Retail and Freemium

Retail and Freemium

I’ve been wondering whether freemium game design could benefit from the science of retail merchandising. After all, freemium games are dependent on in-app purchases just as retail stores are dependent on in-store purchases. And retailers have already spent decades researching how best to motivate buyers and promote purchases.

I looked into retail store design and visual merchandising (VM), and found some lessons that could be applied to freemium games.

Customer Traffic
Retail stores have an initial advantage in attracting window shoppers passing by, but once the customer steps through the door the dynamics of e-tail and retail spaces converge.

Strategies to stimulate purchases can be surprisingly similar in both worlds. Key lessons about generating retail customer traffic can be applied to freemium games.

One lesson is that retailers have discovered that the more commitment customers make entering the space, the more willing they’ll be to linger and buy. That’s why some brick and mortar stores install revolving doors: increasing the effort to enter establishes a greater commitment. Visual cues can also be used to give the illusion of a commitment, such as recessed or arched entrances. These features give customers a sense of transition from one space to another in the hope that they will stay longer in this new environment.

Freemium developers can use this method in their games to better transition users into the game space. For example, ashort opening sequence showing movement into the game space may create that same sense of commitment into the game and thereby increase user retention for that session.

Sales staff
One function of sales personnel is to establish themselves as an authority. This builds customers’ trust and confidence so they feel more inclined to buy and more conent with their purchase. Freemium games can create a virtual sales person in the form of an in-game character who can introduce the game and its mechanics as well as offer advice on purchases and even up-sell. Of course, the character should be not only authoritative but likable too, not hovering, annoying and intrusive. No one want to end up with another Clippy.

Retail stores will sometimes differentiate themselves by offering exclusive brand names. Brands, in turn, provide the shopper with a sense of trust similar to that of a sales person. Using brand names in a freemium game could be difficult if not impossible (Ralph Lauren grenades?), but freemium game developers can still create their own brand names within the game world itself. Instead of giving a power-up a generic name, one could brand it. This in turn can breed familiarity and might even be used across other games.

Much literature in VM is devoted to the arrangement of the retail space. Pools of light can highlight merchandise, store fixtures and displays are moved around to keep the space fresh, lounges provide customers with a space to take a break from shopping. While changing an in-app store is probably bad user interface design, freemium game designers may consider creating an area where the player can take a break from the main game. This has the benefit of giving the player a rest but still keeping them in the game. With more freemium games going social, this area could be a chat area or just a fun virtual place to interact with friends.

Retailers tend to prefer a tiered pricing approach where prices increase for overall quality of products. There is not much room to vary prices for value or mid-level quality items; the margins are much more flexible for high-end items. Freemium developers may want to mimic this model by making sure basic premium content is priced competitively but allow themselves to charge more for highly desired items.

Orthogonal Birding

Orthogonal Birding

When a group of birdwatchers finds an interesting bird, invariably they’ll gather around and look at the bird for as long as the bird complies. Sometimes this can go on for quite a while, especially if the bird is difficult to identify, is uncommon or is doing something unusual.

Once I have identified the bird, I then practice a strategy I call ‘orthogonal birding’. I just turn to the left and look for any new birds. I then repeat this action two more times. More often than not, this method of looking where no one else is looking can yield new and more interesting birds such as Clay-colored Thrush, Spruce Grouse and Black-headed Gull.

This is somewhat similar to the Patagonia Rest Stop Effect.

I’ve also found this to be a useful strategy for product development. Many times we can get distracted by the latest and greatest. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it also helps to consider features or content that no one else is considering at the moment.

Lessons Learned from 5th Graders

Lessons Learned from 5th Graders

I’ve been taking time to watch organizational dynamics in unconventional populations to learn more about group dynamics in the work place.

Yesterday, I led a bird identification field trip with Mr. Hannah’s 5th grade class at Alki Elementary school.  We saw over 10 species including an Osprey and a Bald Eagle.

Here are some things that happened and the consequent lessons learned:

I asked the group to sit on the grass so we could go over the use of binoculars and bird guide.  Several did not want to sit on the grass.  I responded that we could stand and went on with the instruction.

Lesson: It’s okay to change procedure if it does not have that much of an effect on what needs to be done.  Sometimes we can get hung up on procedure or methodologies, but it’s all smoke without substance.

Instead of telling the students what they’ll see and how exciting birdwatching is, I just proceeded into a description of what they needed to know: how to use the resources they had available.

Lesson: Cut to the chase, give people the tools and they’ll usually figure it out.  Most of the time, a leader’s role is to provide assistance, guidance and minor adjustments here and there.

One of the students would tend to wander off from the group.  Saying his name in a clear and direct voice brought him back to the group.

Lesson: The sound of a person’s name is a powerful attention getter.

Throughout our trip, numerous birds were spotted.  After watching and identifying the bird, I would ask who had found it and give them credit for getting us on the bird.  Surprisingly, the group was very generous in giving credit and no one ever squabbled about who saw the bird first.

Lesson: Take the time to give credit.  Trust the group to identify those who make significant contributions.

Sometimes the girl who was tallying our totals would hit a boy with the clipboard for no apparent reason … well, except for being a 5th grader.  The boy would protest, but seeing no gaping wound or blood, I told him to look for more birds and the girl to focus on keeping the tally.

Lesson: Don’t give petty disputes too much attention.  Keep the combatants focussed on the work at hand.

We saw another birding group under a tree who seemed to have spotted something interesting.  We went to their tree and discovered a crow on a nest.

Lesson: It’s OK to see what your competition is doing.

Several times, the children would report the observation of squirrels, small children, defecating dogs or creepy school visitors.  Instead of chastising them or telling them not to look, I explained that those were all uninteresting as they were mammals and not birds.  I asked them to instead find a creepy or defecating bird.

Lesson: Don’t let marginal issues sway your attention – keep it focused on what counts.

Class President Syndrome in Social Media

Class President Syndrome in Social Media

The storytelling site, Cowbird, rewards authors who have large audiences and high number of ‘likes’ for their stories with front-page features and greater visibility in topic searches.

On the face of it, this makes sense.  Contributors with a large following are probably creating content that resonates with the majority of the site’s users.  But one downside to this mechanic is that it can devolve into popularity contests, similar to those seen in school elections where students are elected more for the number of favorable contacts rather than the quality of their platforms.

In Cowbird, I’ve noticed that authors who may soon become ‘rising stars’ sometimes tend to ‘like’ stories indiscriminately and add many users as contacts.  This is probably done in the hopes that their new friends will then reciprocate which in turn will elevate the rising star’s status.

This is great for the site developers as it brings more traffic and users, but the downside is that the quality of the content becomes irrelevant with users focused more on amassing likes and contacts rather than writing good stories.

All this reminds me of Chris Hecker’s GDC talk on how extrinsic motivators (e.g., status) can extinguish intrinsic motivators (e.g., writing good stories).

Overall, though, Cowbird does a great job of providing a tool for content creation and includes some features that can counteract the class president syndrome (e.g., editor’s feature and random search).  It would be nice if they could provide more methods to reward creating good content than creating a reciprocal network.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Houston, We Have a Problem

A reoccuring meme this week for me has been the notion of solving ‘difficult’ problems.  Most recently, I came across this observation from the New York Time’s interview of Bain Capital member, Edward Conrad:

it makes no sense to look for easy solutions.  In a competitive market, all that’s left are the ruly hard puzzles.  And they require extraordinary resources.

This got me thinking about problems and methods for finding solutions which led to a cool article in wikipedia about different problem solving methods including such exotically named approaches like morphological anlaysis and method of focal objects.

I then found an article about the 8D Method of Problem Solving which lists … well, 8 steps to solve problems.  The last step is congratulate your team.

This is all very interesting, but I’m not sure what problem I’m solving with all this.