Paying for Power in Matchmade Games

Like most players, knowing that players can pay for power in a game of skill make me feels gross just on the surface, but let’s talk about how it manifests in still stranger ways below the surface.

Over the past several years, there has been a surge in competitive multiplayer games released on mobile - Fortnite, PUBG, and Clash Royale to name a few.  With Clash Royale’s and others like it came mobile’s standard “pay for power” monetization where players pay real money to get stronger weapons, abilities, characters, etc.  This brought pay for power into the new context of competitive multiplayer games.  Other games, like EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2, brought this paradigm to console and/or PC games, much to player’s chagrin (or, in their case, a full-on revolt that led to the temporary removal of microtransactions).

As a competitive gamer myself, I welcome the influx of competitive games to the mobile space.  They give me something to do on the train to work.  I’ve been sinking a lot of time into the new Command & Conquer: Rivals, which falls very much in this category, and it got me thinking about the topic.  Like most players, knowing that players can pay for power in a game of skill make me feels gross just on the surface, but let’s talk about how it manifests in still stranger ways below the surface.

A Monetization Case Study

You’ve made a free to play, competitive, and multiplayer game.  Let’s say it’s a shooter.  You’re also trying to run a profitable company so you put loot crates in your game which players can purchase with real money.  Those crates might give players stronger guns or more in-game currency.  Your game’s target audience is definitely more in the core competitive space.  Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of players in that audience who might pay for goods in your game.

Player 1 - Sandy

Our first buyer, Ms. Goodwill herself, let’s call her... Sandy.  She’s a core competitive gamer with disposable income, but a deep-seated moral compass around fairness.  Sandy says, “I love your game, and I wouldn’t mind tossing some money at it, but I want fair matches.”  For Sandy, your core monetization strategy actually works against her primary motivation of fair play.  If she pays, she will not be able to test her skills on an even playing field because she is more powerful than her opponents.  So far, there’s nothing to pay for other than power in your game. I hope you plan to add some secondary purchasable content, like skins, otherwise you’ve lost Sandy’s money.

Player 2 - Joe

Our second buyer, let’s call him Joe.  Joe is also a competitive person with disposable income, but he doesn’t think fairness is that important in games - they’re just for fun anyways.  Joe says “I love winning, and I’m not afraid to pay to get those sweet, sweet W’s.”  He drops $30 into loot crates, gets guns that are twice as strong as his current ones, and starts crushing noobs.  After a handful of matches though... his win rate trends back to normal.  Why is that?  Matchmaking.

Somebody on the Battlefront 2 team brought up this topic in the heated discussion on Battlefront 2’s monetization around launch. They said matchmaking would level the playing field for non-paying players.  This is likely true, most matchmaking systems are trying to make fair matches regardless of whether it’s skill or gear determining the win/loss.  Specifically, matchmakers are using your MatchMaking Rating, e.g. Elo (simple) or TrueSkill (more maths), to try and predict the outcome of matches, and then pick matches where both players/teams have as close to 50% chance of winning as possible.  In most games (e.g. Rainbow 6: Siege), your rating is primarily determined by the outcome of your games - win or loss.  Frequently, matchmaking systems measure their success based on how many players have a 50% overall win-rate, and based on their ability to predict the outcome of matches accurately.

But what about Joe’s hard earned cash?  As some users pointed out to DICE last year, if Joe’s paid for power, he’ll start looking a lot like a player who is more skilled, and so he’ll be matched against stronger players, dragging his winrate back down to 50%.  All the sudden, that money isn’t giving Joe the outcome he wants - the outcome he paid for.  That’s another part of the target audience that’s poorly served.  You could start changing matchmaking around, but that’s a zero-sum game. Any time you give somebody a win, you’re giving somebody else a loss - maybe even another paying customer.

Player 3 - Ron

There’s a third customer, let’s call him Ron.  Ron says, “I love your game and I play it all the time. I’ll give you money if I can get some cool guns!”  We’ve all got a bit of Ron in us.  When he pays, he’ll probably unlock some cool guns, and that’ll feel great.  You could certainly say your monetization strategy’s core audience is Ron.  

However, there are problems with this model.  First, your game type (“core competitive”) is attracting a lot of Sandys and Joes - probably more than Rons.  Also, with free to play, you’re relying more on recurring revenue from the same player(s). This creates an issue because Ron is either A) not your game’s core audience, and he’ll drift to the next game with shiny objects, stopping your cashflow or B) he’ll become your core audience from playing so much, and fall into one of the first groups (at best), who also aren’t satisfied by your monetization.

But it works!

Obviously, some of these games are doing just fine (e.g. Clash Royale), and the number of companies pushing these games, often in the face of strong negative feedback, means they likely expect them to be profitable despite the reaction from “hardcore gamers.”  We could take a few guesses how they get there - maybe appealing to our Rons, maybe breaking some “rules of fairness” in matchmaking, or maybe just with the sheer weight of the brands.  I think what is clear though, is if studios want to create truly competitive games on mobile, which there is a large and growing audience for, they are going to need solutions to the problems their core audience is facing with pay for power monetization.

Solving for X

With a little critical thinking, we can definitely begin to think of mitigations for the above problems.  I already mentioned changing the goals of matchmaking and how that’s a bit of a trap and will almost always trade the system’s integrity or quality.   Additionally, we mentioned adding other monetization methods like skins or other cosmetics.  This is a perfectly fine idea, but I’d argue it’s a distraction, especially on a brand new game, to need multiple monetization methods just to be successful.  At that point, why not start with and focus entirely on cosmetics?  

You could also do something like Command & Conquer: Rivals Fairplay system.  In Rivals, if a match with imbalanced stats must be made, it becomes a “Challenge Match” where the player with significantly weaker stats is not penalized for losing, and earn extra if you do win.  I admit, this is one of the best options I’ve seen, but it still poses questions.  Does the “pay2win” player still move up the rankings if they win?  If your matchmaking isn’t zero-sum, is it as optimal as a system that is zero-sum?

When I’m designing or programming, if I start coming up with solutions to problems that I’ve created, which then create other problems that need to be solved, that’s when I know  it’s time to step back and look at my premise.  If this is where we’ve gotten as an industry, maybe it’s time we all step back and take another crack at how we might handle monetization for free to play games in the competitive multiplayer space.

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