Our Thoughts on Game Monetization
Game Design Blog — October 6, 2021
Disclaimer: This is going to be long, but I think it’s worth a read.
In the days since the announcement we’ve understandably gotten quite a few questions regarding how we plan to monetize BitCraft. Monetization for a game is one of the most important things to get right, not only for the company and the success of the game, but also for the community. Because it’s such a complex topic and is sometimes associated with strong emotions, I wanted to share with you our analysis of the current state of monetization in games and our philosophy on monetization.
We usually talk about monetization in games through terms like “Buy-to-Play”, “Subscription”, “Free-to-Play”, “Pay-to-Win”, “Pay-to-Progress”, etc. However, rather than just categorizing games into these broad monetization schemes, I’d like to instead try to arrive at a deeper understanding of game monetization by taking a look into *what* has historically been monetized in games. That is to say, what are the things that game companies are selling and what are the gameplay impacts of selling those things?
When you monetize a given aspect of a game it will have both positive and negative impacts on not only the gameplay, but also the company and community. Additionally, monetization is inseparable from game design; it’s impossible to change one without affecting the other. It’s absolutely critical to get it right to have a long running game that players love.
Let’s start by listing some of the commonly monetized aspects of games (i.e. the things that games sell). This list is not exhaustive, but covers many of the more popular things to monetize.
- The game itself (including expansions, DLC, etc.)
- Access to the game or live service (including subscriptions, access to members-only regions, etc)
- Early access to the game (alpha, beta, guaranteed launch access, etc)
- Cosmetics (including collectable items, skins, etc.)
- Collectable characters
- Convenience features (including better UI, minor advantages like extra storage, removing tedium, etc)
- Ability to progress faster (including speedups, experience boosts, etc)
- In-game currency
- Items which otherwise are earned through time, effort, or skill (gear, resources, etc.)
Less commonly games will also sell
- Access to exclusive clubs
- Ability to run organizations like guilds (including guild buildings, guild privileges, etc)
It’s important to distinguish these “things” from “monetization schemes”. We define monetization schemes as clever ways to more efficiently monetize the things listed above (e.g. premium currencies, subscription token schemes, loot boxes etc). For example, in the case of subscription tokens, the company is selling “game access” in a way that is transferable to other players. The company is still selling game access in the end.
There’s a lot to be said on monetization schemes, but they deserve their own blog post.
At the end of the day, as a developer, monetization always comes down to exchanging things in your game that players want for money. Let’s go through a few of these to see some examples of the pros and cons of monetizing certain aspects of a game.
Monetizing the game itself
Monetizing the game itself has one major upside which is that everyone who plays the game gets exactly the same thing: the game. Assuming this is the only monetization for the game, that puts everyone on a level playing field (as long as you can get onto the field in the first place). This is a huge win because it’s very easy to design a balanced game around this assumption.
Unfortunately, it has several significant downsides for players, the community, and the company.
The biggest and most obvious downside is that it immediately reduces the size of the game’s community. Not only do you have to pay, but you have to convince your friends that they should pay too if you want to play together with them. It excludes a huge number of people who would play and contribute to the game community, but can’t afford it or want to try before they buy. If your game is a game that thrives on having a bustling community, it doesn’t help to have an entrance fee.
Players also cannot see what the game is all about before actually buying the game. This leads to scenarios where the player is upset that they didn’t get what they were expecting. Not least because the companies often inflate players’ expectations in the first place.
For the company, if selling the game is the exclusive monetization mechanism, it doesn’t allow them to run the game as a live service because all of the revenue is collected up front, and they don’t have incentive to improve the game in perpetuity. As a result, selling the game itself frequently results in the game being re-released seasonally as a new title.
Monetizing access to the game or live service
Monetizing access to a live service through a subscription or similar mechanism is similar to selling the game itself. It has many of the same pros (e.g. level playing field) and cons (e.g. smaller community), but it does allow the company to continuously fund development of the game indefinitely.
Some additional pros are that paying for a live service reduces the chance that players’ expectations will be out of whack since they’re not paying for everything all up front. It forces the developer to make a game that remains fun for years. If the game stops being fun and players don’t like the game, they won’t keep paying.
One variation on monetizing access to a live service, is monetizing access to *part* of the live service, usually by creating a members-only region of the world, or by making certain aspects of the gameplay exclusive to those with a subscription. This is an improvement in terms of letting players try the game, but it also creates two classes of players: those that can afford to pay the subscription and those that can’t. If this is viewed as just giving players a free-trial until they subscribe then this is basically the same as a subscription model. But if the idea is to allow players to play as a free player indefinitely, then viewed from this perspective, this is a pretty egregious form of pay-for-convenience and pay-to-win. Subscribing players usually have a significant advantage over free-to-play players in almost every facet of the game. Frequently games will grant subscribers/members a faster experience gaining rate or will give access to regions of the game where players gain experience much faster. This can even incentivize developers to make the free aspects of the game worse or less convenient in the hopes that players will subscribe.
It also implies that many of your players will never experience a huge portion of the game that you as the developer have spent time and effort creating and disincentivizes the devs from making too much of the content accessible to players who don’t purchase the subscription.
Other monetizable aspects of games
Importantly, every other aspect of a game that you can monetize also comes with its own set of pros and cons, and each must be evaluated independently in the context of the game’s design. What works for one game, doesn’t necessarily work for another.
I think that one issue which arises with game monetization is that because the language surrounding monetization is so broad (e.g. free-to-play, pay-to-win), developers are sometimes not careful about which aspects of their games they monetize. Games and particularly MMOs are inherently very complicated systems, and I think when you have a large company with people coming and going, nuance can be lost and the desire to increase monetization creeps in at the cost of good game design. It may not even necessarily be malicious, but simply because once you are selling things within your game it can feel like anything is fair game to sell.
That’s why I think it’s critical that developers clearly delineate what their philosophy is regarding what should be monetizable and what should not.
Our philosophy is this: We should avoid selling anything in game that is understood to be earned and we should always sell things that are understood to be bought. That sounds almost like circular reasoning, but we feel it’s actually an immensely important distinction. Since it’s pretty abstract I think it’s helpful to use an analogy: we should never be in the business of selling Medals of Honor and we should always be in the business of selling Lamborghinis.
A Medal of Honor represents something that can only be earned and a Lamborghini represents something that can only be bought. There is no reason why these two kinds of things can’t exist within the same context.
Many games don’t have the concept of Lamborghinis. Their entire game is built around the concept of earning things (Medals of Honor) through gameplay, so when they go to monetize their game, they run into trouble. Do they sell their Medals of Honor? Many games say, “Of course we won’t sell them! But… we will sell things that make it easier to get them.” This undermines the very concept of the Medal of Honor. The point of the Medal of Honor is that it can only be earned. Lowering the bar for those willing to pay is almost as bad as selling them directly. It’s equivalent to saying “Well a lot of cheating is bad, but is it really that bad if we just allow a little cheating?”. This is indeed the basis for a lot of the pay-for-convenience seen in MMOs these days. Mixing these concepts is how we believe “pay-to-win” can begin to creep into every facet of a game and dilute the value of playing a game. The problem is not that people are paying to get something they want, it’s that people are paying to get what you were led to believe could only be earned.
Does that mean that people don’t want Lamborghinis because they can’t get a Medal of Honor? Of course not. It just serves a different purpose. For example, if Riot Games sold the ability to climb the rankings in League of Legends there would be no meaning to the rankings. Monetizing rankings in that case is directly counter to the purpose of the rankings in the first place and is destructive to the fun of the game. Skins in the context of League of Legends, however, are a completely different story. League skins are a great example of the perfect Lamborghini. They’re great to show off, they don’t help you to get some other Medal of Honor, and no one expects you to have earned them.
Can a game have compelling enough Lamborghinis to support the development of the game without compromising the Medals of Honor? That depends entirely on the game and the game design, but it’s been clearly demonstrated that it can be done successfully.
I will caveat that you cannot as a matter of game design and practicality always draw the line so cleanly. It becomes especially difficult if players are able to sell things among themselves. For example, we may not always be able to prevent players from selling their own Medals of Honor. You can of course prevent players from trading certain things as many games have done, but in a game which is based around economics and trade, items need to be tradable. Even if you prevent trade, players will find a way to trade outside of the game for real money. What we can *always* do is avoid selling Medals of Honor ourselves, so that even if players do trade them, at least in that case the original recipient is receiving a benefit for having earned it. Understand that we will always try to draw the line cleanly where possible. That’s always the goal we have in mind.
I apologize for taking that analogy entirely too far, but it’s the clearest way to express our philosophy on monetization design.
What does that mean for BitCraft?
Given that BitCraft is a *community* sandbox MMORPG, by this point (in this long post) it should already be clear that for us monetizing access to BitCraft is pretty much a non-starter. Long-term it will live and die by the healthiness of its community. Part of a vibrant community and bustling economy is that the world is full of people. We also believe we’re building something new and interesting and we want as many people as possible to have access to it. It simply doesn’t make sense to restrict access. For those reasons alone we believe BitCraft must be a free game at launch and remain a free service indefinitely.
There’s another important point to make about free access to the game, though. MMOs are an inherently difficult game to make. They take a lot of iteration and many years to perfect. Personally I would feel much better letting players decide at what point they feel the game is good enough to spend their money in, rather than potentially misleading players upfront. It gives us more room to be experimental without feeling like we’ve broken promises that players paid us to deliver on. In the end, I think that will result in a better final game.
With regards to what we plan on selling specifically, we believe that we have some very interesting and innovative ideas in the space, but we’re not ready to share the details at this time. Just know that any decision that we make with regards to monetization will be aligned with this philosophy.
— Tyler (3Blave, Cofounder of Clockwork Labs)