Why Free-to-Play Should Make You Feel Like a Manipulated Bitch
Last year, a friend of mine started playing Clash of Clans. Prior to this, we’d often talked about the F2P (Free-to-Play) model that exploded in the gaming industry a few years back. We agreed on several points, especially the primary one: It was a form of manipulation that only stupid people really fall for. It is, in fact, a commonly used and critical part of the casino mentality, because there are distinct notes of gambling, deception, and addiction.
Now, one year later, that friend has spent over $500 on the game and he knows others who have spent far more. He’s playing it all the time; in restaurants, in the car, sitting on my couch. It’s just pathetic and I can’t look at it anymore. It’s the perfect example of how F2P works and what it can do to people: It’s manipulation of the highest order, designed to take advantage of highly addictive online experiences that never end and always change…provided you pony up.
Way back in the day, another friend of mine got hooked on good ol’ Evercrack. Now, Everquest was long before free-to-play but it was one of the first examples of a video game that forced you to play a monthly fee. Most gamers thought that was insane. Most said they’d never do it. Most flat-out laughed at the idea. The only one who didn’t was this friend in question, who happily paid every month. Of course, he was playing at least 40 hours per week so I suppose the monthly fee meant little or nothing to him.
The point is, these models only work if they can sufficiently hook people. Now that they’ve proven ways to do that, and now that our society is hopelessly addicted to our screens, all a developer needs to do now is craft a kitschy little game that gets under the skin and keeps prodding you for more cash. It’s a perfect model: The initial cost is nil, so why not try it? Then they carefully determine how long a player should play before they’re likely to start paying for the privilege of more game content. When that time comes, it’s not a big number; it’s merely a dollar, or something. And really, who’s going to agonize over a dollar?
But as the smartphone industry quickly learned as well, apps that go for a buck can earn billions, and people who think they only spent a few dollars in any given month actually spent more like thirty or forty just on apps. It’s why most people are absolutely shocked to learn the total amount of money spent on any free-to-play experience. It doesn’t even take that long to rack up the bills, which is the scary part. The entire process is carefully orchestrated to get as much out of your pockets as humanly possible. That much is painfully obvious.
Now, what I don’t understand is why so few are seemingly oblivious to this fact. At first, I thought it was because most just weren’t noticing what was happening and when they did notice, they’d snap out of it. But now I’m terrified to see that even when they realize what’s happening, they just shrug, give you this sort of glazed-eye smile and say something like, “well, whatever.” I’m aware that we’re all zombified morons in front of our screens and our brains basically ceased functioning at an acceptable level, but what about personal pride? You don’t care that you’ve been manipulated and humiliated? You don’t care that you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on this?
I’m sorry, but maybe we really are too stupid to get anything better. F2P and microtransactions and Season Passes and reams of DLC; none of this would exist if it didn’t work. It obviously works and works extremely well, which means consumers everywhere have no issue with being taken. None. Sure, I’ve bought a few pieces of DLC here and there (Left Behind for The Last Of Us was amazing, for example, as was Hearts of Stone for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), and I believe in paying developers and publishers for quality, substantial content that enhances and enriches the original experience. There’s a very wide gulf between that and certain popular crap like Pokemon Go.
People, snap out of it. Seriously. Casinos have been built to keep you in and keep you paying; there’s a reason there are no windows and no clocks, why you can gamble with very small amounts of money if you choose, and why they actually pump a certain smell into the air that makes people more amenable to taking risks (don’t believe it? Look it up). If you think the free-to-play operation is significantly different, I suggest you look again.