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Playing with money = playing with emotions

Microtransaction-driven free-to-play games often get a bad rap because many of them make players feel nickled-and-dimed at every step. Perhaps we can avoid this by looking at the real-world purchases we make that make us feel good instead of duped.

Patrick Miller, Blogger

May 14, 2013

14 Min Read

"Playing with my money, is like playing with my emotions." -Big Worm

Who knew that a quote from Friday would turn out to be a great starting point for a post on microtransactions in game design? (For that matter, do people who like video games even watch Friday?)

First off: if you are reading this and you genuinely think that you will never ever have fun playing a free to play game, go away. There are many ways to sell games and many ways to build them, and there is no One Right Way to do either one. So stuff it.

Now: It’s true that lots of f2p feels soulless and exploitative. Some of this is due to mismanaged expectations, and some of this is due to designers that, at least from my perspective, seem to have a poor understanding of a person’s emotional reaction to buying stuff. They may have mastered an impressive set of psychological tools designed to extract money out of people, but that won’t necessarily make said people feel good about spending that money.

This is, I think, why so many mobile and social games are about monetizing the “whales” (and encouraging high virality in order to better find those whales) and f2p PC games like Planetside 2and MechWarrior Online have to be a little more “honest” because they’re dealing with an audience that is slightly more savvy to psychological manipulation within games (and have plenty of other games to go to if they find the f2p aspects distasteful).

A quick note: By “mismanaged expectations,” I mean that some people are simply appalled by the idea of having a game that explicitly includes money in the design. These people are either very, very naive, or they are ideologically opposed to f2p, and shareware, and subscriptions, and arcade games—and bowling, mini golf, etc. Don’t expect to win these people over with words. (Instead, design a game they want to pay for.)

The fact is, spending money is an emotionally nuanced activity. Yes, everyone hates seeing their account numbers go down and their bill numbers go up, but that is possibly the most superficial emotion we could possible evoke from a transaction, and really, it gets us no closer to learning how to make people feel good for spending money on our games. So I thought I’d discuss some of the things I enjoy spending money on, and the things I don’t enjoy spending money on, in order to perhaps discern potential design hooks that would enable us to design microtransaction-based games that don’t constantly make us feel like we’re getting fucked. (Avid readers may recall that I touched upon this earlier in a column for Game Developer, but I didn’t really get to go in detail.) 

I like spending money on: Upgrades. I like buying new stuff for my car, or my computer; new parts to improve performance, accessories to make them more useful or convenient, and so forth. I like the feeling of testing my upgraded machine to see how much better it performed, or the novelty of using a new toy with an older tool for the first few times. I like having an older, inferior part left over to use in something else, if I want to, like lend it to a friend in need or use it on a spare rig. Part of the fun of buying a new thing is being freed up to reuse the old thing.

MechWarrior Online was particularly good with this because you maintain a hangar full of ‘Mechs, and there were plenty of good reasons to own and maintain a full stable—different variants of a chassis to grind masteries, different combat roles, and so on. So when you replaced a default part with a better part, you could choose to use that default part in a different ‘Mech. Considering most f2p games won’t let you trade items directly with another player (because, presumably, any time a player gets a part from someone other that you, you potentially lost money), this is a pretty good way to still maintain an illusion of “ownership” with virtual goods.

This can apply to consumables, within reason; I like buying healthy food because it’s good for me and is basically an “upgrade” for myself (one which is, like a good upgrade, actually reflected in my body’s quality-of-user-experience) and once it’s gone, its advantage still lasts, which makes me feel good about buying it.

I don’t like spending money on: Paid advantages. One of the reasons MechWarrior Online did it well was because the more-expensive parts often offered higher performance but at higher costs; an upgraded laser might do the same damage and weigh less, but take up more physical space than its default counterpart and cost more to repair if damaged. It strikes the right balance between upgrade and side-grade that makes it a compelling, but balanced purchase instead of pay-to-win.

Also, it’s totally viable to buy these expensive parts without using real money currency, even though some of them cost as much as an entirely new ‘Mech. I didn’t crunch the numbers, but I never felt like any single piece equipment was out of reach with just in-game earned currency alone—just that everything that I wanted, in total, would be too much work to earn without spending a few bucks or spending more time playing the game than I’d like. This really makes it feel like I am electing to spend money instead of grinding, that I’m choosing to expedite my progress instead of do work.

This is, I suppose, is also true if I spend money for a thing that would take 90 years to grind, but knowing that no one would realistically grind for that makes not work so well. Make it so that the things I can only buy with real money simply say to other people, “I liked this game enough to spend money on something,” not “I want to win enough to spend money to win.” Evoking the former feeling builds my sense of investment in a game; the latter cheapens my sense of accomplishment from doing well at a game.

I like spending money on: A good deal. Everyone loves a sale, because it makes us feel like just by virtue of the fact that we are in this store or on this website at a particular time, we have performed a magic trick that makes our hard-earned dollars stretch further. Of course, the flip side of this magic trick is that we end up spending more of those hard-earned dollars than we otherwise would have. This is nothing new to monetization designers; plenty of f2p games use rotating sales and discounts as a way of convincing us to buy stuff.

I imagine that some monetization designers get a bit wary at the thought of discounting too often, for fear that it’ll cause players to wait to purchase a particular virtual good until it’s on sale. This seems silly to me! With real-world goods, we exact a certain tax on people who want the convenience of having exactly what they want, when they want it, and reward people who are willing to wait with a discount. We do this because vendors that have a lot of inventory basically have their money tied up in products that aren’t making them money until their sold, which is no good for them, so they’ll discount the old stock in order to make space and free up budget for the new stuff—even if it means lower profits (or even a loss) on the old stuff.

Likewise, there are some players who are willing to buy your stuff at its normal price in order to have it when they want it, and some who will only buy when they get a deal—because they like the feeling of getting a deal, or because it’s now in their price range, or perhaps a little bit of both. Sales basically give you a chance to engage people who value your in-game stuff at different price points without affecting the long-term perceived value of the product, netting you buyers you might not have otherwise attracted (especially thanks to the impulse buy appeal of a time-limited sale, like a daily deal). And since you’re selling virtual goods that cost you nothing to reproduce and don’t decrease in value over time, I really don’t see any reason not to regularly put things on sale.

I don’t like spending money on: Manufactured inconveniences. I am inclined to point out is that putting something on sale will help persuade me to buy something only if I already want to buy it but cannot (for whatever reason). That is to say, if you try to sell me something that I already don’t want, you won’t have any more luck by cutting the price. And if I think your microtransactions are exploitative or manipulative, I won’t bite. (Even if it’s on sale.) I’ll probably play as a free rider until I run into a squeeze that’s just too painful, and then I’ll quit.

I like spending money on: Bundles.From Extra Value Meals to Humble Indie Bundles, I like buying me a group of things that are each cheaper because my total spend overall is higher than it would have otherwise been. I think the Humble Bundles are a particularly good example because they typically feature a few flagship items that are, for most people, the reason to buy the bundle, and then extra stuff which could be nice to have but that you wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to buy.

Essentially, the trick to getting me to buy a bundle is to include one or two things that I really want, a few other things which would be nice to have, and a price that basically convinces me to spend a few extra bucks on something I don’t want enough to buy on its own. And it makes me feel good because it’s a sale, plus I get to feel both indulgent and thrifty, because I’m buying stuff I don’t feel like I need enough to purchase at full price (indulgence) and getting a good deal (thrifty).

I don’t like spending money on: Stuff I want in inconvenient amounts. Don’t make me spend more money than I want to simply because what I want is not priced in some arbitrary quantity. Subtract even more points if I will always end up with an annoying amount of leftover money after any given transaction, or if the dollars-to-game-currency isn’t 1:1 (if I have to do math to figure out how much real money I’m spending, then fuck you). Don't sell me hot dogs in packs of six and buns in packs of eight.

I like spending money on: Side bets. I like betting on the outcome of games, whether it’s a game I’m playing on or a game I’m watching. Even putting a dollar on the line makes things disproportionately more entertaining and engaging. Heck, playing fighting games in the arcade has a minor amount of money at stake—the 50c required to continue vs. not having to pay money to play your next game—and that was enough to make people get All Kinds Of Real over it.

Of course, you want people to put money into your game, not pull it out—so don’t let them take it out. People can bet with your real-money in-game currency, and then use that currency to buy other things in-game (or make more bets). They may not be paying with their money, but they’re paying with someone’s, and that’s what matters to you, right?

I don’t like spending money on: Lotteries, raffles, or any kind of luck-based gambling, really. If I wanted to bet real money on a game of chance, I’d play online poker. I hate things that require me to pay money for a chance to win big money big prizes. This applies to luck-of-the-draw card packs (I’m looking at you, Tekken Card Tournament); I hate that I can buy a more favorable random number generator for packs of cards by spending more money.  

I like spending money on: People (or animals) that are important to me. Whenever it’s financially feasible, I like to do nice things for people—paying for a meal or a drink for a friend, buying toys for my cats, whatever my girlfriend wants, etc. 

It’s worth pointing out that when someone does something nice for me, I am inclined to pay that back or forward (say, someone senior buys me lunch, so I buy lunch for someone junior to me), so I end up personally spending more money than I otherwise would, due solely to the feeling of being a Nice Person Who Does Nice Things For People. In other words, I suspect this might let you increase each player’s overall spend just by letting them be nice to each other.

This is a problem, I think, with online games that don’t allow players to trade items with each other. On one hand, yes, it means every transaction should be one that made you money. On the other hand, one of the nice things of owning something is being able to still extract value when you don’t want it any more—by giving it or selling it to someone else, for example. What’s more, I’ll be more engaged with the community if I am buying/selling/trading/donating stuff to people in that community—in other words, if I see it as something I can extract value from.

I don’t like spending money on: Taxes, fees, tolls, parking. (In other words, people/animals/things that are not directly important to me.) I hate having to pay for parking, because I pay for a car, and insurance for the car, and gas to make that car go—I don’t want to pay for the privilege of putting it in a certain place for some time because the entire damn point of a car is that it puts me in a certain place for some time

Likewise, I don’t want to pay for game time, access, stamina, or any other stupid gating systems. I am playing your game because I want to play your game; if you’re going to charge me for the privilege of playing your game whenever I want and for as long as I want, might as well just make it a one-time-payment game and call it a day.

The one exception to this is arcade games, and that is specifically because I am rewarded for being good at your game by being allowed to play the game at a cheaper dollars-per-minute rate than people who suck at your game. This gives me a financial incentive to get good at your game, which can be pretty powerful.

Of course, the hard part is that the set of “people who care about getting good at video games enough to spend significant amounts of money on them” is much smaller than the set of “people who like playing video games enough to spend money on them in general,” so skill incentives end up shrinking your overall viable market. So you end up with stupid time gates that penalize players who like playing your game. In a weird sense, it’s almost a disincentive to get good at the game, since that would require me to play more often (and thus spend more money).

I like spending money on: Admission to events/entertainment. I like spending money that leads to good experiences which build memories—traveling to new places, admission to zoos and parks, concerts, films, etc. Basically, if I like your game enough, I’ll be willing to pay to play it, so you might not have to make it free to play to begin with!

I don’t like spending money on: Admission to events that then demand I spend money. I don’t like spending money on things that simply get me into the building to buy more things—like bougie food events, for example. It might be worth it if whatever I can buy is then priced at a significant discount (see Costco memberships), but then this becomes part of an overall cost-benefit analysis with little additional emotional content to further sell your game.

Which is (at long last!) the point of this post, I suppose. Designing monetization into games can be simply an exercise in psychological manipulation (banking on people with addictive tendencies who are easily manipulated and compelled to over-spend), or it can be a chance to take advantage of people’s real-world emotional connection to money as, essentially, bonus game content—albeit “emotional content” instead of designed game content.

Putting our money where our hearts are

Asking people to spend money is a shortcut to all kinds of potential real-world emotional reactions—reactions that can be challenging to evoke simply with game design or narrative alone. (Bet a dollar with a friend on something competitive and see for yourself.) The thing is that if you don’t design your monetization hooks with a little bit of empathy and human understanding in mind, you’re going to end up creating a weirdly crass, almost psychopathic game which evokes mostly negative emotions (“No, I don’t want to give you money, stop asking”) when you could be taking advantage of certain positive emotional associations people have with money, instead. Microtransactions could actually be something which makes your game more fun, not less, which is good for everyone involved.

--patrick miller 

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