We are proud to be part of United in Action, an initiative of the Casual Games Association that helps new independent developers find business success by educating them on important aspects of the business of games. Dave Rohrl, Mobile Game Doctor's owner, was the chair of the working group on Monetization Design.
The slides he delivered at this year's Casual Connect USA conference are online at https://goo.gl/y1ZW7r We hope the information contained there will help more independent game developers create successful games and businesses. And Mobile Game Doctor is always available to help with your monetization design as well.
Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money is an unusual idle game. The game features a very niche license and very unconventional gameplay. It defies many of the genre’s conventions, adding elements like an episodic linear narrative, very rigid ascension requirements, and an extensive gacha system that is woven deep into the game’s core. Yet the game has managed to be both a commercial and critical success, averaging at least a 4.5 star rating on every version and setting revenue records for the idle game genre. This is an insider’s view of how this unconventional design was born, and how and why it works.
Origin Story for Trailer Park Boys
My name is Dave Rohrl, and I’ve been producing and design games for almost 25 years. I currently run a small game design consulting company that helps mobile game studios all over the world solve challenging design problems. I was approached by East Side Games in early 2016 about mentoring some of their development teams and helping out on their new products.
The company was in development on a Trailer Park Boys-based idle game. The game made a number of critical design errors. The game had three main screens, each with a different activity, in honor of the franchise’s three main characters. All three screens were of critical importance to play the game. This made it difficult to articulate and focus on the creative center of the game.
The first module screen required constant tapping to prime the pump of the economy. This is a common design mistake made by newcomers to the idle genre, who often assume that clicker games are about…well…clicking. As ample research has shown, this is not at all their core. Rather, players enjoy letting the game passively generate resources between sessions so they can spend those resources improving their economies.
The second module was an odd one. It again required tapping to convert the currency earned on the first screen into the game’s main soft currency – money. The user then navigated to a third screen, which allowed the player to spend money to upgrade the operations on the other two screens – possibly with some element of automation.
East Side brought me in to evaluate the game. And my feedback was quick, direct, and unequivocal. The game’s core design was not working, and needed a significant streamlining or a full reboot.
The team decided to restart the game using familiar core mechanics from idle games like Adventure Capitalist or Doomsday Clicker with a few enhancements supporting the IP. The player would build up businesses in the eponymous trailer park to earn money, to level up the businesses (which we referred to as acquiring customers), and occasionally fight the antagonist law enforcement officers that bedevil the boys. The existing team struggled to take the design further than this, so East Side asked me to partner with the game’s producer to lead the game’s design.
In addition to the usual requirements that come with any mobile game project, like building a fun game with good retention and monetization, the game came with some unusual requirements that we needed to accommodate in the design.
The game was, of course, based on a license. Trailer Park Boys is a faux documentary series, originally broadcast in Canada and now distributed by Netflix. It features the antics of petty felons who live in a trailer park in Nova Scotia, constantly trying to earn easy money through scams that the trailer park supervisors and local cops try to thwart. The show is a cult hit, with a small but very passionate following.
As with any licensed game, we wanted to make sure that we used the license to strongly shape not only the presentation, but also the core gameplay. We wanted the player to feel like they were running their own scams and getting their own a$$#s thrown in jail. And because the game was based on a strong character franchise, we wanted to feature the characters prominently in gameplay and to tell their stories in the show’s cheeky, hilarious tone.
In addition, the game was looking expensive on its original course, and rebooting the design certainly didn’t make it any cheaper. As a result, there was a lot of concern about the game monetizing well – particularly given that idle games are generally not high ARPDAU products. The team and East Side’s management looked around for ways to monetize the game better, and – given the fact that we were all playing quite a bit of Clash Royale at the time – it’s not too surprising that we settled in on the notion of adding a card upgrade system backed by a gacha (random reward) system to the game, supported by a secondary, non-inflationary currency – Liquor.
Stories, Seasons, and Ascension
The original design for integrating stories into the game was to make short cutscenes and associate them with selected achievements, much like Adventure Capitalist associates its event rewards with reaching certain business levels..
Unfortunately, I saw a number of issues with this approach. Players would enjoy lots of cutscenes early in the game, but as they became more established, cutscenes would inevitably drift further and further apart. As these rewarding plot interludes became less and less frequent, players could grow bored with the game and churn out.
We also couldn’t guarantee the sequence in which players would see cutscenes, so it would be impossible for us to tell real stories – just to offer one-off vignettes. This was a deal-breaker, as the franchise is heavily focused on episodic comedy storytelling.
Instead, I proposed a different approach to dispensing the story. We would break the game up into seasons, where each season would tell a single TPB story. Of course, the player moved from season to season by ascending.
We showed an intro scene at the beginning of each season, continuation scenes throughout based on the number of goals completed, and a finale scene just before the season’s final boss fight. This allowed us to implement a classic three act structure to build the kind of narrative arc that fans of the series love. It kept players playing for the concrete reward of seeing the next cutscene. Players got addicted to the end-of-season experience where they would experience a burst of fun activities – see a cutscene, play a boss fight, collect a bunch of rewards, and roll right into the next season’s intro cutscene and the fast early portion of the next season.
Of course, having decided to implement seasons, we needed a way to define for players to complete a season. We looked at other idle games that had implemented ascension requirements, like the cash requirements in Doomsday Clicker or the progress requirements in Tap Titans, but we found them pretty uninteresting. So we decided to lift a page from typical casual games and give the player a series of goals to complete. Once the player had complete enough of the goals we set before them, they could end the season, fight a boss, and ascend.
As soon as we added this feature to the game, the gameplay started to feel much more interesting. Rather than always buying the cheapest or highest yield business available to you, having player specific goals forces the player to focus on different aspects of the game at different times. This made the game feel more structured and gave players more opportunities to feel smart and strategic.
Our original system gave the player only one goal at a time. Although this was still fun, it led to real problems when the player was making slow progress toward their one and only goal. This was especially painful when the goal required some random rewards or other random elements. Jason Bailey, East Side’s Chairman, came up with the idea of having 3 goals available at all times, similar to Halfbrick’s Jetpack Joyride. After a bit of experimentation, we settled into the final structure, giving the player three tracks of goals – one linked to earning and spending soft currency, one linked to earning secondary currency and gacha items, and the third related to spending secondary currency and gacha. This led to a robust system that allowed non-payers to progress at their own pace while giving payers an obvious way to accelerate.
The Trouble With Ascension
Ascension systems are core to idle game design. After the player has played for a while, their progress slows down a crawl because of the structure of the underlying math. The player then decides to restart the game (often called ascending, prestiging, restarting, or a variety of other names). When they restart, they earn a special currency that tweaks the game math in some way, generally allowing them to progress faster.
This well-worn system has a number of issues. Deciding when to ascend can be very awkward for casual players, as it requires a good understanding of the game’s math and ascension system. And ascension currencies tend to be a bit abstract and weird. And the story behind why the player is restarting the game from the beginning is thin or altogether missing.
In TPB, our season and gacha systems solved major problems with the ascension system. Because the player cannot ascend until they complete enough goals, the game gives them a clear signal on when they should ascend. Of course some of our more engaged players play on long after we let them move on to the next season, but at least our most casual players don’t have to sweat the decision.
Likewise, rather than having an ascension currency, we simply carry the player’s character and business levels forward. Since the player has built up those bonuses during gameplay, it’s only natural that those levels should be maintained and carried forward.
And the story of ascension fits the license like a glove. On the TV show, the boys are constantly getting thrown into jail for one reason or another, usually for their ridiculous scams and petty crimes. In Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money, we used that trope from the show to explain our ascension mechanic. When the player resets the game, it’s because the boys lost their fight with the police and got thrown in jail once again. And with the boys gone, their business empire falls apart and needs to be rebuilt. This perfect alignment of mechanic and narrative has been one of the most beloved features of the game.
Although all these design elements helped make the game into a success, they all created significant challenges on the design and production side – each in their own special way.
The gacha system added great monetization, but also added a lot of randomness to the player’s state. It would be very possible for two players who have progressed equally quickly to suddenly diverge over the course of a season because one had the right characters upgraded for that season while the other did not. This meant that accurately forecasting how long players would take to complete seasons and goals was very tricky and our estimates were often off by a good bit.
We also did very well at engaging players with the character upgrade gacha system, but never found the right mechanic to generate similar levels of engagement with building upgrades. We had a few ideas, but none of them have made their way into the game yet.
Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money release on April 20th (4/20 – get it?) and shot up the download and grossing charts. It set records for daily gross revenues for a mobile idle game and drew rave reviews from critics and users (still over 4.5 stars on the Apple and Google app stores). Now nearly six months old, the game continues to generate great revenue and goodwill as we continue to roll out linear content, new events, new features, and new platforms.
There were a number of critical design decisions that contributed to this success, but in my view the three most critical were:
About the Author
Dave Rohrl is the Owner of Mobile Game Doctor, a boutique game design consultancy that works with game developers worldwide to improve their games, teams, and processes. Dave is an industry veteran with nearly 25 years of experience who has held senior roles at Pogo, PopCap, and Playdom, among others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his two daughters and 600 board games.
NOTE: This post originally appeared on MobileFreeToPlay.com, an excellent blog on mobile game design, monetization, and marketing. The author would like to thank Adam Telfer and Tom Kinniburgh for all their hard work editing this article.
the It has been my pleasure and privilege to work with the fine folks over at East Side Games on Trailer Park Boys: Greasy Money. The game is now live worldwide and fans really seem to be enjoying it. It's a novel spin on the AdCap formula and big bit of fan service for the cult hit show.
I'll be writing more soon about how the game came together and how Mobile Game Doctor contributed, but in the mean time you can download it from the iOS App Store (where it has a 4.9 star average rating) or the Google Play Store (where it is rated 4.8 stars) and check out the reviews on Touch Arcade and Gamezebo.
Check out the game and let us (and the app stores) know what you think.
As a game design consultant, I work with a wide variety of developers on a huge range of projects. I deal with large companies and small, casual games and hardcore, and designers ranging from utter newbies to industry vets. I've designed and/or produced more than 50 games hands-on, and helped out on dozens more as a manager or consultant.
This wealth of experience has helped me to notice some patterns that separate successful teams - those that execute their projects fairly cleanly and at good quality levels - from those that don't. Often, as game designers, we fail due to circumstances entirely outside of our control - like a lack of resources, changes in the market, or internal issues with our studios' business. But at least as often we fail due to things that are completely under our control like the lack of a clear vision, ignoring clear market signals, under-analysis of our own designs, or an inability to communicate our vision.
In my experience, the most of the self-inflicted wounds that designers suffer are highly preventable and tend to come from a singular source - failure to ask the right questions at the right times to lead designers to clarity. Once the creative goals of the game are laid out explicitly, it becomes easy to explain the vision and core selling points, easy to parse and prioritize features, and easy to formulate a reasonable hypothesis about whether there may be an audience for the game. Most of the worst games (and the vast majority of the most miserable projects) are a direct result of a turbulent, muddled vision that keeps the entire team running in circles trying to achieve something unclear.
How do designers wind up in this situation? There are two main ways: First, many games are developed under intense time pressure. Games are a hard, hard business. Many companies run on thin margins and those that don't tend to need to please investors (whether public or private) by getting games out as quickly as possible. This kind of pressure often means that designers don't take the time to ask key questions at the beginning of a project.
Second, as anyone who has built a game can tell you, there are a million details to get right even in the smallest and simplest of games. Somebody has to figure out the price of the +2 Sword of Smiting, and somebody has to decide whether those particles are moving too quickly, and somebody has to figure out why level 7 is just no damn fun. At times it's easy to get lost in this sea of details and lose track of the big picture.
Luckily, there are some remedies. Over the course of my career, I've built up a bag of tricks that I use to help give myself and my clients the kind of high-level clarity that is easy to understand, easy to express, and easy to use as a guiding light for figuring out the details of a game's design. Some of these are tools that I've created and others are tools that I learned from other great designers over the years. But all of them have great utility when applied properly.
Over the next few weeks, we'll take a good look at tools like The Four Questions, The Five Fun Factors, X Statement, Audience Identification, Noun-Verb Diagrams, and Time Plans. I'll be diving deep on each of these individual tools - showing you the relevant templates and giving you a crash course on how, when, and why to apply them. I hope you'll find them useful and interesting, and that you'll take the time to apply them on current and future projects. You'll be glad you did.
Mobile Game Doctor is a boutique game design and production consultancy that partners with game developers worldwide to help improve games, teams, and processes. Dave Rohrl is its Founder and one of its Principal Consultants