Avoiding the Temptation to Spend Money on ‘Free-to-Play’ Online Games

Max wrote in with a great question that started off in the reader mailbag, but eventually grew into a rather long post. Here’s what he had to say:

Most good mobile games are free to play but they offer optional purchases that make the game a little easier or give you a boost or a cosmetic improvement. When you are struggling with a challenging part of the game it is really tempting to buy especially when you like the game and have played it a lot. These are the ultimate impulse buys. How do you stop them?

With the recent incredible popularity of Pokemon Go alongside the enduring popularity of other free-to-play games like League of Legends, it’s pretty obvious that companies have figured out some very smart techniques for making a lot of money off of something that seems to be “free” on the surface. Let’s take a look at how such games make money and what you can do as a consumer to keep cash in your pocket.

How the ‘Free-to-Play’ Model Works

Pokemon Go follows more or less the same “free to play” model as many, many other online games.

First of all, such games offer very addictive gameplay with lots of “micro-rewards” during the game. The games often revolve around short bursts of gameplay that offer mild rewards in an almost constant stream as you collect more Pokemon, gain gameplay levels, find more items, and so on. The games are often very simple in their gameplay and can be digested in relatively short bursts (particularly on cell phones). This constant stream of short bursts of gameplay and mild rewards for that gameplay is inherently very psychologically addictive. It’s the equivalent of a bag of potato chips, in other words; when you’ve got a bag open in front of you, it’s tempting to just keep eating one more because of the burst of flavor you get as a “reward.”

The games typically start off with very easy to access “victories,” then slowly ramp up the “difficulty” of these victories. At first, the gameplay is very straightforward and the rewards are very easy to access. When you start playing Pokemon Go, for instance, it’s easy to collect a lot of Pokemon very quickly and level up through the first several levels in a pretty short period of time.

However, that steady stream of micro-rewards slows down after a while. Either it takes longer to reach the next level or next upgrade in the game (often transitioning from seconds to minutes to hours to days) or other players become relatively stronger than you which impedes your continued progress in the game. In essence, the game continually sets up progressively harder and harder challenges to receive the same type of reward.

This is the point at which such games make money. When continuing progress in a game becomes difficult, the game offers purchases that will make that continuous progress more easy. They’ll offer a purchase that allows you to buy advanced items within the game that do things like reduce the wait time or improve your relative strength against other players. For a time, this speeds up the micro-rewards the game has to offer – you can suddenly catch Pokemon by the bundle again, for example, or you’re more efficient at hatching your Pokemon eggs for a while.

Eventually, though, the benefits of that item that you paid for wear off and you’re back to square one.

At this point, one of three things happen. One, you give up on the game entirely or scarcely play it. Two, you accept that your progress is going to be progressively slower and look for other goals within the game. Three, you give into a cycle of optional purchases for these in-game boosts.

Obviously, the game creators prefer that you choose the third option (though the second option isn’t terrible for them as it maintains the chances that you might make purchases down the road or receive gift purchases from others).

Another strategy that “free to play” game makers like to use is the continual production of new items at a very fast rate, faster than most people can hope to acquire them in game through normal means. These are also available for purchase for those who are less patient or have less free time.

In a nutshell, a “free to play” game tries to hook the player with free gameplay that’s simple to pick up and addictive thanks to lots of quick rewards, then stretches out those rewards while offering you the possibility of making purchases to speed up the rewards for a while. It’s a pretty smart business model, to be honest, and it works really well if it’s built on the back of a compelling game.

My Experience with ‘Free-to-Play’ Games

Over the years, I’ve played a number of free-to-play games and learned the hard way about the temptation of the purchases that they offer.

My biggest weakness was with the computer game League of Legends, which I played off and on for several years. I would play the game for spells, then delete it, then return to it months later. During the interim, many new characters would be released for the game, so when I returned to the game, I was often tempted to “catch up” by buying the latest characters in the game. I have not played the game in more than a year.

I have had much more successful experiences with many different mobile free-to-play games including Clash Royale and Marvel Puzzle Quest. In both cases, I was able to resist the temptation to make purchases in the game and just enjoyed playing the game itself without the urge to continually chase more and more upgrades within the game. I’m playing Pokemon Go with my son currently and I’m finding the same thing to be true again with this game – I’m enjoying it without the need to buy more.

Strategies for Avoiding the ‘Optional Purchase’ Temptation

So, how exactly did I “switch off” the desire to keep spending money on these free to play games? Here are some of the strategies I’ve used over the years, mostly with great success.

Avoid ‘Freemium’ Games Altogether

For a long time, after my expensive turn with League of Legends, I completely avoided new “free to play” games. I was fully aware that I was easily tempted into buying all kinds of items and characters and upgrades within such games, so I just avoided them entirely.

That doesn’t mean I gave up gaming. It just meant that I chose games to play that weren’t connected to a string of micro-purchases to get maximum enjoyment from the game. Instead, I played games like Civilization V and Factorio when I was alone – games that were clearly designed for long-term play without additional purchases – and (preferably) played board games when others were around.

The first thing to note is that if you enjoy playing games, there are a lot of games out there that scratch your gaming itch without needing to get on board the “free to play” bandwagon. As I mentioned, most of my computer gaming time in the last few years has been invested in Civilization V and Factorio which do not have the “free to play” model – both games involve a single purchase (or, in the case of Civ V, just a small handful of additional expansions you can buy in a single bundle) and offer nearly infinite gameplay by themselves. There are many, many great “quick” games for smartphones as well that don’t use the “free to play” strategy – my favorite of all time is Threes.

However, my favorite option here is to not play electronic games at all. I vastly prefer board games because of the face-to-face social interaction that they introduce, which is far richer than any interaction I’ve ever found in the digital realm. Give me a good board game and a set of willing opponents and I’m incredibly happy. You can dabble in board gaming just by going to a community game night, which you can find on Meetup or by searching around on Facebook for groups in your area.

The second thing to recognize is that, although there are worse ways to spend time, electronic games are largely distractions and time-wasters. While they can stimulate the mind, they don’t lead to significant benefits in the real world. You’re far better off spending the time you might use on such a game on something productive that can facilitate real-world opportunities and connections, whether it’s sending an email, reading a thought-provoking article or book chapter, or giving your mother a call. And this is coming from me, a lifelong gamer who still enjoys playing many games.

Gaming can be a part of a healthy, balanced life, but that balance doesn’t have to include free to play games that require an endless stream of money spent on them.

Set Alternative Goals

Of course, you can play free-to-play games without spending money, but the problem is that the games are engineered from the get-go to focus you on goals that strongly encourage optional purchases.

For example, in Pokemon Go, much of the game’s focus is on competing for control of gyms, which requires collection of many Pokemon with the same name, which requires efficient collection of similar Pokemon. Lo and behold, the game sells you items that make it more efficient to collect large quantities of Pokemon in a local area, which is exactly what you need.

My approach for finding fun in such games is to set “alternative” goals for myself. I try to seek out ways to have fun within the game that don’t involve following the same pathway to purchases that the game broadly pushes.

So, within Pokemon Go, my primary goal has been to simply maximize my walking distance. I’m effectively using the game as a pedometer. The game offers some subtle encouragement of this, given that the game includes a mechanism for “hatching” Pokemon from eggs based on your walking distance. I walk a lot, hatch some unusual Pokemon along the way, catch a few if my phone vibrates, and hit any stops along the way. It’s fun and casual and gives me a goal without any need to buy anything.

With League of Legends, I eventually reached a point where I was very focused on mastering one character in each of the five game roles. This didn’t require any additional purchases at all beyond unlocking those characters (which was pretty easy to do). I didn’t worry about whatever character was new or hot at the moment; I just worried about getting good at five very specific characters.

You don’t have to be the ultimate winner at any game you play (in fact, that’s impossible). You just need to have fun, and you can find fun in the better “pay to play” games by defining your own goals.

Limit Playing Time

Many “free to play” games are designed to be able to be played in short bursts whenever it’s convenient, which means that it becomes very easy to play it whenever you have a free moment. This is particularly true on a mobile device, because you can just pop open the game in an instant, play for a little bit at the doctor’s office, and then close it when your bubble of free time passes.

Such short bursts are great for passing time, but it also makes it very easy to become quite addicted to the game and when you’re addicted you’re much more prone to make optional purchases on the spur of the moment.

Thus, one strategy that’s really useful for keeping yourself from making optional purchases is to limit your playing time for such games. I often literally delete all free-to-play games from my phone and computer if I know I need to focus on other things or that I suspect that my temptation to make an optional purchase is growing. These games can easily be downloaded later if you change your mind and decide to play.

I often “purge” my phone of free-to-play games and other distractions, with the goal being that if I keep those distractions off my phone, I’m more likely to do something productive on my phone (like respond to emails and such) than to play a game.

Stay Involved with Other Hobbies

If you’re finding it difficult to turn away from the temptation of free-to-play games, consciously make the decision to spend time on other hobbies in your life, particularly those in which you’ve already invested money so that there’s no need to buy more or those where there’s no need to buy more money.

A few months ago, I was tempted to spend money while playing Clash Royale, a particularly good free-to-play game. I really wanted access to some items that I didn’t have access to yet and this single purchase would push me over the top. I managed to not jump immediately on the impulse, but instead I thought about it for a day or two.

What did I eventually do? Instead of picking up the game again, I deleted it off of my phone, then I picked up a book from my bookshelf that I hadn’t read. Before long, I scarcely remembered the game at all.

If you find that desire gripping you, put the game down for a while. Actively dig into the other hobbies in your life. Spend time on them. Delete the free-to-play game for a while – you can always come back to it later.

You might just find that the strong temptation you were feeling fades into nothingness really quickly.

Cut Off Easy Payment

One of the biggest tricks that a free-to-play game has in its repertoire is the fact that it is so easy to make a purchase within those games. You click a couple of buttons and it’s done, and you can’t even get a refund from it without jumping through a ton of hoops (and even then there’s no guarantee).

If you find yourself tempted by optional purchases within those games, turn off every option on your phone or computer that makes it easy to quickly make payments. Turn off the ability to pay by Touch ID. Delete your stored passwords. Sign out of any payment accounts. Delete credit card numbers.

The goal here is to add steps to the process of making payments so that if you do decide to pay, it’s not as simple as simply swiping a finger or touching a particular spot or hitting the “OK” button. You have to remember and type in a password or two. You have to dig out your credit card. You have to wait for a text (depending on your settings).

The more time you have between your temporary decision to make an optional purchase and the actual point of purchase, the more time you have to question that decision and talk yourself out of spending your hard-earned money for a few additional bits in a free to play game.

Final Thoughts

Free to play games are very effectively designed to be incredibly fun in short bursts, but they’re also designed to tempt you into wanting more and more of the fun and they make that additional fun very slow to access without optional purchases.

If you find yourself tempted by these games and particularly by those optional purchases, step back. Take a breather. Indulge in other hobbies. Make it harder to make those optional purchases. Ask yourself if you’re really having fun. Look for alternate goals that don’t require optional purchases.

By taking those steps, you take away a lot of the temptation and the power of optional purchases in free-to-play games, and by doing that, you keep your spending money right in your pocket where it belongs.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.