Editors note: The following guest post was written by Ethan Levy, co-founder of Quarter Spiral a new game publishing startup, and uses the game Punch Quest as a case study on how one can streamline a title’s UI in order to make in-app purchases a more common experience. Levy is a 10-year veteran of the video games industry, having recently worked at BioWare’s San Francisco studio as producer for Dragon Age Legends.
I’m a little late to the party, but I recently discovered the exceptional iOS game Punch Quest and was instantly hooked. This beautifully crafted mash up of Jetpack Joyride and Streets of Rage (or Final Fight if you were more SNES than Genesis) transfixed me immediately. I was addicted to the quick rounds of pick up and play simplicity, the explosions of Punchos upon completing a quest and the joy of punching a cyclops right in the eye.
Punch Quest made headlines not only for it’s high Metacritic rating, but unfortunately for its failure with the freemium model and unorthodox switch from free to paid. I only discovered the game after it started charging $0.99 and felt that the purchase was completely justified. I enjoyed playing so much that I spent additional dollars on in-app purchases (IAP). Importantly, Punch Quest fulfilled one of the most important criteria for a successful freemium game: as a player, I had more fun as a result of spending money on IAP.
Reading on their failure to monetize the over 630,000 installs to an acceptable level, I took a critical look at the game’s UI. As a game designer, it is my opinion that it is our job to ensure that game mechanics, economy design and UI/UX design all work in harmony to ensure success in a freemium game. But based on my experience working with other designers (and artists and engineers) I know that there are very few developers out there who enjoy doing UI/UX design. As a result, this critical component of a game often suffers.
As games become more browser, mobile and touch based, the importance of UI/UX will only increase as a factor of your game’s success. With that in mind, I offer some advice on how the fantastic Punch Quest can optimize its UI flow to enhance IAP and hopefully bring in more money for RocketCat.
The core loop
When designing for freemium, it is extremely important to pay close attention to the core loop of the game. What are the basic actions that the player takes over and over again with minimal deviation? Small details can make a big difference when it comes to the core loop. To illustrate the point, I am going to compare Punch Quest to Bejeweled Blitz. On a glance, these two have very similar core loops, but close inspection reveals why one has been a free to play disapointment while the other is printing money.
So, here I am in Punch Quest, happily punching away:
When my punchzerker is knocked out by one of those annoying squiddies. I am then served up the quest screen, which is key part of the core loop.
Quests give me goals in each round and keep me saying “just one more punch.”
I hit the next button and am treated to a stats screen loaded with options:
And if I am following the path of least resistance, I will hit the large Retry button in the bottom right corner and start punching again. I visit the shop after maybe every five or ten rounds of play (more if I am led there by gnomey to buy a quest item).
Now let me compare this with the core loop of Bejeweled Blitz, a game that I think gets monetization design right as proven by its distinction as 2012’s #7 top grossing game on iPhone. Here I am happily matching 3:
When I run out of time. Assuming I didn’t earn a new medal, I am immediately shown the high score screen:
This screen is very important. As one of the 20 percent or so of users who connect to Facebook on my phone, my desire to top my friend Doug’s score and prove I am better than him is what keeps pulling me in for “just one more match.” After pressing play, I am shown the boost screen:
I can spend the coins I have earned to buy boosts that will help me top Doug’s score for the next 3 rounds. I must hit play again before kicking off my next 60 second burst of matching bliss.
Now, these two games have a lot of obvious differences, but why is it that Bejeweled Blitz is raking in the cash while Punch Quest failed to meet expectations?
Making purchases present
Bejeweled Blitz and Punch Quest both follow a similar model. In each round, the player earns currency. He can spend that currency on additional items, and if he does not want to grind to earn enough currency for an in-game item, he can purchase currency directly for real money.
Punch Quest features a mixture of permanent upgrades, cosmetic items and consumable boosts, whereas Bejeweled only has boosts. But the important difference is Bejeweled Blitz serves the boost screen as part of the core loop. The player is encouraged to spend currency – or at least made aware that he can spend currency – before every round of play. Purchasing is very present.
Punch Quest has boosts, but they are not very present for the player. It takes the player two taps off the main menu to reach this boosts screen. And I have to be honest, I did not use a single boost (or even visit this screen) on my first playthrough to level 50. This is a stark contrast to Bejeweled Blitz, where the player is encouraged to use several boosts every three rounds of play in addition to more expensive, rare gems.
Add an add coins button
It is a small detail, no doubt, but if you look at Bejeweled Blitz you will see that outside of gameplay, there is always an Add Coins button next to my coins display. The one screen without an Add Coins button is the Daily Spin slot machine, but on this screen,there is a Get Spins button which serves largely the same function.
In Punch Quest, the player does not see the Buy Punchos button as part of the core loop. He is only presented with this option when visiting the store, which as I noted above, happens once every few rounds.
I think that by combining these two elements – a Buy Consumables screen and a Buy Punchos button – and adding them to the core loop of the game, Punch Quest can increase its revenue. But I also think the game would have to add a few additional options for enticing consumable purchases.
The high scores table is core to the player’s experience in Bejeweled Blitz. The peer pressure of trying to top a friend’s score each week is a big part of what motivates the player to use earned coins to purchase boosts and rare gems, and hit the Play button for just one more round. Punch Quest’s core loop features a lengthy stats screen, that from my personal experience, I’ve never paid that much attention.
Although we can expect that less than a quarter of the game’s players will sign in with Facebook, based on Bejeweled Blitz’s experience, we can also expect that those connected players are 60 percent more likely to be payers, as revealed by TinyCo in a June 26 blog post.
These are three small suggestions, but I believe that if implemented properly the already excellent Punch Quest could boost its revenue and hopefully be in a solid financial position to keep developing updates and awesome new games. But my broader point is that when you are close to shipping your freemium game, take an extremely close look at the user’s path to spending money. A few small optimizations can be the difference between a chart topping, freemium success and a headline that calls you out as “the iPhone’s hottest game, but … a financial flop.”