2013-06-09 14:11:19


Thoughts about money, browser games and virtual goods.

(Intended audience: independent game developers and those who always wanted to have written a game. I have not yet earned money with browser games, so I may be wrong in some aspects here. I have just been reading a lot over the years, played a couple of games and paid for in-game items and have read many forum discussions)

The fastest way to test test your asbestos lined forum flame protection suit is to visit a browser game developers forum and spam for you new mafia game clone which pretends to offer real cool ways of playing but in reality is just a thinly veiled attempt to fleece your players’ pockets with the hundredth copy of a worn out game concept. Game developers seem to hate the get-rich-quick-schemes which rip of other people’s work and contribute almost nothing to the fascinating world of browser game beyond a dilution of player focus.

That said, there are ways to monetize your game which will have proven to work and are not cheesy or detrimental to the fun that your players have.

Do you need the money?

If you are in it for the money, ‘it’ being the wonderful world of game design and implementation, don’t quit your day job. Your chances of creating the next Minecraft is quite low, about on the level of writing a bestselling book or comic. But you never know until you try.

I wanted to create a game for some time now and it seems like I am finally on my way to do so. I do not primarily want to create a game for financial reasons, but for the fun of it. And yet, even a little game costs money - and if I want graphics, I have to pay for them (or draw some stick figures myself). A game with hundreds of items and monsters quickly reaches costs of a couple thousands of € or $ if you employ professional artists. And that is for 2D images, no animation, no 3D models etc. So, to fund the further game development and improve the overall game experience for all those participating, I think it is good for the Little Goblin framework to offer some features for monetization - you can always choose to not use them, of course.

A commercial game

You can create a game that is only available for people who pay up front. In the browser game genre, I have not yet encountered one that matches this description. And with the market moving to pay-for-virtual-goods, I think we will not see many games like that (if at all). To get players to pay in advance requires the promise of an (at least visually) outstandingly good game, and in most cases you only get those with huge investments. If you work hard and are clever and lucky, you may write an Angry Birds game which does not require quite the man power that Diablo 3 takes.

Most browser games focus on free-to-play for the basic version and then try to entice the player to spend more and more money in-game. This model is called Freemium: the base game is free, but there is a premium version.

Cash Shop

If you want to sell virtual goods to players, you should create a mechanism to convert money into a virtual currency. The harder it is to mentally convert Euros and Dollars to coins, credits, mega-bucks, “rainbow colored unicorn farts”, the better (for you). If the player knows “1 credit = 1 Euro”, he will start to think about each transaction. “A magic sword +3 for $5? What a rip-off!” - but if a game-coin costs 1,38$ and you get 20% off for buying a larger amount, and then the same sword costs 530 Lolcats (which cost 1,2 game coins each) - people will have difficulties calculating this and just compare the prices inside the range of offered goods. “A hammer for 1000 credits is expensive, but a sword for 800 looks like a good deal”. [See: Dan Ariely for more background]. Also, once the player has converted his $ into virtual gold, he is unlikely to leave as he now is invested into your game…


There are a couple of ways to implement a free to play game with premium features, and though I do not endorse them, they do seem to work and may be what you need to pay for the server’s costs and buy your forum moderators a beer once in a while.

Pay to play less (Free-me-from)

Some games are designed to be addictive and tiring, so players who are hooked on the game will pay to play less. In a gardening game, you can pay 10€ to have a gnome come and water your plants. Or you can click on a hundred plants to water them yourself (Wurzelimperium). After 100’000 clicks most people will do anything (including paying hard cash) to get away from this mindless work and continue with whatever game content there is besides doing the repetitive stuff.

If you implement this feature, you will need some forum clowns to fight the disillusioned players who come to the message boards to complain about the unfairness of it all. Those clowns will insist that there is nothing problematic about making a player’s disposable cash the primary cause of game success. After all, they do not spend cash at all but enjoy clicking a million times.

Pay to win

Those games give you game advantages for money. The game features do not change very much (like in “pay to play less”) - you can simply pay 10-30€ a month and gain a 50-100% income increase in experience points or mining income or combat strength (Ogame clones, Shakes & Fidget). Many players are ok with this if it, because paying will ensure the game stays online. You will have to determine the sweet spot, where the player base does not protest the in-game advantage vs. the amount of money they are willing to pay for a certain benefit.

Note: when parting with cash, players feeling of entitlement rises by a huge factor. You will need good forum moderators to douse your burning message boards if you ever encounter a game server outage and a thousand players descend upon your forum because the service they paid for is not available. You can make or break your reputation in such a situation - most companies will just send some poor sod into the discussion, who will enrage the player base even further with his postings. In contrast you can do better: if something breaks, admit the problem, communicate clearly and treat your players with respect.

Pay for comfort & prestige

Some games can be enjoyed without playing money, but they have some extra features that are useful for advanced players (e.g. Die Stämme). You can add people to the list of game sponsors, offer characters named after them or T-Shirts etc. If you are looking for an inspiration, have a look at the games at kickstarter.com, which offer a lot of stuff for people who support the development of a game (this is about the prestige part). The reference implementation of Little Goblin will probably have a feature to create more than a limited number of game characters. Playing multiple chars in a game where they cannot combine their strength to unbalance game play can be fun (like multiple characters in WoW), but it is not something you need to have, so non-paying players will not whine (at least, not very much).

Little Goblin

Customizable monetization

As a game developer you can use the Little Goblin framework to implement any or all of the Freemium options, or perhaps you have “a cunning plan” to do things a little bit differently. You should stay away from implementing gambling features (games of pure chance were the player can earn real money) because that is a legal mine field in many countries.

The following three aspects are not yet implemented but could serve as a starting point to develop your own monetization strategy.

Pay to create

There will always be people who have good ideas and the means to make them real - for example artists and story tellers. You can offer them a place in your game world if you let them pay for the privilege to create content. The product will of course need quality control and a set of stylistic (and legal) guide lines, but your game can probably become larger and better if people contribute on a professional level.

Note: the open source spirit would suggest that you enable this for free, so people can contribute like they do in the Wikipedia or OSS. How about having both? You can offer players to create their own quests, but if they want them approved the next day, they should pay for someone to check everything is ok. Otherwise, they will probably have to wait some time… You will need good social skills to handle difficult contributors. And you absolutely must have moderation / quality assurance to prevent your game server from becoming a cesspool of the internet’s worst imagination. No one wants to fight a monster with the Goatse man’s image.

Pay for content

Little Goblin makes it possible to create your own content - how about taking ideas from affluent players and turn them into in-game reality for a price? As Little Goblin is open source, you may also able to sell content to others who just want to run a goblin server without working day and night on game balancing or item recipes. Perhaps one can build a QuestExchange of some kind, where game packages can be traded. Note: this is probably not easy, but I think it can be interesting and fun.

A combination of freemium (to pay the server owner) and re-usable content (so you can sell your “titan quest” a couple of times) may be possible.

Pay to develop

Even though the reference implementation includes many of the possible features, the game is by no means all-encompassing. There will always be areas or features that would be cool, but no one has gotten around to write the code or improve the web design yet. the current version of Little Goblin does not offer many attributes or races for the player to choose from. It also lacks a map / world with 2D (3D?) areas to explore…


Another option may be to develop tools for those who want to create / run their own game. Like the saying goes, during the gold rush you want to be the one who sells the shovels and pickaxes.


Currently, a user account has a field for “coins” which can be used for non-transferable credits. The demo game gives 100 coins to a new character and the creation of a order costs 10. You can assign a cost in coins to SkillSets so that only players who have coins are able to learn certain skills. (This may change).

At the moment, the API is under development, as are connectors for payment providers. The goal is to make it possible to create everything from a free-to-play to a pay-for-everything game (good luck with the latter one).

If you have comments / ideas / constructive criticism, please contact me.


Wikipedia: Virtual Economy

[originally posted in 2010]