The alluring danger of in-app mobile transactions

I still remember the horse armour.

While not the first piece of micro transacted cosmetic equipment, Oblivion’s $2.50 DLC was heavily ridiculed at the time for its pointlessness and brevity. Who in their right mind would pay real money for a digital clothing item in a game that they would probably only use a handful of times? Well, as it would seem, millions upon millions of people. In the years since, cosmetic items have become a staple in almost every single free to play game, in many of them becoming the long term revenue stream for the publisher. Hell, even AAA full price games feature lootboxes, in many cases paid for by time-poor players or people with a “gotta collect em all” approach to skins.

For years I spoke out against this practise, even before the prevalence of loot boxes, because I feared the commoditisation and elitism of titles that provided benefits that affected all players, especially those without the ability to pay. Over time, developers became stealthier – removing the obvious “Pay To Win” benefits (weapons, ammo or vehicles not available to free players) and instead replacing this with a slowdown mechanic. Players who didn’t pay wouldn’t be disadvantaged on a one-to-one basis with paying players, they just wouldn’t get to the top echelons of play without paying. This method is especially heinous as it is still, obviously, pay to win, and cements a two-tier system inside the game that creates imbalances disguised by “skill”.

As someone who has been covering the free to play games industry since its inception, I’ve seen everything. But everyone has a weakness, and mine, for the past three-to-four years, has been a lack of time. At present, I co-run my own business, freelance for this website (and others), work in a body corporate, and have two young boys. My life is largely devoid of free time and I’ve increasingly found myself transitioning from traditional console and PC games to whatever I can squeeze out of my phone for an hour or so. So much so that I’ve gone weeks without loading up Steam or turning on my Switch (unless it's for work) and have instead been trolling through the thousands of multiplayer games on mobile.

Over the past few years the sophistication of mobile titles has risen due to increased processing power, clever design, and growing trend of shrinking down “full” gaming experiences into those that can be enjoyed on the go. A “raid” on a mobile MMO might take ten minutes, not 5 hours. Dungeons can be completed in minutes and PVP can be both real-time and “AI recorded” (based on movements and actions of the last real-time match played). Recent popular releases like Lineage 2, Darkness Rises and Shadowgun Legends wrap these events into modules – actionable from menus or a condensed overworld – working real-time or special events around daily/weekly activities in which to grow.

This model is clever in that it manages to make the grindy elements of an MMO much more manageable by breaking them up into chunks and rewarding them individually. It also uses this method to award loot, as well as probably the biggest problem with these new games – the currencies. See, most of these games are generous with gear and cash, at least in the early stages. As you move through the game, roadblocks pop up – gear might require certain mods to craft or upgrade (which need diamonds to purchase), your heroes need gold to level, and so on. The game gives you just enough to make some level of progress, but not enough.

Sure, you could wait… but you’ve also noticed the rest of your guild and your PVP opponents improving at a much faster rate. Unlike earlier games, like Farmville, which effectively just restricted your progress via time, these games give you as much time as you like but restrict your growth. Unless you pay $0.99 to get a pouch of diamonds to give you that edge. That’s ¼ the price of a cup of coffee! I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

I originally downloaded Final Fantasy Awakenings on a bit of a spree. By the time 7:30 rolled around, I’d managed to complete a commute, make dinner, clean the house, get through bedtime and collapse on the couch. I pull my phone out of my pocket to catch up and de-brain. The Google Play store presents a plethora of free downloads of games that promise a boatload of things to do. Most don’t. But every now and again I find something that sucks me in for a little while – to fill that hour or two. FF:A actually had a pretty fun squad battle system with jobs and gear, a clever set of challenges and a genuinely fun Guild Attack mode that forced everyone to work together to capture points on a top-down map.

I initially didn’t expect to play FF:A for all that long – I initially called my character “BoogerDonut” as it was what my son suggested and the primary aim for playing was to see how it incorporated the Final Fantasy ethos. Before long, I was hooked. I would spend hours each night working through each of the daily and weekly challenges, attempting to collect the rare “Red” heroes with their insane abilities to get the edge in PVP fights. The game flooded me with free gear and currency in the beginning and rewarded every cent of real money donated with a flurry of bonuses.

In the beginning I had about $20 of Google Play credit, gained over a few months of the three-second opinion surveys must Android users are aware of. FF:A is cheaper than most freemium games that usually want you to drop $5-$7 on a big pack of gear. This amount is significant because only three per cent of F2P users on average pay a cent, so keeping the base payment high ensures a quick return on investment. That said, large amounts deter most users since they tend to be higher than the average cost of full-priced apps. FF:A offered a daily $0.99 option that provided a significantly better offer of consumables than other options in its own store.

I had $20 of free money, with nothing else to spend it on, and hey, I wouldn’t mind getting those rare heroes. So for the next 20 days I diligently bought the pack, combining it with fairly constant and regular play, which the game also rewarded, and I fell into a loop. Before long I had smashed through the credit and was regularly just paying a $1.28(AUD) fee per day (I spent ten times more on lunch right?) to play a free mobile game. By this point I had reached the top 200 players and was regularly battling with clever opponents, constantly customising my gear and squad to out-manoeuvre other guilds.

Cleverly, the game responded, boosting my “VIP” level five times, which showered me in premium gear and advantages, such as currency bonuses and extra slots to fight in Guild mode.  But after about a month I noticed a big problem – the combat score. Like most titles of this type, the combat score was a number that was generated from the combined power of your squad (and support squad) – this took account of everything, from your gear levels to skill bonuses. Each day I logged on, I noticed that the gap would widen dramatically – I was sitting on about 8 million points, while opponents were on 15, 20, 25 million. It would be impossible for me to ever reach that level.

But I was already hooked. I figured there would be a point where I would eventually be granted some sort of benefit where my combat score would jump – and it eventually did – but not without an absolute shed load of diamonds. Just like that, the bubble finally popped – I was duped. I logged into my Google Play account and found I’d spent a total of $US55 on the game over a month and a half – my first (free) $20 plus a whopping $30, enough to buy another full game I’d been considering but put off. I had become one of the game’s whales – that top 0.1% who keep the game afloat for everyone else.

We all made fun of the people who originally paid for ongoing benefits in “basic” tap/tap games like Farmville. But the problem is that the developers behind these games learn quickly that one system does not fit all. Taking that MMO mindset and carefully crafting a ramped up payment schedule for it is no different from duping those who prefer to pop bubbles, pick crops or break diamonds. We all have our weak points.