The Immutable Laws of Game Mechanics In A Microtransaction-Based Economy

The rise and subsequent decrease in popularity of Pokémon Go has provided valuable insight into the way you design a game to be played (known as game mechanics) impacts your ability to monetize the game in various ways.

Gone are the days that you built a game to be purchased on a shelf at a retail location. Gone are the hours spent waiting in line on the day a game comes out. These days, the release of a game is advertised with advertising that drives people to app stores. And instead of paying $50 for a new game, you get the game for free. If a game is free then how do game developers make money? After all, money is required to make the gaming industry larger than the film industry now, right?

These days, game developers get you hooked on the game early, get you comfortable in the pace of the game, and then point you to in-app purchases in order to unlock items that allow you to maintain the pace of a game, or even to hasten the pace. These in-app purchases are known as microtransactions. And the aggregate of these in-app purchases can be considered as a microtransaction-based economy.

As the microtransaction-based economy has arrived in full force, there are certain standards that are emerging as cultural norms for these economies. And violating these rules cause vendors to get blasted on message boards and more importantly lose rabid fans of the game. As such, I've decided to outline the laws, as follows:

1. All items that can be purchased with real money should be available for free.
For example, if you're designing a game that has users building a city and you develop a monument that users can pay $1 for and place in their city to improve morale of those that live in the city, that monument should be able to be earned in the game as well. Otherwise, you're able to pay for an in-app purchase that gives some players an advantage for doing nothing more than spending money.

2. In-app purchases do not replace game play, but hasten your progression through the game.
For example, if you design a game that has users level up based on earning experience points for each task they complete, you never want to just gift experience points based on an in-app purchase. Instead, in-app purchases should provide a time-bound amplification to experience (such as doubling experience for 30 minutes in Pokémon Go or keeping anyone else from attacking you for 24 hours in Clash of Clans so you can save enough money to buy that one Town Hall upgrade you just can't live without).

3. The amount paid for items in a game should correlate to the amount of time saved in game play.
For example, get stuck on a level in Angry Birds. You could pay a dollar for a pack of goodies that will get you past that level (and probably 3 more), so you can move on. Or you could keep hammering away at that level for another hour. Thus, you saved an hour, but lost pride points in the fact that you didn't conquer that level. Later in the game, you
If you

4. Do not allow real-world trading.
This is key. If it's possible to build an economy outside the game, players can then break your game mechanics. For example, in World of Warcraft, you can buy gold, and magic items online for real money and then log into the game only to have another shady character add those items to your inventory. This leads to people writing programs known as bots (short for robots) to mine gold or find magic items on their behalf so they can sell it in the real world. There are a lot of negative effects to such behavior, including the need to constantly monitor for bots (which wastes a lot of developer cycles), bots cause the in-game economy to practically crash when the game updates (e.g. a map) and breaks the bots, and make games both more confusing for users and less controllable by the developer.

5. Establish an in-game currency.
You don't want users of the game buying things with cash directly. Instead, you want them to buy a currency, such as gold, rubies, gems, karma, or whatever you'd like to call that currency. Disassociating purchases from real world money causes users to lose track of what they're buying and spend more money. Seems shady, and it very well may be, but I don't write games so I can't say if that's the intent or not. It's a similar philosophy to buying poker chips, rather than using money in a casino (just without the free booze).

6. Provide multiple goals within the game.
Players will invariably get bored with the critical path in your game. When they do, it's great for players to find other aspects of the game to keep them engaged. For example, in Pokémon Go, you might spend 2 weeks trying to move from level 33 to level 34. During that time, you might as well go find that last Charmander so you can evolve to a Charzard. That's two different goals: one to locate a creature, the other to gain experience. Or you can go take over some gyms in your neighborhood. Or you can power level by catching hundreds of Pidgeys. The point is, to keep players engaged during long periods with no progression, having a choose your own adventure style game play is important. For massive multiplayers (especially role playing games) this is critical, as players will quickly tire of mining for gold and want to go, for example, jump into the latest mass land war. To place a little context around this, there are also 28 medals in Pokémon Go (that I'm aware of), which keep providing more and more goals in the game.

7. Allow for rapid progression early in the game in order to hook users, so they will pay for items later in the game.
Less than 3% of players will transact an in-app purchase in a game. But that number skyrockets as time is invested in a game. Quickly progressing through levels early in a game will keep users playing. Once users have played a game for 8 or 9 hours, if you tell them they can go to bed and for a dollar and it will seem like they kept playing for another 8 or 9 hours, based on the cool stuff they'll earn, they're likely to give you that dollar and keep playing for another couple of hours rather than get that much needed sleep!

8. Create achievable goals in discrete amounts of time.
Boom Beach villages range from level 1 to level 64. As you rise through
It's also worth noting that you should make sure that the goals are achievable. The game Runeblade for the Apple Watch is an incredibly interesting and addictive game, that based on fundamentally sound game mechanics can enthrall a player for months; however, there's no way to get past a certain point. Therefore, players lose interest, Eric Cartman-style, and go home.

9. Restrict the ability to automate the game.
If you had the choice to run every day to lose weight or to eat donuts and watch people run and still lose weight, which would you choose? Duh. Problem is that when people automate your game, they end up losing interest as their time investment in the game diminishes, as does the necessary skill level to shoot up through levels in games. Evony Online was such a game; and I'm pretty sure I still get an email every month chastising me for botting the game 8 years after anyone remembers that the game existed.

10. Pit players against one another.
Leaderboards. Everyone wants to be in 1st place, all the time. Or to see themselves moving up in rankings. By providing a ranking, you will increase engagement, and drive people towards making in-app purchases if only to get a leg up on the 30 people in front of them to get to #1,000 in the rankings. But then those people do an in-app purchase and players have to maintain the addiction to the in-app purchases in order to maintain their position in the rankings. Or to play your game for 4 hours a day.

11. Don't pit weak players against strong players unnecessarily.
In Clash of Clans you build a village. As you build more cool stuff in the village, your village levels up. You can buy rubies to complete buildings faster, and so you can basically buy the village levels. But, since you can basically buy levels, the levels can exceed your skill. Therefore, in order to pit matched players in battles, a second metric was introduced that is based on won/lost ratios of battles. By ensuring that players of similar skill duel one another, the skill of players is more likely to progress organically and therefore they remain engaged with the game. The one exception to this rule that I've seen actually work well so far has been in Pokémon Go where you need to be physically close to a gym rather than just close to the gym while sitting in your living room playing on a console. That geographical alignment really changes this dynamic, as does the great way that gym matches heavily favor attackers, driving fast turnover in gyms and keeping the game accessible to lower level players.

12. Add time-based incentives.
If you log into the game every day, you get a special amplifier to the day. If you don't log in, another player will steal all your stuff. You get a push alert when another player attacks you. There are a number of different ways to incentivize players to keep logging into your app. The more you keep players in your app, the more likely they are to make a purchase. Until you bug them so much that they delete your app. Don't do that.

13. Incentivize pure gameplay.
It might seem counter-intuitive to incentivize players to not use in-app purchases. But not allowing for a perfect score on an in-app purchase (e.g. not allowing for a perfect level in Angry Birds if you used an in-app purchase) will drive more engagement in a game, while likely still allowing for an in-app purchase and then a late-game strategy of finding perfection to unlock that hidden extra level, or whatever the secret sauce is for your game.

If you don't develop games and instead just play games, the above list might seem to list a number of the ways you're being manipulated (and liking it). But these are lessons that hundreds of companies are out there learning by trial and error, and hopefully these can help emergent companies not have to repeat some of the same mistakes of others. And now, with only 30,000 experience to get to level 33 in Pokémon Go, I'm gonna' go for a long walk. At 1:30 am. Again... Not in the least bit feeling manipulated... Or obsessed...

We could probably get up to 100 of these if we wanted to! What laws have you noticed?