Designing a game that is able to pay for itself and then some is a challenge that many developers face; no team wants to cut content in favor of budgeting, but it’s often a necessary chore.  However, the audience’s burgeoning expectations for content forces both the consumer and developers to face a difficult discussion.

How do you design a game to pay for itself?  When looking at mobile games, players will often criticize the pay-to-win or pay-to-play aspects of the platform; it’s incredibly rare to find a game that doesn’t have ads, paywalls, or a way to pay for quick progress. Consumers’ negative experiences with microtransactions makes encouraging further forays into that realm difficult.

If consumers dislike microtransactions so heavily, what can mobile games do right to warrant those coveted purchases?


Utilize the consumer’s need to be efficient; An energy system can encourage more play

The first experience in most mobile games introduce the consumer to an energy system; in order to complete actions and progress in the game, they must expend a resource that is regenerated over time. The developers implement a system like this to limit the consumer’s progress. Slower progress means more time spent playing the game which translates to more ad exposure, idle time, and hopefully microtransaction sales. It’s a commonly accepted practice.

However, there is a positive side to energy systems.  A savvy consumer will quickly come to the conclusion that having full energy isn’t efficient. If the consumer left their game with full energy, they wouldn’t be regenerating energy. For instance, spending 40 energy and then coming back later to a fresh, newly generated 40 energy totals to 80 energy earned.  The more times they repeat the behavior, the larger an energy total they can make per day.

This also serves to build a base for an enjoyable experience. The designer masters this can develop a system which enthralls the consumer. Generally for the first few levels; the player will be given a maximum energy level that’s relatively small. The player will then spend this energy to ensure that they don’t max out, but before they can empty out their resource, they might have level up. Leveling up most of the time leads to a refill of energy, as well as increased capacity. Players are often excited and refreshed when leveling up- so the common practice of refilling energy takes advantage of this fact.


Build a momentum for the player through quick introductory content

Once the player thought they were free, and able to put their device down for a break, and is instead re-engaged.  The developer has created a cyclical environment to encourage playing, despite limiting the amount of actions the player can take.  The player eventually hits a plateau and is now faced with a choice.  They can either purchase an energy refill, or they can put their phones down and wait.   The decision is usually based on the momentum that they built during those first few levels of the game.




Allow players to earn real currency through both minor and major achievements

Unfortunately, most consumers will still have a negative connotation towards microtransactions and will grind their heels in the dirt to avoid paying for a game advertised as free. One approach to this is to provide options. Allowing players to earn purchases through playing the game will often encourage players, who would otherwise be reluctant to pay, to make a purchase. This system allows the player to build a momentum that continuously re-engages the player, while also giving them the opportunity to feel good about a purchase. Instead of feeling forced to make a purchase for progress, they are inclined to play the game and complete achievements.

This cyclical environment promotes a positive experience towards microtransactions; purchases  become a choice that the consumer is more willing to make and develops a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and consumers.


Offer players cosmetic purchases

Some players prefer not to make a purchase that will boost their progress; they would much rather prefer to play the game in as “pure” a format as possible. By allowing players to modify cosmetics of the game, such as character appearance or stage soundtrack, you give the consumer another option. This also allows players who would prefer a bit more customization to find an outlet for modification.

Some companies, like Riot, have taken it further and limited their cash shop purchases to be cosmetic only; none of the purchases provide any advantages for players.  The joke amongst many of Riot’s consumer base is how expensive this free-to-play game is, and it’s because Riot has made a model where players are comfortable with making purchases.  Finding an opportunity for cosmetic purchases also allows the development team to slip in homages to other games through parody content, which creates a  community between the developers, their audience, and to anyone else listening in on the conversation.


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