Value Propositions in Free-to-Play Games

We often take for granted the player’s ability to intuitively understand transactional moments in free-to-play games. For a player, these transactional moments occur whenever they are evaluating the exchange between their time, real money, and access to gameplay or content.

This is important for building and tuning both monetization through microtransactions, as well as through ad revenue.

If the player is asked to spend money for something they can earn in the game, they will evaluate whether the amount asked for is fair, given the amount of time it would take to otherwise acquire that content. They will also evaluate whether the content is worth it to them for the amount being asked.

If the player is asked to spend money on content that can’t otherwise be earned in the game, they will determine the value of the content, and the value of the game itself (“is this game worth spending x amount on?”).

Transactional moments are not limited to real money transactions. Anytime an exchange is proposed (be it time for content, real money for time, or real money for content), it is a transaction, even when money is not directly involved. So if a player is asked to watch a video ad for access to content or gameplay, they will evaluate whether the reward for watching the video is worth the 15 or 30 seconds it will take to “earn” by viewing. The player will also consider the value of content earned through video watching, versus content earned through microtransactions — being overly generous with video rewards can negatively impact monetization, while not giving fair value for the player’s time will reduce their engagement with video ads, negatively impacting ad revenue.

If the game has forced video ads (unskippable videos embedded within the game flow), the player will also evaluate whether continued engagement with the game is worth the amount of time lost to advertisements. If a player has to watch a 30-second ad every time before engaging in gameplay that lasts roughly two minutes, they will determine for themselves whether that ratio constitutes fair value, and justifies further engagement with the game itself.

Just as “fun” is a subjective assessment specific to every player, “fair value” will also vary depending on the degree of value placed on the game itself. User testing both gameplay and transactional moments can play a big role in determining the proper tuning for the greatest success; you can’t win by spreadsheets alone.

Even in pre-production, it’s worth considering transactional moments when building the game’s systems. Crossy Road (which monetizes incredibly well across both MTX and ad revenue), provides generous value for ad impressions, but can afford to do so by having no overlap with the game’s MTX content — video ads reward the player with coins, which they can only earn through gameplay and not MTX. For more on Crossy Road’s history and successful experiments in value propositions, check out the developer’s 2015 GDC talk.

Social Value

One final note on fair value: I believe there is a significant difference in the value proposition for content that will only benefit the player, and content that will benefit multiple players, particularly in a social context.

Consider this example: A player is asked to spend $2.99 on content in a single-player game. Later that day, the player has friends over playing a multiplayer party game, and presented with an opportunity to unlock more content for $2.99.

Are these two value propositions the same? The one grants additional content exclusively to the player, while the other will add content to a game being enjoyed by a group of friends, providing further entertainment and social experience. Which $2.99 transaction is easier to make?

Designing Scramble Live

A wireframe of the Scramble Live board. I designed the layout and interactivity of the gameplay.
A wireframe of the Scramble Live board. I designed the layout and interactivity of the gameplay.
Scramble Live for iPhone and iPod touch was the first digital game I helped kick off at Zynga, and the first I shipped in my career. Although the game was an adaptation of Scramble on Facebook, it was redesigned and rebuilt to be a separate, higher-quality product while still allowing connectivity and cross-play between the two versions. Working on the game also meant tackling an exciting challenge: adapting the keyboard gameplay of a browser-based game for the burgeoning multitouch apps market.

As the only designer on a very small team, my goal was to make Scramble Live delightful to play; I wanted every interaction with the game to feel positive and satisfying, and that meant supporting as many different ways of playing as possible. In the fall of 2008, developing apps and games for multitouch devices was still new (the Apple App Store having only opened in July of that year), so we were needing to solve fairly new design challenges in terms of how players might approach the game, and how they would expect the system to react to their interactions.

To Tap or to Drag?

One of our earliest discussions around the design was whether we would allow players to “tap” letters to form words, or “drag” their finger through the letters. There were already a few word games on the iOS App Store (Wurdle being one of the more notable ones), but they tended to prefer either tapping or dragging input, without supporting both. For Scramble Live, I wanted the system to respond positively to however the player tried to play. Putting a finger on the board and then lifting it was detected as a tap, while dragging a finger across multiple letters was detected as a drag. Supporting both input methods also meant that a player could seamlessly switch between the two — no settings menu or toggle was needed for the player to define their preferred way to play.

When dragging, the point at which the player lifts their finger is when we determine the end of letter entry for that word. But for tapping, we needed to make sure players knew how to submit the word they just typed. The text field at the top of the screen served as a hint for players: tapping the green checkmark — or even the word itself — would submit the word. Alternately, a player could tap the last letter of the word a second time to submit (a convention borrowed from classic word games like Popcap’s Bookworm). When the player needed to cancel a word and start again, they could tap the “x” in the upper right — an icon consistent with the iOS visual vocabulary for clearing a text field.

Visual/Aural Feedback

The text field at the top of the screen also serves as visual feedback, not only showing the word as it’s assembled, but also indicating whether it was accepted or not once submitted. The text field pulses green when a word is accepted, red when the word is not valid, and the text field shakes if the word was already played (I always considered this to be the game shaking its head to say “no, you already did that”).

In a casual game like Scramble Live, responsive, positive feedback is important for even the smallest of interactions. The letter “pills” respond playfully to the player’s touch, sliding around in place as the player taps or swipes through words. The movement also serves a pragmatic purpose: moving the pills around helps the player see the effect of their interaction when a finger or thumb is obscuring the screen.

The pentatonic “popping” sounds made by the pieces were deliberately chosen to make gameplay feel playful and exciting, evoking the experience of popping bubble wrap (indeed, bubble wrap simulators were some of the top-selling apps when the App Store first debuted). The use of a pentatonic scale makes creating a longer word feel more exciting than a shorter word, as can be heard in the video above.

Let’s Rotate the Board!

ScrambleRotateIn the Facebook version of Scramble, hitting Spacebar would cause the letters on the board to rotate, helping the player see things from a different perspective. I wanted to include rotation as a feature in Scramble Live, and it seemed like a great opportunity to take advantage of both the iPhone’s multitouch screen, and its built-in accelerometer.

To rotate, a player could place two fingers on the board and give it a spin to rotate it in either direction; a pleasant “whoosh” sound accompanies the interaction, confirming its success. Alternately, simply rotating the entire physical device in-hand would cause the letters to re-orient, providing a more physical way of achieving a different perspective. Lastly, giving the device a hearty shake would also cause a rotation.

Plays Well with Others

As a social game, Scramble on Facebook was designed to be played competitively, and we wanted to extend that to the iOS version. The titular Live mode put the player in synchronous competition with hundreds of other players across both the mobile and Facebook platforms. A real-time leaderboard tracked how the player was doing against the rest of the players (although seeing yourself in 108th place was maybe not the most encouraging feeling).

Working under an executive producer, our core team for Scramble Live was just five people — myself, two engineers, an artist and a producer. We worked quickly and passionately, and made a game that people still tell me they adore. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone playing Scramble Live on public transit. It was a project and a team that I will always remember fondly.

How to Have a Good Meeting

dreamtofflightI’ve been in a lot of bad meetings over my years in the game industry. You can tell a meeting’s bad when it seems unnecessary, runs long, and people leave feeling cynical and exhausted. Meetings like that are the reason people hate meetings.

As a game designer, I began to come up with rules for good meetings, thinking of the meeting itself as a game that can be played well. After all, game design is about imposing structure on boundless play, and structureless meetings are often the ones that go off the rails the quickest.

A successful meeting is well-run and easy to follow, and it ends on time with everybody knowing what to do. Here are my 7 rules for well-played meetings:

1. Every meeting needs an owner.
The meeting owner is in charge of keeping the meeting structured and productive, and keeping track of time.

2. Keep meetings as small as possible.
Smaller meetings go more smoothly and more quickly than bigger meetings. Someone attending a meeting also means they’re being pulled away from the work they’re doing. The less people in a meeting, the less people being pulled off task.

Only invite the people you need. Let people know if they’re optional. Let people know if they’re not.

3. Set an agenda and a goal for each meeting.
An agenda and goal should be defined prior to the meeting, and reviewed briefly at the start of the meeting.

Everyone should be clear on what the purpose and structure of the meeting is.

If there’s a meeting invite, include the agenda and goal(s) in the invite, and include any documentation you expect people to have reviewed prior to the meeting.

4. One conversation at a time.
A meeting is only effective if it’s a single conversation that everyone is involved in. If side conversations start during a meeting, the meeting owner has the right to ask that they stop.

5. Don’t interrupt your peers.
If someone is speaking, don’t cut them off.

If you accidentally cut someone off, apologize and allow them to continue talking.

Along the same lines, be conscious of how frequently you’re talking in the meeting, and make sure to give space so everyone can be heard. The meeting owner can also work to include everyone’s voice, and not let any one person dominate the time.

6. Don’t let meetings run long.
The meeting owner’s job is to make sure the meeting stays on schedule, and doesn’t run over. When meetings run long, it makes people late for other meetings, and also makes them grumpy.

Let people know when there are five or ten minutes left in the meeting, so there’s time to wrap up discussion, confirm the goals were reached, and establish the next steps.

If the meeting satisfies its goals ahead of schedule, celebrate that fact. Short meetings are the best meetings.

7. Confirm conclusions and actionable items before ending the meeting.
At the end of a meeting, the meeting owner should go over what the conclusions were, to ensure everyone is on the same page. Don’t let folks leave before reviewing what happened in the meeting.

If there are any actionable items coming out of the meeting, these should be confirmed as well.

If the goal of the meeting was not reached, one of the actionable items should address that problem, most likely with another meeting.

To ensure future meetings are successful, the meeting owner should also send an email to all attendees after the meeting, reviewing the conclusions and actionable items. That email becomes a record of the decisions you made, and next related tasks.

If the meeting was successful, everybody wins.

Social Games in the IGF

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been loudly encouraging independent game developers to begin playing with Facebook and social games. Out of 568 entries for the 2012 Independent Games Festival, a handful are playable on or with Facebook. And while this might seem paltry, I think it’s an important first step, and I’d like to bring attention to these few games.

(If I’m missing any, please let me know and I’ll amend the list).

Who Color is for.

This is the image that appears when you use Color, illustrating what I can only assume is the ideal user behavior from the perspective of the developers. It’s captioned “Take photos together.”

But this isn’t an illustration of people taking photos together. It’s an illustration of a bunch of snobbish white people more preoccupied with taking photos and posting them to “elastic social networks” than actually being “together” — than being present in the moment and enjoying the company of those around them.

They all look like assholes to me. Is that who this app’s for?

What cards do.

One of my goals for 2011 is to make significant progress towards publishing my first non-digital game. So as this year moves forward, I’ll be putting more and more thought into designing Billy Pilgrim, my tentatively-titled card game about love and unintentional time travel.

What feels like a hundred years ago, I talked about playing cards — ubiquitous decks of 52 which comprise the toolset of countless games. I’ve known from the beginning that Billy Pilgrim was meant to be a card game. As vehicles of widespread gameplay, cards are undeniably important. But I think it’s easy for us, as players and creators, to forget what cards do.

Cards and dice are both vehicles of randomness. But with dice, there’s no shift in probability as the game draws on. Dice represent a stasis in the degree of randomness in the world. And when we play with dice, we don’t seek to derive order from the chaos. We simply seek a means to represent unknowable factors.

Cards, on the other hand, are agents of turmoil. The odds change with every play, every turn. And most card games — at least those built upon a standard playing card deck — are all about creating organization from a disorganized pile.

So for making a game about a non-chronological character, there’s no better tool than cards. The question remains, however, as to whether or not as a player we seek to help Billy find order in his world, or whether we are merely observers of a scattered story, trying to find order for ourselves.

What I believe.

2010 turned out to be a difficult year for me. Over a period of 14 months, I had a lot of what I believed thrown into question — about privacy, about my career, about my passion for games. I spent countless mornings wondering what I should’ve done differently. It’s over now, but for a long time I couldn’t see what that end was going to be, or when it was going to happen.

It became very important for me to solidify my understanding of what I was trying to do in the game industry. I needed a reason to stick by the choices I made, and the risks that I took: moving out to San Francisco with no job prospects lined up; leaving a lucrative position at a rising company when I’d felt they stopped hearing what I had to say; joining one of the underdogs with the conviction that I was going to help create the next generation of great social games.

And despite the setbacks — despite the erosion of privacy, the emotional and professional strain, and the (temporary) loss of some very good friends — I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that I have no regrets. Everything I’ve done over the last 3 years, I’ve done because of what I believe.

I believe in a free and open industry. I believe in friendly competition. I believe that the more we can all talk to each other, the stronger we can all become.

I believe that iteration and innovation are not mutually exclusive. I believe that we have to learn from both our mistakes and successes, but that we can’t repeat the same success patterns over and over and expect them to keep working. I believe in the need to take calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.

I believe that a company is only as good as its employees. And I believe that when a company treats an employee more like an obstacle than an asset, it’s within that employee’s rights to seek out a better situation — more stability, more respect.

I believe that with over 250 million active users on Facebook every day, and with more than half of all Facebook users playing social games daily, there’s more than enough room here for all of us. There’s no need to shake fists at each other all the time.

And I don’t believe that there can only be one winner. I believe that success can be defined in a multitude of ways, and that we haven’t even seen half of how social games can be “successful.” I believe that this industry is still inching closer to that rebirth I’ve been hoping for, and I believe that I made the right decision in staying in the space. To help it get to that point, and to be here when it happens.

I believe that 2011 is going to be a better year.

I shipped a game. I’m off to Burning Man

Been quite busy these last few months, but the fruit of my (and a whole lot of other people’s) labor has finally been revealed. I am quite proud to be Design Lead on City of Wonder, Playdom’s latest social game, which has been receiving quite humbling reviews.

Today I’m leaving for a very different kind of city of wonder to attend Burning Man 2010. I’ll be delightfully Away From Keyboard from 8/29 through 9/6. If you find yourself on the Playa, come visit me at 6:30 & Baghdad. I’ve designed two games in keeping with this year’s theme — they’re called MetaTropolis and City of the Phrase, and I’ve love to teach them to you.

How to fix Cow Clicker

Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker, according to this tweet, as “a Facebook game about Facebook games.” And I do get it. It’s funny. Ha ha. Okay now but seriously, it could be better.

Ian, if you’re paying attention, here’s how to improve your Facebook game about Facebook games.

1) Reduce the Click Window: Currently I can only click my cow once every six hours. MouseHunt lets me sound the hunter’s horn every 15 MINUTES. And I can cook cheeseburgers in Café World in only five. Procrastination and distraction operate on fairly tight cycles. How often do we refresh our RSS Readers? Our Twitter pages? Facebook? Try a 15 minute window. Let me click my cow every 15 minutes.

2) Make the Stream Stories Actually DO Something: You’re spoofing the infamous “Lost Cow” viral, but you’ve missed why it started a trend. People aren’t clicking cows for their health. They’re clicking them because they get something for it (namely, a cow). If a newsfeed is not incentivized, it’s only valuable as advertising to new players, and a reminder to those who haven’t played recently. When incentivized, every player has a reason to click it. Click click click.

Try awarding one Click to each player who clicks a Cow Clicker Stream Story. And while you’re at it, award one Click back to the poster for each player who clicked. All your newsfeeds do right now is breach the platform policy (VI.A.1, if you’re curious).

3) Prime the Mooney Pump: Paying players are a little like vampires. Once they’ve tasted blood, it’s hard to stop. Wet their fangs with 15 Mooney — enough for one low-level cow, and enough left over to make them want to reach for cooler cows.

You can then keep priming the pump with small amounts of Mooney awarded to players. Create a low instance in which upon clicking, a cow in your pasture will, ahem, “drop” some Mooney. More cows in your pasture means higher chance of Mooney droppings, means more of a reason to invite friends.

4) Send me a Highland Coo: I guess this won’t actually help you in any way, but they just look so fuzzy.