Living Price and Promotion: Designing your live ops around what players actually value

Oscar Clark   •  July 27, 2020

A lot of attention goes into thinking about game monetisation; whether that’s about the ethics or practicalities. Too rarely do we actually talk about what players value and how we can build that into our live operations.

In this piece we look specifically at how to integrate pricing and promotions into a living game alongside your ongoing community-focused activity.

At Fundamentally Games we look at games as living experiences designed to take the players forward through a series of predictable yet surprising events, designed to build and sustain retention.

We focus LiveOps through a series of predictable meaningful activities which create anticipation and create an ongoing sense of unfinished business. This creates what we think of as an ‘Engagement Engine’ delivering more players, doing more things, more often, for longer.

Each game will have its own cadence for these events, but typically they include:

  • Daily Challenges – Small predicable (attainable) reasons to come back and play each day
  • Weekly Themes – Activities which create meaningful impact to gameplay, game lore or community goals over the next few days
  • Monthly Updates – Longer-term engagement through themes, feature releases and UX improvement

Promotions need to crystallise why a player should choose to invest more deeply in your game after engaging in an event. That means spending more time, watching more ads and ideally spending real money.

This will be more successful where we design promotions to that capitalise on the value proposition that were delivered in the associated events, rather than being a tenuous excuse just intended to squeeze players for cash.

When designing promotions, it is essential to understand what players will love about that activity in your game; the design must give them reasons to invest now in ways which empower their play and enhance their experience.

There are five key factors which go into designing a promotion.

1. What is so special?

First thing to consider is the event that you are linking the promotion to, and how that will excite players. Why will they care and how will this affect the way that they play? You need to genuinely care about how player behaviour will change in response to the event activity; and what the player will desire as a result.

That means that a promotion may directly offer unique collectable items, discounts on certain standard power-ups or upgrades; unique bundle offerings or even a unique currency for that event, e.g. ‘Candy’ that can be exchanged for specific Halloween items.

In general, as I have written about before, there are four ‘types’ of purchasable items:

  • Subsistence – Items we need, or we can’t play (the event)
  • Shortcuts – Items which improve our chance to succeed
  • Strategy – Items which introduce alternative choices of play
  • Social – Items which I get to show off

These also tend to come in one of four ‘forms’:

  • Consumable – One-time use (ideal as rewards and sold in bundles)
  • Capacity – A cap on how many consumables you can hold at a time
  • Generators – The rate at which you can earn consumables outside of play
  • Aspiration Goods – Desirable items players want to own

2. Forms of exchange

Not every promotion needs to be directly about hard cash. Success will be based on how much the game revenue increases overall, and this can be achieved in different ways.

At Fundamentally Games, we like to look at this in terms of what form of exchange we are asking for, and what the price of that is in terms of the impact on player engagement and lifetime value.

Exchange typically comes down to the following methods:

  • In-game ads
  • Spending resources/soft/hard currency earned in play
  • In-app purchase micropayments
  • Subscription offers (e.g. VIP program)

Each of these exchange methods has a different impact on the player experience and if done badly, can create ‘Player Fatigue’ which increases the likelihood that the player churns (leaves the game).

Each time a player is asked to part with hard cash or sit and watch an ad before they can get on with play has a negative impact. If we carefully consider the placement and timing of such steps, we can minimise ‘Player Fatigue’ and instead help to sustain their retention in the game.

Soft Currency may seem like an easy option for a game designer to use; whether you have one or multiple currencies (even resources). We need players to understand the value of spending this currency and not to succumb to hoarding it.

Soft Currency (or resources) can be very powerful as you can give them away as rewards or use them as a measure of performance. However, be careful that this doesn’t accidently because a ‘Performance Benchmark’ used by players to compare their play.

In terms of in-game ads, we believe that rewarded video ads are generally the best approach. However, there is scope for in-world ads or even audio-only ads which mean we minimise the intrusion created through using ads in a game.

For some games, especially hypercasual-style games, will need to look at interstitial ads that interrupt the flow of play. If interstitial ads are necessary in your game, make sure you apply careful placement, so that they only occur during the ‘relief’ stage that comes immediately after a critical release of frustration.

Whilst this may not seem the best experience for many players, it does provide an opportunity for players to take a break if they need one, which can help reduce ‘Player Fatigue’.

3. Call to action

Just because you have a promotion or a special offer that perfectly balances with the events you have planned does not mean players will choose to act (to take up that offer). It is critical that you give them motivation to “take action now!” and not just expect players to part with their hard-earned cash.

  • Messaging – How will players find out about the offer and does the offer look enticing?
  • Value Proposition – How are you communicating the real value of the offer. Statements like “Buy One Get One Free” or “65% off” really communicate how much players are saving. Also make sure players understand why it makes a difference in play; perhaps they can unlock a free trial using a rewarded ad or by completing a mission?
  • Limited Offer – Why do they have to act now? Is the offer time limited? Or is there only a set number of that item being released? You need to communicate opportunity cost if they don’t take advantage of this promotion.
  • Impulse – How smooth is the process to act on the desire for this item? Players need to be confident they cannot be accidently charged but also will drop out if there are too many clicks.
  • Optimisation – How does this offer fit within what the players is doing now? Does it provide a satisfying way to optimise their experience?

4. Meaningful impact

When our player makes a purchase, how will they understand the immediate value of what they have acquired? Players need to feel the immediate benefit in ways which delight and allows them to appreciate the value of previous purchase choices without regret.

The best measure for the success of your promotions will be the percentage of players who make repeat purchases in your game. Repeat purchase is the best way to know that players found spending to be valuable.

Key Factors to consider:

  • Unboxing – what does the moment of reveal feel like in the game. Is the impact proportional to the spend and does it feel gorgeous? This can also have additional lasting impact if the player gets visibility of extra value whilst playing the game.
  • Visibility – Does the game positively reinforce the value of the players prior investment in the game (and hence why future spend is worthwhile)? Do those previous purchases continue to provide value for the player in terms of social capital or increased choices in play?
  • Foreshadowing – Does the game use non-spending forms of exchange (e.g. rewards, in-game currency or ad views) to introduce to players to why spending would be a good thing? A lot of players see it as a positive challenge to play games without spending, and foreshadowing can be an antidote to that if we focus on genuine player value.
  • Consequence – What is the immediate playing impact of what I have just purchased? This must be meaningful. Loss/failure (as long as its something the player feels they own rather than being forced by the game) is a key contribution to spend. Therefore, players need to appreciate the impact without feeling they paid-to-win.
  • Strategic Choice – how does the purchase impact the longer-term playing characteristics of the game? A generator or increased capacity limit for a power-up has lasting value – better for the player the earlier they acquire it. An aspiration item such as the ‘Hat of Wonder’ is something a player may save up to own; but unless we take care, quickly becomes irrelevant (just another basic component of my game). A great way to minimise this is to avoid linear bonuses (no-one wants a +1 sword when they have a +5 variant) and think instead why a player would want to own and upgrade all of these items and why they all remain a viable playing choice (e.g. Sword of Fire vs Shield of Water).

5. Scalability

Building success for your game over time requires that you understand scale, and the ability to separate development effort from the purchasable items. The worst offender for this is where a developer focuses on DLC.

Don’t get me wrong – I love (some) downloadable content for the right games. However, as a business model it sucks. Developers spend months after the release of the game creating new content and experiences which they then only make available to players who are still willing to pay and who have not yet moved on from the original game. That is a huge amount of effort for a small proportion of the audience.

However, if we make smaller content releases more regularly and make them available, we can generate revenue from other factors e.g. rewarded ads, health potions, upgrades, special themed items. Content like this becomes a reason to retain more users who then have more to do, more often and who stay longer. It also scales much better.

In your initial game design, you should be thinking about how to create systems that support the introduction of new items on an ongoing basis. You need to establish a pattern of predictable delight, where player know that they will reliably see new elements from customisation to new weapons, units or tools arriving each week.

Volume is less important than the reliability, and even where we have a limited range of assets (e.g. we have an IP with a fixed number of characters), consider how you can split that character into parts so that you can increase the steps and options available to unlock and upgrade them as cosmetic variations.

A tightly balanced economy, where players spend resources or currency as a form of exchange for upgrades is a highly scalable method and one which can be supplemented when you can buy more.

But there is a challenge in managing this, as you must be careful to avoid undermining the importance of actually playing the game. Overt pay-to-win is a bad thing and usually a sign of broken monetisation. Often this can be overcome by employing a couple of smart ‘sink’ techniques, such as:

  • The ‘Hot Dog’ principle – Hot dog buns are sold in packs of 6 and hotdogs in 8 packs so that you always end up with an imbalance and hence need to buy more of the other.
  • Anchor resource – A type of resource (or in-game upgrade) that can only be acquired through playing the game (and not by spending). If these are always part of the price of other upgrades then players always have a reason to play more.
  • Depreciation – Items or avatar requirements which need investment over time. E.g. weapons which degrade through use and require resources to fix; avatars which need food/water/health.
  • ‘Golf Handicap’ – Players intentionally paying to temporarily downgrade their capability so that they can get greater social capital.

In Summary

Pulling all this together I hope that as a game developer you take away that it is critical to look at the player experience in your game as a journey, and the design of your game monetisation needs to reflect the insatiable desire for players to get what is next.

However, there is a deeper message here… Players aren’t just buying bundles of power-ups or the latest skin, they are buying an ‘Expectation of Future Value’ that is deeply linked to the journey they are on in your living experience. That has ineffable quality and requires a deep respect for their needs and why they love your game in the first place.

Oscar Clark   •  July 27, 2020