Category Archives: Game Design

I spent $100 in Assassin’s Creed Unity so you wouldn’t have to

This article originally appeared on Kotaku

Ten hours into Assassin’s Creed Unity, I’m having difficulty finishing up memory sequence 6. That’s just about the middle chapter of the game. I think my character is too weak. His armor isn’t strong enough. Neither are his weapons.

I could stop working on this memory, instead grinding on side missions and locating chests until I have enough Livres to buy more powerful gear. Instead, I open up the eStore and without first looking into what I can buy with Helix credits, opt for the $100 package, the biggest in-game purchase available from Ubisoft, a publisher that would presumably love for me to buy it.

Stephen Totilo AC Unity Tweet
Continue reading I spent $100 in Assassin’s Creed Unity so you wouldn’t have to

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.
Continue reading How Peggle Blast employs a most hated F2P tactic

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.

Paying to win – guild vs guild events

For those mobile games angling to dominate the top grossing charts, few features are more important than a limited time event system. For instance, in August of 2013, Gree released an infographic for hit game Modern War trumpeting a 600% increase in average daily revenue when events are running. Further, the infographic states that the game makes as much as $2.3 million during an event weekend and, at the time, the game was making its highest revenue to date two years after launch thanks to events.

Whether running the epic, 48 day Clash of Clones event in Simpsons Tapped Out or a 24 hour Faction vs Faction flash event in Modern War, limited time events are the key to long term retention and monetization among many of the app store’s top games. As a monetization design consultant, one of the critical features I most commonly point out as missing from design documents or beta builds is some form of social elder game. Social, event based elder games are something many developers know they need, but have very little experience designing, let alone participating in as a player or spender.

I only play pokemon
Last month, I wrote about what it was like to spend $100 climbing the leaderboard in a weekly PvP event in a fairly standard mid-core game. This month, I wanted to explore what it is like to be a high value player participating in a limited time Guild vs Guild (GvG) event. In the same game I had already spent $100 and many hours grinding away in, I left my starter guild and found a more competitive team with active, higher level players. I participated in a 3 day event as a free player, bought $200 in currency and participated in the next 3 day event as a high value player. As not all game developers can make this sort of time and dollar investment into event participation, I thought this article would be a valuable resource for those looking to implement a time-limited event system in their game. Continue reading Paying to win – guild vs guild events

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.
Continue reading What does $100 buy in Battlefield 4?

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.
Continue reading Paying to win

The Collectables monetization analysis

On the face of it, one would expect The Collectables to make a big splash on the iOS marketplace. A high-end visual treat from proven developers Crytek built in partnership with mobile powerhouse DeNA. A core-gamer targeting, squad based RTS with a collectable card meta-structure. A feature by Apple upon release. These all sound like the ingredients for success. Yet at the time of writing, the game has failed to crack the top 200 grossing for iPhone or iPad in the US. This analysis seeks to identify issues with the design of The Collectables that contribute to its weak monetization and propose solutions to issues identified.

This analysis is based on 4 hours of play of The Collectables on iPad, spread out over two days. As the game uses a structure of rewarding the player for repeat wins on a level with progressive rewards, I played each level 5 times to get the maximum reward before moving on to the next. I spent my gold bar premium currency only at the very end of my 4 hour session, and only to see what the experience was like. As a player, I did not feel compulsion or need to buy additional card packs during my session.
Continue reading The Collectables monetization analysis

The case for an IAP off button in mobile games

While preparing for a recent Thanksgiving trip to visit my family in Chicago, I decided to pack a mostly unused Android tablet. Although I purchased the 7” Galaxy Tab for mobile game testing I could easily part with the device given the number of iOS and Android devices I owned. I plotted to load it up with movies, games and a few apps, bring it to my Grandmother in the assisted living home, and see if I could teach a woman who had never owned a personal computer, smart device or email account to use a tablet.

Over the past year and a half that I have worked as a monetization design consultant writing, lecturing and working on F2P games, I have grown to be a vocal, public champion for the business model. Yet teaching my Nana to play games I publicly praise, I saw firsthand how valuable it would be to have an IAP off button.
Continue reading The case for an IAP off button in mobile games

Understanding F2P with the four pleasures model

This microtalk was originally presented at Unknown Worlds’ monthly Postmortem meetup in San Francisco. In the talk, I explain the 4 pleasures model, a mental framework I use to aid hesitant developers in better understanding F2P players. This model, presented by anthropologist Lionel Tiger in his book The Pursuit of Pleasure, explains 4 different types of pleasure:
  • Physio – pleasures of the body and derived from the sensory organs.
  • Socio – the enjoyment derived from relationships with others.
  • Psycho – pleasure pertaining to people’s cognitive and emotional reactions.
  • Ideo – pleasure from or relating to a person’s values.

As explained in the talk, these four categories of pleasure can be helpful in explaining the joy derived from games ranging from Candy Crush Saga to Call of Duty: Ghosts to Demon’s Souls.

Designing in-game purchases – GDC Next ’13

Description of my talk from GDC Next ’13 – Designing in-game purchases:

In-game purchases are here to stay. Now more than ever it is clear that players are comfortable spending money in browser, mobile, and download games. But just because players are willing to pay does not mean game developers know how to give them something worth buying. This talk gives practical, hands-on guidelines and processes for designing your game’s monetization. Core loops, feature design, economy design, user interface tips, user experience flows, and forecasting tools are all covered in this actionable talk from a 11 year design veteran who has successfully made the leap from designing paid games to freemium games.