How to Avoid the Tricks Used by “Free-To-Play” Games and Losing Money

One would think that only one video game-related industry, the eSports industry, has notable revenue, which comes from developers, sponsors, and betting (gone are the days when you had to dig deep through bookies’ sites to find eSports sections – now they’re gathered at Bookmaker-Expert.com). Games that are available to play with no charge, namely “Free-to-Play” games or F2P, earn billions of dollars a year too, so they are obviously not as ‘free’ as they sound.

This is partly because F2P games use psychological tricks to increase the likelihood that players will reach for their credit cards, based on which their developers will make money and cryptocurrency. What exactly is the point here, i.e. how to avoid the well-known psychological tricks used to try to get you hooked on spending money, find out below in this article.

The Goal of F2P Games Is Different From Other Games

The first thing you should know to understand more about how F2P games work is that they have a different design goal than games you buy once as a complete experience. In traditional game development, the idea is to sell the player a complete experience that they will enjoy as much as possible. If it’s a good game, the developer hopes that it’ll be sold in many copies and that it’ll make him a profit. Once you’ve bought your copy, it doesn’t really matter to the developer whether you play it once, multiple times, or never finish it. At the very least, it doesn’t matter in the sense that the transaction between you is complete.

As for ‘free’ games, this relationship looks different. While traditional game developers have an incentive to design experiences that should be mostly fun, this is only a secondary goal in a free-game design. Since these games generate revenue by continuously taking a small amount of money from you, the goal here is to challenge you to play (and pay) for as long as possible. The second question is whether you’ll still have fun while playing it. We’re not saying that free-game developers don’t care about creating fun games, but what’s primarily important to them is to create a game that’ll be able to constantly make money.

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There’s a long list of design methods and psychological principles that help players hook up and encourage them to spend money. Not all people are equally sensitive to these different methods, but F2P games only need to attract a small number of players to be profitable. 

Let’s look at some of these psychological tricks…

Endowed Progress Effect (Artificial Progress)

The “endowed progress effect” is something you’ve probably already encountered in both real life and traditional games. When you go to a car wash and get a loyalty card, they will often mark the first few points as a bonus. This is actually a trick that wants to get you to keep collecting bonuses. This effect is an unusual situation where people want to finish a series of things that someone else has artificially started for them. For instance, in a traditional game like Skyrim, you can hear two characters talking and the taskbar starts automatically, or you can pick up an item and you’ll be told you can find 9 more. Although you haven’t decided to start a task, you still feel compelled to complete it. So don’t be surprised when the first part of a set of items in a F2P game is ‘gifted’ to you.

How to fight this? This is hard, but if you feel compelled to complete a set or list of things, ask yourself who you are doing it for. Did you start this task yourself or were you told to do so? Continue only if you want to.

Loss of Aversion Bias

People develop a bias when it comes to losses in relation to gains. We experience the pain of loss more intensely than the pleasure of gaining, so we tend to make decisions that’ll play it safe with the resources we already have. Usually, this manifests as a risk aversion, but it can also motivate us to act when something is taken away from us.

When you get a reward that disappears, unless you do something to maintain it, your propensity to avoid losses can make you sign up just so you don’t miss, say, that 7-day bonus streak. It’s a surefire way for F2P games to get people to walk through the door when their interest starts to wane.

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How to fight this? Be rational. Weigh the amount of effort you need to put in to keep something in relation to how much that thing is actually worth. Dedicate yourself to it only if you really need or want benefits that are running out.

Artificial Scarcity

We value things that are rare or unique. Artificial scarcity is a tried and tested marketing technique, but it also acts as an element of game design. All free games that offer items that have different rarities in one way or another touch the artificial scarcity. Unique items, rare items, or unique prizes offer a strong incentive to play and, of course, developers can conjure up an endless supply of artificially scarce items out of nothing for their virtual world.

How to fight this? Same as the previous one. Objectively consider how much a rare item or reward is worth to you in relation to how much you have to work to get it and how much it will cost you to get it.

Random Rewards Such as So-Called “Loot Boxes”

It has long been known that humans are subject to operant conditioning. You know, like Pavlov’s dogs drooling at a bell. Most conditioning works by associating specific behavior with a reward. So, for example, you can train an animal to perform complex tricks by giving it a treat every time it performs the action you want.

However, something interesting happens when you randomly determine how often a reward follows an action. This encourages regular attempts at behavior. This is exactly what happens in lotteries or slot machines. Using random rewards such as “loot boxes”, packs of cards, or “Gacha” PAD characters in free games leads to exactly the same behavior. For a small percentage of people, this can actually lead to problems with compulsive gaming.

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How to fight this? These days, in many places, F2P developers have to legally detect a drop percentage to buy items, so you can determine how many spins on average you need to make to get what you want (e.g. in slots). Follow these loot rewards only if you think they are worth the number resulting from that calculation. It’s also helpful to set yourself a tight budget limit when it comes to spending loot boxes. A time to stop is when you reach your budget limit.

Social Comparison and Boards With the List of the Best Players

The final mechanism we’ll discuss is social comparison. This is essentially what occurs in real life on a regular basis. We often observe other people (and they observe us) and evaluate them as a measure of our own success. If you look around and see that most other people aren’t doing as well as you, that’s when you have a tendency to feel superior. If you look at the people around you and they all seem to be doing better than you, that’s when you may feel bad in your own skin.

Although the social comparison is a complex issue, it has various applications in the context of “Free-to-Play” mechanics. One way to encourage behavior related to social comparison is to offer visible benefits of being a paying customer, such as skins or items that you can only get by spending real money. When the disparities between people are too wide, social comparisons aren’t as effective. Therefore, it’s also a good idea to use boards with the best players, which compare the player with those in front and right behind them. This promotes competition among players and is ultimately good for game programming itself.

How to fight this? This could be the hardest of all. But what definitely helps here is to ask yourself who you are trying to impress and why you think you have to be better than others. Put your feelings of social inadequacy in context and decide if all of this is really worth an effort.

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