3 Things You Need to Know About Casual "Free to Play" Games

I'm an old school, dyed in the wool capital-G Gamer. My first experience with the casual, free-to-play genre was earlier this year, when I finally broke down and replaced my old-n-busted Java phone with a state-of-the-art (at that time) Nexus 4. Up to that point, I hadn't touched any of these games with a 10' pole. I don't Facebook, I couldn't stomach the Sims or Farmville or any of those games. The free prospect was interesting, and I've spent a good portion of the last year or so going in deep with the casual free-to-play game and its target audience.

Of late, I've seen a lot of articles in the "core gaming" media that are covering casual, free-to-play methodologies and events. Most of the time, the reaction from "core gamers" (as we call ourselves here) is brutal. They're visceral "get this out of my face, it's an affront" type of responses. Having walked both sides of the line, I can understand this reaction, but I think I can perhaps shed some insight into what is going on here, and explain the basic things you need to know.

The Game Itself is Secondary to the Psychology

Candy Crush Saga is pretty much a terrible game. It makes the yearly Assassins Creed and Call of Duty titles look downright original by comparison. It's 100% ripping off match-3 puzzle games like Bejeweled, which you could play in your browser in the 90's. It's a worse game than that, 20 years later.

This game is also hard, super ultra unfair hard. It makes old-school NES games look easy by comparison. You will lose and the game will punish you for the bad rolls of a random number generator all day long. You'd think most people would get to the first "hard" level, past the tutorial, and just give up. That was certainly my assumption when I started studying it. But you know what? They're not. They're charging forward and playing these ridiculously hard levels for weeks, and even investing hundreds of dollars to keep playing. I've interacted with countless people who openly admitted they were not having fun, but kept at it anyhow.

There's no secret stash of cocaine past the last level, there's not even a coupon code for a free ice cream cone. And yet, people are playing it as if clearing that next level was going to teach them the secrets to the universe.

And you know what? King - the guys who make Candy Crush Saga - those guys make bank. They are freakin' rich, beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Candy Crush Saga is a phenomenon. Everyone's heard of it, and way more people have played it than practically any console or PC title in the history of games. The install base is tremendous.

So why is a terrible game so successful? The success of these games has very little to do with the game itself.

From reading a lot of "F2P marketing strategy" articles, the major things the game design hinges on are:

The overall goal is for the player to establish a habit of checking the game every so often. Once it becomes habit, it's highly likely that they will continue to play even if the game stops being fun.

Another habit that I see these games trying to encourage is cheating. Many of these games will allow you to break the rules in some small way in return for a small amount of money. They will hand you a few free limited-use cheats, and get you in the habit of relying on them by making the game just so hard that you have to cheat in order to win, but not so hard that it becomes frustrating at first. Thus, when the player encounter difficulty, they are inclined to think "I need to cheat" and will be therefore willing to spend money to do so. Once that has started, many players fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, and they end up in a "paying to win" spiral.

The Psychology is Secondary to the Business

So we've already established that the game itself is secondary to the psychology. But the psychology itself is actually secondary to the money.

I'll let you in on another secret - these companies don't care at all if you or I, the "core gamers" as it were, play their games. In fact, I bet on the whole they'd rather we didn't. We are explicitly not their target audience. In fact, from a year's worth of research and statistics tracking on my site, I can tell you that writing this article and trying to get people to read it is actively bad for my business.

Why? Because as a group, we're resistant to advertising and less likely to pay or click on an ad in these casual free-to-play games. A thousand core gamer views to my core gamer articles are worth maybe a tenth of what a thousand casual gamer views are on my casual gamer articles. The casual gamer is simply worth more to advertisers. I can write a well thought out, complex article about a tricky core game, or I can write a much easier article about a much easier casual game, and the casual article will be far more profitable. When I take into account the costs of serving the page, I actually typically lose money on core gaming articles. Now, I'm not totally motivated by business reasons every time I write something, which is why I'm continuing to write in the face of the fact that what I'm doing is bad for my profitability.

So what does that mean? Making a game that we would like, that meets the expectations of our demographic is actively bad for these casual game companies. The big successes are the ones you hear about, and they are big successes because they made money. I've played tons of games that were better than the blockbuster titles, but they didn't do the psychology or the business "optimally" and thus were much smaller hits. Every one of these companies wants to make the big money, and the way to make that big money is not by courting us.

The only thing more important than money is expanding the install base. Some low percentage of people spend the majority of the money in these games, so casting a wide net in search of these people is a good strategy. Also, the larger the game, the faster it grows, so the goal is to reach some critical mass of players that causes the overall playerbase to explode.

It's Too Late for Angry Mobs

So okay, I've just spent an entire article essentially saying "these games are manipulative, and they hate you." So it wouldn't surprise me at all if there was some sort of angry, pitchfork and torch wielding mob assembling somewhere. It's too late for that, guys. This stuff is everywhere.

Media coverage of games is rife with this sort of psychological manipulation. Instead of installing an app, they're trying to get you to click on a link. We call them "linkbait" as a derogatory term, but there's a whole science behind it and every popular website is doing it. In fact, I'm going to carefully choose the title of this article to try and get people to click on it and read it. Hopefully the substance of the article made it worth the click in this case, but I've known publishers and authors who downright lie about the content of the article in order to increase views.

It's not just casual games, either. These same psychological methods are in use in many genres, including "core" free-to-play titles and especially in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games - think Warcraft). In most MMOs, you level quickly at the start of the game, and then the curve starts to steadily increase as you continue. This is very similar to the introduction to these casual games, where you get a few "easy" levels to establish a feedback loop early before the really grindy or hard stuff comes. Most of them encourage you to play on a regular basis, by making you "rested" for bonus experience, or in a game like Team Fortress 2, offering you additional item drops on a regular basis.

The success of these relatively cheap to make, casual, free to play games means that this model is here to stay. Throwing eggs at the people who make the games or getting up in arms about the games themselves isn't going to help. It's too late for outrage, not that I can actually prevent internet outrage by making that statement.

What we do need to do is educate ourselves and others. Most of these games are preying upon basic, simple logical fallacies that have been a part of the human brain for as long as we've been studying them. Whenever I write an article about one of these games, I try to educate the players about what psychological traps the game is forcing them into. If you can spot the manipulation and inoculate yourself against it, you stand a pretty good chance of breaking free when the game is no longer fun.

There is a lot of ignorance out there, but I like to think that, just like these games are viral sensations, so too can be our educational message. Even if we fail, at least it was a positive expression of our frustration that had a chance of doing some good.