Dishonesty Through Physicality in Monetization Mechanics

The monetization features in top grossing F2P games are not coincidentally based on gambling. These luck-based mechanics, carefully designed and tested, are usually visualized with a representation of a familiar physical object. Sometimes this is a game of chance, like a slot machine, roulette wheel, or spinner. Other times it is something more mysterious, like a treasure chest or other type of loot box. Regardless of their appearance, the goal of these depictions is almost always to manipulate the perception of win rates for these mechanics, either through obfuscation or misrepresentation.

What are you buying?

Loot boxes sound ridiculous on paper. “Spend money for a small chance to get something you want” isn’t a great sales pitch, but a lot of work is done making these purchases attractive enough to be profitable.

Exclusivity, or at least the feeling of it, is the first key to success. Some games with loot box mechanics have free randomized item drops, meaning a player could obtain any item in the game for free. Sometimes there is an in-game store, where any item can be purchased with in-game or real currency. When the odds of getting a specific item for free are so low it’s not even seen as a viable option, or when the price difference is so significant, loot boxes can appear reasonable in comparison.

The opening of a loot box is a carefully designed experience, made to be as addictive and enticing as possible. They use special animations, sound effects, and music fanfares to create an experience with physical and psychological weight that makes even a bad drop feel good. One common strategy is to draw out the excitement of the opening experience with multiple levels of reveals and anticipation, all accompanied by satisfying sounds and visuals:

  1. When the loot box is opening, the light on top of it reveals the rarity level of the best item drop in the box.
  2. When the items fly into the air, their colors reveal the rarity level of the rest of the items in the box.
  3. When the items land, their final identities are revealed.

You can see variations of this in other loot box experiences: Clash Royale’s chests require the player to tap through to reveal each card drop one at a time while at the same time briefly revealing the card’s rarity a split second before revealing the identity to build excitement. Dota 2’s treasure sequence shows the player all possible items, then cruelly eliminates them one by one, keeping a rare treasure in the mix until the very end to keep the player engaged.

These efforts exist to disguise the reality that the developer is hiding not only the contents of these purchases, but the rules that govern the contents too. It’s uncommon for games to reveal the exact probabilities for obtaining specific items from loot boxes, and this is by design: not revealing the odds allows them to be changed at any time for any reason. This creates tempting opportunities for manipulation, such as guaranteeing first-time buyers a cosmetic item for a character they use frequently. Giving new buyers a quick win anchors the value of this purchase highly in their minds, and subsequent purchases are more likely to be made chasing after this initial gambling high.

New laws, such as one put into effect in China last year, can require loot box odds to be disclosed, but publishers will find ways around them to ensure the mechanics that drive these purchases remain black boxes.

Your Rules Don’t Apply Here

Developers represent gambling-based monetization features with physical objects to keep them engaging while hiding their inner workings. To manipulate potential buyers further, these representations can be chosen to not only obscure their mechanics, but to intentionally mislead the player into believing the odds are more favorable than they really are. Casual free-to-play games on Facebook and mobile have done this for years with minigames such as slot machines, spinners, and pachinko-style peg games. These games existed first in physical form, and as physical objects they are governed by basic rules of probability: Wheel of Fortune’s wheel has 24 spaces, making the odds of hitting one of them easy to calculate.  Physical slot machine odds can be calculated based on the number of symbols and reels. And the results of beads dropping down a Galton Board is a bell curve:

Compare this to a similar virtual minigame, such as Slark’s Riptide Rumble from Dota 2’s International Battle Pass last year:

The “RELIC” prize option in the center is the best reward, which can only be won in ten of the thousands of plays per week. But the game’s appearance indicates much higher and fairer odds by giving this prize equal physical space to the other six results. The results of this game are decided as soon as the player drops the marble; everything after that is just theatrics.

Another example of misleading odds in another Dota 2 minigame is “Rylai’s Battle Blessing”, a Wheel of Fortune-style spinner. If it existed as a fair physical game, a player would have a 1 in 60 chance of winning the best prize, an Arcana-quality item. But the odds released by the game’s Chinese distributor reveal a 1 in 1000 chance. There is no way to know whether those odds are consistent across all regions.

Even when a luck-based mechanic isn’t visualized as a physical object, its appearance can still be used to subtly mislead the player into a false understanding of its odds. Dota Plus’s Relics system contains a gambling mechanic in which a player spends earnable in-game currency on stat-tracking items. The player can obtain 14 relics in total per hero – four rares and ten commons.

When buying a random relic, the animation indicates that relics are lighting up at random, and the one that it stops on will be the prize. An animation like this is trying to make the player feel that the relic is being randomly selected with fair odds based on the number of total relics. The animation supports this assumption by highlighting relics at a frequency that appears random, communicating that rare relics have a 4 in 14 chance of being picked – a probability of 28.6%.

But according to a community survey, the real odds are closer to 3.3% based on around 1500 reported attempts. This means that only 1-2 rare relics should light up to make the odds suggested by the animation match the actual chances.

So What Now?

If you play games that use misleading mechanics like this, the best thing you can do is educate yourself about the potential odds of any purchase before getting hooked on them. There’s a reason both free-to-play games and drug dealers often give a free taste of their wares before making you pay for them – the experience is designed to be addictive. Communities built around these games should coordinate ways to aggregate their experiences to develop a sense of the real odds involved in purchases, and they need to do this regularly as developers can change those odds on a whim.

Game designers are often restricted by publishers to creating these mechanics in a purely data-driven way. Unfortunately, their data often proves that dishonesty and manipulation lead to higher profits, but if the industry does not regulate itself here then governments are likely to step in and do it for them.

Here are a few examples of ways that developers can make in-app purchases more consumer-friendly:

Clear Descriptions of Contents


Clash Royale’s monetization depends on loot box-style chests, but the guaranteed item rarity of each chest is clearly displayed on the purchase screen every time, allowing players to make more informed decisions.

Better Loot Box Experiences


While many of the minigames covered above from Dota 2 are quite manipulative, they are only tangentially related to their monetization system, which relies more on a combination of seasonal event passes, subscription services, cosmetic item purchases, and loot boxes.

Their loot boxes have many user-friendly features:

  • Multiple purchases do not result in duplicates until the buyer has received one of each normal item.
  • Rare items have escalating odds, so repeating the same purchase will eventually result in obtaining all available items.
  • Items can be bought and sold on the Steam Community Market, often at lower prices than through gambling alone. Trade restrictions sometimes delay or eliminate this option.

Honest Odds

When an abstract animation or depiction of a physical game of chance is attached to a purchase, build it so the visuals accurately represent the actual odds and are responsive to changes in those odds. If that’s not an option, favor obfuscation over this outright dishonesty as the lesser of two evils.

I’m not aware of any examples of honestly-visualized odds for in-game gambling mechanics, since I suspect that would greatly reduce the impact of these features. If you know of any, leave a comment below and let me know.
Continue reading “Dishonesty Through Physicality in Monetization Mechanics”

Dota Plus Assistant and the Pay to Win Nightmare

The Plus Assistant feature that launched this week as part of the new paid subscription service Dota Plus is causing a minor controversy in the Dota 2 community. This feature uses machine learning to churn through data from millions of real matches to recommend specific strategic choices to players in real time. These recommendations can include which hero to choose against a particular lineup, what skill to level up first, and which items to choose in game.

The Dota community is incredibly sensitive to purchases that can affect game balance, and with good reason. Dota is a free game that puts every player on level ground at the start of each match, with visual differences being the only way to differentiate who has spent money on the game. This is often cited as a significant difference in Dota’s main  competitor, Riot’s League of Legends. Riot locks playable characters behind a paywall, requiring players to invest significant money or time to unlock them all. A wide character selection gives an advantage to paying players with the luxury of more available options for countering their opponent’s choices.

This is a vastly different world from mobile free to play monetization. As someone familiar with the inner workings of intrusive mechanics like consumable boost items and gambling-based loot boxes, the Assistant’s robo-recommendations didn’t set off my hair-trigger “pay to win” alarms, but there are many in the Dota 2 community who think otherwise.

As always, there’s a relevant Xkcd

There’s a clear disconnect between what I imagine when I think of unfair paid advantages in the game and why the Dota 2 community is concerned about Assistant. Just for fun, I tried to envision a version of Dota 2 with the “pay to win” elements dialed up to the max…

Dota 2: P2W Nightmare Edition

Before each game, every player can equip consumable items (boosts) that give you in-game benefits. For example, a “Speed Boost” item that lets you start the game with higher movement speed on your hero. These items are gone after the game is completed.

Once per day, you have a free chance to earn boosts in a gambling-style minigame. The odds are heavily against you getting the best boosts, but there is no indication of how likely you are to get a boost. It looks like a slot machine or spinner. Using a game that exists in physical form with fair odds makes players think the result is truly random, but in reality you will win a weak boost 90% of the time, a decent boost 9.99% of the time, and a powerful boost 0.01% of the time. You can buy additional plays in this minigame with real money.

You can also buy in-game currency (soft currency) that allows you to purchase boosts from an in-game store. You can earn soft currency in other ways, but you’d have to grind forever to buy the most rare boosts. Prices in the store are set to appear more expensive than the price of playing the minigame to push people towards the more addictive and uncertain purchase option.

Setting prices in the store in soft currency instead of hard currency (real money) is a common F2P strategy because it makes people more willing to spend money, and it hides the real dollar value of items behind complicated exchange rates that can vary depending on sales and promotions.

Your Nightmare is here.

When you die in a game, you are at a “pain point”, meaning you are more susceptible to spending money. That’s why they show you a popup that offers you a chance to buy an in-game advantage with soft currency before you respawn.

People are also more susceptible to spending money when they’re at a high point in the game, so after winning a tough game you get a popup with limited-time sales offers that you will miss out on if you wait too long. Limited-time sales are more profitable than longer sales because it feels like you’re missing out if you don’t make a quick decision.

The end result of this is that whoever spends the most money on the game has actual in-game advantages, so whoever spends the most money wins. However, Valve claims that any boost in the game can be obtained for free, so everyone is on an even playing field.

In pro tournaments, pro teams all have infinite access to boosts. This is so that the game is fair at a pro level, and it also advertises the most expensive and powerful boosts to everyone watching the game.

Waking Up from the Nightmare

Now that I’ve communicated how unfair I imagine a “pay to win” version of Dota could be, I’ll answer a question often posed by the community: is Dota Plus a “pay to win” feature?

My answer is that I see Dota Plus as equally “pay to win” as hiring a coach to guide you while you’re playing. If my life depended on winning my next game of Dota and I had to choose between Dota Plus and having an experienced coach like Purge giving me suggestions while I played, I would trust Purge with my life, no question about it. I see these data-based suggestions as a robo-coach: they’re better than going in blind, they can teach you some new insights, and they are more convenient than getting the data externally, but they’re no replacement for even an average human coach.

So is it “pay to win”? Sure, to some very small extent. Are there other options for “pay to win” available for Dota players that are more effective? Absolutely, live coaching. So is it going to be a problem? No, because I know what P2W looks like when it’s really unfair.

To me, these questions are like asking “Does fish have mercury in it, and if so, is that a problem?” Sure, fish contain trace amounts of mercury, and it could be a problem if mercury levels in fish are significantly high. But for now, I’m going to keep eating fish and playing Dota and not worrying about it.

I believe the Dota community will make a fuss about this for a while, and individual players will blame their lack of Assistant when they lose, but I don’t think it will have a significant impact on the success of Dota Plus or the overall success of Dota 2.

I’ll be interested to follow up on player data in a few months to see what impact if any Dota Plus has on the player base. I don’t believe Dota Plus being viewed as “pay to win” by some fans is going to result in any significant decline, and if anything I expect to see higher year over year monthly player numbers with Dota Plus.

What Dota Plus Means for Dota 2

Dota Plus logo

Valve released a new subscription-based monetization feature in Dota 2 this week: Dota Plus. This feature is the first of its kind, and offers a wide variety of benefits to cast an extremely large net over the various types of players in the game. It also indicates a real change in direction for the game’s monetization and life cycle, but before I can discuss that, I’ll need to catch you up with some basics on free to play game monetization strategies.

Talking About Free to Play Monetization

People who spend money in free to play (F2P) games are often discussed as being part of different groups of buyers. It helps developers to separate buyers into different buckets because they can look at data for each of those groups and create new revenue strategies to meet each group’s needs and encourage them to spend more.

The tiny number of very heavy spenders in a game are called whales, a name uncoincidentally based in the casino industry. The larger group of average spenders are called dolphins, while a much larger number of occasional and frugal spenders are called minnows. For many F2P game developers, revenue from a few whales can make up the majority of revenue for a game.

To see this in action, here is a simple spreadsheet that can be used to simulate the impact of whales on a game’s overall revenue. Click “File, then “Make a copy” to experiment with the variables to roughly simulate in-game purchasing trends.

For Dota 2, an example of a whale would be someone who maxes out their International Battle Pass, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. A dolphin might be someone who buys every Battle Pass and maybe bought a Battle Pass level bundle or a few treasures. A minnow might then be someone who buys one or two passes a year with no additional levels.

Chasing after whales can often be consciously or unconsciously exploitative. Players with gambling problems or other mental issues often get caught by the traps developers put in place to aggressively extract purchases from players. This is at the root of the loot box controversy in games now. As a community manager who spoke to many whales in the games I worked on, I can say for certain that for some players, their spending behavior was the result of mental problems rather than the presence of disposable income. Watch South Park’s disturbingly accurate episode Freemium Isn’t Free: everything related to F2P monetization in that episode is sadly very accurate.

Of course, not all players spending lots of money in games have addiction problems or mental illnesses. But I do believe that most F2P monetization is created in a way that unfortunately exploits players who have these problems. It may not be a conscious effort on the part of the developer to target Gamblers Anonymous members, but forgetting that these people exist is a byproduct of using data to drive monetization methods and decisions without caring to understand who is actually spending the money and why.

Dota Plus is significantly less exploitative than other monetization features like the TI Battle Pass and Treasure loot boxes. The main reason is that the most anyone can spend on Dota Plus is $3.99 per month, capping spending on this feature at under $50 a year for minnows and whales alike. Compare this to loot boxes with ultra-rare cosmetics and Battle Pass level purchases, which have no upper limit to how much a player can spend.

Dota Plus Relic Shards screenshot
Shards cannot be purchased with real money… yet.

One area to watch out for here is whether Valve will add the ability to purchase shards – a soft currency used to unlock several Plus features. For now, they can only be earned by completing objectives, which is great for people with gambling issues or similar problems with controlling their spending. With Plus, rather than teasing rare items, Valve has a financial incentive to make the feature as fun and useful for every subscriber.

This model is a lot easier to maintain too: it’s easier to keep a current player happy with new heroes, cosmetics, and challenges rather than trying to get new players to start playing. And that leads to my next topic…

Game Lifecycles

Dota isn’t dead or dying, let’s get that out of the way. But it appears to have peaked in popularity over a year ago. But F2P games with a large and dedicated audience stick around for a long time after their peak, unless they get completely killed by a new competitor or a sequel.

The typical phases of many products including F2P games are Acquisition, Monetization, and Retention:

The Acquisition phase is the initial period after launch when the game has not peaked in popularity yet. This is when growing the audience is the most effective way to increase revenue. In this phase the developer is focused on marketing the game to people who haven’t played it and trying to get current players to convince their friends to join in. For Dota, one example of this strategy was releasing and heavily marketing the Free to Play movie to get new players interested.

The Monetization phase occurs when new player growth has slowed and increasing spending for the existing audience is the most effective way to increase revenue. If the average player spends $1 on the game and you can increase that average to $2, you just doubled your revenue. The TI Battle Pass is the most successful example of this strategy in action, but you can look back and see Valve’s experiments with other strategies like gems, crafting, and chests. These features were not designed to appeal to new players, they were meant to get existing players to spend more money.

And the Retention phase begins when more players are leaving the game than joining the game, so the strategy changes to maintaining the existing player numbers rather than acquiring new players. To do this, developers are going to aim to keep current players as happy as possible while locking them in to consistent spending patterns, sacrificing short-term revenue gains for long-term strategy.

Estimates of Dota 2 Lifecycle stages, based on official data from

It should be clear now that Plus is Valve’s strategy for the Retention phase of Dota’s lifecycle. Rather than a new feature that gets whales to spend as much as possible in a short time like the TI Battle Pass, this new feature avoids high but exploitative whale revenue options for a more consistent and longer-term revenue scheme. Offering a discount for 6 and 12 month subscriptions is part of this strategy: if you buy an annual subscription, you’re going to be less likely to quit over the next year because you are financially committed. If you are paying month to month and an interesting new game comes along, you can avoid the sunk cost fallacy more easily by quitting after your current month is up.

I repeat: all this should not be interpreted this as “Dota is dying”. Retention is usually the longest phase of a game’s life cycle, unless it gets replaced by a sequel or killed by a superior competitor. Even better, it can be the most fun and rewarding phase for many players. This is because instead of focusing on maximizing spending or new player growth, Valve’s primary goal now is to keep current fans happily playing.

The downside is that it’s unlikely we will see any huge new features after Dota Plus. I expect a constant focus on proving the value of Plus with new benefits, while continuing to produce fan favorite content such as new heroes, balance updates, and cosmetics, all while continuing to support professional Dota.

In its current form, Dota Plus is a much less exploitative monetization feature than their previous efforts. This doesn’t mean we won’t see the TI Battle Pass wooing whales every summer, but it does indicate that Valve’s current direction is to retain their current players and provide a great experience for them with a consistent and considerate revenue model so they continue playing Dota for years to come.

Designing Fun Physical Games for All Ages

When designing Spaghetti Standoff, winner of Come Out & Play 2013’s Best Family Game Award, it was important to create a game that could be played and enjoyed by both kids and adults. Here are a few things to consider when designing physical games that are fun for all ages:

Clear Goals and Rules

It’s tempting to adapt a board game or video game experience to a physical game, but in most cases a game played sitting down at a table is going to be much more complicated than a game played in a field, especially if it’s being learned and played by strangers at a game festival like Come Out & Play or IndieCade.

Physical games should have a goal that you can summarize in one sentence. For Spaghetti Standoff, a game that begins with all the players standing in a circle holding on to a piece of spaghetti in each hand, that goal is “Break all the spaghetti except the spaghetti you’re holding!” There are naturally some additional rules – like “no kicking”, and “don’t let go of your spaghetti” – but the overall win condition is easy to remember.

Using a common object that most people are familiar with, like an uncooked piece of spaghetti, is another way to make the game more accessible to kids. Creating game-specific tools, like a customized goalpost or unique object, adds to the explanation necessary to understand the game. It’s like the difference between using a round ball, which rolls and bounces predictably, and a football, which players must learn how to throw separately from how they learned to throw “normal” balls. Kids already know that dry spaghetti is brittle and easily broken, and that knowledge is used as the basis of Spaghetti Standoff.

Consider Contact Carefully

Physical contact, whether by accident or by design, can be common in field games and sports, but things like duration and location can turn a game from fun to uncomfortable very quickly.

Consider two games that both last five minutes and both involve players touching hands with other players: Game A uses a high five as a game element, while Game B requires players to stand in a circle holding hands for the duration of the game. Most people would feel comfortable performing a high five with a stranger regardless of age, gender, or relationship. But holding hands with strangers for five minutes would feel like an eternity, and will easily be uncomfortable for most people who aren’t family members or close friends. Spaghetti Standoff games often involve physical contact, but it’s usually limited to awkwardly bumping shoulders rather than hitting or long periods of touching.


Spaghetti Standoff also begins with players standing in a circle joined together, but instead of holding hands, players are holding the end of a piece of spaghetti in each hand, while neighboring players are holding the other ends. That piece of spaghetti is the delicate link that joins players together instantly, forming a physical bond and alliance over their common goal: protect that spaghetti!

Kids naturally gravitate towards physical solutions to problems. While watching people play Spaghetti Standoff, adults often strategize by trying to avoid confrontations with other pairs, while kids play aggressively right from the start (that’s where the “no kicking” rule was quickly born). Winning a round of Spaghetti Standoff requires a mix of the two strategies, which may be why many winning pairs contain both an adult and a child!

Timing is Everything

I’ve been in the position of trying to recruit exactly 20 strangers to play an unknown field game that lasted close to 60 minutes, including 10 minutes of instructions and set-up time. Even at a popular field games festival like Come Out & Play with a receptive audience, this was a huge challenge.

Compare that to Spaghetti Standoff, a game that can be learned in less than a minute, can be played with as few as five players and up to any number the space will allow, and has rounds that usually last less than two minutes. I had a much easier time teaching this game to both kids and adults, and people were much more willing to play if they could easily spectate an entire game from start to finish. This made it a huge hit with families, where parents would otherwise be skeptical of the content or duration of a game without witnessing it first.


Spaghetti Standoff Rules

All you need to play Spaghetti Standoff is a box of regular, uncooked, dry spaghetti. I strongly recommend playing the game outside, but if you’re playing inside, it must be on a hard surface, since you can expect a lot of broken spaghetti on the ground.

 The rules:

The game can be played by as few as 5 people, but it gets better as it gets bigger. Rounds last only a minute or two.

Everyone starts the game by standing in a circle, facing the center. Everyone is joined together by holding a piece of spaghetti in each hand, held at the end. This means that you will be holding the right end of a spaghetti in your left hand and the left end of a spaghetti in your right hand, while your neighbors are holding the other ends of each.

The goal of the game is to be holding the last piece of unbroken spaghetti. This means there will be 2 winners!

You start off with 2 unbroken pieces (since you are holding two pieces of spaghetti, one in each hand).  If one of your pieces breaks or you (or your partner) accidently let go of it for more than a second, it is considered broken, and you must put the hand that was holding it behind your back. You can’t use your hands or legs to break other player’s spaghetti. It’s useful to emphasize “no kicking!”, especially with kids playing.  You can only use your body, shoulders or head if you’re feeling adventurous. If both pieces break, you are out of the game.

Most games are over in less than a minute. In cases where there is a “standoff” between two pairs for more than a few minutes, if there are a lot of people gathering to play the next round you can enact a “sudden death” rule by starting a new game that encircles the two remaining pairs, giving them less room to maneuver and hastening the end to their round.

For most new players, nobody will quite understand what to do for the first few seconds – this is my favorite part – then once a few pieces break everyone is able to be more mobile and it gets very chaotic.

Major points to hit during the rules explanation:

-Goal is to break all the spaghetti except the ones you are holding

-You cannot use your legs or hands to break spaghetti

-If your piece breaks or you let go of it for more than a second, take that hand and put it behind your back for the rest of the game

Analyzing and Interpreting Feedback From Your Community

For a time, Monument Valley was discussed as a cautionary example of the dangers of charging for paid content updates on mobile. The game received a “barrage” of one-star reviews when it updated with an option to buy paid content. Bad reviews are bad… right?

I’m interested in how players reacted to the introduction of paid content in Monument Valley, how developers reacted to those players’ reactions, and how developers can learn to interpret feedback from their games’ communities more effectively.

Any update to a game is going to upset some of that game’s players. This is especially true when a real or imagined currency is involved. It’s natural for developers to focus on the negative reviews: game designers and programmers usually enjoy solving problems, and one-star reviews are like being handed a list of problems waiting to be solved.

That’s not how people work though. No game will ever make everyone happy, and no game will ever achieve 100% positive feedback and unlock the “Perfect Game” achievement. Since it’s impossible to please everyone, there will be unhappy players sharing negative opinions about every game, regardless of its quality. If the mere presence of negative feedback is not enough to go on, how do you take a wider look at player feedback and decide whether a change made to a game has been received well or not?

It’s important to first look at historical trends. According to AppAnnie, Monument Valley’s most-frequently rated iOS version before the introduction of paid content was 1.0.3. This version has almost 13,000 ratings, with an average rating of 4.4 stars.The version with the most ratings after the introduction of paid content received a greater percentage of one-star reviews than other versions. But the perceived “barrage” was more like a brief yelp of discontent, which ustwogames was able to drown out by leveraging their dedicated fan community:






The version that was current when this tweet was posted, 2.0, quickly reached 5,000 ratings, with an average rating of 4.5. This is higher than the 1.0.3 version average. If most players were really unhappy with the game, there would have been enough one-star ratings to have had a negative effect on the review average, regardless of ustwogames getting sympathy on Twitter.

Timing is also very important, and is tied closely to players’ motivations for leaving reviews. One-star reviews began appearing very quickly when players realized that the new levels would cost additional money. The initial reaction was perceived as negative simply because of the timing. Players who were unhappy with the change reacted by getting upset and leaving a bad review to let the developer know they were upset. This takes only a minute or two at most, and after the initial backlash these reviews died down in frequency.

For players who were happy to pay for more levels, their reaction to the update was to buy the new content and play the new levels. Leaving a positive review does not come immediately or naturally, which is why ustwogames was smart to provide their fans with a call to action on Twitter.

It’s also important to identify who is doing the complaining. In the case of Monument Valley, the players who made fan art, dressed up as Ida for Halloween, created papercraft totems, and bought $50 prints from iam8bit were not complaining on Twitter and posting one-star reviews. That would have been a very clear indication of the existing community’s rejection of the new paid content.













There is probably a large overlap between players who are complaining about the game’s new paid content and players who complained that the original game was too short and not worth the money. These are players who may not have purchased or played the game if they had full knowledge of what they would eventually dislike about it. They became “accidental players” in a way: they may enjoy some aspects of the game and may be invested in it due to sunk costs of time or money, but they were never part of the game’s actual target audience. It can be very confusing when players like this post feedback about a game they probably didn’t enjoy in the first place.

If a game is very good, like Monument Valley, this group is very small. Changing your game to win over a small group of accidental players can be tempting, but it may be at the expense of the games’ more-dedicated fans, the developers’ revenue, or both.

Highly-engaged fans appreciate Monument Valley for its level design, art, and story. One half-baked suggestion I’ve heard is to sell the additional levels as a new game, Monument Valley 2. But the developers have made it clear that these levels were designed to fit into the original game, and were never planned to stand on their own. Fans who appreciated the work that went into the story and pacing of the original would likely be disappointed by a new game that was just a glorified level pack. It’s much more important to keep your existing fans happy than to attempt to appeal to people who already don’t like your game.

Now let’s talk money: Monument Valley is already a huge success, selling well over a million copies despite having a price of $3.99. Would adding free levels to the game have expanded the audience of new players significantly? It’s doubtful that the few people still on the fence about purchasing the game will be convinced by 8 more levels. The game can still be beaten in an hour or two, so players who judged its value by measuring the length of time spent playing it are still going to be unsatisfied, free levels or not.

Based on this situation and many others I’ve witnessed, here are a few things to remember when looking at player reviews and ratings:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the usual levels of positivity or negativity for similar games. If you’re consistently updating a game, look at the feedback trends that occurred when your game was changed in the past. You’ve probably had some updates that went better than others. What did feedback from your players look like each of those times?
  2. When you’re looking at old feedback, pay careful attention to the timing. Negative feedback gets posted much faster than positive feedback, and it always takes some time for your fans to warm up to something new. Sometimes the best thing you can hear immediately after an update is silence – it could mean that everyone is busy enjoying your game!
  3. Reach out to your community for feedback. Happy players are quieter than unhappy players, so they may need a nudge or a clear opportunity to share their thoughts with you.
  4. Pay attention to where the feedback is coming from. If your game specifically targets and appeals to middle-aged women, feedback from a teenage boy should be taken with a grain of salt. Complaints from outside your target demographic are not nearly as important as complaints from your current fans.
  5. Identify players in your community who you can always depend on for an opinion one way or the other. Some of these players may always be negative, with criticism about everything in your game. They are still important to listen to – if they compliment something in your game, you know it must be really great! Most importantly, stay in touch with the fans that really love your game and are always happy to talk about it. If something makes these fans upset, that’s when you should be concerned and consider making changes.
  6. Delegate the task of reading reviews to a community manager or customer support rep, most of which have developed a layer of very thick skin and can summarize trends rather than focusing on specifics. Do not read every single review and comment for a game that you worked on! Working on a project for months or years will naturally cause negative reviews to feel very personal. This can cause minor or irrelevant feedback to be magnified in importance and significance. It’s natural to focus on the negative and only read the bad reviews, but it’s much more important to know how you could improve your game for the players who are already fans.

(Originally posted at Gamasutra)

How did Flappy Bird get to be #1?

Released for iOS on May 24, 2013, Flappy Bird dropped off of the US app charts 3 days after its launch.

After January 17, 2014, it was the #1 game and #1 overall app on the US iOS charts.

After seeing its lofty place on the charts, I had so many questions: Was this the result of a big advertising campaign? Did PR efforts result in celebrity endorsements and reviews on top app sites? Was it a well-timed featured promotion from Apple? How did this simple game come out of nowhere and take over the app store charts? I decided to look into the game more and find out what made it so engaging.

Word of Mouth

Flappy Bird is a very simple and very difficult endless runner game. There are no in-app purchases – just some banner ads. There’s only one thing you can do in the game: tap to flap. Everyone can understand it, and the time investment needed for a single game is minimal. This simplicity makes it very easy to recommend, and it lowers the time-investment required to try the game for the first time.

There’s a “rate this app” button on the main menu. Flappy Bird currently has a 4.0 rating, with 240,544 total ratings. This is around half the number of ratings that Candy Crush Saga has. This is amazing, considering almost all of these reviews came in the past 2 months. The high number of reviews in such a short time suggests that people really love talking about this game. The volume of tweets talking about the game confirms this: in a single minute this week, I counted 361 tweets containing the phrase “Flappy Bird”. In comparison, “Candy Crush” had 12, and “Clash of Clans” had 3. Many players are writing comical reviews for the game and sharing them on Twitter, generating even more reviews and more tweets about the game.

Social Sharing

On Flappy Bird’s Game Over screen, you can click “Share” to post your score in the following format:
“OMG! I scored 5 pts in #flapflap!!! ->

The share prompt isn’t in a separate window; it’s just a small button next to the replay button. You can easily ignore it until you beat your all-time high score, at which point this button becomes the most important thing in the entire world. People are sharing high scores of 2 because it’s funny, while others share high scores of 20 because it took them hours, both because they’re proud and because they think it’s funny to admit that publicly.

The focus and frustration caused by the game create personal stories that are shared by its players:

“I’m screaming at the game”

“It’s so hard to play flappy bird to songs with good beats omg”

“The amount of people I’ve ran into or almost ran into because flappy bird is ridiculous haha”

Most of the tweets about this game share the frustration of the game’s frequent Game Overs, and are usually accompanied by a lot of profanity. Sharing emotional experiences in this way creates a strong community, even though the game lacks any official community efforts, like an official website, Facebook, or Twitter account.

What can be learned from this game? More importantly, can we learn from this game?

There’s a lot of luck involved in Flappy Bird’s rise to the top of the charts. The game hovered around the bottom of the Australian charts since July before exploding in popularity worldwide in December. I couldn’t pinpoint any specific tweet or article that could be credited for its success, and the game was not featured in the app store until yesterday. The game did not immediately shoot up the charts, which most likely rules out a big advertising push. This is why I credit word-of-mouth advertising with its success.

We can only exert so much control over our players’ actions outside of our games, but here are a few ideas to keep in mind for encouraging players to talk about your games:

Immediate Simplicity

Being playable in mere seconds makes it very easy for someone to hand their phone to a friend to try a new game. Nobody wants to make their friend play a tutorial. The game’s simplicity also proves that players on mobile do not necessarily require a ton of content – just engaging gameplay.

Meaningful Sharing

Overusing “share” prompts for accomplishments that are not meaningful can train players to ignore these prompts in the future. Players should also have a reason to talk about the game, whether it’s their first day playing or their fifth.

Clear, Immediate, and Fair Challenge

Within the first few seconds of playing Flappy Bird, every new player will fail and get a Game Over. They choose to continue playing because they have a clear idea of why they failed and what they need to do to succeed. This clarity is so addictive because success seems very attainable, even though the skill needed to succeed requires practice.

(Originally posted at Gamasutra)