Category Archives: Game Design

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.

Designing for monetization from day one

As more mobile game developers move into the F2P space or integrate IAP into their premium game, a common set of problems occur around process (or lack thereof) when it comes to designing for monetization. Many game teams I talk to or work with in my role as a monetization design consultant are working in F2P begrudgingly. They distrust the business model and this sentiment bleeds through to the game’s implementation, limiting their chance for success.

In my opinion, the ideal game development process on a game with IAP will consider monetization from day one. Not only will the design of the game as a business be considered from the outset, but each member of the team will embrace the business model in their work. This does not mean starting your first discussion of the game with the question “how do we milk our players for all they are worth?” Instead, it means that each member of the team recognizes that success depends on a game that forges a long term relationship with the player and is unafraid to ask the player for money when appropriate.

This idyllic vision is at odds with what I tend to see out in the real world. In practice, there tends to be one person on the team responsible for the money side of game design. This person (be it product manager, producer, CEO or other) leads a frustrating life where she is constantly suggesting ways to improve the game only to be shot down by her teammates, or fighting to get a small part of her overall ideas implemented. This results in a compromised game where monetization elements are hidden from the player or overall lacking, and can result in the failure of an otherwise good game.
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Bruce Wayne’s millions can’t buy F2P success

This article originally appeared on

When it comes to superheroes and intellectual properties in general, there is no name bigger than Batman. Thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s charisma and Jon Favreau’s directing, Iron Man is having an incredible resurgence over the past few years. But in terms of perennial, world-wide appeal Bruce Wayne is right up there with Michael Jordan and Star Wars in the pantheon of intellectual properties.

The fact that NetherRealm’s free-to-play Arkham Origins is currently enjoying a top 5 position in the US free charts on both iPhone and iPad is not a surprise. What is surprising is that relative to the incredibly strong performance of the studio’s first free-to-play outing, Injustice: Gods Among Us, the Caped Crusader appears to be significantly underperforming.
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Making purchases present

Over the past year and a half as a monetization design consultant, one of my core tenets is to make purchasing present. Perhaps the biggest missteps I see in games with IAP is that the developer appears like they are doing everything possible to obscure the fact that a player can spend money within the game. When I get in front of audiences at GDC and other events, I coach that IAP are like banner ads: one must create hundreds if not thousands of impressions of the ability to spend money in order to generate a single purchase.

I am not talking about bombarding the player with frequent blocking modal dialogs. This  tactic is likely to frustrate a player and cause him to quit your game permanently for another. An excellent example I point to in making purchasing present is Bejeweled Blitz.

If I were to open up Bejeweled Blitz and play 10 matches of the game, I would see the Add Coins button 20 times within that session. It is not blocking my progress or making a nuisance of itself. But simply by playing the game and following the path of least resistance, I see the ability to spend money regularly. Purchasing is present.
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On Game Design with Greg Kasavin

Greg KasavinThe following are excerpts from a conversation with Greg Kasavin, Creative Director at Supergiant Games, makers of indie blockbuster Bastion and the upcoming Transistor. Before helping found Supergiant Games, Greg worked as a producer at EA on Command & Conquer  and served as the editor-in-chief for Gamespot. This conversation originally took place in May of 2012.

 EL: What is game design?

GK: Game design is the art of making games, put broadly. It’s coming up with the systems and the inputs that will lead to an interactive experience with a player that hopefully creates some kind of feeling. So, yeah, it’s an open-ended question. I suppose that’s why you ask, more to kind of stump us, right?

EL: [laughs]

GK: It can obviously mean any number of different things, depending on the type of game you’re talking about. I think it was always interesting to me that, at Electronic Arts, there’s a job family in quotes called the “game designer” who, on the totem pole, is usually below the producer. But this is a guy who in theory is making all the content for the game. He’s what makes the game exist in a way, though, really that’s the engineer.
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On Game Design with Richard Vorodi

Rich VorodiThe following are excerpts from a conversation with Richard Vorodi, Senior Game Designer at Crytek. Richard’s’s hit games include classics like Wave Race, 1080° Avalanche, Mario vs Donkey Kong, Metroid Prime, and more recently, Darksiders II. This conversation originally took place in April of last year.

EL: The question I start everybody off with is, what is game design?

RV: That’s the big question. And I think that you’re going to get a different answer from every person you speak to. I think it’s probably more of a personal question than an absolute.

Good game design means it’s your job not to make a fun thing. That’s one of the tools in your bag of tricks. A game designer’s role is ultimately to craft the rules and the presentation of an experience for an audience that you have in mind. Other tools in your kit would be knowing how to bring out anxiety in a player, or fear and discomfort, and then knowing how to reward them and knowing how to entertain them.
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On Game Design with Rich Hilleman (Part 3)

Rich HillemanRich Hilleman is the Chief Creative Director of EA. He is one of EA’s earliest employees and is best known for helping to build the juggernaut EA Sports business as the original producer of games including John Madden Football, NHL Hockey and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. This is the third part of an interview that took place in April, 2012. Part 1 and part 2 were previously posted to this blog.

EL: For the young designers you coach and help craft and bring into EA, what do you think is the biggest frustration point that they should be prepared for as a commercial game designer?

RH: So we’re a fantasy job, meaning lots of people who come into our business grew up their entire lives wanting to be videogame designers. You’ve got one of those guys named Blade Olson. You’ve met him. He literally is one of those people that I believe the first conscious thought he had was, “How do I get to make videogames?”

So we have a lot of those people in our business nowadays. And what is joyous about them, absolutely wonderful about them, is the depth of their appreciation for being in the business and their enthusiasm every day for what they can do.

The bad news is they have no idea what the job is before they walk in the door. When you’ve really invested a lot of time in the fantasy that you think something is, and then it’s confronted with the reality that’s different—not better or worse, just different—it’s a jarring event for most of those people.
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On Game Design with Rich Hilleman (Part 2)

Rich HillemanRich Hilleman is the Chief Creative Director of EA. He is one of EA’s earliest employees and is best known for helping to build the juggernaut EA Sports business as the original producer of games including John Madden Football, NHL Hockey and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. This is the second part of an interview took place in April, 2012. You can read the first part here.

EL: What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by modern game designers?

RH: I don’t think it’s changed much. It’s the same problem. Ultimately, players would like to figure out how not to pay for games. In the past, that was expressed through various kinds of piracy which was occasionally even humorous in its activity.

I think in some ways we have ritualized that. Free-to-play is really a ritualization of that process. That means that getting paid by the customer continues to be the hardest thing.

I used to do this bit in EPX [executive producer training at EA] where I said, “What’s the hardest job in video games?” And the producer would get up and say, “The producer.” The engineer would get up and say, “The engineer.” The designer would get up and say, “The designer.” I’d say it’s pretty simple. I’d say “Give me five bucks.” Or, “Give me 60 bucks.”

I’d walk around the room. Nobody would give me $60, right? Nobody will. So the answer is, “I think we’ve established right now what the hardest job in video games is: getting somebody to give you 60 bucks.”

So much of the organization I think of how successful companies do their job is either consciously or subconsciously organized around the process of getting paid. And if you as a designer think you can ignore how you get paid in the future, it is more important—not less—that you align your design efforts around it.
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Design Tutorial – How to write a feature brief

The simple truth of game development is that a finished game will never be all that you imagine it to be. Even the best managed game development processes result in a game that represents 5 to 10 percent of the initial ambition. Ideas are cheap, implementation is expensive and at a certain point games must be shipped. For instance, even if my team’s current game Enhanced Wars is a runaway success and we continuously improve it for the 3 years after launching, it will never be all that we want it to be.

Once upon a time, when I set out to design a game I would start by writing a lengthy document detailing every aspect of the game. Eventually I learned that these documents are largely a waste of effort. No one else would ever read a 75 to 100 page document and most of the initial concepts get changed dramatically in implementation. Nowadays when working on a game, I prescribe a method of managing the design process for all these features that is lightweight and flexible.
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Breaking into game design: Part 5 – prepare to interview

This article is the fifth in a series on how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal, building your portfolio, learning how to sell your experiences and writing your resume.

If you’ve followed the series of articles up till now, then you’ve sent your resume and portfolio out to the world and are landing some interviews. The previous article on writing your resume covered the general process of phone and in person interviews that you can expect, so I will not reiterate. Suffice to say that if you’ve made it this far you will likely have to pass through a gauntlet of interviews to land that job.

An interview is about three things. The team is assessing if you have the skills to complete the job requirements, so you must sell your skills and experience. Beyond just skills, the team will also try to determine if you are a good fit in terms of personality and culture, so you must sell yourself as a colleague. Finally, if you are a candidate the team would want to hire you probably have some options, so the team will be selling themselves to you as the ideal place invest the next few years of your life.
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