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Are there moral limits of Monetization models?
by Andreas Ahlborn on 03/27/14 11:06:00 am   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.


Guy Fawkes masked Justitia

While reading Sandels „What money can`t buy“ ( ),

I noticed that there are certain paralells between what he calls „the movement from a market economy to a market society“ and how things like „buying upgrades“ for your jail cell or hiring „Linestanders“ for a congressional hearing, or cash incentives for reading books for minors can be seen as undermining certain values in a society and the things that are happening in our industry right now.

The Role that Justice plays in a society, Fairness plays in a Game.

It`s a much „softer“ concept, more open for debate but its multiple facettes are omnipresent in the most heated discussions in our community:

Is it fair that women are underrepresented in Videogames?

Is it fair that gaming companys doctor their previews of games?

Is it fair to charge 30$ for games that have only little more playtime than a demo?

Is it fair that I get sniped by aimbots in Multiplayer?

Is it fair that a super-successful kickstarter sells out to a giant company?

Is it fair, that most videogames are not playable by handicapped Persons?

Is it fair that I worked 500 hours for my  Level 90 charcter and now everybody can buy one for 30$ ?

Is it fair, that a game advertises itself as Free-to-Play without disclosing the impact it could have on my bank account?

The Fun in most games comes from this trust that the game is fair at its core. Meaning: equal chances to win for all participating Parties. That`s the reason why balancing a game is so delicate, if you can abuse gamemechanics to win every time, the game is ultimately no challenge.


The definition of fairness can go as far as in the  japanese game Go where it is considered fairer to handicap a more skilled player by granting the unskilled player a stone advantage, because it makes the challenge more interesting for both parties. This Meta-definition of fairness is as far as I know largely absent from videogames. Usually the better Player not only has the better gear and perks, knows all the tricks and exploits but he/she seems even entitled to shame „Noobs“ by calling them out after he annihilated them.

The Troll/Cheater that is breaking the Fairness and having fun despite the fact that there is no skill involved in aimbotting is playing a differnt game than the „honest“ player. He is only interested in getting a reaction out of the cheated player, like playing knock-and-run only to see how annoyed the people can get.

The Entertaiment Industry as a whole has taken the road „from Product-to-Service“, its prototype is moving away from the Singular Event model that meant the publication of a movie or a book or a conventional AAA-Game to cross-promotion, yearly IPs, monthly DLC and permanent Microstransactions.

I´m here not concerned with the question if a model like this, especially the Microtransaction model will be guaranteed to have a negative impact on your gamedesign, or if such things diminish the fun a consumer can have with a game, the perceived „entertainment value“. I´m not even debating the fact, that it can be more profitable/successful than any traditional Monetization model, but similar to Sandel I think that success is no proof that some things that might be useful at the moment can not be harmful in the long run.

In a previous blog I concentrated on the „Transparency“-Deficit, I found in some F2P-models I tested. I am well aware that this obfuscation is not because of unawareness but mostly a strategy to sneak your way into a users wallet, mostly the Big Spenders.

What happens to a gaming community if the developers enable the „wealthy“ or „addicted“ people to bypass the requirement to play the game, and „buy“ themsleves status/success? On the surface it looks like the 1-5% whales would finance the success of most F2P-games, so a developer might be tempted to design for these people as his/her main target group. What he/she it would be missing is, that the whales depend on the plankton and these are the countless F2P users that cant afford to pay, because they are too young or  do not have the financal resources. Either you treat your game as an ecosystem or a zoo. You can`t have both.

I want to close with the draft of some points/Questions I came up with, while asking myself if a F2P-model could be worth my or anybodys time.

The Question is: Are you being treated fair?

It is written from the perspective of a potential customer, but it might be useful for any developer to look into it and see how he/she can be a better Fairy.

Not surprisingly I found no simple rule-of-thumb that could be applied to most of the F2P models currently out there. The Numbers I give are purely illustrative and are mereley guesses, hopefully educated enough to have some relevance. I grouped the Questions under 3 Headers, with no specific order.


1.  Is there an early (<1 hrs in game) spike in demand for spending money to progress?

2.  Do you have the feeling that instead of satisfying your needs the first purchase you make leads to an immediate (<24h) urge to make another one?

3. Has spending money a significant (>50%)  impact on speeding up your progress?


1.  Is there an obvious misproportion in the conversionrates between the different currencies in a game and is this at first not obvious?

2. Are drop rates/chances in games with randomization obfuscated?

3. Is it difficult for you to estimate how long it would take you to get to most (>80%) of the content, be it either in time or money investement, say it could be anywhere between 100 and 1000 hours, or 100 and 1000$ ?


1. Can you name at least three items in the game, that are hard/expensive to get, that would improve your performance/fun significantly ?

2. If you lose to adversaries which have these items, do you feel cheated?

3. If you use one of these items yourself to win a game, do you feel like a cheater?


Maybe it boils down to the somewhat tautological rule-of thumb,

that a Monetization Model can be considered fair, if it is easy to judge whether it`s fair.

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Christian Kulenkampff
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I really like that rule-of-thumb. I think it really hits the nail on the head. Thank you!

Alex Covic
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As someone who has studied Philosophy for 20 years, I can safely answer: no. There are no moral limits to 'monetization' models, since monetization models do not follow religious (as in moral, as in 'good'/'evil') believes, nor ethical ideas ('preferable'/'bad') but economic actions.

Buyers and sellers have no moral obligations at all in economic models. The only obligation they have is to agree among each other and on their contract. Third parties have no say in judging(!) if what they do is ethical or moral.

'Fairness' and other fancy 'soft' concepts are invitations to follow your line of thinking. Something macro-economic models and most economic theories do not care about at all, since these terms are driven by individual ideology (aka sociology) - not math - which leads to endless (useless?!) debates on values, religious believes, cultural background, etc, etc ... a Pandora's box.

Lastly, a model cannot be 'moral' nor 'immoral' - only humans can. And they only can, if you judge them by moral (= religious) terms.

Peter Thierolf
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I think it should be noted that societies regulate the kind of contracts or provisions in contracts that it accepts.
Clearly, this regulation always has to keep up with new trends or ideas to take advantage of clients in contracts, but societies use their moral standards to regulate contractual provisions.

See the UK office of fair trade regulation attempts.

And it is still true that, whilst moral might not be relevant in contracts, you might hurt your market if you cheat too much.

Ian Griffiths
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Actually the UK is not making new laws for games, they are just presenting their interpretation of current consumer law. Note that this still doesn't mean that their guidelines are law, it would have to go before the courts who would make the decision.

El Winchestro
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@Alex Covic I'm not going to suppress my desire to write a lot, and just ask you to imagine the same answer on a monetization context that clearly is illegal, like slavery, child prostitution, pick a few. and since this claims to be a general statement about moral limits to all monetization models, it's justified to put it in any monetization context, right? I'm leaving it up to you to find out the flaws in your reasoning. I'm sure if I can see them, then you will be more then capable of seeing them too.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Last Time I checked Economics was considered a social science, not a natural one. Don`t let the graphs and the misusage of mathematics in many "ecomic models" fool you into thinking, economic models would be any "harder" than social models.

I am really astonished that anyone would believe economic theories are "driven" by math.
Math is a tool for Economists to validate/falsificate their theories but thats true also for anthropologists, politicians, psychologists etc.

Math can be misused, too. ( ) in any science. I´m not saying that Math is not hard, I´m just saying, the way math is used in social/human sciences is way more "softer" than its usage in chemistry or physics.

Its kind of ironic that you seem to argue along the lines of smith`"invisible Hand"-self regulating market, like many neoliberals, but are not aware that the first apperance of this term was in a Book with the title : " The Theory of Moral Sentiments".

"Are there moral limits of Monetization models?"

As someone who has tried to use his brain on a regular basis, I can safely guess: probably yes.

If we accept that econonomic models are human-made then models are definitively limited by human needs/rights, which makes them open for "moral" debate.

David Serrano
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There's also this:

"Let’s be blunt. Whatever economics is, it is not a science. Unlike physicists, who can predict an asteroid’s closest approach to earth within a few miles when it is still 100 million miles out in space, economists can’t accurately predict this quarter’s GDP. Indeed, they are still arguing among themselves about what “really” happened 83 years ago."

David Serrano
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I think designers and developers in all segments of the market should do everything possible to prevent this from happening:

Because after the illusion that a game is an inanimate, impartial, unbiased thing is broken, players will stop blaming the "game" or "system" when they feel unfairly treated or cheated... and they'll start blaming the man behind the curtain, i.e. the designers or developers who created the game. And if this happens frequently enough, it will directly impact the player's purchasing habits and erode their confidence in the market. Which means the unfair, unethical or immoral design practices of a handful of developers can on some level adversely impact all developers in a segment of the market.

So while on a philosophical level there may be no moral limits to monetization models, in the real world there will always be short and long term consequences to decisions and actions.