Tablet and Phone games – the philosophy of in-game economies

This is something that has been bugging me for a while, so I wanted to write it down. For whom? Partly for Future Robert, as I am getting more into game development. Games on tablet and phone are headed in the wrong direction. One significant reason why I want to get more into game development, is I want to play a game that I like, that I want to play – and that is fun!

The Problem with modern games:
Here it is in summary, and I’ll talk about each of these points below. The problems are:

  • Barely enough points/money to win the game or level (in-game economy)
  • Many games require in-app-purchases (IAP) to be able to win them
  • After I buy IAPs, the game is still highly weighted against me
  • Often can’t build on previous victories
  • You’re often punished for doing well in the game and given harder challenges with less resources
  • Time limit or life limit for playing, and then you are not allowed to play for some period of time

There has been a dark turn for games in the past 1-2 years, since in-app purchases started. Games leave me (and others) frustrated, annoyed, and aggravated. Why? Well, for the most part, it is a problem with messed-up “in-game economies”.

I define “in-game economies”, as: how the money and points work in the game, and how much value they have. Nowadays as a rule, we are given the bare-minimum to barely survive in the game.

One of my my favorite games to play is Radiant Defense. However, from the first time I played it, I spent most of my time frustrated. I kept saying “What are they thinking? They need to give us way, WAY more spending money than this!”. My reaction was more of a developer, than an end-user. Games are supposed to be an escape. Games typically are supposed to make us feel powerful. However, this new generation of games are not like this. These newer games give you barely-enough, or simply not-enough, to perform the task at hand. Most games leave me feeling frustrated, annoyed, and powerless.

Pyrrhic Victories:
If you are not familiar, this terms means a victory which cost you more then you won. In a game, you want each level and each victory to bring you more, or better – let you build on what you already won!

In Radiant Defense, your earnings from one level are non-transferrable. When you start the next level, you start back at zero. In Clash of Clans, even if you didn’t lose any troops in an attack, they are “absorbed back into the soil”, and you are left with no troops afterwards.

The reason why I find this so frustrating is that REAL LIFE is already FULL of frustrating situations where we can’t get ahead, or pyrrhic victories, or situations where we can’t build on something from before. A game should be an escape from that, not MORE of the same as real life! What are these game developers thinking?

If you are not familiar or if you don’t believe me, check some of these out. See if you feel satisfied or frustrated after playing for :15 minutes:

Now, in the case of the Candy Crush and Pet Rescue for example, I get it. These are obviously big-budget games where professional firms spent money building big games, and expect to make major profits in return. So, they are going to make it difficult or impossible to win, without upgrading or buying in-app purchases.

However, even that is deeply-flawed. Those games for example want to charge $.99 USD for a an item that you can use in ONE round of a game! To me, the economy of the game was decided by suit who is trying to turn a profit. That comes across very clearly because the game is so heavily geared away from your favor, and they really push selling you things on every screen. The priority comes across very clearly as profit-based, and only a minimal amount of fun is allowed – even if you give them money!

Limited Lives:
This is yet another head-scratcher for me. Many of these new games (like Candy Crush and Pet Rescue) limit you to 5 lives, and then you have to wait some specified period of time before you are allowed to play again. Why?

It’s a simple question: why?! You aren’t paying me to play the game, it’s not a privilege to play your game, I’m CHOOSING to waste my time on it – I should get to call the shots! What financial, psychological, or other benefit is there to limiting how much or little a person can play? I truly don’t get it.

Managing the monetization of the game:
Put another way, what is their end-goal? How much money do they want an end-user to spend on that silly game? My guess is they (unrealistically) want people to keep buying upgrades for the game, forever. That is just nuts. That is wildly unreasonable.

Asking a small fee for the game – reasonable. Having some OPTIONAL in-app purchases to make the game better or faster – reasonable. But creating a model where you are nickel-and-dimed throughout, all while the game is frustrating and almost unwinnable? That’s just a horrible plan (despite how popular these games are).

Well, to be clearer, I believe that is a horrible plan because it simply makes for a bad game. Why are they successful then? I think because the good parts of the game are better than most of the other crap that is out there.

Getting back to Radiant Defense, I did buy the 3 or 4 “upgrade packs” at some point, which unlocks “everything”. So, in my opinion, the game should be relatively easy now and I should be able to dominate everything! However, even then, even after I’ve bought everything I can buy – every level after maybe level 5 is a significant struggle – WITH the upgrades. What is the point? Are they just sadists who enjoy frustrating people? I truly don’t get it. You want to convince people to spend money, I get that. But after they do, then pay them back with a good game experience!

Punishing your achievements:
Lastly, another common theme is that most modern games “punish” you for doing well in the game. Some might say they give you a bigger challenge, but often that isn’t the case. Often, you are given a stronger enemy to fight with even less resources. Why punish the end-user for doing well in the game?!?! You should be rewarded with being slightly more stronger (and you also must be more clever) than the enemy with each level. You should be rewarded for winning a level – why WOULDN’T you do it this way?

What’s the answer?
One of my primary goals in any game is to empower the user. Again, I think games are/should-be a fun escape and make you feel powerful. Clash of Clans is probably a better example of this – they let you do quite a bit without any in-app purchases. In the case of that game, the in-app purchases mostly just speed up the process of the game. However, the in-game economy there is way, way off too. You will 2000 gold from one attack, and it costs like 150,000 gold to upgrade a building. Meanwhile, each base you attack is exponentially more equipped, and you pretty level off. Ugh.

So, the answer, to me, is that my first priority for a game is to make it fun. Make the in-game economy such that the user feels powerful and satisfied after playing. Now, that can simply be achieved by including a “difficulty” – which modern games don’t seem to have anymore. Or, if it’s a single difficulty game, make it reasonable and fun.

As a second priority, I’d see in what ways it could be reasonably monetized. To build a game that can’t be won, without buying your IAP’s, is a mistake. There are people that will never pay these things, and all you did was disenfranchise them. Why is that important? Because even if they aren’t a paying customer, they have a mouth – and they will likely badmouth your game to all their friends. It’s just a bad business model. Make all of your customers happy, regardless of how much they pay.

Bottom line, I don’t play a lot of games on the phone or tablet, but when I do, this has bugged me for quite some time, so if/when you ever see games come out from me, know that they will be different than the current stable of games out there that are just frustrating everyone!

Posted in Computers and Internet, New Technology, Uncategorized, XNA and MonoGame

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