It’s good to grind: choosing the right virtual currency model

Matthew Warneford

Designing games for children is difficult. There are a wide spread of skills and abilities, even between narrow ages; a six year old girl is very different to a 10 year old boy. To cater to a range of players we prefer to design economies that reward grinding not just skill – we don’t want only the older, more skilful, players to be able to succeed. Grinding allows anyone (who spends enough time) to do well.

Grinding is a term relating to activity the player does over and over again in order to complete an objective or get to the next level. For example, it could be harvesting gold or completing fetch quests. Admittedly grinding sounds like a negative term, but it doesn’t have to be, grinding activities can be fun too.

Grinding games are monetized in two ways:

1)  Energy Model – Players have an amount of energy and once that energy is depleted, through doing things in the game, the player has to buy more energy to continue playing.

2) Convenience Model – Players grind to earn virtual currency they need in order to progress in the game. Grinding takes time, so those players who do not want to grind can simply buy the virtual currency (players are paying to skip the grinding). This is often referred to as ‘buying time’.

The popular belief is that the Convenience Model drives more revenue than the other approaches but let’s examine both models before coming to a conclusion.

The Energy Model

The Energy Model operates on the premise that players can play for free for a limited time, once their energy runs out they can buy more to continue, or wait for a few hours until their energy is replenished. Zynga’s recently closed Adventure World is a good example of this type of game. Their model is simple, the more you want to play the more you have to pay.

At first this approach sounds good. Everyone can play the game for free (for a while), and those that really like the game and want to progress faster can spend more money to do so. The problem with this approach is that the energy model leaves the players who really like the game and have lots of time unfulfilled – they quickly run out of energy and can’t afford to buy more. Whereas, the players who can afford to buy energy have to spend a lot of time playing in order to use that energy to earn enough virtual currency in order to buy the things they want (weapons, clothes, and other virtual goods). So although the players can progress faster (in theory) because they don’t run out of energy, they still have to spend a long time playing the game in order to earn enough virtual currency. The problem is that many players simply don’t have the time to play for hours in one sitting.

In other words, because most players’ time online is capped, either by their other activities, school work, or their parents, using this model doesn’t allow players to spend as they want – their spending rate is tied to time in the game. As a result we’re leaving money on the table.

The Convenience Model

The solution to this inefficiency is the Convenience Model. This model allows players to play the whole game as much as they want and to do it for free – they can grind for as long as they want to earn virtual currency. If they want to go faster they can pay to skip the grinding and buy the virtual goods they want sooner.

In this model free players can progresses through by grinding for virtual currency, where as payers avoid the inconvenience of grinding by purchasing virtual currency. They can both enjoy the game, but the later can get back to the quests (the fun bit) that bit quicker because they don’t have to grind in between – making it a much fairer model.

The key is ensuring that the grinding mechanic is enjoyable enough to not be completely off putting, but not so enjoyable that players would rather play it than pay to advance.

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