“Life is a game. So fight for survival…and find out if you’re worth it.” — Kitano, Battle Royale movie, 2000.
The business of mobile free-to-play games is a ruthless, merciless one. Hundreds of thousands of new games each year fight for the attention of millions of fickle players, spoiled by endless choices offered to them.
Winners can make millions, even billions in revenue, yet to make a big fortune in this market you need to start with a small one. Powered by the war chests of accumulated loot established heavies lock horns with ambitious upstarts, spending millions on advertisement of their games.
With all this money at stake, it is no wonder that the game design of these games is evolving at a crazy pace, especially when it comes to metagame design, the bread, and butter of the free-to-play business.
Every couple of years a new metagame format pops up and swoops the hearts and minds of game designers. From Saga Maps and 4X to Card Collections, new concepts arrive from nowhere, and then suddenly it looks like everyone is copying the pattern afraid to miss out on the next big thing.
The Premium Pass mechanic is one such case. Now, in the summer of 2021, it seems that almost every successful free-to-play game has its own implementation of this structure. If you are interested in what makes this mechanic tick, read on.
As a game feature, this concept came into being with the sudden advancement of Battle Royale games. These are inherently multiplayer games. The basic premise is that each participant in the combat starts each match from zero, thrown weaponless into the wasteland. None of the participants thus enjoys an unfair advantage over the others. During the course of a match, participants are expected to forage for weapons and pieces of protective gear augmenting their capabilities.
This setup makes the design of a meaningful metagame very difficult. The challenge that the designers of these games were facing was how to build a metagame progression that would feel compelling to players but would not destroy the aforementioned basic tenets of the core gameplay. Offering a simple weapon upgrading system would surely violate the very idea of the genre, and without a well-developed metagame how would you expect to retain let alone monetize your players?
The solution that they managed to devise is what we now know as Premium Pass mechanic. Therefore, the first thing that we need to acknowledge is that in the Battle Royale games, the Battle Pass system was designed first and foremost as a retention mechanic! To be sure the very existence of this metagame backbone allows for the monetization of these games.
As the power of this system gradually got recognized, it got adapted to a multitude of other game genres. In some of those, which have other stronger metagame structures, the main purpose of the Battle Pass evolved more into the direction of direct monetization.
The versatile and flexible structure of the Premium Pass systems allows for this dual role. The capability to act in these two capacities is what makes Premium Pass systems so attractive to game designers and product managers.
The key part of every Battle Pass system is the reward track. It actually consists of two parallel tracks, one available to all eligible players, usually to everyone playing the game, and the other one accessible only to the players that had made a purchase of an access ticket. This ticket is usually known as the Premium Pass.
Reward tracks are subdivided into a great number of reward tiers. Players gain access to individual tiers by completing some unlocking criterion. The most typical unlock criterion is accumulating a certain number of points or some sort.
A player can claim a reward from a particular tier after unlocking the tier. In other words, a reward from a particular tier in the Free reward track can be collected by any player that reaches a certain point threshold. On the other hand, in order to collect a reward from a particular tier in a Premium reward track, a player needs to both accumulate enough points and purchase the Premium Pass.
The access to the reward track is limited for a certain period of time, usually called a season. The content of the reward track gets renewed with each season, but so is the player progression. At the start of each season, the scores of all players get reset to zero. Players are required to buy a new Premium Pass to access premium rewards.
Anatomy of a Battle Pass system
There are some subtle aspects of the design that make the Battle Pass systems so effective and popular between both the players and the product managers of the game industry.
The way in which players collect the points needed to unlock the reward tiers is usually by playing the core of the game.
KEY IDEA: The points are gained by participating, not necessarily by winning.
The players can gain points for making kills in a Battle Royale match or for causing damage in MOBA-style combat, or simply by doing any other core gameplay activity. The player is not required to actually win a match or clear a level. Winning can still bring in a substantial bonus, but it is not a prerequisite.
In this way, the Battle Pass mechanic separates the player’s progress in the reward track from his progress in the core game. The player is rewarded primarily for his engagement with the game and less so for his skill! This is what makes the system so attractive for the players. A player who is stuck on a particular level or keeps consistently losing battle royal matches can still continue to advance along the reward track.
This largely annuls the “unfair” advantage of stronger, more advanced players in Player versus Player (PvP) games. It doesn’t matter that I was a Level 11 player am losing to Level 13 players as long as I am able to unlock new rewards from the track. They can have their fun in trashing me, the same way as I am trashing the Level 9 players. We all walk away with some points. A 1:1 PvP game is not a zero-sum game anymore!
In PvP games, the player is rewarded for his commitment to the game, his engagement. His winnings are not influenced anymore by the skill of his opponents!
The time box that the season structure imposes, adds to the sense of urgency. A player tries to unlock as many reward tiers as he can in the allocated amount of time. This creates a positive feedback loop with the player engagement. The more I play, the more rewards I will unlock. The more rewards I unlock, the more I will be motivated to play.
Furthermore, a player can collect rewards from the free track without making any purchases. He is at each step of the way tempted by the rewards that he might be collecting if he purchases the Premium Pass. In most incarnations, the system allows the player to make a purchase at any moment during the season. The players that buy the Premium Pass later during the season, are still allowed to retroactively collect the rewards from the premium tiers that they had already unlocked based on the number of points they have collected!
This creates another powerful incentive. A player can decide to convert to the Premium tier only after he has unlocked a substantial number of reward tiers. In other words, he can spend money only after he is certain that he will get his money’s worth of prizes!
Usually, Premium Pass tiers are balanced so that the players will get a fair amount of prizes already after unlocking the first part of the Premium reward track.
The further down the reward track player progress, the greater is the incentive for him to convert. Since players are required to buy a new pass for each season, the players that consistently participate in them will know what to expect, how far they will be able to reach, with the amount of effort they are willing to commit to. The value proposition is self-balancing!
KEY IDEA: Players can buy the Premium Pass only after they are sure they will get enough value for their money!
For the players that opt to buy the Premium Pass at the start of a season or in the first few days, the purchase itself serves as an incentive to play. They will try to get as many rewards as possible in order to maximize their return on the investment. Of course, the more they engage with the game, the more value they will derive from their investment, ultimately making their own user experience better.
KEY IDEA: If bought early on, the Premium Pass acts as an investment, motivating the player to engage further.
The Battle Pass system might look like a holy grail of free-to-play metagame design. It is a system generally loved by both the players and the product managers. It rewards the players for their efforts rather than for success or luck. However, it too has its limits. This is something that some of the game design teams have discovered the hard way.
The key to the success of any Battle Pass system is the value proposition. The perceived value of the Premium Pass to the players depends on the value of the rewards in the Reward Track.
In general, there are two types of rewards that you can put in a reward track:
- Cosmetic or vanity items — such as costumes (also known as skins), hats, pets, emoticons, victory dance moves, etc.
- Items with direct gameplay value — new weapons, various power-ups, cards or packs of cars in Card Collecting Games, upgrade token, etc.
Cosmetic items serve the purpose of establishing and reinforcing the player's identity and allow him to boast about his previous success. Look, I have this silly banana suit because I was able to unlock tier 35 in Season 3! I am that good! In order for these items to have value, they require an audience. They are therefore best suited for multiplayer games where the player’s opponents constitute this audience.
Even if your game is based on this type of gameplay, you are still facing a logistic problem. The rewards are usually permanent. In order to maintain the success of your Battle Pass system, you are forced to provide players with new content each season. This is the dreaded content treadmill that so many free-to-play teams try to avoid. After having the plain old banana suit, you will end up with a green banana suit in Season 3, a pink banana suit in Season 4, a golden banana suit in Season 7, and a super deluxe rainbow glitter banana suit in Season 14.
Golden version of Agent Peely banana skin from Fortnite.
The items that have gameplay value have their own set of risks. Ideally, these would be consumable items that players would constantly find useful in the core game. In order to have these, you need to have a robust metagame that already supports such items, and that can be deep enough to sink them. This is not the case in all genres of games.
If your game supports either of these, a Battle Pass system will not have a great chance of success.
- The Premium Pass system can work as a retention mechanic. It is a good choice if other retention features are not present.
- Premium Pass can work as a great monetization feature.
- Players perceive Premium Pass as a fair system.
- Players can decide to purchase the Premium Pass at a time when they are certain that they will get their value for the money.
- The value proposition is self-balancing.
- The seasonality of the Premium Pass encourages repeated spending by the players.
- Premium Pass is not suitable for any type of game. In order for it to work the game needs to either have a strong social component to support vanity items or deep enough conventional metagame that can sink in the consumable items.
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