Designing for Virtual Item Sales

Interested in making money through selling in-game items directly to players instead of relying on advertising? Flash portals like Nonoba and Kongregate are starting to make it possible to easily integrate microtransactions into your games. But I've never really seen a discussion of the special design issues that come up for a game using virtual item sales. What follows are my notes on the subject from a presentation by a GoPets representative a few years ago.

Role of Items (in multiplayer games)

Why would a player want to buy an item? Here are a few reasons.
  • to Enhance Status
    ex: clothing, medals, pets, houses

    May also affect the UI, like a game replay recorder that you wear.
  • to Provide an In-game Advantage
    ex: enhanced weapons, armor, speed, accuracy, food

    Usually provide a mild effect, for the sake of balance.
    Often they are consumable, rather than permanent.

    ex: new skills or combos
  • to Provide Deeper Controls
    ex: extra spell slots, advanced hotkeys

    Allow harder-core, more skilled players to have more nuanced control, with a cost of increased difficulty and complexity.
  • Rare Items to Sell Back
    ex: special premium items, items from raffles or lotteries

    Special occasions like holidays are good times to give out limited edition items.
Item Duration

Not all items last forever. Keep that money flowing! :p
  • Consumed - use once (but may buy large quantities)
    ex: food, potions, grenades
  • Charge - buy refills in order to use
    ex: bullets for a gun, batteries for a calculator, armor that must be repaired
  • Rent - use for a limited time period or duration
    ex: demo skis, effects of a magic spell
  • Permanent - unlimited use
    ex: clothes, decorations, tools
There may be a leveling tree to unlock access to new items.

Balancing Methods

Don't let the items you sell upset the balance of the game.
  • Defensive items (temporary shields) should be bought, while offensive items (missiles) should be found in game.

    This is psychologically more acceptable than the reverse.
  • Rental items, limited edition items, and item buyback by the game can be used to minimize the effect of poorly balanced items introduced into the game world.

    Item buyback is when players can directly exchange their items for game currency, and the items are then taken out of circulation completely. If an unbalancingly powerful item is mistakenly introduced, it is often better to offer players appealing amounts of game currency in exchange, rather than doing nothing or forcibly removing the items.
Multiple Currencies

In order to prevent gold-farming, players must not be able to simply convert from one currency to another. They should be able to trade with other players however, such that the amount of currency in circulation remains stable. See this article for further explanation.
  • for time-rich people
    ex: green shells in GoPets, awarded through normal gameplay (an equivalent of experience points)

    This is the simplest, most obvious sort of way for players to earn currency. Basically every game uses it.
  • for money-rich people
    ex: gold shells in GoPets, directly acquired by putting in real money

    This is the way you actually make money. Any game relying on an item-based business model must use it.
  • for idea-rich people
    ex: pink shells in GoPets, awarded for creating icons for the pictographic communication thing

    Currencies can be derived from any sort resource a player might have, whether it's creativity or free time.
General Guidelines

In designing, first make a good free basic game and get an audience, then add real-money items carefully.

Most people just nibble media, so the real-money items should be subtle enhancements that harder-core players will want.

Think of item-based games as selling bits of service, bits of UI, a metagame - not just a game design.

Players must be able to trade items with each other. Otherwise, their sense of ownership is not complete.

Players will often sell micro-stories to each other, even if it's not explicitly built into the game.
  • In GoPets, players would take different food items and sell combinations of them as a meal, with a blurb of text to explain. They might take lettuce, tomatoes and spinach and call it a garden salad (or whatever). I really like this possibility.
User-made Items

Players set their prices too low when selling to other players! They don't care about money. So set a minimum price.

What do you think? I personally find this design space fascinating. I'm eager to try it out someday. :)


Krystian Majewski said...

Thanks for the summary. Seems very complete.

Yeah, I also would like to try out some ideas. I wonder if players would accept that. I'm skeptical because especially if we are talking about gameplay advantages, it feels like this penny arcade strip. But then on the other hand, you have things like booster draft tournaments - Magic: The Gathering Tournaments where players are REQUIRED to buy booster packs every time in oder to participate. If that works, then so might many other things. It all depends on the actual implementation.

axcho said...

Yes, I hope it is helpful. :)

The thing is, this business model is already proven in the Asian markets. It's extremely successful there. So at least we know it's possible, though societal and cultural conditions may be somewhat less favorable in Europe and North America. And even some games here are using it, like Puzzle Pirates, for example.

The question for me is, can we make it viable for Flash games? Kongregate is thinking that they can, as long as the games are of a sufficiently high quality and depth. And multiplayer, of course. That's the whole deal behind their Premium Games thing.