Playing the games found behind clickbait adverts

Fernando Torres, yesterday

We’ve all seen them before, between the thumbnails offering an explanation why ‘millions of people’ are cancelling their Netflix accounts and the promise of a fruit that ‘scientists claim’ can reverse ageing. One is maybe at the bottom of the page you’re reading. The image might depict a Deku-esque sentient tree looming over a brave warrior captioned with ‘If you own a computer you must try this game!’, or a voluptuous elf with the label ‘95% of Players LOSE CONTROL When They Play This game’, as if it’s so raunchy that you’ll be manically tearing your pants off within seconds of starting to play.

These are games with advertising so desperate that it’d be easy to assume no one with a sliver of taste plays them. It’d be easy to assume that we’ve moved beyond the days of late noughties empire-builder/clicker hit Evony, when women with no connection to the game invited players to “Join the Fun”. It’d be easy, if these games didn’t have enormous audiences and generate huge amounts of revenue.

To learn more, I clicked the faux-Deku tree, jumped into the games and spent some time getting to know the people who play them.

This isn't in the game anywhere, btw.

Advertising big and small

Behind that tree lay a world of games driven almost entirely by marketing, filled with sleazy adverts on the one hand and high-budget trailers, blockbuster movie licensing and celebrities on the other. At the center of all this madness is a library of identikit online games fuelled by people forking out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars each month to keep levelling, keep conquering, keep clicking. I’d speak to some of those people, including the big spenders, but first I needed to get a taste of the games for myself.

Depending on which ad I clicked, I was taken through to a sign-up page for either Throne or Vikings, two games by an Israeli developer called Plarium. The ad for Vikings (which featured a sexy lady) took me through to a screen depicting another woman in a state of semi-undress. These ads aren’t managed by Plarium themselves, but by partners who seem to get paid on a per-click or per-registration basis. When I asked Plarium about the dubious ads, I was told that “we don’t encourage using them, quite the opposite, if and when we identify banner examples such as the ones you enclosed below, we often ban their use.” Seeing as I first stumbled upon these ads months ago and they’re still up at the time of writing, it looks to me that they’re not in too much of a rush. Either way, advertisers are using sex to sell decidedly unsexy games. There is apparently little or no need for the ads to communicate what’s in the actual game they’re promoting.

A sultry American voiceover warns me I need to be over 18 to play Vikings, before I get asked questions about my age, whether I can handle sex and nudity, and whether I’m happy to wait until level 10 “before I see explicit content.” I haven’t even started playing, and already I feel as sordid as if I’d spent a speed-fuelled weekend in Magaluf.

A viking, yesterday.

So that’s one side of the advertising for these games. The other is a glossy marketing campaign that a triple-A publisher would tip its hat to. Megan Fox, best known for Transformers, was the face of Plarium’s 2016 game Stormfall (sort of like Vikings and Throne, but with dragons and magic). Throne, meanwhile, nabbed sports stars Fernando Torres, Anderson Silva, Alexander Ovechkin and Tony Parker for its campaign.

Then there’s Sparta, (sort of like Throne and Vikings and Stormfall, but with Spartans), where Plarium made a cinematic trailer that was so elaborate that it got its own two-part Behind the Scenes documentary, talking about the experience of making the trailer. It feels like the kind of polished extra you’d find on a Lord of the Rings Blu-Ray, although at no point throughout these documentaries do you see any actual footage of the game. The Stormfall one implies that the game uses 3D graphics by depicting well-rendered soldiers marching out of a city on an iPad screen, while the Total Domination trailer posits it as a CoD-style first-person shooter. Suffice to say, during my playtime there was nary a polygon in sight (save for the Civ IV-level character models marching around on the flat backgrounds).

Us cynics may snigger at such ham-fisted marketing, but Plarium are the ones who are really laughing. Their games together apparently have over 250 million registered players (according to their official site) and they keep getting big licenses, such as Alien vs. Predator for a Soldiers Inc. event back in 2015 and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s likeness for their official Terminator clicker game.

Playing the games

The two Plarium games I spent most time with, Vikings and Throne, are essentially reskins of each other. They have different UIs, themes, and a different busty adviser lady guiding you through the early stages: a subservient princess calling you ‘My Lord’ or an axe-wielding warrior woman calling you ‘O Jarl’. You’ll be familiar with the setup if you ever played one of those freemium mobile or social games back in the day when we didn’t quite know what ‘freemium’ meant (“Like free, but better, maybe?”). You build a township on a map filled with pre-designated lots, level up your buildings, amass an army, and join with players to form clans and fight against other players. These games have no end and no ultimate win state – you can keep increasing in power forever, and you’ll need to if you want the rewards of defeating other players in battles or climbing the leaderboards.

The Throne tutorial takes me through the basics, not that the game ever escalates much beyond the basics. While the premise of building up your own fiefdom in a vast kingdom filled with fellow lords is appealing, the inevitable realities of ‘pay to win’ quickly surface. Each building gets constructed on a timer and that timer increases each time you want to level that building up. The timer lasts for a few minutes in the early levels, but can go on to take weeks, even months, later on. You can boost construction speed with gold, but to amass any meaningful amount of gold you’re looking at spending real money. Even the most patient players will be tripped up by the fact that you can only ever construct one building and one unit type for your army at a time, so you can’t just queue up a bunch of work, go away, then come back to find your township has blossomed. Within an hour and a half of repeating the same cycle, my construction is stagnating badly. Sisyphus didn’t have it half as bad.

‘Diversifying’ the experience are quests that sounds kind of fun – quash a rebellion, help beleaguered farmers in the surrounding lands – but again these are little more than countdown timers to get more resource boosts. Every building menu allows you to Boost production, which in turn takes you to a screen with purchasable Booster Packs. The store where you exchange real-world money for in-game gold is shrewdly presented as a ‘Bank’, as if all the riches contained therein are already yours, you just need to hand over your boring, increasingly worthless GBP or other real currency to access it. After an hour of upgrading buildings, raiding local farms (again, a timer-based activity rather than an actual engagement) and so-called ‘quests’, I feel myself hurtling towards the inevitable paywall like a rock launched from a trebuchet. Like many games of this type Thrones started me out with a small number of the ‘Booster Packs’ it ultimately wants me to pay money for, and as the starting supply runs out, the build times for everything in my kingdom creep towards unpalatable levels.

Plarium Game

What’s more, I still haven’t seen a single Deku Tree or example of explicit content… I never see any of either during my time playing.

Never mind.

Talking to the players

Knowing that without spending money my endless clicking would amount to little, I decide to get in touch with some of the most powerful – and therefore biggest spending – players on the server.

As it turns out, the first person I speak with is someone who found a way to exert a lot of influence without having spent much money at all. Gamble, as he calls himself, has been playing Throne for six months, having migrated over from Vikings, which he admits is “almost identical” aside from the theme. Gamble doesn’t have the raw numeric ‘Power’ of the players topping the leaderboards (around one million, compared to the 3-5bn of the topmost players), and is candid about calling Throne a ‘Pay to Win’ game. Despite that, he’s leader of the Teutonic Order, the most powerful Order on the server. How did he manage to work around the game’s seemingly unscalable paywalls?

Throne and its doppelgangers have a system whereby resources can be sent to fellow Order members. Using this system as a foundation, Gamble set up a ‘clan bank’ for the Teutonic Order, which isn’t a game feature but a player-made one, with a single player acting as the bank. “When our clan members have spare resources they send it to the clan bank. The bank then sends those resources to members whenever in need,” he tells me. “The game definitely requires teamwork, which is the part I like most about it”. So can a bit of good old-fashioned teamwork work around the dreaded paywalls? Not exactly and not for everyone.

“In our clan, every member pays his fair share to maintain it. People that spend money contribute more” Gamble says. “But everything is voluntary, of course.” It’s a weird one to think about. While it sounds nice and socialist in principle, with the ‘wealthier’ players providing for the less well-off, the real-world financial reality is that those who spend more actual money on the game provide for those who spend less. Perhaps that’s fair enough if there’s a correlation between a player’s real and in-game wealth, but I soon find out that’s not necessarily the case. Who are these benefactors, and what compels them to invest into the Teutonic Order?

Plarium Game 3

Gamble tells me that the man to speak with is Ulfi (not his real name), who he’s known since his Vikings days, and who is the main financier of the guild. Ulfi, who got into Plarium games while serving in the navy, praises the community aspect of the Order but doesn’t need prompting to open up about the difficulties of financing it, telling me that he often spends more than he should because of “tight situations” in-game, especially as he doesn’t currently have a job.

“I need to defend members when they get attacked,” he tells me. “And I’m also trying to become more powerful than Leon the Great [another players on the server], but he obviously has more money than me.” I ask why he sticks around in a game that’s so explicitly driven by money-spending and causes him so much stress. “Loyalty”, he tells me vaguely. When I suggest that the fact that he’s already invested a considerable amount of money in the game ties him into it indefinitely, he admits that “that’s one of the factors too”. The flipside is that he enjoys the rush of victory over a seemingly superior rival, and the “pride and happiness” that comes with other players depending on him.

So what kind of expenditures are we talking about for the top players? I throw the question out to some of the Power billionaires from the leaderboards. One player, Fadi, tells me he owns a company and works as a business consultant, spending $600-$800 a month on Throne, which he feels prevents him from spending considerably more money in in real world auction houses. Another high-ranking player, Azzam (not his real name), plays Throne exclusively having come to it, like most players I spoke with, through an advert. Azzam, who comes from the Middle East, claims to have spent $25,000 in four weeks with Throne. While he refuses to disclose exactly what job is affording him such spending, he tells me that he travels for work and is currently based in a country where he feels unsettled and keen to move on. It seems like an unbelievable amount of money, but I can see in his profile that he has amassed 3 billion Power points in four weeks, defeated nearly 100 million enemy troops in battle, and trained over 80 million warriors himself. Those kinds of figures would require some serious investment.

Plarium games are, like so many mobile and social games, are something people slip into rather than actively go looking for, judging by the fact that everyone I spoke to arrived here through one advert or another. No one I spoke with exactly swooned over the game itself, but nor were they overly critical. Just about everyone seemed fond of the game’s social aspect. Listening to stories of the inter-order wars, player-made alliances, back-stabbings and other political intrigues show that there’s plenty of human-created depth in what was, on a mechanical level, described as a “mindless” game by some of its own players.

plariumplease

One Austrian player, Viceroy, who funds his Throne hobby-going-on-habit with earnings from poker (a method that sounds equal parts ingenious and terrifying) tells me of the bonds formed not only in his Order, but across the entire game. “A lot of us became friends and support each other in real life”, he tells me. “Some time ago a member in this kingdom had very bad financial problems because something serious happened in his personal life. More than 80 people from the whole kingdom – in-game rivals as well as allies – made a fundraiser to help him out and get his life back on track.” It’s an uplifting story, though not uncommon in MMOs where socialising is often as important to player retention as the mechanics. It’s the communities that deserve credit for this, not the developers.

These games aren’t offering the same cycle as gambling. Here the house always wins and there are no cash payouts, so instead the game creates a perpetual loop of positive reinforcement – more troops, more resources, more power unto infinity. Put your money into the machine, see the numbers go higher, see your enemies fall, feel the fleeting buzz of progress. And repeat. Then join a team and extend that feeling further by paying money to help keep the wheels turning for entire groups of players.

This is no slight on the communities that play these games, and it’d be wrong to say that everyone who plays has somehow been duped or ensnared. There is also nothing wrong with relaxing into a casual or social game in which numbers tick up, a town gets bigger, and you’re never fully challenged. Thrones and Vikings are, at the very least, a social space with a hollow armature of a game around them. But they can also feel like a cynical machine for extracting money from users. The marketing alludes to various things, little of which is present in the game, and it certainly doesn’t inform prospective players what they’re signing up for: a potential social group, a positive feedback loop that requires real world cash to lubricate the gears, and not a single Deku tree anywhere in sight…

98 Comments

  1. aircool says:

    What is the RPS obsession with the value of Sterling?

    • Coming Second says:

      Leave Raheem alone.

    • Gomer_Pyle says:

      Scott Sterling?

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      Dorga says:

      SterlingCooperDraperPrice?

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      If by Sterling you mean GBP, basically the story is that thanks to Brexit our spending power as a nation has been completely fucked in the arse, and the pound is worth a lot less than it was. Also most of the staff at RPS are English so we’re all feeling the sting together.

      Essentially the British find solidarity in moaning, so let us have our fun.

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      phuzz says:

      Archer?

      (Jokes aside, I assume that many of the RPS writers get paid in different currencies for different freelance work, so knowing how much money you’re likely to have in the bank at the end of the month is obviously a priority)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    My only question coming out of this is how the development team feels about their own game, aside from it being what appears to be a cash cow, which is of course its own motivation for many people. Do they like to play their own game? Are they even allowed to play?

    I feel like the best games come from developers who make games that they themselves want to play. I raise my eyebrow a little bit at these sorts of companies. Who am I to judge though.

    • LTK says:

      I imagine that valuations like “good” or “enjoyable” don’t really come into the minds of the kind of people that develop these games. I think it’s unlikely that they actually play games as a hobby, let alone play their own games. They’re only concerned with how to wring more money from the hapless fools that get suckered into them.

      In its own morbid way, it’s an interesting problem that combines game design with consumer psychology, and I can see how it could result in a developer completely losing sight of the ethical implications due to being engrossed in the optimisation challenge. Like how determining the most efficient way to fill a cargo hold with humans would be enjoyable to solve for a mathematician, in principle.

      An example of the kind of thinking we’re dealing with can be found in this article: link to gamasutra.com

      • emertonom says:

        It occurs to me to wonder how difficult it would be to create a “detox” application for some of these games, to undo some of the separations the game uses. So for example, if the game shows you an in-game premium currency as your balance in order to distance you from the actual financial loss you are incurring, then just overlay that display with the original currency amounts.

        It would be a lot easier for windows programs like this than for ios games, I think. But they might hit you with a DMCA takedown for reverse engineering some of the code, I guess. Maybe if you could do it with screen-reading software you’d be on solid legal footing. Probably a real public service in that somewhere.

    • Moonracer says:

      I’ve hung out with some developers who make this type of game. My impression is that it is the equivalent of people wanting to be successful in business and ending up an office drone with minimal purpose. Game design sounds glamorous, but a lot of it isn’t. You still need to use your trade skills to make a living though.

      A lot of the business is shoveling out iterations of the same design hoping to hook in enough whales to turn a profit. The percentage of players you need to find that will pay money is surprisingly low. And the developers are just as bewildered as us that people will spend thousands a week in them.

    • Chaz says:

      I suspect many of the people on the team’s programming these games are just that, programmers not gamers. To them it’s probably just another job. A couple of decades ago I met a programmer, who at the time developed games for Disney. He had practically no interest in computer games himself and knew nothing of the current games out at the time. He was a programmer, and making games was just the job he was doing at the time. I’ll bet there’s still a heck of a lot of people like that in the industry even today.

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        Nauallis says:

        I suspect that you and Moonracer are probably correct in that.

      • Ragnar says:

        I think you are correct, but calling them programmers as opposed to developers is selling them short – like saying the creators of cocaine are mere lab rats instead of scientists.

        I took a look at one such game, and it is designed with precision – it’s just designed to be addictive and monetizing rather than fun. There are systems on top of systems to hook you in, keep you playing, and keep you paying. It combines numerous resources and timers with PvE leaderboards and PvP leaderboards and even gatcha style gambling. It’s designed to not just have you log in every day, but to stay logged in and playing constantly throughout the day. It’s masterful, if awfully exploitative.

        • frenchy2k1 says:

          I’m playing one such game on mobile called “Lords Mobile”.
          It is a thing of beauty.
          Seriously, the interface is slick, most points of frictions have been removed.
          It is mostly a mindless clicker with timers, log in regularly through out the day, on bathroom breaks mostly, and do your few available actions (and there are a lot).
          The game is generous with its premium currency, dolling it to you left and right to get you used to spend it.
          I’ve been playing for over a year without spending a cent and hardly feeling limited. I understand how it works and timers are part of it.
          I’ll never be on top, but I’m useful in a guild and the game alternates quiet periods, to rebuild your might and conflict phases, for PvP guild actions (server wide conflict or even server vs server).
          Community is definitely a big part of it and a good guild can both make it more fun, more interesting and facilitate growth.
          I’m almost tempted to buy one of the pay packs as I’ve gotten more than my share of fun out of it.

  3. satan says:

    This is all going over my head, I guess I’ve been using adblockers for so long I’m starting to feel removed from society… a bit more anyway.

  4. Seafoam says:

    Best thing about these abominations is that their adverts are mostly stolen footage from other games and they pose it as their own.
    Being mediocre is acceptable but that is straight up illegal.

  5. Halk says:

    I also know a game which uses ads like this. It’s called “World of Tanks”. This abomination allows players to purchase better ammo with real money.

    • goodgeorge says:

      I don’t remember seeing misleading ads for World of Tanks. Premium ammo and tanks are really stupid though. It has been quite some time since I played that game, but then premium items didn’t really ruin the game for me even they caused frustration sometimes.

    • mangame5 says:

      The “premium” ammo can be purchased with the in-game currency as well. It’s mainly used for hopeless situations when you’re up against armor that is a bit too thick for your gun to ever hope to pierce. Even if you use ‘gold’ or ‘credits’ to get it, you’re almost always at a loss when using it. (One could argue that you can spend real life money on it so you can keep your in-game currency untouched, which you use to buy modules and vehicles. This is helped by the fact that you can get this ‘real life’ money during certain events for free.)

      Premium tanks are severely limited. You get exactly what you pay for: you may not alter them (like putting different gun on the turret) and they’re as OP as any of the regular tanks: only in specific situations.

      WoT’s progression is structured in tiers. You start with whatever basic tank from whatever nation, you play with it, earn exp and credits, unlock and buy modules and eventually you reach a higher tier. In general, you can drop in games that are up to two tiers higher or lower than you, but it’s generally fairly well balanced in this regard. You will pop in as the top tier and you will pop in as the bottom tier and you will have to play accordingly.

      The “Premium” tanks have “Premium matchmaking” which tends to put them in more favorable matches more often. This might raise a few flags, but when you consider that these tanks are sidegrades with zero customizability, they’re fine. (And as I said, you can be placed as top-tier in any match with any regular tank.)

      The main purpose for these is not to set you in front of other players. While playing with such a tank, your crew gains exp faster and you’ll earn more credits than normal. They are there to accelerate your progress, exactly like other pay models in other F2P games.

      As time passes, premium tanks come and go out of the shop, so in a sense they’re limited items. They can also show up in your garage during events for free and sometimes missions pop up where you can earn such vehicles by playing with regular tanks.

      WoT is perfectly fine. I’ve played up to Tier 6 so far and I feel no need to spend a buck on it, nor do I feel like I needed to get this far to have fun. There are enjoyable vehicles at any tier in the game.

      • Menthalion says:

        As soon as you need more than 500 words to explain why a game’s business model could be considered OK, it certainly isn’t.

        • mangame5 says:

          First time I’ve ever heard that one. Have you even read the entire post?

        • goodgeorge says:

          He didn’t need more than 500 words, he just wanted to describe the business model accurately. WoT definitely is a game that you can fully enjoy without paying anything. Very much different than the games this article is about.

          • frenchy2k1 says:

            Most successful freemium games can be enjoyed for free.
            I do it for “Lords Mobile” on my phone or Heroes of the Storm on my PC.
            Successful developers know this is all about the community and you need to keep the vast majority of free players entertained while the “whales” will fight for the top.
            Most of those games are team games, meaning that a whale or 2 can pull a full guild with them and make the game fun for dozens of free players, as described in the article.
            The best freemium games (not necessarily the ones linked through those bad advertisements) have to be fun to play, even for free, otherwise the players will move to greener pastures.

  6. rb207 says:

    all the community pulled together to raise money for someone with very bad financial problems? my mind is screaming scam. Although someone playing the game probably isn’t that good at managing money

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      Phasma Felis says:

      You see that kind of story in all sorts of online communities. Maybe someone checked up on it for the rest; maybe they didn’t.

      In any case it doesn’t say anything positive about the game, just that humans tend to support their friends.

  7. ProverbsofHell says:

    This is the best article ever written on this site tbh. This was a very interesting read, props to the writer, a really good subject matter.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Agreed.

      More like this, please RPS.

    • harvb says:

      Have to agree that I found this fascinating. It’s quite bonkers really how much money some people spend on these games, but if they’re happy, good luck to em.

    • Aetylus says:

      Agree. I would put this alongside the articles about Eve Online in the “intriguing insight into massively popular games that I am too afraid to play”. Different reasons for my fear of Eve than fear of online freemiums.

    • goodgeorge says:

      I really liked this article too. I have always been sure that games that are marketed like this aren’t very good and the ads themselves are totally misleading. Nice to find out what the games are like without actually having to click the ads.

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      distantlurker says:

      hear hear.

    • atomaweapon says:

      I would agree, less Social Justice Drivel and more stuff like this

      • GeoX says:

        Yeah, social justice sucks!

        (seriously, what the hell is WRONG with people like this?)

        • Daymare says:

          I don’t know what makes them the people they are.

          But I hope RPS never, ever listens to them.

  8. dontnormally says:

    Reminds me of this gem from 2011:

    who killed videogames? (a ghost story)
    link to insertcredit.com

  9. Drib says:

    I am happy to see this article, as I see those ads all the damn time.

    So, the games are freemium garbage? Neat! Now I don’t have to vaguely wonder what they are.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    You should also investigate Forge of Empires (if I remember the name correctly?), which even has ads on tv.

    • gmillar says:

      Is that the one that literally just uses Mount and Blade gameplay footage for its ads?

    • Someoldguy says:

      Forge of Empires is nothing like as monetised as these puppies. There’s no pressure to spend, spend, spend unless you willingly join a very competitive guild. I played for ~9 months, made significant progress and spent about £10.

  11. Tomo says:

    I think this is a good, worthwhile article, but I think you are being far too kind to the developers/publishers of these games. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of alternative games where numbers/resources go up and down, which don’t leech cash from you.

    They are the pimple on the arse of the games industry. Like fixed betting machines in a bookies, albeit the only reward you might get is a momentary warm glow inside.

    Considering the stance RPS takes on a lot of issues that large swathes of the gaming press ignores, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed you haven’t called out these developers.

  12. Fade2Gray says:

    It’s an odd experience reading through this article and then seeing that exact faux-deku waiting for me in an add at the bottom of the screen.

    Yes I’m over 25 and own a computer, but I’m not sure your game is a “Must-Have” for me.

    • Premium User Badge

      Solrax says:

      Haha, noticed the same thing!

      Really enjoyed the article though…

  13. Diziet Sma says:

    This… I suspected they were but I’m glad RPS are here so we don’t have to sully ourselves! :D Thank you, a good wee piece of investigative journalism.

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    garfieldsam says:

    Pfft amateurs. Machine Zone has its own in-house marketing and advertising. The average revenue from players acquired in some segments is SO HIGH freemium debts are willing to pay >$1000 per. Fuckin crazy.

  15. fuggles says:

    I got sucked into the games workshop drop assault which sounds similar. Towards the end I cannot say I was enjoyable it, but if you log in everyday you get free stuff! GAH… Luckily my goal was to complete the single Player missions without spending money, which I did and got out.

    Then played transformers. That game looks great, I’d love an rts. Felt intense pressure to login and help my clan, dipping in every 10 minutes to the distraction of my family.

    They are all reskins of each other. Blooming addictive reskins.

  16. Bent Wooden Spoon says:

    There’s definitely a delicious irony to this article given the only places I see these ads are browsing both here and Eurogamer on my phone.

    I find the fact they’re often accompanied by pictures of females with their baps half-popped out their chestplates really helps bring out the inclusive, progressive image RPS strives to maintain.

    Sadly, quality content isn’t cheap and this shit is evidently what gets them customers.

    • fuggles says:

      They don’t pick their adverts.

      • Caradog says:

        They should, it’s their site after all.

        The Revcontent ads, full of scams and duff “products” like these games, are are stain on both those sites.

        • Ragnar says:

          And they’re unfortunately what’s required to keep sites like theirs running without all of us becoming Supporters.

          At least the RPS ads are unobtrusive, unlike PC Gamer. And forget trying to use a Wikia site on mobile – scary redirects all over the place about your phone being infected.

  17. Shuck says:

    A sultry American voiceover warns me I need to be over 18 to play Vikings, before I get asked questions about my age, whether I can handle sex and nudity, and whether I’m happy to wait until level 10 “before I see explicit content.”

    Honestly I’m amazed that they even kept up the clearly false pretense that there was some sort of “mature” content in the game beyond the ads themselves. But I suppose it serves the function of letting them know that they can legally take you for all the money they can get…

    • USER47 says:

      I am more amazed by the formulation itself “Due to certain laws, depending on your location, you might have to reach level 10 before you see explicit content”. It’s just so briliantly nonsensical.:-D

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        Actually, “No boobs for noobs” was codified into law in some Canadian provinces.

        • DEspresso says:

          Not to be mixed up with ‘No Moose to loose’ which is a completely different bill.

  18. stringerdell says:

    Not to be deliberately unkind but I’d imagine most people that actually click on and play these games are fairly stupid.

    • Cederic says:

      I don’t think stupidity is the factor. Companies can afford multiple teams of people that use scientific findings, decades of experience and expensive a-b testing to create adverts that draw people into games that are themselves very cynically designed to encourage repeat play then entice expenditure.

      Even if a lot of people can manage to resist it just needs a very small percentage of people to bite, and they’re probably not all stupid.

      I hate these companies. It’s exploitation and I’d happily make it illegal.

      • USER47 says:

        “Making something illegal” isn’t always as easy as it can sound. In this case, it would be pretty much impossible to clearly define in which specific factors are these scammy games different from legit games with f2p bits or even with paid DLCs.

        And even if you managed to define it and somehow ban it, it would take them about a day to update the game to slip around your arbitrary definition of scammy game.

        • Cederic says:

          Sadly it’s very easy to make it illegal – you ignore the collateral damage and/or selectively prosecute.

          Unfortunately that’s how the UK parliament has chosen to work for the past two decades.

          So I guess I should agree that making it illegal without criminalising computer games in general would be darned difficult. My preference may not be pragmatic, it’s just a preference.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I think it’s impossible to draw a definitive line between games that are offering a service for no cost, with some pay to win advantages to keep the lights on and servers running, and the monstrosities that want to charge you $800 or more for a single leader/hero/general raised to “gold” class. I played many of the former and enjoyed them but they’ve gradually been superseded by these glossier team games that forever egg you on to spend more, more, more. It’s like trying to define when a sports star, actor or tv personality stops being paid a fair wage and starts being obscenely overpaid. People will always argue they’re only earning what they are worth, otherwise people wouldn’t pay.

      One hook that the writer does not mention is that in most of these games you can’t shield your troops for long. You have to send them on long marches and then log in again when they come back or risk having them destroyed. Paradoxically it’s an army behind your town walls that is vulnerable and one out on manoeuvres that is safe from harm. That means you must constantly log in 2-3 times a day or buy expensive pvp protection. One slip and your big army that took weeks or months to accumulate is gone, unless your teammates manage to cover your ass when you make a mistake. That makes the bonds of teamwork very tight and massively incentivises you to ‘pull your weight’ by logging in regularly and spending a little more than you should.

    • Yazu13 says:

      As someone who likes to think he’s intelligent, yet has spent money on pointless digital things of no value, it is not a matter of stupidity. These games prey on addictive tendencies in people, and thankfully I caught myself before I spent more than $30 or so, but it felt dirty and wrong only after I had realized what I did. The mind is a terrible and frightening thing indeed.

    • Fnord73 says:

      Well, I would have to disagree. When I was in hospital for three months back in 2007 I played one of the original ad-swampers, I cant even remember the name now (Helgon? Helgen?) for almost the entire duration. It was one of the first “Build a city in a guild, send out armies in realtime, capture NPC cities, etc.”-grinds. Spent 5 bucks for a teleporter, as did the rest of my guild, and tried to fight the pay to wins. The intensity of getting up in the night-time to do surprise timezone crossing, the solidarity between dirtpoor gamers fighting together, the chat with several military veterans and the art of timing was actually pretty intense, some of the most immersive multiplayer I have ever played.

      The model is pure moneygrubbing, but the heroin-factor is based on some true intensity in the rush.

    • Ragnar says:

      You are being unkind, as well as a bit naive. These games are made with a twisted mix of game design and psychology.

      These games prey on people’s addictive tendencies, exactly the same way that Pokemon or gambling or game achievements do. My wife is currently addicted to Cookie Clicker, and won’t stop “playing” it until she beats it by getting every achievement. She’s intelligent and successful, and knows it’s a stupid, pointless game, but she still feels compelled to play it.

      Some play for the competition. They know it’s pay to win, and stupid, but the feeling of triumph over an opponent is the same. And are professional sports really any better? Sure, they take skill, but throwing a ball and hitting it with a bat are rather stupid when you think of it, and the wealthiest teams can afford the best players.

      Others play such games for social aspects. Many I’ve talked to are lonely, and these games let them make social connections just like in an MMO, but on their phone in their hand.

  19. zulnam says:

    Wow, actual investigatory journalism. Pretty good. Keep going.

  20. USER47 says:

    That guild financed by the unemployed guy who is spending his last cash trying to buy a virtual friendship or strangers certainly doesn’t seem like the healthiest place around.

  21. nitric22 says:

    I for one feel that most people know the gig on click bait. I’ve clicked myself for one reason or another and abstained from actually spending money. HOWEVER… if someone is inclined to pull out their debit card then well, what’s to be said? We each of us have our vices and preferences regarding where our hard earned money goes and I won’t begrudge anyone a relaxing habit even when it set’s them back five figures.

  22. Musenik says:

    I really appreciate RPS for investigating the weirder and in this case, stranger corners of the gaming ecosystem. Thanks. Keep up the engaging and enlightening work!

  23. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    So basically, take the same tricks they use to keep butts in seats in Vegas and apply them to boring video games, because kids can’t go to casinos. Some day the saner societies will probably regulate this kind of thing.

  24. pelicans says:

    Timely – I too clicked through one of those spammy ads earlier this week.

    Are you over 18? No
    Can I handle sex and nudity? No
    Will I wait until level 10 to see explicit content? No

    Still took me directly to the site .. hah..

    • durrbluh says:

      Hah, I recently did this too. I was perplexed as to how these ads keep appearing after using multiple ad-blocker extensions to try and target them, so I clicked through the “you must be willing to accept the lustful embrace of a buxom elf” user agreement, annnnnnd… generic “Game of War” clone launches in my browser.

      I’m amazed people play these apps, but I’m goddamn flabbergasted that they actually spend money on them.

      • Unclepauly says:

        I’m flabbergasted that people are flabbergasted that there is people like this out there. The world has always been full of non-thinkers. People who just “do” things, and just live their life without questioning or pondering alternatives. Some would call them drones but I just assume they’re fine with how things are and go with the flow. I could never be that way but I can see how some people would take that route.

        • aepervius says:

          It is not about non thinking, it is about making even thinking people vulnerable. That’s why they are using load of psychological technics : to lower your barrier to payment. Anybody thinking they are immune to this should better think again. Nobody is unless you are a sociopath far removed from the psychology of normal people.

          • Dewal says:

            Yes, it can work against “thinkers”. But in this case, a thinker should be able te recognize the threat before being snatched into it.

            I’ve been twice hooked with idle clickers (cookie clicker and candy box) and played them almost non stop for a few days, always thinking as to how optimizing my gains.
            Now I avoid these kind of games like the plague, I’m afraid of them and how disgustingly effective they are. If I had a choice between eradicating mosquitoes or idle clickers, I would hesitate. That’s how much I hate them.

          • Someoldguy says:

            Yet in a world where casinos and bookmakers are allowed to let you throw away impressive sums of money, race after race or spin after spin, how can you justify saying that games that provide a substantially longer lasting experience should not be allowed to exist? If we want to talk about products that wreck lives, pay to win computer games would appear a long way down the list.

  25. Yazu13 says:

    This is what I like to call “scary fun”. The kind of fun that keeps a grandma at the slot machine all day, spending money on literally nothing, but feeling high and feeling like a winner, even when you always end up losing.

    Examine any one of the people in these games who spend hundreds of dollars on them and they’ll likely tell you that the game gives them a euphoric feeling, but all they’re doing in these games is leveling up (collecting numbers without real meaning) and getting higher on a cheap and pointless leaderboard. These people are addicts, and these games are just slot machines designed to make you feel accomplished, all the while you’re throwing away anything you have of real value.

  26. Tony M says:

    I don’t think you can draw a hard line between games like this, and something like Hearthstone. Hearthstone is not as nakedly cynical in its design. There is a real effort to ground Hearthstone in good mechanics and presentation. But the revenue model is very similar: Convince enough players that they need to spend money to “stay competitive”.

    • goodgeorge says:

      Well they have to get the revenue from somewhere. I think the big difference between Hearthstone and the games described in this article is that Blizzard is working really hard to make the game itself good and the game isn’t crippled for F2P players.

  27. heretikeen says:

    This makes me so sad.
    It’s almost like you took old-school MMORPGs and removed the game part in order to only leave the paying part, but greatly emphasizing it.

  28. Kitty says:

    I’m glad you made an article on this, I found myself in a similar game a year or two ago, where I ended up spending unreasonable amounts of money on one of those freemium titles, to stay ahead and not miss out on limited events and so on. Every second I played the game I was tempted to spend money, and it was very hard to resist for me. It even had time-limited events which were in the middle of the night – and I set my alarm to get up to do those things and then go back to sleep. It was really, really bad.

    Fortunately I realized it couldn’t go on like that, and I ended up ditching the app, the community and chat app I’d gotten to be part of a clan, and everything related to it. I still sometimes feel like checking out the game like an addiction, but I fortunately never have gone back to it. I’m very thankful I got out of it.

    It’s good to see a bit more awareness being made about how terrible these games can be for addictive personalities and such.

    • Ragnar says:

      This sounds a lot like my experience with Valkyrie Crusade. I didn’t spend any money on it, but I watched those that did catapult ahead for two weeks only to fall back down and have to spend more to get back to where they were.

      The good news is that with some distance, you realize how boring and tedious the game really is, and the desire to play goes away. And if you do fall off the wagon, it’s easier to quit the second time around. That said, I recommend you never again take that first sip.

  29. Halk says:

    It may be naive on my part, but I really hate that some great games made with passion and a lot of work will be bought and played by a tiny fraction of the number of people that play this shit. Some people agonize over whether a 10 dollar indie game has enough “value”, while other people throw money in the trash because a game is engineered to exploit them. Passionate developers struggle to keep afloat, and these con artists hire famous actors to promote their non-game.

    Thanks for the article, I always wondered how these games can afford their marketing campaigns with claims and images clearly unrelated to the games themselves.

    • frenchy2k1 says:

      Recognize that indie games and those pseudo MMO scratch different itches in different people.
      Those pay-to-win games are designed around communities and psychological traps, but to be honest, there is very little differences between a good P2W game on mobile and one like hearstone or Heroes of The Storm (or LoL, or DOTA2, or…) and yet I do not see any outcry against those in the RPS comments.
      I play a P2W game on mobile called “Lords Mobile”, I’ve been playing for over 1.5 years, never spent a dime and I’m seriously considering buying a pack to reward the creators. The game is slick, smooth, great interface and perfectly playable as a free player. It alternates quiet periods and events, where you have to coordinate with your guild. How is that different from a regular MMO (beside the simpler graphics), where people would happily pay $10/mo? I’ve spent evenings coordinating attacks, defenses, pillages, taking on guilds much more powerful than ours, but winning through skills and tactics. This has brought me much more fun than most AAA titles that go for $60+ at release, all without paying a cent. I?f people play 50+h of the game/month, why shouldn’t they spend $50/month, like others do for AAA that only have 12h campaign?
      I understand that, like gambling (and indeed, the apps use very similar mechanisms. The company behind Lords, IGG, is also making gambling apps and machines), they can prey on people or some people get “taken in” like an addiction, but most people are just happily spending the cash that would go to other much shorter entertainment. For $10, you can get a 2h movie or some in game coins, why are the people paying and getting more than 2h of entertainment from it suckers?

      Be careful not to judge people too quickly and particularly condemn them just because they do different choices. I would not sink hundreds of dollars in those games, but I have hundreds sunk in Humble Bundles for games I’ll most realistically never play.
      We all have our vices…

  30. ilitarist says:

    At last. I was very disappointed with RPS for a long time seeing they offer no coverage of AT LAST THE STRATEGY GAME THAT EVERYONE WAITED FOR.

    • Beefenstein says:

      I waited for it so hard I didn’t even realise I was waiting.

  31. ColonelFlanders says:

    Kind of interesting considering some of the HORSESHIT from Taboola that populates the bottom of your articles:

    Lose your belly fat in a week!

    5 casino secrets THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE!

    Millions of people are cancelling their Netflix subscription in favour of this illegal, paywalled streaming site that likely gives you no content!

    • noom says:

      It’s not Taboola anymore, it’s Revcontent. Not that there’s really any difference…

      And in RPS’s defense, they’ve written before that they won’t allow any of the more egregious ad content such as ads that expand to cover the page or videos inserted in the middle of text, despite that they could be making FAR more money if they did so. The Taboola/Revcontent stuff is certainly distasteful, but not too difficult to scroll past.

  32. Gothnak says:

    Would have been nice to get someone to do a real ‘Wot i Think’ on one of these. Let’s be fair and treat them like other games!

    • ThePuzzler says:

      What experience would you have them review? The game as it is if you play it for free? Or the game as it is if you throw money at it?

  33. Beefenstein says:

    Day 99 of my adventures into freemium games.

    My cat has died. I am eating the cat food. As my tears hit my iPad screen I think that today, finally, will be the day where I am allowed to see more cleavage.
    When I had money I had the advert which first enticed me printed on A1 paper. I have rubbed against this image so much that it is threadbare and tattered, a rudimentary metaphor for my life. I consider for a moment how a fiction writer could make something out of this but then I reflect that, no, it is too obvious and also pervy.
    Finally my ninth town hits level 100. In my guild I am one of the most prolific producers of sugarbeet. I can meet my shipment to the capital! I think of all the greatful peons with their black little teeth. I check the menus again to see if I can train dentists. I CARE FOR YOU MY LITTLE HUT-BOUND BUDDIES.

  34. Captain Narol says:

    Thank you Mister Zak for losing your time playing those “games” so we don’t have to !

    I always wondered what was behind those ads but was quite sure it wasn’t worth it…

  35. skyturnedred says:

    I used to play one of these games on the toilet. I forget what it was called, but the game was basically a big FU to the monetization in these games. A pitiful amount of premium currency cost 1000 euros, and a decent amount cost a whopping 10,000. The catch is, that you can earn ridiculous amounts of the premium currency just by playing a few minutes every day, so there was really no reason to spend any money. But I like to imagine some rich guy got so addicted he just had to drop 100k on it.

  36. Imperialist says:

    What a great article.
    I think you need to start a new feature article series where each week you delve into a game with horrible adverts. Just to sate my curiosity that is tempered with wisdom.
    Also, you almost make the game sound appealing on paper. There’s something to be said of the allure of a good community.

    • Ragnar says:

      The same community can be found in many F2P MMOs without the insidious monitization, or even in the RPS forums with no spending required.

      The games themselves are gussied up Facebook games, that start out fun but quickly devolve into mindless, tedious, repetitive tasks that do just enough to stimulate your lizard brain to keep you playing. Very similar to sitting in a casino pressing the slot machine button over and over again, but without the free drinks.

  37. Thirdrail says:

    Interesting article. Nice to see something on a video game website that’s not a slightly different version of the same article on a dozen other video game websites. Well done, sir.

  38. cpt_freakout says:

    Great stuff! I only wish you could’ve made even more research, because this topic is pretty interesting. These are like hardcore casual games for quite a few people – I mean the dedication is amazing, like with the clan bank that’s basically gaming the game itself or the other guy that stays out of loyalty (to his pals? to the game? both?); those stories are great, and they do tell you something about gaming as it is now.

  39. brucethemoose says:

    Well, that game is (partially) funding RPS.

    Some tiny part of that middle eastern man’s bank account is in your paycheck, Robert Zak.

  40. Biggus_Dikkus says:

    In other news: Plarium was bought for 500mil$ few days ago

  41. Hypocee says:

    Not really. They’re all the same, not much to write. This article, despite being I’m sure original work, is a retread of a format I’ve seen ten times from ten sites in ten years, often down to “time for this paragraph”.

    But I did come up with a title they could use for the series: “Carefully Nibbling the Hand That Feeds”.