Notifications and cross-promotions are getting out of control. Facebook wants my attention, to tell me someone I've never met wants to be my "friend." Twitter wants me to know that someone "favorited" my tweet, and then emails me about that once per week even though I've asked it not to. That's just life in the digital age. But games have gotten particularly bad about this, especially in the free-to-play space.
On the simplest level of spamming, you'll have to click through an ad for a game to get to the one you want to play. Sometimes the ad takes up most of the screen, but this is easy enough to ignore. Worse, I think, is when your iPad or iPhone wakes up to tell you it's time to restock Tiny Tower's Luxury Cruise item in the travel shop.
Four hours later, you'll do it again, not to mention all the quicker items, so maybe you need to actually keep those notifications on if you want to play the game properly. It quickly begins to feel like work -- the mechanic of "waiting to click," and paying to avoid the wait, is pretty much the antithesis of fun. It's a compulsion more than a fun loop, and that's why it makes money.
Some of these games don't ever let you go. There's that little number notification on your smartphone app, telling you how many "things to click" you have waiting for you upon your return -- but some games don't ever get rid of the "1," even if you've clicked everything.
There's always at least one thing that needs clicking, so the game can constantly shout at you to return, because otherwise, why would you go back and click? How would you remember that clicking is a fun thing to do? The game needs to constantly be in your face, or else you'll forget how "fun" it is to touch a field of corn to harvest it. That is still the current face of free-to-play on smartphones and on the web.
Even inside our games we're getting an incredibly high ratio of noise to content. Why is this? Obviously companies need to get the attention of players, and the pop-up ad is still in effective use across the Internet, compelling confused parents and homemakers to give their bank information to fake Nigerian princes. If, perchance, you do forget to click on a game for a while, this is the sort of thing you might see in-game:
Zynga's FrontierVille welcomes you back to a lapsed game
The free-to-play business model was honed in Korea. I was just in Seoul last week pitching projects, and I noticed something interesting. I've become so conditioned to ignore advertising that it took me a few days to see it, but normal, everyday people in Seoul are basically living inside of a real-life pop-up ad. That dystopian future we've seen in movies, where every surface contains an advertisement--it practically already exists.
There are some advertising-light areas, but anywhere you might pause, like subway stations, coffee shops, or gas stations, is a wall of advertisements. Even apartment complexes are branded by some business or other. For this Seoul trip, I stayed with some friends to save money. This is the first building you see upon leaving their subway exit.
(image credit: Joe Spradley)
And this is just the suburbs -- 45 minutes by train away from the Gangnam district, the financial hub which most Korean game companies call home! People have to be so desensitized to advertising and visual noise just to live their normal lives, it's no wonder these game notification tactics I consider aggressive are par for the course in the country where the model was perfected. The more desensitized one gets, the louder advertising has to get to grab your attention.
Many have said that the trend toward overnotification and underhanded tactics like always leaving a "1" hovering over the app is dissipating. I disagree. The more we see of these tactics, the more we come to get used to them. And that may very well mean the tactics will get even more nefarious. I believe we can do better, and high-end PC free-to-play is getting there. But there's a long road ahead, and as companies like Zynga move into gambling, I foresee even more clever uses of overnotification in our future.