Updated: Feb 12
Welcome to the fourth installment of the ‘Perils of Freemium Gaming’ series. First, a brief re-cap of what we have covered thus far;
In the first article, we had a chuckle over my comical near-miss with freemium gaming.
In the second article, we became serious as we investigated what freemium games are, and the sinister ways they hijack the brain’s reward centers.
In the third article, we uncovered the unethical mind games used in freemium games to bleed players’ bank accounts dry.
In this fourth installment, we investigate the gameplay mechanics freemium games use to keep players hooked long term, and how some freemium games blur the line between entertainment and gambling.
The term ‘skinner box’ dates back to circa 1957 when B. F. Skinner published the findings of his and C. B. Ferster’s experiments into operant conditioning. You can follow the links for an in-depth explanation of what operant conditioning is, however, the TL;DR version is this: “Reward desired behavior and the operant will engage in said behavior more often.” This reward is known as Reinforcement.
In a freemium game, the ‘operant’ is the player and the reinforcement is its in-game achievements. This could be leveling up a character, unlocking an item, earning virtual currency such as the Gold Coins and Gems used as an example previously.
These in-game rewards trigger a dopamine hit and thus make us feel happy. The reward loop in gaming is simple and effective. Keep playing - keep getting rewards - keep getting dopamine hits - rinse and repeat. However, as we saw earlier if this happens too often and too regularly it can lead to downregulation and desensitization.
Many freemium games overcome this ‘problem’ by introducing lock-out periods. These lock-outs prevent consumers from continuing to play for a set period of time, for example, 30 minutes. This will allow the consumer’s dopamine levels to return to normal. Therefore, when the consumer returns to the game, they will enjoy it all the more.
Another cunning trick used by freemium games is countdown timers. Using Family Guy, The Quest for Stuff (FGTQFS) as an example, the ‘tasks’ you set for Quahog’s residents take a set amount of time to complete.
Early on the duration of these ‘tasks’ is a matter of minutes. Upon a character completing a task the in-game characters earn in-game currency, which the player can collect. Later in the game, these ‘tasks’ may take several hours to complete. Players will have to wait longer for their coins, but they earn a greater number of them for these ‘tasks’ and thus feel a greater sense of ‘accomplishment’.
This is an example of a ‘Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement’, and it serves addictive double-duty. It provides plenty of reinforcement at the start to get a player hooked, then forces the player to take a break so that their dopamine levels return to normal - ready for their next play session.
However, an impatient player can circumvent the wait time by paying a micro-transaction to complete the ‘task’ instantly. This ‘pay X to complete Y now’ mechanic is a very common practice in freemium games.
People are often willing to pay for convenience in many aspects of life, even for something as meaningless as an item or Gold Coins in a freemium game. The freemium gaming market is fully aware of this and exploits it ruthlessly.
(NB - If you are wondering why I am saying ‘task’ in inverted commas it’s because starting a ‘task’ in FGTQFS involves nothing more than tapping the character. During the ‘task’ the character doesn’t actually do anything. There is no sound, voice, or animation connected to it, they simply continue to walk around aimlessly as they did before. This is incredibly lazy game design.)
Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff
Behold the thrilling interactive gameplay. Not. Why did I spend even a minute on this?
Video by JTE
A Game of Chance
Another money-making tactic employed by some freemium games is the randomization of in-game items, costumes, characters, etc. Allegedly, this was inspired by Japanese Gacha machines, which dispense toys in plastic spheres. Each line of toys will have a set number of characters, vehicles, etc. to collect, with the goal being to collect them all.
However, it is impossible to predict what toy will be in any said sphere. This can result in players spending large amounts over a long time-frame, whilst amassing a large collection of unwanted duplicates.
Gacha games take this concept and digitize it. By removing the physical element completely and making the purchases on-line these games both reduce running costs and maximize revenue.
These mechanics are then implemented into other more mainstream games, such as the JRPG Final Fantasy All the Bravest. (FFAtB). The desirability of these virtual items can be even greater than the collectible toys due to the virtual item’s effects on gameplay.
Players start FFAtB with a handful of characters. This roster can be bolstered with up to 35 extra characters. Each character costs 1$, however acquiring them all is not simply a matter of spending $35. Why? Because players do not purchase the characters, they only purchase a chance to obtain the character they want - the characters are randomized.
Players can easily spend hundreds of dollars to get every character, whilst amassing a large number of unwanted duplicates. Since the different characters possess different abilities, there is a gameplay incentive to unlocking them all beyond the merely cosmetic.
Games that use such mechanics often skew the odds of winning to ensure players will win just often enough to keep them hooked. In this case, ‘winning’ means unlocking high-level characters, items, outfits, etc. Note that this is the same tactic used by gambling slot machines.
Players may get a winning streak - i.e. unlocking several useful characters in a row, and this may encourage them to continue spending more than they would normally. This is an example of the Monte Carlo fallacy.
This is not the only ethically questionable monetization method employed by FFAtB, for it uses other underhand tactics as well. If your team is defeated in combat you must wait 30 minutes to try again - unless you use a Golden Hour Glass (GHG) to get back into the action instantly. You are given three GHGs gratis. This is not generosity however - it is a cynical trick to get consumers used to using them. Once a consumer runs out of GHGs they will need to pay to obtain more.
It is worth noting that FFAtB isn’t completely free to start with, as it costs $4 to download it.
Unfortunately, this use of multiple questionable (not to mention objectionable) monetization methods in concert is not an isolated case. If anything, it is becoming the norm.
Final Fantasy All The Bravest
Video by WCamicase Gaming