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Free to play: Restrictions as features

Wanna play a game? Here play this. ... Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more.... or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! ...  Hey! Stop running away!

Wanna play a game? Here play this. … Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! … Hey! Stop running away! You’re missing out on a great game!

Energy mechanics are “features” of free-to-play games that restrict the player’s actions so that only a few things can be accomplished in a single day. If you were to wish this feature away, you’d find yourself paying real money for the privilege of doing more of the same virtual stuff at a faster pace. They are restrictions that serve to psychologically torture people into giving up money so the pain they cause goes away. They are systematic pain inducers that punish the player in the only way a game can: by wasting time. Although this type of system is quite new, this type of punishment has always been part of games in general, we just didn’t apply the concept in such a morally corrupt way.

On the other hand, an actually new system aimed at psychological manipulation is what I call the bait and switch. Simply put, the game presents you with something you won, congratulates you and then proceeds to inject an obstacle between you and the thing you won. Probably a share button or in the worst case, a convoluted system where you end up spending money. But wait, if you already won, why do you have to do anything to get it? Well, as simple as it may sound, you don’t want to lose what you feel you already have and if the same reward was presented as “Win this item IF…” then it wouldn’t have the same negative impact and therefore convert fewer people into paying customers.

The same brain mechanism worked wonders for Farmville, by forcing players into a schedule of planting and harvesting. Once players invested in-game currency into seeds and planted them, they were forced to harvest the results before the crops went bad and the investment went kaput. This pressure was designed specifically to form a habit in the player, so that they continue to invest their time on the game and eventually spend money. The more time invested into a game the higher the pain once things go bad.

The problem with these mechanics, apart from being morally corrupt, is that not many players respond to this pain by investing further into the game. It takes a susceptible mind* with enough spare time and income to consider investing in a painful game so that it momentarily becomes less painful. After that, the handful of paying customers will receive special treatment in the form of even more intense pain because statistically, once a customer puts money on the game they are X times more likely to pay again. So you get more pain for your money … yeah, that’s f*cked up.

Of course, as you might have imagined by now, the single largest problem with this scheme is that players can get fed up. Too much pain can drive a player away. Being painful translates into money some of the time, but it creates an expiration date for the product. No matter how massive a game gets, if it’s painful it will eventually fall on its face and be completely abandoned. Once the fad goes away, almost no player will speak well of the game or their creators.

So, in a nutshell, these mechanics make money, but they drive away their userbase in the long run.

I just hope that people start getting fed up with this kind of manipulation and start requesting content for their money instead of the removal of “features”.

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*Teenagers and older people. The latter experiencing casual games just recently and both unaccustomed to these types of psychological exploitation techniques.

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2 Responses

  1. […] explains why such obvious bad design doesn’t drive people away fast enough (as I said before, it does drive people away in the long run). So let’s throw some grey matter at the problem. In other words, I’ll bestow upon you […]

  2. […] of their money. Candy Crush is exactly like that, but is so much better at it. See, if you have an energy mechanic, then players know they are being constrained, that they won’t be able to do much in one […]

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