How Freemium Developers Get You To Pay
Time compression is the most common mechanic in the freemium world, bar none. If you are familiar with games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, League of Legends, or Planetside 2, then you know all about it. It is an ubiquitous mainstay on the experimental landscape of freemium games ever since players complained about “paying for power,” and it will never go away. But what exactly is it?
If time compression sounds simple, that’s because it is. Developers create a massive grind that players must surmount to progress. While you can technically play and achieve everything, it would take many hours per day just to keep up with the pace of newly released content. This is either because the content released has a steep price tag (economic compression) or because it requires a high level in order to use (experience compression). It is akin to a developer setting up a long, winding, snake-like road from point A to point B.
However, there is an alternative. You find out that you can take a toll road that goes straight from the start to finish instead of traveling the arduous path. All it takes is a measly five dollars. In less metaphorical terms, the developer offers to eliminate the grind for you completely, but at a small monetary cost. You get your gear, and the developer gets your money. Boosts also fall into this category. It’s a win-win! We all get what we want. Except not really.
Why it works
Time compression works because every system in a freemium game is naturally weighted to require a large time investment. Developers rig the system so that it is very undesirable for you to continue with the grind. The house always wins, and in this case the bet is whether your patience can last the entirety of the grind you are told to do. Most freemium developers know you – statistically, anyway – better than you know yourself, and getting you to crack under constant pressure is their job.
In addition to this test of patience, those that do continue grinding find themselves behind their fellow players. What starts as a mere inconvenience of time turns into peer pressure to keep playing. All players want to keep pace with their friends and competitors, even if the competition is as simple as watching spreadsheet numbers tick up.
Time compression fails when the grind-to-reward ratio is too high. This time investment ratio is interesting in that different cultures have different values regarding grind. Westerners, particularly Americans, have a difficult time accepting large grind in their games. Titles which do have such steep time requirements – like Tribes: Ascend, before costs were lowered – tend to be hammered by annoyed consumers who don’t want to spend countless hours on what may only be a marginal upgrade. In comparison, steep grinds are a distinct feature of Asian MMOs. The threshold between tolerance and anger is a fine one.
Everyone loves looking pretty. Good-looking outfits and decked-out houses are status symbols, after all. The virtual world isn’t that different. Cosmetics options in freemium titles show that a character is, as the song goes, a man of wealth and taste.
Cosmetics are generally broken into two types: pure and hybrid. Pure cosmetics are what you would expect: garish and fancy clothing for the discerning character. Hybrid cosmetics roll additional bonuses in with your purchase so that you are purchasing both new gear and a new shirt. In other words, players pay to win at the game. The harsh feedback from such systems resulted in hybrids shifting away from raw power buffs and more towards time compression buffs, like a shirt that gives you more XP or gold as long as you are wearing it.
Why It Works
Cosmetics options work because we are, at our core, social animals. We want to be accepted and admired by those we deem our peers. This is just as true in MMOs as it is in the real world, and is an incredible driving force behind sales. Cosmetic options can even give players prestige that is unearned and unwarranted, as their fancy new outfit gives the impression that they are more successful and well-versed in the game than they actually are. Who do you value more, after all: the king in his glowing magical robe, or the warrior in shoddy leather armor?
A good example of this in action is in League of Legends. Among lower-tier games, skins are often seen as a sign of skill. After all, who would waste real money on a skin for a character they don’t play obsessively? The result is that players value regal-looking players higher than those in the default skins. A player’s money has bought them status in the virtual world, despite that status potentially being undeserved.