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Game Economy Design Essentials Part 1: Know Your Audience

 

Welcome back. In our last article on the fundamentals of game economy design, we took a detailed look at game economy design from an operations perspective. But today, we’re getting a little more free.

A little more abstract, and a little more creative. 

Tom Hammond by Tom Hammond
14 minute read

Table of Contents

 

Welcome back. In our last article on the fundamentals of game economy design, we took a detailed look at game economy design from an operations perspective. But today, we’re getting a little more free.

A little more abstract, and a little more creative. 

Table of Contents:

The Introduction: why the audience perspective matters

The Baseline: pacing, characteristics, currency

The Audience: the psychological deep-dive you’ve been waiting for

Bonus tip: Plus the secret they don’t want you to know about archetypes

The Conclusion: the knowledge saga that’s coming up next

But, just because we're getting free and a bit more creative it doesn’t mean that this article will be jam-packed with the wishy-washy fluff. It doesn’t mean that our hypotheses won’t have hard proof lined up behind them, and it doesn’t mean that we’ll be championing imagination above certainty.

What it does mean is that we’ll be taking a step away from the technical -- and inching closer towards the human. The emotional pull of an invigorating game. The visceral energy of a frustrating game. The feeling of adventure, of action, and of community in the games that earn their steady place in the market.

We touched on modulation in our first economy series -- the need to shift economic markers in order to shift our players’ experiences -- but today, we’ll be getting deeper. We’ll be looking at the why. At the how. And, of course, at the what happens if you don’t.

It’ll be eye-opening, it’ll be interesting, and it’ll leave you with that ah-ha! moment you know and love. Because, yes, a game’s economy cannot run optimally without the right operational direction… but it certainly cannot run at all if there are no players to engage with it.

With this article and the upcoming series of articles, you’ll learn how to hook those players through psychology. You’ll learn how to retain them through analytics. And you’ll learn just why walking in their shoes, seeing with their eyes, and feeling with their hearts -- and guts -- makes all the difference in keeping your game thriving for years.

Remember the goals from last time we talked?

  • Keep things interesting.
  • Keep things alluring.
  • Keep things challenging.
  • Keep things exciting. 

Those were our goals when we were looking at things from your in-house vantage point. They still ring true. Give me the next ten minutes of your time and I’ll illuminate exactly who your audience is and what your audience wants -- and exactly how you can give it to them.

I hope you made some tea or maybe macha. Something good.

Let's get started.

The Baseline

If you’ll recall from our Fundamentals article, the one thing every single optimized game economy has is… balance. 

When there are highs, they’re balanced with lows; when there are deficits, they’re balanced with surpluses. It’s a quick-moving, spontaneous-seeming, alway-unpredictable (to the untrained eye) approach, and it’s what entrances players. Which is why every game economy designer points to it as their holy grail.

Balance.

But what does that mean, really? What are the features of balance? The criteria for achieving it -- and the rules for upholding it? What are the musts that players expect to see, and what are the manifestations that hold their attention steady?

Today’s article will illuminate those answers. It’ll give you specifics, it’ll arm you with tools, and it’ll prepare you with insight. But before we get into the deep stuff, we first need to understand the foundation. The baseline. The objectives.

As in, the objectives that every balanced game economy has in their driver’s seat. The objectives that fuel their vision, direct their movement, and keep their audiences immersed, impressed, and confident in their decision to play your game.

So… what are the objectives? Well, that’s up to you. Every game ascribes their goals (and the details within them) differently, because every game is, at its core, different. But I know that’s not the most helpful answer in the world -- so I’m laying out the objective types that will give you the jumping-off point you need to customize with ease:

The Pace

How fast players progress through every challenge, every level, and the game as a whole is a crucial factor in determining when, how, and to what end your economic markers will interact with them. When will they earn currency? How will they acquire assets? When you cement a pacing structure for your game, you’re allowing your team to work off of a stable variable -- and decide the corresponding details in a way that makes the most sense.

It’s that degree of control that enables you to craft a pacing structure that keeps your players coming back. So what does that pacing structure -- the ‘right’ pacing structure -- look like? The right pacing structure is the one that offers as much frustration as it does satisfaction. The one that gives your players friction and reward in equal doses. Ah, yes -- balance. Nail this objective, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping your audience captivated.

The Characteristics

When a player enters your game, what are the elements they can immediately (or nearly immediately) point to and say, those are what this game is all about? Is it a racing game, with the goal of winning the highest amount of trophies? Is it an apocalyptic battle game, with the goal of racking up the most zombie kills? Is it a sports game, with the goal of adding the best real-world athlete characters to your team?

Whatever the characteristics -- the driving forces of your game -- are, they need to be established early on. Like, here. Now. Because when you know a) what they are, b) how they’re represented, and c) how they’re obtained, your team will be able to mold the economic framework of the game, in its entirety, more intentionally. And your players will be able to understand what makes your game’s value unique -- and special. (Plus, they won’t have to deal with the confusion of being shown a whole new roster of elements midway through the game -- because your team forgot to design with intention.)

The Currency

At the end of the day, your game is a business -- and determining what its in-game currency will look like, what it’ll cost (when compared to real-world currency), and how it’ll be given out is integral to optimizing your profitability. And, of course, your players’ experiences with the game.

Think about it like this: if the in-game currency can only be earned through gameplay (and never purchased), you’ll be fostering a very specific, very pure competitive community… but your monetization will likely struggle. If you do offer in-game currency for purchase, but charge high prices for buying it, you might monetize one segment of your audience -- but you’ll disengage the others.

With this objective, you’re pinpointing the right balance between fair competition and add-on opportunities. Between reasonability and monetization. And you’re giving your team a clear, sturdy foundation for deciding how currency will impact players in their everyday play sessions. 

So there you have it: the classifications of figuring out just what, on earth, your objectives for building the right game economy for your audience will be. 

They might seem big and daunting now, but believe me -- the second you dive in, the second your team starts really mulling over what the insides of your game should look like, the markers will fall into place. It’s a combination of gut instinct, industry know-how, and game-specific passion. And if you’re here with me now, reading all of this? Safe to say you have a hearty dose of all three.

Objectives set you off on the right path. They serve as your building blocks, and they serve as your map. If you’re going to build a game economy that captures your audience’s attention and fulfills them on a regular basis, these objectives have got to be sturdy. 

They’ve got to be specific, and they’ve got to be special. 

So, with that said, let’s get to know your audience a little bit better, shall we?

The Targets

Here’s the thing: you can create the most meticulously intentional objectives possible for your game’s economy. You can set up the most intricate yet symbiotic framework, and you can get even the most accomplished game economy designers bowing down to your work in earnest.

You can do all of that -- but if it’s not right for the audience your game is naturally targeting, it won’t work. It won’t generate what you’re expecting it to generate. It won’t be optimized, it won’t be lucrative, and it certainly won’t be sticking around for the amount of time you have in mind.

Just like with any aspect of any business, the first step to defining your game’s economic framework is defining your audience. If your audience skews young and is casual with their gameplay, requiring them to pony up funds early on to be competitive won’t do much for your retention. But if you’re promoting a game that’s differentiating itself as a place for serious, skillful gamers -- then that barrier to entry could entice the right kind of audience from the get-go. 

See? Knowing your audience intimately gives you the power to create not just an ideal game economy, but the right ideal game economy. And that’s useful stuff. 

In the Fundamentals of Game Economy Design article, I broke down the four categories of players -- giving you the bare-bones understanding of what motivates each type. Today, we’re going to dive deeper. 

The Player Types

We’re going to build those player profiles up so you can see why they have the motivations they do, what their motivations require to be fulfilled, and how you can spin their needs on their heads, keeping things interesting.  

Ready? Let’s go:

Mobile game personality type - Explorers

 

The Explorers:

We know that Explorers are motivated by discovery -- by coming across new opportunities, venturing through new environments, and being surprised by new circumstances. So that’s their motivation. But what are they willing to do to immerse themselves in those rare flashes of freshness?

The truth is, just about anything. They’ll engage in monotonous tasks over and over again if it means something’s waiting on the other side. They’ll spend hours searching for that hidden trapdoor if it means they’ll eventually be transported somewhere special. Their end-goal is discovery -- not recognition, not validation -- and because of that, they’re eager to play the game for themselves.

They’re not bridled by being the fastest or the most skilled (unless, of course, those traits take them to more discoveries). They don’t need the championship trophy to stay invested. What they do need are sparks -- little rewards of newness every so often that tell them, yes, there is discovery in it for you.

So why are they the way that they are? Your Explorers are explorers because they like taking risks in controlled settings. They like feeling the rush of discovery from behind the safety of their screen, and they like feeling the power of being ‘first on the scene’ without any of the danger of what that could bring in real-life.

They’re cautious, realistic, and pragmatic. Which is why, inside the safety of your game, they’re ready to do what needs to be done in order to catch a glimpse of that ‘something new’ -- and earn the excitement that follows.

Mobile game personality type - Achievers

 

The Achievers:

Achievers live and breathe the more-more-more mentality. We know they’re always searching for the next way to prove their expertise, and we know they’re always searching for the next opportunity to assert their mastery. They relish in the process of being challenged -- and in the growth that follows -- and whether they’re exacting strategy in private or showing off their aptitude for the whole playerbase to see, they’re driven by the pride they have in their gameplay.

They don’t always need a physical marker of their accomplishments to be happy -- but those markers are nice. Whether it’s a cosmetic badge or entry to an elite challenge, a place up top in the game’s leaderboard or a shoutout in the weekly newsletter, they like when their efforts are seen. And when their acumen is validated.

What does that mean? It means that to engage your Achievers, you need to constantly be giving them more to engage with. Harder challenges, more complicated levels, newer skills to master -- the only way to hang onto their attention is to keep them focused on getting better. So, while throwing a cosmetic token their way gives them a dose of fun, it won’t be the hook that incites their return tomorrow.

Achievers make up about 10% of any population, so when you win them over, you’re winning over a sizable chunk of your playerbase. But winning them over isn’t a one-and-done; in order to ensure you have what it takes to keep them hooked over the long-term, you need to pay special attention to how you evolve what you’re offering.

Levels and challenges must become harder and harder. Events and content must bring them new ways to strategize. Tangible markers of skill -- the rewards for their hard work -- must become more and more alluring. Stagnation is the antithesis to an Achiever’s motivation, which means always moving forward -- and offering bigger, bolder, better ways to declare their development -- is key.


So why are they the way they are? Achievers are achievers because of their innate sense of self-driven competitiveness. They could be athletes or entrepreneurs, perfectionists or longtime gamers; whatever they are, they’re used to working hard for results. Winning in your game is just another facet of winning in their lives -- they’re playing to get better, to prove their dexterity, and to feel the high that comes with succeeding. Where there’s a challenge, there’s a way.

Mobile game personality type - Socializers

 

The Socializers:

It likely won’t surprise you that the vast majority of players fall into the Socializer category -- they’re entering games to interact and play with their peers, and they’re drawn to the games that allow them to do that in new ways. Whether it’s a multiplayer battle game with players on the same team or a community lifestyle game that requires characters to cooperate with each other to accomplish goals, they’re attracted to game premises and challenges that encourage collaboration.

It could be as simple as communicating with the players around them while they strive to win a challenge or as complex as being a part of an established team from Day 1. The point is, they’re pulled in by opportunities to share experiences with likeminded people -- making them feel less alone in the game world, and making them feel like that game world is a little more real.

Other methods of enforcing that sense of community include special events where players get to celebrate with each other, special items that players can send to their peers, and special channels for peers to communicate with each other -- during, and even after, gameplay.

Why spend time crafting that sense of community? Because it’s that sense, in and of itself, that motivates your players to keep coming back to the game. If you can create a community unlike any other, then that will be your biggest differentiator -- and, since the vast majority of your players fall into the Socializer category, it’ll fulfill the needs of most of your playerbase.

So why are they the way that they are? Socializers love to socialize for the same reason we as people love to socialize: we’re social creatures, and interacting with the people around us makes us feel less alone. In the games space, that means that players feel less alone in their love of gaming -- like the people around them truly get their passion for playing. And being understood -- and valued -- for that passion is a huge driver for their continued interactions.

Socializers might be shy in real life, or they might be accustomed to being the life of the party; in either case, the game world gives them an alternate universe to be the character they’d like to be. Whether that’s being more outgoing or more generous (with more wealth to give), more adventurous or more strategic, having the safety of a contained universe empowers them to try out a new characterization without any risk.

Instead of being fulfilled by accomplishments or rewards, Socializers are fulfilled by community interactions. To keep them coming back, you’ll need to find ways to build on shallow interactions for deeper connections -- creating a one-of-a-kind community that players can only access in your game. 

 

Mobile game personality type - Killers

 

The Killers:

And finally we land on our final category of players -- the Killers. The Killers share some atributes with our Achievers, in that they’re pulled into a game (or challenge) when there’s a clear-cut opportunity to show off their prowess. They live for competition, for power, and for coming out on top; they take ‘motivated by winning’ to a whole new level, needing to feel the breeze of triumph before they’re ever truly satisfied.

And when I say triumph, I mean triumph -- for Killers, they need to win (and everyone else must lose) to be happy. Anything less simply won’t do. It might seem cruel -- or at the very least, laden with poor sportsmanship -- but for this archetype, being the absolute best (and earning the recognition that goes along with it) is the whole point. And since there’s only room for 1 at the top of the top, they need every one of their peers to stack up after them.

Obviously, appeasing the needs of a multitude of Killers is impossible; you can’t make every Killer the best of the best, and even where there’s ambition, there’s not guaranteed skill. So, it’s not about fulfilling their needs for them. It is about giving them the right opportunities to fulfill their own needs (ahem, fight to the death).

That could mean giving the best reward in any given challenge to the top winner, rather than to the top three or four. It could mean showcasing leadership scoreboards at the end of every gameplay session, giving Killers a hearty dose of motivation to return to the app and do better. Or it could mean making all #1 rewards temporary, so that when they do win, they’ll only have their ‘crown’ for a period of time before it disappears and must be earned again.

Anything you can do to ignite your Killers’ killer instinct -- and keep them coming back over and over again -- is a good thing. And even though Killers only comprise about 1% of your playerbase, their commitment to being the best is unwavering. So when they decide they like your game, they’ll likely be in it for the long haul.

Why are they the way that they are? Like Achievers, their competitive spirit runs deep; unlike Achievers, that competitive spirit is only sated when they’ve reached the peak and forbidden everyone else to join them. That means they’re operating out of a scarcity mentality where there’s not enough victory to go around -- and if there is, then it isn’t really victory.

They’re driven by being special. By garning all of the recognition for being indisputably superior. Maybe games are the one arena they feel powerful in, or maybe games are just an extension of the competitiveness in other areas of their life; whatever the rationale, they’re out for blood 100% of the time. They hold themselves to near-impossible standards, and when they hit them -- they expect applause. Of the loudest variety.

Explorers, Achievers, Socializers, and Killers. There you go -- you’ve met them all now. Properly. You know their interests, their motivations, and their psychological backgrounds. You know what makes them tick and what makes them leave, and you know what they’re expecting from you and your game. 

But like we touched on in our last article together: simply knowing the archetype groups isn’t enough. Simply knowing how your audience is made up -- the proportions of each archetype -- isn’t enough. Because your players? They’re human.

And humans are complicated. Undefinable. Unwilling to be put -- and locked -- into a box.

That means your Achievers might love to socialize. Your Explorers could love to win. You may have Killers that are only motivated by the games that have awesome communities, and you may have Socializers that can’t wait to destroy every one of their teammates on the scoreboard.

The lines are blurred, the motivations are intertwined, and the archetypes seem less archetype-y than ever before. So what do you do now? How can you design a game economy that really speaks to your players if there isn’t a clear-cut, absolute way to understand each and every one of them? 

This is probably going to be the only time you hear me say this, but the key here is to not overthink it. So long as you have economic elements (and, of course, game premise elements) that appeal to every archetype group, you’re covered. 

Look, it’s obviously useful to know what your audience looks like. It’s useful to understand if your players are game veterans who are overwhelmingly interested in strategy or whether they’re casual and young, excited by playing against their friends. It’s useful to know what they’re willing to spend money for, and it’s useful to know the type of play experiences they’re used to -- so you can one-up them.

There’s a lot of use to having a good handle on your audience’s player types and proportions. But there’s also a lot of use in making sure you have a catch-all net in place. If you’ve got a lot of Killers, you’ve got a lot of Killers; don’t ignore the Socializers because of it. Because if you do, your Killers might be engaged for a while. But that urge they have to be part of a community, to foster camaraderie, to communicate with peers?

It won’t be met. And you’ll start losing those Killers too. 

So identify, understand, and then make sure there’s something for everyone. For every need and for every urge. Because you’re shooting for sustainability -- so avoid a one-noted gameplay. And engage them for the long haul.

In Conclusion…

Those are the basics. That’s your introduction. But when it comes to audience -- understanding their choices and getting up close and personal with their impulses -- there’s a whole lot more waiting for you.

In Part II of our audience-skewed Game Economy trilogy, we’ll be getting into the nitty gritty of audience behavior. What gets them interested in accumulating wealth in a game? What gets them interested in buying? What keeps them coming back after a week, a month, a year of play sessions?

I’ve got all of your answers -- and they’re waiting for you, patiently, in our next article. So you can take the intel and squeeze it for all it’s worth. (And by the way, it’s worth a whole lot.) 

Think you’ll show up?? I hope to see you there.

Til’ next time.

-------

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