What game designers need for players to pay

Engagement (more involved) is better than retention (returning)

Technology trends and news by Jeremy Liew
August 24, 2009 | Comments
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 Dan Cook follows up his great post on how freemium beats advertising as a business model for flash games with a second great post on how you can get your players to pay you. After discussing the historical reasons that most flash games today are such lightweight affairs, he recommends the following checklist to see if you’re building enough value in your games to get users to pay you:

Quick value checklist

  • Are you ignoring bad metrics like portal ratings?
  • Are you measuring the holy triumvirate of value: fun, retention, money?
  • Are you collecting real customer data?
  • Does your game score 4 out of 5 on the fun scale?
  • Do players return after a week?
  • Is your game design amendable to high retention play?
  • Are you iterating on your game and improving your game as measured by internal metrics?  Have you figured out the big levers that affect player experience?
  • Do you know when you are done? Do you know when you’ve reached the point where your game has proven value to your players?
  • Are you willing to bail on the game if it doesn’t show signs of improvement?

Dan recommends measuring key drivers of value such as how much fun players have at various time points (by random survey), how often players return, and how much money you make from each player (on average). He then recommends making various game design changes, or a “kill the game decision” based on these metrics.

I strongly support the idea of using metrics to fine tune game play with real live players, in much the same way that web 2.0 used metrics to fine tune user behavior. This is best practice for many social games today – Siqi and David from Serious Business and Lil Green Patch gave a talk at the Social Gaming Summit about just this topic. I think another important metric is engagement (e.g. average time spent playing the game, including multiple sessions). I believe engagement is correlated with monetization – the deeper a player is engaged with a game, the more likely they will be willing to pay. I think that this may be a better measure than retention (although I’m open to debate on this point). In many free to play games, the bulk of the money is spent in the first spike of game play, so whether they continue to return or not may not be as important as how well you hook them in the first few days that they play the game, and how addicted you can get them.

This of course leads to questions of how you can build long term engagement, which Dan also has some suggestions for:

  • Narrative, story, and cut scenes exhibit “rapid burnout”.  In other words, player see them one or twice and then are bored when they see them again.  Games that rely on such content have generally low retention metrics.  You can mitigate this by releasing new narrative content on a regular basic to keep the product ‘fresh’, but this has a high cumulative cost.
  • Linear levels or solvable puzzles also exhibit rapid burnout.  Game systems that can be completed or conquered are usually one shot activities.  You can layer additional challenges within each level, but often only expert players will be motivated to come back for a second play through.
  • Some handcrafted content like text or static images can be refreshed cheaply: The type of handcrafted content you include makes a huge difference on the slope of your increasing costs.  New text-based questions in a trivia game are relatively cheap compared to creating new God of War levels.  An hour of text-based content is likely several orders of magnitude cheaper to build.
  • Social content is low burnout: People will keep interacting with their friends for years.  Mechanics that can tap into this often have very high retention rates.  Anything that allows players to chat, share and form social identities in a community is pure gold.
  • Grinding results in burnout, but it slows the process. Techniques like leveling or purchasing upgrades can dramatically increase the length of the game for very little development and design costs.  Think of grinding as method of stretching, but not adding to your content.  Grinding techniques only delay the inevitable.  They can result in lower fun scores as people feel obligated to play, but aren’t enjoying the process of playing.  Since you want people to fall in love, such a reaction can be counter productive to your goals.
  • User generated content systems are low burnout: User generated content is ultimately a social system that encourages users to create consumable puzzles.  The puzzles themselves may be short lived, but the community of creators can thrive for decades. This solves the problem of the linearly increasing cost of more handcrafted content by apply large numbers of people working for free.
  • Algorithmic content has low burnout, but is hard to create and balance: Evergreen mechanics like Bejeweled or random map generation in Nethack keep people playing for hours.  However, they are tricky to invent and balance.
  • An example of a high retention game is one like Puzzle Pirates that has social (avatar, chat, guilds), grinding (levels) and evergreen algorithmic content (puzzles).  There is some light narrative in the form of periodic events and very little in the form of conquerable level design.  Most games have a mix of all these various types of content and successful services almost always put a portion of their reoccurring revenue towards a steady trickle of low marginal cost handcrafted content.  However, a high retention game designs tend to emphasize content with less burnout.

This would lead you to believe that (i) sandbox games (ii) user generated puzzle games and (iii) multi player games are well suited to driving long term player engagement without forcing costs to scale linearly. I’m inclined to agree.

What browser based games (flash and non flash) do readers think exhibit these qualities?

(For more from Jeremy, visit his blog)

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