The Psychology of Freemium Gaming: Social Interaction Required

A cousin of the paywall and skill gate is the social fence. This is where a game, instead of requiring tangible goods for you to proceed, depends on existing or new social connections.

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Gaming being enhanced by adding friends isn’t a new concept- multiplayer videogames have been around since 1958. Explicitly requiring friendships to progress through a game is, however, a much newer trend.

Social Network games such as Farmville and Zynga’s entire catalogue are the most well-known users of this mechanic; spawning multitudes of fans, followers, and imitators. Not forgetting the universal heart-seeking Candy Crush notifications.

These games typically work by connecting the energy mechanic I spoke about before with a social mechanic. If a player would initially need to wait 6 hours to continue after running out of energy, a social gate could be created as an alternative. This could be by calling in a friend’s assistance; having a friend start playing the game would cancel that wait.

Instead of paying to recover a life, HP can be regenerated from having someone accompany you, while tricky levels can be solved via remote hints from another player. Now we hit a problem, because these abilities are the source of payment in freemium games. If these abilities are social instead, where is the earning potential?

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The Psychology of Freemium Gaming: Energy and Action

You have full energy!…

While boxed game releases used to mean one large payment for one large game, that idea isn’t a certainty any more.  Episodic games often occupy the midpoint of the price-content spectrum, while some AAA games aim for everywhere on the spectrum at once; a full game for a full price, a season pass on top, then microtransactions on top of that.

For AAA games, microtransactions rely on keeping the momentum of playtime going- for longer, either by unlocking new items early, or by increasing rewards. However, major freemium games instead aim for “micro-gaming”- limiting people to short, regular chunks of gameplay. Transactions can act as  micro-monetisation -exchanging a little bit of money for a little bit of time saved.

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The Psychology of Freemium Gaming: Gates, Walls and Curves.

Freemium games often have very low difficulty curves, and low barriers to success, as part of their casual nature. However, they will usually corner players with a paywall after the introductory rush of success has worn off.

Paywalls aren’t all created equal- some can block players from continuing easily, while others are used mainly to add extra features. A “soft” paywall might be something like the ability to unlock a bonus character or go to a new level for a fee. A “hard” paywall might be requiring hard currency for weapon upgrade, making characters progressively underlevelled without payment, or blocking their ability to resurrect themselves.

While a freemium game blocking progression outright is thankfully uncommon, many casual games will instead make progressing easy but perfection impossible for free players.

Some freemium games, such as Minion Rush, will leave actual gameplay intact, confining paywalls to cosmetic items. MR keeps most upgrades feasible, the main pay incentive being costumes that provide currency or skill boosts. While a skill upgrade can be earned in half an hour of competent play, new costumes could take days of high-level play to achieve.

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Review | Destiny

Two Thursdays ago, we felt invincible.

Our 6-man fireteam blitzed through the Vault of Glass in an hour, successfully enacting strategies honed over the past few weeks. Everyone knew their role and position in every challenge. More than that, we knew to stick together. We worked as one unit: spotting Oracles and broadcasting their location, looking after players rendered blind by screen effects, and synchronising our attacks to take bosses down as smoothly as possible.

It was frantic yet controlled; challenging but not overwhelming. It was some of the most fun on Xbox Live I’ve ever had, and a reminder of why I took the leap into multiplayer games.

Judging Destiny based on nights like that, it would be one of my favourite games of all time.  It encompasses so many things I enjoy in gaming; true co-operation and teamwork; challenging but just-achievable goals; customisable skills and weapons, and a great multiplayer mode. These all combine to make a compellingly playable and engaging experience.

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The Psychology of Freemium Gaming: DLC Edition

To read the next article in this series, please download the “DLC Edition Blog Post Pack”…

Digital distribution and expansion packs have been around for a surprisingly long time: the Atari 2600’s GameLine (1983) let people download games via their phone lines, while the Genesis’ SegaChannel (1994) offered a subscription to play games through cable lines, like dial-up proto-xbox-live. Total Annihilation (1997) was the first PC game to gain an expansion pack.

Like many gaming nerds, I don’t have a problem with DLC, Expansion Packs, or even freemium games. The part I have a problem with is when it seems like developers and marketers are designing a game based on what suits their pockets rather than their players. Sometimes, these things work pretty well together. Joke DLCs like Skyrim’s Horse Armour and services like the Xbox Live Avatar Marketplace are technically completely useless. However, they are entirely optional, and the players who spend money on these things are providing money that can be used to develop other services for lower-cost. Voluntary money sinks designed purely for fun aren’t my thing, but they have a purpose and a fanbase.

Games designed in an exploitative way, lying about their “play for free” status, or using psychological manipulation to make people feel like they have to pay in order to maintain their progress? That’s where profit overtakes propriety, and that’s where the negativity should be aimed.

Microtransactions are a newer avenue of digital distribution. In a sense, they are a logical extension of expansion packs- if someone only wants more of one specific aspect of the game, it is more efficient to offer every available extra separately, so people can choose what parts of the game they want more of. This idea itself isn’t problematic, but the culture of microtransactions and freemium gaming grew so rapidly due to the influx of social media games and mobile games that it raced ahead of its critics. Trying to regulate what is fair in freemium is like trying to safety-check fireworks on Bonfire Night- there’s no way everything can be checked in time.

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The Psychology of Freemium Gaming: Economics and Exponential Growth

Have some bonus XP for reaching the second stage of the series! You are now Level 2.

The game of the day here is Mafia City, a business management game created by 68games. In Mafia City, the aim is to create a Mafia character and grow from a petty criminal to a master of the city.

The campaign of MC didn’t get off to the best start for me, as it initially consisted of a lot of handholding. Single-action commands, bright flashy “click here” arrows, continual rewards, you name it. My main reason for continuing in the campaign was the sense of achievement I got from succeeding at the practically failure-proof early missions, which produced so much XP that I reached level 20 on my second day.

For completing the first paragraph, you receive 50XP.

Photos from

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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.

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Halo 3 and The Minimal Group Paradigm

I’ve spent a large proportion of this summer gaming when I meant to be doing psychology work, so I figured I could at least combine the two so it looks like I’ve done some work!

I first got the idea of this combination when I was playing Halo 3 online- while the game is good, an annoying part of the online experience is that people on the opposing team will in many cases jump away and lose a point for committing suicide rather than lose a gunfight and have the other team gain a point. Even though these two options have the same outcome mathematically, many people will choose to take the deliberate loss rather than let someone else gain any status. While this seems like an irrational decision, the principle is common in real-life as well.

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