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Game Economy Design Essentials Part 3: Warning Signs

Tom Hammond

Written by Tom Hammond on September 14, 2021, LinkedIn

11 minute read

Table of contents

    Game economy design warning signs

    Today we’re looking at the game economy warnings, the cautionary tales, and the red flags that so many game professionals don’t see on the road to game economy success. If you’re ready to get your own clear-cut map of what to avoid and what to run from -- fast -- then stay to my right.

    Table of contents:

     

    • The Introduction: where ‘worst practice’ comes into the game economy design equation
    • Worst Practices: avoid going in blind, avoid getting stuck, avoid staying silent
    • The Conclusion: the value of audience meets the potential of exclusive insight 

    I hope this article helps your economic framework become more informed, more engaging, and more retaining.

    In other words: let’s make you more profitable.

    Let's get right into it.

    Avoid Going In Blind

    I wish I could say we’re starting you off easy here, but the truth is, we’re diving right into the fire. The good news? I’m confident you can handle yourself. So let’s get into the flames.

    In our normal world, we don’t have the luxury of trial and error. If we enter a situation and play it one way, only to realize afterward that we should’ve played it a different way, we can’t exactly rewind time. We’re stuck with our decisions, with our actions. But in the games world, how we fare is up to us -- because whether or not we go into it blind is up to us.

    Am I talking about control models and economic simulations? Absolutely.

    Let’s start with an example: coming off of our last article’s Supply Early, Demand Late best practice, you already know that you have to give players some love early on. You have to make them feel special. Wanted. So you give them the goods -- the currency, the taste of premium content -- but you do it without running a control model or simulation first. 

    Now look -- obviously, as people, we know that being generous is a natural way to earn the trust and affections of those around us. But hear me when I say: if you go into it blind, you’re risking a worst-case scenario. Why? Because there is nothing players hate more than being given something -- and then having it taken away.  

    There’s nothing they hate more than being introduced to a system, only to have that system completely change while they’re still immersed in it, and there’s nothing they hate more than being caught by surprise by something that seems, at its core, unfair.

    So, if you were to start things off by granting players some wealth, and then move them into a system where they receive 6 golds for every goblin they overtake, that becomes the system they see as fact. It’s sturdy, it’s dependable, and it’s what they’ve seen every play session for the last six days. It’s not too hard for them to earn -- and they like that.

    Until your team realizes that it isn’t the most sustainable economic model. You’re giving too many golds away, and your players? They’re all too flush with currency. 

    With the current set-up, you have two options. You can a) reduce the already-established reward per goblin, or b) keep the reward the same -- and alter the rest of your economic framework. (How much currency is required for every offer, for instance -- or how many goblins are available to fight in every level.) 

    The caveat? Your players equate goblins with fun. If you reduce the number of goblins they can fight, you’re directly reducing their fun; if you keep the number of goblins stagnant throughout their gameplay, their fun turns stagnant -- and boring. Your only option to increase fun, in this case, is increasing goblins. But that requires you to increase rewards -- which devalues them.

    At that point, you can bring in a fresh currency -- one that hasn’t been devalued -- and you can bring in a new roster of enemies, slowly phasing out your goblins. But if you look at that complexity, at the time and effort required for altering your entire economic framework, and cringe… you’ll likely think it’s just easier to reduce the reward-per-goblin quota. 

    Players do get angry

    You’ll think that your players will just get it. Or that they won’t even notice. But here’s where I implore you: do not underestimate their capacity for anger.

    “Spenders feel particularly aggrieved due to their prior investment, which can now feel undermined,”

     

    expert game economist Nick Murray says of the situation.

    “And games with chat functionality mean word can spread quickly -- and to damaging effect.”

    Your players never want to feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them. And if you start by doing things one way, earn their trust, and then shift gears and pull back -- they will not be casual about it. 

    They will not respect your decision to change, and they will not feel inclined to continue on the same way they were before. It’s a betrayal. And it’ll be treated as such. 

    So how do you avoid getting into a situation like this? Simple: you test the waters before you wave everyone in. If you had run a control model or simulation of the economy before you attached every goblin to six golds, you’d have realized that linking set rewards to specific gameplay experiences isn’t a smart strategy.

    In fact, rewards should be relatively isolated from exact instances of gameplay. Instead of tying golds to a cut-and-dry task -- overtaking a goblin -- they should be tied to situations. 

    • When a player clears an area of opposers: reward. 
    • When a player manages to get the locked chest open: reward. 

    When the situation in question is broader than just one easy-to-repeat task, it’s laden with opportunities for change; that change is what breeds excitement, challenge, and continued engagement. In doses much larger than any goblin-for-reward set-up ever could. 

    The point? By retaining control over rewards -- and which situations prompt their release -- you’re retaining control of your players’ experiences. Without making their blood boil. You’re designing an economy with control methods that make the value of currency simple to regulate, and you’re, from a holistic standpoint, setting your game up for success.

    And hey, yes, even with all of the models and simulations in the world, you’ll likely still run into a problem here or a crisis there. But they’ll help smooth your journey -- and illuminate the would-be pitfalls and trapdoors -- immeasurably.

    So?

    Don’t link rewards to one-off tasks. Don’t enrage your playerbase, giving them reason to leave. And don’t -- whatever you do -- go into things blind.

    Not when you have all of the tools for 20/20 vision at your fingertips.

    That’s our Danger Zone #1. Ready for #2? Of course you are.

    The Avoid Getting Stuck 

    For our second Danger Zone, we’re getting back to the emotional side of things. 

    Now, I know we’ve talked quite a bit about modulation here -- mixing things up, keeping things exciting -- and that’s because it’s one of the biggest differentiators a game can have. Why? Because in today’s world, players get bored. Easily. 

    It’s not enough to wow them with a killer premise or shock them with an amazing reveal. It’s not enough to offer them the craziest weapon they’ve ever seen, and it’s not enough to show them a store that boasts 500 hundred different item options. 

    To truly sustain their engagement over the long-term, you have to pull them in by their emotions. You have to keep new, exciting content and game objectives coming -- and you have to get them invested, taking control of their experience. But that doesn’t mean holding them at a 10 (intensity level) for weeks on end; if you give them anything for long enough, it’ll lose its appeal. (Ahem… Danger Zone.)

    Which is where modulation comes into your economic framework. To keep your players excited -- to keep them coming back -- they can’t just be stuck in one economic reality. They’ve got to experience the full gamut. They’ve got to feel satisfaction and anticipation. Frustration and suspense. 

    Okay, but… how do you ensure that they do? Simple: you construct structural, premise-driven instances that force play cycles to break into pieces. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

    Your player is working towards a goal. They know that every challenge gives them the opportunity to win a reward; they know that if they acquire enough rewards, they can reach the goal. It’s a cycle: enter the game, play a challenge, win or lose a reward.

    Even if the challenges evolve and even if the rewards become more alluring, the cycle itself will turn stale. When things are predictable -- when players know exactly how to progress and exactly what comes next -- the sense of primal hunger to get there is gone. And that takes the emotional intensity out of the equation.

    This is where you leverage the power of leaving. 

    You incorporate moments into your game where your player actually needs to leave the game in order to progress -- and you watch as their play cycle is interrupted. You watch as they wait with bated breath to re-enter the game, and you watch as their desire to play -- even after weeks or months of progress -- continues to increase.

    How do those ‘forced breaks’ actually look in the game? 

    • “Your stamina’s been used up! Wait 60 minutes for it to cool down.” 
    • “Your egg will hatch in 30 minutes. What’s inside will determine where you can go next!”
    • “The next guild challenge is happening at 9pm PT. Give your tanks time to charge up until then!” 

    The point of these breaks, no matter how you implement them, is to force your players to give themselves a breather -- on your terms. When there are game-related reasons to leave, there are game-related reasons to return; by getting your players out of the app in a way that they can’t control (or predict), you’re causing their hunger for resuming game-play to skyrocket. 

    Another benefit? As Nick tells us,

     

    “Scarcity is equal to expensive.”

     

    The more rare something is, the higher the price -- or the value -- you can set for it. And that applies to time scarcity, too; if you make players wait for something they know is coming, you’re not just building up anticipation. You’re ramping up perceived value. That makes your economic markers -- the egg that needs 30 minutes to hatch, for instance -- at reduced risk of losing their appeal. 

    The bottom line is, what’s great fun for 10 minutes a day can’t consistently be great fun for 60 minutes a day. That's the truth. So take control of your players’ experiences, take control of the emotional investment they have in their play cycles, and incite suspense for them. 

    And remember: what’s predictable is boring, and what’s boring is never sustainable. So? Don’t put yourself in the danger zone. Don’t get stuck. 

    Avoid Staying Quiet

    By now, you know to avoid going into things blindly and you know to avoid getting stuck in progress cycles -- so here, in our third and final Danger Zone, we’re looking at something different. Something that almost every game is guilty of doing at some point in their history… intentionally or not.

    Curious? It’s actually pretty simple: we like to mold the economic markers and offers, schedule them for release, and then release them -- without giving them the safety-net they need for success. 

    On the front-end of things, we’re all hands on deck, all of the time. We know the effort required of us. We know what it takes to bring a new currency or a new sink event or a new bundle to life. But when those markers are out of our hands and into our players’? It’s common practice for us to forget about them. 

    To let them be as they may, circling back only to analyze and reflect later on. To stay quiet, sometimes watching in the rearview and sometimes forgetting about them entirely.

    So, here’s where I tell you: don’t do that. Don’t fall into that common practice. Don’t go mute the second they leave your care.

    The success of your offers -- how well they excite, engage, and retain your players -- is contingent on your follow-up.

    On your continued conversation. It’s not just set-it-and-forget-it; what you put out into your game has a life of its own, and that life needs nourishment.

    Fail to give it what it needs and it’ll fail, period.

    So? Let’s look at what avoiding the Danger Zone means in practice: say you’re giving your players boost packs as their most common offer; you’re assuring them that they’re useful, effective, impactful, but they’re just… not buying it. According to the numbers, they’re not excited, they’re not engaged, and they’re definitely not enthralled enough, by those offers alone, to feel the urgent need to return.

    But the strategy upholding your economic framework relies on those offers. Those boost packs are what you planned for -- and you’re committed to making them work. So how do you get involved in changing your players’ perceptions? How do you turn their reactions from bleh to wow, yes please? 

    You teach them.

    That’s right: instead of just dropping boost packs into the game and letting them take their natural course, you contextualize them so that your players get it. You create moments for them to learn, and then you give them a high-relevance lesson in value. 

    The first step to doing that?

    Stop and consider the five why’s:

    • Why is the player not impressed, specifically, with this boost pack?
    • Why do they think it’s not valuable?
    • Why don’t they know how to properly use it?
    • Why are they hoarding it, not giving it the chance to impact their gameplay?
    • Why are they yearning for something different (in other words: which needs aren’t being met)?

    Before you can effectively teach, you must know the state of the minds you’re showing up to mold. By taking the time to get to know your players’ opinions -- where they’re coming from, why they feel the ways that they do -- you’re setting your moments of persuasion up to be impactful. Not just generally, but specifically. So reflect.

    And then, once you’ve acquired your answers, it’s time to put them to work. How? By getting creative. 

    Re-teaching moments that pop up for them immediately after receiving the boost pack, showcasing all of the use-case potential. Re-teaching moments that pop up for players who’ve been hoarding a boost pack for a certain amount of time, or re-teaching moments that pop up for players who’ve accumulated (and hoarded) a certain number of them. 

    Teach, teach, and teach some more. Empower your players to see the boost packs as you do: high-value. And then, when you’ve integrated enough teaching moments, shift your focus to other creative methods of control.

    Put limits on how long a player can hold onto the boost pack without deploying it, forcing them to engage with (and witness) the value. Put limits on how many boost packs a player can have in their arsenal at once, or put limits on where a player can progress to if they have over a certain threshold of packs hoarded. 

    Incorporate new messaging to more accurately convey what they do. Incorporate new examples (in new formats) to more clearly showcase exactly how they can be used. And then, consider new ways of generating perceived value.

    We already talked about scarcity and time scarcity, so use them to your advantage. Turn boost packs into exclusive opportunities for gameplay simply by making them less available; instead of offering the same boost packs over and over again, change it up. Bring anticipation and unpredictability into the picture -- and then use your teaching (or re-teaching) moments to guide players towards getting it.

    Every new moment of teaching, and every new method of control, helps to mitigate the knowledge gap. And that helps your players squeeze every morsel of potential out of their boost pack experience.

    The power to change perception, to create value where your players didn’t see value before, is within you. All it takes is some reflection, some creativity, and a refusal to stay silent on the sidelines. 

    Don’t forget about your economic markers and offers as soon as they leave your care. Don’t stay helpless, and don’t stay quiet. Continue to track them -- at every stage -- and you’ll see the difference that makes reflected in your most salient metrics. And you’ll be able to sidestep the Danger Zone. Seamlessly.

    In Conclusion…

    If this game economy series has taught you anything, let it be that your business is your players. 

    When you impress them, you sustain them. When you bore them, you lose them. When you create with them in mind, you come out victorious. When you create without taking them into account, you deflate your own potential.

    But most importantly, you’ve given yourself the insider’s look. You’ve donned your players’ mindset and you’ve blinked until their point of view became clear. You’ve prioritized their wants before the wants of your operations, and you’ve taken the time to understand why that approach makes all the difference. 

    You were bold, you were dedicated, and you were studious. And now it’s time for you to go out there and spread what you’ve learned.

    Teach it to your colleagues. Sing it to your operations. Breathe it into your next steps. But whatever you do, never underestimate the power of creating with your audience in mind.

    Now, I know we’ve gone on quite the deep-dive together here, and you likely need some time to soak it all in. So take it. Dim the screen, grab a coffee, relax.

    And then, when you feel refreshed -- when your urgency to learn more returns -- join me right back here for some more helpful tips.

    -------

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