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‘The juice’: How you get people to spend $100k on a ‘free’ game

Pillar subscribers can listen to this interview here: The Pillar TL;DR

A Pennsylvania priest is due in court June 13, facing charges that he embezzled more than $40,000 from his parish to support a cell phone gaming habit.

Fr. Lawrence Kozak insists that he did not intend to use the parish credit in a years-long spending spree on app-based games, during which he spent more than $214,000 on credits for cell phone games like Pokemon GO, and Candy Crush.

Police identified that of those charges, $43,397 were incurred on the credit card of St. Thomas More Parish in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where the priest was pastor. 

Kozak told police that he is not a “detail guy,” and that he had paid $10,600 of the parish credit card balance to repay the charges he had incurred. 

When he was interviewed in October 2022, the priest also told police that he had been seeing a therapist for addictive tendencies, which seem to have surfaced in 2016, when his video game spending began, and shortly after a serious car crash in which the priest suffered severe head trauma.

Apart from questions about financial accountability and administrative best practice in the Church, the case also highlights the curious industry of app-based video games, which are usually free to download and play, but which offer players the chance to pay to advance faster, or to skip otherwise mandatory breaks in play.

From the outside looking in, it’s hard for many to imagine why a player — like Fr. Kozak — would choose to spend tens of thousands on games they could play for free, and which, unlike straightforward gambling games, offer no prospect of financial windfall. 

But according to Chris Floyd, a 25-year veteran of the video game industry —  and a Pillar reader (in a good way) — entire sectors of the industry rely on their ability to create an addictive product which can entice a small subset of gamers to spend very large sums of money.

Floyd spoke to The Pillar about what Catholics should know about those types of video games, and offered his insights on the industry, and why video games appeal to so many people.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So how long have you been working in the video game industry, and when were you involved in helping develop app-based games?

Well, I've been working in video games for 25 years, mostly at studios here in Colorado. And so in the process of that, I've worked on kind of every genre of game, every different platform and style of game, that has been fashionable in the industry over that time. 

Around 2014 and 2015 I worked at a studio here in the Denver area called Idol Minds — that is i-d-o-l, not i-d-l-e.

That seems like a suggestive name.

Yeah, well they definitely thought it was clever. At that studio when I started there, we made games for consoles — the sort of standard “buy it upfront and you have your game and you play it” variety. 

But as smartphones became a big thing, and then games on the app stores became a big thing, the company pivoted. 

Everyone thought we were all going to get rich making these “free-to-play” games, as they're called. 

So that's when I worked in that particular side of the industry. I didn't do that for too long — a few years — and then we pivoted back to more conventional games. 

But there are obviously very large, very wealthy studios still making those kinds of games.

You say that there was an industry-wide pivot towards these “free-to-play” app games and everyone thought they were going to get rich. 

But if they're “free-to-play,” how was anyone supposed to get rich? 

Well, the key with free-to-play games is that they're free to start playing. They're free if you want to never pay, and you could just generally keep playing and playing. 

But in the way that the games are designed, they're set up to incentivize you to start paying in what we call microtransactions — a little bit at a time for little things. 

The real key is that you can hypothetically keep paying continually. And these are games meant to be played for many, many years potentially. 

You make it so that players are essentially able to play — and therefore pay — infinitely. 

In this model, one person can spend thousands of dollars on one game in a year, as opposed to spending $60 on a console game, which you might get as a Blue-Ray disc at Walmart or GameStop. 

There are microtransactions in some of those big games too, but there is basically a limit to how much you can spend on most other [console based] games.  

There is no limit on a free-to-play game, so they're built to incentivize you to get in the habit of it.

For the purposes of research, I downloaded Candy Crush and I spent around three hours playing it over the course of the weekend. You can't win anything…

Not in terms of cash back, like actual gambling. No, no. 

It's all in-game satisfaction, basically progress you make in the game, and maybe little rewards along the way that are completely virtual.

It's clearly not a bad business premise, if people are spending thousands of dollars on these things, and if companies are support themselves on having these app games. 

But what is it about them that gets people to want to spend money when you can play them for free, forever?

Yeah, it's a great question. It's pretty unintuitive because, like you say, the game is basically a treadmill or a hamster wheel that you're just deciding to run on for a while and maybe pay to run a little faster. 

Essentially almost all games are what we call in the industry “relatively casual” games. 

Candy Crush is a great example of a game that appeals to a very, very large audience, which you can play in very small short stints. 

These become what we call “lifestyle game,” in that it becomes just part of your daily routine to sit down and play a little bit of Candy Crush. 

Candy Crush is basically patterned after a game called the Bejeweled, which was a very big game, and it was a one-purchase-to-play-as-much-as-you-want — a conventional game.

What the Candy Crush formula adds is that it is free to get started — the player feels like “Hey, I could just play this. I didn't need to pay anything. Great.” 

But then if you want to keep playing, you find out you don't have the energy or credits or whatever to play the next puzzle for a period of time. 

Or at a certain point the puzzle gets so hard that you need a boost, some kind of “power up,” to help you get past one puzzle and on to the next one. Maybe you can earn those very slowly by playing the game, but you could also pay money to get a bunch of power ups and now you can get a little further, faster. 

A lot of the games also have leaderboards that everyone can see. You can see who did the best on this puzzle or this level today. So, if you get really into them, you're actually competing for a sort of virtual prestige — just to see your name on this board with a bunch of complete strangers and see how you rank. 

When you get to the really big spenders, who are really invested in the games, that's often what they're doing: competing with each other, but competing, essentially, for how much they can spend, because you have to spend to get the absolute top tier scores. 

Why is this appealing? 

I think it's a slow process, where they get you used to spending a couple bucks every few days or something like that, until you're spending $10 a week, and then $100 a week, because you've just gotten used to the idea that this is “worth” spending money on. 

And in some ways it's a sunk cost fallacy — you’ve put a bunch of money into it, you want to do the best, you don't want your progress to stop. Right?

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It seems kind of crazy that you'd pay any amount of money, let alone go from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars a week or month, to play a game that you started playing for free, and probably started playing because it was free. 

Is that how most people interact with these games? 

What's the expectation for developers and game companies: That they can get a very high number of people to make a few microtransactions which add up to big numbers, or are they looking for a few people who are really going to spend big?

The whole premise of free-to-play is they talk about it as a funnel, and the wider the top of the funnel the better. 

So that's why it's free-to-play: to get as many people as possible to just play the game once. 

A vast majority of those are not going to play again, and they just fall out, as the funnel sort of narrows, maybe they play for a week, maybe they play for a month. 

And also 90% of those, I don't know the exact numbers but it's about 90% of them, never pay anything. 

But the more people you can bring in and keep in that funnel, the more likely they are to start spending. And then the more likely it becomes that you catch what they call a “whale,” which are players who will spend huge amounts of money, who will spend thousands and thousands of dollars. They get invested. 

It's like using a giant net and trying to catch one of the biggest fish, and you don't care if the rest of the little ones get away. 

You're literally looking for a few diamonds in the rough, from a business perspective.

Okay. So thinking about these whales, who will spend thousands or tens of thousands on a game that offers no return on investment other than online prestige or just the reward of running on the treadmill: Who are those people?

What are their behaviors like? What’s their profile? 

Are the video game companies hoping to attract someone who is super rich, and who has a ton of disposable income and nothing to do all day? 

Or are they hoping to attract someone who's going to play and pay more than they're actually able?

There's definitely a lot of the former, who are the really big spenders, the people who just have nothing to do every day, and have way more money than they know what to do with, and will happily sink it into a game like this. 

When I was working on these games, I was told that one of the really popular games at the time was called Clash of Clans, and there was supposedly a whole bunch of Saudi princes who would pay a staff of people to play the game for them, give them as much money as they needed to play, organizing groups of people as a team game in Clash of Clans, in order to compete against each other on the leaderboard. 

They would pay to compete with each other and to outdo each other on the games leaderboards and be the top plan for the month or whatever. And so it was just an internal sort of family rivalry essentially between those folks.

There's an international video game industry pitching for Saudi princess spending silly money to beat each other at video games? 

It's sort of an outsized, royal version of guys getting together in a basement and playing a round of Halo or Mario Kart or whatever?

Essentially yes. And the games couldn't survive, would not be profitable, if it weren't for some number of those players who are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into them regularly. 

But again, they're built to sometimes sneakily incentivize you to start paying. 

And again, any video game obviously has something that taps into the psychology of trying to get you to want to play more, right? 

The games are serotonin engines, in terms of trying to give you satisfying experiences that feel rewarding. 

And when getting those experiences costs you money, there's a very high chance that you trap somebody who really can't afford to spend that much money into spending that much money. 

There are certainly stories of people's lives being ruined and spouses not knowing that their spouses were spending a ton of money on a game, just a little bit every day. 

Those are definitely real things that can happen for sure, and are kind of designed to happen, which is the thing that, when you work in that part of the industry, definitely has you questioning the work that you're doing.

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You say that they're built to be serotonin engines, but practically what does that look like? 

Playing a few hours of Candy Crush, it's vaguely satisfying to complete a puzzle. But what process goes into creating as rewarding a sensory experience as possible? 

Is this about bright colors? Is this about the mechanics of how a person does a puzzle? Are some kinds of puzzles more appealing at a subconscious level than others? 

What does it look like to build a game that is meant to attract people to want to play it more and more and more?

There are all kinds of factors. 

Sometimes it is about presentation. In fact, I would say the whole genre of game that's called “match three” — which is what Candy Crush is, but Bejewel was sort of the original “match three” game —  a lot of what is satisfying about it is what we call “the juice.” 

In any game design, we call the visual effects, the sounds and everything that lights up and pops off, “the juice” of the experience. 

It's a bit like a slot machine going off and everything falling into place, and they're like a lot of little slot machine “wins” — you make one move and then there's this cascade of boom-boom-boom-boom, everything going off. 

So in that genre, that's part of the appeal. 

But in any game, there's also the appeal of having a challenge, then planning how you're going to achieve it. Or sometimes it's just moment-to-moment performance of seeing something hard and overcoming that obstacle.

This is my personal theory about video games, or the philosophy of video games: one of the reasons they're appealing is because when you do well, it's not ambiguous. 

In real life, things are ambiguous and you're not always going to get rewarded for doing well, or you may not even have the opportunity to do something well. Or a challenge will be put in front of you and snatched away, or you never could have succeeded at it, or if you do solve it you don't get a proper reward for how big that challenge was. 

Well, the thing with games is that we can set them up so that things feel right, and in proportion and just satisfying. 

And even though they're completely fictional, we long for that. 

Games provide us, in a sense, with a world where we can, in a way, just do work. A lot of games are just doing “work,” but from that work you can get a proper output that we don't get in a messy old world. 

I think that's what really taps into the psyche and makes games really appealing. And that's basically what all games are trading on to some extent, and free-to-play games try to turn that into lots of spending.

So, free-to-play games try to get as many people in the door as possible, and then funnel down to the people who are potentially revenue-generating customers. 

Obviously you can't create the circumstances of a bunch of Saudi princes playing against each other for their own giggles and spending tons of money. 

But in general, you run the numbers and say “Alright, this many millions of users will yield this many thousands of people who will pay a moderate amount infrequently and will yield this handful of people who will pay an immoderate amount incredibly frequently.” 

How is that different from the operating principles behind true gambling operations, like casinos or online betting?

I think it's very similar. I don't have a background in designing gambling games, but I think in some ways it's similar. 

But of course, in a casino, there are established games with established odds, and there are regulations. 

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That's what I was going to ask about. 

There’s constant advertising for online betting or app on your phone sports betting, or new casinos opening, and the radio is full of things pushing you to get this app or go to this casino. 

But they're always followed by a PSA about gambling addiction. 

Is there any similar obligation on the video game industry, where you can presumably spend just as much money, but the only difference is that in games like Candy Crush, there is no possibility to “win big?”

There are definitely not the same regulations and you obviously don't get those kinds of PSAs. 

There probably are support groups for people who have become addicted to these games. I'm sure they're out there, but they're not these well-established things in the same way there are regulations around gambling. 

Here in the U.S., in terms of addiction or controlling the spending, as far as I know, there's nothing that regulates how a game studio can build its game to try to get thousands and thousands of dollars out of people.

So, not asking you to be a moral theologian here, but in your own experience as a Catholic who's trying to live the Church's moral and social teaching and working in this industry, what for you is the line between either a virtuous or at least a morally neutral, but extremely enjoyable and hopefully appealing video game, versus one that is harmful or exploitative?

To me, a lot of it is the experience. 

As I see it, as the video game makers, we're creating experiences — that is ultimately what we're doing. 

So, is the experience that we're providing to a person worth the money that they're spending? 

I don't think there's any world where a video game experience is worth $40,000 or $400,000 or whatever. 

And I feel like one of the moral delusions of the modern age is that if someone did it willingly, then it's not harmful. There's this assumption, particularly in the business world, that if people are willing to pay it, what's the harm? I just don't think that's true. We are obligated to charge a just price for what we're providing. And it's not that easy to come up with what that just price is — there's not a lot of factors to quantify, and it can fall in a wide range. 

But I think ultimately it's very obvious that playing Candy Crush for months isn't worth a hundred thousand dollars.

Without asking you to comment on specific cases, in general do you think there's a demographic out there that is predisposed to not being able to handle these games and products responsibly? 

Is there any sense of that in the industry? Is that something that companies set out to exploit, either explicitly or implicitly?

Yeah, I do think there's an understanding of that. Again, we all kind of know that we're trying to make compelling experiences, at best, which is not that far from creating addictive experiences and often they are essentially the same thing. 

In my experience, having worked with game developers making games in the conventional, single purchase off-the-shelf, kind of mode, I think a lot of people were sort of uncomfortable with that [free-to-play] approach. Obviously lots and lots of people aren't: free-to-play is essentially its own big industry now. I mean, it's enormous.

You can tell yourself different things to rationalize it all, how you're providing people with something they want. They want a little distraction during their day, and that can be worth spending some money. 

And again, they are willingly parting with their money, so what harm has been done? I can't judge whether it's worth it for them to spend that much money. Only they can judge whether it's worth it for them to spend that much money on the game.

But “worth it” to a Saudi prince is different from “worth it” to a priest in a parish. 

When the business model is put on the back of essentially the most addictive experience that game developers can create, well, personally, that's why I'm glad I'm not working in that part of the industry anymore and probably wouldn't again. 

I think there's something that's definitely highly questionable there. 

When I saw the story of the Pennsylvania priest, I thought of course, that this could happen to anyone who has the company credit card. I've certainly heard those stories in other places. 

I do think they’re in some ways looking for victims out there who, yeah, might have addictive personalities and you're trying to take advantage of them. And that's where I make the comparison with pornography, I think is the same thing, right? 

It's inherently a certain kind of compelling, addictive, empty experience that you can find ways to get people to pay money for. And it's that cycle I think is probably particularly un-virtuous.

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