Updated: Feb 12
In the last article, we investigated what a ‘freemium’ game is, how a supposedly free game makes money, and how dopamine relates to the reward centers of the brain. In this, we investigate the underhand tactics freemium games use to pressure consumers into parting with their money.
Psychological Tricks of the Trade
The monetization of freemium games is centered around microtransactions. The value of each transaction is usually very small - ranging from around 50 pennies or cents to a few dollars or pounds. As such they may appear good value at the time of purchase. However, the freemium gaming industry employs a ‘little but often’ approach, which can result in players spending considerable sums of money without realizing it.
Many freemium games use measures deliberately designed to make it difficult for players to assess the value of their purchases. This is done via introducing virtual in-game currency, such as Gold Coins, Gems, and the like.
This virtual currency is then used to purchase in-game items, continues, or extra lives. Some games take this a step further by adding a layer of virtual currency. For example, buying a power-up requires 5 gems, you get 3 Gems for 5 Gold Coins (GC), and you get 4 Gold Coins for $1.50. Now work out in ten seconds or less how much this powerup is worth in ‘real-world money’.
Some games make it even more difficult to work out the ‘exchange rate’ by using exchange rates that do not scale linearly. For example;
$1.50 = 5 Gold Coins, $2.00 = 10 Gold Coins, $2.50 = 20 Gold Coins.
5 GC = 3 Gems, 10 GC = 5 Gems 15 GC = 20 Gems
This gives the impression that by spending more you are getting extra value for money, whilst simultaneously making it confusing to work out exactly what that value is.
Sometimes games will use odd and unusual pay amounts to further confuse the player, for example, $3.27, £2.63. Since we have been conditioned to see prices as $/£ X.99 a smaller number of pennies and cents can mentally ‘wrong-foot’ us, whilst also giving the illusion of value for money.
Removing Pain Points and Introducing Time Limits
Many freemium games exploit the above even further by removing pain points from the purchasing process, whilst also introducing time pressure. Most freemium games will allow you to link a debit card to your in-game account, thus enabling you to purchase in-game items and currency with a single tap. This makes purchasing very easy to do - pain point removed.
Another pain point removed by mobile gaming is access to your gaming device. You may well prefer to play your Xbox / PlayStation / PC etc., but you can’t take them out with you. Your mobile phone is almost always within arm’s reach however, always there when you have a few minutes to spare. Some freemium games will send you notifications if you have not played it for a while, therefore keeping the game in the back of your mind even when you are not playing it. But what if you do not have the time to play it, or must cut your session short? Freemium gaming has this covered - some games can be set to play themselves without you having to be involved at all.
The linking of your in-game account to your real-world debit card leverages another psychological quirk to separate you from your money - people paying by card tend to spend more.
Studies have shown that people paying for something in cash tend to spend less, as handing over the physical money feels ‘real’ or ‘impactful’ and you can see the amount you are spending. Handing over $200 in notes at the till feels like you are spending a noteworthy amount. This effect is reduced when paying by card at the till, and likely reduced even further when spending on-line.
We are psychologically hard-wired to be averse to losing what we already have. This is probably an evolutionary throwback to when resources were scarce and hard to come by - those that hoarded their resources tended to survive and reproduce whilst those that had not died young.
Freemium games take advantage of this by making in-game items and progress ephemeral. If a player has spent hours on a game and has leveled up several times, obtained high-level in-game items, etc. they will be loath to lose them - they have become invested.
Many freemium games exploit this investment by resetting a player’s progress back to zero if they lose a round or fail to solve a puzzle - unless they pay $2.47 to retain it. The aversion to losing these hard-earned in-game items and progress, combined with the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’, is a powerful motivator to spend a little to retain a lot.
Fast Thinking vs Slow Thinking
The human brain has two main states of thinking, fast and slow. Slow thinking is conscious and is what we do when we carefully consider something, weigh up the options, assess the pros-and-cons, etc.
Fast thinking is near impulsive, instinctual, and barely conscious. It is the snap decisions we make based on gut instinct with little in the way of thoughtful consideration. These are the decisions that may seem like a good idea at the time but you may regret later when you have had time to think about it.
Freemium games want you to make your purchasing decisions whilst you are fast-thinking as you are more likely to spend. They do this by combining loss aversion with tight time limits. Remember earlier when I said work out the exchange rate of $ - GC - Gems in ten seconds or less? This is why.
Now do that whilst also stressing about losing the 20+ hours you have sunk into the game and the items you have already spent real-world money on. A prominent on-screen timer is ticking down 5… 4… 3…
Are you going to make an informed considered purchasing decision or are you just going to tap the $2.47 button in a panic?
This is the same tactic used by old school coin-op arcade cabinets - insert another coin before the countdown reaches zero to continue playing - but cynically taken to the Nth degree.
F.O.M.O. The Fear of Missing Out
Another psychological quirk exploited by freemium gaming is our ‘Fear Of Missing Out’. No one likes seeing an opportunity to own something they want pass them buy. However, this fear is especially strong in collectors and completionists - two groups over-represented among gamers. Freemium games exploit this by making some in-game characters, items, abilities, etc. time-limited. Such a promotion might look something like this;
Get [insert item] and dominate your enemies. Limited time offer! After [insert arbitrary date and time] it will be gone forever! Buy now for $3.26.
The game may even send you notifications during the promotion to remind you of ‘it’, how much you need ‘it’, and how little time you have left to get ‘it’.
This gives the illusion of scarcity, which makes the virtual item appear more valuable in comparison to the plentiful (and always available) in-game items. This scarcity is completely illusory of course. Since everything is digital the numbers of an item/character/armor etc. are functionally infinite. Therefore, their real-world value is essentially zero.
This tactic is reminiscent of that used in collectible cards and children’s toys, and it is no less deliberate and exploitative. As both a parent and a gamer, I take umbrage with both of these practices.
It's All in the Grind
Grinding has long been an element in some types of video games, RPGs in particular. A tactic employed in many such games is to enable leveling up relatively frequently early on as this will get players enthused.
If you have played any of the ‘Bethesda era’ The Elder Scrolls or Fallout games you will likely have experienced this. It felt good, didn’t it? That was the dopamine talking. Even something as arbitrary as leveling up in a video game will release it, giving you a dopamine hit.
But did you notice that the further you got into the game the less frequent those leveling up dopamine hits became, and the more enemies you had to defeat and the more side-quests you had to complete to get them?
If you did you were not imagining it, the game’s mechanics were created deliberately to do this. The rationale behind this is to keep you engaged with the game long-term, which is why you could rack up several hundred hours of play-time without realizing it.
It could be argued that this is providing the player with greater value for money, however, I disagree. Play-time which is not enjoyable is time wasted, and any game that expects you to engage in tedious grind is failing in its role as a piece of entertainment.
Simply providing periodic dopamine hits is frankly lazy game design. I fell prey to grinding once when playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, on the Xbox 360. I was determined to max out my character. I lost count of how many Mudcrabs and other assorted enemies I killed to achieve this, and how many hours of tedious grinding I had to go through. When I did finally max out my character, I didn’t feel elated that I had achieved my goal, I just felt relieved that I didn’t have to play the game anymore. I now realized I had been skinner-boxed. I now refuse to play anything that involves any sort of grinding.
These mind tricks and Operant Conditioning are bad enough when all they use up is your time. It takes on a new level of iniquity when it starts to cost you money as well. How freemium games use operant conditioning to drain ‘consumers’ bank accounts will be the topic of the next article in the series. See you all then.
Links to previous articles in the series;
Have you had any experiences like this, or know someone who has? Have you ever felt skinner boxed, or pressurized by a video game into spending money you were not planning to? If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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