Behavioral economics of Free to Play games

Ramin Shokrizade’s “Top F2P Monetization Tricks” shows how the free-to-play world deploys practical behavioral economics to convince players to spend more than they intend to, adapting to players to hook them and then pry open their wallets wider and wider. I was very interested to learn that some games look for behaviors that mark out… READ THE REST

This is so similar to the way Las Vegas works. Once upon a time, it was considered evil to prey upon gambling addiction.

I never spend any money on F2P games. If a game is good it will just cost $ in the store. If you’re dumb enough to not realise that a “game” is merely designed to be impossible without spending then you get what you deserve. The only exception for this is kids who don’t necessarily know better.

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Actually, it’s probably worse(though the advantage of having you in-house and being able to comp you a little cheap booze if your frontal lobe is inhibiting you too much shouldn’t be ignored).

The Nevada Gaming Control Board can be a bit touchy about game design and other pesky details.

Section 14.040, for instance, places a bunch of restrictions on what would otherwise be useful indirection techniques:

14.040 Minimum standards for gaming devices. All gaming devices submitted for approval:

  1. Must theoretically pay out a mathematically demonstrable percentage of all amounts
    wagered, which must not be less than 75 percent for each wager available for play on the device.
    (a) Gaming devices that may be affected by player skill must meet this standard when using a
    method of play that will provide the greatest return to the player over a period of continuous play.
    (b) The chairman may waive the 75 percent standard if the manufacturer can show to the
    chairman’s satisfaction that this requirement inhibits design of the device or is inappropriate under
    the circumstances, the device theoretically pays out at least 75 percent of all wagers made when
    all wagers are played equally, and the device otherwise meets the standards of subsections 2
    through 6. A waiver will be effective when the manufacturer receives written notification from the
    chairman that this standard will be waived pursuant to this paragraph. A waiver of this standard
    pursuant to this paragraph is not an approval of the device.
  2. Must use a random selection process to determine the game outcome of each play of a
    game. The random selection process must meet 95 percent confidence limits using a standard
    chi-squared test for goodness of fit.
    (a) Each possible permutation or combination of game elements which produce winning or
    losing game outcomes must be available for random selection at the initiation of each play.
    (b) For gaming devices that are representative of live gambling games, the mathematical
    probability of a symbol or other element appearing in a game outcome must be equal to the
    mathematical probability of that symbol or element occurring in the live gambling game. For other
    gaming devices, the mathematical probability of a symbol appearing in a position in any game
    outcome must be constant.
    © The selection process must not produce detectable patterns of game elements or detectable
    dependency upon any previous game outcome, the amount wagered, or upon the style or method
    of play.
  3. Must display an accurate representation of the game outcome. After selection of the game
    outcome, the gaming device must not make a variable secondary decision which affects the
    result shown to the player.
  4. Gaming devices connected to a common payoff schedule shall:
    (a) All be of the same denomination and have equivalent odds of winning the common payoff
    schedule/common award; or
    (b) If of different denominations, equalize the expected value of winning the payoff
    schedule/common award on the various denominations by setting the odds of winning the payoff
    schedule in proportion to the amount wagered or by requiring the same wager to win the payoff
    schedule/award regardless of the device’s denomination. The method of equalizing the expected
    value of winning the payoff schedule/award shall be conspicuously displayed on each device
    connected to the common payoff schedule/common award. For the purposes of this requirement,
    equivalent is defined as within a 5% tolerance for expected value and no more than a 1%
    tolerance on return to player or payback.
  5. Must display:
    (a) The rules of play;
    (b) The amounts to be paid on winning wagers;
    © Any rake-off percentage or any fee charged to play a game; and
    (d) Any monetary wagering limits for games representative of live gambling games.

The regulations for chips and tokens also chip away at some of the ‘creativity’ you can build into in-game currency obfuscation strategies…

Fuck the weak, man, they should try standing up for themselves for once!


Wow, the line breaks on your blockquote are totally borked. It’s like being back at Disqus.

That was a lot of tl;dr, but I was aware of those regulations. You’re right, my statement was inaccurate. I stand by the part about these tricks being evil, in the old-fashioned brimstone sense of the word.

Doesn’t this happen because the paragraph tags are copied over with the text?

Protip for @Boundegar : pasting your text blob into the search box at the top of your browser (not the URL bar) usually kills hidden html tags.

No, seriously man… I know it makes me sound like a dick but at some point a person has to take charge of grasping concepts for themselves because, while it would be nice to assume there aren’t people in the world trying to trick us, that’s not true and the only way to protect yourself is to wise up.

At level 82 without powerups, other than the free ones they give you. Course, at this point I’m looking at wins based on more luck than skill. Without the right colored drops, some puzzles can’t be beat.

Oh, I fully agree that both f2p-pushers and casino operators are assured front-row seats in the special hell.

My suspicion is just that the f2p developers are likely to develop more sophisticated psychological manipulation techniques, both because they are under essentially zero legal constraint, and because they don’t have the advantage of being able to offer potential cash rewards, cheap drinks, and surroundings entirely of their own design and construction.

Traditional casinos are a bit more ossified.

It seems like a lot of these methods are not only pretty much scams, but also make the resulting game worse in terms of being a game than it would be if it were a package you paid for entirely up front. Because essentially, the methods boil down to either frustrating you so much with unreasonable amounts of difficulty that you’re willing to pay to make it easier, or else making the game so boring that you’re willing to pay to play less of it while still feeling like you’re accomplishing something.

If you’re dumb enough to not realise that a “game” is merely designed to be impossible without spending then you get what you deserve.

Except the techniques described here go quite a bit beyond that. If a game is designed so that it only becomes impossible for people who spend, then it can be difficult to realize through social means that a game is indeed simply a scam: for people who don’t spend, it’s merely a difficult skill game. With this done well, reviews of the game would largely be very positive, as I expect people who spend are not likely to review as much, especially if they see a number of other reviews suggesting that the game is perfectly feasible without spending, and that they are simply not very good—when in reality the game is different for them.

Furthermore, by having these sorts of per-player differences, games can become widespread enough that enough of the target spending demographic—which is being described as primarily people too young to know better—end up playing. This is likely why, in these sorts of games, it seems to me that social/sharing requirements are often hard gates, while payment is never completely required in the same way.

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What about online subscription-games like TF2 which went f2p?

TF2 wasn’t subscription based. It was a single purchase and that was it.

I always felt the in-game purchases for TF2 were more of a donation system. VALVe always added new content for everyone free of charge and they never made the game Pay-to-Win.
Everything you could buy, could also be randomly found. And hell, I could even sell it my self for real money!

Another Free-to-Play game that does it very right is World of Tanks.

Although, the games I’m going into have a totally different player base then those playing these Facebook games…

I’ve played World of Tanks for a while a year or so ago, and yeah, I always was under the impression that the “monetization” (one of the most hateful words in the English language, btw) was handled relatively fairly.
Although there’s also a layer of abstraction by in-game currency (and as the article points out, EVERY game does that), all that can buy you, apart from visual fluff, is a faster progression, not direct in-game benefits.

I’ve never played any of them myself, but I heard that Planetside 2 and Tribes:Ascent handle things equally fairly.

I am on level 316 on Candy Crush and haven’t spend a single penny on it. I don’t think it is hard enough to warrant money, nor the increases are fluid or uniform. Many times there is a large step back in the difficulty level, and I am finding the upper 300’s far easier than the 60’s. I have found many areas easier than previous areas.

I fell like I understand your position, but I think there is a step between saying that people need to learn how to be less vulnerable because the world isn’t kind and saying that they deserve what they get if they are tricked. I don’t know if it’s fair to compare these tricks are extortion, but I’m going to anyway: We don’t blame a smaller, weaker person for folding to physical coercion by a larger stronger person. We don’t say, “At some point if you haven’t learned judo you get what you deserve.”

As someone who never falls for these tricks at all, I think it can be hard to understand how they really work on people. I don’t know if “wising up” is a real option. Perhaps these games are the proverbial dark alleys we shouldn’t be walking down, but if that’s the case then articles like this one are a good step towards educating people.


One thing I noticed in the article was that it talked about how these tricks work on people, but there was no mention of what differentiates the vulnerable from the non-vulnerable (other than age).

The first thing I do when dealing with any kind of reward structure or alternative payment method is translate it to dollars in my head so that I can make sense of it. The idea is that if a product says I get 5 bonus airmiles from buying it (not that I use airmiles, but just as an example) then I know how many cents that is so I can make a reasonable decision about how beneficial that discount is. This isn’t a strategy I emply to avoid being tricked it’s the way that the world is to me.

But why do I do this - making me immune to the layering of currencies that the article describes - and other people don’t? The idea that a person could see an in game currency and value it totally differently than the number of cents it cost them to buy seems alien to me. I feel like people must use a part of their brain to do that that I don’t even have.

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I think there is such a thing as ethical free to play and unethical free to play.

What are you are buying?

In the “free to play” models that I see as ethical for the most part customers buy fun content at a reasonable price, the ‘free’ part of the game is basically an integrated demo. Spending tends to have something of a soft cap because there is only so much content to buy. The focus is much more on getting a higher fraction of players to spend some money.

The “free to play” models that are most evil look a lot more like versions of gambling or drug addiction where the user pays to avoid some kind of stress for ever escalating prices which ensure that nobody runs out of stuff to buy before they run out of money. The focus is very much on extracting maximum revenue from the small fraction who will spend enormously.

The human behavioral issues are similar to those around money lending. There is a reason why limitations on money lending are among the oldest business regulations in the world and built into major religions. Thousands of years after recognizing the problem borrowing still ruins lives regularly. This problem won’t go away entirely due to people wising up.

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