In July 2008, I released my game Trism at the launch of the App Store, charged five bucks a pop, and made a mint. Five bucks seemed like a relative bargain compared to the cost of the average Nintendo DS or Sony PSP game, but oh, how times have changed. After the App Store was open for a while, the gloves started to come off, and game developers tried seeing how far they could shave down their price points, with 2009 the year of the 99 cent app. Developers hated it, the gaming public loved it, but we all agreed it was a sign of things to come. Now in 2010, not even 99 cents is good enough anymore. Free is the way to go, and developers have started to get pretty creative with monetization strategies. One of these strategies is what I’m gong to be writing about today.
I recently read a quote that said “In Web 2.0, if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold” and I realized I’m seeing this kind of system appearing more and more in the game industry as well. In this system, you’ll bring together three entities: The provider and the user, with the enabler (you) in the middle. On one end, you’ve got the users who are the gaming public, eager to play your game. You’ve incentivized them by setting up some kind of allure inside the game; something that taps into their deepest desires. On the other end, you have the provider, who feeds the cash into the system. You’ve selected this provider because it is in a unique position to leverage that allure in order get something from the users. Through this backscratching relationship, the gaming public and the provider will each provide something the other wants. Mash these two sides together, squeeze yourself in the middle, and you’ll succeed. The provider scratches the users’ backs, the users scratch the provider’s back, and you, the enabler, profit. It may sound a little subversive, but I’ll show some examples of backscratching systems that are seen as good and beneficial for everyone. While tricky to pull off well, they’re at the forefront of monetization in the game industry.
First, let’s look at Bejeweled Blitz. Here’s how this game works: The more the users play the game, the more coins they’ll collect. Coins help users play better by letting them buy power-ups, but are unfortunately usually handed out very slowly. As an alternative to this, PopCap presents an offer system within the game. For example, subscribing to a Netflix trial through the game will earn the user 600,000 coins. So, the allure here is expediency. PopCap knows users want to play Bejeweled Blitz as often and as well as they can. They’ve leveraged this to lure users to sign up for Netflix. In the end, users have earned coins and they didn’t even have to fork over any of their hard-earned cash for it. They only had to surrender some of their personal information, and they receive a subscription that they might have wanted anyhow. Netflix, the provider, collects new subscriptions, and pays PopCap (the enabler) handsomely for them.
Another example is FoldIt. Scientific researchers have studied the structure of proteins, because it will help pave the way for new frontiers in medicine. Unfortunately, simulating how proteins react, or “fold,” requires a lot of computing power. For years now, labs have leveraged the people of the internet to help with some of the heavy lifting. This is done via software that runs on your computer in its downtime. This is well and good, but it wasn’t until recently that the FoldIt team thought they could improve on this system by introducing game mechanics into it. In the FoldIt game, users are challenged to help their computers through the protein folding process. This is presented to users as a series of puzzles the they must think through and help the their computers to solve, earning them points and achievements. The allure of this game is medicinal, since the user very well may helping to discover a vaccine for HIV, Cancer, or Alzheimer’s. The providers are the drug companies happy to fund more scientific research as the labor continues to decrease in cost. FoldIt, the enabler, looks good all around.
Lastly, let’s look at CauseWorld. CauseWorld is similar to FourSquare or Gowalla in that it’s a free social networking game focused on checking into different places and showing friends where you’ve been. However, it goes one step beyond other check-in apps because it answers the question “why would I want to do that?” The answer is, Causeworld earns users money to put towards charities. Every time users walk into a Sears, CitiBank, or variety of other places, they’ll earn a certain amount of Karma Points. users use these Karma Points to donate real money to a charity of their choice, at no cost to the user. Charities include LiveStrong, The Red Cross, and The Ronald McDonald House. The providers in this system are companies like Sears or CitiBank; they’re the ones fronting the money that eventually gets divided up by the users and sent off to charities. Their charitable donation is not only a write-off, but it also nets them users’ analytics information — they’re now able to see who is entering their stores better than ever before. I’m not sure how CauseWorld is set up internally, but they very well could be keeping a percentage of this money to keep their business afloat, and I don’t think either side would have any argument. Best of all, the allure is altruistic — who wouldn’t want to do a good deed simply by walking into a store?
I’ve listed three examples of successful backscratching ideas in production today. As I said before, these aren’t always easy to implement because they have to form symbiotic relationships for all parties involved. Here are some requirements: 1) They must involve repetitious, stateless tasks which a large money-holding organization needs fulfilled 2) The tasks must be outsourcable to humans; computers alone can’t accomplish these kinds of tasks and 3) The tasks must be large-scale; no one human can hope to accomplish them in any reasonable amount of time. In other words, they are valuable if performed only in parallel.
If successful, these backscratching systems will more than reward you for your trouble, being effective for a variety of reasons. First, they take an act that has classically been looked at as intrusive or annoying, and by providing an allure, turn it into something the user would actually want to do. Another reason is that these ideas oftentimes generate their own press and buzz when executed well, and can drive incomparable amounts of traction on their own. Lastly, these systems are immune to piracy. Since you give the game away for free, there’s nothing to steal. Instead, the money flows from the provider, through the enabler, and out to a third party. Everyone scratches each others’ proverbial backs – presumably, everyone wins.