Developers and the psychology behind “free to play” games

There are a myriad of game models on the market that all require different modes of payment; straight up cold cash, micro-transactions, social engineering, etc. However, the financial model that seems to be the most successful overall is the so-called “free to play” game:

“Take a look at the list of top grossing games in the App Store and you’ll see that it’s mostly populated by games that are free to download, but which are supported by the in-game purchase of Smurfberries, gems, coins, and whatever those little purple things are. And don’t think that the rise of free-to-play is limited to social and casual games – the model is being so well received across the industry that some MMOG PC and console games, such as Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online, have left behind traditional box-and-subscription packages in favour of the free-to-play approach.”  - “The Psychology of Free to Play”,

Let’s face it: these games are addicting. There’s a reason why you’re getting near constant Farmville requests for an extra milk jug on Facebook, along with some pretty swaggering boasts about anything to do with Candy Crush Saga. They know how to keep you hooked:

Video courtesy YouTube user HalfbrickStudios

“You’ll buy everything in the game with coins that you earn as you play or acquire with real money. That’s how Joyride keeps you hooked and how it gets you to play “just one more time.” You’re always so close to getting the next thing that you absolutely need, and it’s just so easy to start another run that you feel you might as well play just one more time.” – “How Jetpack Joyride Applies Almost a Decades’ Worth of Game Psychology to Keep You Hooked”,

This “free to play” gaming model is quickly becoming the number one way that developers are monetizing their games.  And we’re not talking small change here; it definitely adds up, and fast:

Video courtesy YouTube user TouchGameplay

“The Simpsons: Tapped Out is what's known in the gaming industry as a "free to play" game—it doesn't cost anything to play, but if you won't be able to complete every level or collect every item without shelling out real-world currency. Some people are capable of resisting the temptation to pay for exclusive items or boosts or whatever's being sold, but it's not uncommon for players who get seriously hooked to end up investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in an ostensibly free game.” – “The Devious Psychology Behind Free to Play Video Games”,

None of this is accidental; in fact, all of this is based on fundamental psychological tricks that have been around for a very long time.  One of the most preeminent principles in free to play game models is something called “hedonic adaptation”; basically, it’s the phenomenon you experience after eating that first piece of pie and you move on to the second one – it just doesn’t taste as good. Candy Crush Saga has recognized this phenom, and socially engineered their game to take advantage of how our brains are hard-wired. Instead of playing a game for hours at a time (that second piece of pie), CCS makes us take a break, which then makes us want to play it even more. It’s purely psychological:

Video courtesy YouTube user KingOnlineGames

“And thus you will develop a Candy Crush Saga habit spread over a broader slice of time like jelly spread over a long slice of bread, which gives the developer, King, more chances convert you on in-app purchases or convince you to send game invites to your friends.” – “Why You Don’t Burn Out on Candy Crush Saga”,

Along with basic psychological engineering, free to play games rely on “coercive monetization models”, which basically involves putting the player in a vulnerable or uncomfortable position and then offering to help out – for a cost. Can’t make those upper levels in Candy Crush? It’s only .99 to level up!

There are several types of coercive monetization models, as detailed by GamaSutra’s Ramin Shokrizade:

  1. Premium Currencies: To maximize the efficacy of a coercive monetization model, you must use a premium currency, ideally with the ability to purchase said currency in-app. Making the consumer exit the game to make a purchase gives the target's brain more time to figure out what you are up to, lowering your chances of a sale. If you can set up your game to allow “one button conversion”, such as in many iOS games, then obviously this is ideal.
  2. Skill Games Vs. Money Games: If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.
  3. Reward Removal: The technique involves giving the player some really huge reward, that makes them really happy, and then threatening to take it away if they do not spend. Research has shown that humans like getting rewards, but they hate losing what they already have much more than they value the same item as a reward. To be effective with this technique, you have to tell the player they have earned something, and then later tell them that they did not. The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect.
  4. Progress Gates: Progress gates can be used to tell a consumer that they will need to spend some amount of money if they want to go further in the game. If done transparently, this is not coercive.
  5. Soft and hard boosts: The purpose of a money game is to promote Boost sales. Boosts that have an instant one-time effect are “soft” Boosts. Those that stick around either forever or until they are converted to something else are “hard” Boosts. The $1 “un-defeat” button in PaD is a soft Boost, as are all of the power-ups sold in Candy Crush Saga. The obvious advantage of soft boosts is that you can keep selling them as long as the player stays in the money game.

Obviously, it behooves developers to take advantage of these monetization models, especially since they tend to work so overwhelmingly well. What’s your take as a developer on the “free to play” model? Do you find it works better (or worse) in apps that you have released? Why or why not? Please share with us in the comments.



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