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The Perils of Freemium Gaming (Part 4) Skinner Boxes and Gambling

Welcome to the fourth installment of the ‘Perils of Freemium Gaming’ series. First, a brief recap of what we have covered thus far:

In the first article, we had a chuckle over my comical near-miss with freemium gaming.

In the second article, we became serious as we investigated what freemium games are, and the sinister ways they hijack the brain’s reward centers.

In the third article, we uncovered the unethical mind games used in freemium games to bleed players’ bank accounts dry.

In this fourth installment, we investigate the gameplay mechanics freemium games use to keep players hooked long term, and how some freemium games blur the line between entertainment and gambling.

Skinner Boxes

The term skinner box dates back to circa 1957 when B. F. Skinner published the findings of his and C. B. Ferster’s experiments into operant conditioning. You can follow the links for an in-depth explanation of what operant conditioning is, however, the TL;DR version is this: “Reward desired behavior and the operant will engage in said behavior more often.” This reward is known as Reinforcement.

In a freemium game, the operant is the player and the reinforcement is its in-game achievements. This could be leveling up a character, unlocking an item, earning virtual currency such as the Gold Coins and Gems used as an example previously.

These in-game rewards trigger a dopamine hit and thus make us feel happy. The reward loop in gaming is simple and effective. Keep playing, keep getting rewards, keep getting dopamine hits, rinse and repeat. However, as we saw earlier, if this happens too often and too regularly, it can lead to downregulation and desensitization.

Many freemium games overcome this problem by introducing lock-out periods. These lock-outs prevent consumers from continuing to play for a set period of time, for example, 30 minutes. This will allow the consumer’s dopamine levels to return to normal. Therefore, when the consumer returns to the game, they will enjoy it all the more.

Another cunning trick used by freemium games is countdown timers. Using Family Guy, The Quest for Stuff (FGTQFS) as an example, the tasks you set for Quahog’s residents take a set amount of time to complete.

Early on the duration of these tasks is a matter of minutes. Upon a character completing a task, the in-game characters earn in-game currency, which the player can collect. Later in the game, these tasks may take several hours to complete. Players will have to wait longer for their coins, but they earn a greater number of them for these tasks, and thus feel a greater sense of accomplishment.

This is an example of a Variable Ratio Schedule of Reinforcement, and it serves addictive double-duty. It provides plenty of reinforcement at the start to get a player hooked, then forces the player to take a break so that their dopamine levels return to normal, ready for their next play session.

However, an impatient player can circumvent the wait time by paying a microtransaction to complete the task instantly. This pay X to complete Y now mechanic is a very common practice in freemium games.

People are often willing to pay for convenience in many aspects of life, even for something as meaningless as an item or Gold Coins in a freemium game. The freemium gaming market is fully aware of this and exploits it ruthlessly.

Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff

Marvel at the thrilling interactive gameplay. Not. Why did I spend even a minute on this?

A Game of Chance

Another money-making tactic employed by some freemium games is the randomization of in-game items, costumes, characters, etc. Allegedly, this was inspired by Japanese Gacha machines, which dispense toys in plastic spheres. Each line of toys will have a set number of characters, vehicles, etc. to collect, with the goal being to collect them all.

However, it is impossible to predict what toy will be in any said sphere. This can result in players spending large amounts over a long time-frame, whilst amassing a large collection of unwanted duplicates.

Gacha games take this concept and digitize it. By removing the physical element completely and making the purchases online, these games both reduce running costs and maximize revenue.

These mechanics are then implemented into other more mainstream games, such as the JRPG Final Fantasy All the Bravest. (FFAtB). The desirability of these virtual items can be even greater than the collectible toys due to the virtual item’s effects on gameplay.

Players start FFAtB with a handful of characters. This roster can be bolstered with up to 35 extra characters. Each character costs 1$, however acquiring them all is not simply a matter of spending $35. Why? Because players do not purchase the characters, they only purchase a chance to obtain the character they want; the characters are randomized.

Players can easily spend hundreds of dollars to get every character, whilst amassing a large number of unwanted duplicates. Since the different characters possess different abilities, there is a gameplay incentive to unlocking them all beyond the merely cosmetic.

Games that use such mechanics often skew the odds of winning to ensure players will win just often enough to keep them hooked. In this case, ‘winning’ means unlocking high-level characters, items, outfits etc. Note that this is the same tactic used by gambling slot machines.

Also known as fruit machines or one-arm bandits.

Players may get a winning streak, i.e., unlocking several useful characters in a row, and this may encourage them to continue spending more than they would normally. This is an example of the Monte Carlo fallacy.

This is not the only ethically questionable monetization method employed by FFAtB, for it uses other underhand tactics as well. If your team is defeated in combat, you must wait 30 minutes to try again, unless you use a Golden Hour Glass (GHG) to get back into the action instantly. You are given three GHGs gratis. This is not generosity, however. It is a cynical trick to get consumers used to using them. Once a consumer runs out of GHGs, they will need to pay to obtain more.

It is worth noting that FFAtB isn’t completely free to start with, as it costs $4 to download it.

Unfortunately, this use of multiple questionable (not to mention objectionable) monetization methods in concert is not an isolated case. If anything, it is becoming the norm.

Final Fantasy All The Bravest

Subscription Services

Ongoing subscription services are another way in which freemium gaming can separate consumers from their cash. Of course, if the subscription was required to play the game (a la’ World of Warcraft) the game wouldn’t be free.

So, how does freemium gaming get around this? By making the subscription optional. For a set monthly fee, the player gets X number of loot-boxes, and thus a chance to unlock something useful to them, such as high-level weapons, armors, equipment, and characters.

Such games may be rigged to be prohibitively difficult when using only free stock items and characters. This would be a clear instance of pay-to-win.

Customer vs Consumer

You may have noticed I have been referring to the players of freemium games as consumers. This rather unflattering description was chosen deliberately, but not by me. This is how the freemium gaming industry itself refers to its customers and players.

The etymology of customer and consumer are very different. Customer is positive, as it suggests agency, someone who actively chooses where to obtain required and desired goods and services. It can even be used as part of an honorific highlighting and praising this sense of agency: she was a cool customer; he is a tough customer, etc.

Imagine, if you will, a gamer who wants a particular PC game. They actively compare the price of it on Steam, GoG.com, Epic Game Store, etc., and make their purchasing decision based on what is objectively the best deal.

You have just imagined a savvy customer.

Consumer, however, is almost entirely negative. In the past, it was used to describe something that uses up resources unnecessarily. In more recent times, it suggests something that uses up resources passively and with little thought. A consumer is not seen as having a sense of agency. A consumer is seen as something that will lap up whatever is provided for it.

Now, imagine someone spending money on a freemium game because a shiny pop-up enticed them to spend $3.47 to obtain three of the five gems needed to unlock a hat with no real-world value. They want the hat because they do not wish to look like someone who doesn’t spend money on the game, and they spend so rarely that $3.47 is no big deal, so they click the button and spend the $3.47.

You have now imagined both a consumer, and a minnow.

Consumer or customer. I know which one I would rather be, how about you?

This concludes part four of the perils of freemium gaming. In the fifth and final part, we will look behind the curtain and see what the freemium gaming industry really thinks about its consumers.

See you all then.

What are your thoughts on this? Were you aware of any of this before? Has your view on freemium gaming changed after reading the above? Do you have any personal experience with any of these as either a player or even as a developer? If so, we would love to hear from you, so please feel free to write your comments in the comments section below. 

Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialties include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods, and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is English, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17