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Predatory tactics in gaming are worse than you think

I want to shed light on a tactic that involves collecting data as you play, feeding this data into complex algorithms and models that then alter the rules of your game under the hood to optimize spending opportunities.

Adrien Laurent, Blogger

June 24, 2024

15 Min Read
Images provided by author.

When we think of predatory tactics in gaming, we often imagine deceptive UX designs, intrusive ads, or aggressive microtransactions. However, there are more insidious tactics that are rarely discussed, mainly because a lot of resources are spent hiding them to avoid backlash or even legal issues.

As a player, have you ever felt like some games are intentionally making you lose or win? That there is an invisible hand manipulating the odds against you? That the game keeps holding you back despite investing money to progress faster? That you’re playing with different rules than others? While you might just be paranoid or unlucky, you could also be right. 


I want to shed light on a tactic that involves collecting data as you play, feeding this data into complex algorithms and models that then alter the rules of your game under the hood to optimize spending opportunities. This tactic is known by terms like ‘dynamic balancing,’ ‘personalization,’ ‘segmentation,’ and ‘targeting.’ Although these concepts are not new, the extent to which they impact modern games might surprise you. And it is often obfuscated behind manipulated randomness so that players don’t realize how much they are being conned.

In the beginning of this year, Nexon was fined $9 million for manipulating the odds of their loot boxes to optimize spending opportunities. In live-service games, manipulating randomness as Nexon did is not an exception; it’s the norm. Many if not most studios operating live games do it to varying degrees (allegedly sometimes with good intentions, not all studios or F2P games are predatory) and a $9 million fine is nothing when your game’s lifetime revenue exceeds 5 billions.

In essence, a live game is a software with thousands of variables, such as the difficulty of a level, the odds in loot boxes, or the price of an offer.

When you play online, every single interaction can be tracked, such as how much money you spend, how long your play sessions are, or how good you are at the game.

This data is analyzed and processed through various algorithms that can then change the variables in your game on the fly, putting you in situations where you’re more likely to spend. For instance, if you are progressing faster than the game wants you to, it might subtly become harder or reduce the chances of getting certain rewards. If you’re a big spender, the game might increase the price of offers you see. And this happens way more often than you think.

It constantly adapts to your playing and spending behavior to keep you in what it considers the sweet spot of challenge and frustration. And it doesn’t care if it’s unfair, discriminatory, or predatory.


Now, you might think, "If this were true, players would compare their game states and complain." This is where manipulated randomness comes into play, making it very difficult for the average player to notice or prove. When you can’t get that one random loot or win a level because the right gems don't appear, how can you prove the odds are skewed instead of you just being unlucky?


If you’re playing a live service game, especially on mobile or a free-to-play game, there's a good chance that:

  • Winning or losing has little to do with your skill or luck; the outcome is decided before you even press the play button.

  • The randomness is manipulated. In match-3 games, for example, the gems may seem pre-generated or random, while in reality algorithms carefully choose the next gems to appear after each interaction to guarantee a near-loss or near-win situation when you run out of moves.

  • The disclosed odds are fake.

  • Spending money can backfire on you and actually make your game harder. A classic example is SBMM matchmaking in pvp games: if you spend money to make your character more powerful, you may initially face weaker opponents to feel empowered, but over time you'll be matched against players who have also spent a lot and are equally or more powerful than you.

These games are designed to keep you in the frustration zone forever, regardless of how much money you spend. You can never truly "win" the game.

Dynamic balancing also means that every player faces different difficulties and different sets of rules, which is the opposite of traditional games or sports where everyone plays by the same rules, or at least the rules are transparent for everyone.

And this also reflected in the structure and roles of teams that operate live games, where it’s not uncommon to have more data scientists, data analysts, product managers, monetization managers, even psychologists to analyze players and refine these algorithms than creative people who produce the actual content of the game. And don’t get me wrong, data and monetization professions are needed for a functioning business, but when the creative people become a tiny percentage of the whole team (or decision owners), this shapes the game in a very different direction.

How Do I Define ‘Predatory’?

A common mistake is to blame the tools rather than the intention behind their use. Loot boxes, for example, aren’t inherently predatory; they can add an exciting and rewarding surprise element when balanced with noble intentions. Even dynamic balancing or manipulated randomness can enhance player experience. In some card games, the odds of opening a pack are manipulated in favor of the player, such as slightly increasing the chance of getting a legendary card every time you don’t get one. [Insert overwatch1lootbox image next to this paragraph]

So the intention matters most. When designing a battle pass, a designer must answer questions like "How much faster should a premium player progress compared to a F2P player?" and "How long should it take for a player to finish the battle pass?"

I’ve seen designers balance it fairly, like by requiring 30 minutes of daily play to complete the free track or $5 to unlock the premium pass. But, I’ve also seen designers create an illusion of achievability by giving lots of free progress early on but then locking the juicy prize behind a $50 paywall or a ridiculous amount of grind, which is designed to frustrate 98% of players and milk the 2% whales.


It Has Nuances

And it's up to players and studios to define where their red line is. 3 examples to illustrate that point:

Loot Boxes Odds

Loot boxes can have transparent, honest odds. But in more pernicious games, the odds change under the hood based on your game state. For example, you might have better odds after spending money or returning from a period of inactivity. Loot boxes can even have disclosed but fake odds, with collectables locked behind hidden conditions. You might spend thousands of $ trying to get a specific reward, without realizing that this collectible has in fact a 0% chance to drop, because it has a hidden condition that will only include it in the loot table 2 weeks from now (to prevent players from collecting everything Day 1).

Laws that force developers to disclose the odds can be easily circumvented by generalizing the type of rewards. If it says ‘2% chances to get a rare card’, it could indeed give you a rare card with 2% chances, simply not the one it doesn’t want you to get.

And remember that any variable can be personalized, for example by skewing odds for whales while keeping them true for 98% of players, it muddies the water if players try to pull the numbers.

BOTs in Multiplayer Games

Adding BOTs can ensure a smooth onboarding experience in multiplayer games, but it can also be used perniciously. In Moba ‘coop vs AI’, it’s clear that you’re battling BOTs for the sake of practicing. In many other games, like battle royale, weak BOTs are disguised as real players to trick you into thinking that you’re crushing it. It can go further, by making these fake-players difficult to beat unless you spend money, or even masquerading them as your Facebook friend on a leaderboard to create fake rivalry. If you’ve ever wondered why your auntie Nadine was top of the leaderboard at 4 AM on that old facebook game, it’s because it wasn’t her. 


Charging Players Different Prices

Live games offer personalized deals, and as a rule of thumb, the more money you spend, the more expensive these offers get. Where it becomes even more shady is when these deals offer the same reward value, but for very different prices, sometimes by a large magnitude. Player A who is a non spender will get a ‘deal’ to buy a unique skin for 5$, while Player B, who is a whale will get a ‘deal’ to buy the same unique skin for 20$.

Another developer stated:

‘Well, we ended up with a model that basically targeted members of the Saudi royal family and charged them 100x what regular players would pay for the same microtransaction, and it worked..’

Shall we do it?

As a studio or developer, I believe it’s crucial to define your red lines, as less ethical people will always try to leave the morals out of the equation, ultimately worsening the game quality and the studio culture.

  • Does it hurt the player experience for the sake of making more money?

  • Is the information transparent?

  • Is the information dishonest?

  • Is it discriminatory?

  • Is it targeting vulnerable people?

Put simply, as a developer, I ask myself "Would I be OK with it if this was done to me?".

Unfortunately, for a lot of decision owners, the "Shall we do it?" often turns into "How can we hide it better?"

Dynamic Balancing

To understand why dynamic balancing is such a powerful monetization tool and why studios invest heavily in fine-tuning it, we first need to examine how typical F2P games generate revenue.

In F2P games, players engage with various systems where they make progress over time. Occasionally, a spike in difficulty slows this progression. To overcome these obstacles, players can either grind or pay to reduce the challenge, effectively buying time. This intentional difficulty spike, known as the "pinch," is designed to frustrate players just enough to encourage them to spend money, but not so much that they quit the game.

To maximize revenue, there are two main challenges to address.

The first challenge is ensuring the balance between difficulty and player progress is just right. Various factors, such as skill, experience, playstyle, and the amount of money already invested, can influence this balance. If the game is too easy for them, Player A, who has a lot of experience and has already invested money to become more efficient, may not feel the need to spend money. If it's too hard, Player B, who is inexperienced and a non-spender may become overly frustrated and quit.

F2P games do not let players choose their own difficulty levels because this would undermine the game's monetization strategy. Instead, they dynamically adjust the difficulty based on data collected from players, ensuring each player remains in the optimal zone of frustration and challenge. The game creates the illusion that players are in control, while in reality, much of the experience is predetermined.

In a RPG, Player A might receive worse loot than player B.
In a match-3 game, Player A might see less objective gem than player B
In a shooter, Player A might have slightly smaller hitboxes than player B

The key is to always keep these changes as discreet as possible, often using manipulated randomness.

The second challenge is related to the concept of "spending depth"

Only a small percentage of players are willing to pay. It's much easier to extract money from these spenders than to convince non-spenders to start paying.

If you're a player willing to spend $10,000 on a game, the game needs to give you reasons to spend more even after you've already invested $5,000.

In games with linear progression, spending $100 on resources boosts your progress, putting you ahead of the difficulty curve and reducing your need to spend for a long time, and it isn't efficient when targeting high-spenders.

This can be addressed through exponential progression or… dynamic balancing. For example, if a player spends $100, the game lets them enjoy their power-spike for a while, but it soon adjusts the difficulty to match their new progression level.

Again, adaptive difficulty and manipulated randomness have been used in games for a long time and are not always bad. The experience can become more enjoyable when it subtly becomes easier after repeated failures, or when you’re matched against opponents with similar skill levels.

But in F2P live games, it’s often predatory for a combination of reasons:

  • Making money has priority over the player experience.

  • Lack of Transparency: Players are unaware that many game variables are adjusted on the fly and differ from other players' experiences.

  • Players cannot opt out of these adjustments.

  • Many live games feature social elements like tournaments. It's as if regular players unknowingly compete and spend money to play against opponents with an aimbot.

  • Players' spending can backfire. It’s as if, when playing Monopoly, spending $5 to guarantee a six on a dice roll would result in the game subtly increasing property prices to maintain the challenge.

With live games increasingly borrowing predatory tactics from casinos, we can even imagine  that content creators could be sponsored to play games with manipulated odds, showcasing shiny rewards and ‘insane luck’  to encourage their communities to spend money.

What Can We Do About It?

As a player

  1. Be aware: Understand that randomness in games is often manipulated and personalized. Investing money might not give you as much of an advantage as you think, and be aware that your game experience can differ significantly from other players.

  2. If a game studio you once cherished starts using more predatory tactics, don't expect it to revert to its previous ethical standards. The developers who opposed such tactics have left or lost their influence. If a studio backtracks due to backlash, they may often just try to hide their tactics better.

  3. Support ethical studios: Choose to support game studios that align with your values

  4. Stay true to your values


As a developer

  1. Advocate for transparency: Transparency is crucial for healthy studios and games. Manipulating randomness to include elements players would disapprove of is a slippery slope.

  2. Challenge unethical practices: Monetization stakeholders do not have a monopoly on ethics. If a tactic conflicts with your values, it is fair to openly challenge it.

But ultimately, I believe this can only be solved through creating and enforcing legislation.

Legislative Solutions

  1. More user control over data: Ensure players have more control over the data collected while playing. Currently, opting out of data collection usually refers to personal data like country or name, not the data related to your playing and spending behaviors used for dynamic balancing.

  2. Enforce full transparency: Many tactics are predatory because they are purposely obfuscated. Just as casinos must disclose their machine algorithms to third parties, large live games could be subject to similar transparency.

  3. Licensing for game studios: Implement licensing for larger game studios to operate live games, with the possibility of revoking licenses if they breach contracts.

  4. Spending limits: Many predatory practices target "whales" who spend thousands of dollars monthly. Implementing spending limits as China did could also be a solution.

  5. Increase fines: Increase penalties for unethical practices. A 9 million fine isn't doing much when the game generated 5 billions.

  6. Mandatory offline modes: Require standard game states or offline modes.

Closing words

Many modern live games are not just gambling machines disguised as video games, they are often rigged on top of it, not so different from carnival games that set you up to lose.

My intent here is not to blame specific games or studios, but to highlight the root of predatory tactics to help players recognize them and encourage developers to speak out. While some developers might not mind working for studios that use these tactics—especially given the high pay and benefits that often go with them— when you’re driven by passion, it's not great to work on a project knowing it’s meant to trick children or seniors into spending money, it's not great to see talented colleagues leave or stop caring because their ethics no longer align with studio practices. It's not great to pour years of your life into crafting art, code, design only to see your craft being torn apart by players because of how greedy the monetization is.

I talked with community managers who burned out because they had to defend predatory tactics they were not responsible for. And I see the hypocrisy of studios that like to brag about how inclusive they are,  while simultaneously using the most unethical ways to milk their players. It's almost as if ethics matter as long as they don’t make you lose money.

And I wish, we developers would challenge these practices more often in our studios or in the industry. If an artist or a writer produces something controversial, a lot of colleagues rightfully feel they should speak against it. But when someone in charge of the monetization decides it’s okay to scam elderly or children, surprisingly, very few people dare to speak against them, often because there is no room for debates, or because the other developers might not even be aware of how predatory their own game can be.


A quick glance at this year’s GDC conference, the largest event for developers, reveals how little we address this issue. Among hundreds of sessions and a whole advocacy category, I found a single session that explicitly focuses on unethical tactics.

I believe it deserves more attention, games-as-a-service become the norm, and these tactics generate billions. These billions are re-invested in ads or user acquisition and makes it harder for more ethical studios to gain visibility and stand out. And the way studios monetize their players is not only reflected in the lower quality of the games, but also the studio brand, culture, values and the talents who decide to join or stay.

So for once instead of ‘leaving the morality for the end’, let’s please ‘slow down on the greed


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