Pay by Numbers


Why tear out my heart for all the world to see?
Why not paint by numbers
Catchy melody
Burn it up the charts with sweet simplicity
Then do it again
Self, Paint by Numbers

If you ask experts in the field of mobile game monetization how to make a hit, they’ll give you consistent advice.  You should be “free to play” or “freemium,” which means you offer the game at no cost but then ask the user to pay for various things later.   They will encourage you to schedule payment prompts at particular intervals, and to offer items that can be bought with cash.  It’s probably a good idea to have some sort of energy mechanic that forces players to take a break and wait for energy to “refill” every once in a while.  Of course, if they are impatient they can just pay for more energy and continue immediately.  You probably want to have some items that are cheap, and some other items that are super expensive, because a small percentage of users will go crazy over your game and end up buying these extremely expensive things.  In fact, these “whales,” the users that buy the $60 floppy hat and the $100 crested armor, will be your primary source of revenue.  Make sure most of your items are consumable, so the player will have to buy them over and over again.  You should give out free, randomized items every once and a while, just to keep the player interested.  And if they haven’t played for a few days, why not pop up a notification reminding them that they just earned free gold without even doing anything?

This is what the experts will tell you, and they are clearly right: these types of systems allow you to give a game away for free and still make quite a profit on it.  The top grossing games on iOS and Android are, almost without exception, games that employ these schemes.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these ideas.  Indeed, most of them predate the current boom of mobile phone games.  Once upon a time we called them DLC, or shareware, or subscription fees, or “insert credit to continue.”  MMOs have been operating on these systems for more than a decade.  You can find some of them in Animal Crossing.  Some developers have jumped on these systems as intrinsically evil, designed only to exploit the player, and an assault on game design, but this argument has a big problem: it ignores players who genuinely love these games.  Look, Britney Spears might be a singer who’s career is entirely constructed by a corporation for the purposes of selling CDs, but it’s also true that some people genuinely enjoy the songs she sings.  You can’t argue that those people are “wrong” for liking Britney Spears, just as you can’t really argue that people who enjoy Farmville are “wrong.”  Though some implementations may seem more questionable than others, the schemes for monetizing free games are not intrinsically bad.

In developing Wind-up Knight we spoke to a large number of well-meaining experts, all of which told us the same thing.  And we thought about their advice pretty hard.  Well, actually, we thought about it really hard.  We thought and debated and made plans and then threw them away for the entire course of development.  In the end, we ignored almost all of the advice we were given.

It’s not that we think monetization systems are all evil.  The problem with the type of advice we were getting is that it assumes that your game design is inconsequential, the “touchy feely bits” between prompts for more free gold.  It doesn’t really matter what the player does, just as long as they can do it within the monetization structure that seems to work.  Maybe that’s why so many of the top grossing games on iOS and Android feel so empty and soulless–there’s really nothing to do other than walk the monetization state machine in a loop.

Wind-up Knight’s design isn’t something that we sat down and wrote up.  If anything, it’s a design that we unearthed, something that already existed and was just waiting to be discovered.  Something that we moulded and polished into a full game, but certainly not something that came from a big Word document describing a bunch of play mechanics.  It is the product of iteration, a lot of iteration: about 40% of our development period was spent testing ideas and tweaking the results.  The game we ended up making is almost nothing like our original concepts.

The thing is, the game we discovered isn’t a game that works with an energy system.  Consumables don’t work well in the design.  There’s really no justification for an artificial delay in the game loop.  The items we have are not worth $60.  Almost all of the advice we received about “how to make a game that makes money” was at best inapplicable and at worst outright contrary to our core design.

Wind-up Knight is a hard, skill-based game.  The design requires a level of rule transparency and respect for the player that some other games don’t need to concern themselves with.  When you die in our game, it must always be because you messed up in an obvious way; unfair deaths would change our rewarding challenge into a recipe for frustration.  This respect for the player must also extend to every other element of the game, and that includes item sales and monetization.  We felt that to compromise the core design to bolt on some sort of scheme would pretty much ruin the entire game.  It would cheapen the experience, and remove the value of a difficult achievement.

We went around and around on our monetization plans.  Finding a middle ground that allowed us to make some money without damaging the game design or pulling a fast one on the user took a long, long time.

Here’s the system we came up with in the end.

  • You can play Wind-up Knight, from start to finish, completely for free.
    • However, to do so you have to be good.  Very good.  You must get high ranks on just about every level.  But if you are awesome, the game is free.
  • Playing well will get you Notes, our in-game currency.  Notes are paid out at the end of each level depending on your ability to collect all of the items in the level.
  • Levels are separated into Books, four in all, each with 13 levels apiece.  The first Book is free, and subsequent books can be unlocked for free with Notes earned from play.
    • If you are unable to play well enough to unlock a Book for free, you can unlock it by buying a few Notes or spending $1.99.
    • If you just want to check out the content and don’t care about mastering the game, buying the Books is an easy way to progress.
    • If you trust us enough to pay for the game very early (after the third level), we’ll give you the option to unlock all of the levels for a discounted rate.  If you decide not to do that, no problem: the game continues normally until you finish the first Book, which is the first 1/4th of the game.
  • All of the items in the store can be purchased with Notes, which means you can get them all for free as well (if that’s how you decide to spend your earnings).  Many of the items make the game significantly easier, and will thus help you acquire more Notes.
  • Items are priced reasonably based on their in-game effect.  The most expensive item is less than $4, and it’s extremely powerful.

With this system you have a choice.  If you like a challenge, and you are the type of gamer who enjoys putting his pride on the line, your reward for being awesome is enough Notes to buy all of the Books for free.  If you prefer to just speed through the game with upgraded items and you don’t have that completionist streak, you can spend a couple of bucks and access all of the game content.  And if you really don’t want to spend a dime, or you live in a country that doesn’t allow in-app purchases, you can choose to earn Notes through Tapjoy, an advertising service (which is otherwise completely hidden until you select it–no popups or ads in our game).  The items we sell in the store are cheap and have real gameplay value.  Equipping them changes the play significantly–the only “cosmetic” items we have are things we give you for free.

Our goal with is to provide a system that is transparent, has real value, and most importantly, respects the player.  We’ve eschewed popular monetization schemes (much to the dismay of some of our friends) because they simply did not fit with the game we were building.  We believe that there is room for games with different approaches; if nothing else, Wind-up Knight is an experiment to see if this kind of game can be profitable.  If we could have employed some of those tried-and-true systems, we would have, and we may yet in the future.  But only when they complement the game design and are done in a way that the user does not feel ripped off.  To bolt something on that doesn’t belong in the game is antithetical to our mantra of quality above all else.

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