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Written by Tom Hammond on July 28, 2021, LinkedIn
Today we’re looking at best practices for creating a framework for crafting a game economy that keeps your audience persistently enthralled and coming back for more.
But first - a special thanks to some brilliant minds who helped bring this article to life: Javier Barnes, the Senior Product Manager at Tilting Point brought a seasoned and veteran perspective to our writing and helped craft the narrative.
And thanks to Nick Murry, F2P Product Consultant at Games Consulting. His PocketGamer Masterclass on Game Economy Design and Optimisation added great contribution to this article. Nick is an 11-year veteran of the F2P industry.
Today, we’re getting serious about action. With the right formulas in place today, you’ll have less to think about, plan about, and stress about tomorrow. And while that doesn’t mean you’ll be home-free, it does mean you’ll have a much more lucrative grip on your economy from Day 1.
Your game’s fullest profitability -- and most satisfied playerbase -- is waiting. Let’s take a look at the best practices it takes to get you there.
We’ve all seen it happen: players enter a game, pulled in by an invigorating premise. They move through their first play session and things are okay. They continue on to their second, and then their third -- and then they start to realize how, to get to the place they want to be in the game, it’s going to take a long time.
Accumulating wealth is hard.
Getting access to resources is hard.
They have two choices: spend out of pocket or wait -- for what feels like forever -- to have any sort of power in the game at all.
In the real world, this scenario can be seen in full in Coin Master. As soon as you leave the game’s FTUE, you have 18 whole stars to call your own. You’re feeling good -- like the whole world is at your fingertips. And then you open the leaderboard. What comes up? Thanh, the #1 player in your country has… drumroll, please… 52,403 stars.
That’s only 52,385 away from where you’re standing.
Obviously, faced with this reality, you’re turned off. Players are frustrated, they’re annoyed, and just as quickly as they entered the game… they leave it.
And this happens more commonly than you’d think. Even though to us it’s predictable and critical to avoid, to some game economists, the severity of this scenario’s outcome -- let’s call it Scenario A -- isn’t as clear. But that’s just one of the less-than-ideal scenarios I have for you. So? Let’s take a look at Scenario B.
Players enter a game. Something about the game premise has spoken to them, so they’re ready to be engaged. Their first play session starts, and they’re given enough in-game wealth to make empowered decisions. Without spending any of their own money.
They can buy what they want, arm themselves with the best tools, and advance through content as quickly as they’d like to. They’re rolling in it. And that wealth continues on through play sessions two and three.
It’s awesome. It’s energetic. It’s completely autonomous -- with a little effort here and a little time there, they can achieve anything they want.
But then the fourth play session rolls around. And the fifth. And the eighth. And guess what? Nothing’s changed.
They’re getting everything they want, every time. They’re accumulating more and more currency, and they’re acquiring more and more resources. The excitement of killing it, the liveliness of being able to achieve whatever they want to achieve -- it dissipates. It’s easy. It’s too easy. It’s no longer fun.
And the other thing to think about here? How fast content is getting burned through. Satisfying, compelling, high-quality content doesn’t just create itself -- and if you’re giving players the opportunity to progress with no real barriers to entry, your team is going to have to keep up. That’s quite a load to hold on their shoulders.
They’ll have to pump out top-notch content constantly. They’ll have to adhere to demand and run marathon after marathon on the content treadmil, and they’ll have to ensure -- at the same time -- that they’re holding the players’ interest. Not just creating more of the same, but creating more and better.
Because if things get boring, players will leave. If they stop getting clear-cut objectives, exciting challenges, and spruced-up variations from your game, they’ll find ‘em somewhere else. So while you might have two months’ worth of perfectly planned, well-balanced content up your sleeve, players in this scenario could burn through it in two days -- and leave you stranded. Abandoned. Desperate for new material -- even if it’s less-than.
The real-world result? You have good (or even great) short-term and long-term retention, but you’re constantly hustling to add more content -- and nobody is spending. Per-user in-game currencies are skyrocketing (which you know because you track them), but you’re not monetizing. And your in-house people are exhausted.
Let me give you a little secret. The solution? It comes down, in totality, to one best practice.
If you want to avoid the two doom-and-gloom scenarios outlined above, this is your key.
Here’s how you do it:
This tip falls into three branches. First: give your players enough to feel special as soon as they enter the game. Like we saw in Scenario B, there’s a unique sense of empowerment that comes from offering players wealth, or resources, before anything’s really started. It makes them feel in control -- and wanted. It makes them feel like the game’s theirs for the taking. So leverage that. Hook them.
And then make sure it’s clear that if they leave, they’ll lose everything they’ve obtained. That all of the time they’ve invested so far would be for naught. Once you have their attention securely in your hands, it’s time for the second branch: give them the resources they need to explore the best of the best. The premium economy. Let them feel immersed -- and let them feel familiarized.
Why? Because players are always more likely to spend if they know, firsthand, what they’re spending for; if you give them a taste with a free demo now, they’ll want that premium lifestyle for themselves later. And they’ll be ready to pony up for it.
And finally, we’re at branch #3: give them a feeling of glory that they didn’t see coming -- and ignite anticipation for what’s still left to come. Yes, of course I have an example for you: if you grant players a 4-star character right at the beginning of their play journey, they’ll be overcome with the sense that they’ve received a hidden gem. But the truth is, that character will eventually require a lot of resources from them. This is great for your non-paying players who also get access to high-quality content they’d normally have to spend to earn.
Another idea? Set up content calendars that send players gifts (which actually impress them) when they reach D+3 or D+7, for instance. The surprise will keep them immersed, simultaneously enjoying the thrill of a new gift and wondering when the next one will land in their laps.
But an important note to make here is: what’s deemed high-value early on won’t necessarily have the same effect on your players down the road. If we look at CSR2 and Racing Rivals, where the games are oriented around car fans, receiving a car is obviously exciting at the beginning of the game. But then the value shifts from wanting a car -- a blank canvas for racing -- and wanting the upgrades that’ll really make it stand out on the course.
So, in order to keep players invested in the game for the long haul, our branches tell us that you’ve got to give them supply early on. But not just any supply. Hit them with the supply that they actually want -- the supply that sparks excitement -- and you’ll be giving your game the space it needs to monetize and retain.
The problem with the first scenario we outlined earlier was that the player never got a chance to meaningfully advance. The problem with the second scenario was that all the player ever did was advance. With this best practice, your goal is to find that sweet, sweet middle ground -- giving your players the feeling of early-onset victory by Supplying Early, and then confronting them with… challenge. And that’s where Demanding Late comes in.
Your players have wealth. They have resources. They’re sitting pretty in their third play session, and they’re rolling right along. But then the challenges -- they get harder. The rewards get fewer and further between. Accumulating wealth or experience is made progressively more difficult, and when they look at the offers and items that’ll get them to their next win-moment -- they can’t immediately reach them. Challenge.
The goal? A nonstop cycle of stress and relief. Of hardship and of ease. They progress, they’re faced with pressure to monetize, and then they progress again. The second the cycle halts, the game is -- you guessed it -- no longer sustainable.
Let’s look at that in action: in CSR2, players enter the cycle by acquiring a car and cheap upgrades. This is their easy progression -- their early supply -- and they’re satisfied. But then, their progression is slowed down; the necessary upgrades to remain competitive become expensive, requiring the player to engage in other game activities in order to accumulate enough to proceed. Then, there’s catharsis: the enemy crew is defeated, the player earns the next tier’s car, and the whole cycle repeats.
But if you’re sitting there thinking -- how do we, in practice, instill the ‘demand late’ challenges without killing our retention? -- I’ve got you covered. The key is: always make sure you’re providing a visible path for progression.
There are two ways to do it. First, you need to be equating engagement with clear opportunities to advance -- if players can see that a certain amount of time/effort will get them where they’re trying to go, they’ll be more likely to engage. (Real-world game Battle Passes goes a step further by making monetization an accelerator of the value of playing time, so going that route is an attractive option too.)
Second, in every event or content cycle, you must be providing a layer of easily accessible content -- and leveraging that content to produce subsequent opportunities for monetization. There’s a difference between cornering your players, requiring them to spend for progress, and giving them the option to spend.
When you phrase things like, “pay to avoid losing the opportunity” or “pay to extract the maximum value from your time,” you’re empowering them to decide for themselves. And players love autonomy. In fact, they love it so much that it keeps them coming back.
Still with me? Still breathing? You did great -- and we’re most of the way through the meat. But there is some news I have to break to you here: the Supply Early, Demand Late best practice is not one-size-fits-all. In fact, for different genres and business models, it can look pretty different. And… it should.
If we have a 4X strategy game with a positive ROAS on D180 and big long-term retention and ARPPU on one side, and then Idle Tycoon with crazy fast ROAS but poor long-term retention on the other, we’re going to be witnessing some vastly different monetization tactics at play.
For instance: Idle Tycoon will likely add monetization to the ‘Supply’ stage of the cycle, because if they wait until the later stage, they’ll lose players -- and their chance of monetizing. As a result, their economists’ focus will be on how to effectively integrate monetization tactics without repelling players; tactics like progress accelerators will be leaned on. Heavily.
It goes without saying that the progress pacing of both genres will look different. Progress in our 4X strategy game example might feel slower and require more time/effort investment to achieve, whereas the less involved Idle Tycoon might bring a more casual, rapid tempo to the table.
The point? This principle, this best practice, is applicable to any use-case -- but, like everything I preach in these articles, it’s open to your tweaks. It won’t work perfectly for your game unless you make it work perfectly for your game. So figure out what your game type and your business model need to wield it wisely, and then get to work.
Phew -- that takes us to our next best practice on the list...
Now, this principle is a little more flexible -- and a little more meta. Because it’s imploring you to make interesting decisions as you set up the correct in-game framework, but it’s also imploring you to give your players the chance to make interesting decisions of their own.
And guess what? Both of those asks are directly linked to each other.
Here’s what I mean: in order to give your players something they haven’t seen before, you’ve got to get creative. You’ve got to think outside of the box. You’ve got to play around, keep your mind open, and keep your eyes on freshness. And it’s not enough to just do it once, or a couple of times here and there -- it has to be your constant. Originality has to be your status quo.
But let’s double down. How do you know if you’re implementing this best practice successfully? How can you tell if you’re really hitting the mark? Ask yourself these questions:
If you can say with certainty that your players are able to independently choose their own path through the game, then you’re giving them the power to make interesting decisions. And not just interesting decisions in general terms, but interesting decisions as it relates to each of their specific interests.
Let’s double back to our first article: Know Your Audience. We talked about player classifications, motivations, and behaviors. Well, my friends, guess what? Those knowledge tidbits are just as applicable here -- all we have to do is reorient them.
For the ‘make interesting decisions’ principle, we need player personas that allow us to understand your audience’s nuanced and natural decision-making so that we can be ready with the right options. Player personas like:
Just like with your initial audience classification work, the key here is knowing the audience of your game -- deeply. What personas are attracted to your game, in which proportions? Do you have more Challenge Seekers than Wealth Hoarders? More Fashionistas than anything else?
Obviously, the type of game you have will give you a clear picture of your audience’s general interests -- the playerbase for a 4X strategy game will look quite different from a casual home reno game -- but that doesn’t mean you should only craft your interesting decision options around one primary persona. Ensure you’re checking all of the boxes in a reasonable way -- and your retention levels will show it.
But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t drop a quick warning here about appealing too hard to one specific player-type -- and seeing the wrong kind of consequences in your churn rate as a result. Nick Murray, an expert game economy consultant at GamesConsulting.net, explains that “allowing your players to spend all of their wealth acquiring cosmetic items and upgrades could be responsible for them leaving the game.”
Why? Because even if you have a playerbase full of Fashionistas who love taking the high-style decision options, they still won’t be satisfied by stagnant progress. And cosmetic items rarely have any bearing on advancement in the game.
Nick’s solution? “Limit their ability to spend.” Not necessarily in the game as a whole, but directly for cosmetic goods; if they can’t expend all of their resources on non-impactful offers and options, then they’ll be more focused on the offers and options that bring them progress. And that, in turn, will keep them away from a stagnant power balance graph trend. Which means they’ll keep on coming back.
Here’s an example of the best practice at work: your player, on level 7 of the game, passes through a checkpoint where he’s offered three different options.
Three choices. Each offers something different, something interesting, and something that will affect his future gameplay -- and the status of his current wealth. Because there’s no ‘right’ answer, there’s a deep sense of suspense -- upping the intensity of the game and the feeling of autonomy for the player.
Now, let’s look at a different scenario. Your player, on level 7, passes through a checkpoint. He can either…
Obviously, these aren’t three equally interesting choices. They certainly don’t appeal to different personas or different interests; few would be dense enough to follow options B or C. It’s clear that those options don’t carry much substance -- or impact on gameplay -- at all.
With this decision, the would-be sense of suspense never got the chance to start, and the would-be sense of autonomy feels false -- if it even exists. Games legend Sid Meier famously said,
“Games are a series of interesting decisions.”
And he’s right. Games are created to mimic the free will of everyday life, grounded in other-worldly experiences where risk and danger are present, but never real. Never truly damaging. Without that sense of empowerment -- without that sense of freedom -- they just don’t have the same pull.
Your players will be bored. Or they’ll be annoyed. Or they’ll be disappointed. However you flip it, the same action will be taken: they’ll leave. And they won’t come back.
The examples I gave you above were environment-based, but we can skew it towards economic markers and get the same results. See here: your players complete a challenge successfully and are given the option to choose between a bomb, a power boost, or a healing potion.
Real-world game Archero does this very well throughout its gameplay; players make some progress, and then they choose their new ability. Each ability changes the gameplay -- and the possible success outcome.
That’s an interesting decision.
Conversely, your players complete a challenge and are given the chance to choose between a flower crown, a power boost, and a new jacket for their character. That’s two cosmetic options and one concrete-value option. It’s inherently less of an interesting decision -- and the outcome is pretty predictable.
So how can you determine whether your players are finding the choices you give them to be as interesting -- and as meaningful -- as you do? Ask yourself…
Look at your answers -- you should, of course, be tracking and A/B testing them rigorously -- and come to a conclusion. A holistic conclusion: how much currency, of each currency type, do players have before and after the decision? What are they lacking? What are they flush with? How does that affect the decisions they make?
Remember: the results tend to be honest with what they tell you.
When your players feel empowered to create their own in-game experience -- like their decisions actually matter -- they derive meaning from the game. But when they’re simply being passed through the motions, they could be anywhere. In any game. Don’t wait for them to realize that.
But here’s where I tell you: it’s crucial to remember that what’s interesting at one moment, in one level, will not be equally interesting in another. And that has to do with the evolution of in-game difficulty, currency value, and time required for progress. Too vague? Think about it like this: as the one pulling the strings of the game, you have the power to adjust the framework to control your players’ experiences.
You can lengthen the power curve of a game by getting creative, adding new modes for gameplay (that require additional power-ups or harder levels) -- which puts new content, and new frameworks for interacting with it, at the forefront. Not only does this increase the game’s innate length, but it also provides you with an abundance of opportunities to generate new interesting decisions for your players -- without any of the tired options they’ve seen before. (Because even if the options, like currency or tasks, are the same, what they mean to gameplay is different.)
Let’s break that down.
In Clash of Clans at Town Hall 2, it costs you a total of 36k gold to upgrade every building to max:
But at Town Hall 5 things are starting to feel a little expensive. It's starting to take more than one raid to gather enough resources to complete your building upgrades.
To say nothing of how expensive the walls are getting. In fact, it's now going to cost almost 2 million coins to upgrade all of them! To say nothing of the cost of the lab upgrades. And buying them with gems is sure getting pricey:
All said, it's going to cost you a pretty penny to upgrade everything at Town Hall Level 5:
But you keep playing. And battling. And as you continue to raid your way through hundreds of levels and (hopefully) thousands of interesting battle decisions -- where the loot on the line begins to mean different things.
At Town Hall 7, things continue to get more pricey. Clocking in at 14.2m in walls alone! With the overall cost to max TH7 at:
Fast forward to Town Hall 11, where a single piece of your 300 wall pieces cost 2 million coins alone to upgrade. That's 300x more than upgrading every wall piece at TH5! All said you're going to need almost 500 million gold to upgrade everything at TH11 and it just keeps going!
While 10,000 gold coins felt like a good plenty at the beginning at TH1 or TH2, by the time you make it to TH12, having that type of wealth is mind-bogglingly small. In short, the value of gold has changed over the course of the game and because gold has changed in value, what the game’s string-puller can do with it has changed too.
When you ask different things of your players -- like exerting more effort to pass through a challenge, more time to pass through a level, or more resources to accrue the thing they so badly want -- what you’re really opening the door for is new ways to excite them. If you propose 10m gold in a special offer at at TH6, everyone would jump on that offer as you could nearly instantly max every building in your base.
But if you offer that same amount as a special offer at TH12, you’ll be offering them something very unmeaningful as you could maybe upgrade a single building for that amount.
All of this is to say: context matters. Don’t just produce options that seem blindly interesting; know exactly how interesting they’ll be by having a clear read on the environment you’re dropping them into. And if the environment’s been stagnant -- or familiar -- for quite some time, change it up. Add to the power curve. Increase the difficulty. Require more. And your options will have no choice but to follow suit -- becoming more interesting and more impactful.
And we’ll finish up here with one more caveat. Creating interesting decisions for your players to derive autonomy, excitement, and engagement from is integral to the success (i.e. retention) of your game -- but it’s also something you shouldn’t be doing with unrestrained abandon. Here’s why: the more decisions you add to the pot, the more decisions you’ll have to keep stirring.
That means analyzing and iterating every possibility. Every experience permutation and every variable, you and your team will have to be on top of. And you’ll have to be confident producing new options at the same time.
Ultimately, the goal for streamlined productivity here would be to distill all options down onto one easy-to-track line, allowing for ease of analysis and modification whenever necessary. (Hint: often.) Take it from me: the more you can do to prepare options that offer some degree of standardization in your operations, the easier a time your team will have maintaining -- and learning -- from them. It’s a balance, but when you get it right? It’s magic.
And that, my friends, is Best Practice #2.
It was dense, it was arduous, and it was full of twists and turns. It was detailed, it was eye-opening, and it was... fun. I hope.
Bust mostly I want to thank you for taking the time to join me and hear some of my thoughts.
Next up on our to-do list is getting down and dirty with the bad. No more best practices, no more reliable principles -- instead, we’re taking a tango with the pitfalls and complications that have left many of our real smart colleagues struggling to find their footing.
We’re looking at the danger zones. At the surprise drops and the red flags, at the ‘avoid-at-all-costs’ and ‘AVOID-AT-ALL-COSTS’ -- and I’ll be giving it to you straight. Unfiltered. Actionable. That’s what’s awaiting you, so keep your eyes peeled here.
And let’s get you ready for your game to reach its fullest potential.
Think you’ll show up?? I hope to see you there.
Til’ next time.
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