We own you, an anonymous free-to-play game producer explains:
One of our engineers came up with a rather simple solution that today would seem like a joke. We could have a JSON file online that contained all the level information. Then we could update the file to make a level easier (or harder). This way we could watch user reactions (mostly app store reviews, Twitter was still pretty basic at this time). This worked great, we were able to balance the game in the wild.
During a meeting about the game, the guy who ran our website brought up some interesting information. He started watching the web logs and seeing all the connections to the JSON file. Unbeknownst to him (or our team) he was getting us a DAU. For the engineering and production teams, this was just a neat thing to know, a feel good “look how many people love our game” statistic. The CEO saw something else. Pretty quickly we started getting more requests for what our users were doing. Upper management was disappointed by our lack of answers. I found a new service online called Pinch Media, they were an analytics tracker. I got the team to integrate Pinch into a few products and finally I had answers. Of course then more answers were asked. Around this time, free to play started happening. Suddenly, Marketing and our bosses demanded to know more than ever. In response to the pressure to explain our user base, I ended up building an event matrix. I had no schooling in this, so I was just making it up as I went along. My first matrix was awesome for a game developer. It was full of all those cool stats like “How far has the player run” or “How many bullets has he shot”. But this did not impress my bosses. They wanted to know how we could get the player to buy more stuff, tell his friends to play the game (and thus I learned about cohorts, all I wanted to do was make games).
Time passed, Free to Play became a thing. I went from company to company. Each time, every new project became less and less about how we can do cool things, and more about how we can track and target users to get the most whales possible, boost chart position and retain users to shove as many ads on them as possible.
All of this already seems bad. But along the way, a major thing happened. Facebook. I forget when I did my first Facebook required app, but it was a game changer. Facebook has changed how it has worked over the years. Today you can’t quite get as much information (easily) as you could with the first API, but you still get a lot. We collect as much information about a player as possible, thanks to Facebook we have a ton. Even users who don’t really use Facebook or fill it with “fake” data actually tell us a lot. You might not use Facebook, but your connections give you away. If you play with friends, or you have a significant other who plays, we can see the same IP address, and learn who you are playing with. When we don’t know information, we try to gather it in a game. Have you played a game with different country flags? We use those to not only appeal to your nationalistic pride, but to figure out where you are (or where you identify). Your IP address says you are in America, but you buy virtual items featuring the flag of another country, we can start to figure out if you are on vacation, or immigrated. Perhaps English is not your first language. We use all of this to send you personalized Push Notifications, and show you store specials and items we think you will want.
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.