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Contrivance and Extortion II: Clarifications, Feedback & Suggestions
by Adam Saltsman on 10/20/11 12:10:00 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.

 

I don't hate the freemium business model.  That is a silly, made-up word anyways, and as many people rightly pointed out, is a term that can be broadly applied to include things like shareware or other transparent and common business models.  Even downloading demos and unlocking the full version of a game could be considered freemium.  Others rightly observed that freemium has all sorts of advantages - players can try games for free, pay for as much game as they want, and so on.

However, my previous article was specifically about the most popular, most widely talked about, most widely implemented and most widely marketed modern expressions of the "freemium" or "free to play" business model.  The least harmful of these expressions is "level up faster" style freemium (Forever Drive, Jetpack Joyride to a lesser extent), in which the value of an extrinsic checklist takes priority over any intrinsic interest or value in the game system.  The most harmful of these expressions is "pull the rug" style freemium (Infinity Blade), in which the rate at which players progress through the intrinsic and extrinsic systems in the game is suddenly changed at some optimal point, hopefully after "hooking" players.

As expected, the article got some strong reactions, from both sides of the camp (if that is such a thing).  The strongest reactions, not surprisingly, were from developers of games that use these business models.  Many were from developers who don't actually use these specific designs, and with whom I have no gripe, but I guess "freemium" is a touchy subject for a lot of people!  Again, I don't think that freemium is inherently evil, regardless of how silly a word it may be.  But these particular expressions of it are definitely evil, as I explained.

I hope that this somewhat clarifies my stance: "level up faster" and "pull the rug" style designs are unethical and dishonest, and the popularity and momentum of this approach is bad for players and the industry at large.  However, unethical game designs are not limited to just freemium games!  There are many games that are shallow and addictive, using simple psychological hacks like skinner boxes and checklists to engage people beyond the point when the system is offering up intrinsic pleasure.  These tactics have existed for decades, but the rise of "social games" and "freemium games" have pushed them back into the spotlight.  I propose a new term that includes all of these abusive, manipulative and addictive game designs: predatory game design.

Before I introduce my suggestions and ideas for ways to take advantage of the positive aspects of freemium, I want to address some of the most common, kneejerk reactions to predatory game design criticism (including a lot of freemium game criticism), and why these are utterly illegitimate defenses of these unethical practices.  This doesn't mean there aren't other, more legitimate defenses; I have just seen these ones pop up a lot in the last two days, and would like to address them in bulk.


Whiners, Trolls, Hurt Feelings, Meanness, Tone, etc

This defense takes many forms, thus the long title, but the result is the same no matter what: a dismissal of the argument without actually addressing any of the points or presenting a counter-argument, and a simultaneous attempt to discredit the original presenter (in this case, me). Some quick examples of the actual manifestations of this defense:

"[responding] won't do any good, and it'll waste my time + raise my blood pressure."

"I'm so tempted to write a counter blog post, but it would just be feeding the trolls. Whoever argues the longest wins."

"I can't believe all the bashing I'm reading about freemium games! The argument is "they're not like games I like, so they're crap"."

"If you’d asked first, we might have engaged in a philosophical conversation about it, because we might have had the impression you were actually curious to discuss rather than soapboxing.  Now, forget it."

"Yet another article complaining about In-App purchasing. How droll."

"The whole argument behind the blogger's post falls down to two points that are thinly veiled.
1. f2p players are dumb.
2. f2p developers are thieves who are just money grabbing.
Whenever you see an argument like that you're either looking at someone trying to join a political race, or prey on ignorance. Neither are respectful or adult ways to start a conversation."

This defense accomplishes two important things, neither of which are actually defenses of the practices in question.  First, it prevents them from having to actually point out any actual flaws in my argument.  Second, it mis-characterizes both my argument and the arguments of anyone bothered by these trends as being about personal dislike, rather than evaluations of game systems and player psychology.


Players Voted With Their Wallets

This defense takes many forms as well, but I think that phrase sums it up very nicely.  The argument here is that because predatory game designs actually work, and the developers make money (and lots of it), that that somehow validates these designs as ethical.  This is sociopathic reasoning.  It is like arguing that some activity or other is only illegal if you get caught, or that if you can't prove that i'm lying, then obviously i'm not.

The fact that predatory game designs reap massive financial rewards should be setting off warning alarms in our heads, not indignant defenses of the practice justified by circular logic and correlation.


Games Have Always Been About Greed

I like this one a lot, for multiple reasons.  First, it is a tacit admission that predatory game design is in fact greedy and bad for players, the humans who support us in our creative endeavors.  Second, and I say this without irony or sarcasm, it rightly points out predatory game designs that pre-dated the modern freemium business models.  Common examples are the grind-fest of Diablo, or the quarter-sucking arcade machines of days of yore.  While I would argue that those games were at least more transparent about your psychological and financial investment, they are valid points, and should be part of the discussion.

However, "of course these games are greedy" is a pretty sad defense.


All Games Are Addictive

While the line between genuine intrinsic engagement and addiction may sometimes be fuzzy, that line definitely exists.  Some of the most influential games of recent times could hardly be described as either addictive or designed with player addiction in mind: Braid, Ico, Flower, Portal, and so on...

The idea that all games are addictive is demonstrably false, and no excuse for creating deliberately addictive and predatory games.


Players Have a Choice

Similar to the "players voted with their wallets" defense, but different in some key ways.  In this defense, the argument I believe is something like "hey man - we just put some things up for sale.  if people buy them, they buy them - it's their call.  how is that bad?"  This is profoundly disingenuous.  You could make the same claim about grocery stores, but there is an entire industry dedicated to figuring out how to "make" people shop.  Pretending that that same process is not happening in predatory games is ridiculous.

Predatory game designs can and do design environments to strongly encourage and incentivize the purchase of unnecessary things by manipulating player psychology.


As Long As It's Fun, It's OK

NOTE: I may update this section at later, as this is exactly what Tak Fung (Forever Drive) and I are discussing right now.  So, this section is my theory and my understanding, and I may be able to update it with better ideas later!

This defense is specifically for "level up faster" style freemium models of predatory game design.  This is I think a particularly insidious idea, because, unlike the other defenses, it can be hard to spot what's wrong with it until you back up about 10 feet and see the big picture.  This idea is one of the reasons I wrote that article in the first place.  I think it is an idea that is very sticky, very attractive, and even masquerades as ethical, or at the very least lawful-neutral.

This idea could be paraphrased as such: "Some players just don't have as much time as other players.  I want to provide a deep play experience for as wide an audience as possible, including people who are busy.  If they have money, and want to skip ahead, why is that bad?  Especially if the game itself is fun?"

Untangling this proposition forces us to back up a bit and examine the whole game system and business model and the way they connect, and question some of the assumptions in that idea.  First, games in which you can "level up faster" are, by necessity, games with an experience points system or leveling system of some sort.  We can take that for granted.  Second, usually if there is an experience or leveling system, there is some kind of checklist somewhere, where the player can unlock new things based on their experience or level.

The "as long as it's fun, it's ok" argument posits, then, that as long as the intrinsic play or game experience is more interesting for players than the extrinsic checklist component, using an otherwise predatory game design pattern is acceptable.

However, if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve more checklist progress with less gameplay.  That would run pretty directly counter to the whole game design.

However, if the checklist is in fact more compelling than the gameplay, and more important, then one can see how players would be willing to spend real money to avoid gameplay and acheive more of the checklist.

I think it is very important to acknowledge this basic relationship, this basic systemic implication: if you sell the ability to "level up faster", your business model probably depends on making money from the people who enjoy your game the least, and are the most succeptible to manipulative and addictive checklist features.

I would really love to be wrong about this, but I can't see this problem from another perspective (yet).  If there is another side, please share it in the comments!


Doing It Right

So hopefully by now you understand the types of predatory game designs with which I take issue.  There are some sound arguments against these kinds of designs, which I have tried to present in these two articles.  The widespread use of these designs needs at the very least to be defended if it is going to continue unquestioned; it's not an issue that can be ignored or dismissed anymore.

However, as many people (including myself) have pointed out, it's a lot easier to knock a house down than it is to build it up in the first place.  So, a proposition: let's knock down the house we built so far; it's a crappy house.  It takes all the worst aspects of game design and amplifies them using all the worst aspects of this new freemium craze.

Let's build a newer, better one in its place.  Let's look at the positive aspects of freemium, and build games around those things instead.  Let's give this business model a good name, and in turn give this massive sector of the game industry a good name too.  Here are some things that freemium is great at:

  • Convenience: If I want to buy add-ons for a game, leaving the game and going to some other menu or system or device or geographical location is awesomely enough an absurdity in this day and age.  Getting more content in the most convenient way and supporting developers at the same time - what could go wrong?
  • Lower Customer Risk: The days of buying a $60 game and hoping it doesn't just thoroughly suck are thankfully behind us.
  • Flexibility: Episodic games, cosmetic alterations, global buy-ins... there are genuine opportunities for experimentation and more, better ways for players to support us.
Probably there are even more advantages to this whole "freemium" thing, and in-game purchases, but these are the ones that stick out to me.  None of these things are inherently evil, obviously.  These all sound profoundly ethical, even.  Maybe we need some guidelines, going forward; maybe we need to erect some artificial contraints to keep us honest.  I would like to propose a few here, and I hope that we can continue exploring these in the comments:
  • In-Game Purchasing Presentation: We need to balance the convenience offered here, and the intrusion into the game.  Once i'm done playing the game, and have exited back to the game's main menu, if I can access a store there, that's a big improvement I think.  I don't have to go back to the app store just to get more levels or the next episode, but it's also not being stuff in my face as I play.
  • Checklist Usage: Checklists are one of the hallmarks of predatory game design, but we can ask ourselves a couple of simple questions when we are adding a checklist to our game.  First, how is this checklist presented?  Does it only appear if the player seeks it out, or is it constantly automatically presented?  Second, what is the function of the checklist?  Is it just a way to assign some trivial significance to player time spent in the game (an important metric for offering more IAP opportunities!), or does it provide some more interesting goals for the player?  In Bit Pilot, there is a checklist that encourages you to play the game in weird new ways.  In Costume Quest, there is a checklist that helps you avoid missing any story bits.  In neither game does the checklist automatically appear during play.
  • Skinner Box Usage: Random drops and other gambling systems obviously should either be abandoned entirely or used with extreme care, especially when coupled with real-world money systems.  I can't think of a time when this is an ok system to use honestly, but maybe someone will come up with something in the comments.
The goal with all of these guidelines is to reduce contrivance and increase convenience.  Freemium game technology can be one of the tools we use to increase convenience, but if it is at the price of contrivance, we are doing a profound disservice to the players that support us.

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Comments


Bruno Patatas
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Good post Adam! I specially liked the "Doing it Right" section. This is the type of discussion and criticism I like to see :)

Lars Doucet
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Interesting article with a lot of practical goodness in there!



I think a lot of this comes down to teleology - ie, WHY are we doing this in the first place? Modern economic thinking has largely excised any talk of "purpose" from an economy, but this doesn't remove questions of purpose, it just reduces them all to "maximize profit" and considers things like "justice" and "equity" to be cute at best, and Stalinist at worse.



And I think anyone who has been paying attention to the last few years should be able to conclude that "maximize profits at all costs" has NOT brought forth the heaven-on-earth the "greed is good" philosophy promised us over the last century.



Ultimately, I think it depends on how you see the player. If you see them as a resource (ARPU, ARPPU, ADU, etc), then you see them as something to exploit and you start to excise all the other rich aspects of their existence that aren't reduceable to numbers.



If you see the player as a person, then it's easier to design something that respects them and gives them something for their money.



And I don't think it's a one-or-the-other kind of thing - each of us wavers somewhere in the fuzzy middle ground between respecting people and exploiting them all the time in our daily life. I for one suggest that we strive at all times towards conscious, vigilant respect, lest cynical motivations take over and work their ways into our lives and products.



Full disclosure: I'm an independent developer, and also a professional game design consultant. Ie, I make "Indie" games, and have worked on facebook games for major publishers, too, so I have a foot in either side of this debate, and I have to say I come down squarely on Adam's side here.



Great use of nuance and practical suggestions, by the way! This kind of conversation and soul-searching is long overdue.

Robert Boyd
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Excellent article!



On the "Skinner Box Usage," something like Diablo or Titan Quest is obviously out due to their heavy reliance on random drops and the resultant potential for addiction that can cause. However, I think something like Dark Souls is a legitimate use of random drops. In Dark Souls, most of the items and equipment that the player gains is through exploration and quests. Enemies do have a chance to drop items however A) the items are preset for the enemy type (no random modifiers) and B) the player can increase the chance of item drops by increasing a specific stat (which can be done in various ways). Generally speaking, just playing through the game normally, the player will end up getting most of these item drops without the need for great luck or grinding.



As for other examples of game design that fosters addictive behavior, one from League of Legends comes to mind (although I imagine something similar is used in many other games). In League of Legends, you gain points from playing matches which can be used to unlock new champions and other features. However, the first win you get each day gives you a huge amount of bonus points. This is obviously designed to encourage players to play every single day, thus forming a habit, and potentially forming an addiction. And once an addiction has been formed and a player is playing the game for hours every day, spending actual money on the game starts to sound more and more plausible...

Aaron San Filippo
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(I posted something similar on Adam's homepage blog)



My issue with this is:

But some people really *like* Diablo. Without the random drops, it'd be more predictable and less fun for a lot of people. Not to mention that killing monsters in Diablo is, in itself fun - even the 1000th time.



Also - people play games for different reasons. Not everyone *wants* a thought-provoking, enriching experience - sometimes they just want to kill some time and forget about the real world.

Adam Saltsman
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It's a good point Aaron - while I think there are aspects of Diablo's design that are not great, at the very least it's really honest about what it is. You pay up front and you expect a lengthy, detailed, in-depth experience. And just from a craftsmanship perspective, Diablo is immaculate - great controls, fantastic atmosphere. I think if you took away random drops, a lot of Diablo would still be really engaging, and to me that does make a difference.



That is, I don't get the feeling that Diablo exists as a way to prop up a skinner box. It just happens to include one.

Lars Doucet
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A lot of this has to do with whether you use something cynically or not. Like, there's plenty of psychoactive drugs that occur naturally in nature, and although they're theoretically dangerous and habit-forming, it's not a big deal.



Then we humans apply rigorous scientific methods to them and unleash that full, concentrated potential. Start selling the stuff and now it's in our economic interest to keep you hooked and keep putting out stronger, more destructive stuff.



Diablo is super skinner-boxy, but that skinner-box is not hooked up to a microtransaction system, it's just part of the game. It's like, a virtual casino game where you spend $50 dollars and then only gamble with play money from then on. Theoretically its addictive, but the designers haven't yet directly tied your addiction to them getting rich. Once they make that final turn, as soon as they start optimizing everything goes towards exploitation. Example: REAL casinos.



This is why I'm a little scared of this new wave of monetization schemes. I KNOW it can be done right, and done ethically, but once you hook your incentives to a train that makes more money if it runs people over.... it gets scary.

K Gadd
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Are you suggesting that randomness is unacceptable gameplay? Or just the more offensive forms of randomness like gambling systems and random drops?

Adam Saltsman
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i love randomness! it all depends on how it is used. random drops are different from say... randomly generated Spelunky levels. random drops are a reward for doing the same action over and over until you happen to get a really positive reward... exactly like a skinner box. using random numbers or dealing with randomly generated scenarios is one of the great strengths of our medium!

Nathan Sturtevant
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To add to your points -- Braid is a great example of a game where "leveling up faster" doesn't make any sense. Each level in the game explores a particular aspect of design related to movement and time. Skipping any part of that robs the user of an engaging and novel experience that isn't found elsewhere in the game.



In theory, most (all?) well-designed games should be exploring some sort of dynamics that make removing any part of the game a loss. Something like making every scene count in a movie, or every chapter in a book.



Thus, I think you could argue that paying to level up faster is indicative of poor design, because there was nothing meaningful to explore and learn from the play that was skipped.

E McNeill
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Some play just scales up in intensity and difficulty, though, rather than offering unique gameplay at each section. Offering to skip sections of this style of game would really just equate to buying the higher difficulty levels rather than getting them as a reward for earlier gameplay. This is a little bizarre (better players have to pay to get their preferred difficulty, but worse players get it right on schedule...?) but doesn't seem unethical to me.

Adam Saltsman
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i would be comfortable labeling that kind of a bad design though. hey, players who i hope to support me - do you hate most of my game? pay me $1 and you can skip to the good part! otherwise, have fun slogging through the other crap I put in there to slow you down!



that's pretty much the definition of predatory game design right there ;)

E McNeill
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@Adam: That's what it looks like at it's worst, sure, but what if it's engaging content that's just aimed at a lower difficulty level?



What if in Rock Band, the Easy and Medium levels were free, but you had to pay for the Hard levels? That seems equivalent to me.

Adam Saltsman
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Hmmm. If that was in line with player's expectations I think it would be pretty reasonable! Locking the hard levels behind a pay wall is a good way to defy player expectations. instead later presenting the additional levels as like "extended play" or whatever (like rock band does with RBN) is much better design

E McNeill
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Agreed, but at this point you're just arguing that it's bad design, not unethical, right? It's a narrow case, of course, but still...

Adam Saltsman
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it has a lot to do with presentation i think. if you click on "hard songs" and a menu pops up, full of songs, and you click a song, and the song starts playing for a few seconds, and then stops and says "charge $0.99 to your account to unlock this song?"



that's pretty unethical and dishonest presentation to me, even though it is in many ways functionally identical to how RBN works normally.

Seppo Helava
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One thing that the article (which I really appreciate, as both someone with a background in traditional console game design and someone who's trying to walk that balance making a freemium-but-not-exploitative game) doesn't really bring up, though, is how the pricing on the platform affects how you approach making games.



In the mobile space, you can try to sell a game for $6. If you've got the hype, and you've got something that you're 100% sure players will absolutely kill for, you *might* be able to get a reasonable number of people purchasing it for $6. And piracy will be a huge issue that there's no good way to fight.



Mostly, though, you'll be mired in the race to $0.99. Hopefully, you'll hit that price at the right time, where there aren't other games who are making temporary dips to free/$1, and you can use your change in ranks to attract some new purchasers.



In the end, though, you'll eventually make your way down the pricing scale, and ultimately, if you want to make a reasonably deep/intensive game, it's going to be very, very hard to make your money back unless you basically hit the lottery.



Freemium on mobile lets us do two things: 1.) It lets us get the game into as many hands as possible. 2.) It lets people pay in proportion to how much they like the game. If they don't enjoy the experience, it costs them nothing to try. If they enjoy the experience a little, maybe they don't pay for it, they continue playing with the free stuff we give them, and hopefully, they tell a friend who might like it even better. If they love it, hopefully they purchase something & we get to keep making games (if that volume is high enough).



We tried making a paid game, and it was a *nightmare*. Critically acclaimed, but no one bought it, no matter how much we tweaked the pricing & tried to get users to it. Freemium offers a huge amount of flexibility - you may have a core game system that people really enjoy, but they want to manipulate it in some way to emphasize things they like vs. things they don't. You might have a social experience where people want to purchase gifts for their friends (where real-world value actually *does* translate into virtual emotional value). Honestly, on mobile, for me it's very hard to justify a for-pay game. The distribution structure doesn't allow it to make sense UNLESS you already have huge awareness/marketing.



The *problem* really comes in the fact that all of these things can be optimized. We're a game company first, but we use analytics (often in a pretty naive way, honestly) to help us figure out what's working & what's not working. You can *easily* extend that so that the analytics are driving your pricing down to the credit, and A-B testing is making every single popup timed to the T. And if you want to be competitive - it's a rough, difficult thing to do to keep even a modestly-sized studio profitable - you will end up sliding towards this kind of optimization, whether you want to or not.



And what it comes down to, I think, is whether as a developer, you want to "keep your soul" or not. And how you go about that depends on who you are. There are plenty of ways to lose your soul - for me, the push to freemium is a lot less awful than the push to just clone whatever's effective as fast as possible and out-market your peers. Hell, as an industry we've practically legitimized that behavior by having people who've built their companies by stealing others' work give keynotes & talks at our conferences. To me, that's reprehensible. And the freemium model *can* be used in similarly reprehensible ways, it's up to developers to try to use it in a way that provides genuine value to the players.

Adam Saltsman
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Hey Seppo, thanks for the comment! I didn't really touch on the app store "race to the bottom" because I actually don't think it matters much. I know it seems like it does - as an almost exclusively iOS developer, I definitely know where you're coming from.



The thing is, I think freemium can be awesome on every platform. I want to play games for free, I want to try a game out first and then see how I relate to it, and see if it interests me. I think this should be on all platforms! And in some ways, it is, but...



The thing is, regardless of all that, all these other lessons or guidelines or whatever still apply in a major way. Freemium implementation, checklist usage and skinner box usage are all platform-agnostic concerns, and are going to be important on every device we can think of in the coming years.

Seppo Helava
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(trying to respond to Adam's reply, though this may show up in the wrong place)



Yeah, and that's what I like about the article - just that in terms of "motivations to go freemium", there is a *very* strong motivator to do that on iOS vs. the traditional pay once model, and a lot of that rests on Apple, IMO, because discoverability on iOS is very, very difficult, and there aren't a lot of good channels to raise awareness.



But the key, then, is that you're still making a game that *has* to make money. And yes, some people will pay for an experience just because they really, really love it. But the number of people that are aware that a game needs donations is really small, and in a surprisingly high number of cases, people won't even *realize* that the game needs to make money through donations - they think that the game must make money in some bizarrely invisible way. Believe me, I know from experience.



So, you do have some systems that introduce some pressure. But how much? To me, that's where the line exists - whether you're going to apply really highly engineered pressure in order to extract the maximum $$ from a user, or whether you're going to try to make the best, most engaging experience so that people will spend some $ because they genuinely want to. But they're often not mutually exclusive. You do have to try to turn what people are enjoying into money, because the alternative is that you don't survive. The question is can you do it & be proud of what you're making? Or do you mutter, "I'm a game designer," knowing that every critical decision you make is made by analysts?

Lars Doucet
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Another thing - in my experience (and research), the vast majority of income on a lot of these big-scale freemium-model social games comes from "whales", ie, big spenders.



The whole Average Revenue per User (ARPU) is largely a myth, as nobody spends $1.75 on the game, 95% spend 0 and 5% spend seriously unhealthy amounts of dough. Tracking Median Revenue per User would be a more revealing metric.



There's a lot of problems with this - first of all, it presents a myth that we're just charging $0.50 here and there and making it up in volume, when in reality we know most people pay nothing and we're just waiting to hook that special someone for several G's.



First of all, that's a major ethical problem. It's one thing for Notch to donate $2,000 to the Humble Indie Bundle out of his largesse and without any compulsive leverage, but when we're sending the full tilt of game psychologists bent on manipulating people, it's kind of hard to shirk responsibility when some kids steals his mom's credit card and racks up thousands of dollars in charges. That's not exactly an unintended consequence when it's very close to exactly the kind of behavior we're TRYING to get people to do and optimizing our metrics and mechanics towards.



Finally, ethics aside - I have serious concerns about the long-turn sustainability of a model that depends on whales. If you're only asking for very small percentages of a person's income, then a gamer gets their entertainment and you get paid. When rare individuals start dropping fat stacks of cash, that's going to make an impact on their lives unless they are just fabulously, fabulously wealthy. Surely we can't keep doing that forever and stay in business.

E McNeill
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On your last point:



Eventually, we might just get good enough at "game design" that we might catch bigger whales than we expected. Another industry already learned how: gambling. If people start losing their houses because they spent all their money on our games, we'll find our medium regulated and ostracized in short order.

Lars Doucet
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My sentiments exactly.

Saul Gonzalez
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Lars, I agree that it's not like every user pays two dollars, but it's not like the bulk of revenue comes exclusively from "whales" either. As usual, reality is between the extremes.



From industry wide-figures, the median revenue per user would be around $5. Depending on the game, you have 5%~30% of paying users, the majority of which expend around the same or less than they would with an MMO suscription.

So it IS a model where a minority (sometimes a small minority) of users fund the game for everyone else. Is that a problem?



Yes, there is a small sliver of users that disproportionately contribute to income, but by no means they represent the majority of it. There is a curve, and almost all freemium games can survive without whales.



You make the assumption that no one would spend thousands of dollars in social games out of their own volition, so they must be being coerced into it. There is no data to prove or disprove that assumption.



But I'd like to ask: working from the opposite assumption, that all large spenders are supporting the game in full conscience and without any financial harm to themselves, would you still have issue with a business model that features or even depends on those disproportionate spenders?

Lars Doucet
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I'm always open to looking at new data sets - maybe what you've seen doesn't jibe with what I've seen so far. Got anything you can link me to? I'm always open to changing my mind if my base assumptions are wrong.



If my assumption that a lot of these things are primarily whale-funded turns out to be wrong, then my position would of course change. I'm still not comfortable with models where financial incentives invade the "magic circle" of gameplay in a way that breaks the monolithic-ness of the experience and tugs our design decisions in a way I'm uncomfortable with. If the whale hypothesis is false, that critique still stands, though obviously my position becomes more of a caution rather than a call to arms.



Given your hypothetical of, "large spends supporting a game in full conscience without any financial harm," I wouldn't have any issue with that, at least not any justifying public protest.



I have a tendency to start with hyperbole and then back down to a more reasonable position - I suppose that's the nature of the Internet. At any rate - my main concern with these social game models is that a financial incentive is driving the design in a very primary way.



I'm not saying these games can't be done right. I'm just saying when you inject financials directly into the play experience it takes a lot of constant vigilance to keep us honest.



One last thing:



Even in the absence of whale-dependency, though, the fact that there's no "ceiling" on price, combined with mechanics designed to tug at psychologies to pay more, means there's still the risk of doing more or less intentional harm. If someone wrecks their finances by paying $10,000 to the Humble Indie Bundle, that's one thing, because there is very little going on there to enact compelled behavior. If someone wrecks their finances by paying $10,000 on a freemium game, then I'd say the developer is still in some way responsible because they explicitly put mechanics into the game designed to push the player towards that specific outcome.



"Do No Harm" should be a motto of every industry, not just medicine. We should care about the well-being of our customers and put in safeguards. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but if we don't, then the government will do it for us in a way none of us are happy with.

Saul Gonzalez
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I'm actually talking about the Japanese mobile market, where there *are* hard limits on spend: around $2000/month. Not sure if it was imposed by the government or by the mobile carriers. So for all I know this could actually be an argument in your favor, both for the necessity of safeguards and for what happens in their absence ("whale" income increases disproportionally?).



But, I can assure you that can have a perfectly healthy freemium market without relying on a few huge spenders. I apologize for the fact that I do not have access to any figures I can show you, so it's up to you if you take my claim at face value.

Lars Doucet
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Ah, interesting! Well, that's a point for your side then. Just so we're clear - I'm not AGAINST freemium per se, and to a certain extent we might be talking past each other here, but I do need to get some work done today so this might be my last post :)



I don't have any figures on hand right now, either, so I guess we're tied. (If push comes to shove I could go dig some up to verify that my memory isn't fooling me).



$2,000 / month is still pretty dang high, but the existence of some kind of limit is at least a nod in the right direction.

E McNeill
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Fantastic article, Adam. The "predatory game design" label reminds me a lot of Ian Bogost's "exploitationware", which he applied to gamification. I truly appreciate that figures like you are speaking up about game design practices that you consider unethical. The effect you have in legitimizing the debate may be just as valuable as the effect from direct persuasion. So, thank you.

E McNeill
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"If there is another side [to the "As Long As It's Fun, It's OK" argument], please share it in the comments!"



I'll give it a shot, in the spirit of devil's advocacy. ;)



- Some players learn faster than others. A game might be paced slowly for the sake of the median player, but if I'm a hardcore BAMF at this game, I don't want to proceed through the simpler, easier, gently sloping levels. I'd rather jump right to the more complex stuff, which comes (in this hypothetical game) at higher levels only. Offering me the chance to save time and enjoy the game more is perfectly ethical (even though it's a bit odd to charge players for learning quicker than average).



Some other devil's advocate defenses:



- Re: Diablo, I'm quite interested in this example since I was a big Diablo II player. However, when I look back at that time, it never felt like a slot machine or Skinner box. To proceed at a decent pace, I had to challenge myself with the most difficult and level-appropriate enemies. I could always go try to kill a bunch more enemies in hope of loot, but they'd either be an active danger to me (causing interesting gameplay) or else very unlikely to generate good items. Instead, the item randomization system produced a lot of interesting choices about what equipment to use, sell, or store away based on variables like usefulness, inventory space, character requirements, special-case advantages, trading value, gold price, and sentimental value. It didn't feel like an egregious Skinner box until very high levels, when Mephisto runs became the best use of my time.



- Re: checklists, I've also thought a lot about this. My own game has 18 levels, each of which is designed to offer a unique strategic challenge. I agonized over whether to add some indication of completion (in this case, literally check marks) so that players could keep track of them. Adding check marks would make it easier to navigate to a new challenge, and seemed like a pretty helpful indication of feedback, but I worried about preying on completionist instincts. I finally added the check marks after a friend, a hardcore gamer that I respect, made the request. Do you think this was an appropriate use? It seems like a pretty stripped-down case to examine.

Adam Saltsman
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i mean it's always a balance right? i think you want maximum clarity, minimum manipulation. Clearly communicating player progress is almost always worth doing. it's when you present it as "you just finished level 7/18! just one more level and you unlock THE UNICORN" or something that i start to think "hmmmm maybe this is TOO much info"

Michael Giam
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Hi Adam -



I'm sort of in the "it's Ok for people who want to pay money to level faster" group, but I think it is because I've been looking at it for a slightly different reason. I wanted to see what you thought. Starting with your article:



"if you sell the ability to "level up faster", your business model probably depends on making money from the people who enjoy your game the least, and are the most susceptible to manipulative and addictive checklist features."



...well, in my case, I've been looking at the freemium model from a multi-player social aspect. For example, if I have a guild of friends I am playing with online, but I cannot play as often as they do, I would want a way to keep pace with them. I do not advocate simply buying a more powerful character, as I would have concerns over players missing out on basic learning curve lessons....BUT, I could see it possible to provide the wiling player with a way to accelerate their progress (ex: an item that lets the player earn experience at 1.25x) to keep pace with their friends who are playing more often.



In that context, then, the player is not valuing the checklist/progress over the intrinsic gameplay itself, but rather they are valuing the ability to continue to take part in the gameplay experience alongside their faster-progressing friends.



While in theory you could say that my friends could "slow down" for me, or that a properly balanced games should not have these issues, or that we could an internal system similar to the sidekick system in City of Heroes, or that we could give a progress accelerator away for free, it still seems to me that microtransacting an accelerator in this context does not seem unethical (although admittedly not as generous as free). It is an entirely opt-in solution that addresses an issue that is external to the gameplay (i.e., friends who progress at different rates).



I'm curious as to your thoughts on this to see if you're seeing something in it I haven't...



Oh, and nice article :)

james sadler
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Good article/rebuttal Adam. Lots of good discussion here that seems to be bypassing the kind of comments received in the last one.

Javier Arevalo
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There's a lot of value in the underlying ideas, but your delivery is, no offense intended, hysterical. You can't throw around big words like 'unethical' and 'extortion' without substantial backing.



- Who is the audience for 'predatory' games? It appears to be wildly different from that of 'classic' games, yet you don't explain why their qualities should be judged by the same parameters, i.e. that freemium games should exhibit and exercise the same kind of values (skill and challenge seem to be considered 'good' while time is not). No, the audiences are completely different, the kind of product and experience they are looking for is also completely different, and the business dynamics that permit those products to be economically viable are also wildly different.



- If 'predatory' games are so precisely engineered to open the player's wallets, why are the paying user % figures usually in the (low) single digits? Why the percentages of players that keep playing for months without spending a dime higher than those of paying users? You are grossly misrepresenting the actual business dynamics of these games, and worse, you know perfectly well what you are doing here.



- How many players are 'unsuspecting' victims of these 'predatory' games? Especially when millions of players seem happy to move from one freemium game to the next, they know very well what they are getting into - and they want more of it! In addition, some games appear to stick very well with players, whereas other games that employ exactly the same 'evil' tactics get quickly abandoned... don't you think there is something else, some forms of quality, value and craftsmanship that you are ignoring?



In other words, people who dismiss your arguments, do so because your arguments are passionate but not substantial.



There are unethical manipulations of players all across the spectrum from freemium to retail, and they always take the form of overpromise, hook and underdeliver; games where you pay upfront do so upfront (misleading screenshots, videos and demos), whereas games where you pay over time do it using time-based mechanics (to keep the player coming back). Freemium is not the root cause of it.

Adam Saltsman
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I definitely recommend reading the article. I address every single point you bring up here in detail!

E McNeill
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I'd be interested in a point-by-point rebuttal here too, even if it consists entirely of quotes from the article.

Adam Saltsman
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Here is a point by point rebuttal using quotes from the article:



"There's a lot of value in the underlying ideas, but your delivery is, no offense intended, hysterical. You can't throw around big words like 'unethical' and 'extortion' without substantial backing."



This defense takes many forms, thus the long title, but the result is the same no matter what: a dismissal of the argument without actually addressing any of the points or presenting a counter-argument, and a simultaneous attempt to discredit the original presenter (in this case, me).



This defense accomplishes two important things, neither of which are actually defenses of the practices in question. First, it prevents them from having to actually point out any actual flaws in my argument. Second, it mis-characterizes both my argument and the arguments of anyone bothered by these trends as being about personal dislike, rather than evaluations of game systems and player psychology.



"No, the audiences are completely different, the kind of product and experience they are looking for is also completely different, and the business dynamics that permit those products to be economically viable are also wildly different."



Actually, this one is not in the article at all, but I don't even know what this means. My guidelines are not for gamers; they're for humans. My guidelines are not about styles of game or difficulty of game; they're about treating players with a modicum of respect. My guidelines are about carefully analyzing the impact of these business dynamics on the game designs to figure out how to be less evil in the future.



"If 'predatory' games are so precisely engineered to open the player's wallets, why are the paying user % figures usually in the (low) single digits? Why the percentages of players that keep playing for months without spending a dime higher than those of paying users? You are grossly misrepresenting the actual business dynamics of these games, and worse, you know perfectly well what you are doing here."



The argument here is that because predatory game designs actually work, and the developers make money (and lots of it), that that somehow validates these designs as ethical. This is sociopathic reasoning. It is like arguing that some activity or other is only illegal if you get caught, or that if you can't prove that i'm lying, then obviously i'm not.



The fact that predatory game designs reap massive financial rewards should be setting off warning alarms in our heads, not indignant defenses of the practice justified by circular logic and correlation.



IN ADDITION: The fact that they primarily reap these financial rewards from a relatively small share of the audience should set off even MORE warning alarms.



"How many players are 'unsuspecting' victims of these 'predatory' games? Especially when millions of players seem happy to move from one freemium game to the next, they know very well what they are getting into - and they want more of it! In addition, some games appear to stick very well with players, whereas other games that employ exactly the same 'evil' tactics get quickly abandoned... don't you think there is something else, some forms of quality, value and craftsmanship that you are ignoring?"



The argument I believe is something like "hey man - we just put some things up for sale. if people buy them, they buy them - it's their call. how is that bad?" This is profoundly disingenuous. You could make the same claim about grocery stores, but there is an entire industry dedicated to figuring out how to "make" people shop. Pretending that that same process is not happening in predatory games is ridiculous.



Predatory game designs can and do design environments to strongly encourage and incentivize the purchase of unnecessary things by manipulating player psychology.



"In other words, people who dismiss your arguments, do so because your arguments are passionate but not substantial."



Please see my first point for a third time.



"There are unethical manipulations of players all across the spectrum from freemium to retail, and they always take the form of overpromise, hook and underdeliver; games where you pay upfront do so upfront (misleading screenshots, videos and demos), whereas games where you pay over time do it using time-based mechanics (to keep the player coming back). Freemium is not the root cause of it."



I like this one a lot, for multiple reasons. First, it is a tacit admission that predatory game design is in fact greedy and bad for players, the humans who support us in our creative endeavors. Second, and I say this without irony or sarcasm, it rightly points out predatory game designs that pre-dated the modern freemium business models. Common examples are the grind-fest of Diablo, or the quarter-sucking arcade machines of days of yore. While I would argue that those games were at least more transparent about your psychological and financial investment, they are valid points, and should be part of the discussion.



However, "of course these games are greedy" is a pretty sad defense.







Is that satisfactory? I will not be doing this again, as it is a demonstrable waste of my time.

E McNeill
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I'm sorry that you feel this post was a waste of your time. I appreciated it, for whatever that's worth.

David McGraw
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@adam - definitely a waste, but thanks!

Javier Arevalo
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Adam, you absolutely don't address them, much less integrate them seriously into your own arguments, but if you insist on being dismissive, who am I to stop you. Enjoy the popularity!

Adam Saltsman
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From the article:



This defense takes many forms, thus the long title, but the result is the same no matter what: a dismissal of the argument without actually addressing any of the points or presenting a counter-argument, and a simultaneous attempt to discredit the original presenter (in this case, me).



This defense accomplishes two important things, neither of which are actually defenses of the practices in question. First, it prevents them from having to actually point out any actual flaws in my argument. Second, it mis-characterizes both my argument and the arguments of anyone bothered by these trends as being about personal dislike, rather than evaluations of game systems and player psychology.

Javier Arevalo
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My point exactly.

Lars Doucet
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Javier, Enrique is on your side of things, but rather than simply repeating the assertion that Adam is not answering him, he actually provided specific, pointed feedback, explaining HOW he feels Adam's arguments fall short.



You asked for a point-by-point response, you got one. Now it's your turn to rebut. Don't just assert that you're not being answered, or you lose the right to accuse someone else of dismissing your arguments because you're doing the same thing yourself.

Adam Saltsman
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of course, since I WAS able to answer every point you posted with quotes from the article, I wasn't being dismissive, after all. I was stating a fact. This is different from deliberate dismissal and simultaneous attempted discrediting. It was simply the most efficient way to convey the most information in the least time.



Do you understand the difference? "I already answered your questions in detail, just scroll up the page a little" is qualitatively different from avoidance & ad hominem attacks.

Javier Arevalo
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Excuse me but since you said that replying was a "demonstrable waste of my time" and elsewhere insisted that "this is getting a bit tedious", I understand that you don't want any more responses.



Your article does not address, much less answer, the points I made. I already clarified that. What you quoted (when you were able to quote) from your article therefore still does not address them.



In an attempt to make this useful, let's take the one point you agree didn't appear in your article:



"Actually, this one is not in the article at all, but I don't even know what this means. My guidelines are not for gamers; they're for humans. My guidelines are not about styles of game or difficulty of game; they're about treating players with a modicum of respect."



Now, we agree that all players and all humans should be treated with respect. But there is no inherent lack of respect in ensuring that your game encourages players to pay if they like the game and want to enjoy more of it. If anything, you are asking players to respect YOU as a creator by paying something for the enjoyment they derive from your work. Short of a pure donation model, this encouragement must affect the product you create in some ways. That doesn't make the creator greedy, which seems to be your characterization of the monetization process.



My original point was more directly related to the section 'As Long As It's Fun, It's Ok.' (I'd like to think that my points are not direct 1-to-1 arguments to specific points, but rather touch on your presentation as a whole from different points of view; point-by-point debates are frankly limited and lead to uninteresting nitpicking. But I digress)



In there, you say that 'if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve more checklist progress with less gameplay.'



You are talking about 'the gameplay' as if it were a single, indivisible unit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most modern games, and particularly most successful games, are not reduced to a single element of gameplay, but rather support and combine a wide array of experiences, mechanics and play styles.



Different players are interested in different mechanics and playstyles. Equally important, even the same player will be interested in different mechanics and playstyles at different points in time, depending on mood, available time and other factors external to the game.



Let's take FarmVille, which I assume would be a good example of what you call 'predatory'. People play that game for different reasons and in different ways: to build and decorate a pretty farm (gardening without the dirt); to compete with others (without the stress of a direct confrontation); to relax with a mindless passtime (where you click things and nice stuff happens); to figure out the optimal strategies (and probably move on afterwards); as a collector / completionist (sometimes even obsessively so). I'm sure there's more.



Most games mix and combine the mechanics that support all their different playstyles; a player can't ONLY play the mechanics she is interested in and skip the rest. I can't ignore the loot in Diablo and only play the combat game; I can't skip boss battles in Bayonetta; I can't skip the exploration in Shadow of the Colossus.



Freemium games by definition must embed their payment encouragement elements within regular gameplay. One of the ways they do this is by asking players to pay if they want to skip or ignore some of the aspects of the game that are not of interest to them. To characterize this as 'the checklist is more important than the gameplay' is a terrible, terrible simplification.



Doing this embedding without ruining the integrity, value and fun of your game is a very delicate design and balancing process. Most games that try get it wrong, and among those that get it right, some can reap massive benefits if they are aimed at the right audience.



Player power curves, and defined goals, are age old mechanics in a designer's toolbox. A common trend is for sophisticated players to mock the distilled versions of these (leveling up, and explicit lists of goals / quests) as simplistic. And I guess they ARE simple! That's why they are so successful: because they work as mechanics that a less sophisticated player will enjoy, understand and want to work with.



Same goes for randomness: it's an incredibly easy way to create uncertainty, variety, anticipation, and similar feelings that are pervasive to most play experiences.



An evil designer may try to create an evil skinner box using of these mechanics, but that doesn't make the mechanics themselves evil or unethical in any way (just like in the original skinner box the lights, the electricity or the cheese are not evil). And outside of gambling, I don't know of a game that consist purely of a skinner box.



The fact that most successful freemium games derive their revenue from a small % of the playerbase to me means that these games must contain a lot of unadulterated, not-evil, absolutely ethical value for their players. If that were not the case, any players that evade the skinner mechanism that forces them to pay, would simply not play at all. Therefore, the evil skinner component that worries you so much must, in fact, do not exist or be minimally present, buried under all that value. Most designers will call this presence simply 'understanding basic human behaviour'.

Saul Gonzalez
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(I've also posted this comment in Google+ http://plus.google.com/106969337733876526967/posts/2dsxoenqsKm)



Adam, very insightful article. I didn't dislike the previous one, but this one seems more conductive to constructive discussion.



I respect you as a game designer and see what you are getting at. But I would like to offer you a different perspective.



Disclaimer: I work at a freemium mobile games company in Tokyo. I am "not surprisingly," one of those "developers of games that use these business models". However I believe seeing both sides of an issue contributes to a deeper understanding. (Ask Ian Bogost about it.)



My undestanding of your argument is as follows:



1) You suscribe to the Koster/Cook model that all games are intrinsically about exposing an interactive system that the player explores by exercising skill, and that this experience, as Koster recently tweeted, "expands his mind/soul" in some dimension. You also seem to agree with Jonathan Blow's assertion that doing this sub-optimally is wasting the player's time.



2) You strongly believe that money should never, ever permeate the magic circle of play. That gameplay and purchase should be kept as separate as possible.



For someone who grew up with and is used to the console and PC games of the last three decades and their mostly packaged-good models, these are reasonable expectations. In fact, they represent what I personally want from games as a player and what I ideally would like to create as a developer if I had full creative freedom.



But being close to freemium games has made me realize that this is not, in fact, the only possible paradigm. Has made me realize that many people who have never engaged with this tradition have their own, different paradigms.



First, to the surprise of traditional gamers, sometimes people just want to click a cow. By which I mean, there any many players who play freemium games simply to get a sense of advancement, a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes people, including myself when mentally exhausted after a day's work, just want to execute a sequence of mindless actions and get a small virtual reward from it. You may argue that it is an empty reward, that you're not actually accomplishing anything, but then, how is that different from watching a trashy drama, reading a page turner, or playing Bewejeled in Zen mode? To each their own guilty pleasure. Sometimes people do want to engage with a Skinner's Box willingly.



Is a game that rewards your time investment instead of your skill or luck, really, intrinsically, so terrible? Is it not, in the end, a matter of personal preference?



On the second topic, it has been proven that people become cautious, even distrustful, whenever money is introduced into an equation. This is reflected in the attitude of many developers, bearers of the holy duty of creating a sublime experience in the best interests of the player, who try to distance themselves from the lowly salesman and marketers, a crowd devoted to cheating people out of their money (unless it's your game they're marketing, in which case they're tolerated). This is also why many gamers react strongly against in-game ads.



The fact of the matter is that social games do fuse gameplay (clean) with marketing (dirty). The game becomes its own advertisement. If you're not used to it, it is perfectly understandable that it may offend your sensibility, but as I will explain later, it isn't unethical per se. Yes, marketing has techniques with proven effectivity, techniques that will increase sales regardless of the quality of the product. But if you have a problem with marketing in general or with making games for profit, that's a whole other discussion.



You state that this game/ad meta-fusion is a deceit of player expectations, that it tricks players by "pulling out the rug under them" at the most profitable moment. However, that is not I have seen in actual customers. Most customers of freemium games either don't have those expectations in the first place or have learned to have a different set of ones. Most customers I've seen are very savvy: they know the game is subsidized by paying players and they expect those to have and advantage. They know that the initial stage of the game is a trial, they know that at some point they will be asked for money one way or another.



Most players I know are very conscious of when and how they spend their money. Most have manual or automatic limits on their spend. For most players, when and how to use their money is part of the game. For them, freemium is as "transparent about their financial investment" as arcades or amusement parks.



Is this model new? Yes. Some people unfamiliar with it may make uninformed decisions they later regret? Yes. But that is the case whenever anything new is introduced. How many people have been "burned" by $50 games? As much as those stories are hyped in the media, there is no indication that the cases of true addiction / financial ruin are any more frequent for freemium than they are for FPSs or MMOs. As I state above, the overwhelming majority of people are not stupid and quickly acquire literacy in the new model.



It is quite ironic, in fact. While the mothers say "my son is addicted to that mindless killing game", the sons are lamenting "my mom is addicted to that inane farming game".



I get the impression that all this negative sentiment against freemium is fueled by an image of greedy psycho-mathematicians unleashing a digital drug onto the unsuspecting populace. Mark Pincus has done the industry a huge disservice by fueling that image.



However, that stereotype does not match up with the reality I've faced while in the industry. To begin with, at least half the developers I know are avid freemium game players themselves. In our company at least, we strive to create items and systems that will be interesting and attractive enough to our players that enough of them will choose to vote with their wallets. Not once has anyone brought up anything resembling trickery or manipulation.



And yet we use the tools of the trade that you decry. We offer "skill-free gameplay" and "checklists" and random drops, because that's what our costumers like and demand from us. We use "aggressive" marketing and -holy god- allow metrics and sales to influence our design. That lets us reach our customers and provide them with an experience that, you may be surprised to hear, they constantly tell us they cherish. So we are making daytime soaps instead of arthouse films. We have no shame for it. That is our audience and we respect them. We give them the credit that you don't.





To sum up, you've made it pretty clear that most freemium games do not match the expectations of traditional gamers. That they do not represent how you personally want to be treated as a player. That's okay. But just because you see no value in them, don't assume they have no value to anyone else. And in particular, please don't make blanket statements about customers of freemium games being innocent sheep tricked out of their money unless you have solid, non-anecdotal evidence that supports them.

Adam Saltsman
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Like Javier's post (though much more thoughtful and respectful!) I feel like all of these defenses or rebuttals are thoroughly addressed in my article.



In order, the sections "Players Have a Choice", "Games Have Always Been Greedy", and then back to "Players Have a Choice". You end with a much milder version of "Whiners, Trolls, Hurt Feelings, Meanness, Tone, etc", implying that my arguments, despite being about systems and psychology, are in fact about personal taste!



I would propose that regardless of your intentions or feelings toward your players, the systems you're building MAY (i am not familiar with your products) be profoundly disrespectful of your players, using psychological manipulation to coerce them into spending more money and time than they would otherwise. I don't see how that is respecting them or giving them credit that I don't!



The "Players Have a Choice" fallacy is partly about "hey we're not forcing them to play" and partly about "hey they like it, they're not dumb, they know what's up". But the business model rewards games that do strongly encourage people to play more than is pleasant, and they do it not through deception but through direct manipulation.



At no point in my arguments do I characterize players as "innocent sheep tricked out of their money", and I don't do this for a reason; it's obviously ridiculous. However, like predatory game designers, I DO characterize players as HUMANS, meaning they are susceptible to all the same pressures and environmental effects as all other humans. Predatory game design takes advantage of this. It doesn't make people stupid, it makes people PEOPLE. Predatory game designers just exploit that fact for profit.



Do other games and industries also do that? Sure! Is profiting from psychological hacks ethical? I don't think so.

Saul Gonzalez
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Thanks for your reply Adam.



I do feel that your personal experience is coloring your perception in a way fundamental to your argument.



Raph Koster once said that one of the pitfalls of being an expert game designer is that you see almost all games for the psychological tricks they are, and are thus unable to enjoy them. All games, in fact all creative media, use proven, polished mechanisms to generate a certain response, ergo "psychological tricks". Musicians know how to make you happy, sad or excited. Writers know how to catch your attention and grab your heartstrings. Sexy imagery is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Your personal familiarity with a certain tool doesn't make it worse than the others.



So most freemium games use a subset of systems you have completely grokked, both as a player and as a designer, and thus they have no value to you.

Is it so hard to believe that very accesible, very simple feedback loops can have value to people who are not so versed on games?

I'd be satisfied if you could honestly say to me that you have given one minute of sincere consideration to the possibility.



To phrase the argument differently, I'm sure than to masters of the narrative form, popular series like Friends or 24 are profoundly disrespectful of their viewers and use simple tricks to make them spend money and time in them. So, are they predatory?



>But the business model rewards games that do strongly encourage people to play more than is pleasant,



This remark makes me think your complaint is really about when "bad freemium makes 100x more $ than traditional games".



"More than is pleasant" is, by definition, a subjective term. Just because a game becomes boring to you quickly does not mean that it does for everyone else. In fact, I cannot count the number of games that I quit playing, *after* they took my money, because they expected me to refine my skills or invest more time than I considered "pleasant". Critically acclaimed, top sellers too.



It is sad that the market rewards, again, very accessible, very simple, very transparent games more than it does lovingly crafted works for gamers by gamers? Perhaps it is. The market also rewards cookie-cutter FPSs, formulaic plots, and sexy, easy women. You're complaining that unrefined is popular.



So yes, I feel your argument in the end is: "People cannot honestly like that garbage, they must not realize what is happening!", with "garbage" defined thru the prism of your personal taste, knowledge and social circle.



> Is profiting from psychological hacks ethical? I don't think so.

I take this to mean that you believe all modern advertising is highly unethical. Please correct me if I am mistaken. If you do, the world must look seriously wrong to you.

I actually partially agree with you, but I don't think this particular genie can be put back into the bottle. I'd sincerely like to hear more about your stance on this.

Adam Saltsman
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This is "all games are greedy" (again!), followed by "players have a choice" (again!), followed by "all games are greedy" (again!), followed by "this is just personal dislike" (again!), followed by "all games are greedy" (again!!).



I apologize for my impatience but this is getting a bit tedious! I don't know how you can read either of my articles OR any of these comments and still summarize my argument as:



"People cannot honestly like that garbage, they must not realize what is happening!"



I have tried over and over to explain how this stuff works. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than I just did in my last response to you. If this is what you think I am saying, then I do not know what else to say.



Making something beautiful and selling it is not the same as deliberately crafting an on-going, deceptive, predatory environment full of carefully engineered psychological manipulation. If you think it is, dang man, I feel really bad for you!



The world is full of bad things, like unethical modern advertising, pervasive media messaging and so on - there's no doubt. But we don't have to contribute to that. We can just make beautiful things and see if sometimes people buy them.

Bruno Patatas
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Just going to give my brief opinion on all this.



I really disliked the first article that Adam wrote. It was too harsh imo without pointing a direction. However, I really liked this one, and the suggestions that Adam provides are very much welcome. I am entering the world of game design for social games. I have been game designer of console games and now I am going to enter this brave new world.

As Adam said in the article, unethical game designs are not limited to just freemium games. For me that's the worrying part. Unethical game designs and/or business practices can be seen in all sections of the industry. The case with the Catwoman code on the latest Batman game is an example.



I also use the argument that there are people who like social games, so they are not that bad. I give FarmVille more credit and value than a lot of people do.



But, the fact that there are freemium game dev companies that are most interested in getting money from the player than providing a good game experience it's a fact. I know quite a few small companies that are developing social games that they only care about monetization. For me the passion to create games should be a given in any studio, otherwise they are not a games company.



As I believe that the freemium model is here to stay, I think we designers have the duty to provide better and better game experiences to our audience, adding more game to the games and refining monetization techniques.



And yeah, I believe modern advertising is highly unethical. I am a father of two small children and this world worries me...

Lars Doucet
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I'll tackle this one:



"To phrase the argument differently, I'm sure than to masters of the narrative form, popular series like Friends or 24 are profoundly disrespectful of their viewers and use simple tricks to make them spend money and time in them. So, are they predatory?"



To phrase that another way - "I'm sure to culinary experts, popular food like popcorn and pretzels are profoundly direspectful of their eaters and use simple tricks to make them spend money and time in them. So, are they predatory?"



If we don't load the popcorn and pretzels with butter and salt to exploit the brain, no. If we do, then yes, absolutely.



If we produce TV series that make people schedule their lives around broadcast television and then use that to constantly bombard them with advertisements for crap they don't need, yes. If we provide a way to produce the same show in a format where they can consume it at their leisure and without manipulative advertisement, like Tivo or Netflix, then that's better.



In general, all sorts of media are manipulative and laced with unethical psychological tactics. We're just arguing that since we're game designers, maybe in our media, we should take a moment of serious self-reflection and maybe stop doing that. I appreciate your respectful tone and would therefore like to return the gesture - sorry if the tone-less nature of text doesn't communicate this.



The point is - it's not the design. It's not about World of Goo vs. FarmVille. It's not about Canabalt vs. Smurfs & Co. It's not about Friends vs. Citizen Kane, and it's not about popcorn vs. filet mignon. It's the monetization, and the fact that the perverse incentives drive the design in a cynical way.



There are plenty of ways to make games - social, AAA, indie, whatever- that don't exploit people, and that's what we should do.

Saul Gonzalez
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Thanks a lot for the replies, everyone. I feel like I'm starting to get what you mean. I'll post again in a bit.

Lars Doucet
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Thanks for the lively discussion! Sorry if I'm coming on too strong or anything - I feel pretty passionately about this (as I can tell you do as well), so although I think it's very important to get these points across, I don't want to chase you away or turn this into winning-vs-losing the argument.



I've been on the unpopular side of an argument before, and it really sucks to lose by default just because everyone disagrees with you. The truth demands we work it out until we understand both sides of this as well as possible, rather than short-circuiting the process.

Anthony Panecasio
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Good read, Adam. A lot of interesting points.



This might seem simplistic, but I'd say that the rise of what you call "predatory" game design comes from the explosive growth in the mobile games sector. I'd argue that most of these (newer) users haven't even heard of some of the "experiences" you've listed, like Ico, Braid, and Flower. I don't think many of these people would get much from these games, either. As some commentors have already pointed out, they want the quick burst of instant gratification. So, then, is it a two-pronged issue? Do we also blame players (now as consumers in the purest sense) and/or the mobile platform for dictating a preference for "predatory" game design?



Thanks for reading!

Adam Saltsman
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The players are part of this system, for sure, but I think in this case it is actually easier to point the finger at predatory game design. Sort of the whole point of predatory game design is to disarm people, to bring them in, to manipulate their psychology to hook them. Players can't really return that favor :P I feel like this puts the onus on designers at this point in time

E McNeill
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First, to the surprise of some, sometimes people just want to smoke a cigarette. By which I mean, there any many people who take addictive drugs simply to get a sense of euphoria, a simple chemical high. Sometimes people, including myself when mentally exhausted after a day's work, just want to lean back, take a few puffs and feel a little better for it. You may argue that it is an unhealthy habit, that you're not actually feeling happier in the long run, but then, how is that different from eating a greasy hamburger, or having an occasional candy bar? To each their own guilty pleasure. Sometimes people do want to engage with an addictive drug willingly.

...

However, that stereotype does not match up with the reality I've faced while in the industry. To begin with, at least half the manufacturers I know are avid smokers themselves. In our company at least, we strive to create flavors and textures that will be tasteful and smooth enough to our users that enough of them will choose to vote with their wallets. Not once has anyone brought up anything resembling addiction or manipulation.



-----



For the record, I don't think that "predatory game design" is as harmful as nicotine. But I don't see anything in your post that couldn't be translated in the same manner as the paragraphs above. What I understand Adam and Jon Blow to be saying is that they don't judge the smokers (everyone has their guilty pleasures, in moderation), but they do want to discourage anybody from making it their life's work to build a better cigarette, especially when it's based in a strong financial motive. Everything I've read from them is intensely designer-oriented, and I think that's perfectly appropriate.

Saul Gonzalez
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Yes, you can substitute words and compare to me to a drug dealer and/or pornography peddler if you'd like. I find it very intellectually dishonest to make the comparison and get the emotional kicks out of it while making a cursory mod to the fact that you simply cannot compare games (of any kind) to nicotine in terms of proven addictiveness and long-term damage.



I find it very funny that no less than a year since games survived their greatest legal challenge in the U.S., people are making the same kind of baseless inflammatory statements that led to that very challenge. Or do you think the general public makes any kind of difference between social/freemium and traditional games?



Anyway, which argument are you making?



A) That it's okay to while your time away with Halo, Canabalt or ASYNC Corp, but not with Jetpack Joyride or Infinity Blade? Exactly why?



B) That you are enlightened enough to see thru the "addiction and manipulation" mechanisms in freemium games and are able to escape from them, but the dumb masses are not?



C) That all pursuits that have a financial motive are to be discouraged? All B-movies, all pop music, all mainstream manga, they're all reprehensible? Anything that is not made with the purest of auteur spirits is predatory?



All of them? Please elaborate.

E McNeill
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Not A or B. Again, this is about the creators, not the consumers. This is, in part, the purpose of the comparison I made earlier.



As for C, sort of. It's not the existence of a financial motive, but the cynical quality of creation that can accompany it. There are B-movies and pop musicians that love their medium, try to create good art, and have positive artistic effects. Lady Gaga, for example, is considered almost quintessential pop music, but she exhibits genuine talent and has built her act around a core and somewhat self-referential artistic point. But for the pop musician that's totally manufactured, that gives its audience whatever will earn the most profit, with no artistic or moral standards... the people creating that should not be proud of their work.



I'd be supportive of the creators of these games if they were driven to this design style out of a love for the gameplay or an intent to improve it artistically. But the sense I get, based on the similarities between games, the addictive elements, and the apparent focus on metrics and profits, is that these games are being created cynically, or at least without regard for the effect they have on the world.

Lars Doucet
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"I find it very funny that no less than a year since games survived their greatest legal challenge in the U.S., people are making the same kind of baseless inflammatory statements that led to that very challenge. Or do you think the general public makes any kind of difference between social/freemium and traditional games?"



You're on to something with the rest of it, but this is sophistry. Surely we have a right to self-examine and criticize ourselves, for all sorts of good reasons, one of which is precisely BECAUSE of the threat of government regulation if we don't.



Yes, that means some of us will resort to hyperbole when perhaps we shouldn't, but that's a separate argument - "Please don't use hyperbole."



The rest of the argument doesn't jibe - there is a grand difference between those of us saying, "We SHOULD NOT do X" and demanding the government to impose by law "You MAY NOT do X." I hardly think Adam is calling for government regulation, nor do I think there's any risk of him being called in to a congressional hearing based on his remarks on Gamasutra.



No disrespect - I'd like to hear what you have to say, but I have to flatly disagree with that one statement.

Adam Saltsman
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In response to the original A, B and C queries:



A: Yes. Because the systems there are interesting to explore; you can learn things about math, the universe, and other people. You can build a skill (however arbitrary it may be). The point of the game is NOT to simply get people to play long enough to form an emotional attachment that can be exploited.



B: Yes and no. I believe I can see through this crap; I am nearly allergic to it at this point. However, I don't believe that not being wholly cognizant of the psychological hacks in these games makes someone "dumb", as you keep insisting. It can just mean that, perhaps, since they don't design games for a living, and haven't been meditating on how these business models work for the last year, that they are simply not aware of the psychological pressure the environment exerts on them. Precisely the same way that many people, regardless of intellect (however you might measure it) may not be aware that their grocery store is designed to sell them Doritos.



C: That is ridiculous, dude. There is a huge gap between simply making and selling entertainment, and designing manipulative financial platforms disguised as free harmless games.

Lars Doucet
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Furthermore - I think we should directly address the argument "Hey, we're making a different kind of game for a different kind of audience."



There is nothing at all wrong with making games in a different kind of style, or for a different kind of person. This is not about disparaging "casual" genres like Hidden object, Match-3, or "social" genres/mechanics like virtual pets, play farms, etc, per se. The objection is to the FINANCIAL mechanics that are intentionally designed to milk people, because once the optimization crank starts turning cynically - which is VERY easy to do once financial pressure is applied from above - it starts to manipulate people. THAT is the point.



And even if my previous point about whales is based on faulty assumptions, the above argument still stands.

Saul Gonzalez
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Whoa. Lots of replies. Will try to answer bit by bit.



@Lars

I was compared to a group of people widely thought to knowingly lie about the harmful effects of their products on the face on mounting evidence. That set me on edge and I may have been somewhat hyperbolic myself.



However, while I agree that Adam is not pushing for government legislation and I do hope that this discussion will not be misquoted in support of one, I *am* seeing signs of the thinking that leads to censorship. Remember the Comics Code was self-imposed.



First, the language: mentions of fostering "addiction" and "building a better cigarette". To me, talking of addiction in regard to games cheapens the struggles people have with real chemical addiction. Then, "predatory design", as in "predatory lending", as in "lending that was either illegal or should have been".



All without a single shred of meaningful evidence that freemium games are in any way harmful. We should match the words to the facts.



More importantly, I see the same thinking that led to attempted or actual censorship.



If I may reuse the example, when comics became popular, the status quo saw that they had no value and that their readers were being manipulated by dark mechanisms, like disrespect for authority, so for the readers' own benefit they self-regulated comics.



When rock-and-roll became popular, the status quo saw that it had no value and that their listeners where being manipulated by dark mechanisms, like perverse morals, so for the listener's own benefit they aimed to regulate rock-and-roll.



When videogames became popular, the status quo saw that they had no value and that their players where being manipulated by dark mechanisms, like violence and sex, so for the player's own benefit they attempted to regulate comics.



When freemium games became popular, the status quo (and in intelligent discussion of games, Gamasutra and one of the most prominent indie developers do represent the status quo) saw that they had no value and that their players where being manipulated by dark mechanisms, like Skinner's Boxes, so for the players' own benefit they called for some guidelines, some artificial constrains, for some systems to be abandoned entirely.



But hey, this time it *is* different... right?



I do realize that the scale of the call for action and the actual weight behind it *are* worlds apart, so making the comparison is maybe inflammatory. But I wanted to stress that the premises are the same.

Adam Saltsman
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I think categorizing opposition to predatory game design as a moralistic and kneejerk reaction to a NEW trend is inaccurate though. This discussion includes designs and psychological manipulation hacks from 30 years ago - recent trends have pushed it into the spotlight, no doubt. But a key part of getting this discussion to move forward in discussing ethical ways of using new business models is getting past the idea that opposition to predatory game design is based on "eww, freemium!" This is just the "personal dislike" fallacy again, and prevents us from actually making progress.



If we're going to fix things we have to be able to admit they're broken first. My goal here has been to illustrate that things are in fact broken, that many recent designs are in fact more addictive and more manipulative specifically in the name of customer exploitation, something that I am genuinely surprised that anyone can find controversial at this point. A lot of the specific ways in which these designs are broken are old ways, but they are being amplified with this new, rapid iteration metrics + monetization loop that has recently bloomed.



So I have to reject the idea that this is just people rejecting a new model of thought. I have to reject the idea that this is like new art forms being censored. In all those examples, young creators were generally IN FAVOR OF the amazing new things that were being created. The establishment was appalled by the status quo changing.



The implication, here, then, which is a decidedly odd one, is that young exploratory game designers are the establishment, and massive multinational advertising and financial platform corporations are the... progressive young artists?



That's a hard idea to swallow I think. Pointing out that popular, get-rich-quick systems are perhaps driven more by greed than by genuine concern for customers, to me, is different than mindless defense of the status quo. I actually see this as a BREAK from the status quo. This is also why I specifically use the term "ethical" rather than "moral".

Robert Boyd
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"First, the language: mentions of fostering "addiction" and "building a better cigarette". To me, talking of addiction in regard to games cheapens the struggles people have with real chemical addiction."



People can have very real addictions to activities that don't directly involve outside chemicals. Gambling is a widely recognized addiction that can deal a lot of damage to an individual and their family and friends. It's only natural that some developers are worried when they see certain games model themselves after activities known to be destructive in the interest of making money.

Lars Doucet
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I understand what you're saying here, "Remember the Comics Code was self-imposed." But I'd like to know what you mean by self-imposed, because from what I've read, PLENTY of comics authors didn't take the code upon themselves willingly, rather, it was a response to outside pressure and largely controlled by outside interests, to boot.



Furthermore, calling for reform is not the same as calling for censorship. I understand the concern, but I don't think that's what's going on here



Finally, I would consider the "status quo" to be defined by major publishers and other monied interests with strong pull in the game industry, and they are largely embracing so-called predatory game design - those of us who are speaking out here represent people largely without such resources and clout.



All of us know who Adam is, but I doubt Activision's CEO knows, or if he does, cares.



And to chime in on the addiction thing - I've seen people's lives destroyed first-hand by addictions to seemingly mundane things. Nobody's robbed a gas station yet to fuel their FarmVille habit, but the same forces are at work there. That's why we call it "addictive" - because it is! Furthermore, there's plenty of documented cases of designers using the word "addictive" with a positive, desirable connotation. There's clear evidence of intentionality there.

Saul Gonzalez
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Regarding the last 3 posts:

@Lars @Adam

Well argued.



@Robert

I see a tendency to think: Random Feedback + Monetization = Gambling = Addiction and then all the alarms go off.



We may be facing a cultural difference here. In Japan, actual casino gambling is outlawed, but there are many places where this combination can be found: "happiness bags" that you buy without knowing what is inside, "gacha" machines that give you a random toy out of a collection, pachinko...



You can argue that all these activities are manipulative, and perhaps you're right for a certain degree of "manipulative". But there is no stigma for participating in these activities either as an user or a producer. Haven't heard of lives ruined from them. People learn to properly manage these situations.



I guess than in the end we just have different perspectives. I've gambled and played lotteries on occasion and enjoyed the experience. They're perhaps tricky and require some personal responsibility, but they're not "evil" to me. I believe adults are allowed risky toys.

Lars Doucet
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Thanks for hearing us out, Enrique.



Here's my perspective - I live in Texas, where we have a state Lotto, that is essentially a defacto tax on the poor - in my community, there is a regularly-forming line of people outside the gas station waiting to spend a non-signficant part of their already meager paychecks on lottery tickets.



I don't mean to judge anyone who buys lotto tickets, or call them "weak minded," or "bad at math," etc. Hell, I have three major neurological disorders, so I know full WELL that an individual's drive to engage in compulsive behavior has a very weak correlation with that same individual's capacity for reason and logical problem-solving. You'd be floored at all the stupid, inane things my brain makes me do just to get through the day. Luckily for me, I'm pretty self-aware of what's dangerous for me, but not everyone has the benefit and privilege of that education. When I was a kid I thought I just had bad habits and made bad choices all the time, and was powerless to do something about it. After diagnosis and careful study about how my own brain works, I can avoid dangerous compulsive traps.



So, I don't blame people who play the Lotto. I blame the people who created it. If things are going okay in Japan, hey, that's cool. All I know is that in the state of Texas it is causing demonstrable economic damage on the people who can afford it the least.

Robert Boyd
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Yeah, it looks like we're coming from very different perspectives. In my view, gambling is wrong. Period. Adding gambling elements to video games is especially dangerous IMO - someone could have no desire to engage in a purely random form of gambling like slot machines or lotteries, but toss an RPG or a FPS on top of the whole experience and suddenly they're hooked. I speak from personal experience - I was seriously hooked on MTG drafting for a few years in college and looking back, I'd definitely call it an addiction. It harmed me financially, socially, and academically - even when I didn't feel like playing any more, I felt compelled to do so anyway. It was a very different experience than just playing a fun regular video game that you enjoy and then set aside when you finish it or get bored.



Because of my background, I tend to be hyper aware to this issue and avoid and shun games that feature the potential to capitalize on addictive tendencies, whether they're MMORPGs, single player games, free-to-play or whatever.



And yes, I get the irony in the fact that I make RPGs. However, I try to avoid those kinds of mechanics - there are no random drops in my games, the difficulty curve is designed so that if you play well, there's no need for grinding, the progression rate stays relatively constant throughout the entire game, and there's no additional monetization of the game besides the initial purchase (and yes, I understand that there are good ways to monetize additional content - I'm not against DLC done right).

Saul Gonzalez
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I don't know guys, it does seem like we are coming at this from very different perspectives.



I strongly feel that if an adult is overspending at a lottery to the point of financial harm it's either their own fault or they shouldn't be considered capable of fending by themselves. Blame lack of education, or their environment if you must, but the overspending seems like a symptom of a much bigger problem.



I suscribe to the theory that any engaging activity can become an addiction if the person has unsatisfied needs. There are plenty of workaholics. People have wasted away doing cutting-edge research. If we must reject everything that could be potentially harmful to someone, then we'd be left with nothing.



I don't believe that adults have to be protected from themselves. Almost all games include some features "with the potential to capitalize on addictive tendencies". Designing one that includes none is a nice Jonathan Blow-type aspirational goal, but not something that can be expected of most of the industry.



If this is where you guys are coming from, I fail to see how most opportunities to engage in non-essencial spending are not "predatory".

Lars Doucet
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As someone who leans libertarian myself, I understand where you're coming from.



I'm not calling for the goverment to bring the heavy hand of the state in here and Make Things The Way They Ought To Be. In fact, in a lot of these cases government rather than business can be the problem.



The point is not that people can't make good decisions and so we need to do it for them. The thing is, some very smart people spend a lot of time figuring out how to manipulate people in very, very, powerful ways and use the full power of the scientific method to optimize, optimize, optimize.



I'm going to use an example to drive my point home:



Let's just try to sell some more corn. I'm a farmer in Iowa, and I want to grow some more corn and sell some more corn. What could possible go wrong?



On the surface it seems like nothing. It's just corn! But the underside of it is very dangerous. The Iowa Farm lobby has completely co-opted the USDA, the agency that's supposed to regulate agriculture, to find out ways to sell us more corn that we need. Furthermore, well-meaning scientists have spent decades tinkering with corn to make more of it, and with a higher sugar potency. This leads to having a super-abundance of ultra-sweet corn that we don't need. This causes the following very real problems:



1) Soil erosion and topsoil depletion from over-farming corn

2) Force-feeding cattle artificially cheap corn

3) Over-production of artificially cheap meat because we have artificially cheap corn

4) Over-production of sweets because we have artificially cheap corn

5) Over-production of fast foods, etc,



Even as much as people like this stuff, we STILL have way more than the market would naturally consume. So we turn to advertising and grocery store optimizations to force this on even more people.



This all sounds innocent on one level.



On the other level, it leads to rampant ecological and economic damage, massive depletion of natural resources, complete undermining of 3rd-world agricultural markets thus keeping them mired in poverty, rocketing health care costs, obesity, and countless deaths.



All from something as stupid and seemingly innocuous as applying the full weight of scientific optimization to growing something as dumb and "harmless" as corn.



Look at those innocent Iowa farmers! They're not bad people! And of course they're not. It's just - collectively, what they're doing is having very bad results, and in the boardrooms of big AgriBusiness, there are some Very Smart People who Know Exactly What They Are Doing.



When these massive market distortions are in play because the people making the products know how our brains work and Know What They Are Doing, it is very, very hard for the average individual to fight back. Hell, it's hard for educated, self-aware individuals to fight back.



I'm not saying freemium games are as evil as the Iowa corn lobby (though I AM saying the Iowa corn lobby is evil). I'm saying that putting money first and then optimizing willy-nilly leads to massive, unintended disasters.



I really relate to the idea that adults should and can make decisions for themselves, and I'm NOT calling for blanket, censurious regulation. There's been talk of the specter of government regulation - but honestly? If Zynga and co. get big enough and start lobbying, I'm sure they'll do their best to dial DOWN regulations on this sort of thing, just like other big business have done. There's already tax breaks left and right being doled out to game companies. As much as I like free money, I oppose subsidies like this on principle.



Sorry if any of this comes across as hyperbole. It's just - when you optimizing for one thing, and that one thing is money, it's really, REALLY easy to start doing a lot of real damage, even if you think you're working with something harmless.

Jesse Tucker
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Hey Adam, great article! This seems like an excellent first step in compiling a guide for how to not take advantage of the people playing your game. I've personally worked on a few games that incorporate random drops, and would like to share my thoughts.



A random drop system is a great way to deliver a limited quantity of items drawn from a huge pool. It also feels really good to find a cool item. However, if you ration items out too slowly, it turns into a grind fest and you end up wasting the player's time considerably. This drip-feeding of items can be used to artificially extend content, much like if you tripled the distance between all points of interest in an open world game. While lowering the drop rate makes the game less fun, there's a fairly large sweet spot if you raise the drop rate to the point where you allow the player to have a choice between a few good/awesome items per item slot.



I only see a random drop system as a "predatory" system if the player is forced to invest so much time acquiring good drops that it effectively puts other aspects of the game on hold. (i.e. fighting the same monsters in the same level over and over again, doing chore-like "daily" quests, boss farming, etc.)

Adam Saltsman
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hey jesse! for sure - when i use the term "random drop" i mean it semi-specifically to mean the kind of gameplay system where you have to murder 100 things in the hopes that maybe one of those times you'll get a good reward, which goes into a skinner box loop of encouragement that is a documented form of manipulation and serotonin or dopamine hijacking... that stuff is definitely predatory.



there are a lot of cases that are much more in the gray area - if it's just used for variety, or differentiation, that's a really positive function for the mechanic i think. A lot of people talk about the "intent" of a mechanic, but i'm much more interested in the RESULTS of a mechanic - if the RESULT is that people compulsively farm, then regardless of intent, I think that's a predatory system. But just because a mechanic is commonly used for predatory purposes doesn't mean it can't be used in a good way, to add interest and complexity to a game system.

Lars Doucet
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@Adam:



Definitely, results matter, because there's always unintended consequences. I installed asbestos in your house for insulation but - oops! It causes Mesothelioma. Yeah, let's stop doing that.



That being said, where it's demonstrable that someone's doing something intentionally, AND achieving the result, AND both the intent and the result are un-good things, I think that deserves attention as well.



Sorry to nit-pick, I get what you're saying is that we need to be concerned for both results as well as just intention.

David Nottingham
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Just to add my 2 cents on this fascinating debate. First off, I really appreciate Adam taking the time to kick-start this conversation. Although I was initially a bit bummed out by some of the language in the first post, It’s clearly a topic of passion for him and I love that this second post provides thoughts on how to address his concerns with free to play games.



It's also super helpful to see people like Enrique offer a creator perspective. It's evident to me that people's perception of this issue is naturally informed by their own personal experience, either as a player or creator of these games. Hopefully there is room for all sides in this debate and it’s certainly helping to shape my own thoughts on the issue.



I think where my own position is evolving towards, is that free to play games with a business model that depend on targeting and then coercing a small % of 'whales' to spend significant amounts of money, to support a much larger free audience, are probably not sustainable in the long-term. Being so dependent on such a small demographic seems very risky.



At the same time, I'd actually be interested in hearing people's definition of a 'whale'.



Are we talking about individuals who spend $200 in a year on a single game? $2000?, $20,000? Is there any data to show how much of their disposable income, or even net income, is being spent on this single game to the expense of other activities?



I haven’t heard any information, anecdotal or otherwise, about people who’s Farmville ‘addictions’ have led to real world problems, such as I often heard about WoW addictions breaking up relationships, but maybe they are out there. I think there are a lot of reasons why people seek escapism in our world and particularly in such tough and uncertain economic times, videogames and other past-times can offer a valuable release of stress for people.



My own theory for why games such as Farmville exploded in popularity, particularly for new ‘non traditional’ demographics, is related to a need for order amongst chaos.



Living in such uncertain times, people are dealing with an incredible amount of anxiety in their lives. Balancing household budgets, maintaining mortgage payments, job security, putting kids through college. To anyone trying to maintain a foothold in the real world, these games offer a space in which players can experience complete order with predictable outcomes in return for low friction actions. The visual and aural rewards that come with completing a simple action are designed to be gratifying and so help poke this part of the brain that is feeling un-moored in the real world. My theory is that a lot of people find relief in these simple ‘clicking’ activities for this reason.



To go back to the question of whales and more coercive tactics to maximize revenue from people spending money, I do think that as the free to play business model matures, games will need to offer more true & transparent value to people in return for money. For it to be sustainable, my sense is that the ‘tax base’ will need to be expanded. Give more people a reason to spend smaller ‘disposable’ amounts of money in your game, and you will be less dependent on needing big spenders to spend in huge disproportion to everyone else, as I would expect even those people will ultimately tire of the types of predatory methods Adam outlines.



Ultimately, the majority of us create entertainment within a society that is structured towards capitalism and the need to realize profit in these endeavors. Within that society, we constantly live out that struggle between commerce and art and try and ride a fine balance. I don’t believe the majority of designers are motivated to create systems purely to separate people from there money. We are all trying, I believe, to offer some value and meaning through our creations that contribute to a better world.



I think that free to play holds much promise to empower game makers and support sustainable businesses that can move away from the boom and bust that has been plaguing our industry in recent years. I am encouraged by debates such as the one taking place in this thread, and also by the move into the space by companies such as Valve, and respected designers such as Keita Takashi.



I believe that future games will address many of the concerns raised by Adam as the games themselves are shaped by people such as those posting here, that come from a place of passion for game design, love of games and respect for the audience.

Bruno Patatas
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@Joe If you want to talk about things seriously, then you should do a serious background investigation.



The case of the FarmVille baby exists, yes, but take a look to this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_addiction

Some of the most violent cases are of addicts to AAA games! Just do a quick web search.



To portray social games on that light is a fallacious argument.



If you have the tendency towards a violent act, anything (or nothing) could end up being the trigger at a particular place and time.



She told investigators that she shook the baby, smoked a cigarette “to compose herself,” and proceeded to shake him again. The baby may have hit his head during one of the two shakings, she said.



It doesn't seems she was in a hurry to go back to her farm, does it?

A quote from a Mashable news piece:



"Needless to say, it is Ms. Tobias — and not the game itself — that is responsible for the death of her 3-month-old son. This is not the first time that a virtual game has led to murder; in 2009, 28-year-old Joseph Johnson of Chicago was charged with first-degree murder after allegedly shooting his companion in the head while playing an Xbox game."



Get your facts together.

Bruno Patatas
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@Joe



A common complain is that social games are all about creating addicts, and therefore they are evil. Social games are like a drug. Well, if a player becoming addict is evil, then the entire games industry is malefic. If you look at the video game addiction page on Wikipedia (take a closer look to the References section), you will see people that got addicted and died because of that addiction. Now take a look to the section Notable Deaths. What you see there is former addicts of games like Halo 3, Call of Duty 3, Starcraft and of platforms like Nintendo 64, Playstation and Xbox360! Yes, you see one reference to a death caused by someone who was playing a a Facebook game, in this case by FarmVille. One!



On this case, the mother happened to be playing the facebook game when the incident happened. The fact that she shakes him once and then gets a cigarette and does it again tells me she felt no remorse, no feelings of hurt. She thought about it while she was doing it.



To say this case was caused because of the game is ridiculous, but that's not your fault :) The media liked to use the name FarmVille on their headlines.



There is little to no empirical evidence of psychological addiction to social games or games in general according to the American Medical Association: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/443/csaph12a07-fulltex
t.pdf

Saul Gonzalez
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I'd like to see if we can find some common ground.



Adam has correctly argued that I've used some variation of the "all games are greedy" statement several times. This is probably because I perceived some of the rhetoric here as demonizing freemium games disproportionately. I am not against demonizing them proportionately. ;)



If you think that the worst freemium games are roughly as unethical as primetime TV (with the usual product placement) or most modern malls, I would find it hard to disagree with you.

If you think that the worst freemium games are mostly cash-grabs that lack much artistic intent, I cannot argue much.

If you think that you should deal with the worst freemium games with a certain level of literacy and awareness, much as you would deal with advertising and/or a raffle, I have no objection.



However if you mean to say freemium games are "dangerous" to the population at large, that they affect society in worse ways than the examples mentioned above, then I would have to take issue.



Perhaps "freemium games are not SO bad" is a sad defense, but given the comparisons to dangerous drugs that have already been made, I'd like to agree on this as an starting point.



That freemium games are "much more manipulative than previous types of games" is something I have to agree with. That is, as I stated above, because inherently-manipulative marketing is mixed with the gameplay. So yes, they're "less pure" than games where all the manipulation is done in the packaging, advertising, etc.



So the question is, how manipulative these games are in absolute terms?



It's becoming increasingly hard to argue in abstract terms, but I believe many of these games do have intrinsic value. That any manipulation taking place only amounts to a nudge, and that using these techniques does not negate what value they have.



Correct me if I'm wrong, but the opposing position is that the only reason anyone plays these games if because they're being manipulated, coerced into it. Strip away the manipulation, and you have a worthless thing.



So my question is, how can we tell objectively?

How can we tell how much these games should be making if they behaved ethically?

If someone is engaged with a freemium game, how much of it is "genuine engagement" and how much is "addiction"?



If it intent? Most games are somewhere between pure monetary and pure artistic intent. Where is the line between good and bad?



Or is it the result? Unless I'm mistaken, it was stated that a game with random drops, checklists and in-game purchases may or may not be "predatory". So, what must be present, or what must be lacking?

Lars Doucet
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Well, let me take a stab at it:



There's a LOT I don't like about our culture that I think is bad. My critique is mostly, I don't control prime time TV, malls, grocery stores, etc. I see most of their practices as bad. However, I DO make video games, so I can choose what practices I use.



I don't think anyone's arguing that freemium games are MORE dangerous than any of the other social ills, and sorry if any hyperbole led you to believe that's a position we were staking out. It's an important issue though, lives can and have been ruined by badly designed games, so we want to take this seriously. We haven't developed anything as potent and destructive as heroin quite yet, but we don't really want to find out if we can, either.



It's going to be really hard to boil this down to absolute necessary-and-sufficient conditions.



That's why I like to look at intent - it's pretty straightforward to analyze our motivations. I live by the philosophy that if you always examine your motivations - really, truly examine them, you'll find times when you're compromising your values, or perhaps even have values that are bad and might need to be reconsidered!



This of course does not protect you from unintended consequences as Adam rightly points out, ie, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," but at the very least, intent gives us a very good guideline for whether a person or company has their heart in the right place. In some ways this is an easy "objective" measure - ie, if the intent is bad, or compromised, perhaps the product is bad or compromised, too.



As for objectively measurable absolute results-based stuff that is intent-agnostic, I'll leave that to you and Adam to sort out :)

Lars Doucet
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Double post deleted argh.

Adam Saltsman
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i guess i feel like this just isn't like... some kind of impossible mystery. to me it seems pretty easy to tell when i'm playing a game if it is using manipulative systems. is it systemically shallow but constantly reminding me of checklist progress? does the game allow me to pay money to "skip ahead"? What is the GOAL of these systems? If the goal is to GET me to play more, I am kind of inherently suspicious. If the goal is to get me to LEARN something... usually less suspicious. And by LEARN I don't necessarily mean like "universal epiphany of time travel" or "weird manual reflex/dexterity improvement". It can be more esoteric, more experiential.



Regardless of platform or content, these are questions that at least help me think about the kinds of forces these systems exert on players, and give me some kind of framework for evaluating them. I'm sure other people could come up with other ways of doing this.



Trying to come up with a black and white list of do's and don'ts seems like a colossal waste of time to me. There is a lot of fuzzy, gray area here. But there are also a LOT of design practices that are SO FAR to one side of the fuzzy line that there is no need to waste time debating them either.



Being honest about and interested in systems, and the kinds of behavior they encourage, seems like a great place to start. And that goes for pretty much everything in life, not just video games!

Saul Gonzalez
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@Lars



I take issue with the claim "lives can and have ruined by badly designed games". I do find it dangerously close to "violent games cause school shootings". If a game can be a trigger for someone to take wildly mistaken actions, that person had problems to begin with.



I do agree that some people will really think thru the implications of their work, others will put out whatever will sell. I guess the point Adam originally wanted to make is, "it is more desirable to make interesting toys than profit-focused clones". That's of course something I can agree with. However, bills need to be paid. Some of the best movie directors got their start with commercials.



Most commercial games are compromised to some degree. In most cases the intent is mixed.

Saul Gonzalez
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@Adam



The goal of all games is to GET you to keep playing. Sometimes they already have your money, sometimes they haven't yet, but that doesn't change the intent.



You already stated that you believe having the player acquire/exercise some skill, no matter how arbitrary it is, is the only ethical means to do that.



I guess we will just have to disagree there. I believe that, for example, a game that provides you with a place for self-expression and communication, no matter how crude, can be valuable as well.



I recently read about a icon hosting site that reinvented itself into a simple game because more users where interested into surfing thru the site making collections of icons as if there were badges. It became a completely checklist-based game, completely out of player demand, without any manipulative intent involved.



So I have to say that if is valid to scratch people's Achiever itch by letting them acquire random skills, then it is equally valid to scratch their Explorer itch by letting them complete random collections/checklists.





You also seem to dislike that freemium games make too transparent, too frequent attempts at getting you engaged. With pre-paid games, the player already has made an investment and will tend to press on even if not engaged yet. So if it seems like they're trying too hard, that's your reason.

Lars Doucet
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You may take issue with it - but I've seen it happen, and there's numbers to support it. I can't tell you how many friends I've seen drop out of college, lose relationships, etc. I do lean libertarian and towards personality responsibility, of course, so I'm not calling for government agencies to come fix us. I'm saying we need to realize that we can be partners in hurting people.



In today's litigious society I'm not suggesting we should have even more liability foisted on us so that we can be sued out of existence and need expensive malpractice insurance, but we should be aware that we can destroy people's lives if we take advantage of these addiction mechanics, especially if our primary motivation is money. We all need to get paid - I get that. Just, let's be aware of what the negative externalities are.



Let's compare addiction vs violence in games. I see them as completely different. You've been calling for facts and research, so let's put this in more objective terms.



Casinos have games. Those games destroy people's lives. This isn't an opinion - it is a demonstrable fact that certain games designed in a certain way - including certain "video games" - will consistently destroy the financial, social, and emotional lives of a non-insignificant number of people in a non-insignificant way. It would not be hard to dig up some numbers on this. Hell, there's support groups for World of Warcraft and Magic The Gathering "widows!"



On the other hand, it is NOT a demonstrable fact that games increase people's tendency towards violence. Plenty of studies have come out that the correlations between playing violent games and turning people into psychopaths are very weak indeed.



If violent games really WERE turning people into psychopaths, it would be a legitimate call to action to change how we design them, wouldn't it? ESPECIALLY if game developers made more money the more violent their games made people!



They key is not that it's wrong to say "games cause bad thing X." It's wrong to say that if it's not demonstrably true. The research does not prove that games cause violence. The research leans very, very strongly towards proving that games CAN cause addiction. Not all games. Maybe not even most games. But definitely SOME games - specifically the ones that use these addiction mechanics Adam has spelled out - REGARDLESS of whether they're social games, arcade games, single-player retail games, or indie games.



Saying games can be addictive and therefore dangerous is not the same as calling for censorship because of moral panic. It's simply a call to be better designers so that we don't take the risk of hurting people.



At this point we've covered most of the major points and now I might be taking the argument to extremes for the sake of making my point, so I'll grant you that people need to make money, sure, and that your average run-of-the-mill freemium social game is not doing the work of Satan and must be expunged from the earth.



I just think we need to admit that we CAN do harm with what we make. It is not a good idea for any producer to think their product is 100% harmless and good-for-you.

Bruno Patatas
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This is a reply to Enrique. Damn comments system...



Once again giving my two cents :)



I think we all here love games and the ones of us who develop them it's because we love the act of creating them and provide compelling gameplay experiences to our players.



One of my main problems with criticism of freemium and social games is the way the critics choose to attack those models. When I see an article that has on the title words like evil, extortion, bulshit, etc - I personally can't take those articles seriously. This article is one of the few exceptions :)



I understand that people may have problems with freemium and social games. However, saying that social games are evil and freemium games only use is to extort money from players is a dangerous path. And that's the problem with some criticism: it generalizes! There are a lot of passionate developers worldwide trying to do the best social and freemium games possible. Social and freemium games can be done right! You already have a lot of examples.



All this to say that sometimes the discussion escalates because of the wording used. Plus, sometimes indies can pass the image of being pretentious like if they were the masterlords (i'm not saying they are pretending to do that, it's just the image it can pass to other developers), the only ones who know what is a game. And then, social / freemium developers fight back and it's not a good thing to see anywhere. As it was written on the article, unethical game designs are not limited to just freemium games.



I believe we have this type of discussions because we are passionate for games. I think an article like this is a step in the good direction, and I congratulate Adam for that. Now, we need more :)

Karl E
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Great posting. However, trying to prevent game companies from applying these techniques to make a buck feels utterly futile. It's like going up against tobacco companies in the 60's. You better have the equivalent of some serious cancer research to back it up.

Actually I'm surprised that gaming and gambling hasn't merged to a greater extent yet. Do you have any idea why?

Devin Wilson
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i just posted a comment on your original blog without knowing about this one.



i'd still like to know why you think poker is exempt from the ethical weight of material consequences in a game, and why you charging $2.99 for a digitally distributed game is that much better than the pricing models of freemium games. you're selling ones and zeroes that can be copied at no appreciable overhead. your game is also free on kongregate. how is your pricing model not a contrivance as well?



lately i've been wondering if the only truly ethical way to make money from games (or any digital media) is to have people voluntarily give you money for no appreciable gain to themselves as individuals. jason rohrer wrote an interesting article about this in 2004 that i can't get out of my head: http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/jason-rohrer/freeDistribution.h
tml

Saul Gonzalez
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Devin,



I think no one here was stating poker / gambling is ethically superior to freemium. I believe the intent was to call out freemium games as new form of media manipulation, but not necessarily a worse one when compared to advertising and raffles.

Matt Rix
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Hey Adam, I started writing a comment here, and it ended up getting really long, so I turned it into a blog post. I think you might find it presents a different perspective on why freemium is so popular and not as evil as it initially seems: http://struct.ca/2011/in-defence-of-freemium/

Saul Gonzalez
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Cannot fit this on a tweet so:



Each game rests somewhere along each of these axis:



1) Profit motive Artistic Motive

2) Metrics / Optimization Designer's Gut

3) Extrinsic Rewards Intrinsic rewards

4) In-game Marketing Out-of-game marketing or no marketing

5) In-game Purchase Pre-paid



The point is that there is a continuum, the closer you are to the right the more altruistic you are, the closer to the left the more manipulative / predatory you are. These elements amplify each other, so while using the elements on the left may be okay individually, start combining them and you go down a slippery ethical slope.



Leaving its validity aside, have I managed to distill the crux of the argument?

Robert Boyd
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I think a lot of people are getting defensive thinking this article is bashing social games or free-to-play games when it's not. It's bashing predatory design geared towards manipulating players to their detriment. These predatory design elements can frequently be found in social and free-to-play games, but they can also frequently be found in MMORPGs and sometimes even in traditional single player retail games. The point isn't that social games are evil; it's that certain design practices have the potential for harm and should be avoided.



Do I think that most social game developers are evil? No, of course not! I think most social game developers are just trying to make a fun game and pay the bills. However, when we have instances where game companies are hiring behavioral psychologists in order to figure out how to make their games more addictive and make players more likely to pay them, that should be a big warning sign to everyone in the industry that maybe something is wrong.

Mark Kreitler
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> However, when we have instances where game companies are hiring behavioral psychologists in order to figure out how to make their games more addictive and make players more likely to pay them, that should be a big warning sign to everyone in the industry that maybe something is wrong.



Yep! And this trend is likely to continue. The Free-to-play model is pushing the industry from both ends -- small games on mobile platforms, and giant MMORPGs on PC and consoles. Unfortunately, we're not planning our designs very carefully, and so we monetize them at the last minute by applying the predatory practices. Like it or not, these work and they are easy to implement.



As a designer, this trend raises all my red flags. When my first consideration is, "how can I make this game earn money as a freemium title?" something is wrong. Makes a body want to go indie.

Javier Arevalo
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Robert, behavioural psychology in the games industry is nothing new, does not have to be associated with addiction or payment optimization, and does not need to be labeled 'evil'. See for example http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design
.php back in 2001. The best designers I've known or worked with are also keen observers of human nature and behaviour, even if they have no formal training in the area.



Just like with theme, visuals, focus testing, pacing, goals, market research, randomness, etc... psychology is just a tool in the developer's arsenal to try to figure how to make the most interesting game possible. Will some developers try to apply some of those tools in unethical ways? Sure, but I can't understand why the entire tool should be labelled 'evil'.



As an aside, I also don't understand why we in the industry insist on using the word 'addictive' when we really mean 'interesting.' Vocabulary shapes perception and thought! We should take our craft more seriously.



Mark, there's nothing wrong with wanting your game to make money. Especially if you are indie - just ask them if they're swimming in cash! Freemium games just need to tackle the subject differently from pay-to-play. I think most commercial game developers (freemium or not, social or not, now and 30 years ago) probably begin their concepts with some variation of the question "What kind of game could people want to play?" But sooner or later, you will have to dig into precisely why will people want to PAY for your game, and try to optimize that to some extent.



The idea that some f2p developers apply predatory practices because they haven't done their homework with monetization before the game is almost done is intriguing... care to elaborate?

Luis Guimaraes
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There are many comments to read yet, but I once thought about a system of mixing freemium and full price methods. It'd be like:



1. Make the entry free, like some kind of demo.

2. Make a full price order that would unlock everything in the game. Show the player something like "get the whole game for $100".

3. Provide microtransactions for players to get smaller bits of the whole by smaller price.

4. Update the full price based on what the player already spent on micros. After a $30 purchase, remember them: "you're only $70 away from the full price, you can convert whenever you want".

5. If player gets to $100 (prevented from surpassing it), the game switches to full.



It's a way to avoid too big whales, while also incentiving lower payers to go towards the cap, which is, basically, leaving the demo and getting the full game.

Robert Boyd
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Sounds like a good idea to me.

Jeremie Sinic
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I like the concept too: taking into account the whole purchase history. I tried to tackle this issue with my poor English :) and put my thoughts into words here: http://koreanwondersblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/how-to-make-me-enjo
y-freemium-social.html

Basically the idea is that I'd sometimes like freemium games to allow me to unlock a "traditional micropayment-free" version of the game for a fixed one-time payment.

Andrew Traviss
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Why did you have to post something so interesting when I was busy? I packaged my response into a blog post, finally. I still need to read the full comments, so my apologies if this duplicates anything or runs counter to the spirit of the discussion as it has evolved.



http://blog.andrewtraviss.com/2011/10/28/using-ethics-to-fight-co
ntrivances-have-we-learned-nothing-from-pokemon/

William Johnson
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I completely agree that predatory game design is evil. However...



So next year I'm going to be making a thesis about gamifying education. To try to act on the compulsive behaviors of human beings to reinforce a desire to learn. Honestly I'm probably going to use a lot of these predatory gaming tactics. I'd like to think learning is generally a good thing...but if hypothetically I go and make people's desires to learning so strong they lose ties to reality...that'd definitely help reinforce how dangerous such practices can be, even when used for "good."



But the thing is that this does only effect a minority of the player base. So just to play devil's advocate, should we be concerned with the extreme minority's unhealthy behavior? If we design for the extreme cases, that will effect the experience of the average user.



I think a solution would be to have hard caps, to forcibly prevent extreme behavior. A person can ONLY spend $20 a month on Farmville, just as an example, instead of making it limitless. I don't mean to call out Zynga, but its just that they're the first thing that came to my mind.

Andrew Payton
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Glad to see that you've carried forward this discussion. I think it's the money-as-a-substitute-for-time aspect of your argument where we continue to disagree. It's here where I think you assume too much:



"However, if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve more checklist progress with less gameplay. That would run pretty directly counter to the whole game design."



Why does this need to be the case? Many of the big successes of the freemium model have been in the MMO genre, where it takes a TON of time to be able to run dungeons or PvP at a high level. But it's this end-game content that many people see as the most fun. It has little to do with checklists; they like wielding awesome weapons and powers and taking on epic challenge. But in order to do that they need to invest hundreds of hours. Or, nowadays, spend money.



I simply don't think it follows that if a game were compelling then people wouldn't want to spend money.



I'm not arguing that the more pernicious freemium approaches can be manipulative, but I think "evil" is a bridge too far, and I maintain that it's been a net gain.

David McGraw
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Dang, really l late to the party. Excellent articles / feedback. I'll spare a lengthy reply and leave with, "Money isn't everything."


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