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The Subtle Manipulation of Mobile Games

Free to Play and mobile games make use of a lot of unfortunately shady practices to get people to pay and play, and I want to talk about some of the less overt examples in today's post.


After about two years playing the game Marvel Strike Force, I finally quit this past week. All-in-all, this is the longest time I’ve spent on a mobile game, and I had the chance to look very closely at the game’s monetization systems and practices. For today, I want to talk about some of the subtler ways mobile games can (and have) hooked players into staying and spending money.

Being a Guppy

As I said, Marvel Strike Force is easily the mobile (and free to play) game I’ve spent the longest with. However, in the span of that time, I spent about $4.65 total on the game. When it comes to valuing time vs. money, as someone who has lived frugally, I do my best not to spend money with in-game purchases. Whenever I see those “great deals” or “best value” offerings, my brain immediately tunes them out.

One of the basic tricks we see mobile developers do these days are “targeted deals”: where the game is set up to generate a limited time deal after a condition has been met. In Marvel Contest of Champions, every time you pull a new hero or get something rare, the game will immediately send you a deal to capitalize on that event.

Everything that we’re going to talk about today is designed around two goals:

  1. Keep the consumer playing and hoping they will spend money.
  2. Get the consumer to spend money so that they will keep playing.

Truthfully, one of the reasons why I held out so long-playing MSF, was the very fact that I did spend money (the small amount that it was). The other reason is easily the most manipulative thing I can think of that people don’t talk about.

The Friend Trap

Anyone who has played a multiplayer game, MMOG or not, knows the value of having friends to play with. Having a group of like-minded players makes the game more enjoyable and adds to the experience. However, mobile games have found a way to subvert that and turns friends and guilds into player traps.

In a conversation with Ramin Shokrizade, we spoke about retaining players in F2P and mobile games. During that chat, we discussed “player-generated content”, or having the player base generate content by simply existing. This could be due to PvP features, leaderboard ratings, and of course guilds.

Every mobile game these days features a guild system, and they all work the same way. To get you to join a guild, the game will automatically put you into a guild, or offer quests/rewards that are only accessible via a guild. Once you are in, the guild provides additional resources and generally makes the game easier to play. For Marvel Strike Force, you literally cannot make progress without a guild, or spending tons of money, at the end game due to the resources that are earned through guild play.

That comes at a cost, as guild-related events and options will require you to log in more to assist. For games that feature guild vs. guild content, you can easily be peer pressured into spending money to make your characters better in service of the guild. For top-tier guilds, they will often force you to play consistently or keep yourself at a certain power level to aid the guild.

The main reason why I officially stopped playing MSF was that I was kicked out of my guild and lost the motivation to keep playing. In the last few weeks with work picking up about my books and projects, I had to cut back on playing the game, which meant missing daily events that had to be done. Because I wasn’t doing enough for the guild, they kicked me out, which is certainly fair but represents the trap of this design.

As with the other parts of mobile games, the sunk cost fallacy works when it comes to being in a guild. Once you have made friends and participated, now you have to keep playing and helping out your guildmates. This makes it harder for you to quit because then it seems like you are letting your friends down. It’s the same attitude that we saw in MMOGs, and how top-level guilds demand your time and attention, or you will be “cast out.”

Taking one of the best aspects of online games and perverting it like this leaves a bad taste in my mouth because I know there are people who will fall for this trap and let it consume them. For me, I am pledging that I will never join another guild in a F2P or mobile game unless they are with people I already know from somewhere else.

Demanding your time and attention takes us to the final point I want to discuss, and something that I loathe in videogames.


Of all the mechanics and systems, there is one that I hate the most; even beyond pay to win elements. Many games will abstract work into time that the player must wait before a task is completed, but there are games that do not abstract it. Real-timers, for lack of a better term, are when the game sets up tasks or events that occur whether or not the player is actually playing the game, and requires them to “check-in” to perform the task.

This is not the same as having a daily login: something that rewards the player for signing on every 24 hours. These are elements that require the player to actively engage with the game or be penalized. Going back to MSF, near the end of my tenure with it, I had to sign on daily for raids, daily for competitions, daily for PVP, and daily for group PVP battles. Not only that but to get the most energy daily, you must sign on at three specific times during the day or you will miss out.

the worse kind of design holds the player hostage in order to keep them playing

Compounding these issues is that the timers for them are not controlled by you, but by the game itself. If an event ends at 4:30 in the morning that you want to win, I hope you are a night owl. One of the first mobile games I played was Marvel Puzzle Quest, where they routinely had events end in the early morning and your only way to win was to either play during those times or spend money to protect your team.

I have a strange schedule with all the work that I do, which leaves me with specific times where I can focus on playing a game, and then getting back to my other projects. I outright refuse to play a game that “demands” me to play it at set times. The title State of Decay also made use of real-timers in terms of protecting your base and followers, and no matter how much that series has been praised, I can’t play those games because of that system.

Incidentally, this is also why I cannot play MMOGs with lengthy raids that require forced groupings. There is no way with my schedule that I could just stop what I’m doing and agree to do something for two to four hours.

I am fine with seasonal play, which has events set up for weeks or even months; or let me set the time span that I can join for something.

Held Hostage

People like to talk about elements like loot boxes, “fun pain”, pay to win, and so on, as the worse parts of mobile and free to play design. Despite how anti-consumer those systems are, I would argue that the points discussed today are worse.

The reason is that they develop and cultivate a mindset of addiction: that the player is conditioned to have to play these games, and failure to do so will be punished in some way. The sad part about this piece, is that systems like season play and guilds do work and can be done in a fashion that does not hurt the consumer. But as I am sure every one of you reading this knows: that does not bring in as much money.

To end on: Can you think of other mechanics and systems that hurt the consumer that people don’t often talk about in F2P and mobile games?

If you enjoyed my post, consider joining the Game-Wisdom discord channel open to everyone.

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