Friday, September 8, 2017

Thoughts on Some Types of Monetization

Update: As of September 16th, 2017, I've revised the article a couple times to convey my points better.

Monetization in games is a topic I touch upon occasionally. Sometimes it involves a highly critical article on the practices of a company I like and want to see improve. Other times it's in defense of some practice that others criticize. Very often it's because in my many articles that involve discussing gameplay and player retention, monetization happens to get involved. Despite all this I could stand to make my views on some forms of monetization clearer. In this article, I plan to do exactly that by reviewing some types of monetization I've observed in its digital form, specifically describing in what context I consider such monetization acceptable or unacceptable.

A Gamer's Safety Net: Stamina, Lives, and Continues

When a player reaches a failure state they may be met with an option to continue playing the game. Alternatively, play resumed despite the failure, though often with some penalty involved. Many games have such a feature in some form and while they vary greatly, they are a safety net that seems largely taken for granted.

A Problematic Stamina/Lives System

However, in the mobile gaming space especially, parts of this safety net system have been perverted into what I consider a money making machine of questionable effectiveness. While the name of such systems usually takes the form of Stamina or Lives (or some synonym of either), the issue I have is it shows a number that, when depleted, largely prevent the player from playing the game. In general, Stamina is usually depleted when attempting a level, while Lives are reduced whenever players fail to complete a level. However, their purposes are similar since when Stamina/Lives run out, players are given a few choices: wait (often hours) for the Stamina/Lives to replenish to continue playing, pay money (or watch an ad) to restore Stamina/Lives in some way, or use a consumable item that is occasionally given out for free to restore Stamina/Lives.

Ultimately, these systems intentionally create a hard time gate that is rarely compatible with anyone's playing habits, leading to a loss of interest in what could be an interesting game. To put it another way, intentionally limiting how much a player is allowed to play at some rudimentary level is harmful to player retention. This in turn means that having such systems in place may end up creating an illusion of success where in truth much less money is being made since disinterested players who opt to uninstall are players not spending money on any form of monetization that the game may have to offer. It also helps that there are some strongly successful games out there like Hearthstone that have no such system in place. Therefore, I assert that having a stamina or lives system that greatly limits how much a player can participate in and enjoy a game results in a smaller active playerbase and less money made.

How to Make it Work

As detestable as I find a Stamina/Lives system in general, I think there's methods for implementing one with minimal downsides. For example, in some games I've played, I found there's many secondary Stamina/Lives system that limit player participation in specific activities, such as battling event enemies. With a robust base experience, these secondary systems serve as something of a soft time gate that can be used to pull in a little extra profit. The efficacy of such a form of monetization remains questionable since players may object to a very clear instance of being nickel and dimed, but at least players can enjoy much of the game itself.

On Continues

My thoughts on the usage of continues as a form of monetizing a game largely depends on the game since there's some advantage to restricting usage due to how much a game may be trivialized. In general, I find that issues related to spending money to continue from a failure state would be alleviated greatly if the player can attempt a level from the beginning as much as they want. With that said, I would prefer if the idea of spending money on continues was reserved for the arcade and continues, if they even need to exist in a game, are limited instead.

Random Acts of Gambling: Loot Boxes and Gacha

When it comes to games utilizing loot boxes or gacha as a form of monetization, I can easily name several. While some may point to a game like Overwatch, which appears to be making its respective entity a lot of money, games like Puzzle and Dragons have been profiting hard off of their playerbase for a while. These systems seem to be great money spinners and they're not going away anytime soon. I also don't think they necessarily need to go away considering I published a suggestion to add appearance loot boxes to WoW. However, I think there are many issues associated with systems that are basically gambling and because of that, I keep the following in mind when considering a loot box or gacha system:
  • The price or grind time has to be right.
    • Real world pricing is obligatory since I generally tend to be highly sensitive to pricing practices that are unattractive to players with little disposable income. This especially applies to digital goods in my opinion.
    • What must also be considered though is that all players should have occasional access to the gambling system whether it's through drip-feeding premium currency or rewarding access through normal play. This rewards dedicated play and may even make spenders out of them in a symbiotic sort of way as opposed to a predatory one.
  • Gambling should favor the player.
    • Much like how a player may become disinterested in playing a game that arbitrarily takes away their ability to play, a player may become disinterested if not outright frustrated if their returns from gambling are poor. A gacha or loot box isn't like many casino games that have odds in favor of the house to ensure profitability since the distribution of virtual items for real life money should generate almost pure profit. Therefore, in the interest of profiting in the long term, it might help to alleviate frustrations by favoring the player more. Incidentally, this is likely why gacha events, such as Godfests in PAD, are held.
  • Alternative acquisition methods are also recommended.
    • In a similar vein as the previous point, gambling shouldn't necessarily be the only way to acquire specific goods. A number of games already employ a feature where players earn currency through gambling or normal play that can then be spent to outright buy what the players want, but some do not or their systems aren't remotely generous enough. In some cases, a rough equivalent is used instead of the genuine article. I consider this recommendation important based on my stance on other systems that utilize randomness where I believe the player should feel that they have a significant level of control over it.
  • Cosmetics are preferable.
    • While monetization involving cosmetics don't provide total immunity to criticism, it does prevent some such as accusations that a game is selling power to players at the expense of game balance. Specifically, I think selling power is especially bad in the case of gambling-oriented monetization since it arguably enhances the psychologically manipulative aspects inherent to gambling. This in turn may entice players to potentially spend a lot of money to have a chance to have power of some relevance. With cosmetics, the urge may be there for some, but it's likely not as great or as widespread.
  • Selling power is more acceptable in a largely non-competitive experience.
    • I'm generally not a fan of selling power in a game in general, but I'm willing to let it slide in the case that said game lacks competitive elements (or benefits free/low spending players somehow). Unfortunately, many games that are largely single player or cooperative that could function without a competitive aspect have some sort of ranking system with a high level of importance.
In addition, I also think that gambling-oriented systems like gacha and loot boxes need to be regulated a bit better considering that at any time, odds can change without players knowing. China's attempts to do so are, in my opinion, not good enough considering what companies like Blizzard did to "comply." I will give China kudos for their attempts to make the odds from gambling systems transparent though.

Finally, though this probably goes without saying, I prefer being able to buy goods outright despite everything said in this section.

Services and Other Conveniences

Last but definitely not least, I thought I'd drop a quick word on monetizing services and benefits that provide convenience instead of something like a statistical increase in power since personally I think providing both in some sense is a great way to make money by appealing to a wide variety of players.

Services, such as having to change an in-game name or the like, are fine to have but may need restrictions to prevent abuse. In addition, I often find these services are treated as a license to price gouge players which I think is not a good idea, if only because players who may have need of the services become resentful over being milked or simply not spend money on the service at all. Both of these scenarios lead to a reduction of player retention at the very least. Meanwhile, most services I see seem to cost next to nothing to maintain, so pricing them even in the 10s of dollars is arguably unnecessary.

Other conveniences depend on the game, but something like storage space or loadout slots come to mind. There's a bit more room for error here since issues can be fixed quickly and adaptations to changes made over time, such as an increase in default storage space as a game grows. However, keeping the player experience in mind is important. Aside from the always-present practice of pricing appropriately, players should be given plenty of benefits by default to the point of making the idea of purchasing convenience seem optional. If I had to put a number on the amount of benefits a player should get relative to the maximum they can acquire by spending money or grinding, 20% of the total benefits seems like a good place to start. However, the sweet spot largely depends on the game and larger, established games can generally get away with giving players a smaller amount of total benefits by default.

Final Statements

This concludes my thoughts on some types of monetization I've seen when playing games. To summarize:
  • A Stamina/Lives system should not be a primary system intended to lock players out of playing.
  • Continues are okay, but I'd prefer if there were limitations to prevent abuse of the feature.
  • While I'd prefer to be able to buy goods outright, monetization that uses gambling seems to be highly profitable so I'll settle for a system that provides a generous amount of cosmetic rewards.
  • Services and conveniences are useful products for fulfilling a variety of player's needs and should be priced and otherwise managed in the least cutthroat manner possible to favor accessibility.
  • In general, it's better to err on having lower prices since profit margins for digital transactions are almost certainly greater than retail equivalents. This provides more room to invest into long-term profits unless for some reason there's no plans to ensure a game's longevity.

Now that my opinions on this matter are concentrated into a single article, I won't have to write too many more on this topic. That's good since I'm almost certain most of the articles I've published on this topic aren't that good. However, if the gaming industry's monetization tactics change, I'll consider publishing an updated version.

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