who killed videogames? (a ghost story)

| tim

chapter two: the ghost in the middle

The “average” social game player spends a total of one dollar and seventy cents over the course of his experience with the game.

We established above that no one actually spends a dollar and seventy cents on a social game. That number is just an average. However, as far as averages go, it’s fairly ridiculous: it’s the average of a list of numbers that includes a few five-digit numbers and a sprawling ocean of zeroes.

For one thing: no social game offers you a microtransaction priced at a dollar seventy. Some games — like Tap Zoo for mobile — will offer you a one-dollar package and then a ten dollar package. The Sims Social, which, being a miraculous intersection of all current social gaming trends, we will use as a primary example in this . . . whatever it is, offers a five-dollar package as the minimum microtransaction.

Math is funny, especially when you’re looking at numbers that represent people. People tend to be pretty different from one another. Crazy-different people are what statistics call “outliers”. Outliers skew the averages. In the case of social games, we’re dealing with a couple mammoth outliers and an abundance of zeroes. This creates, in the $1.70 user, the fluffiest of math ghosts.

“Should we let the user play for free?” the smaller man rhetorically asked the older men.

“Of course we should,” the larger man said with an amicable face, standing up, rotating slowly, shining the spotlights of his cheeks over all gathered faces, showing his palms diagonally to the ceiling.

“The question is, how much should we let them play?” the smaller man asked, pointing a pen at the ceiling so nonchalantly no one looked up. He tapped the pen on the table. He clicked his Macbook Pro’s trackpad. The slide changed with a little sideways wipe effect: this is the part in the presentation where he had decided to get fancy.

One of the older guys stopped chewing gum for an instant. It’s only when he stopped chewing the gum that the weight of my annoyance with a man who would chew gum at a business meeting comes fully crashing down on my shoulders: “He’s going to start chewing that gum again.”

If this were a film, this is where the gum-chewing man would ask, “What am I looking at?” I can see that look in his face now, clear as day: It’s true that he probably doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Maybe he gets the basic idea: he’s looking at four large, capital letters.

“We’re living in the FTP age,” the smaller man said.

“That’s free-to-play,” the larger man said, swinging his cufflinks up, then down.

The smaller man cleared his throat. He clicked twice. He narrowed his eyes at the computer screen.

“I remember when FTP stood for something else,” I said, as a sort of joke.


“Free to play, yes,” the smaller man said, looking back up from his computer screen. “Research shows that players are more likely to play a game that’s free.” He cleared his throat again. Again he double-clicked something.

He’s reading his email during a pitch meeting. It was probably an email from the next person he was going to ask for money.

“And that most people who win the lottery don’t tear their tickets up,” I said.

The small man ignored my comment. He looked up. “Yes. Yes, so what you want to do, is let the player taste every feature of the game in as short a time as possible. We call this the FTUE.”

He pronounced it “Fuh-too-ey”.

He pointed at the slide. The perplexing letters did not yet make sense. With the next click of the smaller man’s Macbook Pro’s trackpad, they did:

First Time User Experience

“If you look at Tap Pet Shop or Tap Zoo, you’ll see they’ve got it down to a science. When you start Tap Pet Shop, you have sixty “coins”. You’re on level one. Level-one players can only purchase one pet habitat: a golden retriever pen. It costs twenty coins. The pen comes with one golden retriever. The game points you to it and makes you buy it. Then the game tells you you can buy a companion for the golden retriever. The companion costs twenty coins. Then the game tells you you can make them mate for twenty more coins. You pay the money. Now it tells you the mate will be born in five minutes, or you can spend one “Paw” to have the baby right now. Conveniently, you have one “paw”. Spend it, and the baby is born. This earns you one experience point: surprise: that’s enough to bring you up to level two. The game tells you: ‘You leveled up! Now you can buy more habitats. Also, you earned rewards: here’s a bunch more money.’ It gives you 280 coins. You can buy a ‘cat condo’ or a turtle aquarium for 140 coins each — or you can buy one or the other, plus a companion. The cat condo gets you–uhh–”

“The cat condo will give you 70 coins every thirty minutes,” I say. “And the box turtles will get you 120 coins every sixty minutes. The numbers here are actually highly interesting,” I said, and then looked back to my iPhone 4 screen, and fell into silence.

“That’s absolutely correct,” the larger man said a moment later, snapping his fingers and pointing at me. “Numbers guy, over there.”

“I’m the numbers guy,” I said.

“Numbers guy!”

“Just tell me what you want me to count,” I said, and then decided not to finish the sentence.

“So the game tells the player, with its last message: you’ll get some money from your cats in thirty minutes, or your turtle in sixty minutes, and from your retrievers in five minutes. Then it says, oh, look at this: you can visit your friends’ pet shops. Tap here to see. Now you tap an icon that says ‘visit friend’. A popup tells the player: visiting your friends’ pet shops is fun! This is something you want to do. Now, when you tap, it takes you to this amazingly elaborate pet shop. It’s just equipped to the teeth. It’d cost you–”

“–it’d cost you around six thousand dollars if you wanted that kind of pet shop right away,” I said.

“Six thousand dollars!”

“The average user isn’t going to spend six thousand dollars,” the smaller man said. “They offer multiple real-world currency unit packages, ranging from one dollar to one hundred dollars.”

“Now, the game shows you another tutorial popup, before you can really get a grasp of your surroundings in this elaborate pet shop. It says you can go home to your pet shop. So you press that button. Now it tells you ‘your retriever is ready for collection’.”

“Collection of what?” one of the old men asked. He was looking at the smaller man’s white iPhone 4 screen — it’s Tap Pet Shop. Not much was going on inside that pet shop.

“Collection of money. The animals generate money.”

“With what?” one of the guys said with a little laugh.

“The — customers are constantly bustling about in the store.”

“So they buy the animals?”

“No,” I interject. “It’s all fairly abstract. The mechanics would get far too complicated if the customers in the pet shop could actually buy the animals that are on sale.”


“The average player — well, the average player whom the game is going to engage — wants to pretend to be a pet shop owner. They don’t want to just be a person who sells animals.”

The would-be investor blinked at my explanation. “How is it a pet shop if you’re not selling the animals?”

“This,” I said, pointing at the ceiling in a way that made everyone’s eyeballs rotate upward for a moment, “is what suffices for escapism in the modern age.” I rammed my finger into the tabletop.

“Our game will use a different metaphor,” the smaller man said, hurriedly.

“So,” the larger man says, his voice cutting through all of ours, “you’re back in your pet shop. There’s a heart floating above the retriever. The game says ‘your retriever is ready for collection! Tap the retriever to collect.’ You tap the receiver.”

“Retriever,” the smaller man said, in a low voice.

“You tap the retriever. The game gives you twenty coins and three experience. Now a final popup tells you: your other animals will be ready for collection soon. Please check back later! And then it kicks you right out of the app. This has all happened in less than one and a half minutes. One minute, if you’re tapping quickly.”

“And this is the important part,” the smaller man said.

“In five minutes, the phone is going to buzz. It’s going to be a push notification. It’s going to say that your retriever is ready for collection again.”

“So you tap and it reopens the app,” the smaller man said. “Your retriever is ready for collection. Your cats and-or turtles are not.”

“Push notifications are, of course, enabled by default,” the larger man said.

“And five minutes — five minutes,” the smaller man said, “is soon enough after installing the game for the player to still have that emotional attachment to ensure that the player comes back.”

“What emotional attachment?” an older person asked.

“Well,” the larger man said, grinning, “the emotional attachment established by enduring the process of seeking out and downloading the app. They don’t know it yet, though they’re hooked from before they download the app.”

“Or, perhaps,” the smaller man said, “they’re open to the idea of being hooked when they decide to type the app’s name in the App Store ‘search’ field.”

“They collect from the retriever, and then, twenty-five minutes later, if they decided to build the ‘cat condo’–”

“–Which is, certainly, what they’d choose–” (me)

“–they’ll get another notification. They’ll open the app. They’ll make their first collection from the cat condo. It’s enough to get them to level 3. They get some more money, enough to build another habitat.”

“And thirty minutes after that,” the smaller man said, “they get notified about the turtle.”

“Now the game tells them they can expand the size of their store.”

“And it costs way more money than they have in the bank now.”

“Here is where the player naturally decides to become a virtual businessman,” I said. “They start doing rough calculations: how many collections of which animals they’ll need to make, how much time that’s going to take, how many times they’ll have to check their phone every hour — or five minutes. At first, it’s all very feasible that they can expand their store within, say, the workday.”

“So — so . . .” the older person washolding two hand-knives out in front of his body, his eyeballs looking down at the iPhone 4 on the table and then back up repeatedly. “Collecting the virtual money from the virtual pets in the pet store whose pet supply does not diminish requires action from the user.”

“Yes,” I said, pointing a finger-pistol at his chest. “It requires the player to take action to collect the money. This is why the player comes back again and again. The game-world does not grow without the player popping in and out.”

“And the mechanics of the game,” the smaller man chimed in, “are so simple — simply touch an animal who is ready to collect in order to collect, touch an animal who is breeding to see how much time remains before the baby is born — that any given ‘pop-in’ lasts a minute at the very most.”


The larger man cleared his throat and gave a little grin. “When the user finally pays up the cash to expand the store, we tell them that it’s going to take twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours could include time they’re asleep, or busy with other things,” the smaller man says.

“The game tells them they can pay a hundred and twenty paws to hurry.”

“How much is that in dollars?”

“That’s about nine dollars and sixty-eight cents,” I said.

“Will they pay that much?”

“Probably not,” the smaller man said, with no melodrama in his voice.

He clicked his Macbook Pro’s trackpad. The next slide was a graph.

Tap Pet Shop launched as a free app. It made zero dollars for its first three days of availability. On day four, it made $10,000.”

The larger man was still standing up. He put his hands on the table. “If you engage the player for a day, you engage the player for three days.”

“If you engage the player for three days, you will possibly engage the player for a month.”

“If you engage the player for a month, chances are you have engaged the player for three months.”

“If you engage the player for three days — chances are the player will spend a dollar.”

“If you engage the player for a week, twenty-five percent of the time he will spend ten dollars.”

“This is all backed by research.”

A silence. Now the larger man pointed at me. “He’s run all the numbers on our product.”

The older men looked at me.

“I’ve run them all,” I said.

“It’s totally solid,” the larger man said.

“It’s solid like a rock,” I said.

“It’s unsinkable,” the smaller man said.

“It’s an unsinkable rock. An unsinkable, solid rock.”

An older man looked at me.

“And it’s not about a pet shop that doesn’t sell pets?”

“We’re using a different metaphor,” the smaller man said. Then he sniffed: hay fever.

“It’s the same game, though, as this thing?” the older man said.

“Yes,” I said.

“More or less,” the larger man said.

“Except we’re using a different metaphor.”

Silence fell, a bowling ball onto the middle of the meeting table.

The older man cleared his throat, and then: “Let’s see the sales numbers for that pet shop game.”

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