Sunday, August 26, 2012

Free to Play and the Seven Deadly Sins

After my last article on tricks free to play games use, I started thinking to my self about how all the bits of human nature they exploit align with the Seven Deadly Sins. All in all, it's not the best model of human weakness but it does lead to some interesting thoughts on game design. Here are my notes.

Lust - an intense desire. (Not necessarily sexual)
More than just a want, lust is a gotta-have can't say no want. To get people to lust you need to create something truly awesome (or at least looks like it). This can come in the form of a powerful item, and awesome looking item, or an epic scenario. Then to profit off of it all you need is a pay gate. Some games explicitly use a gate with a pay-for key. Others use level or gear requirements to bar it off from players who haven't invested enough time or money into the rest of the game.

Gluttony - Consumption in excess
Unlike the other sins, gluttony is more of an effect that a cause. It's not exactly a want, players may not want the item being consumed, it's just that they're over consuming. The question is: how to get players to engage in gluttony. The answer is having an abundance of resources at the players disposal. Resources burning a hole in their pocket. While a full discussion of this is part of a greater discussion of game economics, the basic premise is to get the player sitting on a large pile of money that they don't value much. The two tricks are at in-game currency (points, diamonds, energy) at an odd exchange rate to the dollar, and selling that currency in bulk. The first keeps people from converting prices back into dollars, leaving them with no sense of value. The second will leave a little change left over after every transaction. It feels like wasted money so people will spend it even though long term it would be better so save it.

Greed - The desire for material possessions.
Some people want to have things just for the sake of having things. Completionism is the trait most games take advantage of. Some of the things to collect are: achievements (that cost money to complete); item sets that give a bonus if you get them all; collection ratings (5/37 found); recipes for various in game items.
Recipes are probably the most subtle. Every player needs a few recipes to make the things they need for the game so there's no way to opt out. Then, you add a few rare recipes that are only marginally better than the common equivalent or common recipes for useless items. People will pay money to get them all even if they provide little or no utility to the player.

Sloth - Laziness. For our purposes: physical or mental laziness.
People like taking shortcuts and will pay to take them. The trick here is to avoid the big free shortcut of passing on your game to play someone else’s game. Most games that take advantage of sloth use psychological tricks to get players addicted to an activity that is boring and then sell them a path around it. Game companies like Zynga are explicit about doing this because it maximizes profit. Historically, before F2P, games would be designed to sell you a strategy guide. Different flavors of the same vice.

Wrath - Destructiveness, violence, and hate.
People who hate will do stupid things like spend too much money. Most pay to play games will give players something to hate, whether a difficult monster in a PvE game or another player in a PvP game. 
PvP is particularly interesting because of a long last hate that can develop from feuds. Feuds aren't all that difficult to cause either. Split the players into two factions that can't communicate (ala WoW). Violence leads to more violence, and the only thing that can break the cycle (communication) is blocked. Once you have a feud, a warlord (game designer) can sell weapons to both sides.
PvE games usually work with a pay for resurrection system (think Arcade Games) and try to get the players angry at a boss. My favorite example of this is the first boss of Final Fight. When you die, he stands over your corpse and taunts you with a laugh. How could you not drop in a quarter and get revenge.

Envy/Pride - To want what someone else has / The desire to be envied
These two are particularly interesting. As a pair they create an arms race between players trying to be the best. And everyone knows, arms races are costly. To amplify this cycle, games will use art to make the haves visually distinct from the have-nots. A game designer who cares about the game will limit this to costumes and accessories. A greedy designer will sell powerful weapons that give an advantage over other players such that the lesser player needs to pay to keep up.