This post isn’t so much an article, as it is a rant and an incomplete analysis of a problem. I don’t want to pick on Zynga, but I will use them as they are the most popular company, and this all started because of my frustration today with playing “Indiana Jones Adventure World”. Last night I was talking to my friend Tom who is a game developer in Japan about the current state of the social games, and we started talking about how we are never compelled to spend money on any of the Zynga games and why this might be, so it got me thinking (which is really dangerous most of the time). Then, today, as I started to play some of the Indiana Jones content, I got very frustrated by the grind, so I looked closely at how much they really charge and was astounded by how much things really cost, so I decided to write a quick rant. To be fair, I am playing “Indiana Jones Adventure World” much more than any other Zynga game and do like playing it (most of the time, just lately it wants me to spam my friends waaaay too much).

First of all, I have to talk about a problem that many of the social games have, which many people are not talking about which relates to monetization. There have been a lot of articles lately about the future of social games. An article I read yesterday called “Can Games Still Succeed on Facebook?” was good, but missed some key points in my opinion. They say that most social games gain many players the first few months, often due to heavy advertising and user acquisition cost, and then they start to loose players after 1-2 months. It seems like people just accept this, instead of looking at the deeper problem of why users are leaving, and trying to design games which are more compelling and can retain users better. They seem to think that getting a 100 million players who pay you a $1 or less a month is better than say having 1 million players who pay you $10 month. So, the economics of the social games seem to be at odds with the game design.

So, this problem is directly related to my main issue of, why does buying stuff in the Zynga games cost so darn much? If you think about a typical game like Skyrim which costs $60 USD, and you can play for a very long time for that price, or a subscription based MMO like WOW which you can pay $10-$15 a month to play as much as you want, then why does a simple game, which is MUCH cheaper and easier to make, and has 5-10x the user base of these other games cost so much to play?

Let me break down the costs for “Indiana Jones Adventure World” right now as an example. The prices are very rough, and not totally accurate, but will illustrate my point. You can go play yourself to see.

First, at your “base” where you can buy new buildings and things which help you in the game you must build or buy:

  • Buying Cash
    • Here is the prices for “Cash” which you can use in game to buy stuff:
    • 465 Cash is $50 USD
    • 170 Cash is $20 USD
    • 40 Cash is $5 USD
  • New Building (Example: Indiana Jones Tent)
    • Requires 60 items (6 types of items x10 each) to build (
    • Can be gifted from friends directly or via random wall posts for free, but takes time.
    • or items can be bought for 5 Cash each (roughly $0.62 cents each)
    • The option to buy ALL items for 200 Cash (roughly $25) is also available
  • Most buildings (and other “sites”) can also be upgraded once or multiple times
    • Building Upgrades are almost like building a new building
    • Example “Upgrade the Ruins Site”
    • Also requires 60 items, and you can buy all for 240 cash or maybe around $30 USD

Now, most of the buildings do have some in game benefits, like giving you XP or resources. Many of the buildings also allow you to “craft” special items or gadgets which can be used in game. It is often actually required to use these items to get past some quests, and then you can optionally use them. However, each item you want to craft requires 2 different components, and usually 5-10 of each component. You can ask your friends for the components or buy them for 5 cash each, just like with buildings. But this means to build a single item to use, like the “Ram Bait” would cost you 100 cash (maybe $12 USD) to buy for a single use item. Ouch. And, I had to build the building for a cost of around $25 in the first place. So, to just get one Ram bait, I would have to pay $40 USD, or spam my friends 80 times.

On a side note, if you don’t have a lot of friends, this can take an incredibly long time to gather this many items, and this is only one thing you need to spam for, there are dozens more.

Now, besides that, I need energy to play for extended time. One Energy is roughly 1 Cash, so 30 Energy is 30 Cash, or around $4. Now, in a typical map (it’s hard to measure), I might need to use around 150-300 energy to complete it, so this would be almost $40 (in theory) to play a larger map to completion, if I wanted to play it straight through from start to finish. A map can take me 1-2 days, or upwards of 4-5 days to play, if I have to keep waiting for energy to recharge. However, if I could play straight through with unlimited (or purchased) energy, a map might take me 1-3 hours to complete (rough estimate). Plus, every map usually needs additional items to get through it which I have to craft if I wanted to play quickly through it.

You also have the option to unlock quests which you don’t want to play or are having trouble with for anywhere from 10 cash to 100 cash. Each level can easily have 8-12 quests in them as well.

So, if you were to buy your way through the game, you could easily spend hundreds of dollars to play it. As a general rule of thumb, to start with, I compare any enterainment to a movie, where a viewer gets roughly 2 hours of entertainment for $10, so is paying $5 hour for their fun. At a LAN center, if I was playing a game there, I would pay about the same price. So users are used to paying around $5/hour for fun, if they think about it. Now, a console game might be $60 for 10-20 hours of play, so they are paying $3-$6 an hour (assuming they don’t play some online multiplayer for years – which is why multiplayer games have grown in popularity as the costs don’t keep going up).

However, on mobile, people are used to paying $1-$5 on average (occasionally more) for a game. Now, many of these might be shorter, and not too deep of a game, but this is not always true. But still, if I paid $5 for a mobile game and played for 1-2 hours at least (probably more), I feel satisfied. So the proverbial “bang for the buck” that players feel needs to be satisfied so that they feel they got their money’s worth and feel compelled to do it again. If someone charged me $100 to go see Avatar in 3D, I might do it once, but then I’d feel let down and disappointed, and not go see another movie for $100, realizing it’s just a movie. So, with a game, after I feel ripped off by one, why would I continue this pattern.

So with “Indiana Jones Adventure World”, I feel very betrayed that when I did want to spend money, and would feel gouged to pay to play this simple game, with frankly low production values (compared to say Skyrim or something like Modern Warfare), which I have no emotional connection to, and then they want to charge me a fortune to play it, or make me grind. Even as a game developer, I just have extremely mixed emotions. I know, and want, everyone to make a profit, but really, why would I pay $25 to create a building which then charges me a lot to buy a simple item with little to no benefit (except the times I need the item for progression). I just don’t see the value or the fun. Now, I know Zynga is the masters of user data mining, and someone somewhere determined the tolerance levels of consumers’ willingness to spend money and maximize profits, but this just seems wrong. Why not charge 1/10th the price, such that 90% more people want to buy it, and you will (or should in theory) have happier players who are more willing to monetize in your game.

When playing these games, another factor to consider is why I want to by something. Besides buying energy to progress faster, or items so that I don’t have to spam my friends and can craft things faster, there is not a lot that is worth buying. Some games give players reasons to want to buy stuff. This is often because of player motivation to impress their friends. In most Chinese F2P MMO’s for example, players will spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars to buy new armor pieces or weapons to show off to their friends. In many social games you can visit another player’s city/base/house and do a few things to help them, or help you. Players are given a minimal reward for visiting their friends. However, even with all my gaming friends, and having hundreds of “neighbors”, I still find that I often only get 1-2 visitors a day, and maybe 5-10 on a busy day. Not very many. So, I have no reason to spend money on vanity items, or things that look better, since I know very few of my friends will see them, and they probably have no additional gameplay benefits, so monetizing these types of items.

On a side note, you earn coins by playing the game. Coins can be used to buy a few gadgets, some décor, some resource generation and supplies, base expansions, clothing, but not much else. So collecting coins in the levels is almost useless and there is very little to spend them on that really matters, except in the very beginning. I spend a few coins every few weeks, and generally have them maxed at 100K, which is the most you can have. So, there is a disconnect between what I earn in the game, and what I can buy which sucks. I don’t care about collecting coins, I mostly care about collecting XP in the game so I can get one of the few weapon/item upgrades, but those are VERY hard to get as it can take 60K XP to go up one level, and new items may only upgrade every few levels. So at collecting 2-5XP at a time, it takes a while, so you give up trying. So, it seems like there is a real disconnect in the economy of the game, especially when compared to a F2P MMO.

So, the point of this rant is that designers need to do a better job at figuring out the value proposition of their games and create something that players really enjoy playing in order to really be able to properly monetize their games. If you can do this well, then players won’t mind spending money and everyone is happy.