Massively Overthinking: The worst MMO cash shop trickery


Last week, games psychologist Jamie Madigan tweeted an underrated comment about how psychological tricks used in restaurant menu design are also found in video game cash shops. The Mental Floss link he offered up discusses how menus limit options, add glossy images (but not too many), manipulate pricing, utilize pricey decoys, entice your eyeballs to certain spots, and take advantage of nostalgia, among other things, to get people to spend spend spend in restaurants. And Madigan is right: I can think of specific examples for all eight of the menu tricks in MMO cash shops.

… And a lot of them drive me crazy and drive me out of cash shops too.

For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked our staff to reflect on the menu tricks and consider MMO cash shop tricks too. When have you fallen prey to these tricks, and when have they utterly backfired? What’s the worst example of cash shop trickery in MMO land, on or off that list?

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Psychological manipulation is a part of all sales and marketing. I’d suggest reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink if for no other reason than to be a more savvy consumer. It’s fascinating how our brains react to subtle clues that we may not even be conscious of, such as the selling of an item for 4999 instead of 5000. It’s not 1000 less, but our brain tries to tell us that it is. Or even just using the word free (as in “free shipping!”). Are cash shops manipulative? Probably, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call them nefarious or predatory. As consumers, we should educate ourselves before we ever plop down our hard-earned cash, regardless of the product.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think a lot of these tricks are defeated with knowledge. If you know how food photography works, you’re not going to be that impressed by glossy photos of food. Likewise, anybody who’s ever reskinned a game outfit isn’t gonna be all that impressed by glossy pics of retexes in a cash shop. And I have lost count of how many times I’ve just shrugged and logged back out of a cash shop when it’s randomly discontinued the thing I wanted to buy – limiting options just irritates me and keeps my wallet sealed.

Others, not so much. I’m not so fool as to say they never get me, even when I know they’re coming. Pricing decoys are probably the most potent example on the list: They’ll put up something super expensive that they know you won’t buy in order to set your expectations and convince you that the moderately expensive item isn’t so bad. It’s hard to fight against that. Just ask all the people who buy the cheaper versions of the Star Citizen ship bundles every few weeks.

My biggest pet peeve is when studios obfuscate how much things cost with unnecessary intermediary currencies. There is no reason $10 should net you 800 gems. That’s just tacky. I have mad respect for studios that don’t treat me as if I’m stupid by doing this. I have a calculator a foot from my hand at all times and it’s easy enough to just do the math. But it pisses me off when they try.

If I could dish out one tip, it’d be to make heavy use of wish lists. Never buy anything when you first think of it – or when a studio first plants the idea in your brain. Put it on the list. See if you still want it a week or a month later. Don’t compare it to the other stuff in the cash shop (or store or wherever); compare it to all the other things that have survived on your wish list. Sure, this doesn’t work for menus – you’re hungry and you gotta eat something. But it works for game preorders and cash shops!

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I’ve always been bothered by MMOs’ tendency to do an even worse version of the price manipulation described in the article by creating a “premium currency” that doesn’t map directly to any real currency. Like when one dollar buys 800 gems, crowns, tokens, or whatever. Worse yet is when buying more premium currency at a time gives you extra bonus currency (which usually ends up being so little that you can’t actually buy anything with), further obscuring the dollars-to-gems exchange rate.

Personally, I’m a sucker for a sale or other limited-time offer. This is why I have a gaming budget. I limit myself to a certain amount every month for gaming expenditures, and if I don’t have enough to buy the thing I want, I have to wait. It sounds restrictive, but the anxiety from “I want this thing but don’t have the money in my budget” is a lot less than the guilt and shame over an overloaded Steam backlog or virtual closet full of cosmetics that I bought and barely ever used. Let’s be honest, I already have that guilt, but it would be so much worse without a budget.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): One interesting trick is when a studio announces a FREE!!! giveaway that you have to access and then wade through the in-game store to find. It’s never apparent and always takes you many clicks to find, during which time you’re being exposed to the rest of the store.

Probably what frustrates me the most in MMO store design is when the store tries to sell a solution for a deliberately designed problem or flaw. Leveling too slow? This achievement taking too long to grind? Your character doesn’t have enough mobility options? Can’t access this area or your hard-earned currency? Spend money and your game will be fixed!

Matt Daniel (@Matt_DanielMVOP): Like everyone else, I like to believe that I’m pretty resistant to cash-shop psychological tricks, but I feel that saying I’m immune to them would be a lot like saying that I’m immune to prejudice or bias or something like that. That being said, I am generally suspicious of microtransactions and tend to be reluctant to buy anything that costs more than a buck or two — aside from actual game content, like expansions or DLC or whatever — and I think I tend to be pretty good at spotting attempts to make me spend money unnecessarily, though I’m definitely a sucker for a good sale or bundle. Given the choice to buy some piece of content for $20 or to buy the same piece of content plus some premium currency and/or cosmetics or other knickknacks for $30, I’ll take the latter nine times out of ten. I know it’s a trick, but I just don’t care, and sometimes it’s even a genuinely good value.

I think my least favorite trick that I can come up with off the top of my head is in games that require players to buy and use premium currency rather than allowing them to purchase items directly with cash, the practice of pricing cash shop items to cost just a liiiiiiittle bit more currency than you can buy with a single purchase. For instance, giving players the option to buy premium currency in bundles of 100, 500, and 1,000, then pricing items things like 150, 700, 1,200, etc. so that they’re forced to buy two bundles of currency instead of just one. This of course also has the side effect of making sure that they have currency remaining after they buy whatever they’re after — not enough to actually buy anything else, but enough to trigger the “it’d be a shame to let that go to waste” response — so they’re encouraged to buy yet another bundle of currency just to be able to spend their leftovers. Honestly, I think requiring players to convert their cash into premium currency in order to buy things from the cash shop is itself a practice that ranks up there with lootboxes in terms of general shadiness.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): My first experience with cash shop shenanigans was in one of my first free-to-play games. I couldn’t understand why people said it was pay-to-win because the game seemed so generous with needed supplies. Then I hit level 100, and all the freebie supplies disappeared, but the need for them increased. I felt like it was a bait and switch, but by that time, I was invested in the game and that character. Thank goodness for budgeting. If I hadn’t set a hard limit, I could have gone broke. Of course, hooking me by helping me up until a higher level was their intention all along. And it worked.

I just spent $10+tax in Black Desert last night in order to buy a character slot, which is currently on sale for the equivalent of $1.80 in pearls, the cash shop currency. As BDO players can tell you, the remaining $8.20 won’t buy me a ton of stuff. They already have my money, though, whether I spend the pearls or not, so I will try to find ways to spend it. I wanted the slot badly enough to cough up the cash for it, even if it was a fraction of the minimum package. The sale was good bait.

While I was there, I saw there was a new outfit. I clicked on it and it showed me my character in that outfit. It was adorable. If I weren’t such a cheapskate, I might have bought it. Showing me what I could look like if I weren’t so cheap is decent bait too.

Businesses using sales tactics to sell stuff doesn’t bother me. I wish them all the luck in selling to people who are less cheap than I am, since it keeps the games I play up and running.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I don’t think I am the intended audience at all so this is hard to answer. I am not intended because ads pretty much mean nothing to me; I’ve been so poor throughout my life that there has never been anything like discretionary funds to just do whatever with. That means there isn’t much enticing me with any psychological tricks. I am also a psychologist, so there might be that. I can say “cool” about something without the desire to get it. Now, I thought long and hard about the menu correlation, and that, too, does not relate to me. I pore over entire menus my first time places, heedless of pictures or specials or what I suppose they want me to look. I look for a thing I hope I would like at a price I could manage. Unfortunately, I also suffer from severe decisional paralysis: I feel I may never get to eat out/go there again, so what if I order the wrong thing?!?! What if I would have loved something else and didn’t like this? (Yes, it has happened.) I panic about ordering for real! Laugh, but it’s a real problem when I go out, so I often discover one thing I love at an establishment and I only order that so I can ignore menus altogether after that.

I have the same reaction to game cash shops: I can admire without feeling a tug to consume. If I see something I’d have already liked in cash shops, such as a pet, I can think “Oooh that’s so neat!” without ever having the inkling or intention to buy it. No amount of trickery is going to entice me to get it if I didn’t already want it. Neither can attempts at trickery override my personal extreme fear of spending (which I have even when I do have a bit of spare change). If I want it and can get it and can override that fear myself (it’s tough, trust me), then is when I will buy something.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I too don’t usually fall for the cash shop tricks. Shoot, I can barely bring myself to play games that aren’t free to play at all. And once I’m in there, if I realize the best loot is only in the cash shop and there is literally no in game method to get them, I start writing the game off.

But one method that does get me to pry open that wallet is expansions that bundle up cash shop currency for a “discount”. That’s how Guild Wars 2 got me in the past. Path of Fire plus $20 of gems for only an extra $10? Giddy up!

Tyler Edwards: I’m pretty immune to advertising gimmicks, in or out of games, so I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by any of this. The one thing that does get my goat a bit is when things are only for sale for a limited time (I’m looking at you, Elder Scrolls Online). The FOMO is real. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any times when it’s made me buy something I might not have otherwise, but the instinctual resentment I feel around the concept leads me to believe it must have happened once or twice.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. It’s right there in the name. Your turn!
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