Paying to win
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I was 9 hours into playing a mobile, free-to-play, build and battle game when I made the decision. I was going to pay to win. Not necessarily because I was loving the game so much as I thought it would be interesting to document. If I spent $100 on in-game currency, how far would my money go? Was it enough to ascend to the highest levels of that weekâ€™s PvP tournament leaderboard?
The tournament was only a few hours old. Having spent about 7 minutes fighting PvP battles, I was currently ranked #13,909 on the leaderboard. 7 days later, I will have spent over 6 hours and $60 in energy costs to finish in 15th place.
As a monetization design consultant, I have learned many lessons from games in the build and battle genre whose top contenders are permanent fixtures of app store highest grossing charts. I explain the importance of having a social elder gamer such as the PvP tournament I participated in for those games where it is appropriate. The game I played in this instance is not especially important. There was a city that served as an appointment center. There was a single player, PvE campaign, and what I will call pay-for-participation events including the PvP tournament, a form of guild warfare and a PvE boss battle system. There was energy gating. There was gear fusion. There were prize chests. It could have been one of any number of games, but I will say it is not currently on the top 150 grossing chart in iOS/US.
As an organic player, I am not a heavy spender in free-to-play mobile games. Spending $100 on in-game currency with the specific purpose of topping an event leaderboard was an eye opening experience. It taught me just what it feels like to be the sort of high value player that drives the app store economy.
The game in question uses a primarily stat based combat system. Forces take turns auto-attacking each other. The player has some agency in the form of a power attack he can trigger during combat. But the outcome is largely a product of stats of the gear equipped by each playerâ€™s forces and how it has been leveled up through a gear fusion system. An individual PvP combat instance is asynchronous â€“ AI controls the opposing playerâ€™s forces and there are no modifications to standard battle rules.
The event I participated in is what I call a pay-for-participation tournament. Initiating a battle costs PvP energy from a meter that takes 2 hours to fully recharge. The player is heavily incentivized by win streak rewards to spend premium currency on PvP battles. For every battle they win, the player accrues points which add to their total. Leaderboard ranking is determined by these victory points, and at certain victory point milestones the player is rewarded with virtual goods. At the end of the tournament period, the player is rewarded based on their band on the leaderboard.
Although a free player can initiate plenty of PvP battles during the tournament period without opening their wallet, placing in the top reward bands for a tournament requires spending premium currency on energy. As victory point totals are additive, the more a player is willing to spend on energy the higher they will be able to place in the tournament with suitably powerful forces. Hence, this is a pay-for-participation system.
I had been playing this game for 9 hours at the time I chose to start spending money on premium currency. I did not choose the most efficient $100 package, instead opting for two $50 purchases during the next 10 hours of play. At the outset I spent $40 worth of premium currency to open a number of prize chests, granting me some rare and powerful gear. I spent $62.40 worth of currency on PvP energy, and a small amount of premium currency on upgrades, appointment completion and participation in a guild vs guild tournament. In total, I spent slightly more than $100 worth of premium currency as I was awarded currency at various points during my 19 total hours of play.
During my time as a high value player I won 750 of my 752 PvP battles, as compared to winning 162 of the 178 PvP battles as a free player, and generally chose stronger opponents when possible. I used premium currency to purchase PvP energy 20 times and spent just over 6 hours in PvP battles. The other 4 hours of play were split between city management, gear fusion, PvE battles and participation in a guild vs guild event.
The 6 hour figure surprised me. It was not as though I plunked down my money and hit the big, red Win button. Once I had all that premium currency, it took dedication to empty my account on PvP battles. I didnâ€™t have to hit the Win button once, but over and over and over again.
At my highest I ranked #4 on the PvP leaderboard. But once I ran out of premium currency, I stopped engaging in PvP battles. In the final 3.5 days of the tournament after I ran out of currency, I fell to #15. I finished in the 3rd reward band for this event.
Paying to win
How much money would it have taken to top the PvP leaderboard? This was the biggest question I had going into the investigation. The #2 player in the tournament accrued 180,000 more victory points than me. Based on my records, I would have needed to win 1,137 more PvP battles to top this score. Doing so would have cost me an additional $103 and 9 hours 15 minutes of dedicated PvP play time to accomplish.
And the #1 player? The one to win momentary notoriety and the exclusive top reward band? This player accrued 230,000 more victory points than I did. I would have needed to win 1,453 more PvP battles to top this player, at a cost of $131 and 12 additional hours of play time. And no doubt, if the #1 player wanted to win this bad, a challenger would have provoked a spending race that would have pushed the two of us to spend even more money.
Based on my performance, the top PvP player spent nearly $200 on battling other players for 18 hours over the course of the 7 day event. This is an incredible investment of time and money in the name of bragging rights and virtual rewards.
Was it fun?
I began my time as a monetization design consultant with a series of lectures explaining my theory that all in-game monetization is emotional in nature. If a free game convinces a player to open their wallet, it is because engaging with the game is emotionally rewarding. This emotion may or may not be the same brand of fun a hardcore gamer experiences as they boot up a high powered computer for their 200th hour of Skyrim, but that does not mean the paying playerâ€™s emotional experience is to be dismissed. In fact, acknowledging and embracing these emotional needs will help a game team design better free-to-play games for their audience.
Playing this game was not necessarily an efficient way to have fun. I spent $10.20 per hour of PvP battles chasing a leaderboard position. Compared with the 26 hours I recently spent playing Rogue Legacy on the Vita â€“ at a cost of $0.65 per hour of play â€“ it is not a terribly cost effective method of having fun compared to my true hobby of core gaming. But as a player, no one was forcing me or the other top 25 players on the leaderboard to spend money inside of the game. We each could have continued enjoying this particular game free forever if we had no internal drive to top the leaderboard.
I would not say I was having the same brand of fun as I have when playing Rogue Legacy. But I did enjoy my time playing this game, in a fashion. It was a mindless, second screen diversion as I caught up on a backlog of podcasts and TV. As time was running out on the tournament, the game started a flash 30% off sale on premium currency. Having invested so many hours that week in climbing the PvP leaderboard, I had to stop myself from typing in my iTunes password, buying more currency and making a run for #1.