The strange double-standards around F2P ethics discussions
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Over the last few years I’ve witnessed and participated in quite a few interesting conversations between developers who, like me, are struggling to understand and adopt to the rapidly changing landscape, especially with respect to mobile.
Within this sea of change, we all want to get paid for our work, and most, if not all of us also have ethical concerns about how we go around doing it.
I consider myself an ethically minded developer. For example, my personal moral compass will ensure I never work on a gambling game. I’ve seen how the fake illusion of “it’s possible to strike it rich, if only I spend 10 more dollars” can ruin people’s lives. That’s not the kind of “fun” I want my games to offer. Other people have different moral compasses and would work on different kinds of games than I would. Many will reject working on any F2P game that allows players to spend a lot of money, while I won’t. This is all good and fine, and not really the point of this post. Everyone has the freedom to define their own morals as they see fit.
The point is that when I observe or participate in F2P discussions with other developers who consider all no-spending cap F2P evil, I often see what I consider severe inconsistencies and double standards in their ethics arguments. This doesn’t mean their arguments are wrong or that their sense of morality is misplaced. But I did want to talk about these inconsistencies, because I believe they hide deeper, often hidden opinions, convictions, and fears that perhaps even the people who run into such inconsistencies haven’t truly understood themselves. The goal is not to change anyone’s mind about F2P, but I do want to pose open questions to developers who are universally against any game that allows a player to spend a lot of money in a short amount of time. I believe pondering on those questions would be good for them, and it may help them to discover something new about themselves. Similarly, I would love to receive similar questions that may challenge double standards I may be blindly falling for, as someone who does not consider all “unlimited spending cap” games automatically evil.
“F2P is evil, but ads aren’t”
Some of the same developers who consider no-cap F2P evil choose to implement ads in their games as an ethical alternative to avoid the evilness of in-app purchases.
If we can agree that ethics in our context means caring about where your revenue is coming from, and that being ethical means avoiding sources of revenue that support behaviour you judge evil and unethical, then it becomes immediately clear that this position is inconsistent. The rising advertising revenue in mobile that supports ad-enabled games comes largely from the success and effectiveness of F2P games with “evil” in-app purchases. If you have an ad-supported game, your revenue is coming from people who pay in-app purchases. Sure, there’s an extra degree of separation: You don’t collect the money directly from the players, you get it from the companies who collect it in initially. Does that make it ethical?
When I point this out, I usually get this response: “Well, my game is very small, and me showing ads doesn’t really make a dent in how successful top F2P games are – they’ll be successful regardless what I do and keep on going about their evil ways”. This is similar to arguing “I believe selling drugs is unethical, BUT, there’s so many huge drug lords out there, that me slightly supporting some of them really makes 0 net difference, so you see my behaviour is kind of ethical after all”. The magnitude of the effect the action has on the overall environment has nothing to do with the morality of the action itself.
The willingness of many ethics-minded developers to implement ads just so they can avoid any in-app purchase system was particularly puzzling to me. I have been thinking a lot about why someone would implement such an intrusive, completely immersion-breaking feature that breaks the player’s attention to talk to them about other games or products. Even in their best implementation, incentivised ads are still a chore for the player, a regular ritual someone has to go through as part of their game, something they wouldn’t miss if it was gone but still go through it for the rewards. Why are those developers forcing people who potentially love their game into this awful path, instead of building trust with them by offering them a game that’s fully enjoyable for free, while optionally allowing them to spend money if they want and are able to?
After all these conversations, I am convinced the reason ads are so much more desirable to certain developers from an ethics standpoint is this: They only extract, at best, a very small amount of money per player. I’ll return to this in a bit.
The Addiction argument, selectively applied
Against Ernest Adam’s advice from a long time ago, I’ll go ahead and declare that video games can be addictive. I mean, if a guy can die after playing for 3 days straight, then I don’t know what else to call them. Sure, it doesn’t happen to everyone, but it has happened to a tiny few. To me, the approach of “this happens to only a few screwed up people, so it’s not my problem” doesn’t seem very ethical.
Addiction can drive bad behaviour in people, especially people who are vulnerable to it. Some people can and do become so addicted, they make poor life choices. Addiction in F2P games has gotten a lot of attention in recent years and has put forth a developer discussion on ethics on those types of games only. Note that within the developer community, we have largely decided that we are being ethical with non-F2P games, regardless of their content. For instance, the moment some outsider dares question whether violence causes any kind of unwanted behaviour in teenagers, we will jump on them without even trying to understand the particulars of the case they are talking about, as if we know everything about the human psyche and that all past research applies equally to every individual that is or ever will be born. By using our own experiences as a base, we often declare that either violent games can’t negatively affect anyone, or if they do, it’s the responsibility of someone else and not the people who are making the violent games to do something about it.
On the other hand, many of the same developers who make this judgment are quick to pick up their pitchforks whenever someone presents evidence of F2P games having affected negatively some specific players. Here’s a representative article. By its own author’s admission, it is focused out of proportion to people who were addicted to F2P games and made bad choices that in some cases ruined their life.
But what would our reaction be to similar situations with traditional games, the kinds of which we all grew up and have played for decades? Let’s make a thought experiment. Let’s assume that, similar to these pathological situations with F2P, there also exists a person somewhere that’s making poor life choices with pay up front games. This person spends thousands a month on console and PC games. They are so addicted, they don’t realize they are ruining themselves financially by buying so many games they can’t afford. One of those games they bought is your game.
Are you unethical in the first place for allowing such behavior?
Is it fair for you to be asked to cease development of all paid games, to avoid pathological situations like this one? Are you being unethical if you refuse?
Should you go out of your way (at significant cost to you and your company) to find and refund this person among thousands of other satisfied buyers?
Are you in favor of enacting government regulations to dictate what features you can and cannot put in your paid games, in order to avoid such addiction cases?
I’ve observed that many of the ethically minded developers who are against all forms of F2P have very different answers to these questions compared to their answers to the equivalent questions around F2P. The “F2P relies on this kind of addictive behavior to work” argument comes up some times and is just an emotional fabrication, not supported by any kind of research, real world data I’ve seen, or any of the high spenders I’ve talked to. The other more reasonable argument I hear on why F2P should be treated differently is this: “I only accepted $60 from this person, so my responsibility is limited”. This is quite similar to my conclusion of why many developers prefer ads to F2P for ethical reasons: The absolute amount of money involved per player. The pattern is clear: To many ethically-minded developers, the idea of having a single player spend a large amount on a game is offensive and immoral, regardless of context.
The elusive concept of Value
The vast majority of developers and many players, especially the ones who have been involved in games for more than a decade, have been well trained to think we are all very similar when it comes to extracting value from games. The nature of the paid games has drilled into our brain that
A given person is either interested or not interested in a game;
Those who are interested should be getting similar value out of the game, the equivalent of 60 American dollars. A game either meets this value or it doesn’t, for everyone involved, as determined by voodoo metrics such as overall playtime or quality of the story or whatever psychological mood the reviewer happened to be on the week they played it
Here’s Ernest Adams, revealing the very common impression that a game’s value equals the amount of time someone plays it:
The players paid $6 an hour -- ten cents a minute -- to play RabbitJack's. In retrospect I think it was the most honest business model the game industry has ever had. As long as we were entertaining people, we made money. When they logged out, we stopped making money. People paid for exactly as much entertainment as they got, period.
This is effectively saying if you’ve played a game for 20 minutes, you had exactly twice as much fun (or “entertainment”) as someone else who played the game for 10 minutes. This idea is at the core of many ethical developers’ disgust with accepting a lot of money in a short period of time, like the most successful F2P games do.
But my personal favourite example of this way of thinking comes from developers ridiculing players who give bad reviews to paid games they played for a long time. There’s even a website dedicated to easily ridiculing more players in real time as they commit the sin of playing a game far too long and not liking it.
So these developers believe that a long play time equals having fun, and valuing the overall experience - no exceptions. Sounds weird to me, but that’s fine, it’s their opinion. Would those same developers also think a person who spent a lot of time playing a mobile F2P game also had fun with it and isn’t allowed to say bad things about the whole experience? Would the same people also ridicule the author of this piece? I seriously doubt it. The ones I talk to definitely wouldn’t. So that model is conveniently abandoned once those developers start talking about a game they personally don’t like, or that they think is immoral.
Another very interesting confusion around value I’ve seen from other developers is the one that dictates that the value to the player is in some way proportional to the effort that went into making the game in the first place. This is something I’ve uncovered from numerous conversations with AAA developers. Many in that field believe that it’s obvious that GTA-V provides more value to a player (*any* player) compared to e.g. Candy Crush Saga, because the first has massive amounts of content, a massive story and various characters, and even a new engine that people worked on for years. In contrast, Candy Crush Saga is cast away as a Bejewelled clone that must have been very easy to make, and can’t possibly offer value unless to people who don’t know any better than to play it.
This type of confusion is especially interesting, because I think it’s what’s keeping many developers from allowing players to pay over a certain limit in their games. Most of the capped-spend limit F2P games I’ve seen and talked to have implemented the cap not because of lack of content, but because their game doesn’t deserve an individual player paying more than a certain amount. More than one person that I’ve talked to have presented a utopian model of “ethical F2P” where everybody spends $5, instead of relatively few people spending a lot of money. Those developers have picked a max dollar value of what the game experience they are offering is worth, using arbitrary standards like other AAA games or how long they’ve been working on the game, and ruled according to their ethics code that nobody else can possibly extract more value than that. The same developers, rather expectedly, claim that F2P games with no caps are immoral, and don’t deserve to receive thousands of dollars from a single player.
A common pattern with some developers is that they project their own sense of value to everyone else. “This is worth x dollars of value to me, so it should be worth the same to everyone else”. In a very representative example, E. McNeil tries to define non-exploitative rules for designing games using a concept of "actual value":
But the real issue with exploitative design techniques is that they are used to divorce perceived value from actual value (as the customer’s “best self” would judge it)
Many use the concept of “actual value” to mean basically what they perceive to be the value, or what their immediate environment has conditioned them to consider valuable. This particular piece instead uses the concept of the customer’s “best self”, which it defines as:
a hypothetical version [of the customer] with perfect knowledge, willpower, rationality, and judgement. Without any weaknesses affecting their decision, would your customer still consider your offer to be a beneficial exchange? If you don’t think so, then you shouldn’t make that sale.
Regardless of what good intentions may be behind it, this definition breaks down completely when it comes to deciding who exactly is the judge of what this “perfect hypothetical human being” would like and not like. It becomes a judgment device some can and do use to enforce their own sense of value to others, while maintaining an air of superiority. Using the concept of "true value", I've heard numerous developers declare things like “No sane person would ever choose to spend money on Clash of Clans, unless one of the following is happening: they either don’t know better games exist on console or they don’t have the willpower, judgment or rationality to realize, like I do, that paying money on this game is bad value.” The frequency I hear things like this from game developers, a discipline that’s otherwise trained to talk to and understand their audience rather than dictate to them the proper way to play, is nothing short of embarrassing.
Despite the comfort hard numbers always provide when dealing with an unknown, hard to measure quantity like value, hours of play time or cost that went into making a game have nothing to do with what actual players find valuable in a game. This value is not only extremely hard to measure, it also depends on uncontrollable external factors and varies widely from person to person. The Last of Us was a terrible experience to me, for reasons I’ve described elsewhere and very bad value for the money I paid for it. If it were a movie-format, 2 hour experience instead of 15 hours, it would have been much better value to me. But there are also countless players who loved it and wouldn’t think twice to pay more money for a special edition or buy it again on another platform. Absolute dollar amounts are also meaningless to measure value, because $60 means something very different to different people. Accepting $1000 is deemed immoral by many developers, while accepting $60 is moral, without even a pause to consider context. My view is that context matters. Accepting $60 from the hypothetical addicted person described above would be questionable for me, and I’d try to avoid it if I could. But a rich lawyer is welcome to spend $1000 in my game if they’re enjoying it and seeing good value, with the side effect of supporting many other players playing for free. If you take offence to that, consider this question: Do you also have similar objections when a wealthy person pays tens of thousands for a vintage video game, game collection, or to redecorate their basement after their favourite game? Or will you try to explain the discrepancy away by presenting how your definition of what has actual value is the one that matters?
As an ethically minded developer, I actually feel more comfortable and in control of my conscience with the F2P model. Consider this: Earlier in the piece, one of the questions I posed on the hypothetical scenario of “addicted person spends too much on paid games”, one of the questions was this:
Should you go out of your way (at significant cost to you and your company) to find and refund this one person among thousands of other satisfied buyers?
My personal answer is “Yes”, regardless of whether it’s a paid or F2P game. But if I was working on a paid game, I wouldn’t even know where to start. There would have to be some kind of industry-wide coordination, which would never happen for obvious reasons. Consider this same question in the context of high spending within a single F2P game. Finding and refunding or cutting off obsessed players who are spending beyond their means in your game is far easier and less costly assuming you are an ethically-minded F2P developer. And even though I highly doubt such an ethical business would see any significant effect to revenue, I would gladly take any such hit because it’s the ethical thing to do.
More on this, and other ways I personally deal with ethical questions around F2P games, in future posts, as I keep developing and operating F2P games.