How mobile games are designed to SCAM you.
Table of Contents
Pokemon, Call of Duty, Diablo Immortal, Raid Shadow Legends. These are just some of the hundreds of games that are run by scammers, effectively trying to bankrupt you. We're going to expose them for who they are. Three weeks ago, I started playing the incredibly popular mobile game, Pokemon Unite. It seems simple. You're in one team of Pokemon, and your goal is to head to the other side of the map and score goals against the other team of Pokemon. It's completely free to play, and over 100 million people have downloaded the game. But I'd only just finished the tutorial by the time I was slapped with a full-page ad to spend $10 on something called the Unite membership. No way, I thought. So I closed that tab and carried on playing, not realizing at this point that this was all part of a bigger plan to rinse me of everything that I own. It took just six more minutes of playtime before I was greeted with this. See, the game gives you a login bonus every single day that you come back to the game and play, but this pass effectively gives you bonuses on top of that bonus, which actually seemed pretty reasonable for the 60 EOS gems that it cost me, which equates to about $1 in real money. So I bought it, one of the first times I've ever spent money on a free game, and I felt alive. Kind of like how you feel when you manage to nab one of those Amazon Lightning deals just before they run out. After the first couple of days, though, I started to notice that while I was getting plenty of new stuff and constant level ups, and I had been given four different Pokemon to play with, I started losing, like, a lot. I started to realize that this game was less about skill on the battlefield. The combat is effectively just mashing your different attacks as soon as they become ready to use, it's more about how strong you make your Pokemon before you step foot on the battlefield. So I decided that I needed some held items. Held items are what you equip to your Pokemon to give them improved stats. So I headed to the shop, and I spent about half of the total in-game EOS coins I'd earned so far buying three items. One that increases my maximum health, one that gives me health regeneration, and one that increases my damage output. And I thought, Finally, my Pokemon is kitted out. I don't have to think about this anymore, I can just play the game.
So I charged into battle with my head held high, and I got absolutely demolished. It became very clear to me at this point that it wasn't just enough to buy the held items, because when you first get one, they're almost completely useless. Like this attack-increasing Scope Lens that I bought, it was literally giving me a 0.4% extra chance of getting a critical hit that dealt more damage. Imagine adding 0.4% to your dinner one evening, you'd get one extra P. In order to become competitive in ranked matches, you actually need to level your items up all the way to grade 30. At which point they will give you a big game-changing buff, like let's say 15% more damage. But the problem is, leveling up your items is a ridiculous process. You can't earn levels with skillful play, you have to buy them with something called item enhancers. But then, these item enhancers are so unbelievably slow to earn through any organic means, that I was practically forced to make my second purchase, the Battle Pass. This game, and almost every other mobile game like it, uses Battle Passes as a way to guild their players into paying more money. Every time you complete a game, it'll tell you the rewards you earned, and then the rewards that you could have earned on top of that, if only you bought the Battle Pass, which is just this whole extra stream of rewards to keep playing and keep coming back to the game. And in this case, a lot of those rewards just so happened to be what I was looking for, item enhancers. This was $10 in real money. I bought it, 'cause the alternative option was to sign away weeks of my life grinding for it, but I was becoming very aware at this point that I'd already spent more on this game than I had in any mobile game that I'd ever played before. Still, at least now when I was playing, I could guarantee myself a steady supply of new item enhancers, so I could remain a competitive battler. And that's about where you'd expect the story to end, right? Wrong, 'cause right when I thought that I'd just paid my way out of my problems, is actually when things took the biggest dive so far. Because it's at this point that I realised just how many of these item enhancers I was going to need. See, when you're upgrading your items, all you can see is how many item enhancers it costs to go from the level you're on to the next level. And so when I saw that all of my level one items just needed three item enhancers to level up, and then I saw that with this battle pass, I could get myself a bundle of 30 item enhancers every few days of playing, I thought that this $10 would easily cover me. Thank you. But what the game didn't tell me was that every single level you go up with your held items, the more item enhancers you need to get to the one after that. So that actually, to get my three held items to level 30, it wasn't that I needed 100 or 200 of them, I actually needed no less than 7,761. When I realised this, my jaw practically hit the floor. To put that number into some perspective, in the entire base game of Pokemon Unite, the maximum amount of item enhancers you can possibly earn without getting into the whole loot box opening system is 1,535. If I completely maxed out my battle pass, which is already something that I've paid for on top of that, I could bag myself an extra 360.
But I mean, not only would this process take me roughly 150 days of playing every single day to earn, but even with that, I would still need to find a way to get the remaining 5,866 item enhancers that I still needed. And that's when you have almost no option but to turn to the shop. How much do you think this was gonna cost me? A simple, almost required mobile game in-app purchase. $100. 100 real money dollars. And if you wanted to max out all of your items, not just the three that you currently have equipped, $760. Are you kidding me?
Pikachu for that price. But the scary part of it is that at this point, what choice did I have? I've poured so much time and love into my account that I didn't feel like it was an option to just stop playing. It was either I pay $100 or I accept that I will be disproportionately disadvantaged in every future game that I ever want to play. I decided to go for it. Which I know is probably the single most pointless purchase I've made in my entire life, and I have made a lot of pointless purchases over the years, but I wanted to give you guys a real experience. I wanted to know and to be able to show you what would happen next. And sure enough, somehow it managed to get even worse. Because then, only at this point, only $100 into this supposedly free mobile game, did I find out how Pokemon Unite makes its big money. So we've established at this point that Eos Gems are the premium currency that you can use to buy almost anything in the game. But it's not the only currency, because you also have Eos Coins, which can buy most of the things that Gems can, but you need a lot of them. Next we have Tickets, which come in three flavours. Eos Tickets, Fashion Tickets and Holo Tickets. Fashion and Holo Tickets unlock new skins for your trainer and Pokemon of choice, while Eos Tickets let you buy those item enhancers, as well as boost cards that increase the amount of experience points you earn. Tickets, like coins, can be earned in events and challenges, but when those run dry you do need to buy them with Gems. Are you keeping up? Because then on top of that you have Eos Energy, which is required if you want to play a match and get the proper set of rewards, but is gradually used up every time you do so. And we've even now got the limited time Cake currency for the ongoing anniversary cake challenge on top of that. If you hadn't already guessed, after two weeks of playing this game, my head was spinning. The game is so unbelievably confusing, to the point of being stressful, and I was about to find out that it was intentionally designed that way. Not to mention that I worked out that if I actually wanted to continue to play the game competitively, with full access to all the characters I wanted to use, with a nice selection of outfits for them, and enough energy that I would continue to get rewards for doing so, this game was going to cost me, at the very least, another $1200 over the next six months.
So I put the game down, I grabbed my laptop, and I started digging. And this is where I understood just how much I was being and was about to be manipulated, and how widespread these developers, who are effectively scammers, have actually become.
The First Spend
So it all starts with the first spend. And this isn't a term that I've invented, this is a term that's actually being used by developers. This is Torof Jornstrom, CEO of the mobile game company Tribe Flame, giving a talk on monetization strategies for mobile games. The first spend, it breaks the ice, then they think of themselves as spenders in the game, it's okay for me to spend in the game. And what he's teaching these other developers is that 98% of players, when they first start playing a free mobile game, will go into it under the premise that they won't be making any in-app purchases. I was one of them, most likely you're one of them too. But the second that these games can get you to lay down your first dollar, they've effectively broken your barrier. I mean, your willingness to then make further payments will skyrocket. So you need to break the wall first. In hindsight, this must be why Pokemon Unite gave me that super cheap login bonus just six minutes after I started playing. They don't care about a dollar, they just wanted to crack me to turn me from a free player into a spender. And I only realized this after watching this developer talk about it, but the way that the game manipulated me into buying it was through the anchoring technique. By first presenting me with an expensive in-app purchase that they actually knew that I wouldn't buy, that Unite membership, they set my expectations that $10 is about what a set of prizes is worth in this game. Which meant that when they then swooped in with that $1 deal to get the login bonus pass, I would have felt foolish for turning it down because of the comparative value. I got played. But I realized that the reason I cared so much about this purchase, and the reason that so many people pour so much cash into these games, is based on another simple human facet that's being exploited.
We like to be better than our peers. It's baked into our very DNA that our survival depends on having a competitive advantage versus the people around us. And so, pit wealthy players against each other at something, allow each of them to be able to pay for that competitive advantage, and the only party that really wins is the game developer who's charging them. You can see this technique in all the most popular games. Like just recently Diablo Immortal, where you will get completely sliced apart by the players who have spent big money, who are called whales in the industry. Mind you, that's the gambling industry we're talking about. Says something about this. If you're trying to be a free player in Diablo Immortal, you're effectively a side character to these whales. And your best chance of winning is just to stick by their side, and to support them. And this is by design. It gives that 2% of the player base who is willing to spend thousands of dollars that power trip feeling that keeps them coming back to spend even more. And sadly, even if you'll never beat one of these whale players, you're still unknowingly fueling the system. Being able to tear you apart with ease, it makes you the thrill that the whales keep paying for. And this is where I really start to hate this. If it was as simple as you pay a load of money and then you just win from now on, that would be too kind. That would mean that the devs would miss out on making any further money from the whales. So they found a way around that too. What these games do now is when you pay to make yourself significantly stronger, they'll let you have your first few satisfying wins with noticeably weaker players to stimulate that reward mechanism and for you to associate that purchase with a positive feeling. But once that's over, will soon start pitting you against other players who've also spent large sums of money in the game. Thus always creating this feeling that no matter how much you've already paid, you're always one purchase away from being content, from being better than your peers, but never actually getting there because there will always be people willing to spend even more than you. This is why I felt like no matter how much I was spending in Pokemon Unite, I still kept losing. And I mean, Diablo Immortal is even worse. You know how like it's quite a big deal to pay $10 for an in-game purchase? You know how like I was absolutely appalled that you had to spend a thousand in Pokemon Unite? Well in this game, it can cost you $100,000 to max out your character. $100,000 to actually escape this feeling of constantly just needing a little bit more power. And that's just until they release an update that increases that cap. So I've made my first purchase. I'm already feeling the social pressure of wanting to be better than other people.
Hook Habit Hobby
That's just step one of the hook habit hobby model. That's starting to become the playbook for a top grossing game.
Because to make the real money off me, they also have to make sure that their game becomes a habit. And according to this guy, the best way to do that is to give me rapid progression to start with. To make sure that the first few levels are incredibly quick, the first few unlocks are incredibly cheap, and the first few enemies incredibly easy. This stimulates the reward centers in players' brains. The same reward centers that give you a rush every time you pass an exam at school or every time you get a pay rise at work. And it does it in such a way that your brain will start to crave it. That you'll want to play these games as a regular part of your day because the progression you're getting gives you more instant gratification than probably any other part of your life will. And this is why you barely can find a game now that doesn't have a battle pass baked inside of it. It's less about the $10 it might cost you per season, it's more about trying to form a habit inside of you. At the point where you've paid real cash to get extra rewards every day, who's going to not log in and claim them? And at the point where they do that, why not just play a couple of games too? Now it makes sense why Pokemon Unite was so keen to get me to buy the battle pass. Because as soon as I did, it makes the most efficient way to play the game from now on to log in a minimum of once per day. Some games like Diablo, they go even further with this, offering login bonuses that start tiny but get bigger and bigger over time so long as you log in every day. To the point where you'll actually be scared to miss a day because you'll lose so much progress on this bonus ladder. But it's the hobby part of hook habit hobby that's the most dangerous. Because once that habit is formed, and you've already spent vast amounts of time and money progressing your character, this is kind of like where I am with Pokemon Unite right now, these companies know you're not going anywhere. They have your complete undivided attention, and that's when they start to change the way that they carry on earning from you. Away from traditional power ups, because you've already spent hundreds or thousands making your character stronger, and more on convenience. I find this so horrible, but effectively by slowing down your natural progression with the sole purpose of trying to sell you ways to speed it up again, like experience point multipliers. Making it so that I now have to pay to get that same high stimulation, fast progression feeling that I used to get when I first started playing the game for free. Not a dissimilar strategy to drug dealers I should point out, who effectively build their businesses by handing out freebies to get clients addicted with the hope that they then become dependent and are willing to pay to keep that high going. It sounds stupid, but at this point in the player journey, most will pay real money to earn even let's just say a bonus 10% experience points. And it's all driven by something called the IKEA effect. I should elaborate. See, it's a pretty well regarded fact that IKEA furniture is not the best quality, but because it comes in pieces and you have to assemble it yourself, that effort that you've put in makes you value it so much more. And in the exact same way, developers know that even if you realise that their game is not the most balanced, consumer friendly, fair service out there, once you've spent weeks building up your character and putting in the work to make them right for you, your attachment is so high that you'll be willing to go to great lengths to keep the fun alive. But then we've got the question of value. We've established at this point why someone might want to make an in-game purchase, but what is it that's moving that needle, that's pushing them to want to spend extortionate amounts of money?
Well, in a large part it's because they don't realise how much they're spending, thanks to a tactic known as material distortion. The idea of creating a layer between the in-game money that you're spending and the real world value of what that's costing you. And I realised, my god, this is so real. Like, when I wanted to upgrade my items in Pokemon, I had to first buy item enhancers to do that. But then it's not like I could just pay dollars to buy those item enhancers, I had to use Eos tickets. And then when I wanted to buy Eos tickets, I had to use Eos gems. Or to put it another way, I had to convert my currency three times to be able to actually do what I wanted with it. This is borderline criminal. Because not only has it started to feel like it's not real money being spent, but I've also got no idea how much each purchase is actually worth anymore. Not to mention the fact that you can almost never purchase the exact amount of gems you need, meaning that A) you spend more than you need to, and B) you will always have leftover gems in your wallet that can't be exchanged back for cash, which is just going to encourage you to make your next purchase by topping up just a bit more. And the cherry on top of this whole alternate cash reality is that if you look a little closer, you realise that this game doesn't have a single mention of the word " purchase". They never use the word loot boxes they're prize boxes. They never use the word buy it's always obtain. They don't even use the word shop it's an emporium here. It genuinely reminds me of those killer clowns that you used to see on the internet. They have the most child appealing, innocent facade, but just beneath that thin veil, they're pure evil. Imagine if there was like a high street shop that tried to pull the stunt, that made you exchange your cash into tokens as you walked in, that could only be spent in that shop. They wouldn't get away with it, neither should these guys.
Oh yeah, and if we say that material distortion makes you pay two to three times what you otherwise would have for in-game items, then reward randomisation, which all of these top games are now using, is going to bring that all the way up to ten times. This is Call of Duty Mobile. It's actually one of my favourite mobile games from a gameplay perspective, but check this out. A lot of the rarest and the most desirable items in the game are locked behind loot boxes.
Like for example, I really, really want this gun they've got in the middle. It's designed so that when it kills people, it turns them into a shadow. That will win me so much social validation. And it costs 30 premium coins to have a spin. It's about 50 cents in value. So I head on to the store, I buy myself 420 coins. That should be enough to have 14 runs of this. I'll definitely get that gun. But then I lose the first one, and I realise, huh? The price just went up, and it's going to keep going up every single time I attempt it, from 30 to 40 to 120 to 300 and beyond. It's making me feel like I'm so close to getting it every single time. Like, the pointer will literally sit above, and then just slip past the gun I really want. It will also, one by one, put a received marker over everything I have unlocked so far, reminding me of how far I've come, and encouraging me to finish it and get everything that the loot box could possibly contain. It's only when I check the hidden stats that I realised this is not a roulette wheel like it appears. Each item does not have the same chance of coming up. But in actuality, the real chance of getting this gun, it starts at literally 0.08%. And it goes up by just 0.01% each time until you've received every other item in the box. 0.08%. That is... that is disgusting. You will almost definitely pay at least $100 for this gun. That is multiple times more than almost any player would have even considered had it just been priced like a normal product in a shop. So all of this explains how these games are able to make, frankly, extortionate amounts of spending seem reasonable. The only thing left is how they create the sense of urgency for those purchases.
And the way they do this is simply by overloading the player. You remember how Pokemon Unite has no less than seven different currencies, and how I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by all the interlocking systems that came as a result of them. None of those needed to exist. You could have had the exact same game where everything was bought and sold with just the simple EOS coins. The only reason that we had to have seven currencies is to create multiple separate in-game economies in which you don't just have to be rich in one of them, but all of them to actually succeed. And it's a system that you can't actually beat. Because the more resources that you spend on one currency, the more you find that another one becomes your bottleneck. Most games do this through energy. Pokemon Unite has it. And to be honest, the game Raid Shadow Legends system is even more egregious. Where every single time you choose to play, you're spending not just your time, but also this virtual energy currency. Which you can either wait for stupid amounts of time to recharge on its own, or pay to refill your tank. So just to be very clear, you have to not just pay to buy your items and level up your character and get your costumes, but also to play the game that's supposed to be free. And at the same time as feeling like you have to spend in every single direction at once, you're also given the feeling that you have to do so quickly. No joke, 90% of purchases you'll be shown in these games, they're all somehow just about to expire. You see timers everywhere, always counting down. There's no reason why this Pokemon costume should need to expire. It's not like the Pokemon company is going to run out of virtual materials to make them, it's literally just to instill you with a sense of fear that if you look away, if you so much as put the game down for too long, you might just miss your dream item forever. And what I've realised is the worst part of how this game stresses you out on purpose is the way that it handles the Pokemon themselves. You unlock access to cool new Pokemon just by playing, which is great. You even get rare and fancy outfits for them. But they're temporary. Unless you pay to keep them, the game takes the stuff it's given to you away from you. And this taps into the very fundamental loss aversion that all humans have. We are biologically coded to disproportionately value something that we own, such that the idea of losing it would cause us more pain than the happiness we would get from obtaining it if we didn't have it. And these gaming companies are now using this to replace just having a shop that you can casually browse at your own leisure, for instead allowing you to feel like the thing is yours first, and then charging you to not snatch it away from you. The long and short of it, what I've realised from three weeks of playing one of these games, as well as digging into why these companies are doing what they're doing, is that the more addicted you become to the game, the more profitable the company is going to be. That success in this industry is no longer defined by review scores or player satisfaction, it's defined by how effectively a developer is able to convert an innocent player who just wants to enjoy what they think is a free game, into someone who possesses all the traits of a severe gambling addiction. I wish I could be the bearer of good news, but the truth of it is, these shady practices are getting more and more sophisticated as time goes on, they're starting to spread from mobile games to console games, and we've even just started seeing the effects that it's having on the next generation of players, spawning all sorts of impulse control disorders. So, be aware of games that try to milk you for your money, and feel free to subscribe to the channel and share this video if you found it useful. But if you do find yourself in one of these games, and you feel yourself about to throw your phone at a wall in frustration, I've got the perfect product for you. This is RhinoShield's brand new Grip, which, once attached to the back of your phone case, prevents it from ever flying out of your hands. They weren't kidding when they called it Grip. But that's not actually my favourite part of this. 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