“Many developers aren’t approaching the business design early enough in the cycle.” – Ethan Levy
(Indie Game Developer/Monetization Design Consultant)
Ethan Levy, Indie Game Developer & Monetization Design Consultant at FamousAspect, recently shared insightful information with Xsolla about some painful patterns he’s seen in game development from the past 3 years consulting on game monetization. His findings come nothing short of astonishingly accurate and critical to the long-term success of a game developer and their free-to-play games.
Leading Question: Why is it important to focus on your business model early on?
In order to answer this question to the fullest extent, Ethan analyzed patterns within the gaming industry and noticed that game developers who chose the Free to Play (F2P) model or had a game with in-app purchases didn’t address the monetization design early enough in their development process. This can be due to many different factors but seems to stem from the fact that in the F2P business model, you aren’t simply making a boxed game; you’re actually providing an ongoing service.
Covered in his 2013 GDC presentation, Ethan states that the game design and business design within F2P games are essentially the same thing. Too often there is segmentation between game design and business design where the design team does not take ownership of this critical area of their game, instead focusing solely on the traditional responsibility of delivering the fun. The people who design the business feel like they are in a completely separate discipline which creates an unfortunate divide within the team.
“I view it as a unity. If you are creating a game where your primary revenue source is in-game purchases or incentivized video ads, you need to design your monetization as carefully as the integral parts of your game such as the inventory system or leveling curve.” – Ethan Levy
Results: Focusing Only On Fun is Not Enough
If you have a great free-to-play game that contains plenty of “fun” but has a poorly designed business model, you can be featured by Apple in the iOS store front-page but nobody will spend money on your game. This seems quite counter productive and you lose out on potential revenue you could have otherwise obtained from having a well executed business model.
“My least favorite type of job to get into is if someone calls me a few weeks before their game launch and they want a monetization review. I can write you a report but if you’re launching in the next few weeks, you can’t implement any large scale fixes in time. If you’re only approaching how you are making money at the end of the project, it is more likely you will have a project that will fail financially even if it succeeds in the fun department.”
Being hesitant to address the business design and not approaching it early enough in the development process are key mistakes game developers make which hinders their ability to support themselves with a free-to-play game.
So how do you start testing out your business model as early as possible in the development phase?
Lately, Ethan makes the case that if you’re developing a game in the free-to-play model, before you ever start prototyping your game, you should first prototype your business model. “Let’s say you have a high concept, some sketches, and a communicable idea for the game; naturally the instinct is to prototype the game design and core mechanic. If you take a step back and think about why this is the normal next step, the reason we prototype the game mechanic first is to de-risk the project and prove that we have something fun. Fun drives critical reviews and word of mouth which, in a boxed product market, means there is a direct correlation between fun and revenue.”
“The F2P market is a little different than selling boxed games as it is not only about fun. A combination of features including fun, presentation, and execution are essential to creating a successful F2P game. If you already have a solid idea of the type of game you want to build, for the next 2 weeks have confidence that you will find a fun mechanic. Write a post-it note that says “Fun goes here” in your framework. Outside of that is where transactions happen with the majority of game monetization occurring in the UI layer (User Interface).”
“What I recommend is to map out your game and core loops, then build a very ugly but functional user interface prototype. When it comes to the game, have faith that you will be able to find the fun. Set gameplay aside for a week or two and focus solely on the business model. If you build a rough version of the UI that goes around the game, you can then analyze it and measure the amount of time someone spends on each screen and what screens they primarily stay on in an average play session.”
“Ask yourself, if a player were to play for 45 minutes, do they see the consumables or in-game purchases screen? What are we charging for and where do we surface those items for the player? Is the transition natural and smooth or abrasive and shoddy?”
Levy has found that if you follow these steps in prototyping your business model UI, you will answer critical questions much earlier in your development process that make it more likely to find financial success..
Making purchasing present in Hit Tennis 3:
Ethan’s friends at Focused Apps made a game called Hit Tennis 3. The game already had consumable items for purchase but they were several menus off the core loop. Seperately, before every match you were shown a preview of the game with details on the screen. When looking at the game, the fact that the ability to purchase the consumable items was not on this screen stood out to Ethan. If you were to playing an extended game session, you could navigate back and forth from tennis match to story screen without even knowing that there were consumables available for purchase. This seemed like an easy monetization optimization and Ethan advised his friend to simply take the consumable items and place them in a widget on the existing match screen before launching into a round of tennis.
Previously, Hit Tennis 3 was out on the Android and iOS store and Focused Apps was about to launch the iPad version. Ethan’s suggestion was implemented in time for the iPad launch of the game and the reported results were significant. Simply by moving those consumable purchases into the core loop of gameplay, in-app purchases increased by 80% in the iPad version relative to the existing iPhone version. Hit Tennis 3 didn’t make a blocking pop-up where it prompts you to purchase an item; they found a natural place in the game to show what’s available for purchase. No pressure, no commitment, and ease of access are why this was a successful game monetization tactic.
Ethan Levy is a 12 year veteran game designer and producer who has contributed to over 50 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including Pandemic Studios, EA, BioWare and Playfirst. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a game monetization consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for PC, console, mobile, tablet and web.