The Era of Monetizing Pain and Misery in Games is Over

“Free to Play” as Defined by Zynga is Dead.

The only thing in Zynga’s monetization toolbox

I have spammed my last friend. I have paid to shorten my last timer. I have bought my last retry.

For the last four years, Free to Play games have been king, and for good reason. Players can try your game with no risk. If a player loves your game, there’s no limit to how much they can spend. The price of “Paid” games was utterly destroyed in 2009 and never recovered. All any developer had to do was look at Zynga in 2009, and the draw of Free to Play was irresistible.

Investors fell over each other to get a piece of the action. Right up to their IPO, I was regularly asked what I thought of Zynga, and whether people should invest in it. My response was always consistent. Don’t even think about it.

The problem is, if you were looking at Zynga from a monetary perspective, the story sure looked good. Monstrous growth, quarter after quarter. They were everywhere. Everyone was talking about them. They were clearly part of the culture, and Pincus had made his “shining jewel of the internet”. Every few months, someone else feared they’d missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime, and they asked me if they should get on the Zynga bandwagon. The problem was that no matter how good the money looked, the company had built their empire on a foundation that simply couldn’t last.

Zynga uses Pain. It’s super effective.

The problem with pain is that it works. You want to try to get information out of someone? Oh, let’s use that hammer. In the short term, you will get people to do what you want them to do. And there are so many different kinds of pain to wield that if you’re creative, you can create a more or less endless cacophony of misery. Create a grind, then pay for the shortcut. Create a confusing mass of different collectibles, and then make the last one so difficult to get that people will pay to circumvent the process of playing your game just to advance. Flood the game with 30+ popups, often designed to be confusing, so that people will spam their friends whether they want to or not.

Zynga’s “playbook” was to steal someone else’s game, add excruciating amounts of pain to it, and then outmarket the competition. They knew the basic performance of the game would be good, because they could see its performance in its previous incarnation, limiting the risk, and they knew how people responded to pain. Double win, revenue-wise, and becuase they knew that would eventually make more money on their game, they could spend more on marketing and drive the original game out of business. But Zynga’s playbook only consisted of the pain part of the equation. The company didn’t start by making beautiful games — it started through a combination of thievery and pain. So should you invest in them?

Look at King.com and their exploitation masterpiece Candy Crush. It has some moments of brilliance — the core game is a better version of Bejeweled that is more flexible and more accessible, and the social “map” was genius. But the design of the levels is insidious, creating situations that confuse the player’s ability to gauge the odds, and then trying to get them to pay for extra moves in levels that are literally a thousand times less likely to be completable regardless of player skill. That even skips the well-worn suspicions/rumors that they manipulate what pieces drop based on purchase and play behaviour to try to eke out every last purchase from players.

When you have a hammer…

I played Clash of Clans for eight months. I think Supercell is one of the few companies that is doing this (mostly) right. But the problem is that even in that game, the places where it stops being a game and starts being a set of thumbscrews eventually becomes something the player can’t help but internalize.

The flipside of the effectiveness of pain is simple, because it is also a hugely effective tool for the person being subjected to the pain.

People don’t like pain. When possible, they will avoid it. Part of how you avoid it is that your brain is extraordinarily good at finding patterns in things.

So fire up Plunder Pirates, and immediately you can viscerally feel the pain that Clash of Clans exerts on its players. Fire up any of the billion Candy Crush clones, and you’ll know where the impossible levels are, and what the popups asking you to spend money to get past them will look like. Fire up Farmville, and … wait — most people don’t fire up Farmville anymore. Or anything like it.

Why?

Because you already know the pain is coming.

And you’ve already had whatever pleasure those games contained. And you quit those original games because you eventually got more of the stick than the carrot, and that wasn’t what you were looking for in a game.

So maybe that game-that-looks-just-like-that-other-game is better. Maybe it’s different. Maybe it’s not going to hurt you the way the last one did. Maybe. But chances are you won’t bother to find out, because the part of your brain that now immediately and viscerally recognizes that this pattern leads to pain will kick in, and you’ll realize this isn’t the game you’re looking for.

As a developer, there are certain rules of thumb. You can expect a “successful” Free to Play game will look basically like every other “successful” Free to Play game. You’ll have a specific Day 1/7/30 Retention. You’ll have a standardish DARPU. You’ll have low Conversion rate which means that a very small percentage of your players pays for the game, and everyone else doesn’t care enough about it to spend any money at all.

Why the #%*!(@ is that acceptable?

Because Zynga did it. Seriously, if you’re a developer of a Free to Play game, ask yourself why you’ve made something that something like 90% of your players don’t care enough about it to spend any money at all. In what other field do we expect that 90+% of people don’t ever monetize in a non-ad-driven entertainment medium? And we’re not talking about piracy. We’re saying “This is the business model we’ve chosen to pursue, where we don’t expect 90% of our players to support us in any way.”

Sure, it’s effective enough because you can turn the screws on the people that do pay to the point where it’s more effective than most paid games. But that’s because “paid” games require a huge leap of faith on the part of a potential player to part with their money before understanding what the game is about. If you get past tradition, paid games are a really weird way of selling things.

People complain about the mechanics of “Free to Play” games, but with a paid game, you’re “sold” the game entirely on the back of hype. Maybe a list of bullet points. Word of mouth from people who took a risk before you. But none of that really makes sense in an environment where the distribution channels let you give players your experience with no risk. Hell, that distribution channel is one of the reasons that Doom was the hit that it was.

But here’s the thing — the current “Free to Play” playbook sucks. It’s pain-centric, and players will eventually either grow to despise your game, or get immune to it. They might even keep playing because of the vagaries of brain chemistry, but in the end, I don’t know anyone who’s quit Farmville or Candy Crush, but still held a deep fondness for it in their hearts.

Here’s where things are going to get a little sappy, but this is the truth, and it absolutely works:

You can build a game that people spend money on because they love it.

Yes, even a “Free to Play” game. Look at Hearthstone. Look at League of Legends. To be clear, what you cannot do is build a game that exerts no pressure on the player to monetize. There has to be something, because if you let people play for free forever with no pressure, then they will do so, you will make $0, and go out of business. But pressure is different than pain.

Instead of making them fear “monetization opportunities”, how about instead giving them something they value. Not just for pain mitigation, but for the long-term? In League, people buy characters because they develop a bond with them over time, and they are ultimately an expression of the player’s role in the game. In Hearthstone, every time a player buys a pack of cards, who they are in the game changes, and it alters the way the player has to approach their whole strategy. These things are permanent, and they are a means of player expression.

People value all kinds of different things. Self-expression. Time-saving. Loss aversion. Uniqueness. Permanence. Socialization. Isolation. Leaderboards. Mastery. Each of these things is a potential way to give a player something they value, and is potentially something someone would spend money on.

The reason that people accept that only 10% of their players would spend money is that this is what they’ve been told by the “Free to Play” rules of thumb that were entirely based on hitting someone with a hammer until they gave you a dollar to stop. This isn’t how people behave. This isn’t how game devleopers should behave, and much more importantly, it’s not what game developers should aspire to.

The only acceptable overall conversion rate is 100%.

Look — I know there’s a weird way to interpret this, which is “You should squeeze money out of EVERYONE.” And that’s not entirely an incorrect assessment of what I’m saying. But make it a gentle “squeeze”, and in exchange for their money, you have two obligations to the player:

  1. Give them something they will value
  2. Be honest

If you do those two things, and you’ve created a game that players love, there is no reason in the world to accept that only 10% of your players will spend money. Don’t accept the Zynga playbook, and don’t take its rules of thumb as the gospel truth. The only way that “Free to Play” will survive is if we take the current incarnation of it out into the back and shoot it in the head.

Pain is dead.

Pleasure is the new pain.

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