Opinion: Free to stay

Mobile games and F2P are occupying Sean Cleaver’s world this month. But what is it that keeps him there?
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The quarter mile in motor racing is a race on a flat strip of straight tarmac that sees two cars duel to the line. It’s a pure test of the cars speed and the driver’s ability to control the beastly horsepower they wield. It’s what I’ve been doing a lot over the past few months with CSR2.

And I’m still there. I’m racing, saving up my keys so I can chance my luck at the Rare Imports section and saving up enough cash so I can get the next level of car and progress with the story. I have not yet spent any money.

I’m not adverse to spending money at all. In fact I’m quite a fan of mobile games and when asked, I will always put Game Dev Story by Kairosoft in my top twenty games list. I even spent the required pre-brexit price hike £7.99 on Super Mario Run, enjoying what it gave me during its ‘free to start’ model.

When it comes to free to play, however, I’m less open to spending my cash. While all these games are playable, if not a tad grindy, without the microtransactions, paying would certainly make my life a lot easier and my levelling a lot quicker.

But I’m happy to stay there, grind a few times, casually pick things up and just have a little play when I feel like it. Sometimes I'm not actually aware I'm loading up the app, but I just do. Usually when I should be doing other things, like paying attention to the movie I’m watching. It’s a bit like Hotel California’s lyrics at that point: You can check out any time you like...


The compulsion loop seems to really grip me, although not with enough to force me to cheat it by spending money. There’s something about the loop, though, that makes me want to carry on regardless. In the case of CSR2 I think it’s because I want to unlock all the cars, so it’s a collection based desire – the need to acquire stuff and nonsense.

But then I’ve also got Star Wars Battlefront’s Base Command game. This is supposed to allow me to earn credits for use in Battlefront. I’ve not played Battlefront for a while, apart from the VR X-Wing mission. So why am I still playing THIS game when I’ve so obviously spurned the rewards? Well, clearly I’m getting that reward from playing this game instead. One of my favourite board games is Castle Panic, a team based game where players defend a castle and this is a game that reminds me of it. So there's familiarity in there.

Collection isn't necessarily a requirement for me to enjoy a game though. I’ve barely touched Pokemon Go, I’ve occasionally played Hearthstone although I’ve not finished any of the introductory tavern AI decks and even though I’ve paid for it, I’m not that bothered about earning all the stars or pink coins in Super Mario Run. So what is it?

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So here are a few compulsion loops that I experience in my mobile gaming:

Intrigue –> Social Relevance (hype and bragging) –> Reward of further options

Interest (in premise/subject) –> Accessibility (including offline play) –> Window of opportunity to play

Friends (who else is playing) –> Embarrassment or success –> Emergent gameplay stories

That last one probably needs more of an explanation. Take a game like Words with Friends. You play it because a friend is also playing, which you find out by word of mouth or social media notification. You want to best them because, deep down, you hunt for glory and superiority. You either trounce them with your superior knowledge of language or are scuppered by a “XI” even though you’ve just been celebrating an eight letter wonder. Then you talk about how many rude words you’ve got in there via chat or messaging, creating your own story and one you want to have with others. And so the cycle repeats.

The thing that keeps me in these games isn’t the fact that I can win, not really. If we could actually win then the model would be dead because there’d be an end point for any monetary transactions. It’s the fact I can just do what I want to in my own time, whether that’s with friends or related to an interest that only I have. They’re like secret little escape apps for me to enjoy when I have a moment.

It’s not about showing off or progressing, that doesn’t keep me interested, and that’s why I don’t spend any money. It’s because I’m just having the right amount of fun, so I stay – as the song says “We are all just prisoners here of our own device.” 


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