The Psychology of Freemium Gaming

Time for some cross-disciplinary nerdiness today! And also for the next few weeks, as today is the beginning of series on the mechanics, and psychology of freemium games.

Before we begin, I’ll explain some of the terms I’ll need to use in the series:

Freemium: a business model where the basic product is provided for free, but upgrades and customisation is charged.

Mechanics: the separate working components of how exactly button presses are translated into action and gameplay, that fit together in a game. For example, the speed at which characters run, the delay between pressing an attack button and starting the attack, or the radius of where a sword swing will connect with an opponent, are all choices of mechanics.

Immersion: How much a player is engaged with a game, and to what extent they are thinking along the lines of the games framework. A highly immersive game is one that can easily played for long periods of time with a great degree of engagement and often emotional involvement. Usually,developers aim for high immersion, although I will also talk about circumstances where aiming for lower immersion is useful.

Microtransactions: Optional payments made to unlock small or temporary parts of a game. For example, buying a set of armour for a character, either purely cosmetic or with statistical upgrades, for £1.50.

The term Freemium is relatively new, mainly appearing during the mid-2000’s. Originally freemium games (or software) ran by subscription, where access to the basic game and plot was free, but paying a monthly subscription fee unlocked enhanced equipment, more quests, and often upgraded servers.

MMORPG’s such as Runescape (2001), and Maple Story (2003) are examples of this model. Both of these games can be played indefinitely (though repetitively) for free, and free players can perform the majority of the quests and events.

Runescape’s free-to-play town, Varrock (right) and members-only town Isafdar (left).

The other freemium method, favoured by many MMORPG’s, browser-based games, and especially mobile games, is the free-to-play model. This way, playing the game is free, but players have the option of buying extra features such as greater customisation, stat boosts, and  new levels or maps. Done right, the free-to-play model allows developers to earn from their game, creates loyalty in customers who can choose how and when they want to pay, and makes the game fair and accessible.

At least, in theory.

This series is about some of the problems that can be found in free-to-play/freemium games, and looks at specific freemium games to see what areas they are problematic in, and how fairly they adhere to the ideals of freemium. I’ll also be looking at  the psychological tactics involved in game design: how developers design to immerse, encourage, or even deliberately  frustrate players. If you want to find out more about the history of freemium, or recent news about the impact of freemium gaming, here are some links that might be interesting:

  • Circa news: 98% of all Google Play revenue is from freemium games.
  • Car magazine Evo on their freemium magazine app.

See you next time :)

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