How to Become a Game Monetization Expert
By Ramin Shokrizade
The role of the monetization expert in a studio is to translate the game into a multiple price point service package with the highest retail value that can be handed to the marketing department. The monetization expert is not a marketer, but serves as the bridge between that group and the rest of the studio.
Monetization experts require a complex and rare combination of skill sets, since they act as the nexus for the entire game production cycle. As such, this is the most technically demanding position in a studio and is the highest “value adding” position currently in the industry. If you are not prepared to spend ten or more years acquiring these skills, and are not the sort of person that can be trusted with millions or even billions of dollars, then it is advisable to try an easier career path within the industry.
Every company producing and deploying online games is going to need a monetization expert. The larger and more complex the product, the greater the need. Since these positions are just now appearing, and the time required to acquire all of the involved skills is so high, it will be several years before companies can expect to fill these positions with any qualified candidate, let alone an outstanding one. This means that the market value of individuals filling these roles will be extraordinarily high for a some time.
If you are looking at all of the new “Director of Monetization” positions opening up across the industry, and seeking to acquire the skills listed in those jobs descriptions, I would advise against this. The positions are so new, and so poorly understood, that the skill sets listed for these positions are not the skill sets you will need by the time you are ready to step into this role for the first time. Describing the actual skills involved is the purpose of this paper so I would recommend following the advice here to end up in the right place at the right time with the right skills and experience.
Quantitative Skills: This is the most mathematically demanding position in a gaming company. Many of the decisions you make have the potential to earn or cost your company millions of dollars. Math must come naturally for you. I recommend you earn a degree in economics (first choice) or mathematics. You might want to do this fairly early in the process so you can self-assess if you have the skills to continue. Education in the areas of psychology and sociology can be supplementary. An MBA does not imply the quantitative skills required.
Understand Games and Gamers: In order to sell to a target consumer group, you must understand the demands of that group. For this reason, some of the best stock for monetization experts comes from those with experience as game reviewers. Game reviewers have the advantage over people with experience in QA and cyberathletics in that they generally have to cover a wide range of game genres, and thus have a more comprehensive understanding of gamers. If you only plan to monetize one genre of games, this may not be such an advantage. Those without game reviewer experience should spend between 1000 and 2000 hours doing similar activities. Spend 20 hours on each of 50 top ranked online game titles, paying special attention to how the game is monetized. Ask questions of other players while you are there to gauge what they like and don’t like about the product. After at least 20 hours, write a quick review of the game you just played. Then read several reviews by “experts” and see how their assessment matches yours. Do the same thing with 50 poorly rated online games (5 to 10 hours should be sufficient) so that you become adept at recognizing the difference.
Game design experience is going to be extremely valuable here, and the more the better. In order to assist your studio’s game designers with how various design decisions will affect monetization, you have to understand the myriad possibilities in game design first. This is why managers and producers that were designers first will have good prospects moving to monetization, and those that were not will tend to under-perform.
Learn Monetization Theory: This is going to be the tough part, since there are essentially zero academic sources of information on this subject other than my blog, which you already know about if you are reading this. Learn the differences between “whales” and “non-whales”, casual vs. hardcore gamers, men vs. women vs. adults vs. teens, and those that play on social networks vs. those that do not. Understand the difference between co-op and PvP play, know the difference between consensual PvP and forced PvP, and how this affects monetization. Can player assets be attacked while offline? Learn how this affects monetization and retention.
Are you going to allow trade and chat in your game? Become expert at the positive consequences of trade (increased retention, etc.), versus the negative consequences (real money transfer attacks, various exploits). Understanding how the time metric in games affects monetization on many levels, and begin learning how to control and monetize the time metric. If you want to get fancy, you might learn how to gamify your monetization model, and how to monetize higher social functions (like guilds) in games.
Learn the differences between microtransactions, subscriptions, and content purchases. Figuring out which ones work best where based on your game design is the greatest challenge and greatest fun in this field. Note that the best monetization designs will likely have a combination of all three, and applying them randomly can have unpleasant consequences. Work closely with your game designers to identify your coolest content and target that content for special monetization attention.
Be clear about the strengths and weaknesses of analytics apps. If you are doing your job properly, monetization will be 90 to 100% done by the time the first analytics data starts pouring in. If the results are “you are doing great!”, then your options are a bit limited since customers don’t tolerate price increases in this space. You probably under-monetized the product. Oops. If the results are “sales are low”, then you can start discounting the weakest converting components of your design. Discounts show weakness to the consumer, and they will tend to withhold spending knowing that they will be offered a sale price if they hold out. Note that all virtual goods lose value over time in all but the best designed products (which don’t exist yet), so if your product depends heavily on virtual goods sales, you must account for this.
Learning monetization theory, in the absence of a mentor or a school, takes two to three years from my experience. This will take even longer if you are doing other things at the same time, so on your resume this period will look a bit like you “dropped out” since our whole system of hiring does not accommodate those self-educating in exotic skills. Try to form relationships with studios during this time, if you have not already, to let them know you are “in the pipeline”. I would imagine at some point that due to the rarity of those with these skills, some companies will eventually sponsor people they like and who they feel have the talent, to send them through this process in return for an oath of fealty. This is the equivalent of the Army putting you through medical school so that they can get you when you come out the other side. The downside to this is that with studio volatility so high in this industry, only the largest and most stable companies will ever do this.
Social/Managerial Skills: Note that there are already thousands of people filling these roles in China. There, they only need to know how to stock and discount a microtransaction-based virtual goods store, so the job is much more simple. The other big difference there is that this is not considered a managerial position in China. It might be better to describe those that just fill this limited role as “Microtransaction Techs”.
In the West, especially on big projects, the situation is very different. The fact that you will be directing almost everyone at the studio at some point, that you will have control over the financial fate of the studio, and that your pay rate alone implies you are managerial level, means that companies are going to expect that you already have managerial experience.
I think to some extent, this is an artificial construct. Anyone that goes to all of the work to spend 10 years acquiring this skill set is going to be extraordinarily self-motivated. Their understanding of the industry is probably fairly high by the end. The character “Pete” fills this role in the movie Moneyball without having an ounce of managerial skill, and this makes for some funny scenes since he is elevated to assistant manager on the merits of his analytical skills. The key thing is that they have to at least be pleasant and be willing to say things that they know others will not necessarily want to hear. If you are the rare monetization expert with superior social skills, well then congratulations, you have it all. The key is to be an adviser, because everyone is going to know how to do what they do better than you do. Don’t tell artists how to do graphics, don’t tell programmers how to code, and don’t tell managers how to organize. Just teach everyone all the time how their actions matter in the grand scheme of making the product a commercial success.