The nasty retention strategies in f2p games
»I’d use birthday money, I’d eat cheaper lunches, I’d ask my wife to pay for dinner so I’d have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game.«
Team Fortress 2 addict Chris on Gamasutra: Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games
Anyone who has played a MMOG (massively multiplayer online game), or even has a player among their friends knows the draw stemming from these games. The players spend an unnecessarily large amount of time “on just a game”. At first glance, you might think these games are just so well done, so entertaining that one gets addicted. On closer inspection, you can see the many tricks built-in by developers mostly deliberately to imprison the players. In this regard the article „Behavioural Game Design“ on game developer news site Gamasutra is quite revealing, where it’s explained in detail how to keep players in line as long as possible. The author refers to the current state of behavioral research. Is it still shocking to learn that the article was published four years before the release of World of Warcraft (WoW)?
Operant conditioning and the power of random rewards.
Intermittent reinforcement is the name of an effective method for rapidly converting people who just try a free game to hardcore fans.The main principle is to reward a player for something she is doing. In a quest in the free MMOG Metin2 for expample one will receive a bravery cape if he kills some monkeys. This cape will not only improve the character but also the player’s reputation among other players. Of course it also works with simpler games: A victory in Rovio’s racing game Angry Birds Go! will get you three valuable diamonds which facilitate progress in the game. These large and small rewards lead to emissions of dopamine in the brain, a chemical messenger that makes us happy. And there’s nothing wrong about being happy, but our brain is naturally coded to be addicted to dopamine. It works like cocaine addiction: The sense of well-being mediated dopamine wellbeing, inveigles us to constantly seek a repeat.
Game designers slowly train the users how they can get these dopamine releases. At first it’s easy to find a load of gold coins, defeat the boss or get new armor. The simplest unit of the game is called core loop and its design is crucial to the success of the game. This is an easy to repeat reward action like collecting ressources and building a house in Clash of Clans. It must not be too easy and not too complicated, still be fun the hundredth time and, what is particularly important: Never forget the direct reward! When the behavior has been trained for countless rounds and hours, the game design goes to the second stage: The hardening of behavior by intermittent reinforcement.
It doesn’t only work in the game: A child for instance might always get a candy if it clears up his room. This reward is an appropriate means to train behavior, even though nutritionists and dentists might advise against it. Behavior is especially resistant to deletion if the reward is later not given reliably every time. Instead, it must be am matter of chance if there is an appropriate bounty for a behavior. Media addiction expert Regine Pfeiffer who is controversial in the gaming scene on account of their criticisms illustrates the dynamics very aptly using WoW:
Applied to the game it means: With the quest rewards playful obedience is trained, with the subjection to random luck this is reinforced. Even long losing streaks no longer keep the player from trying again and again. The feeling that the time invested has to pay off at last – as with the deposited money in slot machines – is the ultimate amplifier.
translated from Regine Pfeiffer, 2011: Was Online-Spiele und Glückspielautomaten gemeinsam habe
Looking at the F2P world, you encounter this principle at every turn. In Candy Crush Saga, one of the most successful free titles ever, the player can spin a wheel of fortune once a day. Sometimes there is a great bonus, sometimes a less good. Perhaps someone should call King.com and explain them that it would be even more effective when you’d go empty every now and then. The behavior that is practiced here is regularly starting the app. The wheel of fortune has incidentally also the function of a login incentive, a rather obvious tool to bind the player.
With login incentives a player gets a “free” bonus just for coming back again and again. If it is thoughtfully designed, this bonus is getting bigger every day. If the player forgets to log in she falls back again. Operant conditioning doesn’t only reward – punishment is almost as useful. Although relatively primitive, this method is extremely effective. Or so reports Nicholas Lovell, founder of gamesbrief.com:
One of my clients is up to day 206. Yep, he’s logged in for 206 consecutive days. I dread to think how he will feel on the day he first misses one.
Playing with real people may be considerably more exciting than fighting alone alongside AI mercenaries. But a better gaming experience for the user is only one side of the coin. Social interaction and group formation is incidentally also the pinnacle of F2P design. Suddenly it is no longer “putting a game away” but “letting my friends down.” In massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), it is customary for players to organize themselves into guilds which meet at regular dates for “questing”. If you miss the appointment on Tuesday from 18:00 till 23:00, perhaps you’re about to receive an angry phone call from the guild leader. Casual gamers like it less organized of course, so Farmville and co make do with small requests for help in the virtual neighborhood that pop up as pesky Facebook notifications in real life.
If the community building within a game works, the cessation of the user also means to leave a circle of friends behind.
No one wants to play a game that is not addictive. Fun, rewards, dopamine, total immersion; we players want all that from the developers. On the other hand, we don’t want to be hooked up to the milking machine till the udders are sore. Because that is exactly what most F2P businesses do today. They use player data and patterns to increase playing time to the maximum, and to optimize the game for eventual conversions, read: the spending of real money. F2P games could work as a mutually beneficial relationship between developers and players. The goal of the developer should be to provide as much fun as possible over the longest period of time.
Fans often name Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends as examples of such a symbiotic interplay. In both games, there are different fee-based enhancements such as experience points or embellishments. The majority of the players judge these purchases as insignificant for the success in the game and the games therefore not as pay-to-win. But naturally, opinions are divided over this .
F2P games are a relatively young genre and strategies of developers are likely to change. Legal requirements, app store rules and not least the players will transform the market in the next few years. I hope that developers will develop more sense of responsibility and the F2P genre does not end as a full blown casino.