There are several big names in the mobile games scene: Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, SimCity BuildIt, Cooking Dash, Plants vs. Zombies 2, Kim, Vainglory and Farm Story. Chances are you already know someone in your life who has played these games. Do you notice any similarities among these titles?

You might have guessed it – they are “freemium” games, which are games that are free to play but offer various types of in-app purchases aimed at enhancing the gaming experience. Freemium games use many strategies to pressure players into spending time and money. Some games entice you with premium in-game items, some put obstacles in your path and urge you to pay your way through them, and others force you to pay to unlock the next level or a main feature of the game.

As a casual gamer myself, I am at the limit of my patience with freemium games. While some do IAP (In-App Purchases) well, many others finagle gamers of their money to unlock unnecessary and sometimes ephemeral upgrades and features. In my opinion, there are way too many people falling for mobile games that are essentially freemium traps. Hence there is a need to deconstruct the often insidious tactics these games employ to get people to scream “Shut up and take my money!” before they even realize that they are being played.


  1. “Please-Wait-or-Pay” Strategy

This tactic is overused, which makes it even more annoying. Games using this tactic tax you for every basic action you make in the game to progress in the storyline or to go on to the next level. Then when you run out of a resource, you’d have to wait for the resources to be restocked before you can continue. A well-known example is Candy Crush Saga. You have a limit of five “lives,” and whenever you fail a level you lose a “life”. Losing all five lives means you’d have to wait hours just to gain “life” and continue playing the game. That, or throw some real cash to immediately replenish your “life” bar.

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Image 1: Candy Crush Saga’s infamous “No More Lives” Window, which encourages players to wait, ask friends for help, or purchase “lives”.

You might ask: Who falls for these?! The answer is plenty of people, including these women who blew 400,000 pounds daily on Candy Crush Saga. This mechanism is usually tied up with a competitive feature in the game that encourages you to connect the game to Facebook, which allows you to see where your fellow Candy Crushing friends are at the game. Because your friends are involved, the pressure of competition hits you, and suddenly that button tempting you to pay is no longer just asking you to refill your “life” bar but gives you a chance to continue besting your friends.

Another person who has made a sum of money from inserting a competitive streak into the game is none other than the famous-for-being-famous Kim Kardashian. Her roleplaying game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, is built on the gamer completing gigs and photo shoots to become the next A-list celebrity. To complete those gigs and photo shoots, one uses up “energy,” and if you don’t want to wait for your “energy level” to refill, you can – surprise, surprise – pay to top it up immediately.

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Image 2: Out of “energy” window in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Clicking on “get energy” would take you to a payment site where you can buy energy credits. (Image Credits:


  1. The Locked Content Strategy

Games such as Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2) and Cooking Dash have profited from locking content behind a paywall. These games come with a few free basic levels, and once you complete them you would be prompted to spend in-game currency to unlock the next level.

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Image 3: Buying the next “show” on Cooking Dash requires silver coins and “premium” gold.

Some games such as PvZ2 and Cooking Dash have two types of in-game currencies: one that is obtained easily through the game but has limited use (what are the gold coins in PvZ2 used for again?!), and another “premium” currency that’s a little more flexible but can only be purchased using real cash. Usually, the currency required for the locked content happens to be the “premium” one.

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Image 4: The store in PvZ2, where extra plants can only be bought with “premium” currency or cold, hard cash. Buying all the plants can set you back some $150.

I am fine with this tactic if it is used by the game developers to regularly roll out new content to keep gamers interested. However, I have seen developers abusing this strategy way too often. Paying to unlock “premium” content can really add up, and before you know it, you would have broken the bank for the game when you could have used a fraction of that amount for one of the many legit paid game apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play.


  1. The “Pay-to-Win” Strategy

The “Pay-to-Win” strategy is often used with the “Please-Wait-Or-Pay” strategy discussed above. This strategy is the most insidious and disruptive of the lot when it comes to gaming experience. The game throws an obstacle such as a very difficult boss or a nearly impossible puzzle, and hints that you’d have an easier time completing the task if only you spent some money. King’s Saga games are prime examples.

Let’s discuss Candy Crush Soda Saga, a sequel to Candy Crush Saga, to illustrate how artful the developers can be in inviting you to purchase and use “premium” tools to pass difficult levels. Soda Saga is almost exactly like Candy Crush Saga except that the former has different game modes, and instead of matching candies, you match soda bottles. Each specific level has an objective, such as to “free the bears” or “spread the jam” by matching soda bottles. You can choose to start a level with a “booster” which is a “premium” power-up that can help you achieve the level’s objectives. There are a few ways to obtain these “boosters,” but the easiest and most brainless way to obtain them is, of course, to purchase them with cold, hard cash.

This is where the developers start using game mechanics and psychology to induce gamers into spending money. In October last year, King started labelling some levels as “Hard” by changing the introduction screen of the level when you first tap on it. As a casual Soda Crusher myself, I initially thought it was a visual update. It looks great and adds more color to the game. After playing a little more, I realized that the change was more than just cosmetic.

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Image 5: Difference in introduction screens between “normal” and “hard” levels in Candy Crush Soda Saga.

I have found that I tend to approach levels marked “Hard” with more trepidation, and the result of that is that I have a heightened tendency to use available “boosters” to complete the level that I fail, especially when I get really close to completing the level. I have also realized that some “hard” levels are not necessarily more difficult, and that even when I have difficulties completing a “normal” level, I am not tempted to use a “booster.” I soon became cognizant of some of the subtle methods the game uses to pocket my money.

I was admittedly scared and almost impressed with how well Soda Saga uses a subliminal stimulus to change and capitalize on the way users interact with the app. That seemingly innocuous “visual update,” together with an older feature of the game that sends out a guttural “Oooh” sound when you got so close but fail at completing a level, is seduction and exploitation on a deeper level.


  1. The “Buy This If You Want To Be Cool” Strategy

Games that use this strategy are typically multiplayer online games such as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) and MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas). The games are free to play, and the developers make money off selling “premium” items that do not directly affect gameplay or give some players an unfair advantage. They are usually cosmetic upgrades, and enhance gameplay experience by giving players the ability to customize their characters and show off their cool in-game avatars to other players. Vainglory, an up-and-coming MOBA on mobile, uses this strategy.

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Image 6: Vainglory allows players to buy “skins” for their heroes as a fashion statement.

Out of all four strategies listed in this article, I actually like this and find it the most “legitimate.” “Premium” items should be this way, not directly affecting gameplay and giving one player an edge over another, while at the same time, broadening and varying the gaming experience. That way, even broke players who cannot afford to pay for items and upgrades can still enjoy the game, while more hardcore gamers (or those with more disposable income) can indulge in customizing their gaming experience.


Great Alternatives to Freemium Games

I am not saying that we should stop playing freemium games altogether, or that what these game developers are doing is morally wrong. I just want gamers to be more aware of these games’ tricks before investing good money on them. Watching someone squander their savings after succumbing to one of the many psychological ploys utilized by freemium game developers can be heartbreaking. If you want to avoid freemium traps, it may do you well to remember the shenanigans outlined above so that you can steer clear of exploitative games. That’s how I made the decision to delete SimCity BuildIt from my phone immediately after I was forced to wait for resources to replenish.

If you are tired of freemium games like I am, you might want to stay away from developers known to churn out freemium games such as King, Electronic Arts and PlayFirst. Instead, consider these other top-rated paid apps with amazing gameplay and/or storylines that will not annoy you with underhanded attempts to get into your wallet:

icon Final Fantasy 9 app Final Fantasy 9: The popular ninth instalment of the acclaimed Final Fantasy series is finally here on Android and iOS at a price of $20.99. It is the full RPG game with updated graphics and additional features that you can use to advance through the game easier without the grinding (which means engaging in repetitive tasks in order to gain “experience points”).

icon Ridiculous Fishing appRidiculous Fishing. The perfect alternative to stressful puzzle games, Ridiculous Fishing is as ridiculous, fun and relaxing as it sounds. Cast your line, snag some fish, fling them into the sky and blast them from your shotgun. It has a huge fan base partly due to its all-inclusive purchase pricing model. It’s available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play for $2.99.

icon Game Dev DeveloperGame Dev Developer. Don’t look down on the pixel art design of the game. The game has proved to be a huge hit, and you should join in the fun if you are not on it yet. Live the life of a video game developer, build a company and train your staff to build the greatest game of your life! Also available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play for only $0.99!

icon 80 Days80 Days. Relive the classic Jules Verne novel and compete with other players to be the first to go around the world in 80 days. There are 150 cities to explore, and the game plays out differently depending on the expedition you decide to take, which gives it great replay value. 80 Days is available on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play for $4.99!

About Author

Wee Yang is the founder of Barely Efficient, a digital content specialist and a scholar of anthropology. He is curious and passionate about new technologies and how it can drive self-improvement. Many people cannot tell if he is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, and he absolutely cannot live without bubble tea. In his spare time, he writes flash stories and lip-syncs to American and Korean pop hits, and fantasizes about better ways to get things done. View Full Profile

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