Reality Check - Time is Money & Predatory Design

Caveat: I enjoy this game and am not quitting. There is a difference between criticism and complaint. I understand what this game is.

  1. Operant Conditioning Chambers
    Defining a “Skinner Box:”
    Skinner Box: What Is an Operant Conditioning Chamber?

  2. Honing

The honing system isn’t broken, it’s working as intended. It is designed to entice the player to spend money, especially in the 1340-1370 gap. This is similar to other KMMOs that offer pay-for-progression.

How it works:
Each upgrade takes a maximum of X resources. Instead of allowing players to just use that amount, they introduce “RNG,” which is actually just a chance that you won’t have to use the maximum amount of resources. Psychologically, this imitates a slot machine and induces the “Just one more time and I’ll get it!” mentality to the player. Early on, the failure rate is low to introduce and train the player’s brain to release dopamine on success. Later, when the rate is lowered, the player’s brain experiences a dissonance between what is expected (Success! Dopamine!) and what actually happens, causing frustration/anger, and the “need” for the dopamine release increases.

How to beat RNG:
Plan on each upgrade taking the full amount to reach pity, plan on every upgrade failing, get your dopamine release from the surprise that it doesn’t fail (My personal experience is that it is more rewarding this way).

  1. Skins

AGS will not release all of the skins at once, even though they are in game. This is deliberate, no matter what excuse they give, as releasing all of the skins at once will allow players to only buy the ones they want, rather than the ones that are available. Limiting player choice/options increases the likelihood that players will buy more in the future, and prevents the “abundance of choice” problem, where players are less likely to purchase more.

  1. Whaling

Converting cash to gems and converting gold to gems are mirror systems; Time and money are both currencies. Ideally, this would create an even playing field, where the time spent by people who pay is relatively equal to the amount spent by people who play. However, this doesn’t account for the other extremes - People who have both time and money, and people who have neither time nor money.

Both of those extremes experience relatively the same amount of psychological displeasure: The people with time and money have little/nothing to do after spending all their time and money, and the people without time and money have too much to do (which induces feelings of missing out, or is overwhelming/confusing to the point where it’s easier to just pay). It is the second category that AGS tries to capture, either through putting more money, or more time, into the game.

Like any other predatory cash shop, the amount of gems you can buy is either too much or too little for what you want. There is absolutely zero reason for the game to ‘take a cut’ of the gems purchased with gold, for instance, and the real money cost of things is hidden and intentionally difficult to calculate/keep track of in the moment. Yes, you can get the calculator and spreadsheets out, but the game is betting on players not doing that (see #7).

It is a very, very elegant and subtle design.

  1. Classes

This is obvious; AGS will not release all of the classes at once, because each new class theoretically either draws new players in, reinvigorates the current playerbase, or encourages old players to return (re-introducing them to the monetization scheme, because now those players are “behind” and need to catch up/buy new skins).

  1. Silver/Gold sinks and faucets

These seem to be intentionally designed to have deep sinks and trickle faucets, artificially gating the player’s progress and requiring them to either spend more time, or more money. I am personally uncertain about my feelings on the sinks, as it seems to prevent inflation (which is a good thing). I’m definitely willing to admit that I may be seeing this incorrectly, and would definitely appreciate deeper insight on the sinks/faucets.

  1. Little Red Dots & UI Anxiety

There’s a great New York Times piece about this (ironically, it’s locked behind a paywall) here:

Psychology Today explains the predatory nature behind this much better than I can, if you’re interested in it, but the gist is that these exist to ensure the player is constantly reminded that there’s more to do, and, ideally, keep them in a perpetual state of anxiety. The longer a player is engaging and the more invested they become in their success, the more likely they are to pay for progression.

  1. Human Interaction

Humans, like electricity and water, are naturally inclined to take the path of least resistance to an objective. This goes both ways, for AGS and for players. AGS will not do anything more than the absolute bare minimum necessary to retain players. This is why there are no GMs. This is why there is little/no communication. This is why issues remain unaddressed. This is why it’s far easier for a player to buy gold than it is to earn gold in game. If it doesn’t impact their monetization, AGS won’t prioritize it. It is patently delusional to expect them to do more for little/no return on that investment of time.

AGS does not care if you are happy, and it is more beneficial for them for players to be in a constant, low-grade state of frustration and anxiety concerning their progress. AGS wants players to be unhappy, because then they can string the players along with promises of “It’ll get better! We’re working on it!”

  1. Bots

Bots and spam are a normal everyday occurence in basically any MMO that isn’t tied to some sort of social security number. The only incentive a developer/publisher has to eliminate bots is for their impact on the economy. They don’t actually care if your account is hacked or compromised, or that the bots even exist (because these inflate their population numbers, which they can then use as “proof” of success to outside parties/their bosses). In some F2P games, bots are actually beneficial to F2P players, especially ones with crafting resources.

Personally, I cannot fathom how AGS/SG released the game without expecting there to be bots and gold spam, and how they just straight up failed to do anything about it.

  1. Final Thoughts

When you’re playing the game (or any game, really), and encounter a moment that causes frustration/anger, ask yourself:

“Does this increase the average, casual new player’s enjoyment of the game?”
“Does this benefit the overall player experience, or the developer/publisher’s bottom line?”


The game is specifically designed to separate you from your money/time, and developers/publishers are incentivized to do as little as possible. Except for rare outliers, games will not get better over time.

For me, “winning” in Lost Ark means “not succumbing to blatant conditioning.” The more entertainment value I can extract without giving up too much of my time or money (this is subjective for each person), the more I win. The numbers are made up and the points don’t matter!

Do you enjoy playing the game?

Yes: Keep playing
No: Stop playing

@Roxx @Seawolf Would either of you like to comment on any of this, give any feedback, pass anything along to/from your corporate overlords?



This is a very nicely written post and a lot of this seems to accurately describe things in the game. But also, it is the way some of these things are done as to the reason 750k players quit and more are thinking to quit. Some things need to change for the NA/EU regions or it will bleed more players. If they want a game with 100k or less players then there is nothing anyone can say to stop them. But if I saw 1.2million players, I would probably try to adapt and change things to keep a good number of those 1.2million players and by doing so also not get a bad reputation or feed into bad publicity in the West… especially if I wanted to be successful with this and future games to release to the West or other regions past this.


Excellent post that “pulls back the curtain” on what’s going on in the subconscious of gamers these days in games like this.

Depressingly accurate and a stark reminder, for me at least, of an era where this wasn’t the case and online games were more about the game than profits.


Preach, brother, preach.


I feel bad for all the zoomers who never experienced quality games that were made for gamers and not profits. I feel lucky to be pre-boomer and experienced the golden age of gaming.


They only need to keep enough players to feed enough of the whales to hit their target number for profitability. If their numbers show that (purely for example) a typical whale needs 100 F2P players to support them, and there are 1000 F2P players for each whale, they don’t care if they lose 800.

I loved the Tiny Red Dots piece, that’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for this OP. I always think about notifications, we all do. That little drip.

But when your shareholders/investors or board of directors see 1.2million players were playing your game and the amount of money that could in the future generate…do you really think they would let a director or whoever limit the game to just their minimum profitability marker? I tend to think if you saw 5x the amount of people you engaged initially, you probably would not want to let that go, but the question is…“Can you adapt, are you willing to adapt to keep a good share of those 1.2million” if you aren’t willing to adapt or change things then it is what it is 100k whale support.

And I will add this last thing in…I don’t think you can keep devs who want to produce engaging design, systems and art and keep them happy producing for a limited 100k whaling game. Devs would move on to other games or projects where they feel their time, effort and work invested is engaged with by as many people as possible not just a small group supported by whales. If great devs move on then the game gets worse and worse and not only are you bleeding players, but bleeding your production line.


I experienced this pre-Red Dot, back when AIM used flash-on-taskbar notifications. I literally could not let it sit there unchecked, and when Red Dots came into play on discord, it was absolute hell. I’ve thankfully broken myself of that since then, but as someone with a high predisposition to addiction, I’ve become acutely self-aware of systems that try to predate on me.

Also. . .Nice day for fishing, ain’t it?


I definitely agree with this point, and I think that may be why the AGS head guy quit. Part of the problem they’re experiencing, at least from my perspective, is that it would require significant changes to the game’s overall design that SG isn’t capable of/won’t/shouldn’t (for their version) change, since a lot of these systems are baked into the game, and it isn’t just a simple matter of changing HoningRatePercent=10 to HoningRatePercent=100, or ClassSkinAvailability=1, although they were pretty quick to change “gold” to “silver” with the rapport NPCs, so IDK.


Good read, well posted.

Always remember, AGS will never give you anything for free that someone else might pay for.

Set your expectations that what you have right now is the best it’s going to be, and be surprised if that changes, not angry when it doesn’t.

The only way you will ever see change is the profit margins dip. If you could collectively reach out to every player in LA and every single player agree to stop paying into the system, you would see change happen instantly, however since that is basically impossible this predatory monetization technique (that is used by many other F2P games) will remain intact for LA for years to come.


Important read a lot of people could get a lot of value from.

I enjoy the game currently all while understanding how predatory in nature Smilegate has designed the game. I think it’s valuable to be conscious of it. As soon as that predation they add into the game becomes too much, i’m out.


But they can change the honing rate as you saw them do in the KR version. And it doesn’t even have to be as high a percentage. Or what I suggested is it would be better to change the Artisan Energy gained from a fail to instead of 10pitys to succeed it would change to 5pitys. But I talked of this in my post and I won’t repeat it all here.

The real question is why won’t they change it…and I believe the answer is as your post says predatory design as in they still want to cash in on people who see that percent, fails, and hope they buy royals to convert to gold which then is used to buy purples for Mari honing material or from the Marketplace using gold. And the fact that they want people to get use to seeing that 10% chance bar cause in their later content that predatory monetization system goes from 10% to even less…so I believe these are the reasons they don’t want to deploy the honing code changes that they had done in KR.

I think alot of people don’t like this and many quit or are thinking to quit because of this. I think the thing to me is people think Smilegate is this nice company that is just all about the players in Korea, but as you know behind a smile is a motive and that motive in this case would be as with most companies these days to maximize profitability as much as possible even through predatory practices where they hope to hide it as much as possible for marketing and relation reasons.

1 Like

If I’m AGS, and if for every 10 honing fails, I see 1 transaction, why would I lower the number of failures needed? Shareholders and investors would be livid (as you pointed out earlier, kind of)

1 Like

Absolutely well written post.
For those that never passed post secondary Psychology, B.F Skinner is a American Psychologist and a professor in Havard University from 1958-1974 .

His theory on Operant Conditioning can be most appropriately used to explain the philosophy behind this honing system. Essentially, gambling .

All of you white knight can be in denial as much as you want. But this post is very true and has very good educational purpose.


The data we do not know and wish we did was at what point is this negated by the fact if you had a high percentage of those 750k players and you changed your system to be a little easier and less monetization, would the sheer numbers of players and the longetivity of the game in keeping those players paying for other things like skins and mounts outweigh the honing profits?

I would dare to say a good portion of the 750k over the long game buying skins and mounts and other things, good publicity, more streamers now streaming your game and you get free marketing, this would outweigh the profits gained from your honing system. Remember the honing system only works for alot of profitability on gear progressions which means adding more raid content to justify that gear etc…thats alot more work than adding 1 or 2 more skins times X number of those 750k players that quit or are thinking to quit. Just my opinion.

Keep in mind you have to look at the costs of housing 750k+ players as well. The average player isn’t looking to spend a lot of money on a video game, most won’t spend at all.

Having 5% of 750k players paying vs having 75% of 60k players spending it is better to drop the freeloaders. Less server requirements, less support staff needed for tickets, etc.

A big problem I think many LA players have is realizing this is not an MMO. It is no more an MMO than say, Genshin Impact is. A solo player experience with some Co-Op thrown in. Most of your game time will be spent alone.


@Chyael @Redrowen

I also think they did a bit of gambling themselves, whether that was fully Smilegate or fully AGS or both. Where they gambled that if they left the honing system as it was…not as many people would quit because of it. I think they gambled and lost and not only did they lose, this also cost them a lot of bad publicity, negativity, and moving into a bad reputation here in the West and Europe. If you add all these negative things in addition to the gamble and losing alot of players, then it looks very bad for them in many ways. I hope they can adapt and change for NA/EU, but in all honesty I have my doubts about their willingness to adapt and change.

1 Like

In a way they did I agree.

But what is really the worst that will happen? The deal falls apart, AGS deletes the VMs and SG finds a new publisher. Each blame each other but walk away with the money they made in the meantime.

You are being sold 1’s and 0’s afterall.


Me too. The actual “game” portion is amazing and if they weren’t shilling for capitalism’s worst offender, it could seriously be in the top-10 all time. Just like with Archeage, and BDO. The problem is that developers just don’t seem to want to make good games anymore.