January 22, 2018

Behind the numbers

Lead Economy Designer Kaitlyn Kincaid describes how she got into game economy design and talks about the intricacies involved when creating economies for games.

How did you end up designing game economies?

Lead Economy Designer Kaitlyn Kincaid

Lead Economy Designer Kaitlyn Kincaid

It is actually a bit of a funny story… at my first game design job, I was asking my lead a lot of questions about the economy design of the game as I’m one of those players that greatly enjoy the “getting rich” experience. At the time, there had been very little work done on the economics, and my lead, recognising that I had a great deal of knowledge and a driving passion for the topic, assigned the task to me to flesh out the systems. Under his guidance, I worked on the entire economic design and discovered a deep love for the topic.

What exactly does a Lead Economy Designer do?

The job of the Lead Economy Designer is to create and balance the various faucets and sinks of currency and resources in the game. Economics can be a great motivator in guiding the player through a game, rewarding behaviour the designer wants, and discouraging unintended behaviour. Using economics can allow for a “softer hand” when guiding the player through the game, letting them go off track if they want, but eventually bring them back to where you want them. This can be better than using a hard, “on rails” style of controlling the players as it lets the player feel that sticking to the desired route, or going away from it, is their choice.  

In multiplayer games, with high amounts of player interaction, economics can allow for entirely new gameplay experiences.  With a well designed economy, players can create their own content of being “providers” and getting rich within the game. These “auction house moguls” can help stabilise the economy by speculating on lower priced items, and providing a constant source of higher value ones.

It also falls to the Lead Economy Designer to develop any micro transactions that will be in the game, working closely with other departments (such as art or UI) to help entice players to spend money in the game. It is vital to ensure that players feel that their money is respected by the developers, and that exploitive monetisation is avoided. It is important to understand player psychology to make buying a pleasant experience, the more players feel good about spending, the more likely they are to do so again.

What are the most important things to consider when designing the economy for a mobile free to play game?

I feel that one of the most important things to consider is that it is vital to treat your players with the utmost respect, for both their time and their money. There are countless mobile games on the market, and more being added every single day. If you don’t treat your players well there is another game out there that will. Players only have so many hours in a day to play games, treat them well and they will spend some of them with you.

What does a typical day at PlayRaven look like for you?

As the resident economic expert, I’m expected to be able to answer questions from the other developers when they have questions about how a feature will impact the economics or monetisation of a game. I’m also involved in many design meetings as most features in our games are either directly or indirectly tied to monetisation or to help balance rewards. I also spend a great deal of time in spreadsheets, balancing the various faucets and sinks to keep the economy in balance.

Any tips for people looking to secure a game industry role similar to yours?

My advice would be to play a lot of multiplayer games, especially ones with a high degree of player to player trading. Understand how and why specific items or currencies are valuable, get rich in those games and see what those riches can get you. Play lots of free to play games and study their monetisation systems, spend money in them and see how you feel afterwards. If your experience was positive, find out why, doubly so if it was a negative experience.

Study behavioural economics. Even a basic understanding of the topics will make you a far better economic designer as you will be better able to understand not just what actions players will take, but why they will take them. Humans are beautifully irrational beings, but we are predictably irrational. Behavioural economics is also important to understand to keep from abusing your players’ trust, it’s far easier to make an exploitative economy that makes lots of money than it is to make a fair one that is equally profitable.