Psychology Behind F2P Video Games

This turned into more of a set of bullet points rather than a conversation starter. Nevertheless I feel they are relevant enough to be included as the topic itself is behaviour and design.

When I first started gaming, there were no on-line guides and walkthroughs. For playing games such as King’s Quest and Quest for Glory, you had to call Sierra directly to access their ‘Game Hint Hot-line’. Now you have speed walkthroughs, lets play walkthroughs, lore walkthroughs (more emphasis on story and plot), 100% complete walkthroughs, and so on.

I am stubborn as hell. If I can’t get past a certain point in a game, I’ll stop playing for awhile. A walkthrough for me feels like cheating myself out of the game’s experience. Lately looking over how many games I have incomplete, I have simply gone back and put them on easy to finish them. Finishing a game helps me justify the 10-50$ I put into the game in the first place.

This is just one of many scenarios that go through a person’s mind when they sit down to ‘enjoy’ a game. Knowing this, developers can manipulate they way you respond to games through story plots and game mechanics. A horror game plays on your fears, an action game plays off your adrenaline in the line of fire. A ‘facebook’ game plays off your want to complete something, and then only provides that completeness when you put money into the game.

Zynga had the right idea when they first started putting out F2P facebook games. Players slowly rose to the top and found they had nothing else to do. A few options following allowed Zynga to keep players playing longer as well as make more money. More and more pay only items were added to their games, and Zynga started coming out with new games almost every month. If you got tired of one, there was another literally being advertized right there as you played. They even have meta rewards for you if you did X things in xyz games. It keeps you playing their games. Ads pop up on your screen every so often literally preventing you from playing the game unless you clicked accept and from there you could then hit cancel to go back to playing, for spend 5$ to get that cow with a bowtie on in your farm.

Games are designed around how we think. This is obvious when you look at games across cultures and see how differently they play on that culture’s way of thinking. What is relevant between all cultures is the sense of accomplishment. Rewards and incentives are a core mechanic in video games. Consider this now. It is known that rewarding positive behaviour produces more results than punishing bad behaviour right? Take a basic game like pac-man and take out limited lives. You’d be left with a game where instead of fearing the ghosts, subconsciously you know you can just try again and there is less incentive to learn to play better.

Apply this to WoW and LFR and now you have game content where if you lose (wipe on a fight) all you lose is time and some repair gold. You are not punished more than that. You are actually rewarded with a buff that makes you more powerful in the next attempt. Some of you may think this is similar to heroic raids. You go in and wipe and all you lose is time and some repair gold. Wrong.

You lose the preconception that you are badass and you can clear anything. Heroic raids show you that your shinies do not matter. You can not simply brute force your way through a heroic raid like you can in LFR. This humbling experience is what separates casuals and hardcore players. Vanilla WoW, EVERYONE learned one way or another, you have to know what you are doing to step foot in a raid. If you didn’t, you held everyone back. Raids could only be done by people who took the time to understand the game. The game was designed around skill and rewarded that skill with items only skilled players could get.

Blizzard then decided to design the game around casuals instead of skill. Those raids you had to work for, you had to gear up for, read up strategies for, learn what class synergy to use for, you can now just spend two weeks mindlessly spamming 1 and 2 killing X mobs for tokens for gear and then queue to be automatically be put inside the raid where other players tell you to just group them all together and spam 1 and 2 again.

This is not rewarding. Players are not forced to learn the game mechanics. If you give people who ignore game mechanics the same rewards you give people who know everything about the game mechanics, you end up with two sides bashing each other and no one wins.

Game developers know how players feels. They have large amounts of data on how they react to certain scenarios, nevermind hundreds of psychological human studies done. They know exactly how to incite different emotions in players. They know exactly what makes a game fun, challenging, boring, exciting, horrible. Sometimes player satisfaction is ignored for some quick $$$.

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If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough
manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the
rules of the game have changed. If done artfully, the consumer will
increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a
skill game and “just need a bit of help”. This ends up also being a
form of discriminatory pricing as the costs just keep going up until
the consumer realizes they are playing a money game.

The F2P genre is a fascinating experiment in psychology and how game designers have latched on to that inherent need to collect more, push further, keep coming back…even if it means at the cost of a shrunken wallet.

The last time I spoke to Ater on the phone about this, he brought an astute observation to the table: If you sort the games on Google Play (the Android store) by Most Revenue Earning, they are all free. That’s bizarre. All free to download, yet all the biggest money makers.

When I explained to him how WoW has gone with their current in-game pets for sale, he was baffled that they hadn’t gone to a structure more like this, where purchasing in-game items went beyond cosmetics and bled into buffs and experience gains.

…so once again, Ater called it. Was only a matter of time.

We all know why Ater called it though right? He owns both Zynga and Blizzard.

I’m wondering how long it will be before getting a Game Designer position requires a psychology degree instead of any sort of computer/math related degree’s or skills.


Well, Riot hired a psychology and sociology expert to help come up with new systems to encourage better behavior; the whole tribunal system/honor system, which has been working surprisingly well. The League of Legends community makes the World of Warcraft community look like the Boy Scouts…

…keeping girls out and remaining intolerant of gays! :smiley:

I’m kidding!

But seriously. They hate gay people.

Any raider worth a damn knows that LFR is a joke. We all know it isn’t the challenge and that’s not what gets us excited about the current tier. Killing heroic bosses is a reward in itself when it’s current content. It doesn’t bother me that people are seeing the lore take place simultaneously and getting inferior rewards for less work. They aren’t trying to make a quick buck, they’re trying to make millions, and they’re doing it by appealing to multiple audiences. It’s pretty impressive.

Riot released all that data as well. Giving hard facts and percentages on number of reports, what types, game losses and so. No one is in the dark when it comes to League data. Tribunal system kicks in and Riot keeps the public updated on data changes. Sometimes 1% isn’t just a big number. Here, 1% of ~30 million is 300,000. That is a lot of people and a lot of money. Even a small improvement in LoL’s community would justify a psychology expert.

It was not only those little badges being added to player’s frames, but also putting the reported player’s future in the hands of the people. The community had a say in what would happen to reported players. This in theory makes the community a self improving entity getting better over time. Get rid of the bad and encourage more players to come in. This also helps keep those who are nice for niceness sake, and not nice just because they have to be or fearing a ban.

I wish more game companies were more open with their data.

I’ve had mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I’ve always been about accessibility, and still contend that Wrath’s approach was the right one, even when many traditional raid guilds called it quits at the end of TBC, citing “game’s too easy, no challenge”.

On the other hand, when more and more players drop out of real progression guilds that are doing real raiding…in order to simply “see” the content via LFR, walking out with only slightly inferior gear as a result…now I have a problem with the system and its implementation.

The model blizzard is going towards has a finite amount of subscribers. As many have stated, casuals come and go fairly quickly once they exhaust content. WoW will get to a sweet point where there will be a slight net gain to subscribers again.

I am all for everyone seeing content as well Omaric. Cool epic fights and how they affect the lands of Pandaria. An easy solution to the whole LFR argument would be to reward the effort with similar gear. The ilvl is already lower than flex/normal/heroic. However, the gear is identical in pixels. Here is what you do.

Design a generic, bland looking LFR armor set. LFR effort is significantly lower than normal raiding. They still get gear, but now they are no longer visually alike. Blizzard doesn’t even have to make new models. Just make the LFR gear the same model as the full set of gear they give you in every zone leveling up in MoP. Give the LFR gear some type of generic title instead of the current vanquisher/raider spiel, and then GET RID OF SET BONUSES on LFR gear.

And actually you know Blizzard themselves love saying they don’t want to force players to burn themselves out (separate lockouts) so removing set bonuses from LFR ensures players don’t burn themselves out getting coins and rolling for set bonus gear! Problem solved.

In summation, LFR gear should be attuned to the effort put in:

  • Bland armor/weapon model
  • Bland armor/weapon names
  • No set bonuses

I’d like to see arguments against this proposition.

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The first big argument with bland weapons and armor is, of course, no incentive for players to do LFR. Now, while that doesn’t affect you and I, the people they are trying to get in there will pitch a huge bitch over the lack of a reward.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to spin in it any differently now – the precedent has already been set with the existing LFR. Taking something away from a customer is product suicide (as you’ve seen with the 10s/25s).

Now, if they had approached it differently from the start, they could very easily have spun the responses in a different light:

(Alternate World where 10s and 25s remained split into Cata, and LFR was introduced at Dragon Soul without tier drops)

Scrub Player:



"LFR wasn’t designed to give you loot, it was designed to allow you to
see the content and experience bosses and storyline without being a
member of an competitive, highly structured raiding guild. A huge
percentage of players missed seeing content in TBC and Vanilla for
this very reason – LFR solves that.

Now, if you actually want rewards, well…that’s what the 10s and 25s
are for. Our model has, and always will be, rewards that match the
effort. If you’re unhappy with this model, than perhaps World of
Warcraft isn’t the game for you."

You see, in this alternate reality where Ghostcrawler never joined the 10/25 raid locks and LFR was introduced without access to the tier tokens, complainers still exist. There will always be complainers. In every alternate reality there are complainers.

The difference here is: Descendants of Draenor, and many, many other 25m raiding guilds continued on, wrapping up Dragon Soul, and have been raiding as a healthy guild all through MoP – and just wrapped up Ra Den last week…because they never lost any players to 10-Man guilds, nor did players leave to start farming up their gear in LFR. They didn’t lose players because there was no other avenue to gain those rewards.

As long as an easy way out exists, people will take it. It’s the public goods game.

I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want the people that find LFR’s more enjoyable on my raid team anyway. That’s not the competitive attitude you’re looking for. So, you can say LFR took raiders away from you, sure, but they aren’t the raiders you’re looking for.

Also, for Bonechatter’s LoL comments. Yeah, they’re doing great. It’s also a free to play game. That means trolls. Toxic, toxic trolls. Blizz is able to keep people in check through a bought game + subscription. If you F up you get banned and need to purchase a whole new game. In League, if you get banned you start a new free account. The outlier in League would be someone who’s purchased multiple skins with real money. Their incentive now is to not be a jerk.

LoL had to bring in a psychologist because the community was THAT toxic. WoW has never been as toxic as League. Sure, you’ll get your shit talkers, but they’re everywhere. League is constant social pummeling.

Agreed, but there are a handful of players that float between casual and hardcore every day in this game, and it was the guardrails of Wrath that pushed them one way or the other…they either knuckled down and improved, learned what they needed to learn and grew into a more skillful player – a player we wanted in Ulduar, Icecrown, etc.

And, of course, there were handfuls of players who went the other way, complained, bitched, demanded, justified their excuses through the subscription mechanism…and we certainly did not want those folks.

When the guardrails went away, more and more players that walked this fine line – fell to the latter side of the fence. We certainly didn’t change our ideals or guidelines on what we wanted, but the pool of adequate players dwindled to such low amounts that recruitment inevitably became fruitless.

I simply couldn’t keep up.

So, on the one hand, I absolutely agree with you @Omaric; we don’t want those LFR folks, LFR can have 'em!

On the other hand, no incentive exists for players to take the path less traveled. The one that requires effort, struggle, failure, practice…and eventual success. I’m glad to hear that your guild is currently able to maintain 25m progression, and more power to you!

…it won’t last. It is, by its very nature, an unsustainable model.

I understand, you make some solid points. I think our biggest issue with DoD was the server to be honest. The competition on the server continued to dwindle as the years went on. I can’t help but wonder if DoD could have continued with more success on a server with more competition.

And thanks! It’s certainly not all rainbows over here either. Recruitment is a constant process. New people constantly app’ing, but turn out to be duds. It’s hard to find quality sometimes. Let’s be real though, nothing is really indefinitely sustainable except Twinkies.


LoL had to bring in a psychologist because the community was THAT

Which is interesting because that stands true will ALL Mobas. And I think the reason behind that is the game itself is all competition, and being group with pugs. Being grouped with people who you cannot communicate with is extremely frustrating - some pvp battlegrounds. Having a game focused around communication is great for team players, but not for people who play “just for fun”. You might be having fun trying out a new hero, but the 5-25 team is not having fun (unless they are all really understanding and also are just playing to learn and have fun… LMFAO!).

WoW you can mute people without it hurting your play experience. You can report people and overall it cleans up nicely. Mobas take a long time to get to a point where there is more constructive talk than trash.

I remember Anni talking in vent pretty much dismissing every argument about LFR and hardcore players and I agree with him. He was saying the social aspect of guilds, raids, pvp, arena, should hold their own. You get on WoW for the social aspect. Players who get on just to get gear and solo through everything aren’t connected to anything and are quicker to leave. If you were in a 25 man with a bunch of dicks and had heroics on farm, would you still be having a good time? It is about logging in on fridays, and whispering the raid leader “Invite!” and then seeing a group of people who accomplish things together while also being social with one another.

Unfortunately despite all that, no amount of recruiting was able to fill in our 25 man roster and every week we had less and less show up until we couldn’t fill it on the same day.

I agree, and I think a good number of outsiders that have become regular readers of the blog have latched on to this as well. Deathwing-US, for all intents and purposes, was a cesspool.

Idealism vs. Realism. There are things that should stand on their own merit, but human behavior has proven us otherwise…long before WoW was invented. Intuitive designers embrace these limits of man, and employ the necessary guardrails to fulfill their needs. It even holds true as far down the chain as proper preparation for a raid; many failed raiders complained of “too much RNG”, while successful ones worked emergency planning into their strategy.

You make your own luck, just like Billy Zane on the Titanic.

I’ll bring up something somewhat positive to change things a little here and that is the NeverWinter On-Line F2P model. They have a standard F2P model with currency you can buy in-game to buy mounts and skins and boosts. There are a few quests that lead you to the Store vendor just to show you it is there. After that though they don’t bug you at all. Every few weeks there might be a new store item. They don’t pop it up in front of you, they just have that little store button at the top of you ui glow. That is it. You can login and run around all day and log out without ever seeing the store. They don’t ask you to make that choice of buying something in game every 10 mins, or even every time you log in. They simply say here is the store whenever you want to buy something. There are still little things like a chest drop you can only open with buying a key, but players get around that by just ‘WTB Chest key 5 gold’.

Now I don’t know much about this next part in relation to the game company making money but this is the part that makes Neverwinter unique. You can design your own dungeon/quest series and stick it up for everyone else to experience. And, after someone finishes your dungeon, they can critique it as well as tip you some currency if they so desire. There is a built in promotion section in the queue menu which I assume either players can pay to have their dungeon promoted in the promoted section, and another for 5 star player rated dungeons.

Now because the majority of content is generated by players, this F2P game will last considerably longer than a F2P game that relies on store buys to develop new content for players. This happened to AoE on-line I believe. They stopped making new content (again this is just an assumption based on articles) because players had either already bought everything, or there weren’t enough new players buying stuff. When there is no subscription, the whole entire game development relies only on game store purchases. Having player generated content for others to experience allows less time for Devs to focus on new stuff, and more time providing player services and bug fixes.

So not only do they rely on players to produce a profit for them, but they also rely on players to give the dev team a time buffer between creating content themselves? Pretty ballsy, but for people that enjoy creating stuff I guess it’s kewl. From my perspective, pretty slimy.

This is pretty much all that Everquest 2 has going for it now besides nostalgia. Player homes with pixel precise furniture movement, and dungeons made by players. They are still going too. Last I logged in they had a facial recognition option through your webcam that moves your characters face to follow your face. So during a pvp match you yelled WTF OMG, your character mouths along and goes bug eyes just as you do.

Player made content is something everyone asks for in mmos. I want a house! I want a store! Letting people make these things in a game makes it more likely that they will stick with it because of the time they spent in the game and allowing them to visually see that effort. Plus, this allows devs to see what the top rated dungeon is, and why, allowing devs to actually see what players want.

Player made content running the game. Minecraft. Need I say more?

Minecraft has an in-game store? Wasn’t it made by one person?

No I mean player made content can drive a game on forever. Minecraft is just with a set of tools given to the player. The player makes the content. NeverWinter is using this model. Putting the tools in the hands of players, for free. Ofc minecraft has a steep price of 30$. Compare that to any game with similar mechanics and you’d go wtf. But Minecraft is designed around you going out and downloading other maps and experience other content, as well as making and sharing your own. In Minecraft you can say “Look what I did!” and get lots of upvotes and youtube views. In NeverWinter you can make a dungeon and say “Look what I did!” and have thousands of people play that dungeon and tip you and give feedback. Pretty nice gig.