Essays on marketing and a meaningful life

Ada Chen Rekhi

Category: Games Page 1 of 3

How to Price Your Virtual Currency (Dataset Across 57 Social Games, SNS and MMO/Virtual Worlds)

One of the key early decisions to game design or creating a virtual currency platform is designing the price and exchange rate of virtual currency. Unfortunately after it’s been released, it’s also one of the most difficult to change, because the change impacts the userbase and economy of the system as a whole. So if you’re starting out, how do you decide how to price your virtual currency?

Three Types of Virtual Currency

To answer this question, I started by looking across a broad swath of popular social games, social networks, and some MMOs and virtual worlds. Currency is typically used in three different forms across these games:

Attention Currency — currency earned by taking actions on the website and rewarding engagement. For example, Gaia Online’s Gold Pieces are earned by posting in forums and playing in games. This is roughly analogous to currency earned as a function of time.

Secondary Currency — paid currency in addition to attention currency which is tied to cash value. This is typically added as a way to control economic inflation. For example, in Playfish’s Restaurant City you earn both attention currency as coins as well have the ability to buy exclusive items through Playfish Cash.

Transaction Currency — currency tied purely to making transactions that can be used in multiple contexts and often transcends a single application or website. For example, this is Facebook’s Credits system.

Virtual Currency Pricing Today

With data from 57 applications and sites, I attempted to normalize the pricing structure of these games by taking the small cash purchase amount (usually $2-$5) and determining how many units of the virtual currency could be purchased with $1 USD, and then examining the distribution.

Looking across this dataset, it’s clear that attention currencies have a huge range of comparison relative to secondary and transaction currencies. I’d think through some questions first in determining how to price your currency.

  • When and how are your users presented with the currency?
  • What is the price range of goods which you expect to sell?
  • How well should the user understand the value of the currency?

You should consider how to price your currency based on how the customer first sees it. For engagement-oriented attention currency, users are first presented with the currency when they’re earning it as payment for their actions. For secondary and transaction currencies, users first see the currency when they are making a purchase decision and seeing the price. Because of this, attention currencies should probably be on the high range and secondary and transaction currencies should be smaller numbers.

Also, you should make a decision about your currency based on your intended item price range because it sets the minimum and (loosely) maximum price ranges available in your economy.

An example of this was when Facebook adjusted the value of Facebook Credits in May 2009, changing the pricing from $1:100 to $1:10 credits:

We want to make sure that even the smallest amount of credits is meaningful. Now by accumulating as little as 10 credits, you can buy a gift to add more significance to a friend’s birthday, celebrate a special occasion or simply have fun.

At the time, Facebook was running tests on physical goods such as a $50 bouquet gift for a friend’s birthday. Rather than pricing it at 5,000 credits, 500 is much simpler pricing. The credits price also indicates the lowest bound of the smallest transaction you are willing to allow within your ecosystem. With a $1:10 ratio, the smallest transaction Facebook will process is $0.10 instead of $0.01.

Well what about secondary vs transaction currencies? Secondary currencies tend to be tied to virtual goods, which means they can be flexible in their pricing. The games using secondary currencies are largely closed economies without the ability to exchange currency or cash it out. Because of this, 89% of the secondary currencies had incentives to purchase larger currency amounts at a better exchange rate and obfuscating the true price you’re paying for the good.

In comparison, transaction currencies did not offer incentives. Their purpose is to ease payment friction in for small payments across multiple merchants. Since users are purely funding transactional currency to purchase items later across multiple contexts, this type of currency tends to be more straightforward in doing the math with fewer attempts to obfuscate the rates.


Ultimately, I think that you need to heavily consider the context in which a user first becomes aware of the currency, whether earning it or seeing it in the store. Dual currency systems are particularly valuable because items with two prices (free attention currency vs paid secondary currency) sets two contexts to the value the item. The user can either invest their time or money to get the item. You need to consider your long-term pricing structure on what items you plan to sell, and whether or not you allow money to be exchanged or used across multiple properties. And finally, you also need to consider all of this up-front because it can be costly and difficult to reset this after release!

*Appendix: Dataset

Attention Currencies (24): Bowling Buddies, Sorority Life, YoVille Coins, Fishville Coins, Minigolf Party, Restaurant City, Farmville Farm Coins, Happy Aquarium Coins, Poker Rivals Poker Chips, Petville Coins, Happy Island Coins, Tiki Farm Shells, Gangster City Money, Tiki Resort Shells, Treasure Isle Coins, Wild Ones Coins, My Empire Coins, Hotel City Coins, Frontierville Frontier Coins, Pirates! AHOY Coins, Car Town Coins, It Girl, MyYearbook LunchMoney, Bejeweled Blitz (FB)

Secondary Currencies (27): Maplestory, YoVille YoCash, Pet Society, Fishville Sand Dollars, Farmville Farm Cash, Crazy Planets, Country Story, Happy Aquarium Pearls, Treasure Isle Island Cash, Frontierville Horseshoes, Gaia Online Gaia Cash, Car Town, Habbo Coins, gPotato, Dragon Wars, Fashion Wars, Street Racing, Vampire Wars, Friends for Sale, City of Wonder Gold, Social City, Market Street, Wild Ones Treats, Bola Melon Cash, Sorority Life Brownie Points, Millionaire City Gold Bars, Petville Cash

Transaction Currencies (6): hi5, Facebook, Xbox 360 Live, Spare Change, SocialGold, Playfish Cash

Roundup: Ongoing Gamification Debate

Gamification as a buzz word seems to be picking up steam and there’s a lot of conversations going on about the topic these days. After my recent post defining gamification and giving examples of it, I’ve pulled together a roundup and quick summary of the topics.

To start off, the web can’t seem to decide whether or not gamification is a real word. Wikipedia deleted the word from its index and since then it’s reappeared again. There also seems to be a disagreement about whether it’s spelled gamification vs. gameification, and it looks like a pretty even heat. Trying to decide by the number of Google search results shows 33,100 results for the former and 46,600 results for the latter.

The term gamification also seems to inspire some vehement dislike.

On a related thread, there’s a disagreement about whether or not gamification is even a legitimate topic or even the right word. There’s a discussion on whether or not it’s actually just badgeification or pointsification. Whatever the semantics, it seems at least the concept of game mechanics is here to stay. This particular debate seems to be a narrower interpretation of gamification as simply adding as simply inserting a points/badge system on top of everything.

Then finally, imho one of the most interesting and polarizing discussions on gamification is whether or not gamification in products is actually a good thing. After all, why put a game into a non-game context? It seems to me that the advice on whether or not to gamify your product stems from a fear that the result of gamification is a thin veneer of game mechanics slapped onto your products and service. The logical conclusion here is that products must still create underlying value and content, and game mechanics have to make sense in the context of the product.

This dislike of gamification as an idea actually reminds me Chris Hecker’s GDC talk “Achievements Considered Harmful?” where he questions whether or not the proliferation of extrinsic motivators such as achievements and rewards (hello Zynga) are actually hurting games.

Like I said in my earlier post, the concept of gamification is not new. The term is new, but the idea of incentivizing customers through reward and loyalty programs has been around for a long time. Gamification is simply another lense with which to examine customer engagement. The distinction here is that we’re not talking about actually making products into games here, but how we can incorporate elements from game design into products to make them more engaging.

What do you think? Is gamification just a buzzword, or a real topic that is here to stay?

Gamification Related Blog Post Round-Up

Gamification Companies

What is Gamification and Real World Examples of It

What Is Gamification?

Gamification is a new vocabulary word lately, and there’s even a summit about it. What is the definition of gamification? The word gamification is used to describe companies integrating game mechanics into their non-gaming product or service to drive user engagement. These companies are “gamifying” their products and services by adding light game mechanics on top of them.

What does that actually look like? While the term is relatively new, the tactics aren’t and have already been in play for quite some time. Here are some examples of gamification in action.

Real World Examples of Gamification

Collecting Friends on Facebook and Twitter, and the LinkedIn LION Phenomenon (Game Mechanic: Collection)

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are great examples of users who are collecting a list of friends, or thumbnails of friends. Twitter is a particularly good example, putting the number prominently at the top and picture collection of all the people you’ve follow at the bottom.

My Twitter (@adachen)

For LinkedIn, the desire to collect people has created the peculiar phenomenon of LinkedIn LIONs. LIONs are “Linked In Open Networkers,” individuals who are open to connecting with people whom they have had no prior business relationship with. This is a somewhat unintended result, since LinkedIn would naturally want to keep social graphs accurate and this goes against that. These LIONs have even evolved to create a website complete with leaderboard (TopLinked 50 Leaderboard) for the top LIONs.

Collecting Badges in Foursquare (Game Mechanic: Collection, Achievement)

Foursquare is both a way to collect and record locations that you’ve visited, but has layered on mayorship and badge collection. Through Foursquare, checking in the most in the last month for a restaurant can make you mayor of that location. A contender for the position can trigger a competition for mayorship. Foursquare also allows their users to unlock badges based on their check-in activity.

One clever facet of badge collection is that they are not linked to particular places, but instead particular types of places. The Gym Rat badge, for example, can be earned by checking in 10x a month at any gym, not just one gym. This creates a common language and context for people to relate with one another, regardless of whether they are next-door neighbors or across the nation from one another.

Leveling Up in My Starbucks Rewards (Game Mechanic: Points, Achievement, Leveling, Rewards)

Starbucks has a rewards program called My Starbucks Rewards. Basically, it starts with a Starbucks gift card pre-loaded with cash, but the game mechanics kick in as soon as you’ve registered your card. After registration, Starbucks shows a progress bar and points in the form of stars to track your progress. Stars are earned for every purchase with your registered Starbucks card.

Once you’ve earned 5 stars, you advance to the Green level. This level rewards you with free refills on coffee and tea, free syrups and milks, and access to select trial offers. Get to 30 stars, and you get a free drink for every 15 cards and a personalized gold card.

Earning Points in My Coke Rewards (Game Mechanic: Points, Collection, Rewards)

My Coke Rewards is a rewards and loyalty program for consumers of Coca Cola products. Each product has a unique alphanumeric code printed on the label, and these codes can be collected and redeemed at the website for points. The points from the codes can be redeemed for sweepstakes entries and rewards like electronics and retailers.

Travel Leaderboards in (Game Mechanic: Competition, Collection) is actually one of my favorite services. I love how simple it is to forward my trip itinerary to an email, and instantly gain access to a clean itinerary on my iPhone. Tripit also allows you to connect with other users of the service. One fun way they’ve gamified their site is by introducing travel leaderboards and personal statistics.

Through the travel leaderboards, I can not only collect my own record of travel achievements, but see how I compare against my friends. As you can see, not doing so good compared to other jetsetters.

Gifting membership through Netflix (Game Mechanic: Gifting)

Part of Netflix’s user acquisition strategy is the free trial and then converting the trial users into paid subscribers. They occasionally send out emails inviting their existing subscribers to invite their friends and family.


Cleverly, these free trials are described as a gift to treat your friends and family, while they are basically an invite to trial the service.

Personalization and Self Expression through NIKEiD (Game Mechanic: Personalization, Self Expression)

While many retailers take advantage of limited edition and designer edition shoes to allow consumers outlets for personality and self-expression, NIKE has take it one step further with their NIKEiD shoes. NIKE allows full personalization through their ability to create on-demand customized shoes for each person. Through their NIKEiD site, you can fully customize the colors, materials, sizing, and fit of your very own special Nike shoes and they will ship it just for you.

In Conclusion

The practice of gamification is commonplace and well-practiced. My pile of rewards cards shows that companies have been on to the idea of motivating users through points, levels and status for a long time.

However, while many of these companies have been using these strategies for a while, they are likely not thinking of this consciously as gamification.Viewing these tactics through the lens of game mechanics and psychology prompts deeper analysis around effectiveness and engagement. Are they optimizing the virality of gift invitations, or figuring out how to tune their rewards systems to be fun? There’s a lot of psychology and science underpinning why basic game mechanics can be so effective in motivating consumers to engage. Hopefully, as gamification becomes more mainstream, the result is that products will be more fun and engaging!

Any big examples I missed? How are you thinking about gamifying your product?

Quick Notes from Smartphone Games Summit — Android, Social, Freemium and More

I stopped by the Smartphone Games Summit today, and thought I’d post a few notes. Great job to Charles Hudson and mediabistro for another great event. One of the interesting sessions in the morning was a session called Smartphone Game Trends, presented by Peter Farago, VP of Marketing for Flurry.

Smartphone Game Trends

  • Consumers are changing in their behavior from portable games (DS) to iPhone
  • On iPhone, 1% of games are on iPhone (in a pie with portable and console) but they claim 5% of revenue share.

Issues with Android

  • Install base for Android is almost equal to iPhone, but Android users don’t behave like iPhone users
  • Android users don’t use apps as much vs iPhone, with fewer sessions
  • Games is a significantly less popular category
  • Fragmentation is a problem
  • No in-app monetization
  • Lack of consumer credit cards
  • 24 hour no questions asked return policy is an issue


  • Apple does a great job of monetizing each user. Monetization per user per year: $18 for Google, $14 for Apple, $6 for Yahoo, Microsoft $4, Facebook $3, Twitter <$1
  • Space has shifted a lot, only in 2010 is the first time mobile hardware has been good enough to support games.
  • Developers want businesses and not just a great operating system. They need the full spectrum of device and OS, broadband, consumer base and one-click purchase.
  • The mobile space has evolved from ship & forget to a service model with updates.
  • Developers are in a great and bad spot since there is significant investment in apps, but the low barrier to entry creates a moshpit effect.
  • Mobile business models include free2play, microtransactions, ad revenues, premium, trial to pay.
  • There was a great slide on this, I hope he posts this, but Flurry has an estimate of the promotion cost and approximate installs to reach top spots on the app store. Barring any typos in my notes his estimates have the Free games #1 spot worth approximately 130–250k installs, and costing $100–450k promotion. For paid #1 spot, it’s 25–30k installs, and 50–150k promotion cost.

Other misc soundbites notes from the summit

  • On mobile vs social: mobile games see 50% of players playing daily, higher monetization per active user than web social games. — Jason Oberfest from Ngmoco
  • New Toy is making $1mm+ per month on Words with Friends.
  • Analytics: There are plenty of good 3rd party services are definitely out there. What is missing today is good crossplatform analytics on games.
  • On Social: The more friends people have, the more engaged they are — the longer they play, the more often they play. — papaya games
  • On freemium: Using a freemium game instead of an upfront payment model increases audience/players by 10x
  • Playfirst has generated $1 million in new sales via cross promotion in their existing applications

How Games Fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy

It struck me the other day how well Maslow’s hierarchy of needs maps directly to many social game mechanics.

Maslow’s hierarchy was introduced in the 1940’s as a concept that people are motivated to satisfy basic needs before they build up to other needs. The lower level of the pyramid is built off of hygiene needs, such as health, food, water and sleep. After those conditions are satisfied, people’s needs progress up the five levels to emphasize psychological and social needs.

Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy

  1. Self-actualizing needs — fulfillment of your true potential
  2. Esteem needs — personal worth, achievement, social recognition
  3. Social needs — belonging, love, affection
  4. Security needs — safety, survival, security
  5. Psychological needs — water, air, food, sleep

Game Mechanics and Maslow’s Hierarchy

The higher levels of this hierarchy seem to map to commonly discussed game mechanics. Level 3, social needs, loosely correlates to ideas around social grooming and reciprocity (gifts), competition, and loyalty. Esteem needs, level 2, has strong correlations to achievement, progression, status, leveling and ranking.

For the top-level, self-actualization, this is the role of grand narrative and storyline in games. This is the deeper purpose of games, and what Jane McGonical in her TED talk (transcript here) refers to as epic meaning. I’ll loosely quote her:

Gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions to human planetary-scale stories. […] Gamers are super-empowered hopeful individuals. These are people who believe that they are individually capable of changing the world.

By immersing themselves in the reality and story of games, gamers are living and fulfilling their greater destinies as kings, gods and saviors to achieve an epic meaning.

When we play games, are we virtually reaching for self-actualization?

Three smart ways Frontierville executes on game mechanics

The entire company has been playing Zynga’s Frontierville for the last few weeks as a group observation on social games. I’m amused (and a little embarrassed?) to admit that I’m one of the few people I know in the games industry that actually enjoys playing these games. However, as penance for an excessive amount of time wasted, I’ve decided to blog about some of the interesting things that they are doing to make the game effective. 😉

1. An !Explosion! of Rewards (Achievement)

After harvesting crops or feeding hungry animals, Frontierville really emphasizes the reward. Huge piles of coins, food and collectible items visually spew across your screen. These rewards also urgently need to be collected, as they fade away within a few seconds. The more rewards you can collect in one uninterrupted session, the greater your multiplier of collecting money and experience. This results in some frantic clicking and heightens the sense of productivity and reward, especially compared to standard Farmville harvesting which looks like a progress bar above your character’s head.

2. Frontier Jack, always one step ahead. (Competition)

Frontier Jack is the fictional character who is your sole neighbor at the start at the game. Visiting his decorated homestead makes your starting land full of weeds, thorns and snakes look positively pathetic. Not only is Frontier Jack the model of what your homestead could look like for those of us that love decorating, but he’s a clever way to inspire the need for competition and to “keep up with the Joneses” even if you don’t have an active friend playing the game with you. Beating him always seems to be within reach, since his level is always just one level higher than wherever you currently are.

3. “Ghost” friends helping you out (Reciprocity)

Frontierville has the same mechanic as other social games in that you can visit your friends’ homes and help out, so they help you out in return. They’ve taken this one step further, however, in replacing the standard dialog box alert that “your friend came to visit” with an actual ghost of your friend’s avatar the next time you log in. Clicking on them activates a re-play of all the actions they took earlier on your farm earlier that day.


There wasn’t a lot of innovation as gameplay mechanics in Frontierville, but I was struck several times by their clever enhancements to make well-known game mechanics even more effective through execution. While the game isn’t differentiated as far as discovering some clever new game mechanic or recombination of several of them together, the heavy improvement on feedback, reward, and experiencing social gameplay is a substantial improvement from Farmville.

Also, related reading is a recent TechCrunch post on SCVNGR’s list of nearly 50 social game mechanics.

The Wilderness Downtown

The Wilderness Downtown is a super impressive showcase of the capabilities of HTML5.

GDC10 Notes: The Evolution of Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy

Session Title: The Evolution of Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy by Sulka Haro (Lead Designer, Sulake)

Overview of Habbo Hotel

  • Age range is 12–17, with $74 million in revenue
  • Offices in 13 countries
  • They maintain 16 instances = 16 separate virtual economies
  • 10 years old this year

Sulka describes the 6 phases of change that the Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy has gone through

  1. No currencies
  2. Emergent currencies
  3. Paid currency
  4. Tradable paid currencies
  5. Dual currencies
  6. “Official” secondary market

Phase 1: No Currencies

When the game started, there wasn’t an in-game currency and players would just text-message to buy a chair. This made sense because their audience had high mobile penetration.

They began to encounter problems with social engineering attacks. For example, if you had to buy a chair by texting a message to a number saying “Habbo Chair Sulka” to buy a chair for your username Sulka, people would spam the room saying text “Habbo Chair 100X Sulka for one hundred chairs!” but ultimately the user 100x would get the chairs. They also encountered problems with just having 2 in-game price points, cheap and expensive. The expensive one wasn’t a good fit for most of the cheap virtual goods in the game, and the cheap one wasn’t particularly profitable for them due to the commission rate associated with SMS transactions.

Phase 2: Emergent Currencies

Players had always been able to trade items with one another, and created an emergent currency amongst themselves which was essentially a really cheap chair.

Phase 3: Paid Currency

With their 2001 UK launch, cellphone penetration wasn’t high enough so they created Habbo Credits, their first paid currency, and introduced additional payment mechanisms.

1 Habbo Credit = $0.15

They chose this ratio based onthe $0.79 SMS price. Super cheap items were 1 credit, medium items were 2–3, expensive items were 4–15 credits. The issue with the credit pool is that it makes it hard to predict value.

Increasing credit consumption doesn’t necessarily mean increase in revenue. Haro warns us to look out for an accumulation of goods in the economy, and this is part of the danger of having persistent goods — although there’s a lot of trading it doesn’t map to real life where things break. It’s important to have sinks to pull credits out of the pool.

So to help with persistent revenue, they launched the Habbo subscription club, subscriptions and virtual goods are very different models. In subscriptions, the revenue model is linear, and the virtual goods model is not.

Trading is great content for the game — it’s a way for players to spend more time in the game, and engaging because there’s a lot of item value speculation. Hence since it drives time, trading drives sales. Their highest value traders were also the highest ARPU users. Haro warns that “average” metrics lie — always expect the power law to be in effect.

Phase 4: Tradable Paid Currencies

The most liquid currency is the most desirable currency. It’s important to remember that the smallest currency value defines the smallest value. If one credit is $0.15, then that’s your lowest item value. So keep that in mind when setting a currency price.

Prior to making currency tradable, same number of buyers as sellers, and more traders than buyers.

After the change, more spenders than buyers, more traders than buyers, leading to more buyers.

Then they tackled the item inflation problem. How can we solve the persistent goods problem? No matter what you think, inflation is a problem. Secondary market prices go up, and that alienates new players. Items purchased in the primary market start becoming a bad deal in inflationary situations. And if your item catalog is the primary sink, then inflation is even worse.

It’s hard to measure information though, since the number of players grow and so does the amount of currency. Good rule of thumb is that the average amount of currency per player should be constant. One way to measure this is to set up your own consumer price index — pick a set of items (especially emergent currency items) and track their value in the after market.

One of the worst causes of inflation is to give free currency — this works in the short term for engagement, but doesn’t work out long-term in the economy.

But how do you reward users if you aren’t using paid currency?

Phase 5: Dual Currencies

Habbo introduced a currency called pixels, which you get for performing in-game actions. Pixels are used to buy expendable items, and for discounts. Primarily geared toward engagement. Credits, the paid currency, are used to buy persistent goods and services.

Some people say that having one currency keeps things simple, and dual currencies makes it more difficult. But one currency, one size fits all, that’s bound to be complicated. Two currencies is easier since each is simple and can be optimized independently.

Phase 6: Official Secondary Market

The market was designed to remove friction in trading. Prior to this, people had a very difficult time trading — you’d go from room to room and get booted from rooms for spamming, shouting what you were selling and hoping you’d intersect with a buyer. Often didn’t even get what you wanted in exchange for a trade or purchase.

They created an anonymous marketplace for players. It’s anonymous to keep people from circumventing it. Part of the marketplace shows trade value and historical price values. Users like it because it feels safer (even if it’s no different) but interesting that there’s still a huge amount of arbitrage in the market.

The marketplace has the following rules:

  • 0.2 credits to post, and the posting is value for 48 hours
  • Sale price is the offer price + 1% commission (minimum 1 credit)

Due to the minimum, their actual commission could be as high as 50%.

Final Notes

Make sure you’re in control of your own currency and maks sure you remember the smallest unit of currency = smallest item price.

Payment methods — Habbo has over 100 payment methods, due to huge variations depending on the market. System viability changes from market to market, and credit cards, SMS and prepaid cards are not universally viable globally

Payment method optimization is a true art and part of Sulake’s secret sace

The Big Balancing Act — primary and secondary markets follow different rules. Economics is necessary, not just for price and revenue optimization, but also to keep the world safe

GDC10 Notes: Sid Meier on Why Everything You Know is Wrong

Friday morning’s keynote was from none other than Sid Meier himself, co-founder of Firaxis and the creator of the Civ series.

Session Title: The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong) from Sid Meier

Meier began his talk with the assertion that gameplay is primarily a psychological experience and player psychology is primarily based on egomania, paranoia, delusion and self-destructive behavior. If you like playing the Civ games, it’s because you love being a god-king and controlling everything, therefore you are an egomanic.

However, game play doesn’t map to real life. He described the Winner Paradox, in the real world you never really win, but in games you almost always win. In the real world, the Super Bowl has only one winner, sports leagues have only one winner, you almost never win. In the games world, you almost always win.

Reward vs Punishment — players are inclined to accept rewards.

Meier talked about “the first 50 minutes rule”: the first 50 minutes must be very compelling and fun, and show the player a preview of all of the fun they’ll have for the rest of the game. In trying to engage them during this time, you almost can’t reward the player enough (though this doesn’t negate the difficulty level).

He used to believe that players only needed 4 difficulty levels, but in Civilization Revolutions he discovered they actually need 9 difficulty levels. The difficulty levels give a player a feeling that they’ve mastered a level. The psychological conclusion for gamers is that everyone is above average.

Meier then talked about his “Unholy Alliance,” which is the connection between the player and the game designer. All of these things must match in order to create a compelling game experience.

  • The player is the star of the game
  • Players must be willing to suspend their disbelief, and fall into the story of the game
  • Moral clarity — don’t put users in dilemmas, it’s more satisfying to win against a cranky ruler in Civilization than a pitiful begging one telling you about the women and children you are killing
  • Mutually Assured Destruction
  • Humor / Style / Music / Atmosphere must match

Meier warns, be careful to be true to the vision of the game and value the players time. You have to be consistent with the style and the vision of the game, to keep the player engaged in the game.

Meier described then what I will paraphrase as: game players aren’t rational and don’t understand probability.

In playtesting, a player always expects to win a 1.5 to 0.5 battle, even when probability dictates that sometimes they will lose. He had to make the odds even odder in many cases to adjust for players’ expectation of how “fair” a game feels. With his mathematics background, he learned this his brain is too logical and scientific, and he didn’t take psychology into account.

My Bad — Meier recaps mistakes, or his “my bad” moments

  • Real-time civilization — the first version of Civ was a real time game where the player is just an observer, similar to the style of sim city. This didn’t create the feeling of control and egomania that the current turn-based civ does, where you are the god-king
  • Rise and fall — first version fo Civ had an idea of civilization where you have a setback and recover and rise to an even greater prominence. Players want a game about progress, and the rise and rise of civilization, not the downfall. Lots of players reloaded from a save file at the first setback
  • Tech tree — he used tot hink a tech tree is about a rise through darkness, and you wouldn’t know what’s at the end of the path. It’s incongruous to learn writing and know that in the future that will lead to a jet fighter. But players want predictability and want to be in control. Randomness must be treated very carefully, because random acts create paranoia
  • The Dinos Game — the game which was never made
  • Civilization Network

In playing a singleplayer game, feedback and validation is really important

Protecting the player from themselves — keep them from reloading their save files to win every fight, don’t give them too many options/settings, cheat codes are questionable and mods are good.

What’s the point of all the game design? Meier describes game design as trying to create the epic journey. The epic journey is full of interesting decisions, learning and progress, the feeling of just “one more turn” (players are riveted and always leaning forward to ask for one more term) and replayability.

GDC10 Notes: Achievements Considered Harmful?

Last week I sat through a couple sessions at GDC10 — excellent talks all around. Here’s a quick write-up of my notes part 1, but more detailed coverage also available here.

Session Title: Achievements Considered Harmful — Chris Hecker

Hecker classifies achievements as

  • tangible — cash, gold star, trophy
  • verbal — praise
  • symbolic — achievements like on Xbox

And also breaks them down on a variety of criteria

  • expected vs unexpected
  • informational (objective feedback) vs controlling (opinionated feedback)
  • task contingent vs engagement contingent vs performance contingent
  • free choice vs self-reported
  • dull vs interesting
  • transitory vs long-lasting
  • endogenous vs exogenous

tangible, expected, contingent reward situations reduce free choice intrinsic motivations

verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases free choice intrinsic motivations

The data Hecker quotes shows that if you pay for grades, grades actually go down. Extrinsic motivators actually do damage to what they are supposed to do. In order to minimize the potential damage, Hecker advocates:

  • don’t make a big fuss about achievements
  • use unexpected rewards (this is difficult to do, but try)
  • use absolute scale not relative
  • use endogenous rewards (rewards that are related to the context in which they earned it)

Hecker’s call to action is for the games industry to better consider the impact of achievements on players. While he doesn’t specifically condemn achievements, the point he makes is that it’s questionable whether or not the long-term effects of achievements are driving the right player behavior. He described what he calls the doomsday scenario, where intrinsically interesting games have the intrinsic motivation to play them destroyed by the design of many extrinsic motivators. Hecker talks about “metrics fetishism” leading to short-term optimization, and dull tasks designed around extrinsic motivators.

Overall, Hecker was really interesting and thought-provoking and raised good questions about the psychological impact of games which are over-focus on achievements and player reward. Reward is a great way to drive player engagement and activity, but what are the long-term impact?

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