Menu

Casually Yours: 4 Ways to Spot a Shameless Cash Grab

I like to keep my promises and in my inaugural column I promised I’d address mobile games that are shameless cash grabs. So here we go!

One of the most common critiques one hears about mobile games is that they’re all free-to-play (F2P) garbage specifically designed to bilk the player out of as much money as possible. Irrespective of the fact that there are many “premium” (i.e. not F2P) games on the platform, this criticism is somewhat valid. However, like most broad generalizations, it’s lacking in nuance.

For the purposes of this guide, we will divide the huge group of all F2P games into two groups: those that are shameless cash grabs and those that are plain, old, regular cash grabs (ha ha).

Joking aside, the “shameless” part is key, because all commercial games want to make money in some fashion and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As my co-host on Unconsoleable, Jessica Dennis, frequently opines: you get paid to do your job, and developers ought to be paid to do theirs.

Now that you know not all F2P games are the spawn of the devil, let’s get to figuring out which ones are more in that camp. What are the red flags to look for and, if you so choose, avoid?

Virtual Currency

Have you bought any Pokecoins recently? How about some gems or diamonds or whoozits? Maybe that last one is made up, but virtual currency is one facet of the more evil types of F2P games.

The goal is simple. Disassociate the value of the in-game currency from real money. So, instead of paying $1 or $5 for something, you’re paying in coins or gems or whatever else. And let’s see, you spent $5 to buy 550 Pokecoins so that makes each coin worth… and a Lucky Egg costs 80 Pokecoins so that means one Lucky Egg costs… how much???

If you need to whip out your calculator to figure that out, don’t feel bad. That’s exactly the point. And since no one is going to be able to do the mental math while making these purchases, it’s harder to figure out exactly how much you’re spending which means it’s easier to lose track and potentially spend more than you’d like. And also it feels less like spending real money. You have a mental concept of what $1 is, but what about 1 Pokecoin?

Think this only happens in mobile games by the way? Think again.

Energy and Other Timers

You’re playing the hot, new F2P game and having fun, but all of a sudden you get a message saying sorry, you have to stop playing. You’re out of “energy.” Putting aside the irony of being out of energy while you’re sitting on your butt playing a game, what’s happening here?

Other than angering many players, what’s happening is the creation of an imaginary resource (energy) that is in deliberately short supply and that players can spend money on to replenish and keep playing.

Another version of this is in games like Clash of Clans or other base-building or similar games where it might take, say, 5 minutes to build a structure. Would you like to speed that process up? That’ll be X coins or gems or whatever the in-game currency is.

Despite the obvious problem of literally interrupting gameplay to try to wring a few bucks out of your player, the reason it often works is that the games are addictive in nature. You want to keep playing so you’re incentivized to pay.

Expensive Single In-App Purchases (IAPs)

All games and indeed all apps on the App Store and Google Play Store are required to disclose the range of their IAP prices in their descriptions. Scroll all the way to the bottom of a game’s description in the App Store for example and you’ll see the following options:

Select In-App Purchases and you’ll see a screen like this for, say, Game of War: Fire Age.

As you can see, it’s possible to spend as much as $99.99 on a single purchase. While this is typically the highest amount, there is no limit on how many of these purchases a player can make; it can be infinite purchases. This is how some players referred to as whales sink thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars into a game.

By contrast, a far more ethical F2P game like Rodeo Stampede (iOS & Android) has a $9.99 IAP as its most expensive one. Another example is Land Sliders (iOS & Android), which tops out at $4.99. Additionally, these games and others like them simply don’t have much for the player to spend on (Crossy Road was somewhat of a pioneer here and has been endlessly copied). And when the player is incentivized to spend, the cost can’t get too out of control, because it’s not a purchase you can make over and over.

Difficulty Spikes

We can call this one the Candy Crush model. If you’ve played the immensely popular match-3 game or any of its million clones or lookalikes, you know the way it goes. You’ll cruise through a bunch of levels and then suddenly hit one that seems impossible. You’ll try and try to beat it, seemingly to no avail.

This is not an accident.

The game is specifically designed this way. Those candies or sodas or whatever the case may be aren’t randomly falling into place and those levels that feel unpassable are meant to be that way.

Why? So that you’ll buy power-ups to pass them of course. Better yet, packs of power-ups, because you know you’ll hit another “impossible” level down the line.

Two Dots, another wildly popular game uses the same tricks and, like I said, it’s far from alone.

The analogy you should imagine is a slot machine. It feels random, but we all know it’s not. Sometimes you might get lucky, but in the end the house always wins.

The casino analogy is also not accidental here. It’s a useful way to think of many of these games. Casinos are places where people go to play and have fun even though they know the casino’s goal is to take their money. They know the odds are stacked against them and they play anyway. Whether people have the same understanding when they sit down to play one of the chart-topping F2P games is an open question and one I’ll explore in a future column.

For now though, armed with this information, go forth and game, but be careful. If you think the casino model isn’t an ethical one, don’t support it. Tell your friends and family not to support it. Or, like in a casino, go ahead and play, but with caution.

Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.
4 upvotes

Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.

Featured Let’s Play