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The honey trap of in-app purchases

February 3, 2017

By now, probably half of people with smartphones have played in-app purchase games. These are the little games that let you play for free – but, for a price, you can add some extra resources to your game.

Building games are the best example of the worst example. Building games are any which allow you to build a settlement or civilisation and expand it slowly, be it mediaeval castle grounds, a dragon breeding den or a city. Their whole scoring system is in-game money (known herein as “funds” to distinguish it from real money). 

Traditional games get harder because the aim is to give you more enjoyment, improving the reputation of the brand, leading to more upfront purchases. In in-app purchase games, the developer no stake in reputation. The game only needs to be interesting enough and long enough to collect as much money from players as possible.

There are two modes, unknown to the player; the free section and the paid section, which segues in seamlessly, without warning. The whole game is designed to quietly push you towards spending real money.

Below are a few of the key tricks of the genre, which play off human psychology to maximise likelihood of real life payment.

1) Steep difficulty curve

You’ll start with what looks like a generous amount of free stuff to play around with. Everything you build will only require a small amount of funds. You’ll buy a café, funds will come in, and this will let you buy a cinema. That brings in more funds, so you can buy a beach resort.

Then at some point, there will be a gigantic price spike. You’ll run out of cheap buildings and unlock a great quantity of more expensive ones. These buildings are all about the same price, cutting off the pattern.

You won’t be able to keep building and growing at the same rate, and the game will stagnate unless you inject some revitalising real life money into it. Unfortunately, these injections last about as long as adrenaline shots to the heart. You’ll have to pay more soon to keep the pace up.

2) Slowly decreasing pace

In app-purchasing games put on long waiting times for buildings to finish construction and generate funds. The game then kindly lets you skip the waiting time in exchange for funds.

In the beginning, builds are fast. A couple of hours in, they are a bit slower, but the skipping fees are low and you have enough funds to spare. Later, skipping costs climb higher in proportion with the overall building cost. It takes a bit of arithmetic to figure out that it’s a bad value deal.

Once you’re waiting an hour for builds, the game is no longer operating as a game. It suckered you in by posing as one, now it’s just a bait factory, dangling juicy rewards in front of you for a high price. Soon you will pay excessive funds to skip long building times, and eventually, that fake money is likely to translate into real money.

Even if it doesn’t, there’s a good chance you aren’t enjoying the game very much at this point. After all, waiting for things to build is like watching paint dry. Even though these games keep real-time operation in the background, if you know a build will be ready in an hour, it’s difficult to give your mind over fully to more rewarding activities.

3) One degree of separation

We splash in-game funds around, but then have to pay real money for fake money. The fake money looks like a lot in bulk, making it attractive. Who doesn’t get dazzled by all those zeros?

Compare that to what would happen if you paid real money upfront for every building. Such a game would surely be unpopular. By making purchases indirectly connected to real money, you have less of a sense of how much things are costing you. That’s were the game funds come in handy. They stop you clearly seeing how much things really cost.

4) The expensive path

Everything has a nominal price and an actual price. The nominal price is what’s written on the price label, but the actual price includes everything you have to buy in conjunction with it. If you have to buy a building, it needs roads, so the actual price includes the cost of roads. In in-app purchase building games, you have to buy territory in a similar way; buildings belong to certain territories that you have to buy first.

These unlockables have an order, and it is not always clear what that order is. If your desired object is several unlocks away, you may begin on the path before you realise how much it’s going to cost in full.

Once you do figure it out, you’ll feel that you must finish because you started – a fallacy related to sunk costs, explained below. You also feel that your intended prize is rightfully yours, encouraging you to spend more on it than you would have if the real price had been clear from the beginning. This is reckless spending and you’re encouraged to do it.

5) Encouraging reckless spending

You see that you can afford a beach house, then you plan to buy it. Once you plan to buy it. Then, the price goes up and you still buy it, even though you would not have considered buying it if it had started at that price.

We make this mistake on online auctions like eBay; the price starts at 99p, which we’re willing to pay. Once we get it into our heads that we’re getting the item for 99p, we start anticipating the item. In our minds, we’ve already got it. It’s ours. So when someone comes along and outbids us, it’s almost like theft. So, we up our game to take what’s rightfully ours.

Followers of poker maths know that when someone is facing a loss, they tend to get more reckless in their betting. The drive to avoid losing outweighs the rational choice to cut your losses and run before you lose even more. It happens in auctions and in-app purchasing games, where various price barriers force us to spend more than we planned. Then, anticipating that our currently spent resources will have been wasted if we don’t win, we pour more in.

In the in-app purchase games, the problem is more complicated still. Unlike gambling, pouring money into the game is guaranteed to get you what you want, eventually. This makes you think you can’t lose, but in reality you have spent a lot of real money on nothing much at all.

Moreover, your purchasing spree won’t end there. They’ll be another project inextricably bound to the one you’re on right now, and you won’t be able to complete the current one without starting the next. So it will go on, in a seemingly infinite line of intricately connected loops. The developers knew what they were doing.

6) Sunk costs

A sunk cost is an expenditure you can never get back, no matter what you do. So, what happens after you have paid is irrelevant. We are bad at accounting for sunk costs, and fall for the fallacy of “getting your money’s worth.” That is to say, we continue to indulge in something we’re no longer enjoying, just because we have already paid for it. We overeat at the buffet, or spend too long in a club we don’t like because there was a door fee.

The rational thing to do would be to leave as soon as you’ve had enough, because the point of buying these luxuries is to create happiness. If eating another plateful of buffet food won’t make you happier, there’s no reason to do it. The cost of the buffet was never about food quantity – we don’t bulk up for times of famine. It was about quantity of happiness.

You thought your empty belly wanted an all-you-can eat buffet, so you fell into the trap of paying the extra only to find that you weren’t as hungry as you thought. But as long as you see that the point was to give you joy, not to make yourself fat, that thought shouldn’t depress you too much. This mentality is useful for knowing when to let go of a sunk cost. In any case, you can never get that money back, no matter how you stuff yourself to the gills. So you might as well not bother.

I think we stuff ourselves stupid in part just to stick two fingers up at the people running the buffet. They challenge us to get as much for our money as we can, so we do, whether it benefits us or not. The problem is, the house always wins. They must do, or they wouldn’t run the buffet. No company works towards a loss, so the more buffets you see, the more suckers there must be out there. And you have to consider the possibility that you’re one of them.

To bring this back to games, most people who play in-app games try to eke as much out of them as possible, regardless of how much fun they’re having for the price. This would be bad enough, but unlike the buffet, you eventually end up sinking even more money when you stumble into a project that was more expensive than you thought.

We won’t navigate away from a game we’ve put resources into (be it time, money or effort), even though we stand to lose much more of these resources trying to use up the digital goodies we’ve spent them on. You may lose five minutes and £5, but while trying to use up the $5,000,000 game funds you bought with it, you will lose further minutes and, potentially, more real life money.

7) The usual rules of commerce

As with most sellers, in-app games offer you lots of discounts. No sooner has one discount passed its urgent deadline, another takes its place. It’s the usual trick of harrying you into a purchase with veiled threats to take away unmissable privileges. On top of that, you are offered several bulk buy options. It is usual to offer discounts for greater quantities of one item, since in theory it means you spend more money than you would have without the discount.

But, that’s not to say that buying smaller amounts for a worse deal works out any better for you. Actually, it works out amazingly for them. Once you fall down the sinkhole of paying “a little bit” towards a package, you’ll be disappointed by how shortly it stretches, and tempted to add another little. Before you know where you are, you’ve spent 20% more on the same number of game funds.

More, because you haven’t paid outright for that £100 worth of funds, you’ve lost track of how much you’ve spent. It’s especially easy to do when they charge you £4.89 for something, and you discount that 89p because you can’t remember how many pence you spent. Even though it was closer to a whole extra quid than a few extra pennies.

In-app purchasing games flash big wads of in-game funds at you, then immediately eat them up with large buildings. The further you go through the game, the less your real money is worth. You could easily spend £40 on absolutely sod all in two days – about what you would pay for an outright purchase of a traditional video game.

8) Hasty expenditures are encouraged, but don’t pay

Because you have a limited amount of fake money and want to keep it going as long as possible, you aren’t encouraged to save it. As soon as you have enough money to upgrade something, you will. You have limited space, and space is always expensive. Upgrading uses up less space. But, look at those prices, compared to the perks. It’s a very low advantage for the money you’re spending.

You can’t build too many big bucks buildings too quickly. There isn’t space, there aren’t enough funds and the waiting times are too long. Instead, the fast flow of small funds is encouraged, and takes you pretty much nowhere. In order to do the big projects, you need a fat payout. A level up usually does this. This juicy titbit keeps morale up for a while. You’ve been waiting for it, and here it is. It allows you a small burst of growth to quieten your frustration at the decreasing overall pace.

Levelling up provides a further motivation to keep spending. By spending a lot of funds on paltry upgrades, you have been gaining experience points. The payout probably isn’t as big as the money you would have saved if you had not bought the upgrades, and simply waited for funds to generate – but you don’t want to do that, because waiting isn’t fun. Constantly upgrading and growing levels is much more satisfying.

9) Money doesn’t stack

Besides, waiting around for money isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can’t just take off to the Bahamas, come back to your home wifi connection to find pots of money sitting in the in-game bank. There’s a maximum capacity of funds generated from buildings. You have to tap them once every so often to empty them, so they can fill again. If that sounds like a hellish chore, then congratulations, you aren’t addicted to in-app purchase building games.

The reason you have to perpetually empty the pot like a world-weary Barclays cashier is because in-app purchasing games want you to play them as much as possible. The more you play them, the more adverts you see, and the more revenue for the developers; the more you play, the more invested you are, and more amenable to paying cold hard cash in exchange for in-game funds.

As a result, the money build-up will be small but frequent. The cheaper buildings generate chicken feed every 30 seconds. The more expensive buildings may hold out for a large sum of money every five hours. You want these, because big buildings with big payouts give you a greater profit for the space used.

The overall money you get from monotonously tapping a small building every 30 seconds is actually higher than waiting five hours for a large payout. But once you’ve built the big buildings, you won’t want to do that. You’ll wait at least ten minutes to a half an hour if you’re not busy; a few hours if you have a job, or a life, or something like that.

That means you can immediately kiss goodbye to generating any decent game profit from all the small buildings you set up at the beginning. If they aren’t being emptied every 30 seconds, they are yielding practically nothing compared to the funds you put into buying and upgrading them. This leads people into playing the game more often than they otherwise would.

While siphoning off the small businesses, you can’t help but notice that the big ones still have ages to go before payday. This frustrates you every time you see it, and makes you more likely to fill the time with other fruitless practices – perhaps another upgrade. Before you know it, it’s time to mine the small buildings again, and the cycle starts over.

So, you are not being given license to wait and be rewarded when you build big. These games aren’t about rewards. They aren’t like traditional video games, where the natural consequence of playing them thoroughly is obscene riches beyond any conceivably usefulness. That’s not a sign of over ease of gameplay – it’s a sign of fair and consistent game mechanics. In-app purchase games are cleverly, subtly, purposefully unfair.

10) Prospect of future enjoyment

One disease of video games is that you have dull bits that you play over to get to the bits you enjoy more. There’s also a drive to finish or totally complete something, or the whole endeavour feels like a waste of time.

That’s a toxic mentality at the best of times, leading you to sit through rubbish you don’t enjoy when the entire point is to enjoy yourself. At least in traditional games, dullness and interest are subjective, or there may just be a bit of accidentally bad game design.

In-app purchase games are designed to be exponentially less satisfying the longer you play. There is no hump to get over. You’ll potentially waste a lot of time and money waiting for something better to show up. Ignore that nagging need to finish the game. There is no end. The developers just keep adding bits for you to buy.

The mild boredom-deferral you experience playing these games is nothing to the relief you feel after you delete it and free yourself from its clutches. Remember sunk costs – there’s no reason at all why you can’t delete the game no matter how much money you’ve put into it. It will never be over on its own. You won’t use up that money and gain some greater satisfaction. Delete it. Delete it now. Never download it again.

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