Whether it be rigorously scrolling through your Facebook or frequently going on an extravagant online shopping spree, in today’s digital world it is difficult, not to fall victim to some form of mild cyber addiction. Amidst the myriad of technological temptations, gaming has always been one of the hardest to resist. And it becomes even harder to resist, when you’re deceived into believing that one will enjoy the entire experience without any involvement of real money. In the recent years free to play online gaming apps or “freemium” as they call it, have begun to dominate the online gaming industry for this very reason and have successfully wiped out the market for paid gaming apps on Smartphone entirely. According to Newzoo (2013), 66% of money spent on mobile devices such as Tablets and Smartphone is spent on gaming apps, 80% of which happen to be Free to play. Superdataresearch.com (2014) found that free-to-play online games generated $1,991 million in sales in the year 2012 and $2,893 million the year after. Furthermore, majority of the top 100 games in AppleStore are currently using the F2P model (AppAnnie.com, 2014). Over the years, gaming engineers have accumulated an abundance of data by tracking the playing patterns of gamers and used it to master the art of applied addiction, by implementing the fundamental principles of behavioural psychology.
So to begin with, the free to play (F2P) model is simply when a company allows its buyers to play their games for free and provide the option of making in-game purchases of virtual goods (Konda,2013). These purchases more often than not will prove to be advantageous for progressing in the game more effortlessly. As elementary as this concept sounds, all the underlying mechanisms that lead to the consumer ending up spending a wholesome amount of money despite having the choice not to, are anything but. As a rational person, one can easily see why spending any real money on virtual goods is not a very intelligent idea. However, the components that constitute the F2P model are intricately designed to compromise your understanding of exactly that.
The ball of deception gets rolling from the very second that you read the word free in an online gaming store. Expecting nothing but, you end up downloading the gaming app. Most of these games are simple puzzles which are devised to be astonishingly addictive. Candy crush for example is a straightforward game where in a grid full of colourful candies, you’re expected to match as many sets of the same candies in a row as you can. In majority of the psychological models, human beings are known to act upon a “pleasure principle.” The pleasure principle can be defined as a driving force that compels an individual to gratify their wants, needs or urges. Such games use this very aspect of human behaviour to keep you captivated (Choi & Kim, 2004). They capture you, in what is known as the “ludic loop model” in the literature of cyber psychology, which is a pleasurable, tight feedback loop that stimulates repetitive if not compulsive behaviour (Heaven, 2014). Which means you are essentially putting time and effort into a game that is constructed to hit the pain points of players, when they are unsuccessful in completing the ludic loop, in this case which would be matching enough sets of candies to finish a given level. Most players at this point tend to lean towards becoming myopic addicts. Mypoic addicts tend to try and acquire immediate gratification while failing to fully predict the future harmful consequences of their current consumption (Kwon et al).
Other elements of the F2P model work in harmony to capitalise on a player’s weakness and vulnerability by making the process of purchasing virtual goods easy and satisfying. F2P games utilise what is known as a coercive monetization model. This is when a gaming app creates virtual currency to make any form of an in app purchase, as opposed to real currency so it doesn’t feel like you’re spending real money (Konda, 2013). Previous research in psychology has demonstrated that estimates of spending are significantly higher when an individual is using a credit card as compared to hard cash (Finberg, 1986). This model functions on a very similar principle. It implements a “layering effect” in the F2P games that makes it easier for the consumer to overcome the loss aversion they feel towards real money and make a purchase as he/she is using fake currency to attain the final virtual good. Shokrizade (2013) argues that introducing an intermediate digital currency between the consumer and real money makes the player much less capable of determining the value of the transaction. Furthermore, “layering” makes it even harder for the brain to accurately evaluate the situation rationally, especially if there is some kind of additional stress in play. So for instance in candy crush if a consumer finds it difficult to cross a level he/she can use “lollipop boosters” for help. However to get lollipop boosters one needs to first purchase “gold bars” with their credit card and then purchase “lollipop boosters” with these gold bars.
In addition to this, they make assessing the direct value of a virtual good in real currency more difficult than what it already is by using a very sophisticated and confusing exchange rate. This way, consumers end up spending much more carelessly than they realise. For example, in a recent F2P hit called Pokémon go, one can purchase an “incense” to double their points and they need “pokecoins” to buy an incense, which they have to purchase using real currency. One “incense” costs 80 pokecoins and one batch which includes 550 pokecoins costs $4.99. So now you can guess why it would become difficult in such a situation for a lay person to calculate how much one incense costs in real currency.
While F2Ps’ make the procedure of calculating the cost of a virtual good in real currency hard and confusing for the consumer, the actual process of making the purchase in itself is skilfully made surprisingly easy and convenient. This is because A) the app store will already have your credit card details and B) you don’t actually exit the gaming app to make the purchase. If the player exits the gaming app in order to buy a virtual good it would give the target’s brain more time to evaluate the situation with clarity and scrutiny thereby lowering the likelihood of him/her going through with the purchase (Shokrizade, 2013). Finally, to exploit players being under stress, game developers make the buttons to access online stores standout, so they are more visible and hence tempting. For instance in a game called the Marvel War of Heroes, the background is dark blue whereas the store button is a bronze colour that is hard to miss.
So from the point of luring you into thinking you’re downloading a free gaming app for passing your time on the train during rush hour or surviving a very mundane lecture to manipulating you into eventually paying a generous amount of money by creating subtle but competent digital vulnerabilities, game developers have found the holy grail of a deceptively efficient business model. So essentially what I’m saying is, the F2P model is such a success not only because it exploits your Achilles’ heel, but because it creates it.
- · Choi, D., & Kim, J. (2004). Why people continue to play online games: In search of critical design factors to increase customer loyalty to online contents. CyberPsychology & behavior, 7(1), 11-24.
- · Feinberg, R. A. (1986). Credit cards as spending facilitating stimuli: A conditioning interpretation. Journal of consumer research, 13(3), 348-356.
- · Heaven, D. (2014). Engineered compulsion: why Candy Crush is the future of more than games. New Scientist, 222(2971), 38-41.
- Konda, A. (2013). An Exploration of Monetization in Free-to-Play Games.
- Kwon, H. E., So, H., Han, S. P., & Oh, W. (2016). Excessive Dependence on Mobile Social Apps: A Rational Addiction Perspective. Available at SSRN 2713567.
- · Newzoo. Leaseweb Infographic: Time is Money. http://www.newzoo.com/infographics/leaseweb-infographic-time-is-money/.
- · Shokrizade, R. (2013). The Top F2P Monetization Tricks. Gamasutra. com.
- · Vankka, E. (2014). Free-to-Play Games: Professionals' Perceptions. University of Tampere. Master's Thesis. Luettavissa: http://tampub. uta. fi/bitstream/handle/10024/95105/GRADU-1395760771. pdf.