GDM 4: Don't tell me a currency is valuable - show me what I can buy with it.

Here’s how every Free-to-Play game starts:

You’re playing the tutorial, and near the end you hit some kind of barrier. Maybe it’s an enemy you can’t kill, or a crop that takes two hours to harvest, or whatever. Then the Sassy Tutorial Character says “Don’t worry, this barrier can be overcome with Purple Gem Shards! They’re super rare and valuable! I’ll give you 17 of them now, but next time won’t be so easy!” Then you hit the button to spend the currency, and the tutorial is done.

Consider a moment what’s happened here. Purple Gem Shards are clearly the game’s premium currency, so the game wants - nay, existentially needs - for you to think they are valuable. But what has the tutorial actually taught you about Purple Gem Shards?

  • That they have no cost - you were just given some for free!
  • That they have little value - you just spent some, and all that happened was the game continued on as before!

Those aren’t the lessons you want your tutorial to convey. On the cost side, don’t just randomly hand out a currency - give it as a reward for some limited action. For example, give me five gems and then show me a 24-hour cooldown until I can get five more - setting my expectations about exactly how rare they are. Or, give me five gems for beating a story chapter, which tells me that I won’t get any more (for free) until I beat another chapter.

Meanwhile on the value side: if you want players to value a currency, they need to have experienced the problem that currency solves. If the currency skips cooldowns, tell me about it after I’ve been through a few cooldowns and gotten impatient for whatever happens after them. If the currency unlocks new items, tell me that after I’ve already played through content that would have been more fun with those items.

If you introduce a currency’s problem and solution at the same time, players will rightly view that currency as a simple pay-to-play tax, not as something valuable that they want.

← return to the the opinionated list of game design mistakes