In my previous post, I described psychological techniques that can be used to increase player enjoyment within a game. But that’s really just scratching the surface on the behavioral techniques that you find applied in the gaming world. In this post, I’m going to be describing some of the methods that game developers use to make players spend more money in-game.
As a preface, I’m not advocating or shunning these tactics. I’m merely pointing out that they exist. There is certainly a ‘moral’ element involved when you begin using covert design decisions in order to acquire money from users, but there is so much grey area and the lines are constantly evolving that it is very difficult to brand them outright as good or evil.
The pricing revolution
In what I’ll call the ‘standard’ game revenue model, developers build a game to be as fun as they can. Players pay upfront for this game after hearing about it from friends or review sites. If they like the game, players are more likely to buy sequels or other games from the same studio.
But given the advent of digital downloads, games are now free to distribute to a theoretically infinite number of players. As such, the price points have dwindled and now free games are overwhelmingly more popular in the mobile market. Developers have had to find a new way to make money, and they have done so with in-app purchases (IAP).
But as the revenue model changed, so did game design principles. If you want to make money off of in-app upgrades or consumables, you will need to change the way your game is built to support this new economy. Developers may actually aim to make their game less interesting in some ways to incentivize players to spend money instead of just grinding it out. They may also apply what could be considered ‘tricks’ that make players more likely to spend money. Here’s a sample of the most common ones:
Frequently, you’ll see different IAP options at various price points. The catch is that the cheapest option is rarely the best ‘value’. It may cost about a dollar, but the amount of in-game currency you get for buying this option is usually very low and probably not worth the cost. The real purpose of this cheap option is to make a second, more expensive option seem like a better deal. It’ll be around 3 to 5 dollars, and you’ll get much more in-game currency - more bang for your buck - and it makes players feel like they would be making a poor decision by opting for the cheaper option.
To make this effect even more powerful, developers throw in a third option that is ludicrously overpriced. Something in the range of 30, 50, or even 100 dollars. Most people will not even consider this option. But its main purpose is to make the second option seem downright thrifty - next to 50 dollars, 5 seems like a rational and cheap option. Of course, in the app store, five dollars will get you a super-premium game with dozens of hours of gameplay. But in the context in which this is presented, five dollars seems like a reasonable price for a relatively small amount of virtual currency.
You will frequently see free-to-play games where the initial fifteen to twenty minutes of gameplay allows you to ‘level up’ multiple times and unlock dozens of items. It makes the player feel very powerful to progress this fast. But at some point, the game drastically increases the amount of time and currency you need to reach the next level or progress point. This is known as ‘hitting the wall’. After being accustomed to such fast progress, the player is basically in a mini-withdrawal state and is much more likely to spend real money to speed up gameplay and reach the next reward level.
Trading money for time
Probably the most dominant revenue model in free-to-play games is that the player has to wait real-world time for progress in the game. There is almost always some special currency such as Smurfberries, Gems, etc, that are uniquely powerful and very difficult to acquire. Frequently, they can only be earned by performing some tedious or rarely available task. Their scarcity and acquisition difficulty further increases their value to the player. If it takes a player ten hours to earn five gems, and are given the opportunity to buy fifty gems for a mere dollar, then that purchase begins to look like a huge value given the amount of time it would take to earn them normally. Simply put, if you are able to equate an in-game currency closely with a player’s real-world time, they will be extremely valuable and likely to generate a real purchase.
What’s fascinating about this is that the game is built to consume your time, and then graciously offers (for a price) to lessen the burden. It’s basically as if they are selling your own time back to you. And you have to admire the brilliance - and gutsiness - of this tactic.
Creating false dilemmas
This technique goes hand-in-hand with the one above. It’s fairly well-known that a person’s response to a question can be heavily influenced by the way in which the question is asked. Similarly, behavior can be affected by giving a person a carefully chosen set of choices. A great example is, “Do you want to clean your room before or after dinner”? When given this choice, the responder will think less about the fact that they are being asked to clean their room, and more about the fact that they’re given a choice as to when they want to do it. The mind enters a tunnel-vision mode and fails to see possible choices of action outside of the presented options.
So when you’re playing a game, and your options are to 1) wait a long time, 2) perform some annoying task, or 3) pay real money, the real money option doesn’t seem like such a bad choice. Given the right context, it may actually be the most preferable. Of course, if the choice were simply “pay money or don’t play the game at all”, the player would find it much easier to quit without paying. So including additional, undesirable choices can foil players into performing the action you want them to take.
People hate the feeling of ‘missing out’ on something. This certainly applies when an opportunity is time-sensitive. But another frequent use of this is when an optional item is available that would enhance a player’s actions. If the player is aware of this item’s existence, then every action they take would seem like they are missing out on this enhancement. A clear example would be a ‘double XP’ bonus that a player maybe can purchase at additional cost. Every time they earn XP, they would feel that they actually ‘lost’ the XP that they would have had if they hd the powerup. And a loss generally triggers more powerful emotion than a gain. So over a short amount of time, the player will feel a strong urge to acquire this powerup.
One final example that is extremely powerful is the principle of a ‘random reward’ reinforcement schedule. What this means is that you dole out some bonus to players of various values and at unexpected times. It must be unexpected, because if a reward is expected its perceived value is greatly decreased as people feel like they ‘deserve’ the reward. And the brain simply goes haywire when it thinks there’s a chance for a random bonus when taking an action. Take a look at any casino and you’ll see rows and rows of occupied slot machines that demonstrate the incredible power that random rewards will have on people. So if you just want to increase player engagement, then this is a very effective mechanic. But it could certainly also be used to make players spend valuable in-game currency and to acquire more of it.
It’s very likely that these techniques left you with a bad taste in your mouth. People don’t like being manipulated, especially for someone else’s financial gain. Yet you will see apps that use these techniques constantly at the top-grossing and top-downloaded spots in the app store. You may wonder how evil it really is when players are spending this additional money of their own free will. And it’s certainly true that users like the availability of free games, and these new revenue models are certainly the only way to support that trend.
It’s also interesting to think that we’ve seen a similar process happen back in the arcade days. Here, players would pay a cash amount each time they wanted to play. Which is a model that is pretty brutal compared to what I’ve described above - imagine a mobile game that charged you each time you wanted to play? And certainly, arcade games were made more difficult on purpose, not just to stretch additional gameplay out of limited hardware, but to force players into repeated sessions to advance further. So this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the tactic of deliberately unbalancing the gameplay in order to advance profit. It’s more of a new iteration.
I won’t be able to settle the ‘good vs. evil’ discussion, but at least I hope that the knowledge of these tactics gives you something interesting to think about as you are playing games or building your own.