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5 psychological tricks in free games (and how to avoid them)

Mikhail Mishunin /

Free-To-Play (F2P) games generate billions of dollars a year, so they’re clearly not as “free” as they seem. That’s partly because F2P games use psychological tricks to make players more likely to reach for their credit cards.

F2P games have a different goal than other games

The first thing you need to know to understand more about how F2P games work is that they have a different design goal than games you buy once as a full experience. In traditional game development, the idea is to sell the player a complete experience that they will enjoy as much as possible. If it’s a good game, hopefully it will sell a lot of copies and the developer will make a profit. Once you’ve purchased your copy, the developer doesn’t care if you play it once, many times, or never finish it. At least, it doesn’t matter in the sense that the transaction between you is complete.

For “free” games, that ratio looks different. While traditional game developers have an incentive to create an experience that’s inherently fun, that’s a secondary goal in free-to-play game design.

Since these games generate revenue by continually taking a small amount of money from you, the incentive is to keep you playing (and paying) as long as possible. If he’s still having fun it’s secondary. We’re not saying that free game developers don’t mind creating fun games, just that they don’t. for what are you still paying

There is a long list of design methods and psychological principles that help engage players and encourage them to spend money. Not all people are equally susceptible to these various methods, but F2P games only need to hook a small number of players to be profitable. Let’s look at some of these psychological tricks.

1. The Gifted Progress Effect (Artificial Advance)

The gifted progress effect it is something that you have probably already encountered both in real life and in traditional games. When you go to a car wash and get a loyalty card, they will often stamp the first few points as a “bonus.”

This is actually a trick that makes it more likely that you will want to complete the set. This effect is a curious situation where people want to finish sets of things that someone else has artificially started for them. In a traditional game like Skyrim , you can hear two characters talking and a questline starts automatically or you can pick up an item and be told that there are 9 more to find. Even though you didn’t choose to start the task, you still feel an obligation to finish it. So don’t be surprised when you’re “gifted” the first part of an item set in an F2P game.

How to fight gifted progress: This one is tough, but if you feel compelled to complete a set or list of things, ask yourself who you’re doing it for. Did you start this job or were you told to? Only if you continue if YOU want to.

2. Loss aversion bias

Humans (and some other primates ) have a bias when it comes to gains versus losses. We experience the pain of loss more intensely than the pleasure of gain, so we tend to make decisions that play it safe with the resources we already have. This usually manifests as risk aversion, but it can also motivate us to act when something is about to be taken from us.

When you receive a reward that disappears unless you do something to maintain it, our tendency to avoid losing may cause you to log in just so you don’t miss out on that 7-day bonus streak. It’s a reliable way to keep people coming through the door when their interest starts to wane.

How to combat loss aversion: Be rational. Weigh the amount of effort you need to put in to keep something against the actual value of that thing. Commit to doing it only if you really need or want the benefit that is running out.

3. Artificial scarcity

We value things that are rare or unique. Artificial scarcity is a tried and tested marketing technique, but it also works as a game design element. Any free-to-play game that offers items that have different rarities is taking advantage of artificial scarcity in one way or another. Unique items, rare items, or unique prizes and rewards offer a strong incentive to play, and of course developers can conjure up an endless supply of artificially scarce items out of thin air for their virtual world.

How to combat artificial scarcity: The same as before! Objectively consider how much the rare item or reward is worth to you versus how much you have to work to get it and how much it will cost you to get it.

4. Random rewards like loot boxes

Like other animals, humans are subject to operant conditioning. You know, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the ringing of a bell. Most conditioning works by associating a specific behavior with a reward. So, for example, you can train an animal to perform complex tricks by repeatedly giving it a treat each time it performs the action you want.

However, something interesting happens when you randomize how often the reward follows the action. Encourage regular attempts at the behavior. This is exactly what happens with lottery or slot machines. The use of random rewards such as loot boxes, card packs, or character drops » porridge » in free games implies exactly the same behavior. For a small percentage of people, this can lead to compulsive gambling problems.

How to fight loot boxes: These days, in many places, F2P developers are required to legally disclose item drop rates, so you can calculate how many spins of the wheel you need to do on average to get what you want. Only go after those loot rewards if you think they’re worth the number that results from that calculation. It’s also helpful to set a hard budget limit for yourself when it comes to loot box spending. The time to stop is when you’ve reached that budget limit.

5. Social comparison and friend leaderboards

The last mechanic we’ll highlight here is social comparison. This is basically what happens in real life all the time, and that is you look at other people around you to get an idea of ​​how well you’re doing. If you look around and most people are not doing as well as you are, you will feel good where you are. If you look at the people around you and they all seem to be doing better than you, you may feel bad about yourself.

Social comparison is a tricky subject, but in the context of free-to-play mechanics, there are multiple applications of this. One way to trigger social comparison behavior is to offer visible benefits for being a paying customer. Like skins or items that you can only get by spending real money.

Social comparisons are not as effective when the gaps are too large. That’s why it’s also a good idea to use leaderboards that compare a player to those ahead and behind them or other players they know personally. This promotes competition between players and that is good for the game developer’s bottom line.

How to fight against social comparisons: this may be the hardest of all, but you have to ask yourself who you are trying to impress. The thing about “keeping up with the Joneses” is that often Mr. or Mrs. Jones doesn’t really pay attention to it at all. Put your feelings of social inadequacy into context and decide if it really matters.

Being aware helps responsible gaming

There is nothing wrong with playing free games or spending money on them, as long as you are having fun. F2P games are “free” in the first place because it’s an easy way to get thousands and thousands of people in the door. While the vast majority of people don’t get hooked on psychological design tricks in a way that is detrimental, the law of large numbers means that a small percentage of incoming players get deeply hooked. If you want to avoid that, there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of that happening:

  • Set a monthly spending limit for yourself that is within your budget.
  • Set a game time limit using alarms and timers.
  • Don’t add your friends or look at the leaderboards.

Of course, if you’re playing a F2P game so much that it’s negatively affecting other aspects of your life, you might want to take that as a warning sign to relax too!

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