One Anonymous Free-To-Play Producer Says: "We Own You"

Free-to-play, it's arguably one the biggest seismic shifts in video games ever. Some of us play, some of us don't. But just how badly are some of these free-to-play games exploiting players?

Answer: pretty badly.

In an insane guest post over at Touch Arcade, one anonymous producer explained just how much data they have on free-to-play users and what they do with that data.

It's terrifying.

This isn’t an article about the evils of free to play manipulation to get you to spend money. This is about how we can target you, because we (and our partners) know everything about you. We know where you live, we know your income level, we know your relationships, your favorite sports teams, your political preferences. We know when you go to work, and where you work. We can target an event to start for you when we know you have a long weekend coming up. We own you.

So that's pretty bad, but this might be the worst part:

And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you. I remember we had a whale in one game that loved American Football despite living in Saudi Arabia. We built several custom virtual items in both his favorite team colors and their opponents, just to sell to this one guy. You better believe he bought them. And these are just vanity items. We will flat out adjust a game to make it behave just like it did last time the person bought IAP. Was a level too hard? Well now they are all that same difficulty.

That's just a chunk of it. Seriously, this article is absolutely fascinating/terrifying and a must read for anyone interested in mobile or free-to-play gaming.

"We Own You" — Confessions Of An Anonymous Free-To-Play Producer [Touch Arcade]


    This makes me sad for gaming

      What's even more sad, it's not just gaming.

    Jesus, this is why I hate that model so much.
    I got hooked on Clash of Clans, I only spent around $50 in $10 or so chunks, but the game was running my life. It was making me play rather than me wanting to play, even though I kept telling myself I was enjoying it.
    I didn't want to delete it, as that was throwing away the fifty bucks, right?
    In the end, I deleted it, nearly went back once, then kicked it for good. After the initial withdrawl, it was like a great weight off my shoulders.
    I don't play any of that type of game any more, they literally force you to keep coming back or you get punished and have all your hard work removed. I don't really play mobile games any more. I picked up framed, but I think that is the only game I have played on my phone since.

      I played Clash of Clans to the point where I simply couldn't progress without spending money, then deleted it. I looked at the pricing, I was tempted once or twice. "What's the harm?" I thought. Then I realised that all it would do is make me have to pay more money later for a larger upgrade.

      If you gave me unfettered access to the game for $10 that might be a different story. But they'd rather fleece $50 out of every tenth person and have a million people playing, than get $10 from maybe a thousand people who'd actually lay down money up front.

        They are making $5 000 000 a day so it seems to be working for them.

        And if you really feel bad, you can just spend the credit you earn from the Google Rewards app so no money. I haven't spent any on it yet and it's still fun. TH9 currently.

          I thought it was still fun, but I steer away from any game now that forces me to play when it wants me to, rather than the other way around.
          I got up to TH9 without spending any money, and it was fun at the beginning, but became work at some point, and then a total drag.

    So F2P games tailor their experience to trick you into spending money? Is that new information to anyone? If you're not spending money they're selling your metadata too, to target advertising at you.

    At the end of the day, it's not really affecting you unless you end up spending money somewhere. Spending money to advance in a game faster or to get some unique gubbin that otherwise has a 1% drop rate in a quest I can only do one a day is a red flag for me and that's when the game gets deleted. I'd encourage anyone to do the same, but you know, for some people they might not mind. If you spend a fair amount of money in exchange for something you want, are you really being exploited? No more than any customer of any product is really.

    The data mining and profile aspect is scary but it's also kind of funny how inaccurate some of those profiles can be unless you're dumb enough to add the cleavage-flashing stranger on Facebook and let them see exactly who you are.

      On Android, you can reset your advertising ID at will too.

    TBH you all deserve it if you use social media...

      Just fyi, this forum is a form of social media.

        Yeah and i control what info i share so im aware that if there are issues its my own fault.

        So if you use facebook/twitter you have no right to complain about privacy or targeted advertising.

        Exactly, and unless you disable your public profile, your commenting history is available for all to see and peruse and learn about you.

    Very much on target. I create game ads for mobile publishers and the amount of data collected is insane. Briefings get veeeery specific on who they are targeting - all collected from Facebook, Google, and other ad networks. I really don't think people understand that their privacy is bought, sold, and traded every single day.

    Annnddd fuck mobile gaming.
    This is exactly why I want it to go the way of E.T. on the 2600.

      There are actually some pretty good games on mobile. Pay for the game, enjoy it with no ads or premium shit or anything. Although there is a lot of shovelware.

        I find these to pearls in an overwhelming ocean of shit.

        I've got some huge mileage out of Puzzle Craft, which actually had a finite end. I was happy to see a sequel on the app store, but sad that it was monetizing a little less generously than the original - but that's only fair because I got stupid play out of the first one without spending anything. By the time I did, it was really basically a tip out of thanks.

        I loved the Infinity Blade games, but they traded their price tags for stepping up the grind, which was sad.

        I could count the number of genuinely appealing, non-exploitative mobile games I've enjoyed on the fingers of a blind butcher's hand.

    any mention of free to play causes me to immediately loose any intrest i had in a game as well as excessive micro transactions

    Been playing World of Tanks on the xbone; it's fun for the first few days and them, bam!, the grindfest ensues. If you want to speed up your progression thru the grind you can easily spend 40, 50 bucks or more just on a single tank. Not a AAA game but I can see players easily spending a couple hundred bucks over a year. These guys have been learning from the pokies manufacturers, not as bad as the article above but still some evil psychology at play.

      I don't think World of Tanks is that great of an example. The base gameplay is good enough at any tier that it stands up on its own rights. The only thing I ever paid for in World of Tanks was a premium subscription and I think $15 a month for what I got out of that game was well worth it.

    Funnily enough this hot chick I met only on FB has recommended me to play Clash of Clans. We share the same interest in NFL teams.
    Anyway after a while of chatting on Messenger I gave her my credit card details so she could help me get through the game much faster.
    Keep an eye out for her as she can really help you out. Her gamertag is 'facebook_bot1314' which I'm sure is just ironic haha.


      I honestly think we should stop calling them Free to Play, they are only free to play to an extent. Than it becomes Pay to progress.

        I dunno. Free to Download and Free to Start might be more accurate, but F2P and Free to Play both give us a solid indication of what to expect. It tells us the game is made and operated for profit so it will either ask you for money or sell whatever information you give it to a third party. Nobody ever refers to free games as Free to Play or F2P. In that sense the term works. It differentiates these no money down games from demos and free games.

          Yeah. The 'free to play' label might not mean what its individual english-language words mean independent of each other, but as a label... it offers some keen and unflattering insight.

          Last edited 18/09/15 8:14 am

        How about calling them "Free to Pay"?

        Edit: looks like wolkenkatz below beat me to the pun(ch)

        Last edited 18/09/15 12:07 pm

    Pretty easy to avoid...I a primarily PC gamer and rarely play free to play games. Generally people end up paying more for them and they aren't as fun as pay to play.

    No-one should really be surprised that they design free to play games to get you to pay as much as possible. It's a bit creepy that they stalk facebook but my profile is private, I never accept requests from people I don't know and I don't let apps send me push notifications or access facebook. If they require those I don't play the game, simple.

    As always, there's a range of behavior for free to play and IAP. There's plenty of devs out there who don't do any of the things mentioned in the article.

    I have worked on a couple of F2P with IAP titles and we didn't implement any kinda of profiling metrics or alter gameplay to target you etc. We might have metrics like "where are players dying most often" and "how many people finished the game" and such, and perhaps patches we might adjust the difficulty of a level or boss or whatever was needed.. but only in a general non-targeted sense.

    We mostly just wanted you to play our game, and if you enjoyed playing it we hoped you might do an IAP to support us etc.

    It's sad that these days less people are willing to pay up front for a title ("because game B over here is free!!! why would I pay for your title?") and then because of practices like those described in the article there's a lot of people who are "it's got IAP? not interested". Can't win either way.

    Personally I don't believe they know as much as they think they do. A lot of this is pretty much tarot card reading. I mean if all this data they have on players is really that accurate and so easily used to exploit their player base, then why have I never clicked on an ad on Facebook or YouTube? They have access to some insanely deep data mining and I'll buy anything shiny so it really shouldn't be this hard to sell me something via targeted advertising.
    I'd love to have some magical way of finding out how much of the success behind this stuff is legitimately manipulating customers and how much is just the manipulators taking credit. I mean right now I'm pretty tired and I don't feel like cooking, so I'll probably grab some KFC for dinner tonight. If I see an ad for KFC between now and then the advertiser will mark that as their victory even though the ad had nothing to do with it.

    FTP doesn't stand for Free to Play, it stands for Free to Pay. You don't have to pay, the choice is yours.

    Yeah, good luck with that... You won't have my income level or even most of that information.

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