"In a freemium game it's not a rational decision to pay; it's an emotional one." Wednesday at the East Coast Games Conference in North Carolina, former BioWare design manager Ethan Levy explained how free-to-play games can harness to emotions of their players in order to profit.
Up until recently Levy, who delivered the "Game Design is Business Design" talk at the East Coast Games Conference Wednesday, was a design manager at BioWare, a company famous for its dedication to emotional engagement. He's been working in the business for nearly a decade, starting as an intern and tester for Pandemic Studios working on Star Wars: Battlefront. Since then he's been a producer, designer, external consultant and metrics analyst.
No stranger to freemium titles, Levy was the first employee at EA2D (now BioWare San Francisco), where he led development on Dragon Age Journeys, Dragon Age Legends and Dragon Age Legends: Remix 01.
So Ethan knows emotional engagement, and he knows freemium. He also knows how to put the two together to create a recipe for free-to-play success. Let's take a look at the games Ethan discussed during his talks and the emotions they target for big money.
Example: War Commander
Kixeye's War Commander, a game that Levy says garners 20 times the four cents daily revenue per user average on Facebook utilizes one of the more common methods free-to-play titles employ to get its players to pay. A strategy game, in War Commander players can only have a finite number of items being built for their army at any given time, and each unit takes time. That is unless you pay to speed up production.
Example: Mafia Wars
Zynga's Facebook mobster sensation continues to engross countless players, more popular than even its action-packed sequel.
One of the most lucrative aspects of the game is the Hit List. Here players can place bounties on the heads of their enemies, paying top dollar to those that can take their more powerful rivals down a peg. Levy showed the crowd a screen in which the highest bounty would pay out some 640 million in-game dollars. That's more than a thousand real dollars. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and a passable television series.
Example: Bejeweled Blitz
Seeing yourself at the top of your friends leaderboard in PopCap's incredibly addictive 60-second gem matching game is a powerful motivator, driving massive sales of the power-up items necessary to stay in first place.
It bears nothing that the top of Ethan's screenshot leaderboard included BioWare community guy Chris Priestly, along with Duane Webb and David Silverman. Apparently they've had a little down time since Mass Effect 3 shipped.
Example: The Sims Social
Allowing other players to come and visit your little in-game world isn't just a matter of putting the "social" in "social games". When a player visits a friend's home and finds it filled with high-priced virtual furnishings, reaching for the buy button is almost instinctual.
Any Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 gamer knows what a powerful force achievements and trophies are. Now imagine a site where players are so rabid to unlock achievements that they'll pay extra for additional sets. They aren't paying for achievements: they are paying for the ability to gain achievements. Can you imagine the uproar if Microsoft tried pulling this sort of thing on the 360?
Example: Combat Arms
Nexon's free-to-play competitive shooter features a mechanic much like that employed recently in BioWare's Mass Effect 3 multiplayer experience. Players shell out money for Supply Crates, which are effectively booster packs that have a chance — just a chance — of containing a rare powerful item. It's the same rush as opening up a pack of Magic cards and finding that one special rare card.
Levy recalled a talk by Ben Cousins, the current head of NGMOCO Sweden, about something he called Monetization 3.0, in which players pay extra in order to increase their chances of receiving a rare item, a mechanic currently employed in Android card game Rage of Bahamut.
Levy's point is a strong one; playing on emotions is the key to successfully monetizing a freemium title. During his talk I realized that I had paid around $40 on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer boosters, and I could have just contacted BioWare and asked for some credits. I was caught up in the thrill, not thinking with my head.
That's the sort of impulsive, emotional behavior freemium game creators are banking on.
Ethan Levy is a fascinating person possessing keen insight into the game design process, which he regularly shares at his personal website, FamousAspect. You should go there.