This is a series of interviews of different player profiles (non-paying players, moderate spenders, and big spenders), and how and why they monetize in free-to-play games.
"Chandler" (not his real name) is a game industry professional and what I would consider a big spender in free-to-play games, though with very specific criteria as to why and when he'll spend big on a game... and also how a game can irrevocably turn away this very valuable player...
ELLEN: Chandler, thanks so much for this interview. So, what are some of the free-to-play games you have paid money for?
CHANDLER: Farmville, Frontierville, Dragons of Atlantis, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North, Defenders of Texel, Rage of Bahamut, Candy Crush Saga.... probably a dozen.
ELLEN: And about how much have you spent on each of those games, individually and total?
CHANDLER: $50 to $800 dollars. I spent the most on Dragons of Atlantis. I've put four to five thousand dollars into free-to-play games.
ELLEN: Do you usually purchase currency, bundles, or something else?
CHANDLER: It depends on the structure of the game. I've purchased currency and bundles, and items.
ELLEN: I'm fascinated by the psychology of different spending profiles. Can you summarize yours?
CHANDLER: Definitely! I have more dollars than time. And I want to experience the game as fast as I can consume it. I want to spend dollars rather than time. I can grind for days, or just drop $20 now and not grind. A lot of people I know, they'll just decide to be done with a game and download another game. I tend to go deeper on a lot of games.
ELLEN: Let's talk about some specific games. Candy Crush?
CHANDLER: I probably put $60 to $70 into Candy Crush Saga, not that much. Normally it'd be $300 to $400. But in Candy Crush, with the skill component, it gets hard, so I don't know if I buy currency that I'm going to use it. The value to me is getting five more moves, so I'll do that. So I've made smaller purchases.
ELLEN: What are some specific elements that encouraged you to monetize in that game?
CHANDLER: Where I find myself monetizing in Candy Crush is if I get really close to finishing, I'll try two or three times, sometimes I'll buy the lollipop hammer that will let me finish now. Or I can keep grinding against it.
ELLEN: Other areas of the game that prompted you to monetize?
CHANDLER: In Candy Crush, you can get three friends or spend $1.99. With one friend, it reduces to $.99. With two more friends, then it becomes free.
ELLEN: I remember you were also playing "Defenders of Texel"...
CHANDLER: I'm not playing Defenders of Texel anymore. I spent about $400 on that game.
ELLEN: What prompted you to spend on that game?
CHANDLER: The first thing was that I wanted to play more, but I was stuck. Then when I got into the events... Events are a great way to get me to spend money. But I have to get hooked into the event, there has to be an easy entry.
ELLEN: Were there specific event design elements in Texel that encouraged you to monetize?
CHANDLER: I tend to be a completionist, so with the short time window, I needed to accelerate to be competitive in the event. I was getting free stuff during events as I was leveling up, I wanted more copies of that item to merge together, and knew I was running out of time to get them. These were items that were only available during the event. It was one of those things where if I wanted to level up this one guy, I had to do it during the event.
ELLEN: What else did you spend money on in Texel?
CHANDLER: Then there were some events that were happening that required battle currency. I bought bundles of battle currency so I could keep playing. Because in order to beat the other PVP guys, you had to buy the bonuses, or you'd get stuck, you couldn't prorgress in the event. So there was a competition element as well.
ELLEN: Any other elements of these Texel events?
CHANDLER: There were prizes for doing well in the events. And especially when I see that I'm close to getting a prize... if I spend a little bit, it would tip me over the edge into getting a prize.
ELLEN: Texel definitely has good event design...
CHANDLER: I never seek out PVP. And I tend not to do events if they're optional. Texel requires you to do the event, the main gameplay goes through the event. You have to say, "No, I don't want to do the event, I want to do the regular game." So then I'm partway through the event, and because I'm a completionist, I want to finish the event. A leaderboard showing where you are compared to the other players is really important. So even though I'm not "killer" by nature, I am an achiever. Once I'm in the event, I'll compete, but it's for the sake of achieving, not defeating other players.
ELLEN: What have you learned from these games about event design?
CHANDLER: What's important about events is the multiple tiers. If you have all your prizes at the end of the event, you have slow going at the start, then it ramps up at the end. What's better are tiers, so you stage it so you're getting prizes throughout the event, not just how you're doing at the end. Because in a three day event, that meant less pressure to spend now to be competitive.
ELLEN: If there are free-to-play games where you decided not to spend money, is there a specific reason why?
CHANDLER: Usually it's because there's no clear value proposition of time or progress. I can wait for a day for more energy, or I can spend now, that's a pretty clear value proposition. If there's something I can buy at any time, and it doesn't unblock anything, I won't buy that. I usually don't buy cosmetic items. Time, or power items, that lets me progress faster. Or new content. Like in Candy Crush, there are these tiers where you can go social, but I'll only go social with people that are already playing. Unlike my wife, who will spend money rather than bother her friends. She'd rather spend $2 than connect to Facebook and ask her friends! I'll ask my friends, and if they respond fast enough, then I will wait for that, otherwise I'll just buy my way through.
ELLEN: Any other reasons why you wouldn't spend?
CHANDLER: There are definitely games where it becomes too difficult, and if there's no way for me to spend to get past the barrier, I'll stop playing. That's just money that they lost. If they provided me with a place to get past the block with a dollar or two, I would have spent, but because I'm stuck, I'll stop playing entirely.
ELLEN: Have you ever done an incentivized advertising activity?
CHANDLER: Very rarely. If it's trivial, like I need one coin, I'll do it, but generally, it's not worth my time to look at advertising. I'd rather spend money than look at advertising.
ELLEN: Are there elements in free-to-play games that really aggravate you?
CHANDLER: Advertsing in a game that I've spent money on, that is a good to piss me off and make me stop playing the game. I've spent hundreds of dollars, you should never show me a @#$@ing ad. You're costing me time, that I have no control over. Because I'm giving you money is a reason for you to stop showing me ads.
ELLEN: Have you ever had "buyer's remorse" after making a free-to-play game purchase, where you regretted making that purchase?
CHANDLER: Very early on, I tried buying items, and when I saw that they were cosmetic, no actual in-game benefit, I regretted it. That's when I stopped buying cosmetic items. Sometimes I'll buy something just because it's cool, like the Double Rainbow in Farmville.
ELLEN: What do you consider to be the best purchases you've ever made in a game?
CHANDLER: I'll buy bundles, to get a lot of stuff. I'll buy at discounts, I'll try to get the best value for what I think I'll actually spend. If I'm using hard currency at a rate where I think I'll use it up in the next week or month, I'll buy a bigger currency pack and get more for my money. Sometimes I'll do a purchase that's just big enough to get me by, sometimes a bigger purchase to get the bulk discount.
ELLEN: Are there specific kinds of items you tend to buy or not buy?
CHANDLER: I'm less willing to spend money on pure consumables, I'll buy consumables to get a durable in an event. I spent $40 to buy buildings in one game, because I could tell they were valuable. I tend not to buy bundles of speed-ups as much, because I don't value them as highly. I never have bought experience earning accelerants. I'll buy power and convenience.
ELLEN: What kind of durables do you tend to purchase?
CHANDLER: That was one of the first things I spent on in Texel, it was annoying to work through the user interface so I bought more inventory capacity. So I could do maintenance less often.
ELLEN: Can you summarize your purchasing strategy?
CHANDLER: Time value. If I spend this money, am I going to be able to play more? I'm continuously looking at perceived play time versus the spend.
ELLEN: What about social gameplay? I know we both think it is really important in a game design for player retention, but how has it impacted your purchasing behaviors?
CHANDLER: Social activity will keep me in the game longer and spending more, than just a game on its own. The main reason I go back into Candy Crush is I get requests from friends. I remember when I was stuck and people helped me, I can come back and help friends, then I'll often buy a little more for me, too. I'll buy for social benefit. If I'm buying something that helps everyone in my guild, I'll buy that for the group. If it's something that benefits and interests me, and my friends get the speedup, I'm willing to spend more. If by spending a little more I can benefit a friend, that's also valuable.
ELLEN: Chandler, thank you so much for participating in this interview!