Clash of Clans is one of the most popular and financially-successful mobile games of all time–the Guardian reports it may have earned more than $1.8 billion in 2014 alone. This kind of thing happens when high-quality experiences catch on with fans who invest reasonable amounts of money in a rewarding product, right?
At ESPN, Simon Parkin meets George Yao, who in 2013 reached the top of the Clash of Clans leaderboards through utter self-exhaustion, long nights on Red Bull and the expense of $3000 on "gems" that make the game play faster:
The achievement had cost him dearly. At the peak of his obsession, Yao would easily spend $400 a week in the game to help him climb the leaderboards, an unbudgeted outlay that prevented him from going out with his friends on the weekend (or renting an apartment in which he could fit much more than a couch). To maintain his position, which had made his online handle, Jorge Yao, familiar to millions of Clash players around the world, Yao was running five parallel game accounts, playing them off against each other simultaneously. His focus was so single-minded that he even took his iPads into the shower so he could monitor his games through the plastic bags.
Clash of Clans is free-to-play, and proponents of that business model claim it allows players to customize their relationship with the games they enjoy, spending money only if and when it matches their level of commitment. 70 percent of people who've played Candy Crush Saga all the way to its final stage reportedly never spent any money; last year a research firm said that only 2.2 percent of people who play free-to-play games ever make in-app purchases.
But lots of questions linger on the ethics of how that minority—commonly refered to as "whales"—is monetized. The game industry doesn't generally like to hear stories about "addiction", as they recall the moral panic of an earlier era when all video games, no matter what sort, were seen as potential dangers, scapegoats for social ills on the evening news. All the while, some free-to-play games may be borrowing some of the most insidious tactics from the gambling world—if only a tiny percent of your users spend money, better get it down to a science, right?
The makers of these games are well aware that people play games like these to space out and self-soothe, some of the same reasons people can be lulled into, say, slot machine obsession. Furthermore, these companies have access to big data and the sophisticated means of its study, Parkin writes at ESPN:
Employees with job titles like "data scientist" study whether a player is more likely to click on a button if it's square or round, or whether a particular advertisement is likely to break that trancelike state and cause someone to close the game. The tiniest improvement can have fortune-changing effects for a game studio. "If you can make a change to, say, a menu color that results in your 10 million players spending an average of just a penny more every month, it adds up fast," one analyst tells me.
These techniques are familiar in the gambling industry. For some time now, Schull says, slot machine manufacturers have hired mathematical engineers to make "personalized volatility algorithms."
Dark. There are people out there working to create more George Yaos every day.