Going to the Store

Free-to-play games. The ol’ f2p. “If they’re free to play, then why do they have a store,” I hear my shoulder demon ask, in a poor impression of Jerry Seinfeld’s worst standup.

And yet, stores they have. We take for granted that there’s a place where you can buy soft currency for hard currency, hard currency for real money, and loot crates. After all, that’s where f2p games make their money, and those devs gotta eat. Right?

Well, not exactly.

I mean, sure. The devs have to eat. Nothing against that. But is the store where f2p games make their money? No. And that shouldn’t be surprising.

The primary purpose of the store in a f2p game isn’t to explicitly sell the player anything.

I’ll go one further:

If you’re using your in-game store as though it’s the primary point of commerce in your f2p game, you’re minimizing the odds that you’ll successfully sell anything within your game.

So — besides the obvious platform compliance requirements — why have a store, if that’s true?

In f2p games, the store’s primary purpose is to establish the context for the value proposition within your f2p game’s promos and offers.

What does that mean?

Let’s say I download a new game, called Goober’s Gorge. As I work through the tutorial, the game gives me a couple of currencies. Goober Grubs and Gems. I know the Gems normally cost real money, but I don’t really know what the Goober Grubs cost. I can sit down to extrapolate what that cost might be, but without a store where I can see the relative value of each, it’ll be very hard for me to do that.

Let’s say that Goober’s Gorge then gives me a starter pack offer at level 4. Up to this point, all of the currencies that I’ve needed have come from the game. The starter pack says it’s a deal — 85% off normal retail price, in fact! — and gives me 4 hours to determine whether or not I want that deal. Again, without a clear understanding of the relative value of each item offered in the deal, I’m really just deciding to engage based on vibes and my past history with similar games.

That’s not particularly efficient. Without a store, that offer has a lot of potential points where I might second guess the value of the things offered. What is the normal price for the items in the offer? Do I agree with the value calculation? What is the relative rarity of the items offered? Without an economic reference for my exchange, I might question the value proposition of this and every subsequent offer. When you factor in that most successful f2p games make the majority of their earnings from their promos and not their store SKUs, the importance of this point of economic reference becomes even clearer.

Without a clear understanding of the exchange, not only do you undermine the value proposition, you make it easy for players to reject any offer you might put forward. This includes the offer to simply play the game.

How does a store answer those questions?

The Relative Value of a Goober Grub

Let’s take a step back and look at the role of each currency type.

Soft currencies are typically earned through regular gameplay at a controlled rate and are spent in order to achieve specific in-game goals. This can be a direct exchange for an extrinsic goal, such as spending an earned in-game currency for an item upgrade, or an indirect exchange for an intrinsic goal, such as spending that earned currency in order to advance the game’s narrative, unlocking something beautiful that doesn’t directly affect gameplay.

Hard currencies can be earned through regular gameplay, but will be awarded at a much lower rate. Hard currencies can be awarded in greater amounts during in-game events, on the condition that the player achieve a certain number of goals within those events. Hard currencies can also be purchased with real money. Hard currencies are typically used to smooth out or skip over difficult goals. They can reduce the friction of a particularly challenging upgrade. They can give players an edge in a competitive event. They are the anchor point for real money exchanges.

Tertiary currencies are typically only granted through in-game achievement, as a part of main game unlocks, event rewards, or season pass progress. Tertiary currencies can also be offered through limited-time promos, loot crates, and in-game contests. The relative value of a tertiary currency is the most difficult for a player to calculate.

With that understood, it’s fairly easy to see how a f2p game’s store provides a base rate of exchange for those currencies, providing context to the player. This occurs across a couple of primary vectors.

First, the currency-to-currency exchange rate is implemented. Soft currencies equal a certain amount of hard currency. Hard currencies equal a certain amount of real money. Tertiary currencies have a base real money value that’s compounded by the rarity of those items (cf. a USD $1 Silver Certificate has a legal tender value of $1 but a real market value of roughly five times that).

Second, that exchange rate is applied to a discount rate for like currency bundles of varying sizes. For example, the base exchange rate without discounts is applied to the smallest hard currency pack. In that pack, let’s say 50 HC is equal to $4.99 USD. The next larger size provides 100 HC, but the cost for that pack is $8.99 USD, providing a better overall value for double the hard currency. Every bundle size beyond the base pack should provide some degree of discount to the currency purchased.

This does two things:

  1. It encourages players to purchase larger packs, as it provides a tangible benefit for them to do so.
  2. It makes it more difficult to parse the exchange rate while building trust in the deals offered.

That second point is trickier to understand, but it works like this. In a store environment where deals are guaranteed to be better in bulk (i.e. larger packs), it’s harder to understand exactly how much better those deals are without reverse engineering the discount curve. However, the fact that bulk buys are always better than the base deal in general leads to the broad conclusion that any bulk deal is a better value. As long as that calculation holds, at least at a surface level, then any subsequent offer is viewed through a lens of trust, as all previous deals have adhered to the laws of exchange established by the game’s economy.

Finally, any loot crates within the store can be sold at a hard currency value that alludes to the real value of any tertiary currency. By incorporating an indirect purchase strategy in the main store for tertiary currencies, it becomes easier for players to understand the relative worth through rarity for those items.

Most players won’t look super critically at your store, but — because we live in a (capitalist) society — they will look at the store to establish a base context for all other exchanges. If those exchanges appear to be fair and balanced against each other, then players will use that foundation to judge any other value proposition within your game.

We’re Practically Giving Goober Grubs Away!

Once context is established through the store’s currencies and exchange rates, it’s important to give players a good experience with that system. This can be immediate, such as taking the player into the store during the tutorial and giving them some currency bundles for free. Players can occasionally receive free grants of currency to celebrate in-game anniversaries and events. Offering a free timed loot crate is also a great way to ensure players return to the store on a regular basis, creating a habit of looking at the store.

No matter the method, providing an initially positive experience and a regular motivation to view the store and its contents will help players appreciate and understand the value of what they attain within the course of regular play. This is the store’s greatest strength and purpose. This helps players understand why they care about a reward and why they should feel happy with their in-game achievements.

Yet, this won’t drive sales. I’ve worked on games where the store only accounted for 10% of all sales. So where were players spending their money?

Limited-time promos, followed by other in-game offers.

Limited-time promos aren’t a new thing for the average consumer. They play on the idea of FOMO, the fear of missing out. They can be exclusive offerings, unattainable through most other methods. They attract the competitive player as well as the completionist. They draw in the person looking for the best possible deal. And they can all feel like a bloody rip-off without proper economic context.

Offers, which can be standing, long-term, one-time “best deal” purchases or strategic goal-triggered promotions, specifically geared to encourage greater progress, pull in explorers and achievers, encouraging them to even greater levels of attainment. Divorced from context, however, they simply feel like pay-to-win gates.

Without a solid grounding in a game’s economy, any promo or offer is going to feel arbitrary and restrictive. Working within a solid economy, however, promos and offers can set their value at a rate that seems unfairly generous, to the point of being unfeasible within a regular market economy.

Additionally, once the value proposition is established, promos and offers can be used to expose the underlying strategy for a season pass or an event, which will drive overall engagement with those time-limited opportunities.

Once the game’s foundational economy is established, promos can be used to help determine what the relative social economy is for the items in your game. That is, you can establish what is cool for your property, via experimentation. Promos that leverage the “rule of cool” can apply an additional modifier to the base cost of any promo, which can further add layers for subjective impression within your game’s experience.

Promos are powerful. They can easily adapt as the game changes and grows. Through experimentation, they can expose player attitudes regarding the game’s economy and the game’s balance. They are the single most powerful lever in driving purchase engagement in f2p games. They imply and drive meaning and connections through commerce in ways that the store cannot.

And yet, without the value proposition created by the store, they will fail.

Take It From Me, That’s a Decent Deal on Goober Grubs

Free-to-play games get a bad rap. Loot boxes, impossible-to-win events, inscrutable PvP odds, and the cheater ecosystem take what should be fun and enjoyable and turn it into an unpleasant grind in many cases. The moniker “pay to win” didn’t come from nothin’, after all.

Fundamentally, games are about building relationships. Those relationships extend from the players to the developer, to the game’s intellectual property, and to the underlying systems of the game itself. Relationships can’t be established without trust. Your game’s store is an ambassador of trust. Trust in how the game approaches commerce. Trust that the game itself has rules.

And yes, the game must still make money. If your game doesn’t make money, you won’t be in business very long. It’s a tough market for f2p games. In 2021, 2 million new apps and games were released. With that kind of marketplace, it’s easy for players to bounce if they feel like their increasingly limited goodwill is being abused by an extractive game economy.

And so part of the answer, oddly enough, is in your game’s store. Stop looking at it as a source of revenue. Start looking at it as a source of trust. As a place where you set the rules of exchange and the value of the game’s offerings. Provide a solid economic ground for your players, and they’ll be inclined to agree. And once they agree, they’ll be inclined to stick around.

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