Blog: Understanding the types of game currencies in mobile free-to-play


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The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


 

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Currencies are the pillar of any real-world modern economy, since exchanges are done through them. Their objective is to be as universal and frictionless as possible, to make the system more efficient in allowing transactions.

Contrary to that, F2P games feature specialized currencies that have strict rules and limitations. Each in-game currency has been designed with a purpose: be it to push the player towards specific activities that will foster the fun, generate monetizable scarcity, provide a reason to come back later, or other.

This article aims to list the main types of in-game currencies, their uses, and general characteristics. The goal is to help you decide which ones would be appropriate for your game and which extra rules you should add to them — or even think of new hybrid mutations.

This is a follow-up of my article about IAP packs balance and design, which covers the relationship of in-game currencies with real world money. You may want to check that one out if you haven’t already!

First of all: What’s a currency?
I’m defining ‘currency’ as an element that has no use value in and of itself, but rather its main purpose and value comes from its ability to be exchanged for something else which has an actual use value.
So in accordance to this, I’m not considering currencies the following things:

  • Score metrics like Clash Royale’s Trophies. Even though trophies grant rewards when reaching certain milestones or at the end of a competition period, we could argue that the main purpose of Trophies is not to be exchanged, but to represent the player’s competitive prowess and progression.
  • Progression metrics like Experience Points or Player Level, which similarly are oriented towards representing (or gating) player progression within the game, rather than serving as a means to be exchanged.

But I will be considering currencies any resources or items whose purpose is accumulation to buy upgrades (like Clash Royale‘s cards… the first card of each type is to unlock the unit in gameplay, but after that point they’re a currency).

Also, note that the types are not mutually exclusive and some of the categories may in fact be subcategories of each other. For example, an event currency can be a hard currency, within the context of an event.

Based on those assumptions, I’m classifying currencies in 11 different categories(Though I’m sure the list is missing several so it may grow. If you spot what’s missing, let me know in the comments!). They are:

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A hard currency is a high value currency which is primarily obtained through IAP and is closely related to monetization. Often it allows the player access to exclusive premium content. Examples would be the Gems on Brawl Stars, or the Gold Bars in Candy Crush Saga.

Hard currency is the closest thing to an universal medium of exchange, since it not only allows players to purchase content, but can also be exchanged for most of the other currencies — and indirectly allows players to obtain the means to get what they want:

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Gems in Brawl Stars allow players to buy content directly or exchange them for coins. And while trophies aren’t purchasable, the player can buy boxes which accelerate the acquisition of more brawlers and upgrades, that ultimately allow the player to move forward on the trophy count.

As a consequence, overflowing the economy with hard currency will diminish a game’s ability to generate situations of scarcity where the player needs to spend real money.

Because of this, sources of hard currency tend to be few and are under strict control — it’s a resource that generally doesn’t suffer inflation over the progression of the game.

A good way to check the health of an in-game economy is to check the sources of hard currency, and the amounts stored by paying and non-paying users. Increments on the player currency savings may indicate an imbalance on rewards, or perhaps the lack of valuable content to buy, or sinks.

Nevertheless, if used wisely and with measure, hard currency is an excellent reward because it’s extremely valuable for all the players, regardless of their progression or amount spent. This may not necessarily be true for other types of rewards (i.e. heroes, which may already be owned by the player, not valuable for competition, or below the level of the characters already owned by the player).

A soft currency is a low value, general-purpose currency which is primarily obtained for free, either by playing or just waiting. Examples of this would be Credits in Call of Duty Mobile (the main reward for completing matches), or coins in Idle Miner Tycoon (which are automatically generated over time).

We all know about this one because it’s part of the dual-currency mechanism that has ruled the F2P model since before the times of Facebook games. The benefit of this dual model being that it’s a simple way to separate the content for non-paying users from the one that is premium and exclusive.

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Playrix ‘scapes series and Matchington Mansion feature a single currency, which is used on almost anything purchasable. So they only have soft currency. This requires a more strict control of incomes and outcomes to avoid devaluation, which would harm the need for players to monetize.

So what happens when you want a currency that players can grind with relatively ease without destroying your overall economy, but your soft currency is too soft to generate monetization around it? You create a mix, of course!

The medium currency is a currency obtainable through grinding, but which has some kind of limitation to their usage or accumulation.
This makes it more resilient to the devaluation that soft currencies tend to suffer due to their nature, while creating additional monetization opportunities around their limitations (storage expansions, refills, etc…).

Some games incorporate several of these gating mechanics to their soft currencies, in order to keep the game economy more under control.
This is a great idea to have a game economy that’s easy to manage, but incorporates clear friction points versus a standard model, which users may find unfair or frustrating.

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Our friends at Supercell are fond of adding limits to their soft currencies: In Clash of Clans the storage level determines the max amount of gold coins that can be owned. And both Clash Royale and Brawl Stars, have time-based caps to the amount of soft currency obtainable by playing.

Some examples of the gating that medium currencies may incorporate are:

Capped accumulation

This may range between a hard limit on how much currency can be stored (like Gold in Clash of Clans), or making harder the accumulation beyond a certain point (like the protection capacity of storages in Rise of Kingdoms).

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In Rise of Kingdoms, the accumulation of resources beyond the protection capacities of the Storehouse will be increasingly difficult due to the constant pressure of enemies raiding. This makes upgrading it extremely appealing, totally worth paying real money.

In most cases, this cap can be increased through successive upgrades or other purchases, which generates an additional — and highly valuable, in the player’s eyes — monetization point.

Capped acquisition

On the other hand, the limitation can be on how much the player can obtain within a specific period of time, rather than on how much it can be stored. The hard limits on currency acquisition on Clash Royale and Brawl Stars are good examples.

Contrary to the usage of energy, in those examples the player can still play after reaching the limit, but that won’t generate currency rewards.
This is well suited for multiplayer games, where there’s an interest in allowing long sessions so that the players keep on being content for the rest, but it lacks the monetization aggressiveness of energy.

Additional applications of this concept may include boosting the ratio of acquisition up until reaching a certain amount (which some items do in Brawl Stars and Wild Rift) or stopping the resource generation when reaching a certain point (like happens with energy in most games).

Limited usage

Another point where gates can be added is on the capacity of the currency to be exchanged into the game element that has the actual value.

For example, this can be because the player has to accumulate specific amounts before the currency can be used, or because multiple resources or additional requirements are required in order to allow the exchange — or because the points where the currency can be spent are few and limited.

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In Hay Day, lacking some of the upgrade materials means that the ones that are in surplus are useless. This is a strong incentive to pay for the missing resources in order to use the owned ones.
And in Township, population requirements act as a progression bottleneck, forcing the player to develop all the layers of the tycoon and progress, instead of focusing exclusively on accumulating coins by completing orders.

The defining characteristic of energy is that it’s exchanged exclusively for playing time. Usually it’s a price to be paid on every attempt or action (Monster Legends‘ Dungeons), or has to be paid on a retry (Candy CrushHomescapes).

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Either if it’s a strict cost per action like in Monster Legends, or a payment upon failure (to allow that the player can extend its play time through skill and luck), the objective of energy currencies is to gate the time that the player can spend in the game for free.

If your game features multiple activities which reward the same thing, players will naturally tend to orbit towards those that are more efficient for gaining rewards. For example, they’ll do Daily Dungeons instead of grinding the single player mode, because Dungeons grant more gold.

This is an issue, because each of those activities may ask the player different inventory requirements and styles of playing, which will make the game more interesting and also incentivize players to spend more on it. So, inadvertently enabling them to avoid less reward-generous activities can limit your overall ARPDAU and lead them to miss out on features that can add value to their gaming experience.

To avoid the likelihood of certain game activities from being overlooked by players, consider creating a currency that can only be obtained on specific modes.

Feature currencies have a very specific in-game usage, and are linked exclusively to a specific game activity. Some of the objectives may be:

  • To force the user to play a specific section of the game in order to be able to access a set of rewards, progression or upgrade axis.
  • To isolate an entire system from the rest of the in-game economy, in order to make it easier to manage, balance and analyze.
  • Limit access to a specific feature, whose over-usage might be detrimental for the economy.

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In War Dragons, making your dragons mate costs Breeding Tokens (and since every time you only have a chance to get the breed you wanted, those lusty lizards will cost you millions).
Since this resource is the exclusive gate to a key game mechanic, devs can use it as a reward to direct the player to any activity they want (missions, events, specific features…).

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Feature currencies are great to isolate the economy loop of entire features, therefore making them easier to analyze and maintain.
Idle RPGs like Idle Heroes feature many examples of features which introduce new, single-use currencies that force the player to go through specific activities to gather them.
For example, playing the Brave Trial is the only way to obtain Dragon Scales, the only currency accepted at the Trial Shop, which has some cool exclusive content.

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In Clash Royaleunrestricted trade among clanmates could severely monetization (i.e. players optimizing their drop rates, whales or hackers gifting everyone else…).
The solution is trade tokens, which are asked as an additional cost on the trades. Since access to them is heavily gated (a reward on special events, clan wars and offers), they make sure that this feature never gets out of control.

Social currency is a feature currency which aims to foster a specific game behavior of incentivizing virality, social interaction and connectivity inside the game.
It’s important to note that virality can actually have two meanings:

  • Bring new users via those who are already on the game (classic, K-factor virality).
    This is the one that most of us think the most with the word virality: players extending the contagion among people they already know outside of the game.
  • Incentivize interaction and connection between players that are already in the game, with the objective of boosting their engagement and retention (the neighboring or network effect).
    Usually, this is oriented towards players that are not related or friends outside of the game.

In general, social currencies in games are oriented towards the second example, since players bringing new players is not something that happens often enough to sustain a currency.

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In Puzzle & Dragons dungeons, your team is reinforced with a monster from another player. Doing so, as well as being selected by others, generates Pal Points (social currency), which grant monster egg rolls. And if you use players from your friend list, you get many more points.

This makes players look to add as many friends as possible and constantly delete inactive low-level ones (because the friend list is limited), as well as post their ID in fan pages, in the hope of being added by active players that will help them farm Pal Points.

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Meanwhile, Summoners War grants Social Points that allow players to summon more creatures. They are primarily obtained by gifting to friends, and being gifted by them on a daily basis.

This encourages users to add active players as friends (through an ‘friends suggestion’ list), and discard those that are inactive (and therefore occupy space on the friend list but don’t generate social currency).

Guild currency is intrinsically related to a clans/alliances/guilds feature. What makes it stand out from other feature currencies is the fact that it usually has unique mechanics related to being generated by a group.

This often means that additional balancing measures need to be deployed (calculating the distribution of costs among all members, limiting the benefits that some can provide to freebooters, etc…).

Examples of potentially unique mechanics in guild currencies would be:

  • The currency is shared and generated by all the guild members, but can only be spent by the high members of its hierarchy (i.e. Shop Titans‘ Renown, which guild leaders can spend in Boosts or Perks to the entire clan).
  • The currency is entirely individual, but all team members may contribute to the payment, and the benefits are shared (i.e. gold priced City Upgrades in Shop Titans).
  • The currency is entirely individual, but it’s generated by the shared collective effort (i.e. Guild Points in Summoners Wars).

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Games may incorporate multiple guild-based currencies, to provide different incentives. Shop Titans feature Guild Coins which provide an individual and immediate reward for completing guild activities, but also Renown which grants long termed, collective benefits.

It’s also important to note that guild currency may also have additional social dynamics beyond its direct exchange usefulness: For example, clans may use it as an indicator of contribution of each teammate to establish group hierarchy, or set periodic quotas as a requirement for membership.

One of the reasons why time-limited events are so positive to monetization and engagement is the fact that they can introduce entire layers of game economy which are completely independent from the main game.

Of course, that objective would be defeated if players who’ve accumulated tons of currency can use it to smash the requirements presented there, or to buy the rewards without engaging on the event activities. This could force the developer to balance the event multiple times for several user profiles.

Many games avoid these issues entirely by using event currencies, which are feature currencies that exist temporarily and are entirely focused around a time-limited event. They may allow players to purchase an actual set of rewards, or perhaps are part of a system which exists exclusively within an event.

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In Family Guy: Quest for stuff‘s Star Trek event, its related activities generate a series of currencies (that will disappear after the event expires), which allow to craft several exclusive rewards.
This makes the event more self-contained and easier to manage, and introduces additional spending depth (buy the currency, currency generators, skips on production, etc).

Discard currencies are obtained through the destruction of game items. These currencies pursue several objectives aimed to extend the usefulness of items beyond gameplay itself, or decrease the friction or randomized drops and meta rotations:

  • Transform those items in rewards that can be given recurrently (i.e. fusion systems).
  • Grant a use to obsolete items that no longer have gameplay value. For example, repeated items of a type that has been already maxed out.
  • Decrease the friction generated by loot boxes, by allowing players to transform unwanted items into the desired ones, so the bad drops aren’t that frustrating.
  • Help complete a collection, by removing items already owned and allow to craft the missing ones. Completing collections without this would be extremely hard.
  • Helping players to update their inventory to a new set of items, therefore decreasing the friction of having a rotative meta or power creep.
    It also grants more confidence for the player to spend, knowing that even if the dominance of the purchased items is limited, they’ll generate some long term return too.

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‘Fusion systems’ like the one featured in RAID: Shadow Legends, requires players to sacrifice units in order to level up another. This allows the game to regularly reward lesser units, they’re just another type of resource to be consumed (so they can feed the constant drops in grinding modes, loot boxes, etc…).

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‘Dusting systems’ like the one in Hearthstone allow the player to transform unwanted items into discard currency, and use that to craft missing ones. This allows players to build their desired decks (which otherwise would be extremely hard to do, due to the difficulty of finding specific cards on the drops).

It also decreases the friction when introducing a new card set, because players with a big inventory can dust it to get the new cards faster, which provides a ‘long term value’ sense on any investment. Of course, since the tradeoff is not perfect, this still means having to spend extra money to get it completely.

VIP currency is generated as a by-product of performing an IAP transaction, as a side-incentive for monetization and customer reward.
Note that most games tend to do this not through a currency but rather through a permanent score, which is a greater incentive.

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Purchases in Steam (that famous game where you spend real money to buy tons of games which then you lack time to play) grant Steam Points, which can then be used to buy chat customizations and stickers.

There’s a saying that goes that money always finds a way, and that if people have a need which can’t be fulfilled by normal means, shadier ones will appear to do it. In many games, that need is the ability for players to trade stuff without resorting to bartering.

Informal currencies are game elements which players effectively use as medium of exchange, even though the intended purpose of the developers for that element was different.

This can happen on games that allow item gifting and trading, but don’t allow sending currency, which is a common setup to avoid exploits such as creating fake accounts for sharing the starter rewards, alternative sellers of currency (like the infamous World of Warcraft‘s gold farmers…), or hackers breaking the economy (like in GTA Online…).
Or it can happen if the main currency method of the game has been heavily devalued or has another problem which results in another game item being better suited to act as currency.

 

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For instance, in Ultima Online, gold was strongly devalued because new gold was constantly being generated. Also, there was a limit on how much gold could be stacked together on a single pile on the map, which made storage of big amounts quite impractical.

On the contrary, the item ‘horse dung’ was much better suited to act as storage of value since the game horses didn’t poop so the amount of dungs in the world was strictly limited. So it had collector value, was a sign of status (like owning a diamond), and was funny as well. So ‘horse dung’ became a currency on high value exchanges and it even generated speculation with real money.

On the contrary, the item ‘horse dung’ was much better suited to act as storage of value since the game horses didn’t poop so the amount of dungs in the world was strictly limited. So it had collector value, was a sign of status (like owning a diamond) and was funny as well. So ‘horse dung’ became a currency on high value exchanges and even became a collector’s item.

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Party In My Dorm (above) is an even clearer example: Players can’t trade currency, but they can exchange any other game item, allowing them to barter. The problem is that bartering is inefficient (a player doesn’t know the actual value of an item, has to consider if each deal is good, may have to do multiple exchanges until getting the wanted item…).

So players created their own universal exchanger: chibis and bentos (shards and loot boxes). They have generated an alternative, user generated game economy that self-regulates prices and facilitates trade.

I hope that this list helps you to expand your views on in-game currencies or inspires you to improve the ones you’re already considering on your game.

Special thanks to Mathew BakerMarc LlobetDavid AndrusiakPhilipp J. KarstaedtRisto. D HolmströmHippolyte BabinetTj’ièn TwijnstraAlexandre BesenvalPaul WestLuke Stapley and ‘el designer de la plata’ Francisco Andrada, which gave me their feedback and suggestions on the topic.
Extra thanks to Tayber Voyer who pointed out to me the informal currency and sent me the screenshots of Party in my Dorm.

If you want more content like this, you can find all my stuff at https://jb-dev.net/

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