Here are some tips for reducing the feeling that users are "buying their way to victory." These guidelines can apply to both PvP and PvE games.
- Limit the duration a purchased item can be used by any single player. For example, if a player has an item that grants them faster healing, rather than allowing them to enjoy that power indefinitely, give it to them for a limited duration. This lets you repeatedly sell the item as a consumable, but also helps balance out what might otherwise be overpowering to other players. Even the most vigilant will forget to "re-up" their item, or decide to try to play without it, etc.
A set duration also allows your players to see the comparable value of the item. They are regularly reminded that the small expenditure increases the enjoyment of their gaming experience, or it allows them to spend their money on other items you might offer, thus increasing the variety of their game experience.
- Make the advantage indirect, such that it isn't obvious to the player's opponents when they might be using a particular "buff." For instance, imagine that you let the player buy an item that allows them greater speed in the construct of new buildings; rather than simply decrease the player's time to build each building, consider designing the item instead to reduce the amount of lumber, or metal, or brick required to construct the building. This way, the increased speed at which a player can build isn't patently obvious to their opponents, but your player still enjoys the same net effect (more buildings in the same time).
- If your game features a metagame loop, like the XP model in Call of Duty or the Summoner advancement model in League of Legends, for example, accelerators that allow players to advance through the metagame at a faster pace tend to be quite popular. This is in contrast to items that directly make a player more powerful in mid-game, which are often perceived as cheating or as "breaking" the game.
- Balance out the items that grant players certain advantages by allowing experienced opponents to either earn or buy a specific defense or countermove. Yes, Player 1, you can buy something that makes your initial tennis serve 25 percent faster, but Player 2 may have a backhanded return that reduces any speed bonus to no more than 10 percent. Such balancing strategies will limit a player's "sure win" purchasing options, and force more tactical play. You can still allow for an advantage to the player who just purchased the new item, but experienced players will be able to recognize and adjust their gameplay accordingly, reducing their frustration and everyone's competitive gaming experience.
- Rather than selling users a "nuke 'em from orbit" type ability that eliminates all obstacles or enemies on the screen, give players a powerful attack or ability that still requires their active involvement. For example, rather than a "smartbomb" type weapon that kills everyone on the screen, sell them a "flamethrower" that does terrific damage to whatever they point it towards, if they point it in the right direction, at the right time. The net effect is much the same from a game balance standpoint, but one makes the user feel as if they skillfully used a new ability, while the other makes a player feel as if their credit card just purchased their victory.
- Consider carefully what your core game mechanic is. In game designer speak, what's "the toy" that makes the second by second interaction with the game enjoyable? Ensure that whatever you are selling doesn't break that toy by changing how the player interacts with your game, or at least not for very long. Instead, find tasks that are repetitive or dull, then obviate those tasks by offering for purchase a particular, shiny, "cool" item.
For example, in many RPGs, characters are required to make a long and (often) boring walk back to town to sell items every time their inventory fills up. The designers of NCSoft's MMO, Dungeon Runners, allowed players to purchase a gnome who followed them around and converted useless items to gold on the spot. The time-saving element, plus the quirky gnome's method of processing, made the purchase an easy choice for many of the game's faithful.
- Selling items that aren't necessarily measurably better, but are still in some way different, can delight users without breaking the core game experience. For example, in a game about world exploration where a player must explore the space by paddling around in a rowboat, consider instead selling them a seahorse to ride. The seahorse might be unable to get as near the shore as the rowboat, but could be less affected by choppy water (or some other balance-saving detail). Thus, is the item functionally very much the same, but carries with it a visual difference, along with some slight advantage/disadvantage that helps to vary the player's experience of the game, without markedly changing the core "toy."
- Sell upgrades that make a player more flexible, but not necessarily more powerful. Allowing some players to carry two weapons while others only one, so long as the two are not doubly as strong, won't inherently introduce a disadvantage. What it will do, however, is change up the game play enough that players will have to vary their tactic, giving players additional by giving players greater flexibility.
Game Balance Considerations
For any game type, there are sure to be issues of pricing and game balance, especially when selling items designed to confer a functional advantage. This type of game balance simply introduces an additional variable to the designers' balancing equation. The greater the degree to which an item allows a player to deviate from the standard curve of in-game performance, the most expensive it should be.
Ideally, your game will be such that you can calculate what the real world dollar value is of each statistical advantage the player may receive, if they purchase the item you're considering offering.
This advantage, in turn, will need to be reduced to a money-for-time equation, in order to properly quantify the effect the item will have on the world, and the offsetting balance that will need to be achieved to sustain proper gameplay.
For example, in a PvE-focused fantasy RPG type game:
If an appropriately leveled player of average skill takes, on average, 1000 seconds to fight their way through a particular dungeon, and they receive, on average 1000 gold for doing so, then the average ratio of gold/time in that dungeon is 1:1.
Let us imagine that a sword is sold for 10,000 gold which does 10 percent more damage, so the player is able to fight through the dungeon 10 percent faster. This player would now be able to run through the dungeon in 900 seconds. This item has just increased their gold/time ratio to 10:9.
Imagine that you sell gold to the player at the rate of $1 for 1000 gold. This means that the real world ratio between dollars and time is 16.6 gold per second saved. Consequently, the value of the 10,000 gold sword, which will save the user 100 seconds per dungeon run, should be about $1.60. Clear as a MUD?
Obviously, the specifics of how to balance time, difficulty, and two different currencies (in-game and real world dollars) will need to be entirely customized for each individual game design. But getting these specifics right is of critical importance, especially when selling items that can give players a functional advantage over one another, or over the game itself. The alternative is an unbalanced game and alienated players.
Games which are either entirely PvE or entirely PvP are considerably easier to balance than those attempting to straddle the line between the two. In blended games, which offer both types of challenges, the designer ends up needing to account for the tastes of a few very different types of players. This problem is difficult enough without allowing for external influences on the game balance (like functional item purchases.) However, because a game that manages to appeal to both types of players can potentially have a far greater customer base, this is a challenge that is well worth undertaking.
League of Legends sells new champions, new skins, and new runes for your summoner in their online store. Selling items that improve player performance can be risky, especially in PvP games, and doing so requires great care and attention to balance.