The Economics of Battle Pass are Broken. Let’s Fix It.

To be fair “dippin dots” hangs around

Monetization’s modern paradigm is defined by a direct store and battle pass (BP). After years (and ongoing) criticism of loot boxes, Fortnite re-wrote the rulebook in a way that seems to make both developers and players happy. However, it’s important to consider that at sufficient scale any monetization scheme looks like a winner. It’s unclear if Fortnite is a winner because of the pass or despite it. For instance, the collapse of Clash Royale’s monetization can be partly traced to the introduction of its own pass.

Average top grossing ranking position on US, iOS— As of May 2020 (Source)

Reports of the death of loot boxes have been greatly exaggerated as well. Of top 10 grossing free-to-play games, 8 sold loot boxes in some form. Of the top 10 premium games, 4 did. It’s going to take more work to dislodge the loot box paradigm.

And it’s understandable. If a developer isn’t going to reach Fortnite scale, battle pass isn’t a sufficient monetization solution. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’re in the early innings of BP; by breaking down the model we can pivot the pass from an engagement to monetization driver.

The Model

We can understand BP spend depth by benchmarking it against an \(average\; daily\; monetization\;cap\). The core challenge with the pass is the relatively small spend cap. To start, consider a pass with a fixed entry cost,\(fc\), and \(N\) tiers at a given price \(y_i\). $$\\{total\;monetization\;cap}=\sum_{i=1}^N {(y_i)} +fc$$
In part, the maximum spend is limited by the cadence of the pass. \(d \) is the pass length, in days. Dividing by this gives us the average daily monetization cap (ADMC).
$$ \\ {average\;daily\;monetization\;cap} = \frac {\displaystyle \sum_{i=1}^N {(y_i)} +fc} {d} $$

We now have a model to compare different passes. Let’s examine Fortnite, Valorent, Call of Duty Warzone and Dota 2.

GameADMCTotal CapEntry CostTiersTier CostPass Length
Fortnite$1.90$160$10100$1.5084 Days*
Valorant$1.50$85$1050$1.5056 Days
Warzone$2.86$160$10100$1.5056 Days
Dota 2$6.39$1,010$102,000$0.50158 Days
100 HC = $1 *12 weeks avg.

Each game has a widely different approach. Some go for more tiers and longer length while others go for less tiers and shorter season length. While not accounted for above, it is also important to adjust for pass frequency over a year long period. Dota 2 has a 200% increase in ADMC over Fortnite, but Valve only releases the pass once a year. Warzone, on the other hand, maintains a 100 tier season over an 8 week span consistently. This would average 5-6 passes a year. Nonetheless, battle pass presents far less spend depth over other monetization vectors. In a loot box system, the spend cap is the average price price to unlock all content. In a direct store, the cap is correlated to the total sum of prices divided by the rotation cadence. In almost all games this puts ADMC north of ~$20.

However, we've still failed to account for opportunity costs to paint a complete profit maximizing picture.

The Pivot

Marginal Pricing

BP tier pricing is plagued by inconsistency. Most games use exponential time to complete curves, with each level taking more XP (and therefore time) to complete then the prior one. Here's Fortnite chapter one, season four as an example:

* Assumes constant 8,000 XP Per Hour Earn Rate

And unlike RPGs, XP earn rate does not generally increase overtime. Yet, tier price is constant at $1.50 despite increasing XP requirements and constant earn rates. This is a rather odd proposition as it suggests that the usual $1.50 tier price forgoes a differing amount time depending on the tier number. By dividing by average time to earn we can understand the cost of an hour forgone per tier number. For example, tier 100 may take 6.5 hours to earn, and with a price of $1.50 this means the player pays $0.23 per hour if they choose to purchase the tier ($1.50/6.5hr to earn). Tier 1 only takes 12 minutes, suggesting a hourly price of $120 ($1.50/0.125hr to earn)!

This incentivises players to withhold tier spending until the end of the season.
More bang per tier buck. Yet players who make it to the end of the season are the most price inelastic! Why not vary tier price to maintain a constant benefit? Here’s what this’d look like assuming $1.50 buys 6,000 XP instead of a fixed tier:

Tier 1 would cost $0.10 since it forgoes very little time while tier 99 would be $9.00 since it forgoes over 6 hours.

I chose 6,000 XP to illustrate, but any amount can be chosen as the constant. At around 7,000 XP per $1.50, marginal tier pricing produces a greater spend depth then constant tier pricing (99 tiers at $1.50 = $148.50 spend cap).

This also combats the sunk cost problem. If a player is in the middle of a long tier, the price to complete the tier remains constant in hard currency. Purchasing a tier doesn't always boost a player to the same "spot" in the next tier. In that case, it's easy to feel like the early XP earned in the long tier is "wasted" if the player is considering purchasing the tier outright.

Setting the optimal XP/tier price is an exercise in price elasticity. If we set a tier price to say, $10,000, almost no player would buy tier. On the other hand, a price of $0.01 would produce very little revenue. Therefore, there exists a revenue maximizing amount of XP at a given price. While we may not know this exact number, it's likely to be higher then current prices may suggest.

Tier UX

Moving to marginal tier pricing puts much more pressure on the UX wrapper. Frustratingly, despite exponential time to complete, nearly every pass displays the distance between levels as constant. All of these levels in Apex look just as easy/hard as one another:

There are two solves for this: (1) alter tier distance (increase spacing between levels consistent with XP required) and/or (2) hard level labeling.

First used by King’s groundbreaking experimentation team, hard level labeling simply labels a label as hard (as long as it actually is). This encourages booster spend by a significant margin, as it tells players it’s optimal spend in the level. This has spread to other match-3 titles and now we find super hard levels.

Simply labeling a BP tier as hard should produce the same effect. This becomes a bit trickier for exponential curves as all the hard levels are backloaded. Shifting to an s-curve design avoids this as well as being a more equitable distribution of rewards.

I got another tablet. It has a pen. Scribbles are back.

More Tiers or Less Days

A simple way to increase ADMC is increase the cadence of the pass. Instead of 12 weeks to complete, refresh the pass after 8 weeks. In Fortnite’s case this would increase ADMC by ~50% ($1.90 to $2.86). We can model the marginal effects of changing the pass refresh rate:

Adding more tiers produces a similar effect but in reverse. Instead of 100 tiers, why not Dota’s 2,000? Cost and smart use of content plays a strong role.

Alter Cost Profile

Shortening cadence or adding tiers runs into supply side problems. There ain’t no such thing as free content. Furthermore, it’s wise to consider the vector with the highest return per price of content: does adding an Epic outfit to the direct store produce more marginal revenue then adding it to the BP? But even before answering that question we need to consider the cost of producing items all together. Despite Epic employing hundred of employees and engaging in outsourcing, ~12% of tiers in the pass are “costless”. This means they consist of either currency or boosters rather than distinct items. 

Having cheap items altogether is another avenue. Apex has mastered this. Consider the stat tracker: it’s simply a tally of a particular stat. Or loading screens: an old piece of 2D art. This type of content is extremely cheap to produce. The foundational conversations of a game economy should include content vector specifications.

An Apex banner has 8 customizable slots. That's a ton of cheap vectors!

Valve has employed clever use of changing colors on cosmetics and Fortnite adopted something similar in their new crystal levels.

Each color is a distinct item that can fill a distinct tier
"Apply All" in Photoshop

Where To

MTX design has evolved and there’s no reason to think BP won’t do the same. At the end of the day, it's a mechanic not a destiny. In future posts, I'll expand on pivoting the pass even more. This is just an appetizer.

Optimal Area Currency with Milton

Friedman and Mario are about the same height.
Friedman and Mario are about the same height.

In hindsight, one of Friedman’s great predictions is the Eurozone crisis. Despite being a huge champion for flexible exchange rates, Friedman never advocated for a common European currency.

Europe exemplifies a situation unfavourable to a common currency. It is composed of separate nations, speaking different languages, with different customs, and having citizens feeling far greater loyalty and attachment to their own country than to a common market or to the idea of Europe.

— Milton Friedman, The Times, November 19, 1997

The crisis of Greece exemplifies many of the problems Friedman points out. In times of economic recession/depression, central banks devalue the domestic currency to return the country to full employment. When economies are similar recessions/depressions move together, if there’s a crisis in Texas it’s probable there’s one in Washington. This makes central bank policy more effective because capital won’t escape from ‘recessed’ areas to one’s with higher returns – there are none. It can be much harder to accomplish this in Europe where every country’s economy is dramatically different and institutional policy fluctuates widely.

What the hell does this have to do with game design?

Why do multiple currencies exist in games to begin with? Why not just have one type of currency rather then four or five?

Simply put, it’s all about segmentation. Once again, Supercell has provided us with a wonderful example, Clash of Clans (CoC). Consider which items cost gold and others elixir, the choice was not an arbitrary one. After a quick scan, you’ll notice only the defensive items (cannons, archer towers, walls) cost gold and only the offensive items (troops, barracks, spells). Why might this be the case? Segmenting these items gives designers greater control over the economy and minimizes the potential for ‘contagion’ effects. Consider a world in which Clash of Clans only contained gold. It’s possible players might have a preference for attacking rather then defending, encapsulating the idea of capital going to its highest return. If this were the case the game could become unbalanced as all players attack and none spend gold to upgrade their base defense. By segmenting base defense into elixir, you remove any opportunity cost from from spending on base defense. This is similar to giving your relatives a gift card, rather then spending it on whatever they fancy, they must now spend it on whatever is from the gift card’s store. A domestic currency is much like a gift card to that country’s ‘store’ just as elixir is a gift card to only CoC’s offense ‘store’.

If Supercell finds players are not creating challenging defenses, it’s very easy increase the rate of gold production without worrying that money will be spent on offense. They can also do this by lowering the cost of items priced in gold. Supercell has toyed more with this strategy in their other title, Boom Beach.

The rules for when segmentation is worthwhile emerge reading Mundell’s famous paper 1 backwards.

Segmentation in games, just like in real world economies, gives game designers and central bankers more control.