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Games play people

The psychology and marketing that goes into 'freemium' games can make you a farm slave

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You see a woman sitting across from you on the MRT with, of course, a smartphone in her hand. Her face is a blank and her eyes passively glaze across the screen. It would probably suggest that whatever was on the screen was the most uninteresting and mind-numbing thing possible, but her fingers speak otherwise. 

They are zipping animatedly with a mind of their own, making her look possessed, or a controlled zombie.

Is it FarmVille 2, Shrek's Fairytale Kingdom, or The Simpsons: Tapped Out that the woman's playing?

The sight of people with their noses in "freemium social games" on their smartphones in practically every public setting is nothing new. In fact, by next year, one third of Thailand's population, 20 million people, will be using smartphones. The larger question should be why are people still playing these games?

Freemium social games on smartphones refer to games that are free to play, but charge real money for premium content that players can choose to play with or without. The nature in most of these games, whether you are building a city, growing crops, running a restaurant or whatnot, is that there is a non-linear structure that governs it.

As you progress, it becomes harder and consumes more time in increasing levels. Players can keep playing on and on as these kinds of games usually keep adding levels at every game update. There is no clear final goal and there is not necessarily an end point to these types of games either.

Pisal Setthawong, a computer science lecturer at ABAC and co-founder of Flying Pig Game Studio, tells us that game-play experience today is very different from gaming decades ago.

"Gamers today don't even need to have any skills or expertise. The point of these games is they are so simple and will retain an appeal for the mass audience, but are not too simple to the point that renders it boring."

For the past three years, freemium social games on smartphones have spread like wild-fire. Some popular games include Smurfs' Village and Zombie Cafe, both of which have reached over 10 million downloads worldwide. What's interesting to note is that because the games are on a high-spread platform, a new group of people who were never gamers before can be reached. Unlike the hard-core male gamers, these games are made to appeal to women.

"Office women these days play more games because their telephones also serve as a fashion and entertainment item. Not everyone would buy a games console, but the smartphone is a platform that really allows people who have never been involved before to play as well." Montira, a 53-year-old housewife, says. "I like these games that are easy to play and understand. If it's complicated, then it's too troublesome."

According to Pisal, freemium social games actually require a team of psychologists to deconstruct what attracts the human mind and how to keep them glued. It is no longer a mere process of creating an enjoyable game that gamers would like, but a process of trying to understand the ever-changing consumer behaviour and how they can be tempted and seduced into playing.

"Games these days don't necessarily even have to be fun, they just need to satisfy all the critical factors," he says.

On top of psychologists, there are also many mechanisms regarding marketing. Dynamic pricing on the premium objects reflect how the supply and demand changes all the time _ one day firms give out objects for free, which reflects that people are losing interest; but when the price shoots up, it's because there is a high demand. To simplify things, there are two main foundations these freemium social games operate on.

The "Flow Theory" relates to how these games try to get people to forget about time. When you are building or growing something, it may take seconds at first, but will slowly increase to minutes and hours as you progress to higher levels. If players can get everything instantly within a click, then the goals will obviously end faster. The goal for having time flow by is so that enough time has passed for players to form a certain attachment to the game.

"You spend a lot of time on it without knowing. And your life just goes by," Pisal explains.

After people have been playing for some time, the games then try to leech off your impulses, specifically when you are frustrated. When you want to continue, the harder it is and more frustrating it gets as you progress. When we want to get out of this state, it becomes an impulse where we pick up our credit cards to buy the easy way out. Pisal says it is the same concept with bribing the police.

"You don't want the trouble of going to the station, you just want to pay and go." Regardless, it's a very tricky process because these games must also not frustrate you too much to the point that you stop playing. The Flow Theory and impulse buying are just the bare basics that suck you into the cycle.

Freemium social games have a successful effect on Thai people as our nation plays a lot of these games.

"Thai people are easily bored, like things easy, like to show off," Pisal reasons. "We want to look good by our friends. We have no money, but we'll take out loans to buy an iPhone. This is our nature. Freemium games are catered to and capitalise on these kinds of people. Our nature happens to fall right under the factors required to entice people."

In fact, he believes that many game firms _ like Yeck Entertainment and MOLPay _ are coming to Thailand because of our country's high demand. Yeck is a Taiwanese company that created the hit game Happy Pigs, while MOLpay just opened an office here to court gamers with no credit cards. It's nothing new that addiction can become destructive. Pisal says there's no number that could possibly quantify how much time spent with these games are acceptable.

"It starts an unhealthy behavioural cycle because you're so preoccupied with it. And the sad thing is, all you put in would be useless if the service is gone."

Kelly Kampen, a gamification guru, also adds that "these games should be put into the correct context within a person's life. If they are missing work or life in general over a game, there is a problem". However, due to its portable nature, freemium games on smartphones may be difficult to deal with as opposed to addictions we've seen previously.

The fact that we can become unsociable and wired by ignoring our counterparts and focusing on our screen anytime anywhere is a different problem than when children refused to go home because they were stuck in computer cafes or bowling alleys late at night. Integrated money systems within these games also provide a way to spend massive amounts of real money on unnecessary things that could be comparable to drug or alcohol addiction.

The future of these games is unclear, but we can be sure that they will not disappear any time soon.

"These games have no end point. The day it does is simply the day it is no longer financially feasible to maintain _ then the firm will take it down.

"But until then, companies are completely happy with even the 2% that spends 10k on it every month. Nevertheless, we are definitely headed towards the tablet and smart phone trend for sure," Pisal says.

We can only wait to see what form and wonders these games will evolve into in the future, but until then, as Pisal puts it: "We are amusing ourselves to death."


So what is it that makes people continue playing despite the repetitive nature of these games?

1) Spontaneity: These games are on portable devices and their nature is that they can be played anytime or also end anytime; people can easily tap in whenever the dining table starts to get boring. "I actually found myself pulling out my phone to pick up my cooked meals [in Zombie Cafe], even when I was having dinner with friends I barely met," Natnicha, a 22-year-old grad student recalls.

2) Symbolic Physicality: Since players can display themselves with a name, customisable clothing, rooms and decorations, they will feel that their avatars or characters are extensions and representations of themselves and it is only natural to want the very best for them. This is where firms can make money, when people splurge to buy premium items for their characters. We are also reluctant to stop playing because we regret to leave something that we've "built" up ourselves.

3) Sociability: We don't stop because there are others to play with us. Social interactions such as competitions or helping out others keep things going, but the point is we want others to see how we also exist in this world. This is where competition begins as we want to stand out and become accepted by having a better looking farm, house, etc. People who have a stronger need for recognition than others usually become extreme addicts. "These games let you have an identity instantaneously. We can become a very important person in that game using very little time and we can brag about it. This is much easier to accomplish than in real life and this is a factor that make some so addicted to it," Pisal explains.

4) Narration Progression: As you complete quests and competitions throughout the game, there is an instant gratification that comes with progressing to higher levels. "When you don't have a purpose in life and you're really bored, it can give you an unbelievable sense of achievement," says Pisal.

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