Eventually, I’ve found out that Time, Deficit, and Frequency are the powers which rule every single number in the game from the entire game economy to the way your game sends push-notifications...
The article will be interesting for the novice game designers, game balancers, indie developers, and game analysts, who tend to use heuristic approach in their games. It doesn’t really matter which game you are developing. The information you’ll find in the article will help you to understand where to start, how your game will progress throughout its lifetime, and which difficulty curve it should have.
Goals determine the progress
The basic starting variable (is presented as X axis on all charts) is the one that can be used to estimate the player’s progress - in our case it will be a level (lvl). Further, we determine the list of actions the player has to complete in order to level up. The list can be different depending on the peculiarities of various game genres: e.g., in casino game it will be making 100 spins, or spending 250 chips; in a city builder game one will have to build 5 objects and produce 10 resources; in a fighting game it is beating a new enemy; in match 3 game with journey mechanics it is completing new level etc. Every game has goals - the small and huge ones.
Goal can be defined as an action or a list of actions the one has to complete in order to achieve progress. Pursuing the goals the player spends in-game resources, time, and money.
The first micro goal might require the player to spend more time, the second one - to perform more in-game actions, while to achieve the third goal the player will have to do both. At some point, the user is ready to spend money instead of performing in-game actions.
The first parameter of a goal is a goal time. Since at the beginning of the game the player merely learns its mechanics, the goal must be quick to achieve. The more the player immerses into a game, the more time he is willing to invest into pursuing its goals. The time of gaining new level is changed accordingly. The chart features an example of how the goal time (gaining new level) changes throughout the playtime. At the beginning, it takes 5-15 minutes to achieve each goal and the user unlocks the first 5 levels pretty fast. Further he spends about an hour per goal etc.
It is essential to be able to stop in time - the limit is 24 hours or one goal per day. If the player is unable to achieve at least one goal in a day, there is a good chance that the frequency of his play sessions will reduce, and eventually he will leave your game forever. On a long run, I would suggest an optimal goal time that equals 12 hours, so the player is able to achieve 2 goals per day.
Example: Ferry in Hay Day
The ferry arrives and leaves the farm once a day at a certain time. Each time it features an order the player has to fulfil, but the way it is balanced suggests that the player is unable to fulfil it by himself for the given time. The farm at the most effective production rate will only be able to provide 70% of the required amount. The other 30% is compensated with real money or utilizing the viral mechanics.
Deficit forming principle
The second parameter of a goal is deficit. As it can be seen from the chart, we have defined the production volumes for each level, and now we can form a deficit - the amount of resources the player will lack to achieve the next goal. In this way, we predetermine the number of actions (and their real money equivalent) and put the deficit into a goal.
For example: in order to level up we have to complete 3 relatively similar goal. The first goal is is to harvest 17 apple crops in the garden. But there is a problem - you only have 5 apple trees in your garden. Thus, during a single session, the player is only able to harvest 5 apple crops. In the third session, the player completes 2 goals out of 3, and to complete the third goal - the apple one - the player lacks 2 crops (5 x 3 = 15). The next level seems so close but those 2 crops prevent the player from reaching it. “If I will be waiting for the next sessions to collect those 3 crops, it will be no points it collecting other resources, and I will get new content later”. It is a good motivation to pay 3 bucks and experience the pleasant emotions here and now.
How to value deficit in money equivalent?
The question is how much the 2 apple crops should cost? Let’s add the goal time under the X axis. Research conducted by NewZoo shows that the players in USA are ready to spend $10-15 in a game on a daily basis. Therefore, we distribute this amount over the deficit and see how the goal price increases related to the time it takes to achieve that goal.
If it takes 2 hours to grow apples, the goal deficit for 2 apple crops should cost not more than $2.
Hunter or prey
If each new goal requires the player to put more efforts into completing it, he would end up feeling like a prey because of the inability to experience happiness. There are several statements, based on behavioristics and psychology, which explain why do man needs the never ending changing of tense and release, but they are not the subject of this article.
Let’s change the consumption curve, so at some points it equals zero, while at other ones it goes over the top. Thus, we will make sure that the user will experience moments when he will be dominating over the game as well as the moment when the game will require additional resources.
It would be logical to assume that the churn rate will be higher at the points when the deficit goes over the top. By carefully managing the deficit, we will be able to influence the churn avoiding declines in revenues.
You have probably noticed that the deficit of the first 4 levels equals zero. It is not a coincidence! Tutorial, acquisitions and engagement should last as long as it takes to lead required amount of user to the first difficult point in the game. If you want to entertain the user for a week, and only then ask him to pay, the deficit will equal zero up till the 10th level if you use the same time frame.
We have already figured out everything regarding goal time and deficit. The third component of a goal is frequency of actions. Let us assume that achieving a goal will require 3 game sessions - like in the “apple” example. But this time, to get a new level, I have to complete this goal 3 times. After each time I complete the goal, I can plant 5 more apple trees, thus, reducing the number of sessions I need to play to complete the next goals. Once I gain the desirable level, the goals change, and get more difficult based on the deficit chart. Now completing the goal requires harvesting not 15 crops but 45 - and again, 3 sessions…
Another example is a goal that consists of 2 different actions which can't be initially completed during a single session. Like in Hay Day where you have to plant wheat, harvest wheat, use this wheat to produce food for chickens, feed the chickens, the chickens will lay eggs, and the eggs are used to make Bacon and Eggs. The goal is to produce 10 Bacon and Eggs.
By managing the frequence of actions, we predetermine the number of sessions and their length, set timers, send push-notification, and tune difficulty of the game.
The fourth parameter of goal management is the number of goals per level. As you can see from the chart, one more session is added with each new level. But you can tweak this parameters as you like in order to generate the highest revenue.
The next chart features an example of how a goal can depend on several resources. If you use several types of resources in your game, you can alternate the deficit, and combine it depending on the level. Also you can change the deficit of a certain resources for each goal inside a level, reuse the goals, and conduct wide range of experiments aimed to improve your LTV indicators.
Theoretical part that I tried to put as simple and clear as possible, should help you, as it has helped me, to compose effective asymmetric balance to ensure competitive metrics for your game.
Examples of balance with multiple resources:
To gainnew level I have to harvest not just 15 crops of apples, but also the same amount of strawberry. It goes pretty well with the apples and I start to invest into the strawberry. When I get to the next level and have high apples and strawberry production rates, new deficit is introduced - it is potato.
To level up, I have to beat the opponent by upgrading damage value of my sword. This damage value is enough for the next level, but now I have to upgrade an armor. The level after that, upgrading sword and armor are not enough - I will have to upgrade magic as well.
To win the race I have to get more powerful engine, and change the breaks...
and it never ends.
Summary: what do you have to keep in mind while balancing the game
Define how do you measure the progress in your game (e.g., level).
Which goals (actions) the player has to complete to make progress in your game?
How much time the player has to spend to complete each game goal. What is the frequence?
What is the deficit for each goal?
How many goals per level your game has?
How many sessions the player has to play to achieve a goal?
P.S. By the way, while balancing the game, I have made a mistake. Initially, I tweaked the Production based on Consume. On higher levels, I faced a deadlock and had to calculate everything again. Don’t get in the same trap. It is easier to define your production first and then estimate the deficit based on it.