Video game companies use psychology to make players pay not at the beginning of the game (or buy the game, basically) but after they get emotionally engaged and hooked and then are presented with an opportunity to “enhance” their experience. This monetization strategy has proven so effective that it’s now used across all categories of video games, including “free” mobile apps.
Interestingly, research shows that gaming addiction does not always correlate with the amount of in-game spending. Some players do not meet the criteria for addiction yet they spend considerably. At the same time, every player, regardless of their addiction status, is vulnerable and susceptible to unplanned in-game spending due to psychological tricks used by the game developers.
While the age range is extremely wide for players who pay in-game, younger players and children are especially susceptible, and some companies actually even target children on apps developed for children (which is insane). This is why parents should watch out for their kids having access to any of their e-wallets or credit cards.
In-game spending is even trickier than direct casino gambling. Online casinos and sports betting platforms are completely transparent about what they do, and articulate that, to play a game, one has to deposit real money and there are financial risks. On the other hand, casinos at least pay real winnings to their lucky players. No best Canadian $1 deposit casino will make any customer think that they don’t need to pay, but video games and mobile gaming apps do it all the time as a revenue strategy.
While some casinos do employ certain promotional tricks like urgency or emotional triggers for extra purchases, at least the benefit is real; if one wins real money, it is money they can withdraw. Video games offer in-game services and purchases that are completely useless in real life.
This post explains some of the reasons why we buy in-game content and what triggers make us buy.
The Deceitful Microtransactions
Within the industry, all these in-game transactions for purchases are referred to as “microtransactions.” The term was coined based on the fact that most purchases cost very little and therefore are viewed by most players as “affordable”. Small purchases are often bundled into packs to increase their total “value” in the game and therefore increase the price, making players believe they still pay less for a bundle than they would for every single item. (This is interesting because most players don’t need other items in the bundle but have to pay for them)
While one separate purchase may be totally affordable and not a big deal, the cumulative impact of numerous microtransactions can escalate significantly, reaching into the hundreds and thousands of dollars people can’t actually afford to waste. This manipulative monetization is most dangerous for children and teenagers who get emotional about gaming and cannot control their impulsive buying.
Another particularly vulnerable group is individuals with a history of problem gambling because they immediately directly engage with money. However, it is important to underline again that no one is safe exactly because this revenue strategy is manipulative and based on psychology.
How Video Game Companies Turn Players Into Payers
Manipulative techniques that lure players into paying are part of the strategy and are not random. Unpredictable reward systems, variable ratio reward schedules, unwanted bundles, and expiring offers all create emotional engagement that is hard to notice and prevent. Game companies use thorough timing for their extra offers to make users impulsive in their buying patterns.
Microtransactions delve deep into the nuances of human psychology. Game designers use a deep understanding of the motivations and triggers that make players buy once, and then again and again.
Some of the triggers used by video games include the following methods briefly described below.
Among the most prevalent microtransactions is the use of fictional in-game currency, providing players with the means to buy various items. Games employ this currency system to disguise the actual value of potential purchases and create an illusion that larger quantities represent a “better deal.” This way, players are misled about the value of the item and cannot assess the affordability of the purchase.
Random Chance Purchases
In the gaming realm, players encounter a mystery box filled with potential treasures that could surpass the initial cost and enhance their gaming experience (or not!). Whether it’s real money or in-game currency, players must invest to unlock the bag, pack, chest, or box. The attraction lies in the prospect of gaining a rare advantage.
While free-to-play games claim they require no initial cost, they strategically introduce tons of tempting upgrades and enhancements for players. These enhancements often surpass the quality of what players can attain through free means, making efforts in the game meaningless compared to the benefit of buying what is offered. This dynamic can create a divide between players opting not to pay for upgrades and those who do, thus providing a distinct advantage to paying gamers.
Numerous games often have elements that wear down or have a limited number of uses within a specific timeframe; in other words, these elements, items, or skills expire. To renew them or to prevent them from expiring, players are offered to invest either real or in-game currency. This artificially created urgency makes engaged players pay really quickly and willingly.
Final Thoughts: Manipulation About the Value
What is especially outraging is that, firstly, no real value can be found in these in-game assets, secondly, not all purchases actually lead to getting valuable items for the game (the so-called loot boxes are a great example of that), and thirdly, the players are also manipulated heavily to put extra value in the in-game items that they would otherwise just ignore.
Many players around the world report numerous cases when players who could afford to pay for a skin or weapon immediately gained in-game benefits that are otherwise either hard-earned via the game activities or are not available at all.
In other words, many players would prefer to accomplish in-game quests to earn their rewards and progress but game developers offer shortcuts via buying stuff. This impacts the gameplay and at the same time, makes achievements almost impossible unless you buy extra.
In contrast to online gambling, in-game purchases have absolutely no regulation in the majority of countries simply because the legislation lags behind trying to catch up with the new concepts, technologies, and challenges. Even despite the fact that some purchases in video games can be clearly characterized as gambling – again the example of the loot boxes! – this industry is not regulated and therefore it feels free to target children on free mobile apps with games for kids.