This post is sponsored by AppMagic

I (Joakim) wrote an article with the AppMagic folks, and in it, we talk about the ways that developers of mobile games should think about market insights in the early stages of concepting and prototyping of their games. Check it out here.

I recently invited Ethan Levy from N3twork back on the show, to talk about an interesting concept called the “Tower of Want”. The concept of “Tower of Want” is something that Ethan created some six years ago, to help free-to-play game designers to create long-term goals, through understanding the short-term and long-term loops and player motivations that would drive a successful free-to-play game.

Here’s the Casual Connect presentation from Ethan, on Youtube, from 2015.

Full transcript

Joakim: I wanted to do another episode with Ethan. And this time I wanted to talk about a concept that Ethan presented at GDC several years ago. This concept is called Tower of Want, which is about long term player needs, goals, which basically lead to the long term retention of the players in your game. Ethan, welcome back!

Ethan: Thanks for having me back to talk about the Tower of Want. When we were talking a few weeks ago, I was happy when you told me that this idea of the Tower of Want was helpful to developers in Helsinki. It’s funny, I went back and listened to the lecture that’s maybe 6 years old at this point. I just thought “who was that guy? He sounds smart. I wish I could work with him.” I think there’s a certain type of thinking I was only able to do when I was out there as a consultant, really watching the charts, playing a lot of games deeply – like doing 6x 10 minute sessions per day on multiple games to really understand their elder games – analyzing what works and coming up with theories why. 

Now that I’ve been in an operational role for 6 years, I feel quite removed from that person who was able to really succinctly bottle up what was working in the market. I’m starting to revive that a bit more now that I’m spending time not just on Tetris but also working on N3TWORK’s Scale Platform – our publishing arm where I’m dipping my toes in trying to find games in the market with growth potential, writing case studies and giving advice to developers we’re partnering with. So you asking to talk about the Tower of Want is quite timely for me as I try to re-engage that part of my brain again. Do you find that with Elite Game Developers, Play Ventures and your role in investing and advising startups? Do you feel like a different person then when you were at Next Games?

Joakim: Yeah totally. I’m not working on games anymore myself. But I observe game developers making design decisions and working on concepts, with often having lots of focus on the gameplay that the player will face in the first week of the game.

Ethan: Right, and that was the inspiration for putting this episode together. We were looking at a company the other day, and in the deck laying out the team, their strategy, etc, all the standard pitch stuff – was the obligatory slide with the core loop for their first game. And it was perfectly fine – the player does this, then they do this, then they do this. Rinse and repeat. With this many years working in free-to-play we’ve seen a core loop diagram countless times before, they’re so rote I think you mostly just gloss over them.

Joakim: I often see these loops becoming old quite quickly. I remember that the concept of Tower of Want really emphasized the way that players “graduate” from one loop to the next, as they play a game for weeks, months and years.

Ethan: Yeah, exactly. It was looking at one of those core loops a deck years ago that I came up with the idea for the Tower of Want. I was talking to a dev, they were explaining their core loop to me and it was telling me nothing that mattered. Sort of like I felt in that deck we looked at. It didn’t capture the long term motivation for the player, or explain how the game was going to create desire, and therefore how it was going to retain players for years and monetize them. 

And the more I probed this dev trying to get at the deeper questions, the more I realized they had no clue what the long term game for their product was. They had no vision for the arc of player experience, what their elder game was like or why players would ever spend money in the game. And that experience provoked two responses in me: first I thought “this game is going nowhere, I am not going to have anything to do with this” and also “I should really develop a tool to help free-to-play developers solve these long term design challenges.” 

Joakim: It’s so valuable to plan for the long-term. People won’t stick around for the fun of playing something that isn’t challenging, or that isn’t rewarding.

Ethan: Yeah, I agree. Subjectively as a player it’s that long term depth that really makes something my main game as opposed to something I pick up for a day or two then never play again. It’s what underpins a game’s ability to have meaningful long term retention, and ultimately, be the type of business that can achieve the scale that you as an angel or we on the NSP are looking for when evaluating if we should invest in a game.

Before we jump into the specifics of the Tower of Want, I’d love to learn more about what it’s like on the investor side when you’re hearing game pitches, and how the long term game and monetization do or don’t play a role in your evaluation. So first, when people pitch you are they typically pitching an individual game, a thesis for a game company, or both?

Joakim: I’d say that people have gotten the message that they should pitch the company and the team first. Then comes the game, which usually is the crux of what we start discussing about. I believe the game idea tells a lot about founders; how they think about the market and what they see as risks with the idea they’ve picked.

Ethan: And how important are the specifics of the game being pitched? Are developers just sharing some key art and a core loop? Or detailed designs for their long term game?

Joakim: There’s really nothing on the long term game. At the early stages, people just haven’t often placed a lot of thought on the long term. If they have the experience from F2P, they might lean towards live ops, events, tournaments and collecting some vast set of characters or items. But it’s not there front-and-center in the pitch decks. 

Ethan: Got it. So at that angel investment stage, it’s not really part of a typical pitch. But it might be the kind of information woven through a deck that, I’m guessing helps give you confidence that a team knows what they’re doing, and has what it takes to build a business that can scale.

How do you personally evaluate a game’s monetization potential? I mean, this is important right? You’re looking for games with exponential growth potential, so monetization should be a critical part of the puzzle?

Joakim: I’ve always seen engagement and retention as key business drivers. Those eventually lead to monetization happening. If people can put your game away and they keep coming back to it, you can solve monetization.

Ethan: I see. That sort of ties into the post you wrote about the difference between the d-team, c-team, b-team, a-team, and how big a role the quality of the team makes in your investment decisions. If you have a team with strong fundamentals, and they’re able to deliver a game with winning metrics for the genre, then you’re confident that they’ll be able to solve issues around monetization over time. I suppose I spent so much time working as a monetization consultant I just assumed it was front and center in investors’ minds as well.

Is the long term arc of the software important when you are considering an investment? Or are you mostly thinking about the team and the quality of the high concept?

Joakim: As I mentioned, I think it’s a combination of looking at the team, their track record and the game idea they’re going after. I’ve seen highly talented teams pitch me a MOBA. I’m like “sure, this is a great team, but why are they going after an idea that is super hard to pull off?” I last year wrote this article about product strategy, and I really like it when experienced teams start off with low-risk products. You want to “break in” the new company with first something less risky, then add risk gradually.

I don’t expect founders to present the elder game, but I will be reading a lot about their approach on the elder game, if they’d have a slide on that in their pitch deck. It’s a great topic to spend time on, as I’m a big fan of working on long term retention.

Ethan: Fantastic, thanks for the insight. I think the investor perspective really helps us understand the value of a tool like the Tower of Want. And from the publishing perspective, on the N3TWORK Scale Platform, the monetization design is of extreme importance. Since we’re funding marketing, not development, whether you get published or not is entirely a function of your cost per install and the engagement and monetization of those acquired cohorts.

So that all brings us to the topic at hand, the Tower of Want. At its simplest, a Tower of Want is an escalating series of short and long-term goals, each of which feeds into the next goal. This is how I frame the transition of your player from a new player just enjoying the minigame to being deeply immersed in your event driven elder game or elder games. It’s how I think about the systems that drive the success of hit free-to-play games whether it’s Legendary, Game of Thrones: Conquest or Coin Master.

That description – an escalating series of short and long-term goals, each of which feeds into the next goal – feels quite dense, quite academic. So I like to make it concrete with an example from the real world to understand the difference between looking at a system as a core loop vs a tower of want.

So let’s talk about the core loop of a real world experience I’ll call The Homework Game. The Homework Game looks like this: I do my homework and study to gain mastery of a subject matter, then take a test and get good grades, which earns praise from me teachers and parents. Repeat this loop for 16 years till I’m done with college. I sink time and focus into homework, I tap knowledge. I sink knowledge into exams, I tap good grades and praise. And if I’m asked how this core loop monetizes, well, I can pay for additional study materials like books and training software. Or I can pay for private tutoring. These are both on the homework side of the loop. On the exam side I can pay to cheat – get the exam questions early, or pre-written essays, that sort of thing.

Sound just like a core loop you’d see in any pitch deck about a game with resource management?

Joakim: Yes definitely. But still, 90% of pitch decks don’t talk about the elder game. If I’d see a Tower of Want in a pitch deck, I would be very delighted!

Ethan: Right, so whether or not this helps you specifically with your pitch deck, the tool will certainly help you strengthen your design for a free-to-play game and make good decisions that will help with the all-important long term retention metrics. 

So let’s see what the Tower of Want version of The Homework Game looks like. I want to do my homework and study so that I can get good grades. I want to get good grades so that I can attend a top university. I want to attend a top university so that I can get a job at a top company. I want experience at a top company so that I can get into Y Combinator. I want to get into Y combinator so that I can raise funds from a top VC firm. I want to raise funds from a top VC firm so that I can be a successful startup CEO. I want to be a successful startup CEO so that I can take a company public and have a big exit. And I want to have a big exit so that I can finally afford to buy a house in an overpriced real estate market like San Francisco… I’m not sure what the real estate market is like in Helsinki though; perhaps you can win the homeowner elder game a few steps down from being a big, successful CEO.

Now does that escalating tower of things to want sound like I captured some of your experience over the past 20 years?

Joakim: Yeah totally, although I never really was going after a big payday of sorts. Entrepreneurship was a calling for me. I tried to work at Supercell between my startups, but I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t work for somebody else. But I had to start from somewhere. I was first in the University, then I did that so that I could land a job in programming, then I left that do my first startup. Had to start that level again as my first startup didn’t work out. Then the second one IPOed. Then I’m now a blogger and an angel investor. Maybe I’m now in the elder game, turning 43 in June anyways 🙂

Ethan: I think at best, you’re at the mid-game right now. But using The Homework Game as our example and our lives as simulations of playing that game, you can see how going from Core Loop to Tower of Want has shown us years and years of potential gameplay, and now will even show us the possibilities of multiple, different elder games. As you said, other founders may have been trying to win the “big exit” elder game, but it sounds like you were playing the “self actualization” elder game, both of which start with the same core loop of doing homework.

“So that I can” is the key phrase in the Tower of Want. I said that it is an escalating series of short and long term goals each of which feeds into the next goal. From the example, you can see the escalating series of things the player wants. First it’s good grades and praise from parents. Later, the player wants to raise money from Griffin Gaming Partners or Play Ventures or the like – this is the step I imagine a lot of players in the audience are working on. Even later, the player wants a big exit. And in the example, I stopped at the player wanting real estate… but even then the journey isn’t over. This is why I think you personally are only at the mid-game for The Homework Game.

Perhaps the player has won the “big exit” elder game. What’s next? Maybe the player wants to be a repeat founder, or to found a unicorn, or to become a VC that backs the next great unicorn, or to start a non-profit that brings clean water to needy children around the world. The Homework Game has countless elder games and countless things to want no matter which rung of the ladder you are on. There’s always another thing to want. Steven Spielberg didn’t stop directing after Saving Private Ryan. Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger didn’t stop buying companies after Blue Chip Stamps or See’s Candies. They’re still out there, sitting on a mountain of cash, looking for the next great deal when most would have retired long ago.

And when you started The Homework Game, as a player you didn’t have a clear picture of the end game. You didn’t know where it would lead you. When I was a chubby teenager doing homework in a basement in suburban Chicago, I didn’t know that the essay writing and presentation skills I was learning in Mr. Swanson’s English class would be the exact same skills that would land me a consulting job on Call of Duty, or a full time position at N3TWORK where I got to join an amazing team and be a part of building Legendary. The Ethan who just started The Homework Game only understood his short term goal – get good grades – and this short term goal led him to the next goal and the next goal and the next.

Joakim: Life isn’t linear. As you age, you start to figure out what you are intrinsically motivated by. I think the great games provide that agency for people to do more of the things that they love to do, build their own journey. I guess the Tower of Want can branch in different directions, depending on what you discover that matters to you. 

Ethan: Exactly, the same way the elder game branches in our example Homework Game, so to do the elder games of great live ops experiences branch into different activities for different users. For a typical midcore game, you might have players who specialize in PvP, or GvG, or PvE, players who care about collections, or completing every challenge or competing in every event leaderboard. 

So now with our deep dive on the theoretical Homework Game of life, we can see the difference between viewing it not as a single core loop, but as a series of loops that build on top of eachother. At the start is that first core loop I described. Do homework to gain knowledge, use knowledge on tests to get good grades. Then you get to college where you’re using the exact same skills. You’re still running the basic homework core loop. But you might also have a core loop like then internship loop: sink time doing menial tasks to tap work experience. When you graduate school, you spend your grades and your work experience to gain a job. Once you get a job, you’re probably still doing the homework and menial tasks loop. Eventually you level up your skills enough that you get more meaningful work. 

But fundamentally, you’re likely doing the same tasks over and over. When I was in college I was writing documents, crafting values in spreadsheets – homework loop – and ordering dinners for people and making sure their needs were met – internship loop. 18 years later I’m the executive producer of one of the most famous game brands around in Tetris and guess what? I’m still writing documents, crafting spreadsheets and ordering dinners for people!

Joakim: Yeah, you continue doing certain aspects from the previous loops, you still work in Excel and you continue to have your hands on the keyboard. What happens in the Homework Game is that you learn the skill of teamwork and delegation, and you start to say NO to things that you previously did say YES to. That’s how you select what you bring along from previous loops. You want to know what matters on the new loop of the Tower of Want. 

Ethan: At this point, I feel like we’ve stretched the Homework Game metaphor to its breaking point, but hopefully this real world example makes the abstract concept of the Tower of Want concrete. Because what I’ve described in The Homework Game – this escalating series of core loops, each of which builds upon the last, each of which leaves you with a next thing to want – well that’s what a well crafted free-to-play game looks like. Like I said, whether it’s Legendary, Game of Thrones or Coin Master, you’re still largely taking the same core actions on your hundredth hour as you were in your first. But those actions have led to months and months worth of investment in progression, both in time and money, where players have sunk these real life resources into some elder game activity or activities.

Joakim: All the great games that continue to be highly profitable, years after they’ve been released, are the ones that can still graduate their players to new levels and provide new, exciting and fresh experiences.

Ethan: Right, when you talk about the importance of retention and longevity in the early traction metrics that make a company worth investing in, I think this is where it leads. As you’ve said, you’re looking for a company that can build experiences with exponential growth potential. In most cases I can think of, what powers this exponential growth of revenue is profitable marketing that fuels the long term stacking of users engaged with your game and spending over the course of months and years. Legendary is a perfect example. Last year we said we’ve earned over $250 million in revenue, having spent over $150 million in marketing. We’ve been able to do that in part thanks to a well crafted elder game. That plus world class events, liveops and marketing all working together over the course of nearly 5 years of worldwide launch.

I’ve been thinking about the Tower of Want a lot as I’ve started working more on our publishing effort, the N3TWORK Scale Platform, as I’ve been looking at some of the games we partner with and how I think they can be improved. A lot of it is breaking apart the elder game and seeing where are the opportunities to add more progression depth and what are the best game systems to add that depth in a way that’s fun for players and that has the ability to monetize. How can we insert systems like events, gacha, guilds, etc into games that are successful, but might not have been built with these concepts in the first place? 

In my experience, this is always more of a challenge with a game that’s already built. Possible, but challenging. Where I think the tool is most useful is at the very start of setting up a new game. The starting point is still the core loop, what is that first activity loop, those first sinks and taps the player will experience in their first session that will carry them through their 100th session? But then how do you build on that? What is the motivation, what is the “so that i can” that builds the tower up and up and up? Finally, what is your elder game or elder games? Does the design of your initial core loop have enough mechanical depth to support all the different elder game loops you are picturing for your players?

Now that you know what the player is going to do, and why they’re going to do it at each stage of player life, you want to make sure your monetization strategy is sound. What repeatable purchases will I make at each stage of the tower and why? Will the payoff be worth it to the player? Depending on the genre, will you be able to keep selling to the player without over reliance on power creep?

This is not a simple task, but if you can do all this, at least at a high level, you have built a strong foundation and long term vision to build your game around.

Joakim: I think the Tower of Want can help game studios in several ways. 

  • For hyper casual studios who are transitioning from HC to more casual with some metagame, the ToW can visualize what a player’s one or two year journey in the game could look like. That’s I guess the main motivation to flee from hyper casual, because the LTVs aren’t strong enough to sustain user acquisition costs. So how do you model out the visualization of the design for these deeper games?
  • Then, lots of studios are tackling Merge Games, which is a hot genre. A Tower of Want can be a tool for working out how a merge game will work to retain players for years.
  • At the end of the day, the Tower of Want is a great design tool, as it allows teams to have a visualization of what the player’s journey looks like, and then the team can discuss the design choices they are making. What pitfalls they might end up in, why you’d introduce PVP over here on the tower, versus introducing it early and engaging players with other gates, new goals, etc.

Ethan: If more teams came to you as a potential investor, having put in this type of work, would it give you more confidence in their vision and abilities?

Joakim: Yeah totally, especially when you are pitching a game that is in a competitive market. Your understanding, past the MVP you are building, is crucial to show differentiation. Like, what will make the players choose your game over the ones of the competitor? The Tower of Want visualization can bring clarity into what drives player retention in D7, D30, D60, D360, D720, and onwards.

I think we’re going to wrap this up now. Thanks again Ethan for doing this, I’m going to include the URL to the GDC Vault video from your talk from 2015 on Tower of Want. So check that out. Speak soon again, man. Take care!