Rescues, Buffs & Skips: How to Design Mobile Game Power-Ups for Optimal IAP

Posted on Posted in Blog - Insights

When our mobile game partners ask us about the best strategies for monetizing through in-app purchases, we often recommend connecting IAPs more directly to in-game power-ups (e.g. designing power-ups with monetization in mind).  While the term "power-up" is well-known in game design, there’s actually no standard ontology for power-ups (there have been some academic papers on the topic but very little terminology that’s been widely adopted by the industry). 

Shield" and "Teleport" are the two key Rescue mechanics in the arcade classic Asteroids-- how would they apply in your game?

In a recent conversation with our CEO Bill Grosso, well-known designer and frequent TechCrunch contributor Tadhg Kelly suggested categorizing most power-ups as one of the following three types:

Asteroids power up

  • Rescues: The player gets into a jam, is about to die, or suffer grievous damage. This power-up resolves the short-term issue without changing the game’s overall structure. This category also includes the ability to save your life (e.g. restart gameplay where you last died). Asteroids has an archetypal Rescue many will recall from their arcade days: As game duration increases, rocks fly faster and faster, UFOs appear more frequently and shoot more often. But you can shield yourself for 5 seconds -- long enough to escape certain death (for a little while, anyway).

Galaxian Extra Cannon

  • Buffs: These are special abilities which enable a range of options, powers, or advantages beyond the default state of gameplay -- typically, on a temporary basis. (Think Galaxian, where the player gets extra cannons and can kill the invading aliens faster as a result.)

Wipeout 2097 autopilot

  • Skips: Power-ups that enable players to artificially get past a game level or other in-game obstacle. This can include skipping past potentially tedious gameplay, such as having to acquire an important game resource, or travel to a distant location. An early version of Skips is the autopilot in Wipeout 2097, where players who’ve vanquished their opponent can use an autopilot to complete the rest of the (now boring) course, and move on to a new challenge. (Thanks to Tadgh for this example).

Of these three categories as potential IAPs, we recommend Rescues most often, followed by Buffs. Rescues are easiest to organically integrate into the core gameplay loop, and have an added advantage of evoking the “Insert coin to continue” mechanic from the golden era of arcade games that many gamers are already familiar and comfortable with (roughly speaking, gamers in their mid-30s or older). In a related vein, when thinking about adding Rescues, it's helpful to think about Asteroids a little more: "Shield" and "Teleport" are the two key Rescue mechanics in that arcade classic -- how would they apply in your game?

While the evidence is somewhat game dependent, well-designed Rescues tend to monetize better than Buffs. This relates to the Painkiller vs. Vitamin debate that all entrepreneurs face: Generally speaking, players and consumers like vitamins (or Buffs), but they’ll buy painkillers (or Rescues) over and over again.

Skips, by contrast, often seem artificial to gameplay, making the player feel like he or she is “cheating”, and that the game developer is complicit in this cheating out of a purely greedy motivation. However, there are ways of making Skips more organic to gameplay and appealing to the player -- for instance, by offering them as an earned reward. (I.E. “Congrats on beating Level 32! You earn the ability to Instantly Teleport to town for 100 gold coins.”)

In an upcoming post, we’ll explore how these power-ups categories are best integrated into mobile games for maximum revenue (but minimal player annoyance). And as always, please connect with us on Twitter.