The Psychology Of: free-to-play

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Currently, free-to-play games are making quite the killing in the marketplace, although 
it’s death by a thousand microtransactions. The idea, as the name suggests, is that you can play for free, but you can also pay for in-game conveniences, such as new content and time savers. It’s been a massive success, and the model is now something of an industry darling, much to the chagrin of certain developers.

In 2010, game creator and noted essayist Ian Bogost reacted to the rise of free-to-play principles by reducing them to their essence in his tongue-in-cheek Cow Clicker. In the game, the main action players could take was to click a cow every few hours in order to get a ‘you clicked your cow’ message and a satisfying moo, but they could also buy in-game ‘Mooney’ and spend it to reduce the cow-clicking cooldown. Amazingly, Bogost’s satirical experiment caught on and turned into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster that was soon shaking down the locals for real money. Aghast and fascinated, Bogost effectively pulled the plug with a Cowpocalypse.

Cow Clicker wasn’t a fluke. The principles of the free-to-play approach also power Facebook juggernauts, notably Zynga’s FarmVille, and enable overnight successes in the mobile phone arena. Take a look at the list of top grossing games in the App Store and you’ll see that it’s mostly populated by games that are free to download, but which are supported by the in-game purchase of Smurfberries, gems, coins, and whatever those little purple things are. And don’t think that the rise of free-to-play is limited to social and casual games – the model is being so well received across the industry that some MMOG PC and console games, such as Star Trek Online and DC Universe Online, have left behind traditional box-and-subscription packages in favour of the free-to-play approach.

So what’s driving the model’s success? It’s often as simple as gamers wanting to access new content that requires a small fee. And several players we asked also told us that they parted with money simply to reward the people who were offering them great games, such as League Of Legends or World Of Tanks, free of charge.

It’s a way for games to stay profitable as well. Uber Entertainment creative director John Comes is currently working on a free-to-play ‘sequel’ to Monday Night Combat, called Super Monday Night Combat, and as he explains: “We put out a bunch of updates in the months following the release of Monday Night Combat through Steam. The only problem was that giving away updates for a $15 game wasn’t really a business model we could sustain and keep our jobs.” Making Super MNC free-to-play and with a stream of content for purchase solves that issue and lets gamers support the developers.

Yet these factors can only explain some of free-to-play’s sales. Some developers are taking advantage, intentionally or accidentally, of the wrinkles in human psychology to get us to err on the ‘pay’ side of the equation more than we might objectively like. Psychologists have studied the principles involved, and a couple of lines of research into how people decide to buy products outside of videogames help to illuminate what’s going on in our industry.

“They just wore me down,” one gamer said when asked why he decided to purchase buffs to speed up his progress in doing Deeds (a kind of reputation quest) in Lord Of The Rings Online. His choice of words is more accurate than you might guess, because our defences against impulse shopping can indeed get worn down over time like a physical barrier.