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Spam Me Not: Shouting above the noise in the game world
Spam Me Not: Shouting above the noise in the game world Exclusive
October 23, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

October 23, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Exclusive

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:

gameplan1.jpgZynga'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.

gameplan2.jpg(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.

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I agree with the central idea of your article, but I think laying it at the floor of Korean signage is probably a bit of overly glib pattern matching =D

Japan has the same idea, as does China.

Harlan Sumgui
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I dont think the author was blaming signege, rather that there are parallels in both real world advertising and in the f2p space. & I agree. I've been on a couple of extended meditation retreats, and when I return the stimulation of Tokyo is really overwhelming. We really do live in a semiotic inferno.

David Metzener
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I realize you were saying that the Tiny Tower example was a minor annoyance, but it's an annoyance that you can totally get rid of by telling it you don't want notifications when you first launch the app or by going into the Notifications section of the phone's settings app and telling it to turn off notifications.

If you really wish to play the game, one doesn't need notifications to play. One just goes in and plays when they feel like it.

There are definitely games that try to grab your attention as much as possible. I tend to try a game and if they use that tactic, the game is removed from my iPhone right then and there.

As your article discusses, we live in a world FULL of advertising. All you have to do is open your eyes and that park bench, or this bus, or that stadium is sponsored by some company. Heck, there are even some beaches that have people driving rollers over the sand each morning with advertising to imprint the sand.

Just about every open space is prime real estate for advertising.

Emppu Nurminen
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The thing is though that people like to play some games like that. For example Wooga's Diamond Dash is perfect thing for anyone who uses Pomodoro technique in their daily lives. It makes me sad that some people don't want to understand that short play-sessions and spamming caused by that is for some people really the best way to play bigger games in tiny pieces.

David Metzener
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@Emppu Nurminen: I don't have anything against being notified when a game like Tiny Tower has finished work on a floor or Pocket Planes has finished it's last flight. That's how I play them.

I do have a big problem with "unsolicited notifications" where a notification pops up for a game I haven't played in a week telling me that I should come back and play some more.

I also have a big problem with apps that beg for reviews or highlight an app or two before the game begins. I know that both Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes do this, but they started doing that after I started playing. Plus, it's a quick tap to get past. Some keep flashing more in your face over and over again.

Most of the games I play on my iPhone are, in fact, the short play-session games. Ones where I can go in, update something and leave.

The new game by the guy who wrote Tweetie called Letterpress is out and it's a cross between Othello, Words with Friends, and Scrabble. Great idea and only takes a minute or so per turn. (Also, very clean interface and no advertising!)

Kevin Nolan
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I've always been puzzled at Zynga's penchant for shouting at lapsed players. On returning to Frontierville after a few months absence I was hit by seven different full-page adverts asking me for money for features I had long ago lost interest in, with most of those pages featuring massive BUY buttons and tiny Skip ones. Harrassed and validated in my opinion that Zynga just want my money, I just never resumed playing.

In comparison, on returning CSR Racing you're greeted with a single, discrete screen that says welcome back and gives you a free gift.

Josh Sutphin
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I so hear ya. I recently tried out several leading F2P games. For the most part, I found the constant shouting and spamming -- not to mention the patronizing tone of most of the games -- extremely off-putting, and sometimes downright offensive. I'm having a hard time understanding how anyone finds this experience "fun", much less is willing to pay sometimes-obscene amounts of money for it.

I look forward to the day when F2P learns to respect its audience.

Laura Stewart
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I suspect notification and over notification will migrate from F2P even as far as single player console games. For instance, Borderlands 3 might be sold storefront with 5 codes. You put 4 of the codes up on Facebook. The first 4 of your Friends who click the accept Promo Gun button on your Profile get a different code that can be redeemed on their consoles, so they too can try to start the game with 1 or all 5 of the promo items. Retrieving the gun will give Borderlands 3 a default permission to post status updates on your profile.

If you think that's far-fetched, Sorority Life controls a series of unlockable levels using Passports you must collect from a Friend's Profile.

Laura Stewart
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In fact, mmoattacks has an article up from getting a sneak peak of Elder Scrolls Online. Zenimax talked a bit about incorporating more social networking sites into the game. For instance, you'll be able to build and recruit your guild on Facebook. If you have friended Elder Scrolls Online, they have the link to the article.

And so it begins....

Brice Morrison
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No one wants a barrage of ads that no one cares about, even the advertisers or the game makers who are creating them. But the issue is that it's a very hard problem to solve. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who really DO want to be notified of feature X, which they wouldn't have known about otherwise and they LOVE once they are told about it. The problem is in targeting, you get impressions on many players who don't actually care about said feature. And that's a problem the size of the advertising industry.

Mike Griffin
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This is why I often avoid free-to-play pulp titles and completely skip Facebook games.
The stuff is getting as ugly and spammy as a cheap porn site. It's just too tacky to bear, you know?

Ironically, a lot of players are being educated to believe that this is the norm right now.
People for whom casual gaming is their only choice, being led down a road of terrible spam and poorly executed in-app offers.

As Brandon mentions -
"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."

And a lot of people think it's normal and OK, and business as usual, and not disrupting their player-to-gameplay experience. Because they're desensitized to it, and consider those mechanisms to be a feature of gameplay progression. But it's not an entertaining play loop, rather it's enforced compulsion and cross-promotion veiled as a gateway to gameplay advancement.

Like the porn of game development. Made quick, cheap, marketed to lowest common denominator, exploited via cross-promotion, and delivered via tacky and noisy shirt-tugging ugliness.

Unfortunately it must be working to some extent, as the largest F2P publishers are profiting from it.
Perhaps it's just a case of "People don't know any better, because it's still an emerging market, and companies are making money using these tactics."

So it gives an impression of being "good" and "normal" -- because everyone's doing it, right?
Eventually, when the audience is provided with superior, more respectful experiences and they use that as a contrast point to establish expectations, maybe then we'll begin to see change.

Until then, this spam and noise will just get worse as the exploitative F2P bubble perpetuates itself in its current mode. Game porn.

Jeremy Glazman
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To play devil's advocate, what makes everyone so sure that people are "playing" these "games" for the purpose of having "fun"?

When you're crammed onto the subway or the elevator going to work in the morning, and your options are staring at the sweaty dude's head in front of you or mindlessly clicking some buttons with your one free hand, there could be worse options than managing your fleet in Pocket Planes to kill those few minutes.

What I'm just saying is the F2P audience is huge, and not everyone is there for the same reason as you.

Nick Lim
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Absolutely agreed. But clearly some people are clicking on the ads, cross promos or upsells.... otherwise the game developers would not actually use these annoying tactics. They are balancing the annoyance with the monetization. You can think of it as the monetization/annoyance ratio.

One simple way for developers to increase the monetization/annoyance ratio is to not show these popups, ads etc to players that won't click at all. And for that, game developers have to include capabilities to show ads, promos etc to different subsets of users. Some tools out there that can do this are ChartBoost and Playhaven in the mobile space, and most browser ad serving technologies.

They also need to do a better job of identifying these subsets of users most likely to respond to the offers. Simple things such as not showing cross promos to first time players is obvious enough. More sophisticated techniques include predictive player scoring (disclaimer my company Sonamine specializes in this area).