A loot box.
Mikhail Mishunin/Shutterstock.com

Free-To-Play (F2P) games, make billions of dollars annually, so they clearly aren’t as “free” as they sound. That’s partly because F2P games use psychological tricks to make it more likely that players will reach for their credit cards.

F2P Games Have a Different Goal Than Other Games

The first thing you should know to understand more about how F2P games work, is that they have a different design goal than games that you purchase once as a complete experience. In traditional game development, the idea is to sell the player a complete experience that they’ll enjoy as much as possible. If it’s a good game, it will hopefully sell many copies and the developer will turn a profit. Once you’ve purchased your copy, it doesn’t really matter to the developer whether 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-to-play” games that relationship looks different. While traditional game developers have an incentive to build an experience that’s intrinsically fun, that’s a secondary goal in free-to-play game design.

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

There’s a long list of design methods and psychological principles that help hook 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 Endowed Progress Effect (Artificial Advancement)

The Endowed Progress Effect is something you’ve probably already encountered both in real life and in traditional games. When you go to a carwash and you get a loyalty card, they’ll often stamp the first few points as a “bonus”.

This is actually a trick that makes it more likely you’ll want to complete the set. This effect is a curious situation where people want to finish sets of things that have been artificially started for them by someone else. In a traditional game such as Skyrim, you may overhear two characters speaking and a questline is automatically started or you may pick up an item and be told there are 9 more to be found. Although you didn’t choose to begin the task, you still feel a compulsion to finish it. So don’t be surprised when you are “gifted” the first part of a set of items in a F2P game.

How to Fight Endowed 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 work or were you told to do it? Only if keep going if YOU want to.

2. Loss Aversion Bias

Humans (and certain other primates) have a bias when it comes to losses versus gains. 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. Usually, this manifests as risk aversion, but it can also motivate us to act when something is going to be taken away.

When you’re given a reward that goes away unless you do something to maintain it, our tendency to avoid losses can make you log in just so you don’t miss 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 Fight Loss Aversion: Be rational. Weigh up the amount of effort you need to exert to keep something versus how much that thing is actually worth. Only commit to it if you really need or want the perk that’s running out.

3. Artificial Scarcity

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

How to Fight Artificial Scarcity: The same as above! Objectively consider how much the scarce item or reward is worth to you against how much you have to work to get it and what it will cost you to get it.

4. Randomized Rewards Like Loot Boxes

Like other animals, humans are subject to operant conditioning. You know, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the ring 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 them a treat every time they do the action you want.

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

How to Fight Loot Boxes: These days in many places F2P developers must legally disclose the drop rates for items, so you can work out how many spins of the wheel you need to make on average to get what you want. Only pursue those loot rewards if you think it’s worth the number that results from that calculation. It’s also useful to set a hard budget limit for yourself when it comes to loot box spending. The time to stop is when you’ve hit 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, which is that you look at other people around you to get an idea of how well you’re doing. If you look around and most other people aren’t doing a well as you, it makes you feel good about where you are. If you look at 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 topic, but in the context of free-to-play mechanics, there are multiple applications of this. One way to trigger behavior related to social comparison is to offer visible perks to being a paying customer. Such as skins or items that you can only get by spending real money.

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

How to Fight Social Comparisons: This one might be the toughest of all, but you need to ask yourself who you’re trying to impress. The thing about “keeping up with the Joneses” is that often Mr. or Mrs. Jones doesn’t actually pay any attention to you either way. Put your feelings of social inadequacy into context and decide if it really matters.

Being Aware Helps Responsible Play

There’s nothing wrong with playing free-to-play games or with spending money on them—as long as you’re actually having fun. F2P games are “free-to-play” in the first place because that’s an easy way to get thousands and thousands of people to come in through the door. While the vast majority of people don’t get hooked in by psychological design tricks in a way that’s detrimental, the law of large numbers means that some small percentage of incoming players do become 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 spend limit for yourself that’s within your budget.
  • Set a playtime limit by using alarms and timers.
  • Don’t add your friends or look at leaderboards.

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

Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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