Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a great group of folks at the Austin Game Developers Conference (GDC).

My primary purpose of attending this conference was not specifically to sell our wares, although I did certainly take advantage of educating anyone willing to give me a few minutes about what Libring is all about. However, I was really interested in learning what current developers are faced with when trying to monetize mid-core and hard-core games. I was not disappointed.

Austin has a vibrant game development community. We started our adventure off with a party, sponsored by Intel, to showcase indie developers who were willing to throw caution to the wind, work crazy hours, nights, weekends, to bring their art to the world. While a number of the developers were from out of town, I was immediately impressed at the local representation of developers that were being showcased by the almighty Intel.

The next day it became evident that this wasn’t just a town of hopefuls but some of the biggest players in the industry. When you see Google, Electronic Arts, Zynga, and others converge in one place, something is going on.

History of Monetization: Lessons Learned Along the Way

The Marriage of Monetization and Design session obviously caught my eye. It was bring presented by Damion Schubert, who is the Design Director at Boss Fight in Austin.  (Check out his blog).  At Libring, we are no strangers to different monetization mechanisms, since we help our customers collect data from all of them and bring them together in one place. But, I was very interested in what a developer thinks about when introducing what many consider a “necessary evil” into their masterpiece.

What I didn’t expect, but was pleasantly treated to, was a history of monetization. It was a treat because I am older than many in this industry, and this history lesson was a stroll down memory lane. In 2016, sitting in a session about monetization, I would never imagine anyone would be talking about the classics like Pac Man and Q*bert. Yes, the games I used to stuff my pockets full of quarters to go play with my clan at the local arcade.

What lessons learned from these early games apply to the epic titles today? Timing. Simply put, if you allow a player to play too long in-between monetization attempts you are probably leaving money on the table, too short and you are going to annoy and ultimately cause players move on to other games out of frustration.

The birth of the console and the boxed game came next. I remember when I finally convinced my dad to buy an Atari 2600. It was great! Every birthday, Christmas, and any other occasion when someone asked what I wanted it was video game of some sort. It was, as Damion pointed out, not just about buying games but what could be shared and traded as these games were expensive for a kid with minimal regular income.

As consoles became more sophisticated and connected and as games became more and more expensive to build it became more and more appealing to go with what was known but how do you avoid coming out with My Awesome Game v9? Modules and add ons. The platform was born. Why not sell a part of a game as an upgrade rather than a whole new game? From the player’s perspective that investment in Rock Band, and controllers wasn’t lost if you could simply buy more songs right?

How could you make the module more fun? Why not make what you purchase random? Sports cards had been doing this for decades. You always got something interesting but sometimes you didn’t know it until later. What happened if you got a duplicate or a card from the rival team? You traded it. 

 In app economies started to develop boosting not only direct monetization but also community development and secondary marketplaces.

At sometime game players, or their parents, realized that buying module after module or goodie box after goodie box was getting expensive. What about an all you can eat model? Subscriptions were born. As a game developer you could release content over time and evolve the game while knowing you had a more predictable revenue stream. This is where the history of monetization catches up to present day. 

As games got bigger and bigger and investments both in time and money how did you know where to commit your limited resources? There were always demos but our friends at Zynga had a different answer. What if a game was free but everything from ads to in-app-purchases were used to support the game developer? Free to play was born.

So where are we today? At this point the modern game developer has an immense set of techniques to pay the bills and continue the craft but they need to not ignore the lessons learned along the way. They all apply today. Game timing, premium titles, platforms, communities, subscriptions, customization, in-app-purchases, secondary economies, and ads are all tools at a game developers disposal. Used properly and combined with inspired creativity are to the benefit of us all.

I hope you enjoyed this history of monetization in games as much as I did.