Against Addiction and Gambling-like Mechanic in Free to Play Games

I want to take the cue from a last week massive Reddit thread on micro-transaction in Free2Play (F2P) games to give my opinion of the topic. I think it is important. We need to increase awareness that predatory practices in F2P games are incredibly close to gambling and share with it the same self-destructive and harmful addictive behavior. This is wrong in so many way: it is dangerous for the victims, it is dangerous for the game itself, and it is dangerous for the entire F2P model.

The Reddit thread presents this as a new discovery, but it is not. The trend is clear for a long time and there are a lot of discussions on the topic. Before we try to find a solution, let’s look at the different faces of the problem.

The Micro-Gambling Addiction: The User Perspective

When we talk about predatory marketing behaviors in F2P games, we talk about all that practices implemented to encourage/force people into spending more and more money in F2P games using excessive addiction/gambling inspired techniques. Every developer tries to make people spending money on their game. However, sometime F2P games push this too hard using addictive design mechanism with the goal of “trapping” people willing to put in the game unhealthy amount of money. And they do nothing to prevent this.

A common misconception when talking about this is that people usually assumes that the target of Predatory F2P games are the children. After all, we usually look to children as vulnerable creatures that can be easily tricked with games. This is wrong. Predatory F2P games targets are the so-called “whales”: people who can spend thousands of euros per month on a game. Children have no money, they cannot be whales.

In order to survive, F2P games need to catch some whales, and to do that they aim to vulnerable people using gambling-like techniques. We are talking about depressed people, people who had a big loss, people who have problem at works or in social context, people not satisfied with their life. F2P games give to this people a community, a goal, a deep sense of accomplishment. But in Predatory F2P all this comes with a price: a price these people need to pay to continue playing, to not let down their community/clans, to be competitive and continue to feel accomplished.

It is hard for people without these problems to understand how a person without a job can spend 3000$ in one session on MapleStory in order to craft a single weapon. But it happens, more than you think.

Is F2P Addiction as Gambling Addiction?

If this remember you something, you are right: gambling addiction. Let’s look at the symptom of gambling addiction (from here) and see if we may relate them to F2P addiction.

  • obsessing over any type of gambling – replace gambling with games and, check.
  • gambling to feel better about life – As I said before, check.
  • failing to control your gambling – This is clearly obvious for people spending 10000$ on a F2P game.
  • avoiding work or other commitments to gamble – Check.
  • neglecting bills and expenses and using the money for gambling – Sadly, check.
  • selling possessions to gamble – I am not aware of these cases, but I am sure that it is because I didn’t look well enough.
  • stealing money to gamble – Check.
  • lying about your gambling habit – Check.
  • feeling guilty after a gambling session – Check.
  • taking bigger and bigger risks while gambling – This require defining “risk” in F2P game spending, but I can assume that for F2P whales, there is a tendency of spending more and more with the time passing.

In my opinion, gambling addiction symptoms map with my experiences with F2P addicted people. But, unlike gambling, there is no warning, there is not the same public attention and F2P addiction is definitely hard to be recognized as a real pathology.

The Micro-Gambling Addiction: The Game Perspective

This concept is extremely well explained in the above video. I’ll try to summarize here the key points.

Because F2P games require whales to survive and because a handful of whales can represent 95% of the game revenues, the game slowly shifts their focus toward a whale-centric model. This is reflected in games becoming less and less fun for non-whales players. That’s how Pay-2-Win games are born.

But that’s not all. Games need non-whales customers, too. They need them, because they are the game population segment that feed the whales’ sense of accomplishment. Why I need to by that amazing sword if there is no one to crush with it?

This force the game to acquire new players faster than how the existing players quit. This, in turn, increases the advertising cost and exposure. Now, instead of a pay-2-win game, we have an annoying pay-2-win game with advertising popping up everywhere.

The self-feeding loop will continue indefinitely until the game is no more sustainable, leaving behind a battlefield of indifference or disgusted players.

Did the game improve over time? Did it leave a good memory to the old players? Did it offer a refreshing and fun experience? No. It trapped the whales into it as a parasite and pissed of everybody else. These are not the kind of products developers are proud to work in. These are not what games should be.

The Micro-Gambling Addiction: The F2P Model Perspective

The last victim of this practice is the F2P model itself. The F2P model is a good model. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Actually, F2P has many benefits, it allows everybody to play it and allows people willing to spend money on it to spend the amount of money they think the game is worth, and more.

Though, predatory F2P is actively damaging the F2P model itself. If the trend did not stop we will face the following problems:

  • Game studios that do not want to implement unethical marketing/design practices can go out of business because the finite amount of money of the F2P market is absorbed by those gambling/addiction-based games. Thus, making the F2P market less interesting for the majority of players.
  • F2P games in general may start to have a bad reputation among the core of the gaming community. In turn, this drives people away from the model. We can already see how F2P has become a term with which gamer “insult” games.
  • Governments may start acting in an indiscriminate way. Because we rarely see politicians understanding the technology they are going to regulate, I am sure that if something will happen will hit hard all the F2P model regardless of how much unethical their practices are.

We can already see some of these points in action and things are not going to improve in the foreseeable future.

Defending people from micro-gambling

Here it comes the final question: how can we stop this? As individual, we probably can’t. We can avoid such horrible F2P games but we do not make a difference. Only the “whales” matters.

But this is not a reason to stop trying. Here a simple list of things you can do.

  • Spread awareness of the problem. For now, this is not perceived as a social issue. But we have seen it definitely is. There clearly people out there that are putting themselves in financial problem territory with some game. This people need help. And nobody will help them if they think there is no problem.
  • If you know people affected by this kind of addiction try to help them. If they are not in such deep problems, keep an eye on them. Addiction is easy to snowball in much bigger addictions. Don’t be ashamed. We have reached the point where it is not a shame to ask for help for somebody spending too much at Poker. It is the same for people spending too much in some F2P game.
  • Every time it is possible, mark the connection between gambling and F2P predatory practices. Make clear that some games are using gambling related techniques. As the original Reddit thread suggest, if we stop using a generic micro-transaction for gambling-like mechanics in F2P games, it is easier to make people aware of the problem. Moreover, it will separate good F2P from bad F2P.

If you are a developer, instead, the obvious suggestion is to avoid to put heavy gambling inspired techniques in your game. I know that sometime they are accidental. But there are two easy tricks:

  • Try to make purchasable content not necessary for the game. A splendid example is Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2. In TF2 everything can be dropped, or can be bought to save time. In Dota 2, everything on sale is just cosmetic. This remove the urgency for people to buy stuff to be competitive and, at the same time, it allows people deeply involved in game to buy something to look cool.
  • Try to put a limit on the amount of money needed to unlock contents. If there is no more than X amount of € of contents per year it is impossible for vulnerable people to spend 3000€ in a month. For instance, you can release your game as F2P and,  when a single user buys a certain amount of F2P contents (e.g., 100€ or more), he/she unlocks the full game. For instance, this is done in Pokémon Picross, where the user can grind everything in a F2P fashion, or can buy the equivalent of 15€ of stuff to have complete access to the game contents. There are many other examples of this.

I am open to hear more solutions for this problem. If you have any other trick to help F2P addicted people, send me a message and I will update this section!

P.S: Hey, what about Trading-Card Games?

Oh dear God…

My definition of gambling-inspired micro-transaction (randomization of the outcome, unlimited spending, payed content required to be competitive) is quite broad. Writing this article, I realized that this definition includes games such Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone because of one of their core components: booster packs. Are booster packs considered gambling? Well… technically yes. It is, in fact, possible that people get addicted to such mechanic (I personally I think I had some physical addiction to the smell of freshly unpacked booster packs). The feedback of excitement and punishment/reward of opening a booster pack is exactly the same of spinning a slot machine.

I think there is a subtle difference though. Booster pack always gives you something of value that can be used or exchanged to get the card you really want. Evan virtual TCG games implements such mechanism in attempts to attenuate the gambling aspects. For instance, Hearthstone allow you to disenchant duplicated card and use the resulting materials to “craft” a more valuable card. Sure, it is not a zero-sum process, but it is better than a slot machine.

For this reason, I think they can give the same problem in some cases, but in a more light and controllable form. They lay in a gray area.

Again, I do not want to ban gambling-like mechanic. I want to make people aware of the problem so that we can protect vulnerable people.