The Fundamentals of Game Economy Design
Any mobile game professional worth their salt knows that the economy inside of a game has the power to make or break it. But it’s not just your experience with the industry that tells you how crucial the in-game economy is; it’s your experience as a person. With the real-world economy.
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Any mobile game professional worth their salt knows that the economy inside of a game has the power to make or break it. But it’s not just your experience with the industry that tells you how crucial the in-game economy is; it’s your experience as a person. With the real-world economy.
Even without any mobile game exposure at all, we know that the real-world economy affects our careers, our families, and our trajectories. We know that it affects what we’re offered and what we’re buying, and we know that it affects, in one way or another, every experience we have.
Since games are designed to be microcosms of life, we instinctively know that their economies will be just as far-reaching. Or that they should be.
Why? Because, just like with our real-world economy, when an in-game economy is working optimally it isn’t just affecting one aspect of its players’ lives. It isn’t just leaving the game’s monetization tactics maximized or its players interested in buying. What it is doing is affecting everything -- leaving its audience enthralled from a holistic standpoint.
What is game economy design?
A well-balanced game economy challenges, excites, and fulfills. It provides players with the right amount of friction, and it provides them with the right amount of satisfaction. But most importantly? It keeps them coming back for more.
A strong game economy is integral to your game’s longevity. It’s a huge factor, a huge undertaking, but if you’re daunted -- don’t be. The process of getting it right is involved, but it’s not impossible.
And that’s why I’m bringing you this Game Economy series.
I know how scary tinkering with a game economy can seem, so I decided to set out and remove its mask. To pull back the curtains and give you the full, 100% transparent tour. So you can get rid of that fear and start taking educated action.
I’ll break down the basics, walk you through the strategies, and give you the tips & tricks that the most successful games running today call their own. I’ll make the process not just possible, but doable for you, and I’ll show you that the ideal game economy is closer than you think.
Not convinced yet? I like you already.
Keep reading and let me prove you wrong.
Before we dive into the details, we need to make sure you have a handle on the basics -- and that’s where the context comes in. Listen up: as someone who’s genuinely invested in the success of a game, there should be nothing more important to you than nailing its backbone.
What is the backbone of your game? The economy.
From how and when players are able to buy to what the in-game currency actually is, the minutiae of the economic foundation can be endless. But the most important thing to remember is that they’re all connected by one common goal:
Keep your players coming back.
That’s the singular aim of your economy, and as you work through the multitude of tasks and details, that’s what you should be constantly driving towards. Got it? Good. Let’s get back to those details.
What are they? Who’s in charge of managing them? Who decides their fate, who observes their successes and analyzes their problems, and who keeps their eyes open for different ways to improve?
Just like the development of your game’s LiveOps, the development of your game’s economy requires cooperation -- in excess. There are tons of different moving parts, tons of different places for things to go wrong, and tons of different hands needed onboard at all times. All of that means that your team better be working together -- and they better be working together well.
So let's take a look at the DNA of an ideal game economy team. If you already have an all-star team working on your game economy - feel free to skip ahead.
Meet the Team
Game Designers: In charge of all game mechanics and narratives, Game Designers are the directors who call the shots on how the game functions as a whole. But you already knew that. While larger games have specialized Game Economy Designers in-house to determine the details and practices of the economy, smaller games typically allocate these tasks to their general Designers -- so taking it upon yourself to dig deep, pull from the expertise of your team, and adjust as you grow your knowledge is crucial.
Game Artists: These are the team members that produce the look and feel of your game, these are the experts that bring your economy decisions to (virtual) life -- making the environments worth being in, the items worth purchasing, and the challenges worth winning. The most ‘customer-facing’ role in your team, everything they do is for direct, tangible player consumption. And that means their intentions need to be absolutely aligned with the team’s.
Game Programmers/QA: The masters of backend cohesion, your Game Programmers and QA people are responsible for making all of your choices, visions, and dreams reality. Working closely with them on all matters relating to the economy is a non-option; without their capabilities and insight, bugs would reign free. Within the state of your game’s economy there should always be a balancing act of trying new things and ensuring the tech’s quality is stable -- and that requires constant communication with your programmers.
Project Managers & LiveOps Specialists: The brave souls in charge of keeping your game’s content, release schedule, analytics, and adjustments running smoothly at every interval, the Project Managers & LiveOps Specialists must be involved in the molding process of the economy. Why? Because everything they do is contingent on there being a sturdy, relevant, and aligned economic foundation -- so when that foundation is first built or subsequently adjusted, they better be in the know. (And also, since their strategies and offers will directly impact the fabric of the economy, the importance of constant communication goes both ways.)
Depending on the size of your game, the number of people who hold those roles will vary; while a big game will have a team of Game Economy Designers focused solely on designing economy-related systems, balancing numerical indicators, and working on monetization tactics, newer games might only have one general Game Designer attempting to build the economy from scratch.
In both scenarios, knowledge is key. And as we know from our LiveOps Essentials series, the key to knowledge is planning.
Planning to learn is what gets you learning. Planning to accomplish is what gets you accomplishing. Planning to adjust, to be flexible where you need to be, and to keep an eye out for opportunities to improve is what gets you improving. So take that insight and lock it in.
Let’s come back to the goal we established early on. Keep players coming back. Since we’re planning to accomplish, pinpointing goals is an unmissable step -- so let’s get even more specific. How will you keep players coming back? Day 1 or Day 300, how will you keep them feeling like they’re learning -- and experiencing -- something new? By achieving these four sub-goals:
- Keeping things interesting
- Keeping things alluring
- Keeping things challenging
- Keeping things exciting
Seem interchangeable? Seem too similar, or too vague? Then it’s a good thing we still have the rest of the article to go -- hold onto your hats, because we’re about to break down the four steps to implementing a well-balanced game economy. And if you’re guessing that each step is oriented around a sub-goal, you’d be right on the money.
Step 1: Establish the Basics
Beginning our route to a well-balanced game economy, the first step necessitates that all good things come from a sturdy foundation. The sturdy foundation in this case? Knowing, in precise terms, what your basic game values are.
And then quantifying them.
If your eyes are already rolling back in your head, don’t worry -- I promised you simplicity, and that’s what you’re going to get. So let’s take a step back. The first thing to understand is that, in any game genre and in any game structure, your main resource is time.
Remember that spending time is a transaction.
Think about it like this: every time a player enters your game, a transaction occurs. The transaction? Your play session in exchange for their time. The more time they spend playing in the game, the more lucrative the transaction is; the more times they come back into the game and play, the more lucrative your relationship with that player is.
The bottom line is, you want to keep them playing. So: time is the most sacred, and most important resource.
Knowing that, you need to compare all other game values to time. Maybe those game values are challenges, levels, and rewards; in all cases, you need to determine how long it should take the player to beat, conquer, or earn them.
That’s where the method of quantifying comes in.
Once you understand how much time each goal your players are working towards demands, you’ll be positioned to finagle the right balance between difficulty and satisfaction. And what will that do? That will keep things interesting. (Yes, that was our first sub-goal call-out. Good eye.)
But in order to take on Step 1 with the confidence -- and acumen -- of someone who knows what they’re doing, you first need to do your homework. As in, you need to get to know your audience. Intimately. What are they after? What’s pulling them in? What energizes them, what annoys them, and what gets their hands reaching towards their virtual wallets?
To answer those hard-hitters, the secret is breaking your playerbase down. Into archetypes.
Take a look:
The Explorers: They play games to discover new environments, new challenges, and new opportunities. They’re driven by finding areas, things, & moments they’ve never experienced before. And they’re motivated by freshness.
The Achievers: They play games to become experts at them -- and leave with the knowledge that they’re the masters of the (game) universe. From winning one-off challenges to accumulating the highest number of scarce resources, they’re driven by mastery. And they’re motivated by prowess.
The Socializers: They play games to interact with other players. Driven by the sense of comeradery and community, they’re compelled by being surrounded by others who share their interest in playing. And they’re motivated by connection.
The Killers: They play games to assert dominance -- plain and simple. Whether it’s fighting other players, outsmarting surrounding bots, or overtaking entire challenges, they’re driven by the notion of being the best to ever do it. And they’re motivated by victory.
Once you’ve pinpointed those archetypes, it’s time to segment your audience into proportions. Here’s why: if you know that 90% of your players are killers -- that they’re only interested in and motivated by opportunities to fight (and win) -- then you’re likely not going to spend a great deal of time designing bonus puzzle challenges or cosmetic outfit add-ons.
Unless… those bonus challenges and cosmetic add-ons appeal to an audience segment that, though small, is mighty with their spending. And that’s why doing your due diligence about which audience archetypes bring in the most amount of cash is essential to deciding how your economic framework will function.
The reality is, the spending habits of different archetype groups aren’t created equal -- in one game I work with, for instance, only 10% of our audience is made up of Killers. But that 10% is responsible for 80% of our revenue. (Is that an ah-ha! moment or what?)
Socializers are highly prevalent in Free-to-Play games today, but that doesn’t necessitate that your game economy’s set-up should only be skewed towards the Socializer mentality. Because if it is, that means you’re losing out on the earning potential from the other groups’ larger spending habits.
So figure out your archetype proportions. Figure out how much spending each archetype does. And then calculate, based on that knowledge, where you should be focusing your attention to get the most bang for your ‘effort’ buck. When you do that, you won’t just be creating a game economy that’s well-balanced. You’ll be creating a game economy that’s well-balanced for your audience.
Doing your research -- and establishing your basics -- now is the only way to avoid digging pitfalls that your team will fall into later. And speaking of pitfalls… I’m going to leave you with a cautionary tale of one of the biggest:
Don’t overgeneralize your players.
While it’s true that most players have a tendency towards one type of motivation, at the end of the day, they’re human. They’re complex, they’re spontaneous, and they’re constantly evolving. So don’t put them in one box and then forget about them, and don’t put your audience as a whole into one description and then forget about it.
Achievers will like Socializing. Killers will like Discovering. You can’t create a game economy that perfectly targets your unique archetype proportions because those proportions are not certain -- and they’re not stagnant.
Step 2: Differentiate the Resources
The second checkpoint on our route to the ideal economy comes down to pinpointing the resources you’ll be doling out to your players -- and untangling their meanings (and uses) from each other.
Think about it like this: in your life, the things you buy (or think about buying) fulfill different needs and different desires. If you have $100 to spend, you could buy a new pair of shoes or a high-tech phone case; you could buy a nice meal or a gift for your brother’s birthday. The options are endless, and you’re aware of all of them.
Your game should offer that same plurality to its players. And they should be empowered to make choices, express individuality, and achieve different things based on the decisions they make.
That brings us to the topic of in-game resources: the items, currency, or abilities your players can purchase, win, or otherwise accrue during their time in the game. Depending on your game type and genre, the resources you make available to your audience will vary -- and that leaves us, from a general standpoint, with infinite resource types to cover.
So we won’t even try.
Instead, we’ll point you over to Javier Barnes’ expertly laid-out article on Game Currencies: Types and Usage for that high-value dose of extra reading.
But now, back to what we can do -- and that includes breaking down the three categories of resources, so you can use that quick-thinking brain of yours to think about your game’s offerings strategically:
Investment Resources: These are the resources that your players can acquire to impact their playability. Think power boosts, keys needed to access the locked level, weapons that make them more competitive against their opponents -- anything that can get them progressing faster falls into this category.
Non-Investment Resources: On the opposite side of the spectrum, non-investment resources are the resources that do not directly affect gameplay. They’re the cosmetic tokens, the new outfits, the updated vehicle paintjobs -- and while they do give the players a euphoric sense of autonomy, they don’t do much else.
Progress Index: And then we have the outlier -- the intangible resource that sometimes affects gameplay and sometimes does not. It could be measured in a player’s experience with the game, a player’s specific type of wealth, or some other qualifier entirely -- whatever the variable being measured is, it has the power to determine progress.
Think about it like this: when you were 14 years old, if you wanted to get your driver’s license, could you have? No, you couldn’t have -- you had to wait until you were 16, just like everyone else.
That ‘age’ variable, in games, is commonly articulated through ‘experience points’ -- which may or may not be shown as physical markers to players. In some instances, they’ll have no bearing over a player’s progression; in other instances, they could be the thing that stops them from advancing or furthers their pursuit.
Whether the variable in question is age or experience, a specific type of wealth (as conveyed through having purchased the highest number of new cars over your gameplay history, for instance), or some other qualifier -- it can be used to affect gameplay, and for that reason, it’s an integral classification of resource.
So those are the classifications of resources we’re working with, and if you want to keep things alluring -- yes, that is our sub-goal #2 -- you’ll need to pay attention to the balance between them.
Okay, but… what does that actually mean? It’s simple: remember in our LiveOps Essentials series, where we talked about the dangers of allowing your players to pay for success? If you’re enabling your players to consistently buy their progress, whether through weapons, vehicles, or abilities/boosts, then you’re reducing the allure of the game itself.
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It becomes less competitive. Less earnest. Less pure. And that reduction in allure only grows as you make more buy-for-success resources available.
So as you’re establishing the right balance between investment resources, non-investment resources, and the resource of progress, you need to be keeping a close watch on just how many investment resources you let out of the box. When they are available, they need to be intentional. And they need to not repel -- or worse, disappoint -- the players who refuse to buy their way to the top.
As you consider how your resource classifications will shine through in your game, here are a few things to keep in mind:
💁 Audience Matters
First and foremost, you’ve got to know your audience inside and out. Just as you got to know your players in Step 1 of this series, dividing them into their different archetype groups, you need to get to know them again here -- but this time, in demographic and psychographic terms. Are you appealing to veteran gamers or amateurs? Middle-aged business people who take 5-minute ‘me-time’ breaks to play throughout the day or college students who plan to spend entire evenings lost in the game?
The more you know about your audience’s attributes -- both physical and behavioral -- the better you’ll be able to ascribe them the right personas. And when you have those, you’ll have the insight required to pinpoint the differences in your audience groups’ needs and expectations -- and enact an economic framework that hits them all.
And remember: when you bring resources to the table in new ways -- such as offering pins for every level passed that players get to customize themselves or the chance to trade in 15 smaller items for a whole vehicle change -- your audience, regardless of their persona, will take notice. Unique opportunities to ‘accumulate wealth’ -- and progress -- will keep everyone across the board coming back. Because they won’t find those opportunities anywhere else.
🎨 Creativity Matters
If it’s not already clear, creativity matters. Not just in terms of the physical manifestations of the resources -- the cars and the character upgrades and the boosts -- but in terms of how and when they’re made available. You should be taking other games’ strategy decisions into account as you formulate the right way forward: giving players what they’ve historically been responding to, but still finding places to surprise them.
Are your players used to getting the chance to purchase a stronger weapon at the end of each level? Do the games you compete with only allow their players to play as one character throughout their journey? Find creative ways to surpass expectations within the same resource classifications -- and get ready for allure to rain down.
🌱 Freshness Matters
So you’ve got to keep things fresh from a market perspective, but you also have to keep things fresh from a your-game-only perspective. Since the golden rule is keeping players coming back, as they move through challenges and levels, the goal is to give them access to the same resource categories in new and exciting ways. In other words: that means giving them something different -- consistently.
Whether you promote the kick-ass weapons that become available after Level 7 or you have an in-game store that has the best cosmetic items on display for a price way out of your players’ budgets, the important thing is that you’re signifying better things are coming -- so they better hold on tight. (This is also a great way to utilize the ‘experience’ Progress Index resource and get your players motivated to play the long game.)
Determining your resource balance is integral to staying on-course for your game economy as a whole. Once you have the right proportions set up, you can start playing around with how they’ll manifest in the game -- and that’s when the real fun starts.
Step 3: Construct the System
You’ve figured out the basics -- your primary resources and your primary audience groups. You’ve identified your resource classifications and you’ve started learning about how to offer them in a balanced, satisfying, and alluring way. Those are two huge jobs, and you should be proud of your efforts with them. But now, I’m going to need you to focus.
Because the system construction isn’t something you can be an observant bystander for. It’s not something you can take on passively, and it’s not something you can move through with indifference. So, with that said, let’s take the plunge.
Let’s start talking about the system.
The cost system.
This is the framework that’ll decide the relationship between your content and your in-game currency. It’s the framework that sets reasonable prices, pinpoints the worth of all things, and establishes the pecking order of value. But it’s also the framework that decides how to mark milestones for players -- whether that means giving them an amount of currency for each level passed, a cosmetic token for each challenge won, or something else entirely.
To sum all of that up: the cost system is the system that determines what needs to be paid -- in currency or in time -- in order to acquire the item (or ability, or boost, or character) in question.
Now, to build a cost system that does exactly what you want it to do -- i.e. keep your players coming back -- you need to be mindful of the big balance target:
Things need to be challenging, but not impossible.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is sub-goal #3. Keep things challenging. If your players can obtain any item, boost, character, or win they want with ease, then they won’t want it for long. The sense of fight, of determination, will be depleted from their gameplay, and the highs won’t feel as high (or high at all).
When things are easy, they’re not rewarding. And if your reward system is built on a foundation of ease, that means your rewards are not doing the very thing they were created to do. So starting your cost system off on the right foot is integral to your audience’s experience with your game -- and your game’s survival down the road.
Here are the prompts you should be thinking about here:
- What is the soft currency? How much hard (real-world) currency is required to buy one unit of soft currency?
- Aside from just buying soft currency, are there other ways for players to acquire it? Does winning a challenge result in earning it? What about passing a level -- do they automatically get a certain amount?
- Is there a limit to how much currency a player can buy at one time?
- Is there a limit to how much currency a player can have at any given time?
Once you have your answers -- or you’ve started down the track of finding them -- you’ll be better equipped to start setting your resource prices. But remember: even though you’re connecting each item to an amount of currency, what you’re really doing is connecting each item to an amount of time.
Think about it like this: if a player earns 100 coins every time he wins a challenge, you have two options for maintaining a balanced game economy:
- You adjust the frequency of the challenges so that, when the player does earn that currency, it’s a rare enough occasion to be a big deal. The challenges would be difficult enough, the opportunities to partake scarce enough, and the reward that follows -- 100 coins -- meaningful enough to warrant their determination to come back and do it again.
- You adjust the prices of all things available for purchase in the game, so that even though there are frequent challenges and frequent opportunities to win 100 coins, it would take 1,000 coins -- at minimum -- to buy anything truly meaningful. Those meaningful but expensive rewards would keep the player coming back session after session -- simply because they weren’t easy to acquire.
Whichever way you choose to orient your cost system, you must be able to see, understand, and adjust all moving parts at any time. That means that, if we go back to our 100-coin-per-challenge example, you know (without much thought) how frequently the average player will receive 100 coins.
You know the stage in their gameplay where they’ll be eligible to purchase a sizable item -- the most in-demand weapon, for instance -- and you know at what stage in their gameplay they’ll be frustrated, working towards a new prize that’s just presented itself -- a prize they can’t currently afford.
You know all of those things, and that allows you to take stock of the needs, behaviors, and emotions of your players at any point in the game. That allows you to tweak the cost system if you’re losing their interest or causing too much frustration, and it allows you to offer more or less depending on what the games around you are offering, to stay competitive.
Getting the cost system nailed down early on is important -- that’s a given. But being open to adjusting it, to molding it weeks and months down the line to better fit what your audience is looking for, is just as crucial.
Step 4: Modulate the Adventure
Now, if you’re scrunching your nose in disbelief that I’d have the audacity to describe gameplay as an adventure after throwing so much technical know-how at you these past four steps -- stop it. Unscrunch.
Because, yes, every game has a technical underpinning that requires experts like you to spend countless hours learning…
But every game also has something much less tangible. Much less concrete. Something exhilarating, unignorable, indescribable. Something magical.
And that, my friends, is where this step comes in.
Earlier I described all games as microcosms of life. And I meant it. In life, we have ups and downs -- we have happy peaks and sad valleys, we have boring interludes and chaotic sequences, and we have uncertainty.
In fact, uncertainty is the only thing we can ever truly be certain of.
The best games emulate that uncertainty. They bring peaks and valleys, stability and chaos, and they offer their players a gripping sense of excitement because things are so unpredictable.
Keep things exciting. Remember our fourth sub-goal? This is where it gets its time to shine. And if you’re wondering how things as dry as economic markers can be thrilling, or how strategies as mundane as balancing deficits with surpluses can be exhilarating, I’ve got some good news: you’re about to find out.
Here’s how to use economic modulation to create sustainable excitement -- with ease:
🔮 Be Omniscient:
As the manager of your game’s economy, you’re the one pulling the strings and deciding the fates of the players inside. With that power comes responsibility: it’s your job to know everything. All of the time.
You must know what proportion of your playerbase is broke, unable to buy anything of substance, and you must know what proportion is flush with currency. You must know how each event will impact the economic standing of your audience, and you must know how new offer releases will impact the emotional investment of your players. I’ll say it again: you must know everything, all of the time. And you must be prepared to act on that insight.
📐 Be Precise:
Precision comes down to taking your observations (as an omniscient power) and combining them with your knowledge of how your resources, within the cost system you’ve constructed, should be working. That combination of intel allows you to understand why things are the way they are with your players’ current experiences, but also where they’ll be if nothing changes.
Let’s look at an example: if all other variables remain the same and an upcoming challenge will award 5,000 coins to the winner -- with all other players having no more than 100 coins in wealth -- then you know the mass frustration of not being able to buy anything of value will only increase at the sight of a peer getting so much, so fast.
If your players are coming off of a ‘peak’ moment, and the reason they’re all so broke is because they just bought something meaningful, then that could be a beneficial outcome for you -- because experiencing lows makes them want to get the highs back that much more. But, if they’ve never felt the joy of being able to buy something of value and their frustration has been lingering since Day 1, you could cause so much frustration that they get turned off from the game altogether -- and exit the app.
The key is having the wherewithal to know what your choices are, how they’ll affect your players’ emotional experience, and when it’s time to make which call. In all areas, being precise is the only option.
😈 Be Ruthless:
Armed with your omniscience and your precision, here’s where you become the economic mastermind you were born to be. We know that emotional modulation is the key to crafting a consistently exciting game, so -- even though it can seem manipulative or downright cruel to thrust your players into hardship -- let me assure you that it’s necessary. Being ruthless is part of the job.
As we know from our cost system breakdown, rewards that are too easy don’t feel like rewards at all. The same goes for happiness: if all we know is joy, it won’t feel like joy. It’ll feel like any other day. So bringing bursts of fresh emotion into the adventure is a must -- and here’s how you do that in practice.
If you’re seeing that your players are doing well with their earnings -- there’s a surplus of wealth, and they have the ability to buy just about any meaningful offer you’re putting out there -- it’s time to rein that power in. Adjust your economy accordingly: raise prices, take offers off of the market, and make it harder to earn more wealth at all. (Maybe that means raising the difficulty of challenges, or maybe it means reducing the frequency of challenges -- it’s up to you.)
Get creative, get impactful, and get ruthless. Because it’s actually in your players’ best interest -- they can’t experience those highs unless they’ve felt the lows.
And now we’re into the final stage of pro-level emotional modulation, and this one might have you squirming a little more than the last -- so bear with me. Every decision you make when it comes to adjusting your economic system -- in order to mold your players’ emotional experiences -- should be intentional. That’s a given. But what also should be intentional is when you leave things… be.
Time for an example: your players were on a wealth-acquiring streak, enjoying the excitement of earning, earning, and earning some more. They were filled with triumph. The game world was theirs. Until you modulated things: you made the gameplay harder. Challenges were trickier to win; points were trickier to earn; offers were barely within reach, if they were within reach at all. You got them frustrated. You got them angry.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, because now they’re in the upper range of levels, they’re invested in the game, and they really want to be in control. They’re pissed off. They’re fuming. But instead of modulating -- as you’re used to doing -- so that your players experience 2-3 different emotions (that run the gamut of highs/lows) per game session, you keep things steady. You change nothing.
Because you want to keep them mad.
The thing is, when your players have reached the highest levels, and they’re truly invested in the game itself, rage is a tactic that can be utilized to benefit everyone. How? Because unlike with newcomers to the game, these players won’t be driven away by a little frustration -- they’ve already put too much effort, and too much time, into the game. So, since they won’t walk away, their rage will fuel the one thing you want every one of your players to have.
Anticipation is the precursor to -- the warning cry of -- excitement. And it keeps players coming back over and over again. So yeah, be intentional with your decisions to tweak and adjust. But also be intentional with your decision to do nothing and let rage run free.
There you have it: the factors for modulating economics in order to mold the emotional experiences you want your players to have. It’s a mouthful, but it’s effective. Trust me.
And now that we’ve covered the four complete steps to creating the ideal game economy, I want to leave you with something more overarching before we part ways. A guiding light of sorts. So read this last section… and then go out into the world with your economic guns blazing.
The Name of the Game is Balance
The bottom line is, regardless of what genre your game falls into, who its audience is, or how long it’s been around, the name of the game is balance. Period. Balancing your economic markers, balancing your players’ wealth, balancing your players’ emotions -- it’s all crucial to the functioning of your game.
Because when you have a balanced game, you have captivated players. And when you have captivated players, you have a sustainable business model.
Okay, okay, you know that balancing is the key. But how do you ensure your systems are working as they should be? How can you know with certainty that your steps to maintaining balance are actually generating the outcomes you thought they would? Is it just about using your eyes, ears, and instincts -- or is there something more concrete to fall back on?
Great questions. And I’ve got just the answer you’re looking for.
There is something concrete. Something certain. Something reliable.
It’s called decomposition. And, if you do it right, it’ll tell you with absolute clarity whether your game is as balanced as you need it to be. Or whether it’s falling short.
Let’s break it down:
- Decomposition: the process of dividing your game into segments, and then tallying up all of the expenses and all of the revenues within each -- with the end-goal of reaching a game-wide zero-sum.
Confused? Don’t be. Take a look at the nitty-gritty:
You might think that the segments I’m referring to here are the natural breaks in gameplay -- like levels or challenges -- that your players will be moving through sequentially. And you might be right. But that isn’t a given because, if you’ll recall from the first article in this trilogy, what our backbone resource for any game economy is -- and what we’re really looking at here is -- time.
So when we segment, we segment from a time perspective. The first time a new player enters the game -- what does that play segment look like? The first day a player is in the game -- what does that segment look like? The first week they’re in it -- how does that segment stack up?
If you have a game that makes one, and only one, level available to its players every day, then you have a pretty clearcut framework for segmentation. But if your game gives its players more autonomy in choosing when and for how long they play, then segmenting will require some educated estimates -- and analytic prowess. (Use data from existing players to track averages, and then segment based on those.)
And after that first week is up, what will your time segments look like? The most efficient way of doing things is to keep your lens focused on the long-term. Segments that account for general understandings of time, but that cover large expanses of potential gameplay, enable you to look at things big-picture.
Here’s an example division framework: onboarding → extended onboarding → early game → mid-game → late game → end game.
With this example, your “end game” segment arises after a year (or more) of gameplay, showing you just how crucial a big-picture look is for being able to design, understand, and adjust a game economy. (If you had one segment for every week of gameplay, you’d have 52+ segments -- which would be highly strenuous, if not implausible, to balance.)
In addition to making things easier, a wide-lens approach to segmenting also grants you more accuracy; we know that the further we move away from a player’s initial install date, the less precise we are with pinpointing their gameplay. There’s immense variability in how each player progresses through the game, and because of that, getting stuck in our own backend forecasting can lead to trouble when things are in full-swing. With generalized segmentation, we keep space for that variability -- and use the insight we accumulate along the way to increase specificity in real-time.
If you read the term ‘zero-sum’ and immediately flashed back to feeling less-than in Econ 101, don’t fret -- this stage in the process is actually just simple arithmetic. See, when something’s described as zero-sum, all it means is that its component parts have added up to zero. So let’s apply that to your game.
In every one of your game segments, your players will have revenue and they’ll have expenses. Revenue could be coins they win from completing a challenge or boosts they earn for passing a level, and expenses could be the vehicle upgrade they purchased, the second life they paid for, or the special event ticket they had to buy for entry.
Like life, there will always be revenue and expenses. And the ratio of revenue to expenses in any given segment will change. Some segments might see your players accumulating wealth with a heavy hand, while other segments might see that wealth taken away by shiny offers in the blink of an eye.
The key to an ideally-functioning game economy is that, when all is said and done, your game’s revenues and expenses have crossed each other out -- so there’s nothing but zero. So there’s nothing but balance.
What does that do? That helps to maintain your game economy as one that offers highs and lows in equal -- but never predictable -- doses. That helps to ensure your players’ wealth and your players’ debt are never out of control, and that helps to guarantee your players are always left wanting something more. (And coming back into the game to get it.) So? The zero-sum rule is king.
But… there is an exception here. And that exception comes down to Free-to-Play games. I’ll break that exception down for you later on, in an upcoming series -- so be patient -- but until then, just know that things are always customizable. So if something doesn’t fit quite right for your game, don’t be afraid to shake things up.
The name of the game is balance. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, and I’ll keep shouting it from the rooftops until it reaches every game designer out there. Balance is what brings anticipation, balance is what brings loyalty, and balance is what brings sustainability.
So cement it into your headspace -- and then get moving.
Whew -- we did it. Wipe that sweat from your brow.
We looked at the basics. We journeyed through the big four steps. We digested the overarching principle.
We covered the audience, the operations, and the guiding lights. We covered the tenets, the details, and the prompts that’ll help your creativity take off.
I’m not going to lie to you -- this is a weighty topic. It’s technical and complicated, it’s involved and theoretical, and it will -- I don’t care who you are -- ask you to pause and dig deep to find the right answer.
But the thing is, at its core, it thrives with simplicity. With an eye on the people it serves, the markers it’s manifested through, and, above all else, balance.
I’ve given you the first course to the meal that is your game’s economy. I’ve set you up with the intel you need to start making decisions, and I’ve laid out the tools you need for getting your team into the right shape.
Game economies are delicate. They’re finicky, they’re demanding, and they require more from you than you’d probably like to give ‘em. But the thing is -- they’re worth it. They’re worth every second of learning, every minute of acting, and every hour of adjusting.
Because your game’s economy is its moneymaker. Your game’s economy is its health. And your game’s economy is the be-all-and-end-all of its long-term success. How you manage it is up to you. But just know that, whatever you do, your game will know. And it will respond in kind.
This is the first course -- but no, I’m not walking out of the dinner party just yet. Next up on our Game Economy Series docket is Article #2, where we look at the game economy from your audience’s perspective. The behavioral impulses. The psychological needs. I’m breaking it all down, so you can mold your operations in a way that actually impacts.
Ready? I hope so. See you there.
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