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I recently read a paper by Vili Lehdonvirta about what drives the purchase of virtual goods. I’ve suggested three use cases for virtual goods before:

1. Attention in a noisy environment (usually digital gifts)
2. Self Expression
3. Increased Functionality

and later proposed a fourth use case, convenience.

Vili proposes a different taxonomy:

Purely “utilitarian” or use-value0based attributes can be divided into two categories: performance (simple numerical advantage) and functionality (new abilities and options). Virtual goods also have attributes capable of generating emotional or hedonic responses, particularly their visual appearance and sound, but also any background fiction or narrative associateion with them. Hedonic attributes are difficult to distinguish emperically from the conceptually different social attributes, which refer to attributes that make virtual items suitable for creating and communicating social distinctions and bonds. Such attributes are provenance, customisability, cultural references and the “branding” of an item with a known commercial brand. Rarity is perhaps the most socially oriented attribute of virtual goods, because its value is strongly associated with its ability to distinguish a (small) group of owner from non-owners

In the paper he gives examples of each of his classes of virtual goods. He also summarizes some previous research on digital goods. In particular, he notes advice from Oh and Ryu to game designers based on research on Kart Rider and Special Force:

– Balance between items that can be purchased with real money and items that must be earned through gameplay, and build synergies between the two categories
– Allow players to keep “ornamental” items permanently, but make “functional” items consumable
– In the case of items that ive the player a performance advantage, do not disclose the exact numbers;provide approximate descriptive texts instead
– Introduce items linked to specific events and communities (e.g. Christmas decorations and guild emblems).

It’s useful to read the whole paper (around 15 pages)