What I don't understand is how they get people to keep playing once they realize they don't need skill to win, but rather a valid credit card number.
Certainly it must feel like using cheatcodes? The victories must feel empty and you'd get bored pretty quickly, at least I think I would.
It's all about how it's presented. Gems aren't presented as win buttons but rather as boosts to a particular aspect. When you add boosts together you're basically buying things outright but there's no button for "$65 max level barracks" (haven't played, won't be). This is important because it's more like "I have all these pieces except..." and you have this resource you started with and have received more of via normal gameplay that happens to solve the problem. I'm sure the amounts start low and slowly increase.
As for the hollow/bored, it's a competitive multiplayer game. Being the biggest dog in the neighborhood is always fun and once that's over it becomes you against the guy in the next neighborhood over who's also spending so it becomes not about spending money to win but rather spending money to compete.
This is a classic pay to win set of mechanics. It works when your audience either doesn't know how things work like the author or doesn't care (enthusiasts of the korean mmos that pioneered the model). I got pay2win burned–enjoyed the game, didn't recognize pay2win, basically did the same analysis as the article author, was sad–when companies in the US were initially exploring the space. I now check how the company is making money off the game before playing any F2P and convert microtransactions to dollars as part of the spending process.
I played for free for a long time until I ended up with so many resources to manage that I couldn't do it well anymore. I had to pony up the $6/mn to get the advanced features.
The problem with these small transactions is people don't see how much it's costing them. If they priced the game at $20 no one would buy it, but they'll be willing to spend $100 if it's spread out of 100 $1 purchases.
One good thing there is that they explicitly limit how many items you can use, and you can earn the items in game. Still, anyone trying to rush the start of the game probably wants to use them. Sometimes I fantasize about blowing forty bucks on that. I think I've been skinner boxed.
i'm seeing similarities with the clash of clans model to the idea of putting a frog(player) in a pot of water(game) and slowly turning up the temperature(tiny payments), until its boiling and they don't notice the total sum of the payments along the way...
Sometimes people seem to get motivated not so much by winning but by extracting vengeance on people who pissed them off.
Even games without an explicit pay2win mechanic often end up that way due to black markets that pop up outside of the game for trading accounts etc.
We're still primates who engage in petty status games. And, dammit, we're the best at it.
The player population is broken up in the same way casino visitors are, with the whales providing the most income.
Everyone else though is content.
It's not unbearably bad for everyone, they just accept that they can have less fun. Since their target market is casuals, most people don't know there is an alternative.
Further since this model is more profitable, the casuals likely will never know there an option.