Video gaming

Why I spent thousands of Hong Kong dollars on a ‘free’ mobile game

Pop up ads for US$100 booster packs in Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire used to drive Kevin Kwong crazy – until the game learned exactly what he wanted and when he wanted it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 7:45pm

I have already spent far more than I’d like to admit on my first massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game, Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire. Back in June when I signed up to play, for free, I never imagined that I would end up forking out thousands of dollars for a mobile phone game.

In my review of this war game based on the popular franchise by Japanese game developer Square Enix, I explicitly expressed my annoyance over “the never-ending pop-up ads that prompt you to spend HK$779 (US$100) on booster packs”. Four months on, I find myself obsessively checking these virtual packs.

Game review: FFXV New Empire is addictive enough, but if you don’t have the cash it’s a grind

Gold, boost items, experience vials and materials for gear crafting – I want them all and I want more. My brain is filled with so much dopamine that what used to be an agonising decision – do I really want to spend HK$779 on an item that doesn’t even exist? – is now a simple action. I just key in my password for the Google Play Store and the purchase is done. And when a “Thank You” pack (another HK$779) pops up immediately after that – more resources and other goodies to be had (how very considerate!) – I will get that too.

How free-to-play games are data mined to profile players and keep them hooked – and spending

The scary part of this experience is not so much the addiction (though that is pretty disturbing) but how the game seems to know exactly what I want and when I want it. But of course it does. Every single action and interaction I have with the game – how I prefer to build a defensive rather than an offensive base, for instance – is behavioural data that is recorded, collected and analysed. Hence the game keeps offering me exclusive and bespoke “secret sale” packs that will help me get further in the game and, well, to spend more.

A New Empire was made by Epic Action, a subsidiary of US technology company Machine Zone (MZ) that is behind popular free-to-play mobile games such as Game of War: Fire Age and Mobile Strike. MZ has long been using in-game analytics and big data to enhance both the gamer’s experience and, no doubt, its profit.

How trying to milk players dry helps maximise their gaming experience is open to debate (I have seen players dropping US$2,000 on 20 packs in an instant without uttering so much as a virtual sigh) but gamers are a fluid bunch and they are constantly on the move to the next big title.

I, for one, am calling it quits with A New Empire and, hopefully, my next game will not cost me the same as a games console – or two.