Over the last 4 years, the reported ‘typical’ paying player appears to have dropped from 3-5% of total downloads* to a mere 1-2%. This isn’t a smoking gun and there is a lot of conflicting evidence, but when you consider the improvements in data analysis to aid retention and the huge increased marketing spend from games at the top, I believe it’s worth taking another look at how we can develop a more sustainable approach to game monetization.
Let’s agree on three principles before we start.
We will always lose players! Games are consumable entertainment and players will inevitably churn. This means we have two options – add more people faster than we lose them or plug as many leaks as we can.
Look at the results of our Unity Ads Survey with EEDAR:
Online Survey Conducted in 2014 with 3,000 paying players
In The Journal of Marketing, James W Taylor wrote about the four forces which prevent people from making any purchase, be it a game or a pair of shoes. We need to know what we are getting, what we are missing out on, what others will think of our decisions and deal with other things in our lives.
In short, if we are going to make better, more sustainable In App Purchase (IAP) design, then first we have to keep more players for longer and create the conditions where they feel safe to buy things in our game.
The current IAP models typically use:
These kind of purchases strongly focus on the conversion of the player to spending, rather than on delivering an expectation of value. We don’t get to retain users if we treat them as disposable, like visitors to a carnival midway (or fairground if you're British). If we rig the games too far, then people will lose the joy and simply stop coming back.
The concept of ongoing spending as a user presents different short-term vs. long-term risks. Most players have a budget they are comfortable spending regularly. In the heat of a game they might exceed that, but this creates Buyer's Remorse unless they feel they can choose to limit this spend in the future. We have to consider the short and long term risk profiles of the game as well as the context for players including:
Buyer’s Remorse is a real thing. We build up a great deal of anticipation and often get caught up in the heat of the moment when we make a purchase (or download). But after our purchase is when we are at our most vulnerable and we will (at some point) cool down and review our purchase decision. The role of a designer is to keep that player playing. More than that, as a designer of IAP we have to keep players wanting to not just continue playing, but paying. That requires us to sustain their attention, interest, and desire over time! Just like every game mechanic has to engage and entertain a player, our game purchases have to ‘supercharge’ a player’s sense of delight and drive repeat engagement.
We should not consider someone who pays once to be a customer. They may have purchased, but unless they do it again there is work to do to not only create a scaleable business, but also one which delivers what our players actually want! According to Park & Lee, players are buying because they have an expectation of value, not just because they are happy with the game. They are demonstrating a desire to get more out of our game and we have to sustain that if we are to encourage them to keep spending. You can’t sustain this desire if your IAP doesn’t deliver both logical and emotional value. If we respect our players, we will earn a longer Lifetime Value (LTV), but unfortunately no matter how good our game is there will always be a diminishing return. That’s why we have to take a design view to the kinds of goods we offer players. I like to break these down into four categories:
These goods can come in various forms:
Looking at your game, you will be able to identify a point in the game mechanic or the context loops of play (perhaps even the metagame) where any of these items would benefit the players. However, the problem most developers fall into is forgetting to make their goods scaleable. It’s something which, in my opinion, was the downfall of the free2play version of Dungeon Keeper. Scale matters! Some methods we can use to help scale goods include:
There are other things you can consider too, such as how rare an item might be, what function that item delivers, why that's special, and how it improves the gameplay. But also ask why an item will be something a player aspires to get and how you can make it more personal. IAP must be part of the game design experience. We have to create a sense of anticipation and delight if we are to attract players’ interest and create the desire to act and purchase from us. We are now retailers inside our game and as such have to think in a similar way. Why not consider some of the following techniques?
Finally, the point of making sustainable IAP is to look at the sale as the beginning not the end. If we are to really achieve that, then we have to recognize that each purchase we initiate creates its own sense of buyer's remorse and build playing and paying fatigue – leading to churn. We have to constantly fight this inevitable loss by building post-purchase utility. That means making the user feel special every time they make a purchase, similar to the unboxing experience of an Apple product. Identify and allow players to show off ‘landmark items’ which genuinely expand the scale of play, but then don’t forget to show them what their money has bought. All this has to also take into account how each purchase affects the gameplay of others; we can’t afford to increase the engagement of one player at the cost of dozens of others. Show me as a player that you respect my decision to invest in your game and give me a reason to do it again!