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Virtual Goods - An Excerpt from Social Game Design: Monetization Methods and Mechanics
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Virtual Goods - An Excerpt from Social Game Design: Monetization Methods and Mechanics

February 10, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Aesthetic "Vanity" Items

Is there anything about a handbag from Louis Vuitton which makes it fundamentally better than a similar handbag sold in Target? Perhaps (but probably not). At a gross level, they perform an identical function, and provided they are the same size and shape, there is very little practical difference between the two. So why is one many, many times more expensive than the other? Because people like status items which help distinguish them from one another based on their accoutrements.

Selling vanity items is a relatively straightforward proposition, because such items don't have any real effect on gameplay. From a shiny red hat for the player's avatar to sweet, blacked-out rims for their favorite car, allowing players to customize their game experience can be a very powerful user draw. Even games without any player avatar can accomplish this personalization by offering players prestige skins for... almost anything. On the Xbox Live version of Magic the Gathering, for example, players can buy shiny tinfoil backing for their decks of cards. And they do, in droves.

Planning what sort of items you'll allow your players to customize is integral to the design and feel of your overall software project. It should be something you consider from the start, because customization can be very difficult to retrofit, depending on what you hope to achieve.

For example, a character system with the ability to add "paper doll" style character customization might very very costly to add later if the foundation wasn't in place when the game was first architected. On the other hand, swapping out player icons, or even customizing UI elements in exchange for a dollar or two can be quite popular, and often involves little more than some advanced planning and a little extra 2D artwork.

One of the great features of vanity items is that they are, in effect, viral. If a player sees someone else walking around wearing an item they want to wear, the value of that item is increased, and some players will go to elaborate lengths to acquire that item. Because goods that cost real money are automatically rare (since, statistically, more people play than purchase) scarcity is preserved, adding value to the virtual goods.

World of Warcraft has consistently found success in exploiting this feature, by allowing the introduction of new gear that can only be found in a certain area that just happens to be part of an expansion pack. Of course, while the gear must be found in the new area, players are free to wear it in the old. When players discover that the only way they can get the new and wonderful items is to buy the pack and explore new lands, they're motivated to purchase the expansion pack.

When designing vanity items or skins, remember that your games (should) exist in a global marketplace. Consider the different sorts of different items that might appeal to varied markets. National flags tend to be very popular, because they allow gamers to identify themselves by region. Symbols associated with different districts, sports teams or belief systems can be popular as well.

Of course, you'll want to take care as to the sorts of iconography you allow. Swastikas, for example, may be popular among certain subgroups, but you probably want to avoid them in your game. For every icon that gets a player excited, there's another that could upset a player to the point that they abandon your game. For this reason, allowing users to create their own symbols, icons, or skins is likely to expose your team to a number of headaches.

A happy medium can be found in allowing users to create their own custom liveries from a pre-determined set of icons, colors, and the like. Both Need for Speed and Call of Duty have made great use of such features, allowing for limited user insignia customization while avoiding the problems of completely freeform user creation.


People love a bargain, and when their motivation is to feel unique, or express themselves, they want to feel as if the item they are buying isn't something everyone else will have.

One way to accommodate both of these goals is to have limited time sales offers and only release certain goods in a limited number. ("Only 1828 Golden Hammers remain! Buy one now for only 200 points!") By offering an item in such a way that it has perceived scarcity, you create demand, and appeal to the user's desire to get a special bargain.

Most of the sales and marketing tricks surrounding the concept of rarity hearken back to traditional advertising models. "Buy one, get one free!" has always been a great enticement for consumable items. "Upsize for an additional $.50" is a good way to sell users on a slighter larger amount of product than perhaps they actually need. (In the dual currency world, this often manifests as a bulk "discount" for purchasing virtual currencies in larger denominations.)

And of course, the same tricks used by retailers related to product positioning apply in the virtual storefront. Want to sell more of an item? Put it at the top of the list, or give it a brightly colored icon.

Likewise, consider offering items that are tied to the calendar in some way. For example, Santa hats are always a top seller around Christmas time, at least in some parts of the world. Here, again, a little attention to global trends can go a long way.

Are there special goods you can sell that will help users celebrate Chinese New Year in your game world? What about Guy Fawkes masks? Depending on your game engine and the flexibility of your store and backend systems, you may be able to customize offers for a particularly territory, which can help you target sales to those most likely to be interested in them.

Almost anything that can be sold in real life -- and quite a wide array of things that cannot -- can be sold as virtual goods in a social game. Since the gameworld is limited only by the imagination of the designer, there is no feature, offering, or fantasy that a user cannot be enticed to indulge. Your game can sell seahorses to ride, or shiny-tin foil rims for a virtual car, or a literal horse-of-a-different-color, or a magic flamethrower that lets a user extract petty revenge on a player who has recently wronged them.

Deciding what to sell, and what properties to imbue each virtual item with can be an incredible challenge, as can balancing the ways these items interact with other game systems. As we move forward, we'll look at some of the ways that designers can further nuance these decisions by offering different types of items for different types of currencies.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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