Game Design

time is (micro) money: designing micro-transactions and waiting in games

Last Wednesday, I spent about three hours at the local DMV waiting to renew my driver’s license.  During that time, I finished reading the book I had brought, had a lengthy conversation with my parents on the phone, and joked with a stranger about trying to get a license for my skateboard instead.

I remember thinking, if only I had brought a game to play to pass the time, then considered the various smartphone options I had.

To my surprise, I only managed to transfer my frustrations: I went from waiting on my license to waiting on my games.

GameWhen the waiting beginsWait to playWhat you can do while waiting (the grind)Pay to play
1. Candy Crush
After losing your 5 maximum lives by failing to swap your candy way out of a puzzle level 5 times, or when you’ve reached the end of an episode and can’t proceed for 72 hours without friends’ help30 minutes consecutively for each life to refresh, up to 5 livesNo lives or not being able to move to the next episode = no attempts, sorry$1 for 10 gold bars
12 gold for a full set of lives
9 gold for advancing to the next episode
2. Clash Royale
When you’ve filled up all 4 chest slots with winning 1 chest per 3 minute match, opened your 2 allotted free chests, and completed your daily crown chest by collecting 10 crowns3 – 24 hours simultaneously for each chest slot to refresh, up to 4 slots
8 hours between 2 free chests
24 hours between each crown chest
You can still play matches, but winning only awards a fraction of the in-game currency that is in the chests, along with the same experience needed to advance arena level and rank$0.99 for 80 gems, with discounts on larger purchases up to $99.99 for 14,000 gems
1 gem per 10 minutes remaining for chest opening
3. Tiny Tower
All the time, either to earn enough money from the tower’s inhabitants to buy a new floor or for the currently building floor to complete and be ready for business, or both30 minutes for floor 4, and 30 minutes more for each floor above that (e.g. 1 hour for floor 5… 23 hours for floor 49, and so on)Bring tower denizens up to their requested floors, a time-consuming task that rewards players little, but for the occasional VIP that awards a special bonus$0.99 for 250 bux, with discounts on larger purchases up to $29.99 for 25,000 gems
Higher bux costs for instantly building higher floors
4. Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire
All the time, for your taxis to make enough money to upgrade your taxis so they can make more money (it’s a clicker game)Varies depending on multipliers and levels of upgrades and unlocks, could be days
4 or 8 hours for lottery tickets, which provide upgrades and in-game money
Pick up passengers in one of the maps, a repetitive and boring task (just tap the indicated spots), or, when available, watch ad videos to reduce cooldown times$1.99 for 80 diamonds, with discounts on larger purchases up to $19.99 for 1,100 diamonds
Diamonds can be used to increase multipliers or speed up cooldowns for lottery tickets
5. Hearthstone
After you’ve completed up to 3 saved daily quests, offering 40 – 100 gold for fulfilling specific goals24 hours for a new daily questGrind in play mode for gold, up to 100 gold per day, with 10 gold awarded for every 3 wins
You can also rank up or down on the ladder, play the once-a-week Tavern Brawl, play against friends, use gold or real money to draft in the arena, or play solo missions if you are so inclined
$2.99 for 2 packs, with discounts on larger purchases up to $69.99 for 60 packs (100 gold for 1 pack)
$1.99 for entry into the arena (150 gold)

Long story short, I did not feel like playing anything right then because my progression would be slow or impossible if I did not spend any money on the game.

All these games, from a variety of genres, relied on one common thing: they were forcing me to make the choice between “wait to play”, and “pay to play” to get any satisfying results.  This was extremely inconvenient and annoying at a time when I was turning to games to pass the time while waiting for something else.

The way things were going, I felt like I might as well have been locked out of my games because I couldn’t play them in their full glory.  It was maddening.

This was a thought that obviously led to more frustration, and reminded me of a micro-talk I’d heard at GDC.  In her five minute talk, writer Meg Jayanth shared her experience waiting for the renewal of her Indian passport.  She eventually realised that the inefficient system was working exactly as intended by making her feel like she should have bribed someone, a surprising parallel to many free-to-play mobile games that rely on micro-transactions.

The real world is a free-to-play nightmare, demanding micro-transaction after micro-transaction until that final, inevitable, unscalable pay-all.

— Meg Jayanth1

There’s a ring of truth to this.  Waiting is one of the most annoying things we do on a regular basis, and it’s natural that game designers would exploit these frustrations and turn them into ways to abusively monetise game systems.  While this is probably no surprise, here are a few observations I’ve made about what makes games that rely on waiting so successful.


Common Design Techniques of Waiting in Games

1. No wait is too long

The half an hour wait to gain a life in Candy Crush can seem torturous in the moment, but not compared to the 72 hour wait in between episodes in the early parts of the game.  And then there are the higher levels of Tiny Tower, when building a single floor starts to take more than a day, or up to a week.  Opening chests in Clash Royale can take 3, 8, 12 or 24 hours in some cases, plus the 8 hour wait between free chests and the 24 hour wait between crown chests.

Although these waits initially seemed to be too long for anyone to continue to be engaged in the game, I found myself drawn back into playing the game once the wait was over.  Once players have invested a significant amount of their time into a game, it is easier for them to justify the next few hours of waiting because they don’t want to throw away all the effort they’ve put into getting that far.

Lulls in gameplay sessions, such as the one with Clash Royale, can rejuvenate a repetitive game cycle if you go back to it after a few hours.  In fact, increasing the wait as players progress is common in these games.  While this is annoying, it is reasonable to expect that long-time players might drop a buck or two to reduce or eliminate wait times.

2. Push notifications are key to retaining engagement

The advantage mobile games have is that the gaming device is almost permanently with the player.  Game designers can reach their players instantly with push notifications, and when there are long waits in between play sessions, these notifications are key to getting players back in the game.

When I was regularly playing Clash Royale and Tiny Tower, the notifications that informed me that a chest was ready to open or a floor had been built were what reminded me to play the games more often.  When I turned off my notifications for the games, I found myself returning to the games much less.  Here, game design takes advantage of our tendencies to want to be efficient with our time, by maximising the amount of valuable play time we can get around the restrictions of the pay to play model.

I left push notifications on for the sole purpose of getting a suitable screenshot to illustrate my point, and was not disappointed.

3. There’s usually still something you can do in game, but it feels like a grind and it’s way less effective than either waiting or paying

Some games lock you out completely and force you to wait if you don’t pay, like Candy Crush.  But most of the time, there’s still something you can do, but it is really boring.

In clickers like Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire, you can tap markers that pop up on a screen to chauffeur customers or watch ads to speed up cooldowns, and in Tiny Tower, you can bring guests up to their requested floors.  This long grind is far less exciting than the mere seconds it takes to get all your taxis upgraded, or a new floor built, and gets you pittance to help reach those goals.

Skill games like Hearthstone and Clash Royale let you play on once you’re on a timeout for the more rewarding daily quests or 4 maximum chest slots, but reward you very little for playing.  In Clash Royale, you get a meagre amount of gold based on arena level for each game won.  In Hearthstone, only 10 gold (each pack of 5 cards costs 100 gold) for every 3 games won.  These diminishing returns make it feel less worthwhile to play games when the cooldowns have not been reset.

In Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire, you can go to the map of the city and tap away at the markers to your heart’s content while waiting for enough money to accumulate to buy your next upgrade.

Designing these systems, the cycles of waiting for unlocks and rewards, plus the ability to accelerate progress through micro-transactions, begs the question: is the “metagame” part of the game itself?  After all, waiting does not include gameplay, but rather, prevents it.

Are the designs for the lengths of time between lives refreshing, or the amount of real-world money in-game gems or gold should cost, game design decisions or business decisions?  More importantly, should there be separation between the two?

Meg Jayanth brought this back to a question about integrity.  Exploitation, she said, is not inevitable, but exploitative design is a choice.  You can design a game ethically and make money, but, then again, maybe not as much money.  And most of all, “your intentions matter.”

The question for any game designer who wants to make a living is, how can you ensure that you are making a good game while making a decent profit, or vice versa?  When it comes to balancing game design and business design, how close should you draw the line, and how far can you push the envelope?

Based on observations from playing the above mobile games, I have come up with several design guidelines to ensure that the business aspect does not overshadow creating an engaging game.


How to Design for “Good Game” Over “Good Business Model”

1. Design the metagame as part of the game

The metagame should be designed as a part of the game itself, not a layer of pure monetisation.  For example, Clash Royale‘s chest reward system lets you win chests from winning matches, and these chests contain cards that improve the player’s game.  Although chest opening times can be sped up by paying real world money, the basis of the chests is grounded in what players use in the game.

On the other hand, watching ads to get in-game bux in Tiny Tower not only pulls the player out of the game but also reveals a more sinister goal behind the game, subverting players’ expectations of the game and making them feel cheated.

In Clash Royale, chests are useful, and I can re-enter battle at any time, even while waiting for my chests to be ready to open.

2. Reduce forced repetition in game loops

The worst thing about the grind is the mind-numbing repetition it entails.  Introducing variety into each game session reduces the frustration of grind and injects fun into each playthrough, even if you don’t pay and progress is slow.

Deeper design of the cards and mechanics in Hearthstone makes it inherently replayable regardless of the metagame, where playing the game itself can be rewarding rather than a mere slog towards getting that gold.

Hearthstone has deep gameplay that is constantly evolving. This strategy and deck type I had way back in the day is no longer competitive, and I keep playing because every game is different, making it feel like less of a grind.

Tiny Tower, on the other hand, gets exhausting because each floor is mechanically the same, requiring you to bring people up to it and restock once the timer runs out.  If floors did different things, the game would be much more interesting to play even while waiting for a new floor to build.

Each floor is mechanically the same in Tiny Tower, you just have to wait for restocks.

3. Consider the grind and provide alternative goals

Give players something meaningful to do while waiting, to make the grind worthwhile.  Candy Crush shuts you out completely when you run out of lives, while the actions in Tiny Tower and Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire provide a far reduced amount of satisfaction and rewards.

This is because those games rely on a single goal.  There’s only one road to travel down in Candy Crush, there’s only one tower to build floors on in Tiny Tower, and there’s only one system of upgrading taxi drivers and expanding to new cities in Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire.

Grinding in Clash Royale and Hearthstone, however, is less frustrating because you can pursue other goals, whether it’s advancing in the ranked system, or defeating heroic bosses in single-player mode, or winning 500 games as a hero to unlock its gold portrait.

Other goals in Hearthstone can include getting a perfect 12-win arena run (I have a ways to go)…
… Or winning 500 games in a class to unlock that hero’s gold portrait (I’m so close!)

4. Treat all players as equals, whether or not they pay to play

Simply put, all game features should be available to all players.  While paying players may have additional cosmetic options or ways to speed up their progress, I think games should let all players play on a level ground.

For example, in Hearthstone, all players play in the same ranked system, and all players have access to all cards and single-player expansions through using real-world or in-game currency.  Even though paying players can buy gold to get packs or buy entries into the arena, all players can also grind or complete quests to get gold and buy packs, which contain the same odds and guarantee of one rare card.

The difference between the difficulty of grinding and paying should exist, but should not be so large that non-paying players feel like they are at a disadvantage that is impossible to overcome with a reasonable time and effort.  When we play games, we expect fairness, and we don’t want to be punished for being unable or unwilling to spend our hard-earned money.

All game modes are available to all players in Hearthstone, it may just take you longer to grind to enough in-game gold to acquire arena entries or unlock wings of single-player expansions.

5. Be clear about your intentions

From playing these games, I’ve been more disillusioned by obvious monetising systems masking themselves as games.  I think developers should be clear with themselves and their audience about whether they are making a business or a game, which will help with design decisions.  I like how the clicker-style Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire is barely a game, or as my friend Ryan put it, “the gamification of nothing”, because then it’s really clear to see where the ads and the pushes for micro-transactions fit in.

Tiny Tower and Candy Crush are not as transparent, as they appear to take their gameplay more seriously and shield players from monetisation, springing it on you as a surprise when you’re stuck waiting, which can feel deceitful.

Other games like Clash Royale and Hearthstone are clearly games first.  They are more easily forgivable for their subtler micro-transaction pushes since it’s clear that they have been designed with engaging gameplay in mind.  The main focus in these games is on playing rather than waiting for cooldowns.

Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire is unapologetic about trying to get you to watch ads or pay real money to speed up waits, the calls to action for spending diamonds and watching videos are scattered liberally throughout the game.

While waiting is a necessary part of our lives, it should never be a barrier to entry for games, at the cost of real world money.  While this is a successful business model, any design choice that uses waiting to prevent players from doing something should be rooted in the game mechanics rather than the desire to make money.

A required wait that goes beyond a few seconds had better have a good reason – consider the quick travel cooldowns of half an hour in Star Wars: The Old Republic, or the minutes it takes for an ultimate ability to refresh in Heroes of the Storm, both of which are strategic choices well-suited to the type of game they are in and their respective gaming session length.


In a funny way, this had everything to do with my trust in those games in what I wanted from them (immediate relief and distraction, and a way to pass the time), and by extension, in the game designers.

When I expected a game to pull me out of my monotony during the wait at the DMV, I was disappointed by how difficult it was to play anything without feeling like I was a lower tier of player, one who could not perform or progress as well, if I didn’t fork over some cash.

As game designers, whether we seek to entertain, educate, delight, inspire or communicate through our games, we cannot do this work if a layer of business blocks players from playing the full experience of our well-crafted games.

Games, after all, are made to be played.

References Cited

  1. GDC. “GDC Microtalks 2017: Playing with Our Hearts.” GDC Vault. GDC Vault, 2 March 2017. Web. 16 August 2017.