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Game of War: the future of pay to play?

View profile for Andy Moseby
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Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid accessing the internet or watching television for six months, you might have noticed that Kate Upton’s cleavage is currently endorsing Machine Zone’s latest smartphone game Game of War: Fire Age. Despite many low-scoring reviews – it currently rates a 1.9 User Score on Metacritic – it has proved to be incredibly profitable. Ranked #2 on the iPhone Top Grossing Games chart, just behind similar money-making behemoth Clash of Clans, Think Gaming estimates it generates over $1 million of revenues each day in the US alone.

A recent article in Business Insider was scathing in its assessment of exactly why Game of War has been so successful: “the entire game is built around digging hooks into players, getting them invested in its infinite loops and convoluted systems, and then charging money for the ability to stay invested.” It’s worth breaking that down a little. An “infinite loop” (or compulsion loop) is a concept which traces its history back to the 1930s and BF Skinner’s research into behavioural conditioning – the process of training specific behaviours in animals. Skinner developed an “operant conditioning chamber” (now generally known as a Skinner Box) in which animals were rewarded for certain behaviours, such as pressing a lever to release food. By altering the ratio of reward to action and the interval between the desired behaviour (lever pressing) and the reward (food) over multiple experiments, Skinner was able to compile a set of rules governing when and how rewards should be given in order to maximise the desired action.

The compulsion loop, as applied to games, is the process of compelling the player to keep playing, creating a habit out of a chain of activities. The reward for not breaking that chain is a pleasure stimulus – a dump of dopamine into the brain which encourages repeated play. If this is done by creating a rich game experience then few eyebrows are raised; it becomes controversial when the purpose of the compulsion loop is to stimulate players to part with real-world currency.

This is nothing new, of course. John Hopson, a researcher at Bungie at the time, wrote an article revealing the workings of behavioural game design on Gamasutra back in 2001, and the same Skinner Box comparisons were aired again a few years ago once it was discovered Zynga employed a behavioural psychologist. However, Game of War does seem to be a particularly egregious example. With its myriad of stats, progress timers and multi-tiered research trees, there is a never-ending to-do list. All in-game tasks like training troops, research or attacking nearby monsters take time – at the start of the game the time periods are short, but soon extend to weeks. Want to speed things up? Then you need to start dropping cash. 

Again, we’ve seen this before, where the “whales” (a game’s most financially invested users) are able to buy an advantage. However, comments from players online seem to suggest that stumping up real cash in Game of War is the only real way to advance. In the same Business Insider article referred to earlier, one player was quoted as saying: “The difference between the big spenders and everyone else is huge. Not just two, three or even ten times more powerful, but a hundred or two hundred times more powerful”. At that level, the compulsion loop is driving payments of very large sums of money. Belgian news site Het Nieuwsblad reported last year that a 15-year old from Antwerp had spent €37,000 on Game of War in-app purchases, using his grandfather’s credit card.

If you’ve sunk that kind of money into building an empire, then you have an investment in seeing it persist.  If you were to say – take a holiday – the last thing you’d want to see on your return to the game (because Game of War is a huge multiplayer environment, raids and attacks can still affect you even when you’re not actively playing) is a pile of rubble where your stronghold used to be. Fortunately, that’s where the peace shield can help. The peace shield essentially protects your city from attacks and scouts; a three-day peace shield (perfect for coverage during that long-weekend break) costs just 2,500 Gold whereas for a 30-day peace shield, you’d be looking to part with 45,000 Gold.        

At this point, you may realise that players are paying not to play the game. As a business model, that’s impressive…  

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