Category Archives: Free-to-play

5 game monetization optimizations for Vainglory

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this quick video analysis instead.

Trumpeted on stage at WWDC, given the Editor’s Choice on release and featured to an unprecedented degree in the Gamers television ad for iPhone 6, no game has seen as strong of a promotional push from Apple as Metal showpiece Vainglory. The fantastic take on MOBA for mobile devices has seen strong reviews and industry support. And yet the game’s performance has underwhelmed relative to the amount of attention garnered. To date, the game has failed to break into the top 150 grossing in the US for iPhone or iPad. In the past three months, Vainglory has not appeared in the top 150 downloaded apps chart in the US on either device.

Featuring an all star team of accomplished executives, Super Evil Megacorp has raised $15 million to date (according to Crunchbase) and no doubt has the ability to raise millions more if they are in need. As a company set on building a 10-year plus franchise with Vainglory, it appears their focus is not on overtaking Clash of Clans this year, but on being the first touch game to fill a stadium full of eSports enthusiasts League of Legends style some years from now. In a recent interview, COO Kristian Segerstrale explained the company’s community first approach to development and how they’ve “deliberately chosen from the start to almost be the caricature anti-monetizer.”

In my work as a game monetization consultant, I’ve encountered teams on all levels of the aggressiveness scale when it comes to monetization. Some have implemented tactics that are far too aggressive and need to be dialed back in order to be more respectful to players. Others, like Super Evil Megacorp, are highly allergic to anything that may be considered manipulative tactics by their players. Yet just because you (rightfully) wish to put respect for your players first and foremost in your priorities, does not mean you should completely ignore those organic opportunities to boost your game’s monetization potential. To that end, I wanted to show 5 monetization optimizations for Vainglory that (I believe) would increase monetization without breaking Super Evil Megacorp’s desire to be the anti-monetizer.

Optimized path to registration

I assume due to its eSports nature, Vainglory requires the player to register an account before they are able to make a purchase in the game. In general, I do not agree with putting unnecessary barriers in front of the ability to spend money, but I will assume Vainglory has its reasons. This implementation of the registration gate provides the most obvious optimization for Vainglory.

Instead of “Okay”, this dialog should have two buttons “Register Your Account” and “Not Now.” This dialog puts a gate in front of the player and gives them no way to resolve it. To register an account, they must click okay, exit the store and then find the registration/log in button on the main menu. By simplifying the flow of a player who is trying to make their first purchase, you will increase the percentage of players who complete it.

Incentivize sharing my contact info

When you ask a player for their contact information, you are asking for the ability to annoy them with email advertisements. In the world of downloadable PC F2P games, sharing contact details in the form of creating an account is often the price of admission for downloading an installer. But on the iOS store, players share their personal details and billing information with Apple so that they do not have to share it with you.

If Vainglory is going to require the player to have an account in order to make a purchase, then they ought to incentivize the player for creating that account. Being able to name your account is nice, but no longer being Guest_111714333 on the in-game scoreboard may not be enough of an incentive for players to share their private information. I suggest that the motivation to register an account is sweetened by giving the player either soft or hard currency. This will also allow for a stronger call to action on the registration gate highlighted above as Vainglory would be able to tell the player what they get out of registering an account. Again the purpose here is to increase the percentage of players who register, thereby increasing the number of players who are allowed to make a purchase.

Unlock heroes in the core loop

As with most MOBAs, Vainglory uses a rotating hero system to drive monetization. Each week there is a selection of heroes a player can use for free. If the player wants permanent access to a favorite hero, they can buy it with soft or hard currency.

This screen, where players select their heroes before a match, represents one of the biggest missed opportunities in Vainglory. The greyed out heroes are those who are currently locked. The player cannot even tap them to bring up information explaining why they are locked or how to resolve (which may be a foreign concept for those players new to the genre).

Players spend up to 5 minutes on this screen before each match. They should be able to select any locked hero to see information on it and spend soft or hard currency to unlock it permanently. I can understand not wanting to introduce elements that would slow down the time to get into a match, therefore I would not suggest allowing the player to purchase currency through this screen. However, if a player has enough currency in their account they should be able to unlock heroes through this core loop screen they see before every round of play.

Discount favorite heroes

This is the suggestion I imagine is most outside of Super Evil Megacorp’s comfort zone. After each hero rotation, the player should be offered a small discount on their most used hero that is no longer available.

There are two reasons I am suggesting this feature. The first is that the game does a very poor job of messaging new hero rotations. If a player is new to MOBAs (as I expect a decent portion of Vainglory downloaders are) this may be a completely foreign concept. Additionally, if a player ignores the notification badges on the newsfeed button on the main menu, they may be surprised to find that their favorite hero is no longer available for use.

The second reason is that this is the clearest moment of need. The player is most likely to want to purchase a hero right after it goes out of rotation. If the game balances out the “intrusion” of in-game merchandising with a discount, then they are presenting an offer that is meaningful to the player.

The system would be fairly simple. After the roster of heroes has rotated, the game identifies the most used hero for each player that is no longer available. For the next 3 games, a widget on either this finding a match screen or the following choose a hero screen could advertise the offer, where the game could take 10% off the currency price for this hero. This feature would combine making purchasing present in the core loop (and thus more likely to happen) with clearly notifying the player of a change in the hero roster.

Global Chat

Vainglory’s current focus is on building community, which in my opinion is not in opposition to the goal of monetization. The two go hand in hand. But for a team oriented genre from a developer focused on community, it is quite difficult to meet other players inside the game.

True, I get the occasional friend request from a random who I completed a match with, but why would I want to add a complete stranger to my friends list? And I’m sure that dedicated players are using forums and Reddit to find each other, party up and play Vainglory at a high level. But I, like most players, will rarely if ever visit a mobile game’s dedicated forums.

I understand why chat was left out of matches and recent updates have increased the number of tools a player has to communicate easily with their teammates. But Vainglory should take a page out of the Marvel: Contest of Champions playbook and add a global chat lobby to the game. Global chat while in the game’s menus would allow players to create the social ties that will build the backbone of community Super Evil Megacorp hopes will give them longevity as a 10-year plus franchise.


In my work as a game monetization consultant, one of my key tactics is to separate issues and feature solutions. A developer may say yes or no to a given feature, but so long as they understand why I am proposing it they may come up with a better solution on their own. Whether Vainglory would implement any of the features proposed above or not, my hope is that it illustrates for other developers the issues encountered when free-to-play game goes too far in the anti-monetizer direction.

The team at Super Evil Megacorp has plenty of runway to focus on community building and turn a fantastic, fun, critical darling into a financial success. However, one must imagine that neither Apple nor its investors are extremely happy with the game’s performance to date.

For Apple, the game was meant not only to sell consumers on the power of new devices, but to also sell developers on why they should adapt Metal and target the high end. And with Vainglory, developers can see a very public example of a game that invested heavily in console quality graphics yet so far has failed to make the impact of a viral hit like Crossy Road. On the investor end, one imagines that the $15 million came from people who buy into Super Evil Megacorp’s long term vision. However, from the outside one imagines that they would not be happy with an investment who has squandered the incredible opportunity presented by their unfair advantage of unprecedented promotion directly from Apple.

5 monetization missteps in Midnight Star’s UI

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First announced over 2 years ago, Industrial Toy’s Midnight Star is the latest attempt from a group of industry heavyweights to translate first person shooters for mobile devices and the free-to-play business model. With an impressive pedigree including Ex-Bungie head Alex Seropian, the PR around the game has implied that Midnight Star will be to the mobile FPS genre what Halo was to the console FPS genre. Included in this mission is the heartfelt desire to do free-to-play right, as expressed in a pre-launch article on last week:

“The other big difference is the mentality; Industrial Toys are looking for longterm engaged players, not quick win idiots who will spend $30 on a diamond hammer and never return.”

If you have followed my work on game monetization, you will know that much of monetization happens in the UI/UX layer. The motivation to spend must come from the fun factor of the game itself, but thoughtful UI flows that balance making purchasing present with respect for the player are key to good monetization. With that in mind, I wanted to quickly touch on five monetization missteps Midnight Star makes with its presentation layer.
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The free-to-play opportunity in VR

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CES 2015 has come to a close and one of the big stories as it relates to gaming is VR. Oculus Rift had a huge presence, Razer and friends announced the Open Source VR ecosystem and headset, Samsung showed off Milk VR and we all had a good laugh about 3Dhead’s taughted Oculus Killer.
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How Peggle Blast employs a most hated F2P tactic

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this short video analysis instead.

Peggle Blast, a free-to-play entry in the fantastically addictive Peggle series, was featured last week as one of Apple’s Editors’ Choice. It has reached top 25 downloads in the US on both iPhone and iPad and is just as fun, whimsical and addictive as the original game. It also employs one of my most hated free-to-play monetization tactics.

Much of my work as a monetization design consultant comes in the UI/UX. Most free-to-play games are built on a small pool of monetization features and their success or failure is determined by a combination of the game’s inherent fun factor and the presentation to the player. Just like Candy Crush, Farm Heroes or any number of Saga games, Peggle Blast offers the player to buy extra moves instead of giving up when they are about to lose a level. But the presentation of this feature uses a trope I find annoying and disrespectful as a player.
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The messy interplay between Steam and uPlay in Assassin’s Creed: Unity

Don’t feel like reading? Enjoy this analysis video of the AC: Unity checkout flow

In many ways we are in a golden age of PC gaming. Nowhere has this been clearer to me than the ease with which I turned down current gen Black Friday console deals. Most of the games I want to play are on PC. There are platform exclusives I am eager to play, but no one system has a critical mass of exclusive titles that demand a purchase. With my overflowing backlog of games purchased in endless sales and bundles and most multiplatform games being available day one on PC, there has never been a better time to be a PC gamer. However, with the dominance of digital distribution has also come a glut of digital platforms.

Steam, Origin, uPlay and Desura are all installed on my gaming rig. Soon GoG’s Galaxy will make my backlog of classics much less of a library and more of an active collection. Of these platforms, 3 have a clear place in the world. Steam is my primary gaming platform. GoG is a repository of classics. Desura is home to all the Humble Bundle games that have not made their way through Greenlight.
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New approaches to free-to-play game design – from GDC Next ’14

Slides and audio from New approaches to free-to-play game design, my game monetization talk presented at GDC Next ’14 in Los Angeles. Here is the talk description:

Too often, a game team chooses the free-to-play business model without truly considering the design of monetization elements early in the project. Only when it is too late into the development cycle do they learn that there is not a clear or compelling reason for players to spend money within a game. This talk goes in-depth on concrete methods for designing a game’s monetization from day one. Using the design methods in this talk, a game team can ensure that they are building a F2P game that has both a sound business foundation and proven fun factor.

Battlefield 4 monetization analysis

In my last piece, I wrote about the effect (or lack thereof) that spending $100 in IAP in Battlefield 4 had on my experience as a player. The conclusion was that spending money had little meaningful effect on my performance, and I actually enjoyed my play session slightly less for having spent money. I felt as though I did not receive much value in return for my spend, leaving me dissatisfied with the IAP and unlikely to make in-game purchases in future Battlefield entries.

In this piece, I will explain some ways that BF4 could have made me as a player feel more positively about my IAP experience without upsetting the balance of gameplay. Much of my work as a monetization design consultant is about UI/UX design that makes purchasing clear, present and rewarding for the player. For BF4, these are all areas where improvements would make the player feel awesome about spending money on IAP without upsetting the delicate game balance that is the foundation of this multiplayer shooter.
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What does $100 buy in Battlefield 4?

Back in March, Battlefield 4 started selling the Ultimate Shortcut Pack, the “ultimate way to level the playing field,” for $50 (now $40). In May, the game began selling bronze, silver and gold Battlepacks, giving players “a shortcut to catch up with their friends on the Battlefield,” at prices ranging from $1 for a single bronze pack to $12 for a set of 5 gold packs. These digital items are just a small part of EA’s digital extra content offerings that generated $794 million in revenue over the past 12 months, according to the most recent quarterly earnings report.

Although my work as a monetization design consultant has primarily been in mobile games, in-game purchase tactics similar to those from the pure F2P realm are undoubtedly becoming a regular part of the premium game business. However, for games like BF4, the desire to generate incremental digital revenue must be measured carefully against game balance and the long-term community happiness at the core of this blockbuster franchise’s annual success.
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Paying to win

I was 9 hours into playing a mobile, free-to-play, build and battle game when I made the decision. I was going to pay to win. Not necessarily because I was loving the game so much as I thought it would be interesting to document. If I spent $100 on in-game currency, how far would my money go? Was it enough to ascend to the highest levels of that week’s PvP tournament leaderboard?

The tournament was only a few hours old. Having spent about 7 minutes fighting PvP battles, I was currently ranked #13,909 on the leaderboard. 7 days later, I will have spent over 6 hours and $60 in energy costs to finish in 15th place.

As a monetization design consultant, I have learned many lessons from games in the build and battle genre whose top contenders are permanent fixtures of app store highest grossing charts. I explain the importance of having a social elder gamer such as the PvP tournament I participated in for those games where it is appropriate. The game I played in this instance is not especially important. There was a city that served as an appointment center. There was a single player, PvE campaign, and what I will call pay-for-participation events including the PvP tournament, a form of guild warfare and a PvE boss battle system. There was energy gating. There was gear fusion. There were prize chests. It could have been one of any number of games, but I will say it is not currently on the top 150 grossing chart in iOS/US.
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Hearthstone – Heroes of Warcraft monetization analysis

As trumpeted by the recent Activision earnings report, Hearthstone – Heroes of Warcraft is off to an incredible start with 10 million registered users. Alongside a stable of Blizzard titles, Hearthstone’s launch has helped drive record digital revenues within Activision; 34% of all Activision revenue for the recently completed quarter comes from digital sources. As both a childhood Magic: The Gathering enthusiast and a monetization design consultant, Hearthstone’s release on the iPad has been one of my most anticipated F2P games this year. In a market dominated by a small number of genres, flooded with me-too clones, the game promised a welcomed blend of fresh air, quality and nostalgia.

I spent 20 hours with Hearthstone as both a free and paying player to research this analysis. The game is clearly driving a significant amount of revenue for Blizzard. In the top 5 countries for mobile app revenue, Hearthstone has performed strongly on the top grossing charts over the past seven days with average positions per country of 12 (US), 109 (Japan), 1 (South Korea), 12 (UK) and 8 (Germany) according to App Annie. These are ranks any company would be ecstatic over. The purpose of this report is to analyze the game and suggest features that will help turn Hearthstone into the next member of Activision’s billion-dollar club.
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