“Why do bank slots have to cost money?” posted Player 1.
“How else is Gazillion supposed to make money?” posted Player 2.
“By making it free for an exorbitant amount of in game currency or 2.99 USD?” posted The Author.
“You think people are going to pay for free stuff, [USERNAME REDACTED], you [EXPLETIVE EXPUNGED].” posted player 2.
“The 90’s called, they want their economic model back.” The Author posted before adding Player 2 to his ignore list (toxicity, new record for earliest essay seed).
Here’s the short, I’m The Author, I talk about video games, but this week, I want to talk about monetization. Now, for our international readers, I’m American, so Ill be posting all of my examples in USD. Sorry if none of these examples quite make sense due to international taxes or tariffs, unfortunately I’m not very well traveled, otherwise I’d be The Explorer, The Wanderer or The Traveler. Also, keep in mind that my name isn’t The Programer or The Developer. I’m well studied in game design techniques and could probably settle well into almost any job in a studio (with appropriate time to learn how to use the studio’s tools of choice) but I am not a professional, merely an academic (for now). Also keep in mind I am not The Artist or The Marketer. My knowledge comes purely from academia and not actual experience, hence why I’m The Author, I explain things.
Clearly, we are off to a slow start this week, so let me jump straight into the subject at hand, monetization. I know this subject was covered by Extra Credits a year or 2 ago, and while I agree with 90% of what Daniel Floyd and James Portnow had to say on the matter, I found it insufficient, so I would like to extrapolate. 15 years ago the internet was, well, not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it was just coming into it’s own in the public eye. Companies like AoL gave out internet samples in 500 hour lots so the average American could experience the excitement what sounded like a dolphin orgasming on a motorcycle. Gamers worldwide waited for hours or days to download the latest Doom patch, which rarely consisted of more than a buggy fan-made map and a gun that was either ridiculously overpowered, depressingly underpowered, or only useful in the most situational cases. We paid $50 for a megabyte or two of (comparatively) poorly designed maps and character animations that were little more than 4 or 5 frames per sprite (2 frames for walking, 1 for standing, 1 for jumping, 1 for crouching). If you had a sharp eye, you could even count the pixels that made the shapes of your favourite characters (143 for Mario, now that I think about it, it’s amazing how often I find that number). Compound that with the fact that ‘high speed’ internet was in only the most tech-savvy households, and it suddenly becomes very clear why if you wanted a game you had to pay up front. There was no paypal, no means to enforce a monthly pay schedule. We didn’t have DRM unless you were from HAL Labs (essay 2, anyone feeling tipsy yet?), and even if we tried to make some, any DRM comparable to today’s level would have been bigger than the game itself. Just to put it in scope, imagine you were developing the first Donkey Kong, (I know, a lot older than 15 years, just stick with me) such a project would require 2 or 3 people making the game itself and the other 30 members of the dev team trying to keep people from ‘acquiring’ it (piracy, seed 3). Try explaining that to your boss, especially if you didn’t expect to gross more than a million.
Today, we have high speed internet in something like 90% of all households (full disclosure, no research on that particular fact, just went with the truthiest estimate). We can make DRM that makes good and sure that everyone in our community is paying full price for our stuff (unless you’re EA, sorry guys, hire better coders). We can expect every single one of our first world and most of our second world customers to have 24 hour connection to our servers. Hell, we can make stable game worlds that evolve (literally) by the hour and make entire squads of computers agree that the progen map for Player 8 is the same exact map created on Player 1’s computer without a perceivable lag in connection. We are even developing services that allow us to bet real money on our survivability in-game (google Leetcoin, it’s crazy). Why do we still expect our players to go to a store and pay $60 up front for a disk that they will use for maybe 40 hours before it becomes a paperweight in some dusty old binder in the attic?
For once we have an easy question, I’m just going to grand slam this one. We are thinking backwards. Now, this is essay 5 or 6 for me, you should know by now I disdain the practice of merely saying ‘this is bad’ and reaching for the spray bottle but there you have it. We are being stupid about it. We have absolutely no need whatsoever in today’s age to expect 100% up front payment on all, or even most, of our games. Yes, small indie projects and proof-of-concept pieces can still understandably expect up-front payment, maybe even the niche-est of genres like horror RPGs or whatever you call Stanley Parable. I would like to take a few pages (or screen lengths for you guys, I write in Open Office on double space with page dividers because it’s easier to organize my thoughts in double space and I personally believe if you haven’t put down at least 10 double spaced pages then you haven’t explained enough) to give my nascent thoughts on different monetization models. You will likely recognize many of these as permutations off of the models posited by Extra Credits. If so, good, they had some great ideas, just not enough time to describe them all.
The first model that comes to mind is pay-per-play. This is a permutation of the old school arcade format. This formula works great for what you see in movie theatre arcades today and could easily be extended into most of the Mario franchise. Consider the example, imagine you get New Super Mario Bros. for absolutely free and it comes with 10 lives. After 10 lives you can either wait for your lives to regenerate at 1 life per hour or you could pay 99 cents for another 10 lives. This model lets you get as much of the game as you personally want out of it as quickly as you want. If you’re like CarsonSWG and tend to jump from game to game, maybe playing 4 or 5 lives at a stretch before wandering off to make lunch or play Team Fortress 2 then you can get through the entire game and never pay a cent. However, if you’re like JesseSWG who wants those achievements right sodding now then you can pump in 5 bucks and make a day out of wiping map 4-1 until you get it right (trust me, she will spend every one of those 50 lives, bloody brilliant girl, CarsonSWG is lucky as all get out and we are all fortunate to have a brain like that leading the outfit, but she can’t make split-second decisions to save her life).
This is great for developers because that means that if you make your game right and pace out expansions, then you can still be making money well into the next console cycle off of a game that’s already 3 or 4 years old. You could even use the metrics you gathered (essay seed, take a swig) to figure out how to make better expansion levels which will be paid for by the Jesses of the world. Plus, if someone complains about the price of lives you can politely remind him that he gets 24 free lives every single day, and if he doesn’t want to pay 5 bucks for your 20-40 hour game then he can either improve his skill or take a cigarette break every so often.
However, this model fails critically in most RPGs. Imagine you’re playing Final Fantasy 12 and you had to pay 99 cents for a pack of 10 Phoenix Downs (for my mom, those are items that revive characters that have been incapacitated), and it cost 3 phoenix downs (one for each of your characters) to try again after you wipe. Just the thought of it makes you kind of nauseous, right? I mean, unless I power level before each boss it’s not uncommon for me to blow through 5 or 6 in an attempt. Plus, many late game bosses have instant death mechanics, for example, every 5 turns Bahamut attempts to cast Death5 on the party (okay, before you tilt your head, mom, in later Final Fantasy games there was a mechanic originally introduced in the Calculator class, you select a spell/level combo and everyone on both sides of the encounter who’s level is a multiple of that number suffers/benefits from that spell with no save, so if I cast Death 5, everyone in the match who’s level is a multiple of 5, including myself, that isn’t completely 100% immune to the Death spell, immediately keels over). This can get particularly sickening if there are parts of the game where a character getting downed is absolutely guaranteed.
This brings me to the second model. I direct you to The Walking Dead. Who else remembers the monetization scheme used there, it was absolutely ingenious. You get chapter 1 for free and if you like it, then theoretically you will be able to buy Chapter 2 at something like 8 bucks. This is great for gamers like LezardSWG (remember that guy? He occasionally sits in on the multiplayer games over on the Youtube channel). Lez is one of those gamers that absolutely will not ever buy a game if he doesn’t already know he will like it. This leads him to often buy those AAA flops that somehow still Metacritic well, needless to say, he would benefit from being able to actually play a mechanically complete game (new seed, showcasing your mechanics but not your content, that one will be challenging) for a fraction of the cost just to test the depth and temperature before diving headfirst into the kiddy pool.
Unfortunately, this model is a little harder on developers. This means that you have to show your entire mechanical scheme in the first 10th of your game and still manage to have a smooth ride for the other 9/10. You can’t give in to the temptation to make that demo just the tutorial because anyone who has ever played a good platformer or RPG knows that the tutorial is the slog before the real fun. If you only give away the tutorial then your fans will simply assume that the most basic elements are all that’s there. You could resolve this by giving them a condensed tutorial and match it up with a high-energy bit in the middle, say, give away chapter 3 or 4 for free instead of chapter 1. Just don’t try to sell the whole game because then gamers might balk at the price tag. I want to use Final Fantasy 10 as an example because it had an excellent demo and could have been adapted easily to a modular monetization model (Awesome Alliteration, Batman!). In the FFX demo you got a crash tutorial followed by about 20 minutes of Act 2 (if you were to divide the game like a stage play). After all of that you were prompted to buy the full game at your local store. Now, if you were to adapt this to the modular model, that same demo would be the entirety of chapter 2 (out of 10) and maybe 4 hours long. Think circa the beach at Besaid to the Blitzball tournament at Luca, followed by a prompt to try chapter 1 to see how Tidus arrived on Besaid Island. You would pay about $7.99 and get Chapter 1. This would consist of the tutorial, that awesome scene where you are lead to believe that your dad’s best friend was feeding you to the massive sky-beast, waking up in the flooded ruins, and getting gabbed by Rikku’s Al Bhed scavengers. Then you could either transfer your save file to Chapter 2 and play through it again or take your demo save file and pick up at Chapter 3, which also costs about $7.99. Better yet, if you don’t like it, say the Sphere Grid is too complicated or you think Tidus is a man-child with daddy issues, you could choose not to pick up chapter 3 and only be out 8 bucks. You could even complete Chapter 3, decide Khimari is a useless mute and only be out 16 bucks, you had fun, wasted some time, and hey, at least you didn’t blow $60 on a game you only thought was okay (and if you message me agreeing that FFX is a bad game I will send ninjas to your house, nobody mocks Tidus and Yuna and gets away with it).
The pay-per-chapter model works great for RPGs or any game that focuses primarily on story but falls short on pure-gameplay, pieces like Rachet and Clank or Final Fantasy Dissidia. Imagine you are playing Tools of Destruction, you just completed that amazing intro level where you escape from the capital planet, you just got finished skydiving through the capital, dashing across the crumbling walkways and shooting down the Drophid attackers as they send wave after wave of commandos at you. You feel awesome, powerful, indestructible, you are about to hop into the ship to get off the planet and suddenly a queue comes up asking if you want to buy Chapter 2. Now you know how that pit bull feels when you stand just outside of her chain, that initial rush of the chase followed by the hard cord-pull just before the fun bits. You rage at the fact that Insomniac can’t just let you play your game and you toss the controller to the side in an adrenaline fueled rage. You recognize this feeling, yes? Many AAA publishers use a similar model to squeeze a few bucks out of gamers (Publishers VS. retailers, I’ve already lost count, just do what you do when I mention a seed). “Did you enjoy killing Darkspawn? Fork up 7 bucks so that you can kill more in Warden’s Keep!”.
So how do we monetize the more visceral adventures? Well, for the single player entries we could use the pay-per-play model, but for massive online worlds we could use real-money auction houses and the freemium model. These models are intimately linked and I just got finished explaining auction houses in my last essay so I will condense them into one argument. Now, I can already hear the Barrens rage (note to mom, Barrens Chat is a reference to World of Warcraft, back before the Cataclysm expansion the Barrens was a zone, and the general chat for that zone was the Mos Eisley of WoW, you know, most wretched hive of scum and villainy, whole deal), freemium games are a huge boon to both devs and players alike. In the spur of the moment when you are slogging through wave after wave of lamias to level up while that guy with the purple name dings off of every 10th or so kill you feel cheated. We all do, but think about this. There are 2 basic kinds of gamers. Those with (comparatively) lots of time but no money, and those with (comparatively) lots of money but no time. The freemium model works great for the second lot, allowing them to dive right into the fun bits of your MMO while allowing those a little more strapped for cash to save on subscription fees. Think of it this way, patch just came out, Garrosh awaits you in Orgrimmar. Your guild no longer needs you as a prot warrior but the blood spec Death Knight just jumped ship to join a faster progressing guild. So if you want to fight Garrosh on Heroic difficulty then you need to get a Death Knight. Problem is you don’t have one, and your 9-5 keeps you from slamming out those 35 levels in a week. So what do you do? Under WoW’s current model, you are out of a raid slot, I don’t know of any guilds that will wait a month or two for you to get your act together. Sad to say, your guild is probably going to simply relegate you to Team B and forget you exist. However, it doesn’t have to be like this. Imagine if WoW ditched the monthly subscription and instead went for the freemium model with a real money auction house. You could shell out 15 bucks, get a 10x experience potion, blaze through those 35 levels in a NOS-fueled weekend, shell out another 10 bucks for Raid Finder gear on the real-money auction house and be ready to party by the next Tuesday. You just paid 2 months worth of subscription fees, but that doesn’t feel so bad seeing as how you haven’t been paying subscription fees for a while anyways, and you don’t have to spend 2 months leveling plus another month trawling for raid slots, promising recruiters that you actually have raided Throne of Thunder and assuring them that you didn’t just get the achievements by buying your account on Amazon. Not to mention the fact that JesseSWG, who doesn’t have a 9-5 and makes her living reviewing books and shelling out contracts for essay and video seeds, just made $9.85 for playing WoW and doing her weekly raids.
Let’s talk about party games. Okay, I know only a few of you are huge Mario party buffs, but this can fit just as well into Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros. or any racing game out there. I call it the rent-to-own model. Find enclosed yourself, you play some Madden, but only when your friends are over and there’s nachos and beer, so you don’t really want to buy the full game for 60 bucks. How about if 2K allowed you to get the full game for like 7 bucks but it only remains active on your console for 24 hours? 7 bucks for you and 3 of your buddies to play all you want, and better yet, if you pay the 7 dollar fee 10 times, you get the game permanently unlocked. Here you have 2 options, pay 7 bucks every week or two, whenever you felt like having your friends over, and eventually pay off the game, or pay the 60 bucks upfront and get the game for cheaper. Plenty of other services offer similar deals; you can buy the car outright for $24,000, 52 monthly payments of 500 bucks or 26 monthly payments of 900 bucks. Yes, you are paying more to buy the game incrementally but at least you don’t have to swallow the bill upfront, and it’s much easier to rationalize 7 bucks every so often to your spouse than 60 bucks for something you will likely only play 2 or 3 times.
However, this, like every other model out there, has drawbacks. Say you are playing Sanctum 2. You are on wave 6 of 14 and the Lumes are dropping like flies. You feel good, breaking a sweat as your slightly underpowered weapons tear into the Armored Heavies, you really feel like you’re living Starship Troopers (remember how many rounds it took to even drop one of those aliens?) and suddenly the game closes asking if you want to pay for another 24 hours. That whooshing sound of the Xbox alert tone is now the sound of your immersion groaning and tearing into ribbons. You decide you’ve had enough game for now anyways and step away to finish your essay on monetization schemes.
So how do we monetize Sanctum 2, or, to use more popular games, Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2 and Halo? These games are episodic in nature, you load in, play for 5-20 minutes, pop out, search for a new match, pop in, 5-20 minutes, pop out. You can’t use the rent-to-own model because people typically play these games habitually every day, the rent to own model simply falls apart because you will wind up paying that 70 bucks over the course of a single paycheck anyways. Our current model includes buying Gears of War up front and then when the devs want more money, they release map packs which not everyone can afford (I lost my competitive team when Map Pack 1 came out). While most who really love your game will find a way to fork up another 14 bucks every 2 or 3 months, what happens to your aspiring professionals? Competitive games are becoming a spectator sport, growing in popularity every day. Every major city in America (and every single street corner in South Korea) has a Starcraft bar, and every gamer on the planet has known an aspiring professional that had to drop out for financial reasons. Maybe the game switched platforms or iterations, maybe an expansion came out and they couldn’t afford the requisite gear. For these games we can look to more mainstream sports (good lord it hurt to say that). Athletes get billions of dollars in scholarships and bonuses, and yet you and I have never paid to watch the Superbowl on our couch. How do they do that? Ads, Ads everywhere. Imagine you are playing Halo. Everyone who has ever played an eSport on even a recreational basis knows about the waits. While they aren’t as bad today as 5 years ago, for every 5 hours of gaming you spend about 30 minutes sitting in lobbies. Why not put those minutes to use? Make your eSport free to play and, instead of charging per copy, use that blank space to throw up some adverts. I mean, right now you’re only using them to put up tutorial clips for people who already know how to shoot a virtual gun. Millions of people play Starcraft, even if they only watch 20 seconds of ads every 20 minutes that will pay off the 5 billion dollar tab in a month or 2.
There’s another point that I almost missed. None of these are absolute replacements. You can still use the $60 flat rate. For example, in the Mario example, you could charge 99 cents for 5 lives or 60 bucks for the classic 3-life, green mushroom farming, infinite continue mode. In the Final Fantasy example, the game would cost $72 (at $8 per chapter) to buy each individual chapter, or you could buy it wholesale at $60. suddenly it feels like a deal for your main demographic, and a free trial for people who don’t know if they want your game.
There are hundreds of examples and permutations out there for you to play with. Our games have moved into the 21st century, its time for our money to do the same. Hell, it would even be nice to see cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin to get factored into some of these schemes. Keep in mind, I designed these methods for 3 reasons. First, they are designed to lower the bar of entry for new gamers (300 for a console plus 60 bucks for a game is ridiculous by any standard). Second, they are designed to improve designer-player relationships, perhaps at the cost of retailers, but be honest, it’s not like they actually do any real work in getting games to players anyway. They get games, mark them up and make 2x-3x profit just to pretend that infinitely copyable merchandise is somehow difficult to keep stocked. Thirdly, and this is the important bit, they are designed to be used. I intentionally don’t use my real name on this blog because I want no part of the profits from my ideas. If you are making a game and like the sound of one of my models, just use it. Maybe give my associates at Something Wicked Games a callout in your credit reel, but otherwise use my concepts freely. I’m asking JesseSWG if it’s okay to tackle the dark side of monetization, what happens when these strategies fail. Tune in next week for my talk about piracy.