4 Devious Ways Free Mobile Games Can Siphon Money Out of Your Bank Account

July 13, 2016

Two years ago, I downloaded one of the most frustrating apps I’ve encountered - yet, I still use it nearly every day. You probably know the kind of app I’m talking about; it’s a massive multiplayer game, a puzzle game, a children’s game, or an arcade-style game. It’s the one with glitzy commercials everywhere you look. It’s a way to mindlessly kill time and supposedly, it’s free. The truth is that it was insidiously designed to get you to dip into your bank account despite the fact that you didn’t have to pay for the app itself.

"Free to play" apps such as Game of War, Mobile Strike, Farmville, Candy Crush, and Plants vs. Zombies are just a few examples of the freemium and pay2win style games dominating the mobile gaming market. Despite the free download, I’ve spent $4.99 of Google Play credit, and “top” players report spending as much as $500,000 on some of these free games. It’s easy to think you’d never pay a cent to enjoy these apps, but bear in mind that some companies are making $1 million a day on games that are free to play - so, someone is clearly paying. Before starting down the freemium game path, consider a few methods these games employ to entice even the most unwilling of consumers.

#4. Freemium and incremental pricing

One way to acquire a ton of gaming customers is to give your product away before charging people for added features or virtual goods. The initial cost of playing these games is tantalizing at a price of zero dollars. However, the devils we know as marketers lock the most tantalizing features behind a virtual glass case. New levels of game play or enhanced functionality are only available to users willing to pay a premium that often increases incrementally the further a player delves into game play.

Even if you don’t spend a dime at this point the game manufactures figure they can still get you because they believe….

#3. Players are nothing more than lab rats

Using a concept known as operative conditioning that utilizes positive and negative rewards, a user’s desired behavior is conditioned like Pavlov’s dog. Players who push a button or reach a level are rewarded with special items or recognition. Players who fail to push a button in time are punished. After a while, when a mobile device pings with a notification, players hustle to log in and get their reward no matter how small.

The need for reward grows as does the temptation to spend money on quick fixes as free rewards fail to be enough to stimulate the reward centers demanded by player’s brain. Game companies are only too happy to offer ever larger reward packages for a small fee.

If you don’t take the bite to plop down a few bucks here, then the game manufactures hope you will stop at nothing to….

#2. Keep up with the Jones’s

On the surface the biggest games on the market appear to be strategy or problem solving games. In these types of gaming environments players can succeed using skill and guile to counter the strategies of opponents or to solve puzzles. In the world of freemium games the only skill you need is to be able to spend more than the other guy.

The social component of these types of games is a constant reminder that we’re falling behind other players. Frustration sets in as a player watches their virtual city burn or they fail a level for the hundredth time while another player rushes through one impossible level after another. The ever present icon inviting players to buy short-cut items beckons invitingly.

If all else fails game makers figure they can at least get a few bucks out of you because of….

#1. Good old fashioned consumerism.   

When something is consumed it means it is gone for good. The only way to use it again is to buy more. Freemium gaming apps employ a vast array of consumable products of the worst types. Virtual goods are often gone in a fraction of second or have a limited amount of use before they have to be replaced.

Gaming app designers are the masters of selling products, of which they have an infinite amount of in stock. Making consumption of beyond useless products even easier, gaming apps build one click payment systems and offer bundled packages of goods as an upsell with no added margin.


Whether you spend or not on these games is of course a personal decision. We all have the right to spend money on what we feel after all. If it's a fun little purchase you make every once in a while you probably don't have much to worry about. On the other hand if it's becoming a habit and costing you serious dough that should be going elsewhere, like paying the actual cell phone bill for instance, you might want to hit uninstall on that app before it's too late.

What are your favorite mobile games and have they pushed you to break out the wallet?