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Free-to-play mobile games are a real threat: not for kids, but adults. Part II — A New Hobby.

In the previous part, I tried to figure out why mobile games grab our attention so efficiently. Now it’s time to decipher how they develop into a daily hobby.

So, you’ve installed a game on your device, played for a few days and are currently enjoying it a lot. You can feel the progress, you’ve mastered your skills, you know the routine and you can execute it perfectly.

There are several ways of keeping you hooked and any (or even all) of those mentioned below can be used in a single game. Obviously, it is not a complete list — developers are being creative and coming up with more brilliant ideas regularly!

Stage 1: Time-gated content and fear of missing an important reward

If you look at any free-to-play game (I’ll use the F2P acronym going forward), a big chunk of its content is available within a 24-hours window. You’ve got things like:

  • Login rewards, giving you some free stuff on a daily basis with possibly better prizes towards a 7-/14-/30-day streak. They are completely free and it is not a game-changer when you don’t pick them up, but missing out on those rewards feels like slowing down your progress. No worries if you missed a day or two, any of the items offered here can be easily purchased via the in-game shop!
  • In-game events happen on a recurring schedule. You can’t fight a dungeon boss on Monday, because it’s available on Saturday only. But to get a chance for a fight, you need to collect special keys/scrolls/whatever during the week to unlock the fight on the weekend for free. Or you can always pay on Saturday to skip those weekly collections! Other events are also strictly time-gated, i.e. you can collect certain resources after midnight only, forcing you to log in before you go to sleep. And many other options, millions of them! The thing is, missing any event will make you go short of some in-game resource(s). Which is, in turn, used for another in-game activity. So next time you will make sure not to miss any event! Otherwise, you will either need to play even more or not get the desired reward at all! Or make a quick $1-$5-$50 purchase to catch up.
  • One-time events on a special occasion. Can be real-life related (i.e. Halloween/Christmas/New Year events) or upon certain progress achieved. I.e. you’ve unlocked your main building level 10 and it automatically kicks off a special 7-day quest to obtain a unique reward. Typically, it is not possible to obtain such a reward playing for free and you can’t purchase this reward from the in-game shop directly. Somewhere on Day 5, you realize that an additional — real money — investment is a must (because you’ve already invested 5 days of your time and you can’t complete the event just by playing). Leaving you with very little energy to resist the purchase — getting a fresh dose of completionism suddenly becomes more important.
  • Energy bars/resource refresh on a daily basis. Remember those stamina bars for your heroes or patrol for your vehicle? It is quite easy depleting them, but there’s a very long waiting time till they get refilled. Amazing trick — it either forces you to log in more often — from once-a-day-check-my-stuff, you become a well-disciplined individual able to log into the game precisely every 4 hours, 7 days per week! (a big surprise to your family!) Or you can skip/reset timers via a jokingly small amount of money (typically, it’s $0.99).

I don’t know the exact percentage of players donating real $ in the games on Stage 1. I think it really depends on your resistance to (unexpected) purchasing and the amount of free time you can invest in the game. You would typically think the game is quite enjoyable as it is and there’s really no need to put real money in it. Moreover, you’ve probably made some new (virtual) friends and are quite excited to progress on par!

Have you noticed? All the above mentioned options seems very different from each other but have one particular thing in common: just a small purchase and you’re not missing anything important!

Stage 2: Monthly passes and subscription services

These are usually not actively advertised, you might find them “hidden” or somewhere on the last pages of the in-game shop. Any subscription service comes with a fantastic price/value ratio, giving you a small advantage on a daily basis and an increasing one as you play towards the 7/14-/30-days period. If you manage your resources well and time the recurring events correctly, with the support of a monthly pass or any similar paid advantage you can achieve, like, double efficiency and skyrocket your progress!

Now, since such service is not advertised actively, is usually a little bit hidden and offers a great price/value ratio, you might start thinking you’re genuinely a smart player because you won’t spend $50 or $100 on some poorly-valued in-game shop purchases, but will get maximum out of the game by investing just $5 (or $10) in the monthly pass. And it’s not a big deal to log in daily — you do that anyway!

Unfortunately, it’s the game developers who are really smart here.

Stage 3: It is free-to-play and I enjoy it, so spending can’t hurt!

So you’ve installed the game for free, you built your settlement or levelled up your hero(es) or anything like that — why not send a small token of appreciation to the game developers? Especially, when there are so many options to say thanks!

Another driver to finally make that in-game purchase is the strong belief you will not get an unfair advantage over the non-paying crowd. Just a tiny help to your progress or a simple excuse (I was busy on Wednesday and need to catch up with my in-game friends by obtaining that daily pack).

There also might be certain game aspects that you don’t like or simply haven’t yet seen/unlocked and that’s, again, done intentionally. You feel confident spending a small amount will definitely help developers to pay their bills and improve the game long-term.

The trick here is once you put in any amount of money (doesn’t matter if it’s $1, $50 or over $100), the next day you feel obliged to check in. Maybe you were not planning to spend initially (because you were busy and missed one day). Maybe you don’t like to wait for that energy bar to refresh cause it’s Sunday and if it was not for the COVID thing, you’d spend more just by going out for the beers/shopping/you-name-it. Maybe there’s another reason, but it’s quite easy to find a justification. In the end, they all don’t matter, because you’ve done the first step — you have spent.

Welcome to the spender’s community!

If you progress the game and stop enjoying it at some point, it would be harder to stop playing, since you’re now an investor and you are confident developers will remove those non-enjoyable aspects later on. So you continue playing with even bigger expectations.

Multiple in-game currencies

Not a particular stage itself, but a reminder from the previous article. I believe all F2P games have at least 2 currencies — a virtual one earned by playing the game (i.e. food, wood, metal, gas, silver coins etc.) and a premium one. You can earn premium currency in tiny amounts. The trick is you get more once you started and less or even 0 — over time (the typical rule is the longer you play, the less premium currency you can earn). And, of course, you can buy unlimited amounts of premium currency from the in-game shop — either directly or via different “special offers”.

The majority of the F2P games have more than 1 premium currency. While the number of premium currencies doesn’t really matter, their effect remains the same — to diminish the value of real money. You kinda feel silly buying in-game food or wood resources, because you can simply farm them. At the same time, you might truly believe it is not worth a week of your time farming hundreds of millions of a said resource, forcing you to log in multiple times per day. So it’s not a big deal to invest $5 here and there. At this stage, you are not aware that while your upcoming building upgrade needs only a million resources, the one or several levels afterwards have the cost of upgrade growing exponentially to billions of virtual resources and it becomes unreal to obtain them by just playing.

In the following article, I will describe how an innocent hobby turns into a serious addiction.

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