. And I think it's very endearingly scando that you can buy unhappiness more easily than happiness. If you're curious I've got more detail in my blog post - http://insightanalysis.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/the-recipe-for-ca
ndy-crush-sagas-success-luck-skill-and-puzzles/

Smin Rana
profile image
Great article!


none
 
Comment: