Predatory marketing is nothing really new in our society. We have commercials telling us that we are not skinny enough so we should try this weight loss pill, or make-up brands using models and software in order to establish a level of beauty that the normal person can not obtain. How about a commercial for a new movie with scenes picked out to make the movie seem completely different than what it actually was? Looking at the Avengers End Game trailers that showed Hulk over Hulkbuster in them.
In video games, both in mobile and triple A games, they use numerous tricks to lure players into buying their products, or paying even more for the experience on offer. They use these tricks to get the most money out of each player. I hope to be able to go over some of the more common tricks that they use.
Hey! This Isn’t What The Ad Showed Me
Let’s start with flooding the market with false ads. This is pretty common with mobile games. The ad will be of specific gameplay, such as solving a sliding puzzle. Then, when you download the game, it is usually nothing like that. These ads are misleading because players will usually download them expecting a different game. While this form of marketing is not as harmful to the player directly, it does falsely bolster downloads and therefore make the game seem more popular, thus luring more people in.
Mobile games are not the only ones that can use misleading ads to sell their games. There are numerous stories in the gaming industry of developers falsely showing ads for their game. Watch_Dogs had its graphics downgrade from earlier shown material at game conferences. No Man’s Sky was shipped without over half of the features that it was supposed to have, forcing many refunds in this particular case. Even Nintendo gets into it by selling Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity under false pretenses regarding the story. All of these are fairly gross as many bought these games with a certain assumption. In all cases getting something they did not initially want.
I Have Seen This Ad Twenty Times Today
There is another way that companies will use ads to their advantage. They will sponsor in mass smaller content creators on various platforms to advertise their game This is commonly done on Youtube and Twitch. This has two sides to it, the content creator and the game developer. For the content creator, this actually does little to help them as they usually don’t even include the channel names. It can also tarnish the image of the creator itself, causing them to seem like a sell-out to people unfamiliar with their content. On the developer side, they get to make ads in mass for their game for cheap. The developers can put out twice as many ads using smaller names than if they used bigger names.
Twitch even has a bounty board system that does exactly this. Where people can go take current sponsorship deals on the fly, even if their following is low, just to make a small bit of money. These bounties only pay out depending on how well the stream goes. Basically, streamers have to get people to download and play the game to make next to nothing on it.
Oh, Looks Like I Can’t Get That New Item Again
Another form of predatory marketing is creating artificial scarcity in order to increase sales. Nintendo in particular seems to have a notorious problem with shorting production of their hardware. They have basically had this issue with every hardware release over the past decade and a half and this happens despite it being limited edition or not. Nintendo still has yet to meet demand for their Switch console two years later. This does cause people to impulse buy them when they find them though, doesn’t it?
I cannot be certain if Sony and Microsoft are starting to take this trend or not. It is possible their shortages are due to part shortage after all. It certainly caused scarcity in the market for the newest consoles. Influencing people to rush and buy the stock while they could, because who knows when new stock will arrive? I hope that the industry doesn’t continue down a scarcity trend. And please Nintendo, fix your hardware distribution problems so scarcity is not an issue with everything you release.
Hunting for Whales
The worst term I have ever heard in the gaming industry is calling someone a Whale. A Whale is a player that can be coerced to spend a ton of money. There are numerous ways that the industry targets Whales in a predatory fashion. Some developers will take the route of Ubisoft, where they intentionally created slow progression in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey then added speed up microtransactions, encouraging players to spend more money to have fun with the game.
Other games will use limited time discount deals, having them show up in a pop-up fashion to make them look good. While some developers take advantage of gambling addiction to make their money.
In Come the Loot Boxes
Loot boxes are probably the most egregious predatory method they use. Loot boxes are simply gambling. They spit out random items in exchange for money. One of the biggest offenders is EA’s Star Wars: BattleFront 2. The game was created to unlock new characters at an insanely slow place, incentivising people to spend money in a literally pay to win system, and instead of fixing this issue when it was brought up, EA decided to defend it as surprise mechanics despite it harming the game itself.
Another major offender is Genshin Impact. This game was developed as a free-to-play game. It honestly had a lot of potential, if it didn’t encourage spending. This game gives players only a few free characters while locking the majority of the characters behind opening orbs. What makes this worse is the characters you get for free are the worst in the game, so if you want better characters you have to spend money. It even uses a duplicate items system to keep the money flowing.
It also sets a bad precedent for console games. As Genshin Impact is a game that utilizes mobile game shop mechanics in a console based area, with fan reception being so high of the game despite that. It shows the industry that players are willing to put up with blending more aggressive microtransaction systems into their console games.
Then we have the FIFA game series. Literally seeing articles over people spending thousands to try to unlock their favorite player. Player cards are locked behind a paywall. These also influence the game directly, creating a strong Pay-to-win system. All these games created a spending economy. All designed to grab a whale and drain them of their money.
Regulate the Loot Boxes (Gambling)
Articles about FIFA literally ruining families sparked controversy. Essentially forcing governments all over the world into regulating them. Japan acted first but only targeted a specific type of gacha or loot box system. It targeted loot boxes systems that dropped set pieces randomly, but required full sets for game progression. This method was known as “Complete gacha” and was banned in Japan in 2012
China followed suit a few years later. In 2016, China started investigating and regulating loot boxes. Making companies list the exact odds of pulling an item in the box, as well as making them list all possible rewards. China has only had to make these regulations stricter. It now regulates drop rates directly, as well as having to limit the number of loot boxes that can be bought in a given day.
The Netherlands followed in 2018 with their own set of regulations. The government, however, only targeted games with the ability to trade these items, essentially stating that since the prizes had market value, they violated gambling laws. They found these systems to be more predatory and more likely to cause gambling addiction. They did not seem to do anything about loot boxes where rewards have no market value. I don’t really agree with their stance however. Their stance directly ignores some of the biggest loot box predatory markets, as it does not look at game systems where loot boxes directly influence the games they are in.
Belgium has the strictest guidelines when it comes to loot boxes. They claim, as we as gamers need to be aware, that loot boxes are tantamount to gambling. Belgium proceeded to put such strict regulations in place that loot boxes might as well be illegal. Many developers have either had to change their games or pull their games from the market entirely like Nintendo did with Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and Fire Emblem Heroes
Other countries have not made any significant laws or regulations regarding loot boxes. Germany is the only one left with any major attempts. They are looking into classifying loot boxes as gambling, which would force all games with them to be labeled as 18+. However, even if more countries regulate loot boxes, most developers are likely to find loopholes. One such example is in Bungie’s Destiny series where they removed loot boxes from the game, but placed in a more predatory micro-transaction store instead.
Cosmetic Predatory Stance
There are some who would say these monetization methods are fine for cosmetics. If they don’t influence the game play, then people aren’t forced to buy them. I, however, would disagree with those people. There was an article regarding this very idea and Fortnite. A kid was being picked on at school for not buying skins in the game. Developers can only dream of this scenario where they don’t have to do the underhanded marketing. They have a player base to do it for them.
Where other game developers take advantage of predatory micro-transactions like this is when they create cosmetic premium currency shops that are linked to real money. The most egregious of these is in Crystal Dynamics’ Marvel Avengers. While this game launched in a broken state, it also launched with a fully functioning cosmetics shop. It is clear to see the intention of the product, to use a famous IP in order to squeeze money out of its players.
Light At the End of the Tunnel
I hope that by reading this you can see this situation clearly now. That predatory marketing is so much more than just pop-up ads. There are some in the industry simply out to target big spenders. They have no regard for the consequences of this spending. Remember they dehumanize people by calling them Whales, after all
We as a consumer do need to start being aware of these tactics. So we do not fall into traps that the gaming industry wants us to, or we will see more people crawl out of the woodwork looking for the next player-base to exploit.