An insight into the weaponised behavioural economics of free-to-play games

"Coercive monetisation". Now there's a sinister phrase.

Ramin Shokrizade writes on Gamasutra about the various tricks used by developers of free-to-play games to get your money:

Skill Games vs. Money Games

A game of skill is one where your ability to make sound decisions primarily determines your success. A money game is one where your ability to spend money is the primary determinant of your success. Consumers far prefer skill games to money games, for obvious reasons. A key skill in deploying a coercive monetization model is to disguise your money game as a skill game.

King.com's Candy Crush Saga is designed masterfully in this regard. Early game play maps can be completed by almost anyone without spending money, and they slowly increase in difficulty. This presents a challenge to the skills of the player, making them feel good when they advance due to their abilities. Once the consumer has been marked as a spender (more on this later) the game difficulty ramps up massively, shifting the game from a skill game to a money game as progression becomes more dependent on the use of premium boosts than on player skills.

Note that the difficulty ramps up automatically for all players in CCS when they pass the gates I discuss later in this paper, the game is not designed to dynamically adjust to payers.

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.

As with gamification, the world of free-to-play games is a fantastic example of the weaponisation of behavioural economics. There's a whole group of people for whom books like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow are something between an instruction manual and their own version of The Prince – and they're making video games.

The tactics listed are why I've found myself increasingly suspicious of F2P games where the purchases have any effect on gameplay at all. For instance, I loved Kingdom Rush, a fun little tower defence game for my iPad. But the sequel introduced payments for one-off bonuses as well as new heroes which you could buy. Now, whenever I fail a level, there's the sneaking suspicion that the level was designed to be impossible to finish without splashing out. Who would have thought that we'd be nostalgic for the days of paying for a game and then playing it?

The logo for Candy Crush Saga. Photograph: King.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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