The free-to-play games industry exploded in the last few years and shocked developers and consumers alike by the fact that supposedly free games can actually earn more money than premium titles. Most of this money is earned from a select few whales, effectively funding the game for the hundreds of people who never spend a cent. Identifying and milking those whales has become a major part of the business.
In an anonymous post on Touch Arcade, a free to play senior producer explained just how important and ubiquitous data mining is for the industry.
This isn’t an article about the evils of free to play manipulation to get you to spend money. This is about how we can target you, because we (and our partners) know everything about you. We know where you live, we know your income level, we know your relationships, your favorite sports teams, your political preferences. We know when you go to work, and where you work. We can target an event to start for you when we know you have a long weekend coming up. We own you.
It all started innocently enough, with developers wanting to know about player experiences when games were perceived as too difficult. However, over time, that expanded into learning about unique tastes and interests and using those to a sales advantage. Facebook in particularly has expanded the data available for free-to-play game developers.
And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you. I remember we had a whale in one game that loved American Football despite living in Saudi Arabia. We built several custom virtual items in both his favorite team colors and their opponents, just to sell to this one guy. You better believe he bought them. And these are just vanity items. We will flat out adjust a game to make it behave just like it did last time the person bought IAP. Was a level too hard? Well now they are all that same difficulty.
The quantity of data is simply staggering, though. The senior producer says he no longer even knows how much data they are collecting. At one time, they were generating around 20 gigs of player data per day, while other games are grabbing 100, 200 or even 300 GB a day. While some of that info might be about crashes, most is from ad networks and includes demographic data as well as info on your interests, etc. And it’s not just taken from those free-to-play games themselves.
Normally I implement 20 to 30 different 3rd party SDKs into a game. Some of these help us track events or crashes, some are ad networks, others more demographic data. All of these networks are gathering as much, if not more data on you. Worse yet, they are all networked. Let’s say your in some app that wants to know if you are Male or Female, and what age range you fall under. Well that app shares that data with it’s ad network. Guess who else uses that same ad network, we do! Now we have that data, without even asking for it.
Big brother really is watching, and trying to get your money. The next time you see in in-app-purchase that seems like something that you simply can’t resist, that’s probably because it was built exactly for you. It just sounds too creepy that companies are actually out there, tracking my interests and purchasing habits so that they can sell me even more stuff. I generally only play premium mobile games anyway and avoid any in-app-purchases, but if I were identified as an N7 whale and had options to re-skin my other games to look like Mass Effect, I would probably jump on that micro transaction.
And thus, I am afraid of every app I’ve ever installed on my phone. Just how much do all these companies know about me? How much do they know about my interests, my spending habits and any other things that influence my day to day life? I feel so exposed and violated, especially because I “willingly” gave up so much information about myself.
Last Updated: September 17, 2015