Tag Archives: game development

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.

Analyzing The Offer in Fallout:New Vegas

Analyzing The Offer in Fallout:New Vegas

Continuing from my post on The Offer, I looked at Bethesda’s wonderful post-apocalyptic RPG, Fallout:New Vegas and their treatment of offers from the start of the game.

A game that flows well responds to the player’s actions which are motivated by what information the game ‘offers’ to the player.  This is important in story-based games especially ones that are non-linear where the player can respond in different ways.

Below is the listing of the offers, responses and honors in Fallout’s first opening minutes.  Offers are in PURPLE; a player’s response to the offer is prefaced with the offer they’re responding to (e.g., MURDERER is a player’s response to the offer of ‘Find out who tried to murder me’);  RED indicates an offer that is not honored (i.e., the player’s action results in no new offer); GREEN indicates an offer that is honored (i.e., the player’s reaction to an offer leads to something else usually another offer).

There is a lot of information conveyed in the opening, but key items that I recall are:

  • The game is set in post-apocalyptic Las Vegas
  • A guy in a check suit executes me in a graveyard with a water tower nearby
  • A doctor patches me up who tells me to find Victor who found me and Sunny at a Saloon
The opening then gives me offers that I can respond to: 
  • Find my MURDERER
  • Find VICTOR
  • Find SUNNY
As soon as I exit out of the doctor’s house, I get a great visual offer of a water tower in the distance on a hill.  I respond to this offer by traveling to the water tower to find clues about my assailant.  When I get there, I find a clue.
MURDERER: I find distinctive cigarette butts.
This is a weak offer as I am not sure what to do next but at least I am rewarded for investigating the execution scene and I have hopes that this clue will lead me to the man in the checkered suit. But I have 2 remaining offers of talking to Victor and Sunny.
En route to the saloon, I meet with Victor and talk to him.
VICTOR: While the honor of speaking with him is honored, it does not lead anywhere.
I go to the Saloon to talk to Sunny.
SUNNY: After she gives me a tutorial on shooting, she advises I talk to TRUDY in the saloon.
TRUDY: She tells me that the man in the checkered suit was with a group called the Khans and that they went north through Quarry Junction taking Route 93 to the Strip. This provides me with a new offer related to finding murderer, QUARRY.

And so the game continues with offers, responses and new offers.

So many times in story-based games, the next goal or means to achieve a goal is not well communicated.  It’s even more frustrating when a player is not rewarded for following an offer.  At times, offers may not lead anywhere as in the case of talking to Victor, but at least the player is given the option.

The Offer

The Offer

Improvisers have a wonderful term called ‘The Offer’.  Essentially it is any content that informs the audience and other improvisers about the scene, its characters and environment.  Offers are treated like a precious treasure, a tiny delicate baby, a new lover and all efforts are made to maintain and develop that offer.  And those efforts in turn become offers themselves.

A good improvised scene contains offers that are clear and connected.  One of the many sins an improviser can indulge in is to ignore an offer.  Doing so confuses the action, stops the flow of the scene and enrages the improv gods.

This “lens” of the offer, as Jesse Schell might call it, is useful to whip out to examine game design.  What offers in the game narrative are not developed or never used?  Is there something tantalizing that is offered that players can never interact with? How are offers emphasized in game content?

And offers are not just limited to game content. Look at your game packaging and marketing materials.  What do they offer the users?  Is there sufficient support for these offers in the game? Or does your game, Age of Zombies, only show the living undead in a cut-scene at the beginning and then one in a dungeon 5 hours later?


Alternative to Begging in Social Games

Alternative to Begging in Social Games

A hackneyed mechanic used by social game developers to increase and maintain their user base is to require current players to solicit their friends to participate in the game.  Players are then given rewards for each friend that they solicit.  But the end result is that the transaction feels slimy and players can become annoyed with all of the ‘begging’ for help.  Another result is that players may be intrinsically motivated to help their friends but the extrinsic motivations could extinguish one’s inner need to assist.

One alternative would be to allow players to choose who they assist and when.  A board could show ‘friends in need’ and the player would have the option of helping or not.  The developers could also provide greater rewards for helping out a friend who is a highly active user and less rewards for players who are ‘deadbeats’ and are not particularly active.  Random strangers could also be listed on the board thereby expanding the reach of volunteers and facilitating greater social contact.

However, this approach would only work with installed users and not help increase the number of new players.

Satana Ex Machina

Satana Ex Machina

A couple of years ago when I was developing a game concept for a big brand, I came up with the idea of a satana ex machina.  While a deus ex machina provides a solution to resolve a conflict, the satana ex machina would provide the initial problem of a story.

Of course, a deus ex machina is a weak narrative element and its counterpart probably wouldn’t be any better since these figures are completely removed from the story and don’t have any stakes in resolving or creating conflict.  Still in all, I found the idea of an infernal imp creating havoc for the protagonist intriguing.  And I think that a satana can be more palatable than a deus since the audience wants to see the protagonist solve a conflict, but the source of the conflict isn’t as important to understand.

But a villain whose motivations is understood is always meatier.