F2P $ Minus The Mechanics – Is There A Way?

highscorezSomething I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how game creators get paid for their work, particularly on mobile. Specifically, I’m wondering whether there’s any middle ground between the minority of devs who rake in the vast majority of revenues, largely through higher-paying ‘whales’, and the rest of us.

Firstly, let’s lay out the ‘problem’. Obviously we’ve seen that certain F2P games are commanding large swathes of market share on mobile – Supercell‘s trio of titles – Clash Of Clans, Hay Day, Boom Beachgrossed $1.6 billion and had a $500 million profit in 2014 – crazy.

Besides the obvious ‘stickiness’ and quality of the games, these folks are making off with the lion’s share of the dollars because well-constructed IAP (in app purchase)-based  ‘games as a service’ are a sweet spot for today’s digital game biz, and have two major advantages.

These titles have near-infinite maximum life-time revenue per user, and near-limitless scaling for only very incremental costs. There’s very little $ difference to Supercell in hosting X users or X times 10 users. (Although there may be significant cost in acquiring those X times 10 users, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)

But the revenue differential to ‘the rest of the pack’ – and especially the ‘pay once’ games crowd – is also down to the monetization model. For example, I currently relax by playing Demiurge’s rather fun Marvel Puzzle Quest on iPad Mini, and my fiancee’s chillout game of choice is Threes on her Android device.

We’ve both played them for tens of hours, and as a result, I’ve probably paid >$80 to D3/Demiurge so far. My fiancee? She’s paid the $1.99 that the game originally cost to Asher Vollmer and friends, I think. And the amount of enjoyment we’ve both extracted is similar.

Do I think that about $1 an hour – which is probably what I’ve paid for Marvel hero puzzling action – is fair? Absolutely. (Although I’ve been feeling a little uneasy about some of the ‘random character pick’ mechanics in Marvel Puzzle Quest of late, because I can feel the borderline-gambling endorphin vibes coming over me – ‘must get cooler characters, must level up’, etc..)

But there’s an argument to be made that Threes, at 2.5c per hour, has done a pretty bad job of squaring its use with its price. So it got me thinking – how could people pay more money to the developers without necessarily morphing the gameplay paradigms that make Threes a great game?

Part of the issue here seems to be that many game developers who make non-F2P titles are resistant to including additional payments in their game. I suspect this is partly because they have moral issues with some of the Skinner Box-ish tactics used by some top F2P games.

But it’s also because they don’t want to compromise their design features and unbalance the game by giving out gameplay or other advantages as part of a payment. Or the game just doesn’t really fit conceptually with IAP – it would become extremely unbalanced if you added any. And cosmetic DLC is generally – although not always – looked down on by gamers.

So here’s a suggestion – how about making a central, ‘recognized’ organization or brand to manage this kind of ‘top supporter’ league table? Basically, it’d be an API that allowed users to donate easily via in-app purchases, and receive additional gold/silver/bronze stars. The name of the API/app would be well-publicized, and the IAP name would reflect that brand which is ‘way for developers to get paid more if you like their game’.

You could then go to a website – and also to a special ‘biggest supporters’ page in the app itself – to see the top supporters, who could actually layer multiple IAPs on top of each other to out-point their rivals. So it’d be a bit like the Humble Bundle high score tables, except for being the biggest supporters of some amazing non-F2P-mechanic-driven titles.

(I would suggest abstracting the dollar figures, and just show the amount of stars users had accumulated. It would be nice to have profiles to showcase supporters of multiple titles. Perhaps prizes could be handed out to the top supporters of certain games, or they could be otherwise highlighted on social media or the website.)

In addition, that API would make it easy to code in occasional reminders to players – in the same way you’ll see ‘please rate us’ reminders. So users would get infrequent reminders – they’ve been playing the game for 5, 10, 20 hours now, and would they consider paying more? And if it’s a shorter, once-through game, then you could get this reminder when you finish the game.

It’d say: ‘hope you enjoyed the experience – if you’d like to support our upcoming games, here’s a way.’ Perhaps you enjoyed the experience enough to give an extra $5 on top of the $3 it cost to buy the app? (Oh, and obviously all the in-game characters could get hats based on your supporter levels. Joking! Or maybe not… or maybe I am… or maybe not.)

Heck, if you keep playing the game a lot, like with Threes, maybe you’d give them an extra $3 on multiple occasions. You’d never get up to the kind of money I spent in Marvel, but you might double or triple amount paid in some cases – and I’m sure it would help overall.

There’s certainly an argument that in-game ads – as implemented so effectively in Crossy Road – is the way to go. As you may know, Threes is also now trying this, and it’ll be interesting to see the results. But that works much better for repetitive games that can be played over and over again by the mass market, and is free to start with – the ‘get to the top of the Free Games chart’ tactic.

So my proposal, as it stands, can probably be best summed up as ‘mildly gamified donationware, constructed for game developers that don’t believe in IAP that significantly changes gameplay’. And there it is. What do y’all think?

And most importantly – why hasn’t anyone done this so far? Well, there’s much easier ways to make money – primarily by instigating Skinnerian F2P mechanics. So I doubt it’s a priority for anyone who is most primarily interested in making money. And you also need a player to run this who is considered fairly ‘neutral’ and isn’t skimming a lot of money off the top. But for those who want to work out ways to keep making games from a loyal fanbase, you never know – this might put them from the red into the black.

[Postscript: after writing this, I did look around and discover Swifty, a ‘learn how to code Swift’ app that actually institutes this concept in some way – it’s free and has a ‘Bag Of Thanks’, ‘Bundle Of Thanks’, and ‘Boatload of Thanks’, for example. But it’s clearly not as fleshed out as this concept, and without the ‘central authority’ concept. Still, good to see some people experimenting with it – wonder how it went for them.]

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