The dystopian future of casual games: personalized, targeted pricing and mechanics
You may like free-to-play games, or you may hate them, but the fact remains you can at least judge them based on their merits. It doesn’t take long for the player to find out if the in-game economy is satisfying, or if it feels unfair. Hell, you can just read a review and see how much you can play without paying right?
Here’s the rub: What if there was no “real” version of the game, and the economy changed and adjusted itself to wring the maximum money or value out of each player? What if how you played the game determined how much items cost, or how often you needed to use them? Welcome to the dark side of data collection, and a possible dystopian version of gaming.
This is a future where your habits determine the rules of the game, not the other way around, and the goal is to remove as much value from each player as possible.
This sounds far-fetched
This sort of thing is already happening in retail. Where you are could determine how much an item you view online costs.
“A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “More than that, Staples appeared to consider the person’s distance from a rival brick-and-mortar store, either OfficeMax Inc. or Office Depot Inc. If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price.”
The more information a retailer has about you, the more they can change their pricing and offers to match what they think you’re interested in. “Websites are adopting techniques to glean information about visitors to their sites, in real time, and then deliver different versions of the Web to different people,” the story stated.
“Prices change, products get swapped out, wording is modified, and there is little way for the typical website user to spot it when it happens.”
So where you are, and what you view and purchase online, could determine how retailers treat you, the prices you pay for products, and even the coupons you see or sales you’re offered.
It doesn’t sound terrible at this level, especially if stores compete for your business by offering lower prices on your favorite items or rewarding repeat business. But the fact remains that online retailers are changing how they do business, and they’re targeting geographical data or individual information to try to get you to spend money.
What does this have to do with games?
A developer in the casual space contacted me to discuss what they called the “dirty tricks” of some casual games. I was able to verify this person’s place of employment, and the strategies the developer discussed were things they said were increasingly common in social games.
“First, the thing about these ‘games’ is they track everything. Every mouse click, how long you hover over any selection, every action, everything they can get from Facebook, everything,” the person claimed.
“It all goes into a giant database that describes everything you ever did and some of what you even thought about doing in the game. Second, they have a dedicated economist running the game from behind the scene. He has control of all costs and game balance.”
The idea is that all the information about how players enjoy the game is kept in one place, and studied.
“Are you a female from Europe who spams a large amount of different Facebook friends?” the developer asked. “Are you a male who collects obsessively and buys items but stays away from currency? Do you only buy currency to progress and avoid Facebook spamming?” All that information is collected, and large swaths of players are put into groups.
This is where it gets weird. Once the players are put into groups, the game begins to put the screws in. “If you buy items obsessively the cost of items will likely be increased. Buy energy, real money cost of the energy could go down while the cost of in-game actions could increase. Spam people? Perhaps even more opportunities and roadblocks to stop your progress,” the developer said.
“Special offers and new features are tested on small sub-sets of these groups before rolling out into the full game. In short the game responds to your actions and tries move you in a way to either grow the player base or gain more money,” the developer explained.
Player behavior is already studied in many games, this strategy simply takes that data usage a step further in order to tailor the monetization scheme for each player, or groups of players.
This wouldn’t work for games with an engaged audience, as MechWarrior fans would certainly notice if bullets were suddenly more expensive for certain Mechs, but it’s the perfect fit for more casual titles. Once you know how a certain player likes to play your game, it only takes adjusting a few variables to make sure you’re getting the most out of those interactions, whether it’s real currency or even just spamming friends to join the game.
A possible future
What’s hard to do is verify that games are doing this, and try as I might I couldn’t catch any game red handed. Communications with the above developer ceased when I began asking more questions. The whole thing felt like I was being warned about Skynet, only to have the messenger return to the future.
It’s possible some games have already begun targeting players when it comes to pricing and use of energy and real-money transactions. It’s possible companies are only looking at it as a strategy but have the mechanisms in place to begin. Or this is all just a paranoid delusion.
But if retailers have begun to target individuals in terms of pricing, games can’t be far behind. So much of our existence is already cataloged, studied, and then spit back at us in targeted ads and recommendations of goods and content. Games can’t be far behind.