Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 01, 2016
Dungeon Boss and Retail Therapy

With my interests in games and economy, I am naturally interested in the mechanics of Free2Play monetization. And my day job pays enough for me to be able to drop a couple of hundred bucks on such a game to explore that monetization without that hurting my finances. Last year I played League of Angels for 2 months. While I was able to get to the top spot on a server using real money, I didn't really like psychological lever that game used: Competitiveness, you'd end up paying money so that somebody else wouldn't get ahead of you. So currently I am trying a very different game, Dungeon Boss. That can be as expensive as League of Angels, but the psychology behind it is much more pleasant.

Because League of Angels *wants* a lot of people to be highly ranked on their server so as to make them pay money for the privilege, it has lots and lots of servers, with new ones opening every week. Dungeon Boss only has one server as far as I can tell. Which means that there is absolutely no chance for latecomers to rise to the top of the server. Which doesn't matter, because unlike League of Angels, Dungeon Boss has very little direct competition between players. Even the PvP system automatically just pairs you against people around your own strength, so it doesn't matter that there are people at the level cap while you aren't. Competitiveness is not a driving factor in this game. So how does it work?

Basically Dungeon Boss is related to the Pokemon series of games: You have a collection of up to 50 heroes in 5 different colors which you level up and use for combat. The colors represent elements, so your fire heroes are strong against plant heroes but weak against water heroes, etc. Each hero has a level (which is limited by your player level), between 2 and 4 skills with a level that is limited by the hero level, 3 degrees of ascension (which determines the number of skills), and between 1 and 6 stars, which increase power. So for each hero you need to collect xp to level up, "evos" to ascend, gold to level up skills, and tokens to get stars. Multiply by 50 heroes and there is a *lot* of stuff to collect. That puts you on a rather long progress curve from starting the game to the level cap.

Monetization in Dungeon Boss as a result is an extremely simple concept: You have absolute freedom to choose at which speed you want to progress. Want to get ahead on that completely individual curve? Pay some money! Usually quite a lot of it, a special bundle of stuff that improves one of your heroes can cost between $9.99 and $39.99, depending on the rarity of the hero. And that is just one ascension out of two possible, so for 50 heroes you would need to buy 100 such bundles. Plus a ton of money for gold and gems to use the portals to summon those heroes. On the other hand you can also play this game completely for free, and just progress much slower. It is up to you. The game doesn't threaten you with any negative effects if you refuse to pay, it just tries to seduce you into paying when you feel like it. Any payment also counts towards your VIP level, so if you paid at the start and then play for free you still get some permanent bonuses in addition to whatever you paid for. I've rarely seen a game that was so nice about trying to get money out of you; the carrot, not the stick.

I still don't believe that any single game can "addict" you into spending money. However I do believe that spending money can make you feel better about yourself, the so-called retail therapy. Whether you do that in the mall or in a mobile game is not fundamentally different. For every sob story about somebody spending all his money on a mobile game, there is an equivalent story about somebody spending all his money on the shopping TV channel. And to someone who is likely to have such problems, it doesn't even matter what game exactly he is playing. The process of trying to feel better by spending money is independent of what exactly you are spending that money on.

Hell, most people who try heroin don't become addicted.

But for a certain personality type, at a certain point in their life, yeah, a game can addict them. If they'd seen the game six months before or six months later, they wouldn't care one bit, but that month? It hits the spot.

Same way people get into cults. They knock on the door at just the right time and you're in.
That doesn't compare. There are no legit uses for heroin or cults. There are legit uses for games, and 99.99% of people who play them don't become "addicted". If people become addicted to shopping in a mall, you can't blame the mall having tried everything to seduce people into shopping.
What is the legit purpose of games? Entertainment? Heroin is very entertaining and is a fantastic pain killer. Cults provide a sense of purpose and belonging, something almost everyone longs for.

Pretty much everybody gets codeine or some other painkiller in their lives and don't become addicts. So?

Games like WoW and this are designed to find addictive people and separate them from their money. That doesn't apply to 99% of the games out there that try to provide legitimate entertainment value for the money. But it doesn't change the basic business model of inducing as much spending as they can in as many people as they can.

Hey, it's fine, I guess, businesses do it all the time, but let's just admit what's happening and make a rational decision about whether we individually care to participate.
Okay, so you are in favor of banning every computer, console, and mobile game? Or are you just throwing dirt at a couple of games you don't like and would argue that the games you like are the exception and aren't addictive? I don't think there is a single game out there that doesn't have at least one story of somebody obsessing about it to some bad end.
No, I never said that. I don't even really think heroin should be illegal for a variety of policy reasons, much less games like this. I just want to call it what it is. Just as calling Scientology a cult presumably helps people resist joining by inoculation, calling these games the scammy psychological experiments that they are will hopefully give people the ability to make rational decisions about how much fun they are actually having, and whether it's worth their time and money. Or if maybe there's a better use of their time and money than some rather crappy game that is activating your hoarding and/or keeping up with the Joneses instincts rather than delivering the actual entertainment it promised.
This is what I've been saying about F2P:

The first game allowed paying players to pwn non-payers. The second just give them faster progression without affecting other players.
"Hell, most people who try heroin don't become addicted."

Why would anyone try heroin if they don't plan on getting addicted? That's the entire point of heroin.
Well, no, the point is to get high. The addiction is not the point. Like 2/3rds of people who try heroin don't become addicts. I don't know the details, never tried heroin. Point is that just because some people can handle their shit doesn't mean a product isn't meant to be addictive.
I'm going to go on record as saying that people that can "handle their shit" are not people that try heroin. But they will try games.

Going with the "Reductio ad Adsurdum" argument with heroin in this context didn't help your case.
I think it's reasonable to class 'game addiction' and 'drug addiction' differently. I would say the former has more of an obsessive-compulsive component, while the latter is more of a substitute for emotional needs. Of course there is some overlap, as with all of the stuff people do; nevertheless there are surely substantial differences between the 'game addict' and 'heroin addict' populations.

I like to use inverted commas for 'addiction' as it is a metaphor based on concepts related to physical habituation, which is only a small part of 'drug addiction' and not part of 'game addiction' at all.
The heroin argument was just an offhand observation that even with heroin most people don't become addicted. So the fact that most people don't become addicted to X doesn't mean it isn't addictive.

But whatever. If I didn't enjoy banging my head against the wall I wouldn't be here.
As you said yourself, different studies show that between a quarter and a third of people using heroin just once become addicted. After repeated use, nearly every user becomes addicted. Now compare that to games. I don't even even think that 1% of people playing games repeatedly could be even remotely said to be "addicted". It is more like there being a small percentage of the general population being naturally inclined towards obsessive behaviour, and gaming now being so far mainstream that you'll find the same percentage of obsessives in games than in the general population. Heroin can turn a normal person into an addict, a game can only addict a person already naturally inclined to become one.
No, but games like this trawl for people who engage in addictive behavior.

Are games on the same level as heroin? No, and I should have known that people would fixated on the heroin thing and not even said it, because it's beside the point everyone seems to be trying real hard to avoid dealing with.

Games like this are kind of like QVC. Maybe they don't have QVC where you are from, but it's a cable channel where they just hawk cheap crap 24/7. In the States, it's the domain of really bored old women. There are various tricks to it to hide the cost (3 easy payments of $40), or ways to get them to buy something they wouldn't otherwise (free returns for 90s if you don't like it!), but it is basically intended to separate bored, lonely people, from their cash using a variety of psychological techniques. Most people never watch it, because fuck it's boring, but it can be pretty addictive to people with mobility issues who have shopping/hoarding issues. QVC basically is meant to exploit these people, even though most people are totally immune to it.

I should have said these games are like QVC. A psychological trap that only works on certain people, but works very well on them.
I should have said these games are like QVC. A psychological trap that only works on certain people, but works very well on them.

I don't know where you get these notions from. You are completely wrong. As you said yourself "most people never watch QVC". Now compare that to Candy Crush Saga which has 93 million daily active users, which must be around a hundred times more than QVC. If only vulnerable people would spend money on these games, the game companies would have gone broke years ago. I'm not saying the vulnerable people don't exist or that they aren't at risk from these games. They just are outnumbered a hundred to one by totally normal people. People who *can* spend $20 on some shiny virtual item in a game here and there without that affecting their standard of living.

Game companies don't deliberately target the vulnerable. Not because game companies have ethics, but because the vulnerable just don't make very attractive targets. Not enough of them, and they don't have enough money. Take $20 from every housewife on the other hand, and now you're talking serious profit. The notion that the main income of game companies are addictive or otherwise vulnerable people is just a myth that doesn't stand any serious economic deliberation.
Lots of people drink. If the top 10% of people (roughly coincident with the 7% of the population with an alcohol abuse problem) stopped drinking, the industry would pretty much die on the spot, since they consumer 50% of the booze sold. The top third of drinkers consumer 80% of the product. Point being, you know how the whale vs. average guy battle goes. You talk about being that whale all the time, so you know how that works.

93 million daily active users, huh. How many of those generate the profits? I bet the spread on a game like that is even worse than with booze. I bet the top 10% of Candy Crush is 95% of the revenue. You talk all the time about whales vs. average users, so I don't know where that is coming from.

See, this game companies language is another dodge. I am not talking about ALL games or all game companies. I'm talking about, well, Clash of Clans and I guess Candy Crush Saga. I'm talking about a specific genre of game.

Talking with the regulars of this blog was confusing to me sometimes, because they so often grab some relatively irrelevant part, like the heroin bit, and try to rip that apart and act like they've defeated my whole argument or expand what I'm saying about WoW or MMOS into this general attack on all video games. I thought for a while that I just wasn't making my point clear, but I've been starting to think it's more like people trying to twist stuff around so they won't have to confront certain unpleasant truths about how they've spent huge swathes of their lives and the nature of the games they like. Hey, it's fine. I fell for it. Lots of people fall for it, or other scammy shit like Amway or casinos or to Jehovah's Witnesses or whatever. It's fine. But it is what it is. Hell, I've been on the other side of these very arguments (in what is probably considered the mesozoic era at this point) on this very blog, and pulled the same bullshit dodges to try to deny the realities of what was happening. But you and I and the rest of the MMO/F2P whale crew are the victims of a psychological experiment where we trade cash for digital cheese. Simple as that. Accept it and if you still want to do what you want to do, then great. Go for it. But if believing that and continuing to play these games seems incongruent to you, you should think about why.

Hey, psst... Tobold.

You heard of Gems of War? F2P match-3 with crossplay over mobile and Steam clients.

It's basically Puzzle Quest enhanced, with some really nice quality of life improvements and a much more transparent set of synergies across 'decks', in a pretty enjoyable M:tG-style card-collecting thing.

Some pretty novel twists on the match-3 mechanics based on card abilities, and a very generous PVP system with minimal loss and a really low 'max rank' cap, reachable by anyone. (Once you hit rank 1 - the highest rank - you qualify for all that tier's weekly rewards and can no longer be dislodged. Theoretically possible for every player in the game to reach rank 1, it's simply based on number of battles won, total - not comparative.)

Guild system doesn't seem to demand much involvement. Shared guild goals involve funnelling in-game money into an endless series of 'tasks' which, once completed, each improve the guild's permanent stat bonuses and offer a one-off reward for those in the guild at the time of completion.

Payment is typically for the in-game currencies used for opening card packs ('chests') and fast-tracking acquisition of the resources used to level up the cards. Pay more, get guaranteed better cards.

There's about 20 themed 'kingdoms' (Elves, Dark Elves, Fey, Knights, Undead, Dwarves, Goblins, Beastmen, Warlocks, etc - you know the drill) which each have their own single-player campaigns which are essentially little short stories following the protagonist assisting an in-game character with their quest, and gaining that character as a card on completion.
Some amusing writing in there.

I recommend it.
Game developers purposefully try to get players to return to their games. I've often heard developers talk about hooking people in and making their games addictive.

Now I don't think we can classify games in a category as alcohol, drugs or gambling, (i.e. Addictive substances that affect a body physically) but devs trying to make their games addictive is the basis behind whole genres.

Why do loot based games like diablo and destiny have players constantly coming back for more? Getting that little carrot on a stick with a new loot drop rewards us with more then just pixels. Our brains reward us by releasing chemicals that make us happy. We come back because we get enjoyment from each new drop or achievement. But eventually we get bored and move onto the next game craving the same "hit" of excitement and fun. Definitely sounds similar to a real addiction but it's honestly not the same thing.

Can we get addicted to games? I would say no more then we can get addicted to sports or any other activities that bring enjoyment.

But we can't really deny that games aren't being made that are incorporating addictive elements meant to persuade us to continue playing.
93 million daily active users, huh. How many of those generate the profits? I bet the spread on a game like that is even worse than with booze. I bet the top 10% of Candy Crush is 95% of the revenue. You talk all the time about whales vs. average users, so I don't know where that is coming from.

I bet 100% of the revenues of companies producing yachts is coming from whales. I just don't see what you think is so bad about that. I have absolutely no evidence at all that the majority of these whales can't afford it.

And if 90% of 93 million daily active users are not whales, but people spending only a little or nothing on Candy Crush Saga, then why would you think Candy Crush Saga is bad for those 82 million players? Aren't they just having fun for a moderate expense? And shouldn't we applaud game developers that can make a game that brings fun for a moderate expense to millions of people?
My big problem with F2P games isn't that they charge money for stuff inside the game, it's that they charge so much for it. Most of the time it's bloody expensive and you would be better off it it was a subscription plan for $10-$15 per month.

On the other hand look at Hearthstone and Heroes of the storm for example which have relatively good monetization. I usually spend a bit of money when new expansion packs are released or new characters and then it's enough. But I could potentially just save up ingame currency and buy it that way if I wanted, and I do that on the side also.

Most other F2P games really make you feel like you're paying tons and tons of money for barely anything.
I'm inclined to doubt whether, as 8f559f86-7761-11e3-ac30-000bcdcb8a73 suggests, many readers of this blog are 'whales' for these games. Personally I play Candy Crush and similar games, but I have never paid them a cent. I have dropped $15-20 on a few FTP games that had good permanent rewards (I would likely pay King that much for a complete unlock, but they'll never offer it as the big spenders would feel robbed). Most of my games are one-off purchases. I'd suspect that my pattern is probably more common than whale mode - we're probably an older audience, but we are older *gamers*.
I get where 8f559f86 is coming from, and yes, some people are focusing on a point or two in his comments in an attempt to discredit his argument. There is more than enough empirical evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Video Game addiction is very real. It is considered an Impulse Control Disorder, and the pathology behind it is very similar to pathological gambling. But the pathology behind video game addiction is also closely related to the same pathology related to recreational drug use - dependency. People become dependent on things that seem pleasurable and which causes the release of certain "feel good" brain chemicals.

A recent German study of school aged children(Rehbein and Baier) studied 1217 students at the 4th grade level, and again 5 years later at the 9th grade level. 1.3% were deemed to meet the criteria for video game addiction, and another 2.3% were considered "at risk". The most ominous data in the study showed that problem video game behavior persisted over time.

Now, prior to the advent of item shops and F2P mechanics, most games relied on grind or "time consuming" elements to keep players playing for designed periods of time before a reward was given that caused the "feel good" emotion. But now we have games that are doing both - in that not only can you get that reward through a time investment, you can get that same reward through a monetary investment. The fact that Tobold uses a term like "retail therapy" doesn't minimize its importance as something that can cause, or lead to addictive behavior.

Is getting the +12 Ring of Uberness therapeutic after spending multiple weeks of time questing for it? Yes. Is getting that same ring therapeutic if you whip out your wallet and spend $4.99 to get it? Yes. Are games getting better at separating gamers from both their time and money? Yes. Should it be considered sinister if a game is purposefully designed to do either or both? Personally, I think it should.

The big question - Can a person become or not become addicted to either type of game? You bet ya!
8f, well no one can accuse you of preaching to the choir, that's for sure!

I'm not sure Tobold could give even a hypothetical example of a game he'd say is an exercise in psychological manipulation, working through hundreds of thousands of people to find the vulnerable targets (as machines don't mind trawling through hundreds of thousands). Gaming has to be a nice place, like a nest, to him - the idea that anyone is turning it into a psychological battleground...well, that spoils the nest idea.
@Cairo: You don't understand. *Any* machine treating hundreds of thousands of people will necessarily encounter vulnerable ones, even if that machine is the automated ticket gate at the subway station. Do you think those gates are designed to catch the vulnerable? Or are they designed to catch the hundreds of thousands, and the vulnerable are just a natural part of that group?
@tobold: Your analogy of the ticket gate is a false equivalency argument. Both a slot machine and a ticket gate take people's money and give them something in return, but that is about it. I actually seriously doubt there is even a single person who has gotten himself psychologically addicted to using a ticket gate (i.e. keeps going back over and over on the same trip, even though he already has a ticket to his destination), but even if there is, the numbers cannot compare.

A slot machine may be an extreme example, and I do not want to commit my own false equivalence fallacy by equating these with all f2p games. But there are many f2p games that use a watered down, but still somewhat potent, gambling mechanism to keep players committing time and money.

And look, I am not saying ban these things because they are evil, but I am for honesty. I really think 8f is basically right here. Recognize these things for what they are - a mild form of gambling or mechanisms to stimulate impulse control disorder or what have you. And some people probably do have a real problem with them, though most don't.
Actually a slot machine is probably the best analogy somebody yet listed in this thread.

Nevertheless for me there are two important points that haven't been answered yet, and where I remain highly skeptical: Causality and Intent. Do Free2Play games change people's natural behavior, from non-addictive to addictive (and if we believe that, why wouldn't we believe that violent games make people violent?)? And do game companies intentionally target vulnerable people, or do they just make attractive games and that attractiveness can't be handled by the vulnerable?
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