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Contrivance and Extortion: In-App Purchases & Microtransactions
by Adam Saltsman on 10/18/11 01:10:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


At IndieCade last week, Jon Blow (BraidThe Witness) used the term "contrivance" to describe all the bullshit we put between players and the game; between players and the puzzle; between players and the system; between players and the experience.  Whether the contrivance is intentional or not is not as important as its mere existence, the fact that it is a significant obstacle, whether the part of the game that is the most interesting is exposed as much as possible to the player.

Last night I got caught up on some recent and not-so-recent iOS games that I'd been meaning to check.  These games were all official Apple "Game of the Week" or otherwise pretty hefty critical and commercial successes: Forever DriveInfinity Blade, and Jetpack Joyride.

I also checked out two smaller titles: Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD.  Super Crossfire is a really solid and simple arcade game (ported from the highly respected XBLIG title of the same name) that takes some of the arena shooter innovations from the last few years and puts them into a Space Invaders game with a cool "warping" mechanic.  Async Corp (pointed out to me by Simon Flesser of Ilo Milo and Bumpy Road) is a strange and wonderful little puzzle game that I am still rolling around in my head, and may write more about later.  Actually, Bumpy Road is rather important to the points I am about to make...

I want to make three distinct points, which I will elaborate on below.  The first is that developers need to be more cognizant and responsible about something I'm calling the Checklist Effect.  The second is that In-App Purchases violate the sacred circle of play in a profound way.  Games that do both of these things, that abuse checklists and include In-App Purchases, are deliberately contriving their designs in the worst way in order to extort money from players, which is unethical and unacceptable design practice.  Finally, games that intrude on my phone's home screen with advertisements for other products, using the iOS notification badges especially, though less contrived, are contrived for the same greedy reason.

The Checklist Effect

I was originally going to call this the Pokemon Effect, but probably that would be illegal or something.  And besides, it complicates things a bit.  This probably also has an actual neuroscience or psychology term that I should be using, but I haven't worked out what that would be yet.  Regardless, the Checklist Effect is that subtle and slight psychological effect that seeing a big checklist of in-game items or abilities has on players.  It is usually a subtle push, a barely detectable need to "accomplish" everything on the list.  This could just as well be called the Achievements Effect probably, but that complicates things too.  Checklists outside of games can have a similar effect I think - a slight pressure to check off each item, to be done; mischief managed.

It is time to acknowledge both that this effect exists, and also that most of the time this is a manipulative and unpleasant thing to do to players, all the more so because they may not realize it is even happening.  I frequently do realize it, and it is a big turnoff for me.  In Simon Flesser's ridiculously charming game Bumpy Road, players can discover or pick up polaroids or photographs from the main characters' past life.  As far as I can tell getting these pictures is tied more to time spent playing or distance traveled, more than skill or understanding.  To be fair, play skill and understanding do make distances easier to travel in games like this... but the relationship still stands.  When I opened up the photo album menu feature, to check out the story unfolding in the photographs I'd recovered, I found that after playing for 5 or 10 minutes I had collected only 1 or 2 of what seemed to be a hundred or more photos!  Some quick mental math reminded me that I don't have that many hours to spend on something that isn't inherently deep and engaging.

On the flipside, I have played some iOS games recently that had really interesting achievements or checklists.  Shaun Inman's The Last Rocket, with a total of four achievements, asks the player to play the game in a new, weird way for each item.  Zach Gage's Bit Pilot makes absurd and wonderful demands of player's skill: no single achievement takes more than a minute or two to earn, but requires incredible dexterity and focus.  Some of Bit Pilot's achievements are limited to fewer than 10 players so far!  In both of these cases, the games themselves stand on their own, and the checklists exist only as bait to lead players to a new epiphany or new understand of the game system.  These are responsible and ethical uses of checklists in games.

The Sacred Circle

This is an old idea about games and play, usually credited to Johan Huizinga, the oft-quoted author of Homo Ludens.  The idea of the sacred circle is that it is the boundary between the imperfect, consequence-laden, quantum and random real world we all inhabit, and the perfect, impossible and imaginary world of games and play.  The sacred circle is the line that divides the real world from the ancient, powerful and beneficial world of play.

The integration of in-app purchases feels like a brutal violation of the sacred circle; it is allowing the real world, and my real money, to intrude on and influence my performance.  To me, this is different than a poker buy-in, and different from deciding to "unlock" the full version of a game from inside a demo.  These processes are in some fundamental way external from the game itself, from the actual state of play.  These "games" may be a pleasurable activity for many but this seems like a profound corruption of millennia of play.

Together, a Maelstrom of Suck

When you put these things together, you get "games" like Infinity Blade and Forever Drive.  The moment to moment play is engaging for a few minutes or even an hour, but then we have seen pretty much all there is to see.  The systems themselves are not deep enough to merit or encourage further exploration for their own sake (intrinsically), so an extrinsic system (a checklist) is created to subtly (and not so subtly) nudge the player forward, well beyond when the player has completely explored the system, puzzles or overall aesthetic experience.  That in and of itself is bad design, but games like this push it even further.

The checklists in these games have been very deliberately designed to require a certain amount of grinding or waiting to advance.  We either have to fight the same fight over and over, or race the same tracks over and over, until we can afford the next item on the checklist, which will enable us, largely irrespective of our own skills as a player, to proceed.  If it was possible to succeed in these games without the checklist, that would be one thing.  But these games are very deliberately designed to ensure that not only do you need the checklist to succeed, but in fact successfully completing the checklist is prohibitively slow and/or annoying to do.

That's when they step in, like a mafia godfather, and offer you a deal you can't refuse: you're a busy guy, you have kids, you have a job; if you slip me a little cash under the table, I'll help you level up a little faster, maybe get through that next part of the checklist by tomorrow.  This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life.  Developers who deliberately engage in this kind of design should be ashamed of their creations.

Unethical Intrusion

Jetpack Joyride, though guilty of the checklist effect, largely sidesteps the aforementioned Maelstrom of Suck by primarily selling totally unnecessary cosmetic items, and providing (to many) a reasonable balance of play-time and in-game currency rewards.  My beef with Jetpack Joyride is not that it is genuinely evil, despite their irresponsible use of checklists (hundreds of items with an average price of $5000, when my first play of the game netted me a mere $300).  My beef came when I decided to try out the next game on my phone only to notice a little notification badge had appeared on the game's icon on my home screen.

Intrigued, I opened the game, but couldn't find the notification on the screen I resumed from.  Intrigued further, I skipped back to the main menu screen and found it on a little tab up in the corner.  Feeling relatively satisfied and still curious, I opened the tab... and discovered an ad for a game made by some other company.  This is a whole other kind of contrivance but motivated by the same greed and lack of respect for players.

Let's all remind ourselves, as we build games, commercially and otherwise, that contrivances are bullshit.  If your game is not first and foremost about the player and the experience, then you are not building games.  You are building micro-retail stores, maybe, or greed engines, or something.  I don't know.  But it's not a game, and I don't want it on my hardware.


If you want to know more about the math and psychology behind how games like Infinity Bladeand Forever Drive work, I highly recommend my friend Tim Rogers' excellent series who killed videogames? (a ghost story).  If you want to check out Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD, a pair of ethical and interesting iOS games, just click their names!  (actually Super Crossfire HDdoes have in-app purchases but for the life of me I can't find where to get them or what their purpose is).  You should also check out Bit Pilot and The Last Rocket if you never got around to it, their achievement design is really good.

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Bruno Patatas
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"This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life. " - Ok, you don't like freemium games, or the freemium business model. Right, nothing wrong with that. But you realize you are talking about games, and no one is pointing a gun to your head to extort you anything?

Gerald Belman
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Freemium? Wtf does that mean? Your combining the word "free" with the word "premium" which basically means "pay". Is this doublespeak? Is this 1984?

It's like saying you have a "freepay" business model. I convince people my product is free until they are halfway through it and then I reveal that I was lying and they have to pay to keep playing.

How much sense does that make? Freepay . . . what a joke.

Who invented that word? I want their badge number.

I'm not just talking about Mr. Patatas either. How can people generally accept words like this?

Bruno Patatas
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It seems the term was first coined in the comments of this blog post:

Matt Rix
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Hey Gerald,

Freemium is an accepted term for certain types of games, and it makes plenty of sense. Whether you actually like that type of game is a different matter entirely. You can play the base game for free, and then you can get premium items for a cost... It doesn't mean you ever *have* to pay, you just have to pay to get a premium experience.

Arthur Tam
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Well, see, here's the thing....if you sell a game to somebody, and then make it so that in order to actually enjoy the game, you need to either blind yourself to a flawed system, or pay your way through it, this would be in fact, extortion, since not playing it would have essentially wasted your initial investment (which cannot be refunded!), and to pretend otherwise is to lie to every player who sees your game, and does not know what is actually in store for them.

This is not to say that all of these types of games are in fact, flawed, but many of them seem to ignore a reasonable rate of progression.

Luke Schneider
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Thanks for recommending Super Crossfire. The IAP are available to buy Victory Points, so if you want to unlock stuff quicker than normal, you can. You can get to the screen to buy them from the Unlock screen (main menu or pause options), or from the Get More screen when upgrading.

If you beat the game once on the easiest difficulty level, you'll be able to unlock around half of the stuff. If you play on harder difficulty levels (and survive), you'll unlock stuff faster. I beat the game once on Hotshot (medium difficulty) and could unlock all but one thing, but I also know how to optimize the unlocking a little bit.

I do have to admit some of the achievements are checklist-y, and they further entice their completion by giving you lots of Victory Points. However, they also serve as stat trackers, so they're not completely evil.

Simon Windmill
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Obviously this piece is going to touch off a lot of arguments, because hopefully it's something we're all passionate about.

But I want to talk about the language used here and in other arguments against freemium/free-to-play/IAP/consumables/whatever you want to call this business model. Because to use words like "extortion" and "evil" when talking about these games (and yes, they are games) is _ridiculous_. Nobody is forced to start or continue playing these games. You are not being physically threatened. You can either play these games and feel satisfied with what you get without paying anything, you can decide to pay for consumables, or you can feel resentful that you can not progress further/faster without spending any money, and stop playing.

The people playing these games are getting enough satisfaction that they continue to play, and some of them pay. Critics tend to underestimate the cognitive abilities of these people, talking as if they are too stupid to realize that they're on a hamster wheel and just blindly handing over money.

But sometimes we just like running.

Bruno Patatas
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Glad to see someone making sense :) I covered exactly that on my latest blog post:

Adam Saltsman
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Players obviously have a choice. Players can put the game down whenever they want, like I did last night when I deleted Infinity Blade, Forever Drive and Jetpack Joyride from both of my iDevices before writing this article.

However, developers ALSO have a choice. Developers can CHOOSE not to build elaborate carrot-dangling systems into their games as a replacement for actual intrinsic value and depth of play and exploration. Developers can CHOOSE not to lure players in and "get them hooked" before literally changing the rules behind the player's backs and requiring players to pay extra money in order to continue playing at the same pace they got to play during the start of the game.

Just because these elaborate schemes actually work and make money doesn't somehow mean they're ethical or worthwhile designs; that is a preposterous valuation. Nigerian bank scams, hedge funds and other purely voluntary schemes work too, but that doesn't mean they are good for anyone (except the scammers).

Matt Robb
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You're correct to a point, but the whole business model is trying desperately to move past that point. The exploitative side of the microtransactions model wins as soon as they get the customer to pay to *not* play the game, which, lets face it, paying to get ahead instead of playing to get ahead is exactly that. The big companies employ psychologists and mathematicians to find the combinations of numbers that will exploit the customer base into handing over the maximum amount of cash.

Rule of thumb: If the game is good, people will pay to play it rather than pay to not play it.

Mark McGee
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These types of games are designed to create a psychological addiction in players, so that they will come back and play (and pay) more. So while they are not literally "forced" to play, they kind of are.

Luis Guimaraes
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What if developers don't really have a choice and they can't make meaningful, intrinsic, unlisted engagement designs, because instead of designing, they only can duplicate the systems they've been trained on crafting, say, checklists.

Steven An
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I think it's a bit pointless to tell developers to be ashamed. They'll be ashamed, but as long as it pays the mortgage, they'll keep doing it.

What we need to do is educate players. Make sure they realize what the game is doing, and then let them decide whether or not they want to participate and invest time and energy into the activity. I personally have chosen not to invest my time and energy in certain games, but I don't need to make that choice for anyone else.

It's like cigarettes. I have no problem with those who choose to smoke cigarettes, but I do hope they understand the risks they're taking.

Adam Saltsman
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i think it's ok though to tell the cigarette makers that their deliberate attempts to construct even more misleading and addictive products is unpleasant though

John Polson
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Games, like cigarettes and gambling, can and often do have an addictive quality about them. I liken these to the ethical dilemmas that Adam is arguing about. Are these "evil" developers exposing people to worse addictive patterns? Possibly. It seems they are capitalizing on one's addiction rather than engaging players with challenges.

Kevin Reilly
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I don't think the author is knocking the business model, but rather the implementation. Obviously games are being inundated with behavioural economic theory and analytics that try to anticipate what players want/desire and how to provide them with some feeling of accomplishment in order to get them to invest more time/money into the game. I definitely have a hard time playing social games b/c of the Checklist Effect, but that is probably due to my desire to explore the game and do stupid stuff in the game (like drive through a wall or fall off high buildings) rather than actually accomplish the tasks set out by the designer. For me, it's the side-story exploring that made big games so much fun to play. Probably why I can't stop playing Red Dead Redemption. Lots of the social/mobile games are missing that indvidual sense of wonder in order to appease the business model and it is fair to criticize those practices if they ultimately turn off gamers from trying other better designed games.

Adam Saltsman
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for sure - there are lots of ways of doing IAP or freemium that are certainly LESS evil than most of the examples I gave here. But the general, industry-wide approach to freemium is a "pull the rug out from under the player" model that really turns my stomach...

For example, offering episodic play or additional content through a separate buy menu that is not really a part of the main game is an approach that seems fairly ethical and responsible to me. It's not intruding in the game then, and is less about that "surprise! NO MORE FUN FOR YOU SIR - unless of course you pay this little fee..." approach that bugs me so much.

As long as the business model isn't getting BETWEEN the player and the experience, then I don't see what the problem is. But a lot of what freemium means in practice right now is 100% about contrivance. I would love to see this change, and would love to see energy spent discussing this topic directed along that general vector...

Matt Robb
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Here's a pair of anecdotes that seem relevant to your idea.

Warhammer Online: I hadn't really played it since it first came out, but I was bored a few weeks back and picked it up to mess around on. I found myself moderately entertained by the PvP aspects of the game and decided to fire up a subscription, but I hit a point where the rate of rank increases just seemed annoyingly slow. I had heard players talking about some pack you should buy if you're really into PvP so I went to check it out. Turns out you pay an extra amount and you get a higher level cap and accelerated leveling. Not only was I already paying them a subscription fee, but now they wanted me to pay extra just to level at the real expected rate. Could I afford it? Easily. Did it annoy me enough to cancel the subscription. Definately.

Lord of Ultima: Yet another clone of the 4 resources/build cities/battle others web-based strategy games. In this case there are two different types of items you can buy in their store. First, you can get four kinds of ministers that automate and/or allow you to schedule various tasks. The game is arguably unplayable past a certain number of cities without these just due to scale. I ran the numbers and it comes in to be a less than the subscription on many online games, so I just chose to look at it that way. Secondly, you can buy items that accelerate actions and supply resources. You can also acquire these items through gameplay. I'm enjoying myself enough that, even though knowing people can buy these is annoying, I consider it a win if I force another player to drop cash just to fend me off.

Jim Preston
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Going to have to agree with Simon. The language in this article so is over-inflated and hysterical that it makes the whole thing seem naive and unprofessional. The "sacred" circle of play? How exactly is it sacred? What role does the divine play in all this? "Extort money from players...", "unethical and unacceptable...", "extortion in the worst way...", "ashamed of their creations" in both bold and italics in case we are too thick to appreciate the author's intent. I'm grateful this entire article isn't in all caps, although I get the feeling it wasn't so much typed as pounded out with fists.

Microtransactions are part of the birth of this industry, when Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Bezerk were designed to interrupt the players' enjoyment and compel them to put in another 25 cents to go on enjoying the game. It's a business model that soon gave way to far more lucrative and convenient transactions and I'm pretty sure this part of industry will evolve in ways that consumer wants them too.

But making grandiose ethical claims about about business models in an iPhone video game just silly. Most television drama is written to have kickers that lead into commercials and interrupt the "sacred circle" between the dramatist and the audience. If you don't like it, watch cable dramas or don't watch it all. There's really no scream "bullshit!" in bold and italics at every commercial break.

Adam Saltsman
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If you want to compare to TV, that's fine, but your comparison is inaccurate. Applying the current, widespread freemium/f2p implementation to television would be more like this:

Say you started watching a show that you thought would be a regular TV show; that is, free and ad-supported maybe. Then, after the first commercial break, it came back muted and in black and white. After a few minutes of confusion and disappointment, a popup appears, asking you to pay $0.99 to have your show back in color and with sound again until the next commercial break.

I think a lot of people actually would scream "bullshit!" in bold and italics at most commercial breaks.

Matt Robb
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There's a huge difference between "drop in a quarter to get another play" and "drop in a quarter to skip to the next level" or "drop in a quarter to move up X ranks on the high score list".

Using microtransations to allow the customer to play the game is fine. It's when the microtransactions become or replace the gameplay where it becomes a problem, and that's the space where flavors of addiction can really be exploited for profit.

Bruno Patatas
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@Adam Just one thing regarding social game players: They know that to acquire stuff in-game (energy, assets, etc, etc...) is going to cost them money. They are not being deceived. They can be confused when playing for the first times, but they soon start understanding the rules. Social game players are much smarter than a lot of people think/assume they are.

Jim is right when he talks about arcade machines, and yet freemium criticism tend to forget and trying to not touch on that business model when discussing this.

Adam Saltsman
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arcade machines are just as guilty as the current microtrans stuff i think, but that's probably a whole other topic, and grossly irrelevant today anyways. I think most freemium criticism totally understands that arcade machines were awful too though, not sure where that idea comes from.

Anyways, at no point in this article do I even talk about social game players, much less make implications about their intelligence. I am 100% certain that most social game players know that they are in fact spending real dollars. To imply otherwise is pretty silly. However, there aren't that many adults buying $100 buckets of smurfberries, are there?

Anyways, this particular expression of freemium or F2P is about telling the player, right to their face, "give us money or we're taking away the fun that we originally said was free." The deception happens when the player first picks up the game, not when they're asked to spend money.

Bruno Patatas
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But you see, this type of quote "However, there aren't that many adults buying $100 buckets of smurfberries, are there?" is typical of freemium criticism. They grab a couple of cases that made the headlines and they build a whole case against the business model based on that. That happened because parents didn't used correctly parental controls. And now games are providing warning messages to prevent that. Developers are learning.

A couple of weeks ago I arrived home and my youngest daughter (with 6 years) had purchased 3 games on the PS3 PSN Store. Is it fault of Sony or any of the developers of those games? No, it's mine. I shouldn't have left my account on PSN logged in.

John Arnold
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I don't think freemium games have to be like watching tv where you are forced to watch something in black in white after 2 minutes.. I think it's more similar to when I'm watching say a live video stream for certain tournaments Starcraft 2 or other games.. I can watch the streams in hi-def for free from my own living room, and put up with some commercial interruptions (advertising), or I can pay for a premium experience which includes no ads and additional footage of say a player's view cam or etc.

Basically in today's day and age, people know that free means "we're offering you some of our service for free, but we'll be making money off you in a different method other than up-front", and certainly soon if not by now people are already familiar with what seeing the tag "TOP IN-APP PURCHASES" means as for how any given app is actually free.

Clearly what it comes down to is what app developers do, and what people are willing to pay for. I'll continue to vote with my dollar for what I think is worthy when it comes to software, just as I do elsewhere.

That being said, I downloaded a number of the top free games the other day and was pretty blown away with how boring and unimaginative they were. And indeed if something is a blatant money-grab, it does feel like it detracts from what the rest of us creative folk are actually trying to achieve ;)

Andy Moore
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I don't think of "my money" as some strange external "different" thing. I value my money just as much as I value my time. Any game that makes me "pay" for in-game content with my time is equally offensive.

If I follow that train of thought, it turns out most games are offensive in that sense; timed unlocks, playthrough unlocks, etc. all bug me, but only to a point.

Replacing some of the time stuff with money is not some huge ludicrous step we should be ashamed of; it's really not all that bad. It CAN be abused, and that's really shitty, but replace "money" with "time" in your article and it sounds a bit over the top.

[Some games also abuse my time just as much as IAP can, eg, forcing me to play on easy before I can unlock the fun "medium" skill level?]

Well written though and I do like the premise. :)

Simon Windmill
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Great point - I think a designer has to avoid abusing the player's time whether their business model is freemium or not. Basically it comes back to making sure the game comes first, monetization afterwards; if there's a grind, at least make it enjoyable and skill-based.

Luis Guimaraes
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Very important point to consider too. I hate games that lock everything in an unnecessary manner just for the sake of copying how other did it.

Aaron San Filippo
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This certainly is a controversial topic as of late :)

Thanks for the thought-provoking article, I agree on many points.

I also agree that using words like extortion might be a bit dramatic.

Were the old arcade machines that escalated in difficulty, then prompted you to put in a quarter to continue also extortion? (not a rhetorical question, maybe many of them were in people's minds?) Perhaps this trend is not so new.

I will say, I didn't feel cheated by Infinity Blade. I never did finish it - I played through a few generations and then got kind of bored. But I didn't feel that I "had the rug pulled out from under me" by any means. I had fun for awhile and then dropped it.

I do agree that there is a lot of manipulation going on. But I don't think it's fair to rate freemium/iAP games on a scale of evilness. I'm also not sure it's fair to say that *most* of them use manipulative models - perhaps these are just the ones that make the most news? I'd love to see some statistics on this.

Also ,2 points:

1. Freemium gives people a chance to try out a game without paying a cent, and if they don't like it, they can (and generally will) stop playing.

2. The vast majority of people *will* stop playing, or simply not pay for the additional features. Freemium models work well when a small percentage of people pay for them.

And just to play devil's advocate - what about the small percentage of people who pay "premium" price for a game such as Cananbalt, and then feel they didn't get their money's worth? Was this "extortion"?

I think freemium as a business model is thriving because people like to try before they buy.

And since the argument is being made that these games rob people of their precious time - couldn't one say the same thing about *any* video game? Say I spend 300 hours leveling up my CoD play - why does the fact that I'm mostly having a blast make this timesink any more worthwhile in the real world? Just food for thought.

Adam Saltsman
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Yea to both your and Andy's points, there are lots of non-freemium games that are equally disrespectful of player time, I completely agree. And I love that freemium can sidestep the whole "pay $60 and hope you get something you don't hate" business model, too. But this current popular expression of freemium is way too manipulative for my taste.

I actually thought really hard about Canabalt and Canabalt's price in almost EXACTLY those terms, strangely enough! That's why you can play the whole game for free on the game's website before you decide to commit the $2.99. If you play it and think "Yeah, I want more of this" then you can chip in. I'm all about "try before you buy!" But buying Canabalt doesn't make you better at Canabalt; it just lets you play on the crapper. My actual thought process for this was literally "I think $2.99 is a fair price to play Canabalt on the crapper."

Does that make sense?

Adam Saltsman
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haha, whoa David, which article did you read?? Maybe it's my fault for not summarizing clearly enough, but as I've said throughout the comments, my gripe here is with a particular expression or model for f2p, which involves luring players in and then pulling the rug out from under them. This doesn't make players dumb, even if they decide to keep playing; they are making their own choices. I'm not judging them.

And I'm not certain it makes the developers thieves, either, but I do think it reflects on the developers values and their attitudes toward the players who support them, which I think is worth considering. This is a version of a business model with some momentum behind it, and it is also a version of a business model that seems pretty obviously disrespectful toward players. Improving that or changing that I think is in the best interest of the industry int he long run.

Bart Stewart
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Another recent example of the Checklist Effect: lore items in the Dragon Age games.

The lore text was generally well-written and interesting... and that made it all the more frustrating when I reached the end of the game and all I could see were the holes in the codex where I had failed to find some bit of hidden lore. I had enjoyed finding the bits I saw, but it was actually a little depressing that even another play-through of this very large game might not reveal the lore-bits I missed the first time through.

Would I have felt a little better without a checklist whose gaps mocked my lack of perception? Maybe so.

In fact, I'd like to suggest that the problem with the Checklist Effect itself is that it's a design error that comes from a confusion of playstyles -- specifically, of exposing Explorer goals to Achiever mechanics. Finding lore items is fun; it satisfies the Explorer's enjoyment of understanding the world and perceptiveness at finding hidden things. But pointing out the gaps, while ginning up the Achiever's competitive juices -- gotta catch 'em all! -- is like a big FU to an Explorer. "Hey, look at all this cool stuff you'll never see because you weren't perceptive enough (or persistent enough like me) to find it!"

Not fun. If you're going to offer Explorer rewards like hidden lore, then it would be better to provide logically sensible clues pointing to lore items so that the Explorer's perceptiveness -- not checklist-completing persistence -- can be pleasurably exercised.

To in-app advancement through magic circle-breaking real-world purchases... some of us were arguing exactly this point about Real-Money Trading a few years ago when "microtransactions" was just a new buzzword. (

Personally I still don't like it as it necessarily breaks immersion in the gameworld. I understand that not everyone sees it that way. The thing is, if you don't care about immersion in a secondary reality, fine... but what are those of us who do care about that stuff supposed to do when an otherwise interesting game allows microtransactions?

And as for the checklist/microtransaction mutant? I think "unethical" puts it too strongly for an entertainment product, but I might agree with "abusive."

Finally, @Matt Robb: "Rule of thumb: If the game is good, people will pay to play it rather than pay to not play it." Actually, I'd say a good game is one that people will pay to play, but a great game is one they will pay *not* to play -- see EVE Online and other MMORPGs that allow offline real-time skill training for examples of the truly diabolical cleverness of this model. ;)

Aaron San Filippo
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(I kinda hate the 2-reply-deep rule here on Gamasutra now..)

To be clear, I really admire Cananbalt's business model - realistically I think many people who buy it on iOS probably never heard of the free flash version, but regardless.. I don't think it's "extortion" any more than giving people the option to pay to keep playing a game they started for free. In general though, I do agree that a great many freemium/iap games are manipulative, and I'd rather see trends where people are paying for clearly added value.

Also I wonder if you could clarify about the "checklist effect" - do you think that this in itself is evil, or simply asking people to pay in order to fulfill these psychological need?

Because for a lot of people, I think filling in all the checkboxes is kind of a central part of why they play games - regardless of business model. Being able to see goals and fulfill them is kind of deeply satisfying, sometimes even if there isn't "gameplay", "fun", or "interesting choices" involved.

Adam Saltsman
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I gave a couple of examples in the article of games that do checklists really well, in the form of achievements that lead players to bizarre and interesting elements of the game's design that they might have missed otherwise.

But even outside of puzzle or reflex-based games, i think the checklists in Costume Quest were pretty un-evil, they were somehow presented in a way that I felt like was more there to help me make sure I didn't miss any of the parts I wanted to see, rather than coerce me into playing more than I wanted to. It gets pretty fuzzy and subjective I guess!

So yeah, I don't think they're inherently evil, but I sometimes feel like game designers don't really appreciate how strong (and subtle) an effect they can have on players, and when they're used to pad things or turn things into chores, i think those are wasted opportunities at best.

Simon Windmill
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I would also like to stress that it's just some of the language used that I object to, not the sentiment. I don't like games designed around consumables, where you're not really getting anything for your money. It has felt like a cheap tactic ever since I first encountered it in an arcade game (Gauntlet II?) where you deposited more quarters (well, 10p pieces for me) to start with more health.

But I have bought and will continue to buy IAP for no other reason than to support the developers of free-to-play titles I like, in lieu of a genuine "pay what you like" system. I feel that giving consumers that choice is a good thing, I just wish it wasn't abused by too many designers.

Really, I think most of the community is in agreement - we just disagree on where the acceptable line is.

Ara Shirinian
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Dirt 3 on consoles does this sort of thing in a particularly disagreeable way, although it is different from the "pay to get ahead" model. Interlaced throughout the event and vehicle menus are selections for their DLC items, things which you can only get by purchasing.

The disagreeable part is that instead of hiding the 'for pay' selections from the selection menu until you have actually purchased them (and placing access to DLC in a more conventional, separate location), the DLC menu item selections now are ever present in every menu even if you do not own them.

The (probably intentional) part of this effect is that I get constantly reminded about things I could get but don't have.

But instead of compelling me to buy, this device just becomes a constant and tired reminder that I can never complete either list by my performance, and I have to pay extra money to trade these arbitrary dead holes in my menus into meaningful selections.

I doubt that whomever was responsible for this design intended to piss off the player- although they were probably just thinking about the upside. This kind of framework puts DLC items in prime real estate for visibility (which presumably nets more DLC sales) at some cost to some players (I will no longer consider buying their DLC because of their hard sell tactics).

However, I'm unclear about whether we or they even know whether such a tactic in fact works (by their metric, profit wise) in the first place. Second, does such a tactic ever ultimately backfire with enough customers (like myself) so that they are actually netting a loss in DLC sales?

Seems to me that a likely case, and arguably a most insidious one is where it turns out that such tactics always bring in a net sales profit anyway, and always piss off a large proportion of customers. Or does it piss off a small proportion of customers by a large amount? Essentially, it is trading customer satisfaction for extra profit.

Peter Freer
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I think rewarding for grinding/time investment is not necessarily evil in itself (as long as the time spend is enjoyable for the user), but rewarding the player for spending money is - especially if done in a seedy, underhanded way. Something like Jetpack Joyride has all the hallmarks of evil, except it is actually fairly easy to get the ingame currency and purchasing really is optional- it is also ephemeral fun, and generally pleasurable to play.

Thinking back to Gauntlet at the arcades, that was evil in retrospect - player spends money for health - health degrades over time. But it was, as all arcades were - pretty direct about how you were paying for the experience.

It is interesting to think about how monetising of games has affected design from the arcades , through to console and now on mobile devices - It does feel like the shift back in the 80's from arcade to console, but in reverse.

Taekwan Kim
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I want to say that I basically agree with a lot of what Mr. Saltsman has said, especially from a design perspective, but I would like to pursue a more critical discussion about the ethical difficulties of demanding resources _external_ to the “magic circle” (or here noted as the “sacred circle”) in order to participate in activities residing _internal_ to the circle.

Particularly, I would like to argue that play within the circle is only “powerful and beneficial” because it is not strictly delineated from “the real world”. This is somewhat counter to what Huizinga argued—that all play is free from consequence, which is exactly what makes it play. But this is an antiquated idea which dismisses the _reality_ of psychological consequences. Plus, is not a very argument of this article that time we spend in a game also exists external to it? So already we can see that the distinction between internal and external is mostly conceptual.

Consider: if there are no psychological consequences, what makes play beneficial? Or are we rejecting that it is in fact is beneficial, and thus the tangibility and realness of psychological consequences instead?

The point of this being, it works both ways. We cannot honestly say that what is external to the circle should have no impact to the internal without also saying that what is internal should equally have no impact to the external.

The idea that sometimes the only way to win a game is to not play it is perhaps more weighty and mature than we give it credit. But it is, one could argue, a result of meta-cognition of the highest order. To be able to disengage when all of our impulses—our egos—run counter to what seems like a (forced) surrender and retreat is also a skill, also understanding.

And perhaps the highest and most beneficial goal and form of play is exactly to realize that it _is_ play, even when the player is (or more accurately, despite the player being) invested as if it is not—to use the very conceptuality and artificiality of play to separate ourselves from our egos and realize how equally artificial these psychological constructs that we call our egos are. That is to say, play is beneficial precisely because the external world must eventually intrude.

Now, does a game that so crudely forces this upon the player by foisting purely external (and _monetary_) requirements fail miserably from a design point of view, let alone the above stated goal of play? Probably, yes. But the more difficult question is, isn’t a game that doesn’t let the player leave because it succeeds so spectacularly in maintaining engagement—that keeps the player wholly internal to the circle (_and his ego_) and provides everything within it—equally “unethical”?

James Hofmann
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To take a somewhat higher level viewpoint, not necessarily arguing against your cause(which is a reasonable one):

We aren't good enough designers (yet) to know when something we're doing is a bad idea and a source of tedium and "player wastage." It's easy to convince oneself to say "adding this restriction will encourage such-and-such dynamics and coerce the player into trying new approaches," even without having the specific pairing of "grinding to encourage in-game purchases" and the monetization incentive involved. Sometimes the restrictions work, and the player enjoys something like gaining levels or crafting or similar types of "busywork" gaming. So we haven't fully clarified what is wrong with the particular design strategy of these games, and need to ask(and answer) more questions.

Part of the problem with something like in-app purchases in particular is that they are a really high-level "capstone" feature of the product, building on a broad base of stuff(logins and persistent identity, payment systems, certain game mechanics allowing for purchasable goods, etc.) so it's hard to experiment with them easily.

Adam Saltsman
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i would propose the idea that we are 100% good enough designers to know when something we're doing is a bad idea and a source of tedium. I would also propose the idea that a LOT of us not only know what it is but have invented a way to monetize exactly that process.

Bruno Patatas
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I think that almost everyone agrees that every type of business model is flawed, and we need to improve them.

The problem with the vast majority of criticism regarding freemium and social games is that they commonly use the words evil and extortion and that's it! Nothing more. They are against because they don't like and they think is bad for gamers. If things are that bad (and I agree that some freemium implementations are badly designed), then we need to find ways to improve them. I would like to have read on this article possible solutions and not just attacking those games and their developers.

Saying that designers of this type of games should be ashamed of their creations is not only harsh, but it's also not good to the industry as a whole.

It seems currently we are living a good vs evil situation, and this type of behavior is splitting the industry.

And talking about evilness, what about the recent Batman: Arkham City controversial Catwoman Code? The Catwoman segments of the game are unlocked with a “VIP Pass,” a redemption code printed on a sheet of paper inside new copies of the game. Gamers who rent, borrow or buy a used copy of Arkham City will have to pay an extra $10 for the code. And those who can’t connect their consoles to the Internet will be unable to experience the story of Batman’s feline rival.

If you buy a used copy, or if someone gives one to you, you need to pay an extra $10 for content that is already on your disk! You need to pay an extra fee to play something you already have! Isn't this a bullshit contrivance (to use Adam words)?

Plus, the reaction of the game director is: spoke with Arkham City director Sefton Hill at the New York Comic Con in Manhattan last weekend, where he defended this decision, calling Catwoman a “guest star” and emphasizing that her segments make up less than 10% of the game’s total content.

“I certainly understand and appreciate the concerns of the DLC issue, but that was the decision that was made,” Hill said, noting that developer Rocksteady Studios had specifically created the Catwoman content with an eye towards distributing it in this manner.

In my point of view about 10% of the game's total content is not something small!

It's like you paying to rent a movie, then suddenly the movie would stop and you would have to spend extra money to watch the ending (those 10%). Does this type of model makes any sense at all?

So yeah, the industry is changing and we need to adapt and find ways to provide the best content possible in the best manner to our customers.

Discussion and criticism is welcome to improve the state of things.

Adam Saltsman
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I don't think everyone agrees that every type of business model is flawed in the same way or to the same degree though.

I also think it's a mis-representation to say that this article ONLY says "freemium is evil!" In fact, it never says that free-to-download games are evil. It specifically says, and is clarified repeatedly in the comments, that pulling the rug out from under players is demonstrably evil, and explains why pretty thoroughly. So I agree, just saying "i don't like it" is not valid. But I don't do that.

Saying people should be ashamed of making evil games seems ok to me.

That Arkham City example is definitely a bullshit contrivance, and THEY should be ashamed of stooping to it! I am in full agreement.

I would also love to see more conversation going forward about how to somehow find the best sort of nexus of people's time, money, and playing habits/hobbies. The problem I'm having, and that every other commenter and person I've talked to in the last few months seems to have, is no one has been able to figure out a way to do this business model that is less evil (or even the same amount!) as any other existing model.

I think it's worth considering that perhaps fully integrated IAP as an approach may be fundamentally flawed. If that is the case, then it broadens the way we need to think about this problem I think.

Bruno Patatas
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Now we agree :)

I still reserve the word evil for more serious stuff, but that's just me ;)

You are right that this subject needs profound discussion. There is a whole section of gamers now that are expecting their games to be free, or paying a marginal fee for the games, so it's our challenge right now to find out the best way to deal with that.

We all agree that quality should be first than any business model.

A lot of work awaits during the next times...

Ian Bogost
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Why isn't "i don't like it" valid? God forbid we have principles for principle's sake, without pledging fealty to The Game-Changing Future Marketplace They Left For Us.

Bruno Patatas
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@Ian "i don't like it" is perfectly valid but only as a _personal_ opinion.

Dan MacDonald
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I think evil exaggerates the impact of these game design indiscretions. I remember when I realized that as a designer I could build systems that could control people and trick them into engaging with my game. I felt powerful. Over time I realized that these tricks that appeal to completionists, or collectors, or whatever other psychological predispositions are only really effective on people with those dispositions. Even then, they don't control, only influence. The power of the designer is more akin to nudging then forcing. Oddly minecraft was more engaging to me then games with these "contrivances". I could see the same thing happening to these contrivances in a few years.

I enjoy Infinity Blade, Tiny Tower, and many other free2play type games, I've not spent money on either nor have I felt terrible about it. I know I'll never grind enough to get the infinity blade, but I did kill the God King and I felt good about that. So while this does create a slight negative feeling about the game I don't know that it personifies evil.

When I was young, everyone was worried about the messages bombarding us as kids from advertising and the media, that somehow we were being compelled to buy things based on billboards and television commercials. Now a days advertisers are looking for more innovative ways to get their message out there because many consumers are now callous to that same advertising.

Adam Saltsman
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that's the terrifying thing actually, that's the exact point. constant commercial messaging and bombardment was actually really successful for DECADES and changed western culture in ways so profound and enormous we can hardly even comprehend them.

the fact that we are now aware of this process, thanks to guys like marshall mcluhan and the internet and other things, is probably part of why the effectiveness of this kind of messaging has been reduced. by that logic then, pointing out HOW these manipulative games work (like Tim Rogers did in his excellent article, or Jon Blow did in his Rice talk) is very much worth doing!

I don't really regret using the word "Evil" either when all the adequate comparisons we can come up with are pervasive advertising, cigarettes and so on :P

Dan MacDonald
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I agree that this kind of influence is powerful, I personally don't feel that I've been strongly influenced lately as I have rarely purchased anything with micro transactions. ( Except for one time a few years ago I spent at least $100 on Travian! ) Clearly its having some success now but for how long? It seems like the more pervasive these contrivances are the less influenced players will be.

I'm in support of calling it out for what it is though (a psychological hack), maybe I am less influenced by it now that I'm consciously aware of it.

Robert Meyer
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I enjoyed the post Adam, and after just reading it a second time, I feel like you're totally warranted in being as passionate as you want regarding how designers treat our TUDs.

It also somewhat reminded me of a story I once heard regarding Warren Spector (I think...) amongst a group of MMO developers who were stressing over how to detect and eliminate bots players were using to rapidly progress through their game. Spector said something to the gist of, "Isn't why they're using bots in the first place the real issue? Doesn't it mean you should just change the part of the game all these players want to skip?"

This again, relates to Tim's Sims Social piece, in that often times these micro-transactions, or whatever, are asking you to pay to advance more quickly through a chunk of gameplay. This therefore incentivizes the player to actually skip past the game. Basically, what I'm trying to say, is that charging to skip ahead in gameplay time is a concession by the designer that actually playing that section of the game is worth paying to skip over, and therefore is conceding that the game is bad. To me, it's more sad and pitiful than evil, but I agree with your sentiment and appreciate the passion you use when voicing it.

Wylie Garvin
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Spector was partly right, and partly wrong. Yes, you want to remove dull, boring grinds from the game that your players won't enjoy anyway. Yes, you want to them to pay you every month but keep their actual hours played per month to a reasonable level so they consume less bandwidth and server resources.

Where he goes wrong, is assuming that people only bot to skip some of the content they don't enjoy.

I believe almost everyone who actually uses bots in an MMO is doing it to gain some kind of unfair advantage over other players, which is something MMOs should always try and prevent. I think the two most common uses for botting are:

(1) "farming" : any economy- or game-distorting activities like gold farming, resource monopolizing, etc. The farmer is effectively selling their time to others for money, and more aggressive botting is like a multiplier on the time that they sell and thus the amount of money they can sell it for. They may also be able to directly interfere with the efforts of other players to collect the resources being farmed (hogging rare spawns for example).

(2) "cheating" : anything done by for Achievers or Killers to gain an advantage over other players (faster levelling, buff-bots and heal-bots for PvP, dual-boxing for PvE, teleporting to skip content or escape from or ambush other players, casting spells with impossible timing or accuracy, etc.)

Removing boring grinds from your game will not make the botting problem go away, because there are still plenty of other incentives for botters to cheat. Technical detection and prevention solutions like Blizzard's Warden seem to me like the only viable long-term solution.

Dan MacDonald
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See the reply from me above :)

james sadler
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This business model works when implemented properly. I agree with the article in that the games he lists put these contrivances in front of the player in the wrong way which creates a distraction, and comes off as a greedy attempt to gain the player's money/time. When done correctly the player shouldn't really notice the IAP or it is presented in a way that seems more fluid to the rest of the game.

Personally I don't like these games, but in a world where everyone wants their games for free, asking the player for some money to get a little further doesn't bother me that much. Its when the game is asking for money to get nothing more than continued use of the game that bothers me. As much as people say that the F2P model is taking over and will destroy the AAA game industry, I don't think that will happen. F2P is an arm of the game industry, just as the console/AAA market is. There is some crossover of audience, but I don't know many "hardcore" players that follow the F2P or vice versus. That being as it is I'm not sure why there is all this fight between the developers on either side. Each fill a market so lets leave it at that.

Jonathan Blow
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I think there is an additional danger here, which this article does not touch upon. (I agree with what the article's saying in general [haven't played most of these specific games, so don't know about them particularly]).

The additional danger is that these kinds of games are becoming ubiquitous, which means they are inevitably affecting the public's perception of games. Whereas maybe it's good to dilute the violence part of the public perception, the image they may be left with is still something about pointless wastes of time where they sink money in for no particular reason, where the game badgers them to add their friends all the time, etc, etc. If this becomes the public image of a video game, people will not look to games for deeper experiences, or for works that are genuinely trying to give something to the player. This, then, puts more friction on the creation of such works, and we'll have fewer of them. Which is a drag.

Personally, I don't understand how the developers of these games manage to face themselves in the mirror each morning, but I guess they do manage somehow...

Bruno Patatas
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Ok, so the question is about fear. Fear that those no-games will be the public image of a video game. Fear that those no-games are played by millions and creating revenue on a huge scale. Regarding their being the public image of video games I doubt that happens, but if it does, then you can only blame the rest of the industry for not creating products targeted to the several demographics. The only company on the console side that succeeded in attracting those demographics is Nintendo, and I think everyone remembers what was said and written when Wii and games like Wii Fit were announced. It was the same talk of not being a game etc, etc... Like if someone had the keys of the gate to the land of the 'real' games.

Regarding some of your points:

"pointless wastes of time..." - That can be said about any video game.

"people will not look to games for deeper experiences" - Once again people assume that those types of gamers have some kind of cognitive problem. It's not because you have romantic comedies in cinema that people don't go see a Terrance Malick movie. There is room for every genre for every demographics.

"Personally, I don't understand how the developers of these games manage to face themselves in the mirror each morning, but I guess they do manage somehow... " - A quote like that deserves no comments...


"When we go outside this room, when we go out the real world, I see people get sort of insecure. It’s almost like we yearn to get accepted by mainstream media and by normal people, you know? And yet, once they start paying attention to us, when casual gamers start flocking into our world, we start complaining about it. They’re diluting the experience. We get upset when developers try to reach a broader audience. Casual is perceived as the opposite, even the enemy, of what we do.

And, you know, I don’t really understand it. As if non-gamers enjoying the things we have all grown up with, and we have all loved for years… As if non-gamers discovering that diminishes us somehow. … We have to get past this not wanting let more people into the club. “We don’t want girls and grandmothers.” “We don’t want normal people hanging with us.” … Basically, it’s as if we don’t know whether to fear or embrace the mainstreaming of gaming. And to my mind we have no choice. We have to embrace the fact that the world is catching up to us. Catching on to us. And starting to love the things that we’ve always loved."

Warren Spector - PAX 2010 keynote.

Jonathan Blow
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I am perfectly happy to have "normal people hanging with us" and I've given lectures about that on many occasions.

The question is why they are playing the games, and how they feel about the games they play.

Bruno Patatas
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That's a good approach to the problem.

I will split my reply between social and freemium games (although they are very much connected)

Social games are not that evil thing that sometimes is portrayed. Social games criticism is around the fact that they are time wasters and the only thing you have to do in the game is clicking on things (hey Diablo, I'm looking at you...). They are no more time wasters than any other game. People are playing them, and on an article I wrote I said the following:

"If there's something that human beings like to do is create, build. Just watch small children playing with Lego blocks. One thing about FarmVille (and similar games) that critics tend to forget is the customization part. A power FarmVille player is not only harvesting crops. He is building his farm, he is shaping it according to his own imagination. People spend hours customizing their farm. They want it to look great. Plus, they want the other players to look at his farm and go WOW! They are proud of how their farm looks like. You have countless sites devoted to people sharing images of their farms. They even customize their sheeps!"

Social games are evolving in terms of gameplay and graphics. Bringing more game to social games is now something that is being worked on on several developers worldwide.

I know a lot of people that play social games, and they really enjoy them. We should not look at those gamers from our perspective, but from their perspective. Our assumption of what makes a good game is not necessarily what other people think. Bear in mind that a lot of people touched a game for the first time with a social game. They want something that is easy to understand and play (just like the old Solitaire on windows). They want cute colorful graphics. We may don't like their look, but I made a experience:

I showed some people that play social games titles that have won IGF prizes. Their reply is that they are ugly! I don't agree, specially because I love the so popular retro look, and some IGF entries are truly astonishing. But what matters in this case is that for a lot players, they are ugly and uninteresting.

Games have also become increasingly complex. I have two small daughters and they love to play games. But, their favorite game platform is SNES. They love Kirby, Mario and the fantastic Mickey games from that platform. They have games with those characters for PS2 and Wii, but they don't touch them. They loose interest very quickly on those because of the complexity, not only in-game, but with the controller and with camera issues. I believe this complexity is alienating less-skilled players. Their friends prefer to play Disney browser games than anything on a console.

David Braben wrote a fantastic article about the game controllers issue:

Another thing regarding social games, is that the tutorials are frequently very easy to understand and in a very simple language. Brenda Brathwaite wrote a great article about that:

Freemium games is not that evil too, and it's because of them that you have this huge explosion of new gamers.

Compare the several media we have in our houses: books, dvd's, games, music cd's, etc...

Games are the most expensive of those. It's very hard to convince someone (specially on this economic climate) that is not familiar with games to drop $60 on a new game. With that money he could buy 3 or 4 dvds, 3 or 4 music cd's, 5 books, etc... Just do the math. Of course you have cheaper games if you buy on platforms like Steam, but those people have no idea about what Steam is. For them games are what they see on the store shelves. In my opinion the industry should rethink the cost of games, but that's another story.

As Andrew Payton below said on his blog post: "freemium has enabled millions of players to play games without needing to spend any money at all".

The cost of entry is 0! That's an extremely powerful thing to attract new gamers. Also pay attention to the brilliantly simple process to download or buy a game on iTunes. It put's XBLA, PSN and similar services to shame.

There are people who are using IAP in a badly integrated way? That's for sure. But the fact that this model allowed millions to discover games for the first time in my opinion is a fantastic thing, and with the model maturing we will see IAP being integrated in different ways than we have right now.

Andrew Payton
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Point 1: The Checklist Effect isn't a new mechanism. We could easily re-brand it as the "Completionist Effect" and suddenly it doesn't sound so bad. Every game that has lots of stuff to do, explore, collect, achieve, etc. -- that's what RPGs and Metroidvania games are made of -- is going to compel some people to attempt to do it all. I am definitely one of those people. But I would argue that this has more to do with me, the player, than the game. I think some people are naturally inclined to this, and others are not. If the people enjoy it, find it engaging, etc., then I don't see a problem with it, even if it can be addicting. All games can be addicting, but that doesn't mean we should stop making them.

Point 2: Another way to read in-app purchases (and other microtransactions) is as democratizing. Some people have more time. Some people have more money. Microtransactions enable those with less time but more money to be competitive. I see this as a huge positive. No longer are the upper-echelons of competition/success limited only to those that have hours a day every single day to devote to the game.

More thoughts:

Ting Chow
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@Point 1: I don't think Adam's point is that the Checklist Effect is absolutely without merit. In fact Adam presents some examples he finds acceptable in the last paragraph of that section. But sometimes requirements can get out of hand.

"Beating robot masters by using only the Mega Buster" in Mega Man games (and explicitly pointing that out to players somehow) is something that can fall under the Checklist Effect but doesn't seem like an abuse of it. It's a doable challenge that is presented to the player and (hopefully) won't be too frustrating. Same thing as doing the time trials in Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Yet something like "Kill 100000 Mettaurs" seems like a waste of time. So is "Collect 200 Fire Flowers", "Drive 239487 miles backwards", and "Build 100 Terran Barracks". At their core, I would think similar challenges/tests don't lead to interesting gameplay.

@Point 2: Err well I guess that'll depend on how much benefit is gained from the IAP/MiTRX relative to what players can do in-game. Given the benefits that players gain from IAP/MiTRX these days I have a hard time thinking of examples that act as equalizers, but examples of them dominating gameplay aren't too hard to find.

Crystal Energy in Spiral Knights can be bought with in-game currency (called Crowns) and also with real life currency. Last I played the conversion rate on Crowns to CE was only getting worse. Not only is energy in general needed to enter the dungeons, but is also used to craft new weapons and armor (requiring anywhere form 50 to 250 energy last I recall). Note that Mist Energy (which is free and regenerates over time) is limited to 100, and some dungeons are gated by equipment tier, so eventually CE is required to progress. Any player can harvest enough Crowns and trade for enough CE to do whatever, but that's about as practical as reading every webpage on the internet.

Last I read (on Gamasutra!), Wild Ones apparently has a monetization system that revolves around purchasing ammo. Players can spend money to buy a nuke that destroys 80% of the map, or a laser cannon that instantly kills other players. Hopefully I don't need to elaborate further.

Wylie Garvin
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Part of the problem with "pay to progress" games is that the real world is already full of situations where people with more money have significant advantages over people with no money but lots of time.

Until now, games have been a wonderful exception to this rule, where anyone who could afford the price of admission could then enjoy all of the game's content without being forced to spend more money (in other words, they could see all of the game's content by spending only their time). But there's a disturbing trend where we get the players hooked and then force them to choose between "pay a little more, to see CONTENT X have MAXIMUM fun!" or "keep playing for free, but it will take you hours of boring grind before you can see Content X".

Of course a rational response to this situation might be "My time is worth $N per hour, and 6*N is way way more than what these guys are asking me to pay, so rather than grind for 6 hours I'll just pay their $1.50 and get the content immediately". But if you repeat that decision-making a few dozen times, you might wake up one morning and realize that over the past month, you've spent $100 on a relatively unfulfilling game. And I agree with Adam Saltsman that game designers who deliberately design their games to try and trick players into falling for that *should* be ashamed.

Devin Wilson
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i apologize for not reading through all of the comments that are already on this blog post, but i want to chime in. also, i want to preface this by saying i respect you, adam, and really appreciate that flixel exists. however...

i don't understand how you can just say "[it's not like poker or simply paying for a game]" and then not really back these claims up. ultimately, it's all consensual. if a player consents to something (no matter what it is), i don't understand how it suddenly jumps out of the magic circle of play.

what WOULD be outside of the magic circle is if you gave a game developer your credit card information and, for each time you respawned, they would charge you $5 without ever notifying you that this was going to happen. this is obviously unacceptable, as the player is unwilling and unaware of the material consequences.

if you want to say that poker is not as playful (as huizinga defines it) as, say, no-stakes chess...that's a different discussion. the introduction of material gain and loss is significant, but you sidestep this entirely by saying that an in-app purchase isn't the same as a poker buy-in.

there's also the larger issue of charging _anything_ for access to digital goods (which don't have any actual value in themselves as objects that can be _exactly_ replicated at no cost). you charge $2.99 for canabalt on the app store, so it's not like your hands are clean of contrivance for profit. you COULD give it away for free. why don't you? you want to get paid. so do these developers. you need to make a better case for why your pricing model is better than theirs, in my opinion.

and then you come down on infinity blade for becoming familiar quickly. you say about the game (of which i've honestly played very little), "The moment to moment play is engaging for a few minutes or even an hour, but then we have seen pretty much all there is to see."

how is this quote not exactly describing canabalt?

i think canabalt is an inspired game. i like it. i don't think there's anything wrong with an infinitely replayable arcade-y experience that just tests your skills over and over in the same way. i honestly think i prefer that kind of game, as opposed to the disposable nature of linear, story-driven games (which are more like difficult movies than games proper). however, i think you're really exaggerating in this blog and you're underestimating your own material ambition.

Matt Rix
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Sorry, wrote a comment here, meant to write it on the other post.

Jose Striedinger
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Its too bad you didn't talked about AAA titles and the achievement issue, I would have make the article a little stronger. Anyway! I agree.

Achievements are a smart way to engage players, but these also require some design. For AAA titles there are some achievements that try to test your skills at the core game mechanics, or that invite you to explore the universe of the game. For example, in God of War 3 there's an achievement for finishing the game with all the upgrades. Thinks like that are pretty cool, during the whole game I was like "mmm maybe theres something over there?" and ''I wonder if I jump...Ill end up in a secret floor or something?".

This kinds of achievements require exploration, all with a trial-and-error approach (most of them). It's cool! thingslike the achievement of make a 1000 hit combo, that's an obvious test on your skill.

But some are...well, stupid. I first think about it when playing ACII. I noticed that I was getting achievements for like, just beginning the game. I mean, there's nothing in that! that's doesn't show nothing at all!

What I'm saying is that games should use achievements to engage players to either explore the game world or test their skill in bizarre and innovative ways.

Sorry if someone already said this but, damn there are just to many posts lol

Wojtek Kawczynski
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Has anybody considered that the reason a lot of this is happening is because of the fact that a lot of iOS consumers hesitate to spend $0.99 on a game? The way the pricing has evolved on the app store has forced developers to employ strategies that assures them that at least some people will pay them something thereby allowing them to stay in business and keep making games.

I think that for many this isn't so much a choice as it is a necessity given the realities of the market.

Victor Dosev
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Good read, I'm not sharing all of the opinions expressed but then again I don't /need to/ in order to like it. I would like to see if you, Mr. Saltsman are open for debate or you've already made your mind the topic you ponder.

I think I can kinda see where you're coming from, and I do agree with your "feeling" about all this. While you provide the "feeling" (not to undermine the importance of "feeling" - please dont get me wrong) I'm going to make it my mission for the near future to bring undeniable reason and arguments in favor, of what I think you're fighting for. Because, you see, I do think you're right about the harmful effect of such practices but I'm also trying to establish balance in the system of consumer/seller. Let me try to phrase my thesis:

Creating games that require repetitive, meaningless actions from the player, especially with the goal of earning money out of it, by exploiting psychological tricks like operant conditioning is, in the long term the equivalent of robbery, only it's not illegal yet. Yet.

"If your game is not first and foremost about the player and the experience, then you are not building games." - sure, you're building products. Ones, that while beneficial for you (the hypothetical "Other"), have a harmful impact on your consumer in the long term. My point is that, many games, use psychological techniques to provide forms of "fun" which our bodies, programmed as they are by years of genetics, are appreciating as "fun" but actually they aren't. Because "fun" is a way of your body to say: you are doing something right. Right? And what those games do, is that they reward you with some sort of meaningless, futile "fun" in the image of achievements that do not actually accomplish anything. "You logged 3 times today - yay, here's your candy"... So, while this might be "fun" for a lot of people, I think it only looks this way. In reality, such practices turn people into robotic masses rather that educate them. Which excuse me, I feel is the sole role behind entertainment, as pointed by my all-times favorite Mr. Raph Koster.

Sorry that wasn't really structured now was it? ;) I guess I needed to say this for a long time, and your topic was the catalyst for my thoughts to gain some shape. Thank you for that, Mr. Saltsman and I would try to provide a more thought-out argument on the subject in near future. I would like to hear your opinion though, so feel free to agree or argue with my points. Cheers --

Randy Angle
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While reading this article and all the comments I can't help but think of another blog post "Why core gamers hate social games: because their selfish explanation of causal gamers is coming to an end"

Summary: When you charge for a game pre-install (called retail or pay to play) the causal gamers (the 90% who never finish the game) are the ones who cover the development costs for the core gamers (the 10% who really play the game). When you charge for post-install (called free to play) the core players (10% who really appreciate the game enough to convert to paying - the whales) pay for development cost and cover the expenses of the casual players (90% that just have fun and grind never converting).

This model of the core paying is older than video games, arcades and TV - it is used by all casinos (nickel slots vs the high stakes Black Jack), music (radio and albums) and book publishing (libraries and retail stores). Anyone can become a "user" or "player" at the party, but the core pays the cover charge.

If the retail video game market only charged the core gamers money, I doubt we'd ever see another AAA console game. Instead they will happily exploit the casual gamers (90% who don't finish the game) to fund the development - and they do it with marketing that "encourages" those casual players they "must" buy this game... if they want to be "cool", "hip" or whatever... does that make marketing evil? or AAA games evil?

I've always like shareware and now free-to-play because it means the people who want to play are paying for my games - I feel less 'evil' that way.