Free-to-play games bring in billions of dollars to developers every year, so they are clearly not as “free” as they seem. This is partly due to the fact that F2P games use psychological tricks that increase the likelihood that players will reach for a credit card.
F2P games have a different goal than regular games. To better understand how these games work, it is worth remembering that they are designed differently.
5 psychological tricks in free-to-play games (and how to avoid them)
Traditional games are bought once. The idea is to sell the player a complete experience that is as enjoyable as possible. If the game is good, it will sell in large numbers and the developer will make a profit. For a developer, it doesn’t matter (at least from a financial point of view) whether you play once, a lot, or never beat it at all.
For free-to-play games, this relationship looks different. Since they generate income through consistent small purchases, the developer’s incentive is to keep you playing for as long as possible. Whether you get pleasure is secondary. This is not to say that free-to-play game developers don’t care about fun, but they don’t care about the reason as long as you keep paying.
There is a long list of design tricks and psychological principles that can help retain users and encourage them to spend money. Not everyone is equally susceptible to these methods, but F2P games are small enough to be profitable. Let’s take a look at some of the psychological tricks.
1. The effect of secured progress
Many people experience this phenomenon in real life or traditional games. When you arrive at a car wash and receive a loyalty card, you are stamped on the first few service points as a “bonus.”
This is actually a gimmick that makes it more likely that you will want to take advantage of the full suite of services. People want to complete various combinations that have been artificially started for them by someone else.
In a traditional game like Skyrim, you can eavesdrop on a conversation between two characters and a quest will automatically start, or pick up an item and get a message to find another 9. You didn’t decide to start a quest, but you still feel the urge to complete it. Therefore, do not be surprised when in an F2P game you are “presented” with the first part of a set of items.
Solution: It’s not easy, but if you feel compelled to collect a complete set of items, ask yourself who you are doing it for. Is this your initiative? Continue only if you want to.
2. Fear of loss
Humans (and some other primates) are subject to the bias that loss is always better than gain. We experience the frustration of losing more than the pleasure of winning, so we tend to make decisions that allow us not to risk the resources we already have. This usually manifests itself in a reluctance to take risks, but it can also motivate us to act when there is a chance of losing something.
When you receive a reward that disappears after some time of inactivity, the propensity to avoid losses can force you to log in only in order not to miss the 7-day bonus streak. This is a surefire way to retain users when their interest starts to wane.
Solution: Be rational. Evaluate how much effort it takes to keep something, and weigh that against the true value of what you want. Only agree to this if you really want to reap a missed benefit.
3. Artificial scarcity
We value everything that is rare and unique. Artificial scarcity is a tried and tested marketing trick, but it also works as part of game development. Any free-to-play games that offer items of various rarities are used in one way or another.
Unique items, rare item drops, unique prizes and rewards – all this is a strong incentive to continue the game, and, of course, developers can literally create an infinite number of supposedly scarce items for the virtual world out of thin air.
Solution: The same as above. Objectively evaluate how much a hard-to-find item or reward is worth to you versus how much work you will have to work to get it, and how much it will cost you.
4. Random rewards such as loot boxes
Like other animals, humans can develop a conditioned reflex. This is similar to Pavlov’s dogs, which began to salivate at the ringing of a bell. In most cases, this involves associating a specific behavior with a reward. 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, if the reward for the action is given in a random order, a curious effect can be achieved. The same is the case with lottery or slot machines. Random rewards such as loot boxes or sets of cards in free-to-play games use the same mechanisms. In a small percentage of people, this can lead to compulsive play.
Solution: Today, in many countries, F2P developers are required to legally disclose item drop rates so that you can determine how many wheel spins you need to do on average to get what you want. If the calculation shows that the reward is worth the cost, you can compete for it. It’s also helpful to set a tight budget for yourself when it comes to spending on loot boxes.
5. Social comparison and leaderboards among friends
The last mechanic we’ll focus on is social comparison.
Basically, the same thing happens all the time in real life: you look at the people around you to get an idea of how well you are doing. If you look around and most other people are doing worse, it makes you feel better. If you look at others and they seem to be doing better than you, it can lead to frustration.
Social comparison is a complex topic, but in the context of free-to-play mechanics it has many uses. One way to stimulate social comparison behavior is to offer visible benefits to the paying customer. For example, skins or items that can only be obtained by spending real money.
Social comparison is not as effective when the gap is too wide. This is why it is also good to use leaderboards that compare the player to those slightly ahead and slightly behind them, or to other players they know personally. This contributes to the development of competition between users, which favorably affects the developer’s profit.
Solution: This question may be the hardest of all, but you have to ask yourself who you are trying to impress. Often these people are simply indifferent to us. Put your feelings of social inferiority into context and decide if it really matters.
There is nothing wrong with playing free-to-play games or spending money on them – as long as you actually have fun. This genre is called that primarily because it is an easy way to attract many thousands of people. While psychological tricks don’t work for everyone, the law of large numbers still leaves a small percentage of players hooked. Here are some tips to help you avoid this.
- Set yourself a monthly spending limit that doesn’t go beyond your budget.
- Set a game time limit with alarms and timers.
- Don’t add friends or look at the leaderboards.
An equally important issue is time costs. If games are taking so long that they negatively affect other aspects of life, this is a sure signal that it is time to abandon them.