How Free Games Take Your Money

For a while, I played Cityville.  Then I realized that I did not actually enjoy playing Cityville enough to pay money to do so.  And it was costing a fair amount of money–probably $10 a month.  I pay less for magazine subscriptions that I enjoy much more.

June Thomas recently wrote about her addiction to Candy Crush, which leads you down the primrose path until–wham!–you need to pay them to play.  Well, technically, you don’t have to–you could just wait a whole half hour to try again.  But we’re not a waiting culture.  Thomas has paid and paid.  Like many of Candy Crush’s other customers.

In the last 10 days, I’ve spent $21, repeatedly drained my phone battery, and blown a deadline for the first time in years—all so I could play a game for which I have absolutely no aptitude. I’ve been tapping away at Candy Crush Saga on the subway (like half of New York), in front of the television, and, yes, in the bathroom for countless hours, and despite all that expense and devotion, I’m stuck at Level 38. There are more than 350 levels. My Slate colleague Rachael Larimore, a mother of three and the most sensible person I know, has reached Level 125. I’m 10 times more irresponsible than Rachael, but about three times less successful at a dumb phone game. That’s just not right.

I’m not alone in my addiction. About 45 million people play Candy Crush on Facebook each month, making it the most popular game on the site. It’s the most downloaded mobile gameon both Android and Apple devices, and it’s the top-grossing mobile app. Think Gaming estimates that Candy Crush brings in around $633,000 a day—more than $230 million a yearfor King, its British creator.

GamaSutra lays out the various tricks that game authors use to get you to pay for what is a nominally free game:

A game of skill is one where your ability to make sound decisions primarily determines your success. A money game is one where your ability to spend money is the primary determinant of your success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, for obvious reasons. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.

King.com’s Candy Crush Saga is designed masterfully in this regard. Early game play maps can be completed by almost anyone without spending money, and they slowly increase in difficulty. This presents a challenge to the skills of the player, making them feel good when they advance due to their abilities. Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills.

If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.

There’s more–much more–and you should read it all.  Free game manufacturers are getting very, very skilled at separating you from huge wads of cash in small, painless doses.  I’d been wondering how the manufacturers of a free game could afford to make television commercials for it.  Now I know.

And hey, more power to them–it seems basically harmless, since I’m not aware of many cases of people going broke on their Candy Crush Saga addictions.  But I still don’t like it, because I know that I am all too susceptible to the temptation to spend on “a little help”.  I only play games I’ve paid for now.  Oh, I’m fine with a game that gives me a free trial, and oftentimes I end up buying.  For example, after enjoying the teaser, I’ve spent tens of dollars on Magic the Gathering’s iPad game and expansion packs (and no, I don’t want to hear the nerd jokes, thankyouverymuch).  But I knew going in what I would be paying for–the game, not the help I need to play it through.   When a game starts asking me to pay them money to get help finishing a level, I exit immediately.  I know where this goes.

And I wonder if eventually, everyone else will too.  People may eventually grow wary of the “free game”, the way they did of the “free vacations” to time share resorts.   Psychological trickery only gets you so far when people watch their bank balances draining every month.

Update:  On Twitter, Daniel Walters suggests that given the collapse of Zynga’s revenue, the backlash may already be starting.  Good point, though Candy Crush saga appears to be counterevidence.  The takeaway may be that the methods for getting you to pay will become less transparent and more devious until people give up on free altogether.

8 thoughts on “How Free Games Take Your Money

  1. I am very thankful to Zynga for destroying their “Mafia Wars” game’s playing experience and breaking my 2+year daily addiction to it. (Their botch was not forced monetization, but forced artificial delays in the playing experience.)

  2. I actually consider spending $21 in 10 days for an enjoyable experience a pretty good deal considering the cost of just about any other form of entertainment or indulgence (movies, latte, etc). As for the part about missing deadlines and such, the same could be said for many other diversions.

    But the freemium phenomenom you describe in some ways mirrors some MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft. One reason why it was so popular (and encouraged people to keep their accounts active despite not playing it as often) was that it constantly kept a “carrot” out there for you just within reach whether it be the next character level or a nice Epic sword to wield. And having a subscription ensured that all the time you invested in it would not be in vain (later they made it so your account was never truly “lost”, just simply held in stasis should you wish you come back and subscribe later so you wouldn’t start out at square one again). There may also be something perverse in tapping into the competitive aspect of people, including women who are not known to be as a whole competitive (your “winning the cocktail party” analysis) when you “beat Mary’s score”.

    I do not pay real money for any virtual items or virtual help outside of a regular subscription since my friend years ago paid $150 for a virtual bow in a game called Asheron’s Call. Hey, people can do what they want with their money, and if people don’t mind paying their Dunkin Donut coffee allotment for it, more crushing to them.

    • For most parts it is okay. But what about when people find out that they could have been playing a skill-based game and instead have been playing a money-based game?

      Saying the price up-front would be the best, but Gamasutra points out that the makers work as hard as possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t even mind there being two distinct tiers as long as they were explicit about it: free users get X, pay users get Y, and there is nothing above Y.

  3. You should take a look at the free-to-play game Team Fortress 2, published by Valve. In TF2, anyone can play the fundamental game, and you get bonus items dropped to you over time. The bonus weapons don’t particularly unbalance gameplay; they add wrinkles to strategy but do not grant you impressive powers.

    There is a cash and trading market for decorative effects, primarily hats that you can put on the characters (this is a first person shooter, so you generally can’t see these decorations; they’re for showing off to other players) or the ability to name your favorite gun (again, something for showing off to other people). The hats have become such a part of the TF2 culture that the game has been called a “war-themed hat simulator”. Heavy Weapons Guy can wear a dainty party hat, Spy can war a dashing fedora, etc. Valve apparently makes enough money to support and further develop the game, just by selling what are essentially paper dolls.

  4. It all depends on how free to play is implemented. There are very many different models. My current favourite is World of Tanks, which can be defined as free to play, but you pay money to reduce grind. You get access to the full game, it will just take you longer to research the various tanks and acquire in game currency on a free account than a premium account. Judging the entire field by Candy Crush is a bit odd 🙂

  5. There is a similarity with Magic, as I understand it: To do well at Magic, you need a deck of high-powered cards, and the only way to assemble such a deck is to buy a lot of card packs and select from them the most powerful cards. Certainly people haven’t lost interest in Magic yet. Similarly with “high performance” sports goods.

    • Magic is supported by millions of dollars of prizes a year from the game’s maker, so at least at the high end you can easily pay for your habit by play skill. A few of the top players can even make it their day job – Kai Budde and Jon Finkel both earned about $350k career.

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