Unlocking Digital Variants

In December 2014 we added Variant (promo) cards to Sentinels of the Multiverse: The Video Game. The update was met with a lot of excitement as the community raced to figure out the challenges and unlock the cards. While the experience was overwhelmingly positive, we did receive some dissenting feedback. Some players wanted to pay to unlock them, and some players felt the challenges were too difficult.

We released a survey to find out what you thought about the idea of us offering a paid option to unlock variants. Thank you to everyone who responded! The results were quite interesting because they did not reveal any kind of consensus. After our internal analysis and discussion, we’ve made a decision about our next steps, beginning with the release of Rook City and version 1.3 of the game.

  • Variant cards will always be unlockable via story challenges, and we will continue to add variants to the game with updates. The next new variants will be available in version 1.3 when Rook City is released.

  • After the method for unlocking a given variant is discovered by the community, we will add that info to a page on our website, and this page will be linked to from within the game.

  • Approximately 30 days after new variants are added to the game, we will post a unique password (cheat code) for each variant that can be entered into the game to unlock it without completing the story challenge.

  • The above will also apply to the original set of 6 variant cards. The challenge info & passwords for those variants will be made available upon the release of version 1.3.

As you can see, there will not be an option to pay money to unlock variants. If you’d like some more information on how we arrived at this decision, read on below.

The ballad of the Digital Variants

America’s Finest Legacy is the leader of the Freedom Five. But as we all know, he is not the first to bear the mantle of “Legacy,” nor will he be the last. Succeeding him in the family line is Paulina Parsons - America’s Newest Legacy. But how does one play the game as Paulina as opposed to her father? And so begins the ballad of the digital variants.

In December 2014, we released an update to the game that included 4 hero and 2 villain variants (our word for promo cards) and the only way to get them was to complete story challenges within the game. So to the question “how does one play the game as Paulina as opposed to her father?” the answer was, “have Baron Blade himself deal damage that incapacitates Legacy in Wagner Mars Base.” Completing this challenge would unlock the “Young Legacy” variant.

We did it this way for several reasons, not the least of which is that we thought it would be a fun challenge for the community to participate in. Another reason was that, despite its tabletop beginnings, the digital game is a video game, and having unlockables is a pretty typical thing in video games. Yet another reason was that we knew this would incentivize people to try new ways to play that they might not have considered.

Almost immediately, we began fielding requests for a paid option to unlock variants for a fee. For the most part, these requests were cordial and well reasoned (although not all were). For many people, they simply didn’t want to have to spend the time to “discover” how to unlock the various promo cards.

Free to Play or Pay to Win

As a team, there was something about the idea of charging for this particular content in this particular way that didn’t sit quite right with us. But since we are part of a community, we decided to put it to you the players to help us decide if we should offer a paid option IN ADDITION to the ability to unlock the variants for free through gameplay. We were hoping that there would be a very obvious consensus, we could follow where that consensus led, and then we’d be good to go.

Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. The community is actually fairly divided on whether this is a good idea or not, and most of that division lands squarely on the backs of a single word:

Microtransactions.

Your communal opinions on whether we should offer this are pretty evenly divided along the lines of how you feel about microtransactions in games. Most people accept that time is worth money, but people who regularly pay microtransactions in games are much more willing to assign a specific dollar value to their time. 

What makes a microtransaction a “microtransaction” as opposed to an “expansion” seems mostly related to what you are perceived to be paying for. With our expansion packs, we are selling you new content for the game. It enhances the experience, and it is content that is only available via purchase. It is very obvious what you are paying for.

It seems that when the line of what you are paying for becomes blurred, that is when the moniker of “microtransaction” comes out and people begin to disagree, often vehemently. In the case of variants, some people feel they are simply paying for more content, just like an expansion. But others see it as paying to skip ahead in some imaginary “line.” To still others, it feels like it’s creating a class system of those who can afford to throw down money vs those who have to spend the time “grinding.” And in all of this there is the perception of Handelabra Games as a company, and whether something like this is a “simple cash grab.” In this case, people’s perception is not that you are paying for content, but paying for time.

In general, we don’t love free to play games for this reason. Most free to play systems are poorly designed and actively discourage people from playing the game using timers that you can pay to skip, or pools of “energy” or “gold” that only build up when you are out of the game. With variants, we set out to do the exact opposite - to incentivize players not only to play the game more, but to play in different ways that they might not normally. But try as we might, we found some people still wanted to simply pay for variants, while others felt that offering such an option would actively cheapen the experience, the game, and Handelabra Games as company.

The Data

Some data about the tabletop game: 

  • There are currently 30 promo cards available (along with 4 announced but unreleased) and there will eventually be even more.
  • To purchase all the available and announced promo cards at convention pricing ($3 each), if it were possible (which it is not), would cost $102.
  • The total MSRP of everything Sentinels of the Multiverse related, up to and including announced promo cards and expansions is $323.20.

Our survey over the last couple months received almost 2000 responses (if you responded - thank you!). Some interesting things we learned: 

  • 1 in 3 people would “probably” pay to unlock variants, depending on the price.
  • Possibly as many as 1 in 10 people would pay more than $10 to unlock all the variants (a more than $100 value as you can see above).
  • Based on our current total sales of just over 17,000 copies sold, we could be looking at somewhere north of $11,000 of additional revenue from sales of variant unlocks in the short term.

However, what we found even more informative was in the responses of the nearly ⅔ of people who either said “I wouldn't pay, but I don’t mind if you offer it” or “I wouldn't pay, and you shouldn’t offer it.” What we found in these responses is that we were reaching our initial goal with many of these people! Some examples of responses we got to the question “Why do you think we should not offer a paid Variant unlock option?”:

  • “Because this gives us purpose to keep playing.”
  • “It gives the game depth to have to work for variants. Also, it would drive me to play more often - things I still need to do…”
  • “Because it creates a reasonable challenge and encourages playing more heroes against more villains.”
  • “I'm not completely on the side of no paid option, but I really really like that it encourages people to continue to play the game in different ways and experiment with combinations they might not think of.”

And responses from people who said we should offer it but they wouldn’t personally pay:

  • “I enjoy the challenge of unlocking them, it adds to the experience of the game and the uniqueness of the digital version.”
  • “I enjoy the challenge of unlocking cards.”
  • “Having something to unlock adds replay value to the game by encouraging players to play differently.”

Additionally, there were several other common threads we found in the raw data. One is that, as much fun as that initial push to discover variants is for the community, lots of people want that info listed (or linked to) in the app once it’s been discovered. Some people also felt that having a single monolithic unlock wasn’t as good an idea as individual unlocks for individual variants.

“You can please some of the people, some of the time…”

We know that’s not the exact quote, but it’s fitting as we believe our path forward regarding digital variants will make the most people happy, at least some of the time. 

  • We believe that this path accomplishes the most positive goals, for the most people:
  • Those who enjoy the challenge of discovering the unlocks still get to do so.
  • Those who enjoy performing the unlock, but would rather just read how and then do it can do so as quickly as they like, once the unlock has been discovered by the community.
  • Those who would rather not “jump through hoops” can enter the password 30 days after the variants are initially released.

Pretty much the only people this will NOT make happy, as far as we can tell, is people who want all the variants RIGHT NOW, but don’t want to play the game to unlock them (and then, only in the first 30 days). Since any game-maker’s primary goal is for people to play their game, and since the data shows us that this segment is by far the smallest group of people, we think that our decision is the best path forward. Especially as those people will now be able to get the variants without “jumping through hoops” - they just have to wait a month.

Closing thoughts

When we were preparing to launch, many people thought there was no way we could make a premium game work on mobile, but we proved that we could. We could have reworked how the game works and made it free to play, but we felt that Sentinels as a game would play better if you got all the core game content up front. This is not to say that we would never do a free to play game, nor are we saying that we will never use “microtransactions” - if we believe it could be done in a way that respects the player. But with the price of the Sentinels core game, we charge a fair price, and the community has agreed.

With variants, we believed that the experience of players unlocking new content through gameplay was more important than making another couple dollars - even if we could. Some players don’t think that’s a good experience, and so we’re aiming to meet in the middle by trying to offer the best of both worlds. We will see how this works very soon as the first 6 variant passwords will be released alongside the 1.3 update. 

Thanks as always Handelabranauts - we can’t wait for you to get your hands on Rook City which is right around the corner!

Posted on March 20, 2015 .