From a Gamasutra article, that gives a concise summary of techniques that free to play games are currently using to make money, I’ve pasted the most pertinent section below. I’m trying to keep all such information in the ‘monetization’ section of this blog, for future idea incubating when the time comes to somehow recoup the development costs of this moose. ( I’m not saying that I can do much, or even any of this stuff.)
Techniques of Exploitation
Some games are regularly accused of employing “psychological tricks” to exploit their players. Without specifics, this can end up sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theory. It’s not. The “tricks” are simply the exploitation of common weaknesses such as cognitive biases. Many cognitive biases are widespread, well-understood, and experimentally verified. Still, I’ll make the disclaimer here that I’m writing as a practicing designer, not as an expert in psychology.
Below I’ve listed a few ways that cognitive biases or other weaknesses can be exploited in games. These aren’t examples of wrongdoing per se; they are techniques that can be used unethically, but they can also support healthy mechanics or be included accidentally. In most cases, however, their primary effect is to exploit some psychological weakness for profit, and they should be avoided without good reason otherwise.
1) Exploit loss aversion
Loss aversion refers to the common tendency to care much more about losses than gains. To an irrational extent, players will seek to avoid getting a penalty or missing out on an expected reward. This bias can also manifest as the sunk cost fallacy, in which people act irrationally to avoid feeling like they’re wasting resources. The simplest exploitation of loss aversion might be “crop withering” mechanics, in which the game threatens to take away a resource or to erase an expected gain unless the player takes some action. There are plenty of other, more subtle uses of loss aversion. For example:
Make the player work for the opportunity to buy something (“You’ve unlocked a new purchasable item”). The player will not want to waste the effort that they already made to reach this opportunity.
Pair plentiful in-game currencies with scarce premium currencies (“You have lots of gold, but not enough gems”). The player will not want to let the plentiful currency go to waste.
Increase the amount of time it takes to perform some common action (“The build time doubles every level”). The player will not want to lose the rate of progress to which they have become accustomed.
Cause automatic growth to halt until the player intervenes (“Your collector is full / Your crops are ready to be harvested”). The player will not want to waste time by leaving the game idle.
2) Use variable ratio reward mechanics
Essentially, variable ratio reward schedules are slot machine mechanics. The rewards are based on random chance but remain linked to player inputs: the perfect combination to elicit compulsive behavior or addiction.
Randomness is not a bad thing in itself, and it’s often used in the service of healthy dynamics. Procedural generation uses randomness to provide variety, for example, and poker uses random chance to create dynamics of probability management and bluffing.
However, randomness can also be used to create gameplay that is both compelling and empty, a simple recipe for regrettable wastes of time and money. Variable ratio rewards can be combined with the illusory rewards from the near miss effect (the positive feeling of “almost winning”). It can also be bolstered by the gambler’s fallacy (“I’m due for a win!”) or the hot hand fallacy (“I’m on a lucky streak!”).
3) Use excessive extrinsic feedback
When a game gives positive feedback (any attempt at positive reinforcement), the player will enjoy it to the extent that the feedback feels true and meaningful. However, most players don’t stop to think about the validity of a game’s feedback; instead, they accept the feedback by default, subconsciously giving the game the benefit of the doubt. This may be especially true for less-experienced players. Excessive positive feedback can thus be used to string players along, giving them the illusion that they are accomplishing something meaningful.
This process could be as simple as doling out rewards or other positive feedback whenever the player is getting bored, whenever it could make the player re-engage with the game (e.g. upon logging in), or upon the completion of a trivial goal. The effect can be enhanced by building a structure or pattern out of such goals, e.g. by presenting them as a short checklist or as a set that must be completed. Wrapping goals together into a larger structure encourages players to see them as more meaningful, regardless of whether or not that’s true, and effectively creates a new mental reward that acts as yet another bit of feedback (“You completed a set!”).
In the worst case, the abuse of extrinsic feedback can undermine the player’s intrinsic enjoyment (the overjustification effect).
4) Offer purchases that short-circuit game dynamics
When a player wants to reach some goal (like earning an item, or defeating their opponents in a competition), the game can offer to sell them an advantage, or even to sell them the goal directly. This is often derided as “pay-to-win”.
In the most innocent case, selling an advantage is just an indirect way of selling a difficulty adjustment. In a presentation about the game Shellrazer, for example, the developers explained that they balanced the game for the players with lots of time or skill, while selling advantages to the players who had neither. We might see this as selling access to the easy difficulty mode. This strikes me as bizarre (why is a game primarily making money from the players who are presumably least-engaged?) but not necessarily unethical.
More often, though, selling advantages is a means of extracting money from a treadmill dynamic. The player decides upon a goal, starts working toward it, then decides to pay to get it right away (or more easily) instead. The player is essentially paying to play less of the game, short-circuiting the existing game dynamics in favor of more immediate gratification. It’s a poor trade of long-term gain (ongoing gameplay) for a short-term reward, except that the short-term reward is meaningless unless the player continues playing, e.g. by choosing a new goal and repeating the process.
When the game is intrinsically rewarding, a pay-to-win system is more damaging, since short-circuiting the dynamics will skip over the intrinsic rewards entirely in favor of the extrinsic goal. For a multiplayer competitive game, this process can potentially ruin the game for all participants, not just the player who paid.
5) Make purchases harder to evaluate
A game can get around a player’s better judgement by obscuring or inflating the perceived value of whatever is being sold. For paid games, this might mean any pre-purchase misrepresentation (e.g. “bullshot“).
In F2P games, this technique usually involves a premium currency, which keeps sales one step further removed from actual money in the player’s mind. This is doubly effective if the cost of purchases in the game is constantly increasing; this sort of inflation can cause a purchase of premium currency to seem like a great deal initially, only for it to rapidly decrease in practical value as the game proceeds. The game might also misrepresent its dynamics; for example, if it’s implied that a purchase will make the game more rich and dynamically interesting, but instead it just scales up all the numbers in a way that produces equivalent gameplay, then the player receives only a momentary extrinsic reward instead of ongoing intrinsic rewards. Any other sort of bait-and-switch would serve just as well.
6) Rely on post-purchase rationalization and restraint bias
In addition to the active techniques listed above, there are two cognitive biases that serve to passively amplify the impact of exploitative game design. Restraint bias refers to the tendency to overestimate one’s own self-control, which may lead people more easily into exploitative situations (“those tricks wouldn’t work on me”). Post-purchase rationalization is the tendency to justify voluntary purchases even if later information reveals that the purchase was a poor decision. This can combine with any exploitative design technique; if you can get the player to make a bad purchase, they might still convince themselves that it was a good idea (“If I already spent that much time and money, I guess the game must be fun after all”). It may be impossible to avoid these passive biases, but it’s useful to note how they can enhance or disguise the effect of exploitative design.
Aug 26, 2013 update. From a different gamasutra article about 12 key mobile monitization concepts, learned from Japan. 1. Plan the strategy of monitization from the beginning. 2. Must get the user hooked into the game with engagement and user retention, first, repeatedly playing, before doing monitization. Just like drug dealers give free samples. 3. The “Shop” of things to buy, should be an interesting mix of products, and a mix of soft and hard currency items. There should be something a user might want to buy, at every level of user experience. Try to find ‘unlimited monitization potential’, meaning something users can buy amazing amounts of, if they so choose. 4. Embed opportunities to buy, directly within the flow of where the user goes in the game. Dont rely on them clicking a shop button. A good example is a 2 button choice: a) gives a random chance of getting something good, b) guarantees a good thing, but requires a payment. User clicks b) and is presented “purchase or go back” buttons.
Sept 20, 2013 update. A simple principle: “Make Purchasing Present”, means have a visible button always present, telling the user that something can be purchased. It shouldn’t block the path of enjoyment, but should always be somewhere easy to click on. For the Talking Moose, this is hard because it doesn’t have a window to place a button on. What shall I do? Possibly a balloon help above the sys tray that appears when Moose is talking, and fade away after.
October 19, 2013 update. From Gamasutra, an excellent analysis of Candy Crush Saga, too long to copy entirely here, so read the link. It emphasizes:
– Exorbitant unpredictable generous rewards, that make users feel like they are amazing winners, even for minor achievements. Massive fanfare of graphical and audio feedback, and Variety of it, is important.
– Conditioning to press the blue button. At first the blue button is “Play”, and later it becomes “Pay”.
– Winning with skill isn’t as addictive as also needing some LUCK. So sometimes, even perfect skill + bad luck = fail, or unskilled + luck = win.
– Big variety of “paygates”: just in case, just in time, special powers, more plays, extended games, no waiting between episodes.
– Friends on facebook receive free rewards as the user succeeds. I guess that “reciprocal gifting expectations” has a payoff later.
Oct 31, 2013 update. from analyzing Candy Crush, “…the principles and excitement of gamling. Small unpredictable rewards lead to a highly engaged, repetitive behavior.”