Mobile Games and Me – How Theme and Large Numbers Carry an Experience

It’s been some years since I first saw my brother first playing a little Star Wars related mobile game called Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. I peeked curiously every now and then as he dug out his phone to do his daily grind for a game in which you compose a team of either light or dark side (and in some cases a combination of both) to fight waves of enemies or other players. Sometimes I asked about the game, how it was balanced, how pay-to-win it was, how often do you actually get to play the game, etc. The fact that my brother would go on to explain things in detail, quite excitedly, helped further my interest in the game.

Man Sitting on the Sofa Holding a Mobile Phone

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

I had seen one of my friends play similar games (with more of a East Asian style to them, however), but I didn’t really want to get involved due to how pay-to-win these sorts of games tend to be. In addition to that, the fact that these games are designed to manipulate you into using the product daily, to make it part of your daily rhythm, is something I quite dislike, but this is how pretty much everything is designed these days: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc. As much as I (and many others) dislike it, the conditioning works because that’s just how our brains work. As we say in Finnish: apinaa koijataan (or “monkey is being bamboozled”). Those who this doesn’t work on are quite lucky in my opinion – you’re the smarter primates. Whatever the case, I had been looking for something little to add to my daily routine, so why not an addictive Skinner box? 

“It’s My Favourite Media Franchise!” or How They Hook You

Collection of comic figurines on glass shelves

Photo by Erik Mclean

The theme of the game should never be underestimated, because even though the gameplay mechanics and the pay-to-win nature are extremely similar, the theme can make all the difference. It did for me – I picked up the Galaxy of Heroes because of the Star Wars theme. Out of the thousands of these types of games that I was never interested in, I picked the game based on its theme and because someone I know was playing it. I kept with the game for a few months and even put in some money into it because I felt invested. It also helped that they had a “double currency on your first purchase” deal to exploit. But I wasn’t the one doing the exploiting, was I? It’s all a part of the insidious system of anchoring – a psychological manipulation tactic used to guide your perception of what’s a “good deal” and to drive you towards a purchase when the “good deal” presents itself. Most people don’t recognise it for what it is. But I do. So why would I take the bait? Because I was having a good time and I estimated that putting in money to get something I wanted was a better value than letting the game play itself for hundreds of hours over the course of weeks and months to unlock it. Despite getting what I wanted, I just kinda got sick of opening the game a couple of times a day and then I just gradually lost interest completely and moved on to all the other interesting things out there. So was it all a waste of time and money? No, I don’t think so.

“I Can’t Just Stop Now!” or How They Keep You

Person Holding Silver Round Coins

Photo by cottonbro studio

How is it not a waste of money if you buy something only to ditch the thing you bought it for just weeks later? For someone it definitely is. Those types of people would most likely stick with the game because of the sunk cost fallacy – you’re too invested in something to give it up, because it would feel like you’ve wasted your time and money. I’m not particularly strongly affected by this kind of thinking. While I grow attached and invested, I can detach from the thing if I feel like I’ve had my fill. For instance, I’ve never stuck to a single MMO game for long even if I’ve liked it. Liking it just makes me play it more at a time and has me return to the game later when I get the urge to play it again. World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Runescape, Star Wars The Old Republic, Warframe, Final Fantasy XIV, Daimonin (look it up, it’s a nice small community), etc. All these I’ve invested dozens and hundreds of hours into, but I can go back to them for a week or two, maybe even three, but then I move on to something else again. I enjoy my time with each, but I just get my fill fairly quickly. A consequence of my ADHD, no doubt. It’s both a blessing and a curse, but I digress.

“I’ll Never Play Another One!” or How I Keep Coming Back

Man looking at another woman, but the woman symbolises big numbers and quasi-gambling

A never-ending cycle

So I generally dislike just about everything about mobile games and I’m fully aware of the tricks they use to get you to spend money and keep logging in regularly. So why play them? To which I answer by posing a different question: why play any video game? Because I want to kill time. Because I want to experience a something new. Because I want to progress from nothing all over again. But most importantly for (idle) mobile games: I want to see the numbers go higher. That’s also another way these companies keep people engaged and playing: big numbers are nice, rapidly growing numbers are better. It’s also apparently easier to do adjustments with larger numbers, but the psychological effect definitely is a consideration. Aaand then there’s the gambling aspect. Roll of the dice, no matter how it’s disguised, is addictive. This is why I don’t gamble with my money outside of a few lootboxes every now and then. I am really glad that I don’t play Magic the Gathering anymore, because opening card packs was addicting as hell.

The kind of legally-not-quite-gambling that mobile games use is something that you don’t really get with pay-to-play games (which is how I want to keep them), so if you’re craving for something with stupidly large numbers and quasi-gambling, you go to play a mobile game with your favourite flavouring. For me these have been Genshin Impact and Honkai Starrail. Haven’t touched those for over a year, but I’ve instead played Tingus Goose and Idle Champions – Tingus for its batshit insane aesthetic and theme and Idle Champions because it’s Dungeons and Dragons with stupid large numbers (growing beyond a googol (power of 100) fairly quickly). Tingus I’ve not touched for a few months now, and I’m fairly sure Idle Champions will just peter out for me in a week or a bit more. Neither of these I’ve seen a reason to put money in – there’s no extra boosters or characters, etc. that I would want (though they do exist). Which is a good thing, because that tells me that the monetisation isn’t too aggressive. It might become a necessity in the end game, but I don’t stick around that long – I just play around until I’m bored and forget to log in.

As a final note: If you have an addictive personality and a tendency to get pulled into ill-advised purchasing decisions (gambling), please stay away from mobile games. You’ll do yourself a huge favour.

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