Not all free-to-play games are trojan horses, expertly fashioned to work their way into your habits and drain your bank account. But many are, and virtual economist Ramin Shokrizade has detailed their mechanics in a GamaSutra blog post that is as fascinating as it is stomach turning.
Shokrizade argues there are two different kinds of free-to-play games: skill games and money games. In the former, your ability to advance is mostly dependent on making good decisions. In the latter, your ability to advance is mostly dependent on how much money you spend.
How do they convince you to spend money? One of Shokrizade's favorite examples is "fun pain:" putting your players in an uncomfortable situation, and offering them a way out via cash--like when Puzzle & Dragons lets you avoid losing all the treasure you earned by spending $1 worth of "gems" to get back up.
"If the shift from skill game to money game is done in a subtle enough manner, the brain of the consumer has a hard time realizing that the rules of the game have changed," Shokrizade writes. "If done artfully, the consumer will increasingly spend under the assumption that they are still playing a skill game and 'just need a bit of help.'"
It's a booming market, but there's still money to be made from more savvy consumers. As awareness spreads, hopefully more F2P games will appeal to the latter.
"In the current market, especially with most adults and children not familiar with the nature of these products, the environment is still ripe for fast profits, and likely will continue to be so for a few more years. Note that while these methods can be very successful with young and inexperienced gamers, they find less success with older and more experienced gamers, and this population represents a group with potentially very large gaming budgets."