Game Design

The Rise of Video Game Vanity: Or, Why Skins Sell

If you’ve been paying attention to the competitive free-to-play landscape, you’re likely noticing a trend in the gradual evolution of skins and other aesthetic content. Skins have become the monetary lifeblood for nearly every free-to-play game that has dreams of becoming an eSport or Twitch sensation, and yet they often serve no functional purpose other than peacocking.

What drives players to spend $400 on a CS:GO knife? Why do people sink $35 into Arcana skins in Dota 2? How can developers replicate these successes? We’ll try to answer these questions in this post.

Admit it. You’re a little bit jealous.

At its core, vanity in video games is a function of visibility. The more visible or prominent an item is in-game, the more valuable it becomes. Simple enough, right? It seems so obvious now, but the amount of investment that developers have put towards vanity has grown from a mere afterthought to a core principle of monetizing free-to-play games. Take a look at some of the earlier League of Legends skins, and you’ll be amazed at how far we’ve come.

Riot sold this. For money.
Riot sold this. For money.

In fact, vanity has become so important in modern video games that big name developers like Valve have gone full bore on several of their most recent titles by offering tons of premium aesthetic content to players. In some cases, like CS:GO, vanity is a secondary method of monetization after the initial purchase of the game, and in the case of Dota 2, it’s the sole source of the game’s revenue.

In CS:GO, players have several options at their disposal for purchasing weapon skins for all of the standard weapons in the game. They can purchase keys to unlock containers with a random chance at different skins for different weapons, or they can purchase the skins directly from other players via the Steam Marketplace.

The value that players place on these skins is an incredible thing to behold. Some of the rarest items, which tend to be knife skins with custom animations, can fetch upwards of $400, depending on the “quality” of the item (CS:GO gets a little more mileage out of its content with a range of “wear” to its skins, with “factory new” content usually being worth the most cash).

I know what you’re thinking. $400 for a skin is pretty nuts. But the truth is, vanity doesn’t really have a price ceiling. Because value is self-assigned and probability doesn’t favor the player, it’s impossible to say how much a custom knife with an estimated drop rate of 0.44% is actually worth to most people. In CS:GO, however, there are a few systems in place that make the asking price worth considering for those who do have the cash to burn.

For one, the knives are pretty rad. Seeing as the knife is one of two default weapons you receive at round start (while serving a universal and distinct functional purpose) it has, arguably, the greatest visibility out of all the weapons in the game. Check out the list so far in action below:

Additionally, all weapons dropped in CS:GO during combat bear the original owner’s name, like so:

Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 1.45.34 PM

Though you can’t drop your knife, other high-value weapons like the AWP sniper rifle will always bear your name when picked up by other players, reminding them of the true owner of the weapon they’re using. This is visible to the current user of the skin, as well as other players spectating (more on this in a moment). This effectively extends the visible “range” of the skins you purchase, supplying additional fuel for your ego.

Nothing screams “badass” like an ultra rare butterfly knife dancing on-screen in your hands.

Finally, there’s spectator mode. When you die in a competitive CS:GO match, you are able to spectate from any of your living teammates’ perspective, allowing you to see everything they see. When you’re the last member of your team remaining, the “clutch factor” kicks in (aka social facilitation) and the collective gaze of your dead teammates becomes fixated on you, including which skins you’re using.

How “elite” you appear in these tense moments is an intangible, but highly satisfying thing, and nothing screams “badass” like an ultra rare butterfly knife dancing on-screen in your hands as you win the round. It’s a confidence booster, an “I got this” feeling that resonates with everyone watching you, all because of the inherent belief that your ownership of such a luxurious skin is an indication of your dedication to the game.

Gotta catch 'em all!
Gotta catch ’em all!

In the other half of Valve’s current gaming lineup, Dota 2 is trying unique things with vanity to compensate for its extraordinarily generous free-to-play model. Because all heroes are free forever, Valve’s primary bet is on players converting on skins and custom items.

This bet bore some interesting fruit. On the high end of the spectrum, there’s the Arcana skin set, which features Valve-designed complete aesthetic overhauls of popular heroes. Arcana skins, in my opinion, have set a new benchmark for elite skins and vanity design in the free-to-play space, most of which is a result of Dota’s numerous ways of allowing players to show off.

For example, the Arcana Phantom Assassin skin offers voice mods, a new hero icon, a new portrait, and permanent battlefield markers for kills, in addition to the now-standard ability visual / audio changes on most popular MOBA skins. This effectively means that every player can experience the skin without ever seeing the Arcana owner on the map.

Every time a Phantom Assassin equipped with the Arcana skin does something impactful, you’ll know.

Any player that purchases the Arcana skin is going to get your attention at some point in the match, regardless of if you’re paying attention to her in-game or not. Did Phantom Assassin get first blood? You’ll hear the Arcana voice tell you as much. Did your buddy die mid? You’ll see a marker as you run through the river. Did you get rekt by a Coup de Grace slice? Enjoy the Arcana portrait taunting you in the death recap. Every time a Phantom Assassin equipped with the Arcana skin does something impactful, you’ll know, which makes the $34.99 price tag feel justified.

All the perks of being an owner of the Arcana skin for Phantom Assassin in Dota 2.

However, this is largely thanks to the fact that Dota’s UI and experience has been designed from the ground-up to be as customizable as possible, with plenty of opportunity for content injection. The takeaway here is to examine your game systems and determine where player’s eyes spend the most time. Look for ways to create unique modifiers within these systems to make the aesthetic adjustments as visible as possible.

With vanity evolving at a rapid pace, developers currently working on new F2P projects need to consult their crystal ball to keep up. My bet? Look for ways to introduce positive externalities to each purchase, and destroy the social stigma surrounding F2P spend. Build multipurpose systems that solve player needs while enabling vanity to thrive (spectator mode is an example, deep Twitch integration with in-game item systems could be another). Work with your UI / UX designer(s) to ensure that the game is enabling vanity, rather than getting in its way.

Ask yourself the following questions when you’re designing a F2P game that relies on vanity for revenue:

  • How much can the player celebrate this purchase in each match?
  • How easy is it for other players to notice this purchase?
  • Does the purchase benefit other players in any way, or does it detract from their experience?
  • Are there any fun and engaging systems we could build to make vanity even more interesting?

Thoughts? Comments? Leave your words below!

Any thoughts?