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Game Economy Balancing - 3 Ways to Prevent "Pay to Win"
by Yaniv Nizan on 06/24/13 09:12:00 am   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.


One of the paradoxes of free to play games is that users want to buy their way out of a challenge but also like to keep the game challenging. That's like eating the cake and having it too. Let's take a look into this problem which is also known as "Pay to Win" and solve it.

If you are anything like me, you want to hug the users who make an in-app purchase and give them the world. Well, given that you are only going to get money out of 1%-2% of your users, you wouldn't get very far by doing that. However, this is not the main problem with this approach. The problem is that once you give the user all the keys the game stops being challenging and the user loses interest. It’s critical to understand that any solution to this paradox requires selling the products that have an immediate reward in the short term but actually make it harder in the long term. This is a result of the user thinking in two hats at the same time. While in character, the user just wants to solve the challenge, but once he is out of character, he actually wants to keep the challenge.

Here are a few ways how to get around this:

The Razor and Razor Blade Approach

The idea here is to sell a great Powerup for cash or premium game currency but actually requiring this virtual good to consume a resource - something that the player has some but limited access to. Ok, this was a bit vague so here are a few examples. You can sell a car, but make sure the player needs to also get fuel, laser weapon consumes energy, Barracks level 5 can train super troops but requires a lot of gold to do that. It's usually not very hard to build a narrative around it and if you followed advice I gave in other posts, you already have consumable resources that makes sense in the world you built so I would recommend to use it as the resource for your killer virtual good. This creates a situation where the after buying the virtual good the user needs to make tough decisions about how to use it. We have not only made the game as challenging but also more complex and interesting.

The Next Level Difficulty is Always +n Rather than +1

For the math geeks this will translate into an O(n^2) vs. O(n) difficulty curve. For you humans - it just means that the next levels are becoming more difficult in comparison to the last levels. There could still be easy levels and harder ones but the hard levels should get increasingly harder. In clash of clans for example, building a City hall Level 5 will cost twice as much as Level 4 and not 1,000 gold coins more. This creates a situation where a paying user skips a few levels but the game is quickly catching up with him.

Randomize .... Everything

This is a good general advice. Games with a luck component engage users longer compared to games with determined result. Any team sports would have been boring as hell if the superior team always won. Why bother showing up? It works so much better when you feel both teams can win. That's what a luck component gives your game. This is especially true when it comes to keeping the challenge for paying users. "You can buy better odds buy you can't buy victory" simulates real life and is also a sure way to keep the challenge. If it takes five shots to blow up a Tank. You can sell a weapon, which blows up a Tank in one shot or you can sell a weapon that has a 20% of making a critical hit and blowing up a Tank in one shot and will otherwise still blow it up in 5 shots.

These are not necessarily distinct approaches and most successful games actually combine a few of these.  The important thing to remember is that while all three approaches give the character less value for they give the user more value.

Will be happy to discuss more about this or any other game economy design topic. You can find me at Google Plus , the SOOMLA blog or on Twitter. 

This article was originally posted on the Soomla Blog - Game Economy Balancing - 3 Ways to Prevent Pay to Win

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Ramin Shokrizade
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Your Razor and Razor blade approach sounds like you are suggesting marrying your monetization model to a virtual economy. Sounds like a great idea :)

Your second approach works as long as you don't let user productivity go up geometrically at the same time, otherwise new players will have no way of competing and your game will be dominated by vets. If you don't allow competition then that is fine, but then you don't really have an economy, just some economic elements.

I agree with the third part, but again you have to make sure that that non-assured win also applies when new players face off against veteran players. You need to add a mechanism to make that possible and feel "fair" or your player base will not expand well.

Yaniv Nizan
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@Ramin - I agree with your second point. This article is more focused on the mobile/tablet space. Currently the game economies there are not fully developed as in MMOs so competition is limited.

Dylan Jones
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Although "Everything" is a rather bold claim, I agree that chance can be an overlooked (yet key) aspect in f2P.

John Trauger
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Randomize everything... but throw the player a bone sometimes too.

Nobody loves an endless grind for that one piece of armor they can't get any other way than beating that one critter again and again until they get lucky.

Yaniv Nizan
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@John - Completely agree. It's a balance between skill and luck. I would say about 80% skill and 20% luck. That gives enough chance for the new players and non payers but still give a sense of value to the ones who worked hard for it.

Gur Dotan
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Randomizing everything can also have an increasing random co-efficient, so you can "throw the player a bone" the first few times. This promises the user will be instantly gratified, but as the game progresses, the randomness of the such an event should grow as a function of level progression, game session elapsed time, player achievements etc.

Cristofer Wolz-Romberger
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My experience (limited, granted) is that the O(N^2) time (or O(2^N)) for O(N) power is a good idea anyway; and also stops another problematic thing in many MMOs, which is that people who spend the most time on the game tend to do disproportionally well.

And regarding the "Throw the player a bone"; if you look back through the archives (I think it was a month or so ago), there was an article on randomness, which basically concluded that the best way to do randomness was to curve distribution rates: lower than the goal the first time you try, but increasing over time. For example, if you want an average of a 10% drop rate, start the drop rate at 1%, and have it climb so that the average person gets it in 10 tries, but everyone gets it by their 40th try (made up numbers there).

Daniel Backteman
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This sounds like the pseudorandom number generator-approach that I've seen used in DotA for example. It is quite rewarding and feels much better.

It also stops players for experiencing The Gambler's Fallacy, which, when it happens, is very upsetting.

Yaniv Nizan
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Moving the reply from the main thread to the comment:

@cristofer - Can you find the link for us? It sounds like a very interesting article. Specifically the advice you quoted is pure gold.

Yaniv Nizan
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@Gur - You can do that but you need to build a narrative around it. Why are the odds decreasing? Is it because the target is further away and harder to hit? Is it because the oponnents learn your moves? If you can do that, the co-efficient can be a useful tool to fine-tune the difficulty curve to make sure the game is challenging but not frustrating.