18 min read

The true grit of monetizing games.

Getting up close and personal with making money in games and how "good business" is often a nonsensical.

TL;DR notice.

(Grab a shovel - we are going for the gold!)

Funny enough, this central component of game making (or most other makings) is littered with the kind of drama you get in dating. Everyone is out to get something in particular, but could hardly ever afford to state their true intentions, hence have to bullshit each other in order to have any progress.

If you really really want to understand the business of games, you have to forfeit all judge-mentality and look at things. For a while, at least try to examine the topic without liking or disliking it. Pretend you have no stake or preference.

As usual, the contrasting extremities of the monetization scene come to mind. You have talented people making good content, who couldn’t properly monetize (whatever properly may mean to you or anyone). And you have the folks who pull a knife out whenever a customer approaches. 

The press usually loved drama, so you mainly get pieces about profitable games or how bloodthirsty the eyeballs of the knife-pullers are. The numerous lessons to be learned by those who succeed or fail non-spectacularly are very rarely a talking point.

We could close this article by saying “The armed assailants WIN!” but let’s go a little further…

The sad truth with most game companies, is that we have to think of the customer as a fool. The scenarios where you can do business and respect your customers are very few.

If you sell any power whatsoever in your game, you can’t just sell a little. Those playing your game are not going say “Hey, this game is fun, I really should support these guys, let’s see what they got. 10% damage boost – deal!” Few are going to appreciate that you have provided a world that they like enough to get them to return the sentiment in kind.

People spending a money are greedy, they almost always want to buy a “press to win” button. They are like these critters in the forest that would eat and eat and eat - never stopping until they die. Except in this case, selling them too much doesn’t kill them – it kills your game. Once mobile games opened the flood gates, many are no longer content with just selling game copies and moving on to their next project. And let’s face it – whatever we may mouth off about, if you were the guy with the Ferrari, I’m sure you won’t be championing the fight for equality in the name of the guys with 2005 Hondas. The world has been built around inequality for the last 5000 years. The adolescent thinkers firing snippy remarks from their facebook pages are only really a factor to the community manager that has to read their bile.

This tendency is only amplified by the many folks in the game industry who have backgrounds in other ones – and can’t really grasp the idea of limited sales. If they come from selling TVs, they could sell everyone on the planet 5 TVs each and a couple of million TVs to 3 guys – then be the best business on the planet. They carry this idea in games and fall flat on their face when they sell so much power and nonsense, which ends up ruining the experience for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are single or multiplayer. You can ruin both just as easily.

The old business sentiment of “Sell as much as humanly possible.” succeeds when people have grasped the contradiction it creates in games.

A raw truth is like that promotional person in your local supermarket nagging you to buy whatever. Most would say that, she or he is utterly annoying. But then at the end of the day the reality of the promotional person is a success. Sales figures on black and white, true revenue, a continuation of your business. Our behavior solidifies that practice. If very few people bought things because of promoters – nobody would continue to use them.

Getting the figurative baseball bat and beating as much paid content into your customers is a fact-checked way to do work.

Regardless of the infinite comments and lava spew you can read on the internet. The majority of customers give their time and money to all sorts of abusive business practices and extend this cycle.

They also largely have no sense of who respects them, their time or money. Oh, they are very opinionated and expend huge amounts of energy to complain after they get burnt, but couldn’t be found anywhere spending a single calorie in scutiny beforehand. They don’t go play a game because they think “That developer is super fair, let’s see what games they have that that I like”. They see shiny things that they like and they put up with a number of money grabbing tactics, so long as they are not colossally extortionist.

Unless you can make a living out of cosmetic gameplay or side merchandise you cannot be a business good guy. To do business with cosmetics only, you need to have serious talent in your company – something most companies are proven to not even be able to recognize, let alone afford. Established talent is expensive and isn’t that profitable, as you have to pay for people’s success not only their talent. Getting sharp folks on the cheap is an obscure affair that standard business people are “too special” to bother with and is very risky. It’s that meeting with yahoo pitching the sale of google as an idea for a million dollars and being sent back home to suck on their thumbs. Or that Harry Potter book that was turned down by a dozen of publishers and took off as super success when eventually someone gave it a chance. And not a big chance mind you, at first launch the potter book was basically a toe dipping in the water. Even a small something such a this is considered too much effort for most companies - and then they go on to complain of - why o' why do good and new things not happen to them. It’s those numerous games being turned down forcing their creators to make their own companies. While forward thinkers will always push new limits. Everybody else is throwing away great ideas from their premises on a daily basis with the hopes their company won’t go bankrupt next year. The worst part is - even if you are among the most talented and amazing people in this industry who truly strive to create greatness in their work. Even then, the NY Times won’t be writing about your commercial success. Simply because greatness can’t really pull your skirt for dollars every 30 seconds.

The business good guys are like the dating ones.

They don’t push a girl, they respect good tone, boundaries. They are not going to create intrigue or steal a kiss and in the end get overtaken by the aggressive males that put up the most convincing false pretense. While in dating it may be viewed as debate point. In games, it’s a scientific fact with all the aggregate data points and KPIs you could want. The good guys don't gather people to listen to them boasting their spectacular figures, be it business or dating.

All the hate you read around is the bitterness you inevitably get from this sort of affair. We know how it works, and yet we perpetuate it. Of course you are going to lie to him or her. You can’t go on a date and just say you think they are a cool person but their haircut looks like an industrial mishap thats mustering all your effort to avoid staring or laughing at. If you don’t bullshit them in one way or another – you are dead in the water. And you may hope there is that one person that appreciates truth and would value you, over the loud and pushy competition and you may get lucky in your personal life. However, making games for the sake of games or games for the sake of business cannot rely on those handful of passionate fans that truly get what you are trying to do. You need numbers, you need figures you need success. And then you go to the vicious cycle for it.

For the decades I’ve spent on this world – I’ve hardly ever met more than two souls that wouldn’t spread pestilence and destruction for the right amount of money. And for most people, that translates to the “lovely” paycheck one gets to postpone by a month, the loss of one's home/car/whatever to the bank.

Those among us who value empathy and ethics more than selective convenience are ever so rarely in the position to set terms to other people.

Yet more and more discuss gaming monetization as if there haven't been snake oil salesmen even before someone sat down and wrote the bible for the first time, let alone dreamed you could fit it among thousands of other books in a small fraction of your pocket space in an access point to vast amounts of the knowledge on the planet.

Examine horse armor (skyrim dlc outrage). It always reminds me that many people just so often have to take their frustration out on something. Regardless if it’s how well thought out it is.

Why is horse armor the better kind of monetization you can get? 

Because I’m sure you better prefer the “Insert 10 dollars to be able to progress… or wait 10 months for your mana potion to brew, so you can complete the level” sort of one.

I challenge anyone to show how a monetization method can be better for the entire community – not just company investors, than one which you can completely ignore without the slightest of hindrance to your gameplay. But you can spend good money on - should you choose to do so.

“But but, there are too many people trying to leech money from us”.

And since when is that newsworthy? That’s what bandwagon trends are for. Go to ancient times, spread rumors of how there is fast money to be made in “INSERT_ACTIVITY” – show a few people getting rich off it, and then everybody and their pet hamster would - pants down dive straight into it. It doesn’t matter if it’s juggling with zebra excrements, master sorcery or exotic pottery. They won’t care if they need to have knowledge of skills to do it – so long as there are many that can be fooled and relieved of their money.

Watching gamers outcry of how stupid “INSERT_TITLE” is, has reached “meh” levels. It’s about time we understood the gamer who has lived long enough to know their way around games – is not the average money grabber’s target audience. It’s exactly the people who were able to suspend their romantic notions about gaming that realized - the gamers who made the most noise in the gaming community were really nothing more than a niche market. Someone just had to tweak the known formulas right to hoard the large masses with low standards. And they did.

There is no shortage of people who would be happy to relieve you of however many dollars you leave unattended. If for instance, you want to gamble your money in the hands of your 12 year old – go ahead.

Just because your child's body is located in your home, doesn’t mean your money is any better handled, than if you would leave said child alone in the street with 500 dollars sticking though its fingers.

Evens so, it’s mostly adults funding the many money grabbers. Yet these days people complain most about mobile devs manipulating the young. (Only because they got tired of whining how violent games are, while nobody cared) Again - when is that news? Why should people via your phone or computer be any different to people via your street. If you couldn’t be bothered to monitor your children’s spending why should anybody else care (or your own for that matter)?

We can send video to other planets for god’s sake. If by now you lack the skills to discern what games or companies have the slightest notion of ethics and customer care, what excuse do you have?

If I walked over to the nearest dumpster and kicked it - even IT, would leak out a few: lets plays, first impressions, full game reviews, professional made, random Joe and Jane made and bunches of other game analytics. Most companies are well known for either totally screwing over or taking good care of their players. You don't have to have ever played a game, to just read new articles for a few minutes and understand that a lot of game companies are constantly riding the hurricane, trying to outrun their latest debacle and move on to the next one.

We are ready to subsidize the worst behaviors in humanity if only they provide any manner of desireable commodity. We've taken decades to solidify the idea that it doesn't matter how viscious companies are and how toxic and utterly destructive their practices are - we are willing to put up with all that as long as we get our bling. What did you expect was going to happen, the predators were going to get satiated and turn vegetarians? No, they are going want daily feasts seeing as how easy pray never runs out. The only way the predator learns not to go after certain creatures is when they knock its teeth out. And luckily for the mundain humans thats become as easy as not pulling their credit card out. Microsoft had that great vision of integrating their cameras right into your rectum, and that they can dictate all sorts of nonsensical terms to their customers - look at their console now... Sony isn't doing spectacular either.

Like a Hollywood exec once said “I don’t care if we make 9 atrocious movies so long as the 10th one pays for the next 20.”

And how else would you want it to be, when many out there are much more willing to invest into maintaining a staff of media spin doctors, than making sure their games do not have nerve racking flaws, which negate any possible enjoyment you could have in play.

Nothing has ever protected us from making a fool out of ourselves and nothing ever will.

People like certain two letter game publishers - will never go bankrupt because not everyone is obligated to be a gamer in order to understand they’d rather peddle – bland “products” with a short life span or buy games from people who understand how to make them – instead of putting any effort in themselves.

When you are an average parent and toy guns and lego stop fulfilling the demand – you are going to make a trip to the store and buy a videogame and or a device, and when it’s a game - most likely going to be something other than the ones looking like prostitution or carnage simulators.

Yes – bye bye you Large Steal Car V and Old Papyrusez: Heavensrim, you are getting replaced by whatever inoffensive title Nintendo or others have on the shelf that day. Or maybe even something like Sunset Overdrive if said parent is feeling adventurous that day. 

The cover on that thing looks just the right amount of messed up for the average teenager to like, and nobody seems to be showcasing the genitals out of their pants either – the guns shoots guns the general buffoonery can’t really harm your dear Johnny, who at the age of 13 knows more curse words than I do and probably has a few unique submissions on urban dictionary already. Who can buy a sex role-play outfit straight from the Disney channel’s retail store - but you pretend is too “young” to play games that use the f word or ask you to marauder some creatures of the forest and bring in their hides for extra copper. But, then you turn around and let them watch tv every day, that includes even more obscene stuff than what you presumably avoided.

Adults are just about as critical thinking about what they buy for themselves as they are for their children so, tons of money is still spent on games which turn out completely different from what the buyer initially thought they were going to get.

God bless horse armor, and may we live to see “Irrelevant sidekick #12 toenail armor pack #4” so long as the developers of these things provide us with more than enough to go around without pulling our pants every 30 seconds for a micro transaction or throwing pay walls at us like there’s no tomorrow. And like it or not that game has provided me and many others with countless hours of entertainment that if I had the spare cash I’d be throwing it at them. Even with the horse armor it’s the cheapest form of fun that I can think of. Maybe GTA 5 has more, but it’s so huge that it actually has entirely prevented me from starting it at all.

Is horse armor relevant and useful?

-Who cares?!

Just because it seems absurd to me, doesn’t mean I’ll go waste my breath or key taps and whine against the people trying to sell it. If we go on and make a list of ludicrously expensive gimmicks people buy, you won’t have the lifespan to finish reading this article.

If that’s what I takes for creators to get an extra buck – so be it. If you can’t afford horse armor or don’t want it? Well guess what – you don’t NEED to have it. I can’t afford it either, I’ve already maxed my card on things I need. We could go on about existential philosophy but that’s the world we’ve made. And I’d love nothing more than to have the minimum home required to fit a bed, fridge and a shower in without it being chained to a slave oriented - greed infested monetary system. Where I can live in minimalistic fashion and give away my best work to the world for free in return for those benefits, but they don’t stop asking for money at the grocery store and I haven’t stopped receiving overpriced bills either.

Sorry - that’s what we get when most people couldn’t be bothered to share leftovers with strangers even if goblins were threatening to grow of your own nostrils if you didn’t.

In an age where phones must be smart, but people couldn’t be bothered to think – celebrate horse armor – it’s the finest we have. And it’s certainly universes apart from all the schemes run by mobile games – the current prime destination for the snake oil bandwagon.

In whatever way you are going to make money from games – the aggressive ones are going to outperform others in terms of figures.

If you are in in game development like me. The most important thing you can do for yourself is look for like-minded people. If your design paradigm is full of old notions like rich-content, long play, deep narrative value and challenging mechanics. Make sure you are working for/with people who understand that success is not likely ever to translate as; Forbes chasing after them for interviews of their huge financial performance. Likewise if you are keen on leeching every dollar from your audience don’t get yourself stuck in a game project which has very low monetization potential right from the core concept.

If you are a good guy like I was - you shouldn’t feel too bad about pulling a knife out on the customer. People don’t learn when you are nice to them. Like your boss. You are not getting a raise unless you press the knife. If they gave raises for good behavior, then all the meek and diligent workers wouldn’t stop bursting through the ranks. Yet it’s only when the competition starts attempting to snatch you that anyone tries to look at your virtues. Or you know if you had the gall to ask for a raise its when that guy they brought in to try and replace you - blunders like little kitten illustrating your work isn’t as easy as it looks through the blinds of the office in the other corner of the hall.

If you don’t scheme the customers’ money away from them, they’ll waste it just fine on their own. For one reason or another we’ve mostly reserved learning for when our stupidity comes crashing in flames down upon us. Yes, the many various money making schemes are toxic. They aggravate the community and willingness of people to buy. So, if we can’t be smart – let’s be stupid! That wooden plank of self-delusion is bound to poke our eye out sooner or later. Not like it hasn't happened before. Yet have no fear – the talented will always find a way to aspire to excellence. Its everyone else that’s going to shit the brix ( :

Fun times right?


(I apologize for any damage my English may have inflicted – it’s not my native.)

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