Most free-to-play games, especially mobile free-to-play games, use similar models to extract revenue and keep players coming back. These models work by creating toxic trade-offs that are central to their functioning. This post highlights the main three, and will act as reference for future gaming posts. Note that some games that can be played for free, such as the excellent Path of Exile, mostly do not do these things and are not fundamentally ‘free-to-play’ games, rather they are games that are free. But they are the exception, the extreme end of a continuum from ‘so friendly we just give you this great experience in the hopes you’ll want to throw us money’ to ‘made a pact with the Canadian devil.’

For an analysis of Magic: The Gathering Arena in particular, this remains the central point of my analysis, centered on what I here call the third trade-off. Arena counts as free-to-play in bad ways, but is on the less toxic end of the spectrum, especially with regard to the second trade-off, which I am seeing over time as more central. However, while Arena remains relatively friendly, it is moving towards being more toxic, with things like the second wildcard for historic card creation and with the mastery track.

The Three Trade-offs

The first key trade-off is to make games less fun in order to cause you to pay them huge amounts of money to make them less not fun, aiming at extracting extremely large payments from a few whales as the primary revenue stream. This prevents them from giving you the version of their game that would be the most fun, even if you are paying a lot of money, because they still want you to pay more. If you are not paying any money, and aren’t going to bring in new players, they almost want to drive you away.

The second key trade-off is between success in the game and your life, focus and time. The games use timers and delays to force you to constantly pay attention to the game if you want to accomplish the maximum. Not doing so lets valuable resources sit idle, whether they are free resources or paid for resources. Thus, the back of your mind becomes infected by the need to constantly check and perform tasks, and there is a sense of panic that you are delaying starting something because that delays it finishing which delays starting the next thing, and so on. This is not healthy. The game is telling you when and how to play, rather than you deciding, and it’s preventing focus and relaxation and other good things in life. Such games have the power to make your life worse rather than better, and often will do so.

The third key trade-off is that they give players tons of different resources and currencies and items that they need to gather, make many of them rare and hard to get, require those elements in order to advance or to advance efficiently, and they do not allow trade in these items in any reasonable way. If you get bottle-necked in one of them, you can be very screwed, and often players will get into this spot because they did not realize what resources need to be conserved, or because some are simply made super hard to get.

Better and Worse

There are more and less toxic versions of all this. Better versions give you optimization problems to solve but do not put you under felt pressure to change your other patterns of behavior. Worse versions put you in race situations and force a steady stream of clicks at specified intervals to not fall behind. Ideally, the game is presenting an interesting optimization problem, but not one that tempts you to make crazy out-of-game sacrifices.

This system of forced delays makes sense in light of selling speed-ups and other ways to get around the restrictions. What started happening a few years ago was that regular games that charged money up front started incorporating these elements as well. So in addition to the endless grind tasks that many games used to prolong length, one was forced to leave on one’s gaming counsels and not play them, in order to make progress in otherwise fun games like Bravely Default or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Before this round of trying free-to-play games, I was focused on the first problem and not as worried about the second problem, with the third problem as a hard problem that needs to be handled responsibly by some games, and solved via robust markets for other games such as digital collectible card games. Now that I have had the chance to play with a game designer’s perspective, to think about what the game is doing to its players and their brains, I am now more worried about the second problem than the first problem.

The first problem leads to games that force a bunch of grinding and don’t offer as many fun opportunities, and which a few players will spend far too much money on. That’s bad, but it’s not that bad.

Similarly, the third problem locks your players out of being able to find the components they need to do the things they want to do, locking them out of much or most of the variety your game has to offer. This is bad, but it’s bad in the players not having fun sense and the players putting in money they will never see again sense, rather than the players ruining their lives sense.

The second problem leads to ruined focus, days and lives, as people are unable to get the game out of their heads, despite nothing really being at stake. I flirted with this a little bit in order to better understand how it works. It’s more pernicious than it seems, and after stopping (or scaling back to where one does not care about being much less efficient) one feels a great relief. So I now consider this to be the thing most important to avoid, and to speak up against.

Delays, steady streams of income, time and resource optimization problems and other similar mechanics can lead to interesting games and game play. Many of the real life problems I most enjoy thinking about are similar optimization problems at heart. If a game uses the flow of time and resources, and the efficiency trade-offs of gathering them in different ways, to generate interesting problems, and the good ways to do things are fun and not life disruptive, that can lead to some great experiences. If they are not fun, and/or they are too disruptive, what results can be far more toxic than one might think.

Both of these dynamics point to additional reasons to essentially never put money into free-to-play games unless they are selling permanent changes.

If there are features, stories, regions or other elements that are fully payment locked, then that is like a non-free game that one should be free to pay for. Alternatively, if the game has a ‘maximum spend’ that allows you to fully unlock its components that are relevant to multiplayer competition, and this enables playing the game without its resource optimization elements, and you’re willing to pay that price to exclude those elements entirely, and your eyes are fully open on all of that, then that is a reasonable thing to do.

However, if the game is true free-to-play with payment options, then you are dealing with an optimization problem of how to make the most of your resources, where the game is constantly trying to exhaust them via log scaling of costs to get you to keep paying.

Thus, paying them money likely makes the game worse rather than better. 

Suddenly, your optimization problem provides a few more resources, but does that make the problem more interesting, or only highlight the dollar values of what is involved in destructive ways? Likely the latter. And they have all the same reasons to quickly run you out of resources again and put you in the same place, except now your free options will clearly be not interesting.

Having a game constantly available on one’s phone also adds all the standard temptations and distractions of other potential phone activities that offer steady streams of small reward. Phone games are doubly more toxic than non-phone games, because they are both available on your phone, and because they tend to embrace toxic implementations in order to succeed in the cutthroat mobile market where one must prioritize lifetime customer revenue in order to make mobile advertising of the game profitable, which is what allows one to scale.

Thus, when encountering free-to-play games that are built around some combination of a whale-based revenue model, time-counter mechanics and a wide array of collectible but not easily purchasable or salable in-game assets, one should be reluctant to play even for free, but even more reluctant to pay money.

In particular, the more often they require you to ping them, and the more they punish you for not pinging them when they want you to, the more scared of them you should be, and this consideration should be more central to your threat level assessment than you think.


New Comment
4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I recently started playing an online game I saw advertised online. I know how addictive these things are, but I decided to "play with fire" anyway.

As a precaution, I decided to not make a browser bookmark of this game, ever. I registered using a throwaway e-mail address. Also, I never told anyone that I was playing it. That way, when I decide to quit, nothing would push me back -- it would only require one decision, not repeated temptations and decisions. And... I played for a few weeks and then I quit. And after a few days of not playing, I don't feel like starting it again anymore, so I guess my strategy worked.

I will not mention the name of the game here. Anyway, it was the type of game where you build stuff, collect resources, and research new stuff; with many things to unlock. In the game there were three important resources, let's call them X, Y, and Z. By making better or worse decisions, you could make more or less of the resources X and Y; and I spent some time optimizing for that.

With resource Z, however, the basic way to get it was to play the game regularly. If you logged in at least N times a day, you got M points of resource Z per day; you couldn't get more for playing longer, but you would get less for taking breaks longer than 1/N of the day. In addition to this, there were also some other ways to get resource Z, but this extra amount was always smaller than the amount you got for merely playing the game regularly. There was no smart strategy to at least double the income of Z. So, whether you did smart or stupid things had a visible impact on X and Y, but almost no impact on Z.

Of course the resource Z was the one that actually mattered, in long term. Your progress on the tech tree sometimes required X and Y, but always required Z. And, of course, the higher steps on the almost-linear tech tree required more of the resource Z.

So, regardless of whether you did smart or stupid things, you advanced in the game at a pre-programmed speed, which was gradually getting slower the longer you played. In other words, pre-programmed fun at the beginning (unlocking a lot of stuff during the first day, trying various things), pre-programmed increasing boredom later. Completely unsurprisingly, resource Z was the one you could also buy for real money. But even if you would decide to spend a certain amount of money every week, you would still get the same boredom curve as a result, as the constant income of resource Z would have diminishing returns the further you progress on the tech tree. The only way to keep constant levels of fun (assuming that unlocking new things on the tech tree counts as fun, even if they are mostly the same stuff only with different numbers and pictures) would be to pay ever increasing amounts of money.

After realizing all this, I still kept playing for a few days before I finally stopped. (I never paid anything, of course.)


Exactly. This seems to be a popular model of design, where mostly nothing beyond checking back in periodically will ever be the long term limiting factor if you are playing in any reasonable way. The game that inspired this post does not make this mistake, but it does a similar thing where it offers rewards to everyone over time that dwarf anything a player can otherwise accomplish in their first few weeks - you still have to play to utilize what they give you, but mostly you're stuck with their gifts until reasonably far in.

Where does Eternal, a game you seem to like, lie in the space of these tradeoffs?


Eternal fails the third trade-off by using a Hearthstone economy - your cards can't be traded. It does a good job with the other two. The most obnoxious thing it has is 'win one game a day to get a pack' which is not too bad. Contrast that with e.g. Villiam's comment above.