Friday, May 27, 2011

The Evil in F2P games

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!

Limited offer
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!

Special offers
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.

Cognitive dissonance
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.

Peer pressure
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
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.

Obscure payment
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.

Price anchoring
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.

Collecting stuff
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!

A discount
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.


  1. Such a great post! Thanks!

    The only part I think - this is not evil. ITs called marketing ! - and no sarcasm there, marketing is necessary. Humans are complicated monkeys so you have to resort to monkey tricks

  2. To be honest the main difference between the two is that with f2p you have a choice.

    "They are about as free to play as a free demo of a pay-2-play game."

    This isn't true. Most of the time when this is the case the game gets a bad name (just look at Allods). In the case of buying additional content, that really isn't too different from buying an expansion in a subscription game, except it probably doesn't cost the price of a full retail game on top of a subscription.

    The two most important of your points (in my opinion) are the "just buying once" and the "peer pressure". If you see a lot of other people in the game using the shop then you will feel like there must actually be some value in using it. You also feel more comfortable with when you know that it's acceptable in the community. After the first purchase the barrier is pretty much down.

  3. So... customers need to think a little bit and have self control or they risk losing money.

    ...that's nothing new, and it's true no matter the business model. If anything, it's easier to lose with a sub because it slips under the radar thanks to "sunk costs" and habitual payments. Item shops keep presenting decision points that can trigger customer responses.

  4. Tish, if a sub falls below your radar it means that you have enough money and just don't care enough.

    If you start spending too much money on a f2p game it means that you care too much about the game. More than you should.

    If you asked people who accidently were subbed for too long whether it was major problem, they'd say no, because if it had been a major problem they would have noticed earlier.

    However, if you ask somebody who accidently payed too much on a f2p game, whether it was a major problem, you have a good chance that he'd say yes.

    The point is that there are just a few ways to make a sub-player pay much more money than they want. And the maximum he can pay (using only the sub!) is $15 per month.

    But with a f2p game you can literally ruin yourself. And there are way more tools for the company to encourage you to do just that.

    In the end, that fact that the companies are switching to f2p is exactly the point, is it not? The business model obviously produces more money. So much money, in fact that it justifies the costs of switching and the cost in prestige. Only the companies that have a lot of prestige to loose, like Blizzard, still try to withstand.

  5. "Tish, if a sub falls below your radar it means that you have enough money and just don't care enough.

    If you start spending too much money on a f2p game it means that you care too much about the game. More than you should."

    Curious bit of biased doublethink, that. Care to flip it around?

    "Tish, if an item shop purchase falls below your radar it means that you have enough money and just don't care enough.

    If you start spending too much money on a sub game it means that you care too much about the game. More than you should."

    And who decides how much is "too much"? That might sound innocuous, but it's a crucial question. Who is in control here? Is it the devs? Is it the player? Is it the players' peers, self-declared or otherwise? Is it the government?

    Mind you, I'm not a fan of either model, actually. I bought Guild Wars and buy sections of Wizard 101. I'm happy to buy content that I can play through whenever I feel like it.

    I hate subs and I can't stand item shop shenanigans. At least in F2P games, though, I can play a goodly chunk of the game without a cover charge, and for the devs, that makes a difference in conversion rates and retention. Yes, it means I have to watch my wallet. That's always going to be my job, though, not theirs. The devs just have to give me good reasons to willingly give them money. Coercion sucks... in either model.

  6. The difference is in the transparancy of the buiness model and in how much damage it can actually do.

    However, I actually completely agree with you. I, too, prefer a one time transaction, like GW. Compared to the rest of the costs, server upkeep is almost for free nowadays.

    This is the most transparent business model with the best incentives for the developers.

    I just wish they would ask 300€ for GW2, because I want the game industry to make expensive games, and as I said repeatedly: MMORPGs are too cheap right now (unless you are poor and unexperienced and play f2p games).

  7. I suggested a while back that SWTOR should use the GW model. I'd buy it on day one if that were the case.

    Still, thinking of a $300 MMO, there's potential there, but I'd break it into pieces to help segment the market a bit. Using SWTOR as a model, I'd say $300 for everything as a single purchase (arguably, "lifetime subscriptions" do this), but break it into smaller $50 pieces. Say, a Jedi box ($75), a Smuggler box ($45), a Light Side box, a Dark Side box (each $160) and so on. In short, pay for what you'd play with and just pay once.

  8. er, omit that $50 in there. Multitasking during commenting doesn't help.

  9. The difference is in the transparancy of the buiness model and in how much damage it can actually do.

    So buying gold or powerleveling services is more transparent?

    Many people would like to pay a bit extra (you know most pc gamers are actually dudes in 30-40s with quite a bit of spare income) for something they enjoy without feeling like a drug junkie buying crack at the corner.

  10. Max, I'd concentrate on fighting gold selling, instead. This is one of the few issues where I agree with Gevlon: Blizzard isn't trying.

    You can easily create a metric of social ties between accounts. If accounts who don't know each other a lot (never whispered, never partied, etc) sudden exchange a lot of money or buy something cheap for a lot of money on the AH you check it manually. I bet it is 99% hit!

    Do something similar for accounts that suddenly log inw ith a different IP, banks or facebook already do that successfully.

    And, you could just send every suspicious account a whisper about the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Fighting the devil with tanks of holy water is a lot of fun, too.

    Finally, a game with a slow CPP and without teleport of gold/goods would eliminate the problem in a very elegant way.


  11. Max, I'd concentrate on fighting gold selling, instead

    Why fight what is natural. best way to bead black markets is legalization NOT more regulation and criminalization.

    Go with the flow not against it . Customers want it . You can use all the wonderful tricks you described (and more) to get more profit. Its a win/win.

    You can easily create a metric of social ties between accounts.

    Which would take resources, which one would rather spend on something which improves gameplay.

    F2P is great model. I can see concerns with immersion , but thats what should be addressed, not the model itself

  12. Why would Blizzard fight gold selling?

    One of the major problems for gold farming on a subscription game is the conflict of interests. Gold farmers are still customers; their participation in the game still gives the developer money. You can be sure that Blizzard knows who the gold farmers are and that Blizzard will ban them for the financial boost that comes from having them make new accounts. There was an interesting talk about the process that I wish I could find, but the bottom line is that the subscription model makes every player an equal paying customer (not including regional differences), even the farmers and trouble makers.

  13. Lots to cover here. And, let me repeat once again what I've said before: subscription games can be just as dishonest.

    The euphemistic name

    Depends on the game. You could play DDO, LotRO, or Puzzle Pirates (PP) entirely for free. In DDO you have "favor grinding" where earn point reward for free. It's slow and repetitive, but it's entirely possible. In PP, you can exchange your in-game currency (pieces o' eight) for the purchased currency (doubloons) via an exchange market.

    And, let's not forget that "subscription" games cost a lot more than just the subscription: the base box and the latest expansion also cost money, plus any “additional services”.

    Just buy once

    Or, you can look at it as people supporting a game they like. By the time a person overcomes the inertia to buy points, they're probably interested enough in the game to care. The better trick is to make sure people enjoy the game to ensure multiple purchases.

    Limited offer

    Like a sparklepony!

    Special offers

    Like buying 3 months at once for the prices of... 3 months.


    Like how a 1 month WoW sub costs $14.95 or 12.99€.

    Pride and status

    Like a cool flying mount that you can only get in a raid. So, stick with the game longer and spend more time raiding and maybe you can get it!

    Peer pressure

    If you don't buy the latest expansion, you can't play with your friends who are having fun in the new areas!

    Help a friend

    This is a much bigger thing with social games, but the gifts are usually free. They're intended to keep you in the game.


    You mean like if you bought one of the two pets offered, then Blizzard would donate half the proceeds to charity? But, if you bought the other pet offered at the same time, they’d pocket all the money?

    Controversial items

    I really should just cut and paste the world "sparklepony" repeatedly.

    Obscure payment

    I've never seen this. In fact, DDO emails me every time I make a purchase in the game with an itemized list of what I've bought. Even if it only cost 0 or 1 point on special.

    Focus on children

    Due to a law called COPPA in the U.S., most games have rules forbidding players under 13 from playing the game in order to avoid problems.


    WoW made a rule that you couldn’t run a random number casino. They stopped this because gambling is very heavily regulated in the U.S. and the last thing they wanted was scrutiny over gambling laws. The gaming industry (gambling) isn't the same as the game industry, and a lot of reputable companies take pains to stop that.

    You already spent so much.

    You've been paying subscriptions and buying expansions for 2 years. If you stop now, all that money is wasted!

    Price anchoring

    As I said yesterday, this can happen with monthly subscription bundles as well.

    Everybody else does it

    Look at all those sparkleponies! And, everyone in the who list is in the newest expansion areas!

    Limits on how much you can spend

    Actually, this is a limit to make the game less appealing to credit card fraud. It limits the amount of money that can be poured into the game. Most games will lift the limit once you're a proven customer.

    So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: any company that wants to use psychological trickery on you will do so regardless of the business model. Most of these reasons are actively used by subscription-based games as well. You can just as easily have a virtuous company using a free-to-play business model, and a unscrupulous company using a subscription business model.

  14. Psychochild,
    for some reason you assume that I consider the WoW microtransaction acceptable. I don't .. Certainly not that stupid pony ;)

    Also, please have a look at the last post where some of this discussion was also continued.
    I stated there already that many of these tricks can be used on time, instead of money in a sub based game.

    It's just that with a monthly sub you lose a maximum of the monthly sub per month. Which is usually about $15. With a f2p game, or more specifically, with microtransactions you can lose a fortune in one day.

    Also, it's just not that effective to make you run daily dungeons like crazy. But it is very effective to make you buy something every day like crazy.

    Monthly subs are more transparent, although they are not perfectlky transparent. And the consequences of falling for the psychological tricks cannot be as dire.

  15. Nils wrote:

    for some reason you assume that I consider the WoW microtransaction acceptable. I don't .. Certainly not that stupid pony ;)

    I don't assume anything. My point is that most of these sins you attribute to free-to-play games can be attributed to "subscription" games as well. Again, there's nothing inherent in the subscription business model that stopped WoW (or any other game) from offering a sparklepony, or using rounding, or any other trick.

    It's just that with a monthly sub you lose a maximum of the monthly sub per month. Which is usually about $15. With a f2p game, or more specifically, with microtransactions you can lose a fortune in one day.

    And this strikes to my very point: if you see it as "losing" money, you should not be playing the game in the first place. I see it as exchanging my money for entertainment. I see it as supporting a game, developers, and even a company that provides me with entertainment I feel is worth the price.

    And, as I said above, if you want to include all your expenditures, then you need to include the costs of boxes and expansions in the cost of a "subscription" game. That means to play the latest version of WoW, a person will have to "lose" over $50 for the first month. Let's not forget that the solution to falling subs is for Activision/Blizzard to start making more expansions for people to buy, thus increasing the price WoW players will pay without actually increasing the subscription. (Note that shipping a $40 expansion every year instead of every 2 years is the same effect as increasing the subscription price by $1.66 per month.)

    Monthly subs are more transparent

    No, you (and most experienced MMO players) are just more used to the subscription business model so you think you understand it better. You lash out at mere possibilities of things that could go wrong with the new model. Yet it seems you don't notice the very same psychological tricks, or try to explain away their effects, when they appear in your preferred business model. You might want to check that link to the "Bias Blind Spot" again. ;)

  16. @Nils
    Blizzard fought gold sellers by making gold more and more readily available in-game.

    It was rather effective in my opinion.

  17. Hrm.

    I don't find F2P to be more or less transparent than subs.

    Though I do personally find cash shop on TOP of a subs model to be disgusting.

    As for the whole spiel about anyone playing F2P deluding themselves that they're not really spending that much...

    I've played 3 PWE games.

    Jade Dynasty - very beautiful skin, very boring game, very horrendously evil lottery system. I spent US20 on a flying mount (NEED it to progress, can't access areas w/o it) because it entertained me quite a bit in a mindless ratpellet kind of way for 3 months. Less than a sub. On my terms. Think of it as paying for an expansion, since it is NECESSARY to see new areas/complete content.

    Heroes of Three Kingdoms - Played on and off for about 2 months, spent - nothing.

    Forsaken World - Played for about 3 months now (and still playing). Spend US$30 but haven't actually used all the credits yet. Threw cash at it because I really feel they deserve it for this title. It's as good as WoW for solo play IMO, and I did play Cataclysm all the way from 1-85.


    Non-PWE F2P:

    Atlantica Online - On and off over the past year, spent nothing.

    Chronicles of Spellborn (now dead) - ? they had a cash shop ? XD

    DDO - Hated it within first 5 min, uninstalled.

    Pirates of the Burning Sea - On and off for 3-4 months, spent nothing.


    Maybe I'm just deluding myself, but so far, for me, F2P looks WAY cheaper than my 3 year WoW subs.

  18. World of Tanks is actually pretty Less-Evil on this one. The primary product that they sell is a premium account, which is about $12 in real dollars, and gives you time and a half on game experience/money, and some social features.

    They keep things in whole numbers (1200g for premium, not 1155g). The "premium" tanks that you buy for cash, are, frankly vanity/nub items. They are slightly more powerful than a stock tank of the tier, but no where near as powerful as a fully upgraded earned tank for the tier. All in all, I think they have a good balance.

  19. I think the key is to look at how the payment method affects the development of the game.

    In a P2P game, the company's goal is to encourage players to subscribe for another month, which means that they have to try to keep the game fun.

    In a F2P game, the company's goal is to encourage players to keep spending money. That's an incentive for them to make the game less fun, so that people will spend money to skip the un-fun parts.

    But it depends on what's in the cash shop. Personally I don't mind the W101 and DDO model where you're mostly paying for new zones or cosmetic items. But if you have to pay for consumables and transient weapon upgrades in order to enjoy the game, then that's evil. (Especially if the game gets more expensive as you go up levels.)