Some of my buddies in the video game industry have been asking me about what has changed about my job with the new Free-to-Play (F2P) social and mobile games. My focus for the last 4 years has been games for smartphones, the last three of which has been all about making games free and charging players for items or In-App-Purchase (IAP) and new levels or adventures in the game or Down-loadable Content (DLC). Unlike old games where you designed and then built and released it, these new games ship and then iterate constantly for the life of the product. Part of that process has been learning the ropes of Analytics and Metrics and how to fine-tune your game designs based on how players are actually using your game.
During development we add calls from the game client code (the software on your smartphone) to the game servers (where the persistent data, leaderboards, shop data, etc. are kept) that track how players are playing the game. This is called “instrumenting” your game. This tracking data is used by the project managers and game designers to make effective decisions about what is working or not working and what can be done to make the game better. This tracking is called collecting metrics. Then you analyze the metrics of many players for statistical properties using analytics to optimize your design and iterate for greater enjoyment. When players are engaged and having fun, the value of making an IAP or buying DLC makes sense. Going from a free player to a paying players is called conversion – and ultimately leads to the financial success of the game.
Like the casino industry, games have begun to call the converted players “whales” (big spenders) and when analyzing the spending habits new categories have emerged like “minnows” (small spenders) and “dolphins” (medium spenders). There is another important lesson from casinos that many game designers fail to recognize: “whales” come to a casino when there is a lot of other people having fun in a social setting - when there is a party going on the value is there. Games with lots of free players have a party going on, and the “whales” will come.
Like websites that use hit tracking to tune UX/UI design, we can track which game screens are visited and which interactions the players select. If players take too long in the tutorial they may leave before they enjoy the actual gameplay, we can shorten or redesign the tutorial reducing friction that the players experience getting into the game. If menus are confusing we can prioritize the buttons based on frequency of use to optimize the menu design. This process means tracking and analyzing many players gameplay behavior.
While building our Item Shops we can price items and track which ones are used most and which might be priced too high. Over time we can tune these values so the functional power and IAP price reflect the kinds of economic behavior we want the game to have. Not too easy to play, and not so challenging that players never experience the content we design.
I like to keep in-game money earned while playing the game (Grind Currency or G$) separate from the in-game money people spend to buy IAP and DLC (Premium Currency or P$). P$ can be purchased with real money (dollars, etc.) using the app-store interface all F2P apps use. I try not to use real money directly for IAP or DLC as it can lead to confusion when you adjust prices or have promotional sales. It is also motivational for players to earn a bit of P$ for achievements and to denote progress – “earn 10 gold for leveling up”. Giving them a real $1.50 probably isn’t legal. Grinding for in-game money is a big part of many games, I typically say that the amount earned from grinding is roughly equivalent to 1/10 the amount earned from using IAP or DLC – this gives real value to spending P$.
These same buddies who ask me about F2P also wonder if isn’t “evil” or dishonest. Like any power, F2P can be used for less than honest reasons. There are some companies that learned the F2P formula and then tried making games that would prey on the psychological addiction to games and racked up large profits only to find that players get tired of being mistreated. Players are becoming much more sophisticated and recognize being scammed into paying for energy or undoing time locks without actual value.
One agrument against F2P is that that “core gamers” prefer paying for the game up front and then just enjoy the 10 to 30 hours of gameplay they paid for. There is a terrific game industry blog that posted “Why Core Gamers Hate Social Games: Because Their Selfish Exploitation Of Casual Gamers Is Coming To An End” - basically it suggests that casual gamers have been buying, but not finishing games for decades… and those casual gamers have been subsidizing the core gamers buy purchasing games they don’t actually finish or gain the real value for, but the new F2P games allow the casual gamers to enjoy the game as they like while the core gamers actually spend the money needed to finance the game. The result is that core gamers gain a large pool of players to engage with (see above about “whales” coming to the party) and the casual players become engaged enough that eventually they become paying players themselves.
This is an interesting redefinition of what “core” and “casual” actually means – and may for the first time reconcile what is really going on. The “core” players are the ones who pay for the game and “casual” players are the ones who provide the party or social atmosphere. I was always reluctant to believe the old definition by time played (core plays more than casual) – my wife, who enjoys puzzles and card games, will play those for dozens of hours each week, but she would not consider herself a “gamer”, and as busy as I am, I generally only get limited time to play as many games as I like… and the ones I do get to play tend to be for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, but I definately define my lifestyle as “gamer” by choice. So I like the idea of “core” or “casual” describing a game player’s spending behavior, not the kinds of games they play.
When a game has real value - truly entertains the players, provides a means of social interaction with their friends, and provides a genuine community for player’s to engage in – then players are happy to pay for the IAP and DLC. Many of the games I’ve worked on have had incredible conversion rates, large viral growth, and enjoyed significant financial success. This wasn’t by abusing players, but by giving them what they want – real value to have some fun.
When choosing what metrics you are going to track and how to analyze the data remember that there is already a vast amount of work out there already. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, especially if you can partner with one of the tracking services that helps game companies instrument their games and have wonderful web dashboards to investigate those large data sets. Let them provide that service, while your team works on the game.
Hopefully this is useful to many of you, and if it generates more questions than it answers I am happy to answer them in the comments.