Clever Marketing: Free Games Aren’t… Free?

Clever marketing at work

Every last one of us are subjected to marketing at some level.  The largest companies spend billions on marketing campaigns.  Each company has teams of highly paid, highly educated employees conducting endless meetings and rolling out tactical campaigns targeted at one thing:

Separating you from your money.

The concept isn’t rocket science, but the research that goes into marketing might as well be.  No stone is left unturned when it comes to trying to part you from your hard earned cash!

The story is no different for our children.  Kids today are bombarded with advertising and marketing like never before.  Back when I was a Little Guy, all my parents had to worry about was limiting TV and maybe time on video games.  Our summers were spent outside playing baseball, football, basketball, messing around with spare golf clubs, having bike races, building forts, and a host of other activities that kids of yesteryear participated in.

For whatever reason, summers don’t seem to be the same for kids anymore.  Summer school programs are available and more prevalent for families with two wage earners.  No longer are kids outside from sunup to sundown.  Parents are paranoid about heat stroke, sunburn, and *gasp* perspiration?!

This lack of being outside inevitably results in more time in front of the TV screen.  Before you think I’m throwing stones, our household is guilty too.  Our kids still watch too much Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the like.  The great thing is, we rarely watch network television so we are rarely exposed to commercials.

In the event we do catch a commercial, we have a game we play where I ask the kids what the commercial is trying to sell.  Usually they’re spot on – kids are smart!

Sometimes though, I discover through casual conversation that they’re being marketed to in ways I would’ve never thought possible 20 years ago.  We just experienced one of these instances as The Little Lady Jr discovered that her free iPod home decorating game wasn’t as fun without paying a little money…

Clever Marketing: Free Games Aren’t… Free?

I was at work the other day when I had the pleasure of having the following amusing text conversation* with The Little Lady Jr:

The Little Lady Jr: Can I buy some more pearls for my game?  They’re $1.99.  PLEASE – I’ll owe you back.

BGM: No…  Those are called microtransactions.  They make your free game not free anymore, and are addicting!!

The Little Lady Jr: Why not – this will be the last time I spend for a long time.

BGM: Because it’s $2 for nothing of value.  You’re telling me you’re going to kill off two of your dollar soldiers for some pearls that you don’t even get to wear?

The Little Lady Jr: But I need to buy a tank for my fish or I won’t be able to get any more fish.

BGM: *puzzled*  On the game?

The Little Lady Jr: Yes

BGM: *light-bulb goes on*  So what are pearls?  Are they how you buy the tank?  And can’t you earn pearls by playing the game?

Can you spot the free games?  Also - the home screen is what we get for letting a 8 and 9 year old text back and forth!

Can you spot the free games? Also – the background is our reward for our children’s humor…

The Little Lady Jr: It’s practically money to build the tank.  Yes.  But you get just one pearl when you move up a level and it takes like two days to move up a level.  I need 25 pearls and only have one.  I had to sell five fish because they would not fit.

BGM: No, I can’t let you buy pearls.  They design the game that you’re playing to ‘take too long’ to get pearls, so you buy them.  Then you won’t be able to do something else unless you buy even more pearls.  It will never end.

The Little Lady Jr: OK, nevermind.

BGM: Sorry – the game makers are tricky!!  It’ll just take a little longer to get the fish tank.

The Little Lady Jr: No, not anytime, because I just deleted the game.

BGM: Because you’re mad at me?

The Little Lady Jr: No, I just don’t like the game anymore.

BGM: Well, better that you have 2 more dollar soldiers, right??

The Little Lady Jr: Mmm Hmm…   Goodbye…

BGM: LOL sorry kid, but the game must not have been worth it if you deleted it right after not being able to spend $2 on it?


The Little Lady Jr: I have an idea – I could just get the game again and use the pearls that I have.  This time I’ll get the tank while I still have the pearls.  I get some pearls at the beginning of the game.

BGM: Haha, yep you could do that.  Just be ready for something else to pop up where you don’t have enough pearls!!

A New Type of Marketing

Inadvertently, The Little Lady Jr stumbled upon a new, even sneakier marketing ploy – the world of microtransactions.  Just as the name implies, microtransactions are very small transactions (think buying a song on iTunes).  According to Venture Beat, “Microtransactions from free-to-play games accounted for 79% of all revenue on the iOS and Google Play app markets in January 2014.”

As a consumer, the key to defeating any kind of marketing campaign is first identifying the fact that they’re trying to suck you in, then understanding why the company is presenting their marketing in the way that they are.

The reason behind any marketing campaign is to drive sales and profits, and it just so happens that microtransactions are extremely profitable.  We’ve discussed before briefly that our brain tends to place a relative value on money, and these microtransactions prey on your brain telling you, “Dude, it’s only $2.  What’s $2 for a rich guy like you?”

I ran across this article on Hardcore Droid in my research, which says in part:

“Most casinos pump oxygen into their halls while offering free drinks to their patrons in an effort to keep gamblers both tipsy and alert, the ideal mental state for gambling, or rather, losing money. Pay to win games employ a similar sleight of hand in the way they price and implement virtual currencies that is every bit as lucrative and manipulative.”

The genius behind this is the transactions are only a couple of dollars – less than grabbing a hamburger!  Therein lies the danger though, as our brains play tricks on us and the dollars quickly mount.

Have you identified and minimized the ways you’re marketed to?


Join the Family!

*Last Christmas, their ‘big’ (and only) present was each a preowned 3rd-generation iPod Touch.  Say what you will about giving kids their own technology, but I think it’s pretty darn cool to get text messages from my kids.  Heck, it was only several years ago that they couldn’t read yet.  Now, they both know how to read and a whole world has opened up.

Disclaimer: I have no idea which of the games in the images on this post are completely free, and which feature microtransactions.  I’m in no way implying that all of the games featured have microtransactions.  I wish I didn’t have to think about this stuff, but I can imagine someone in this messed up world coming after me for something stupid like that.

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  • Oh this hits home here. Our 6 year old purchased 50,000 points for some game for $19.99. I had bought a movie for her iPod several weeks back and she remembered the password and made the purchase on her own. Ouch. Not a big deal, but I quickly removed the credit card from her account. My mistake. She feels like she is included by having the iPod.

    I do like that she has the iPod. The 3 kids stayed with their cousins and all 3 used FaceTime multiple times per day. Only my wife doesn’t have an iPhone (she has a Windows Phone for her work). So the rest of us can save on texts and use FaceTime.

    • For a while I required that the kids come to me to enter the Apple ID, but they’ve always been responsible and have done a great job of asking about things before clicking around. Of course, maybe that changes the first time that we notice $20 missing, but mistakes are learning opportunities.

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