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Continuing to stay positive about MTX

This blog post considers the way in which "continues" were implemented in arcade games, and how this can provide an interesting example for F2P games of MTX based on positive affects.

Free-to-play and customer affect:

 The development of the free-to-play model (F2P), and the consequent implementation of micro-transactions (MTX) in games has been described by many as a revolution not only in the games industry, but in the way people do business in general. This is true for a number of reasons. Interestingly enough, while many commentators insist – understandably – on the business aspect of this model, fewer have insisted on the player’s interaction with the game, and the new type of affective purchase drivers this model is implementing.

Not only is the F2P business model revolutionary because it offers customers the chance to have a free lunch (although it can be a very plain one). What makes this business model stand out is that so far monetization has been primarily based on creating negative affects among its customers: frustration, impatience, disappointment… Very few business models can (or would) boast the fact that their revenues are dependent on partially alienating their customers from their products. It is very telling that in an interview last January with a French newspaper (for some reason, only the mobile version of the article is free to access: here), Gameloft’s financial director proudly announced that 70% of the company’s revenue came from what he called “accelerators” – in other words MTX that allowed customers to skip the waiting period that’s implemented in games. Any product can cause frustration or grief. What makes things different with the F2P model is that these irritants are intentionally implemented. Finding a balance between creating frustration and encouraging a desire to play more is by no means something easy, and does require a lot of creativity and fine tuning from developers and monetization managers. However, it appears all too often that efforts are put into further developing this “compulsion loop” model, rather than finding alternatives.

Reflecting further on this would probably require a different post. Suffice it to say that there are huge opportunities waiting out there for different ways of implementing MTX in video games – and that developing games that integrate MTX in a positive manner might prove to be a bigger revolution than the initial form taken by the F2P model. The long term viability of the current model is by no means a sure thing, and taking calculated risks in order to develop a F2P model based on positive affects – such as plain old fun, and a desire to play more –might indeed prove to be the next big step in the industry.

 

Going back to the roots: “Continue” as the first MTX

The picture is of course not as black and white. For console, one could (ironically) wonder if the difficulty level of some games should be considered an irritant that appeals to the player’s masochistic tendencies. However, aside from these few exceptions (for a whole bunch of cultural reasons, mainly Japanese), as a general rule so far the success of a game on console has been dependent on creating a positive, entertaining experience for the end users. This being said, the implementation of MTX should not be considered as something limited to MMOs or current trends in mobile games. Some of the design practices for arcade games could provide us with valuable insights into alternatives F2P models.

Anybody who spent time in the arcades will be able to relate to this. Players needed a quarter to play the game. But what is interesting to note here, is that a quarter did not always purchase the same product. There were basically two purchases gamers could make with their quarter: start a game, and to continue a game. Now, if we agree with this distinction, it immediately appears that most quarters would be spent toward continuing a game rather than starting one. In other words, spent on MTX. You only start a game once, but once you’ve started, you don’t want your progress – the time and effort invested to get further in the game – to go to waste. The limited amount of time available for the player to continue the game – emphasized by the flashing countdown on the screen – should be considered as a way to convey a sense of urgency, and incite the player to choose fast. But interestingly enough, this model of MTX is based primarily on designing a fun experience: positive affects. There are no virtual goods to buy. Players are not paying to gain an edge, or to access a different experience (i.e. not waiting). Players were putting the quarters in to continue the same experience. The player could continue from the exact point the game ended, or restart at the previous checkpoint. In both cases, the player is continuing the very same experience: the very features of the game that drove the player to play it in the first place are the features that drive the player to keep playing it. And those features were based on fun, appreciation of the game’s aesthetics and mechanics, and sometimes a sense of challenge. In other words, all positive affects that build upon the pleasure the game was giving to the end user.

 

Continue and F2P

Now, this older model would not apply to any game. There obviously needs to be some sort of teleology and progression that would warrant the player to continue a previous game (word games, or a game like "Venetian Blinds” are probably not conducive to this type of MTX). But most games offer a linear progression of some sorts anyways. Players want to engage with a narrative that will unfold as they play, or play a game in which progress is measurable. Also, contrarily to arcade games, games today are designed for devices the players own. Players have the ability to quit the game, and return at the moment that suits them best. Basically, this means the arcade “continue countdown” is not necessarily a relevant feature anymore.

However, the main drive behind what we can call the “arcade MTX” is still relevant. Making a game fun, getting the player to be emotionally involved in the game and its progress can still be a strong purchase driver. Most importantly, this means MTX can be grounded primarily in positive affects, and there is no need to implement irritating features. By implementing an option to resume from a previous checkpoint, monetization choices would not be based on balancing out desire and frustration, but on developing an economy of progression. Designing games with an economy of checkpoints in mind could be an interesting way to think of game design and monetization together – and most importantly, to concentrate on creating a positive experience that players want to keep engaging in. The longer the game, the more spaced out the checkpoints are, the stronger the player’s desire to continue and not loose the time and effort invested in going that. It then becomes crucial to space out checkpoints appropriately – neither too close nor too far apart – in order to reward players, while at the same time making them want to play more. If the overall experience is positive, and the user is involved because of the pleasure s/he gets out of the game, this could prove to be an interesting alternative to the compulsion loop. There are already a few examples of games that implement this type of MTX, and hopefully there are more to come. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future, and to what extent this can become a trend in future F2P titles.

 

This is part of a (much longer) ongoing research project of mine. There will be more to come here, and for those interested an exciting academic conference coming up (Apps and Affect).

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