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

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Free-To-Play (F2P) games bring in billions of dollars a year, so they’re clearly not as “free” as they seem. This is in part because F2P games use psychological tricks to increase the likelihood of players hitting their credit cards.

F2P games have a different purpose than other games

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

For “free-to-play” games, this relationship seems different. While mainstream game developers are urged to create an inherently fun experience, this is a secondary goal in free game design.

Since these games generate income by continually taking a small amount of money from you, the incentive is to keep you playing (and paying) for as long as possible. Whether you still have fun is secondary. We’re not saying free game developers don’t care about making fun games, just that it doesn’t matter. Why you always pay.

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

1. The effect of endowed progress (artificial progress)

The endowed progression effect is something you’ve probably encountered both in real life and in mainstream games. When you go to a car wash and get a loyalty card, they often stamp the first points as a “bonus”.

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

How to fight against the progress endowed with: This one is tough, but if you feel like you have to finish a set or list of things, ask yourself who you’re doing it for. Have you started this work or have you been told to do so? Only if continue if YOU wish.

2. Loss aversion bias

Humans (and some other primates) have a loss versus gain bias. We feel 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. Usually this manifests as an aversion to risk, but it can also motivate us to take action when something is going to be won.

When you receive a reward that wears off unless you do something to maintain it, our avoidance streak may have you logging in just so you don’t miss that 7 day bonus streak. It’s a reliable way to keep people through the door when their interest starts to wane.

How to fight loss aversion: Be rational. Evaluate how much effort it takes to keep something versus its real value. Only sign up if you really need to or want the benefit that is running out.

3. Artificial scarcity

We value things that are rare or unique. Artificial scarcity is a proven marketing technique, but it also works as an element of game design. All free games that feature items of different rarities exploit artificial rarity in one way or another. Unique items, rare items, or unique prizes and rewards all provide a strong incentive to play, and of course, developers can conjure up an endless supply of artificially rare items for their virtual world.

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

4. Random rewards like loot boxes

Like other animals, humans are subjected to operant conditioning. You know, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound 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 whenever it does the action you want.

However, something interesting happens when you randomize how often the reward follows the action. It stimulates regular attempts at behavior. This is exactly what happens with the lottery or the slot machines. Using random rewards such as loot boxes, card packs, or “gacha” character drops in free-to-play games exploits the exact same behavior. For a small percentage of people, this can actually lead to problem gambling.

How to fight loot boxes: In many places these days, F2P developers are required to legally disclose item drop rates, so you can figure out how many turns you need to do on average to get what you want. Only pursue these loot rewards if you think it’s worth the number resulting from this calculation. It’s also helpful to set yourself a hard budget limit for loot box spending. It’s time to stop when you’ve hit that budget limit.

5. Social comparison and friend rankings

The last mechanism that we will highlight here is social comparison. This is basically what happens in real life all the time, which is that you look at other people around you to get a feel for your performance. If you look around and most other people aren’t doing as well as you are, then you feel good about yourself. If you look at the people around you and they all seem to be doing better than you, it can make you feel bad about yourself.

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

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

How to fight against social comparisons: This one might be the hardest of all, but you must be wondering who you are trying to impress. The thing about “following the Joneses” is that a lot of times Mr. or Mrs. Jones doesn’t pay attention to you anyway. Put your feelings of social inadequacy into context and decide if it really matters.

Being aware helps to play responsibly

There is nothing wrong with playing free games or spending money on them, as long as you are really having fun. F2P games are “free-to-play” in the first place because it’s an easy way to get thousands upon thousands of people through the door. While the vast majority of people are not drawn to psychological design tricks in a detrimental way, the law of large numbers means that a small percentage of entering gamers become deeply addicted. If you want to prevent this, there are a few things you can do to reduce the chances of this happening:

  • Set a monthly spending limit that stays 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 play an F2P game so much that it negatively affects other areas of your life, you might also want to take this as a warning sign to relax!


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