The growth of free to play and monetization have altered how games are being designed and have created a debate between the old and new guard when it comes to designing your title. Monetization whether it’s in a free to play or retail game comes with specific design considerations and preconceived notions to deal with.
Understanding the limits of what you can monetize is a big deal as it affects the marketability and perception of your game from casual and core gamers.
Sustaining or Selling Out?
Monetization’s debate among designers and gamers has to do with how the process of designing a game has changed. Before the rise of digital distribution, developing a game was a one and done experience in the sense that once it was out there would be no more work done to it. There were of course patches to fix any bugs or compatibility issues that arise but in terms of new content the game was set in stone.
Continued development only existed in the form of expansion packs that offered a sizable amount of content with a price of tag usually between 20 to 30 dollars. DLC and monetization thanks to digital distribution now allows designers to update games more rapidly than before and going beyond a retail release.
The best cases of DLC and monetization and the ones gamers look favorably on is when a game sees continued development with new content. Here, the player sees content and growth for their favorite games that wouldn’t have been done otherwise. While the ones that gamers don’t like is when monetization is used as a form of progression or a gating mechanic.
The reason is that when monetization is used to gate or stop someone from playing then it’s not really adding anything to the game but is simply a way for a designer to squeeze more money out of their audience. The debate does become a bit muddled when we bring free to play games into the discussion. As without an upfront cost, designers do need a way to earn consistent profit or the game will go belly up.
And that takes us to the point of this article: How do you soften the blow of using monetization in your title and to convince people that it is worth it to spend money on?
Selling the Sell-able:
When it comes to monetization, we can group all the purchases into three broad categories:
Gameplay is directly adding new content to extend the life of a game and includes everything from a new mission, equipment, characters and so on. In most titles regardless of being free to play or not, gameplay based monetization are usually priced higher than comparable monetization. Here is the recent gameplay trailer of DLC for Payday 2 which introduced a new map and was the most expensive DLC currently available for the game.
Personalization is anything that doesn’t impact playing the game but lets the player stand out from the crowd. Some examples would be costumes, special effects and so on. Essentially anything that has a visual or auditory impact while playing a game, without affecting the actual gameplay.
A great example of this would be the screenshot below from League of Legends. That is the premium skin for the character Blitzcrank who doesn’t look like that normally. The skin changes how the character looks and the sound effects used but has no impact on how the character plays.
Lastly we have restrictive which are purchases designed to remove or temporary bypass a restriction developed by the designer. This could mean adding energy to let you play more, a boost to get pass a tough level and so on.
Restrictive monetization for the most part is based around consumable items or something that can only be used a select number of times before being removed and have to be purchased again. But it’s entirely possible to develop gameplay or personalization monetization that has to be purchased again and again. Such as saying that a new mission or special effect can only be accessed by spending money on tickets or uses each time you want to do it.
The simple truth is that gamers don’t want to feel like they’re wasting their money when purchasing something in your game. Consumable items regardless of their category are akin to having to put quarters into arcade machines back in the day. Once the item is used up, you have nothing to show for it except for lighter pockets.
What monetization comes down in the eyes of your audience is how it affects playing your game. There is a difference between a microtransaction that adds content and one that is meant to stop you from playing. This is why the most popular free to play games among the core and hardcore audience are the ones that keep monetization separate from playing the game. And what’s even worse than restricting content with monetization is providing unique advantages and making the game pay to win.
League of Legends, Team Fortress and Path of Exile are a few examples where someone can play and enjoy the gameplay without needing to spend one cent on any purchase. Yet all three have a variety of monetization options of differing prices. The most expensive items in these three titles are all cosmetic or personalization purchases that people have bought despite not having any gameplay value.
While pricing can be a factor on monetization in any video game, it’s the content itself that determines how people view your game. If they are being pressured to spend money every few minutes on small consumables, they will look at the designer as being greedy. But if the gameplay is left unaffected, you could even sell a $100 virtual wedding ring and people will be fine with it.