Yesterday I wrote about the evil in monthly subs. The reason I did this was to appear more objective and credible when writing about the evil in f2p business models.
Before writing this post I brainstormed a bullet point list of evils. It's now one page long. I think I'll just jump into it and hope that some reasonable structure appears, somehow.
First, please take a few minutes and read this really well written post about the sunken-cost fallacy. It will reappear constantly when going through the list below.
The euphemistic name
Let's start with something harmless: the euphemistic name. f2p MMORPGs, of course, are not really free to play. They are about as free to play as a free demo of a pay-2-play game. Admittedly, some demos are larger than others, but overall the aim of any f2p business model is to make you pay. The company also makes damn sure that if you want to play the f2p game on the level of any monthly sub game, you will also want to pay a similar price, at least. The euphemistic name is similar to "social games", by the way. This industry is really good at this stuff.
First, you need to buy points!
A second currency can actually be good for immersion. Buying points can also help parents control how much a child pays. But the real reason companies do this is something else. Guess why all casinos require you to play with chips!
Paying in a second currency has at least two psychological effects on a gamer. Firstly, people hate wasted points. And companies make damn sure that you will never really be able to reduce your point account to zero. There's always some points left. This is one reason the prices are sometimes odd. Companies abuse the player's aversion to waste and take advantage of the sunken cost fallacy.
Secondly, players like to treat those points like monopoly money. The same way they do when they visit a country with another currency. Mental accounting is at work here. The points aren't really worth all that much. You can't even re-exchange them. So you can just as well spend them, can you not? Of course, that also means that you will need to buy new points sooner ..
Just buy once
The biggest psychological obstacle there is, is to get players to pay just once; no matter how much. It's like the bursting of a dam, as you'd say in German. This first payment is what counts. About 80%-95% of players in f2p games never pay a dime! But the next bracket of players doesn't pay 50 cent. They pay at least $10 a month!
To get you to buy anything, companies usually have starter kits and limited offers that are unbelievably cheap or even cost nothing. The starter kit will give you a few nice points for free, and probably also some stuff that usually costs money. The limited offer can be something like 20 potions for the price of one. But just today!
20 potions for the price of one, but just today, is a limited offer. It says: "You can either buy this now, or you will never be able to buy it". And, once again, the waste aversion algorithms in your brain start ticking. It's the same reason your grandma had these eight pairs of shoes. They all were a special offer, you know. She would have lost money if she hadn't bought them!
Not all special offers are actually cheap, of course. Some might just be especially special. And of course you always qualify for a special discount, because you are such a special and loyal customer.
The oldest trick in the world. The stuff never costs 600 points. It's always 590.
Once you bought something it has to have been worth it. Otherwise you would have been stupid.
Pride and status
At least one of your friends has this über-cool item? See the respect that he has gained due to it? It's the same as iPhones and expensive brands in school.
Probably the most evil trick. Your friends needs you to buy this, so you as a group can advance together. You are a liability, don't you see? In fact, even if you are not a liability yet, you might become one. Who knows what your friends are really thinking when they smile back at you when you tell them that you won't pay.
Somehow the players need to be remembered that they can buy stuff. Consequently, there are little reminders everywhere. Or even not so little reminders. Some people don't like big red buttons on the UI while trying to immerse themselves into the fanatsy.
Lots of small payments
Now, some people criticize that micro payments, actually, aren't that micro, really. But they should be thankful. Give two persons $50. Give the one person just one note, the other one ten $5 notes. Guess who who spends it faster.
Impuls buying rocks
You thought this content was free. And it was; except for the very last step. For example the last quest in a quest line or some potion that would finally enable you to beat that mob. Companies try to take you by surprise and encourage you to buy things spontaneously.
Help a friend
F2P helps you to be nice. You can buy stuff for friends. As a present. Now, they will love you. .. and they will feel like they need to return the favor.
You're not one of these stupid f2p players who spends money on useless stuff! You actually wanted to give something to charity anyway. Isn't this a great chance to combine it with that cute sparkle pony? Of course, the company just added the charity on top of the original price.
Controversial items sell better and for higher prices. Firstly they get talked about a lot, which is free advertisement. Secondly, they evoke stronger emotions. The sparkle pony was not controversial by accident. These guys know what they are doing.
The company has no interest in you knowing when and what exactly you bought. So, they try their best within the law, to obscure the information. They might even tell you that you saved $43 due to your brilliant use of special offers. In the fine print you can find that you also payed a lot of money - to be able to save $43.
Focus on children
Not an especially new trick. Children are extremely predictable. They still need to learn all these fallacies and how other people want to take advantage of them. And, most importantly, they are exceptionally effective at complaining and demanding stuff from their parents. Also, there are many events in our real life when we want/need to find presents for somebody. Now, the pink virtual doll is not something you might find interesting, but it might be a good present for your niece. In any case, nobody can blame you for not having a present once you got that stupid doll.
It works in real life, in virtual life it works even better. Allow people to buy lottery tickets for points!
You already spent so much.
And if you stop spending now, it will all have been in vain. You justify your earlier purchases with new purchases.
In the supermarket, there's always the ridiculously cheap pen, the "normally priced" pen and the golden pen with diamonds for 90€. Which one do you buy? The "normally priced" one, of course. And the reason there is one for 90€ is not that people buy it; nobody does. It is there to make you feel like not buying the most expensive one. You made a good compromise, did you not? Works perfectly with healing potions and stuff like that.
Collections are great. Players love sets (I never understood why). Anyway, for some reason most of the collection is free, but a few parts cost something. People hate to have incomplete sets or really anything that's incomplete.
Everybody else does it
It's perfectly normal to buy this potion. Really! 95% of all comparable players buy it regularly! You really stand out, and in a negative way!
This idea isn't terribly new. They sell you 50 healing potions at a discount. Thus, the price per potion is lower. The reason seems obvious: you might never need 50 healing potions. And in that case they sold you more than you need.
However, the real reason is more subtle. Fact is, you might need 50 healing potions eventually; as you certainly will need 50 rolls of toilette paper eventually. The reason they incentivise you to buy so much at once is that you will start to use it up faster if you have a lot in stock. If you have 50 healing potions in your backpack, your use of healing potions will raise considerably, promised! You can even calculate by how much: If the discount is 10%, you will start to use healing potions at least 10% more often - probably much more often.
Discounts like this are especially evil, because the consumer often thinks that he tricked the company. "I will need 50 rolls of toilette paper and it doesn't decay! Stupid company!". Self-confident constomers that feel like they are in control tend to buy more.
Limits on how much you can spend
That looks like a nice thing, doesn't it? The company does not allow you to spend more than 30€ a week.
Mmh, you never know when you might need another extra powerful healing potion. Maybe you should buy a stock as long as you can! Next week you might need to buy something else and then the limit would prevent you from buying it! In fact, you might actually lose an opportunity! Just like not doing the weekly raid quest, not spending the weekly maximum is stupid, is it not?
You didn't think good sales persons can do this, but then you suddenly had this barbecue equipment for 20 persons. When you bought it, you imagined yourself inviting all your friends and how they would love your barbecue. Of course, when you finally retire and manage to invite all your friends, the equipment will probably already be rusty and you can't find the complex manual anymore. Anyway, this works perfectly well with this one potion that enables you to save the entire raid. And it costs just 40€! Imagine how you drift into the air like an angel and all your friends will look up to you while you save them!
You didn't know smilies can be evil? Well, you would be surprised how effective this electronic speed indicator at the roadside is! When you are within the limit it smiles at you. When you go too fast it becomes sad. Sad smilies are terrible! And so is leaving the shop without buying anything. Look how sad the smiley is!
You're laughing, but I warn you: never underestimate smilies!
Phew .. There's so much more. Have a look at this and this. All these fallacies and cognitive biases can be abused. And if you go through them one by one, you find that most of them actually are abused in f2p games. Especially in "social games", of course.
In the end, remember that only 5%-20% of the players pay anything. But companies do not gain 20x or 5x as many players when they go free to play. Thus, those players that pay, pay more on average compared to a subscription. And even within those 5%-20%, there is a power law. Some players bankrupt themselves playing f2p games. Now, of course that's not you. You have perfect control over yourself, have you not? Actually, that's a bias, too. It's called the Bias Blind Spot. It's about people thinking they are immune to biases.
Not paying something at all in f2p games is a rather good way to prevent going on a spending spree. Just like not drinking any alcohol is a good way to not get drunk. Just don't believe that you can be the one who just spends $15 a month. Or rather, if you really want to force yourself to only spend $15 a month on a f2p game, start bookkeeping and tell somebody you trust every week how much you spent.
And when you start lying - for whatever reason!! - get the hell out of there!
Many paying players don't spend a lot all the time. They spend just a little bit every now and then. They are perfectly reasonable. But one day they get back with a friend from a party and they are a little bit drunk and, hey, what's money worth, anyway? It is this one week that you spend more than on all other weeks combined.
Of course, f2p is not inherently evil. It's just that it offers a hell of a lot of ways to increase profit. And most players actually never really figure out how the company did it.
Most companies don't really use all possible tricks to take advantage of you. The effect would be too powerful and would hurt their reputation. But, in fact, f2p also has a negative effect on the company. Once the management sees that they can basically print money, it's really hard to not make use of one more trick. Ironically, they get addicted too.
Concluding, all these abusive tricks aren't even the main reason I dislike f2p games. The main reason is that it destroys my immersion 90% of the time. I wrote about that here.