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Exploitative Game Design: Beyond the F2P Debate
by E McNeill on 08/09/13 03:00:00 am   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.


The past few months have seen a torrent of articles about Free-to-Play business models, often discussed alongside issues of ethics in games (for example: 12345). These pieces have addressed the effect on addiction-prone players or children, the possibility of corrupting artistic intent, the sheer amount of money being spent, and other advantages and dangers of F2P. While all of this is relevant, I fear that we’re focusing too much on F2P and glossing over the wider ethical issues in game design.

Can’t paid games be unethical too? Children are vulnerable, but shouldn’t we also fight against the exploitation of adults? Can’t all business models corrupt artistic intent, as Dan Cook keeps pointing out in exasperation? F2P is the center of the current conversation, but I don’t think the ethical issue is really about the business model. “Free” is hardly a bad quality in itself, and high rates of spending seem more worthy of our aspiration than our disgust (after all, hardcore gamers and other hobbyists routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, as Cook argues). Besides, if a game can rob you of your time or reduce your quality of life in other ways, it can be unethical without taking any money at all.

I’m optimistic about the F2P model (both of my commercial games are F2P), but I also believe that player exploitation is very real, very profitable, and genuinely immoral. Perhaps F2P makes it easier or more lucrative to exploit players, but any game can include exploitative techniques. Instead of making unfairly broad attacks on the F2P model, we should condemn exploitation wherever it occurs. There seem to be sizable groups of game developers who either A) don’t know about exploitative game design, or B) don’t see an ethical problem with it. Those are the designers that I’m hoping to persuade in this article.

Below, I’ll discuss game design techniques like randomized rewards, premium currencies, manipulative feedback, and pay-to-win schemes. But, first, I’ll try to establish a simple basis for my ethical claims.

Ethical Exchanges

When any product is sold, the seller is essentially saying “I’d rather have your money than this product”, and the buyer is saying the reverse. They’d each prefer to own what the other person is offering, and so the trade makes both of them “wealthier”. In this way, a healthy exchange benefits both sides.

This process breaks down whenever one party takes advantage of the other. For example, consider a used car dealer who knowingly sells someone a lemon. In this case, the buyer has a weaker position (since they lack information about the true state of the car), and the dealer can exploit that weakness to sell the car for more money than it’s worth to the buyer. The seller becomes wealthier, but the buyer does not. This is an unhealthy exchange, and since the dealer acted knowingly, it was an unethical act.

In other cases, the buyer’s weakness is not a lack of information, but a lack of willpower or judgement. Exploiting this kind of weakness is equally unethical. We might imagine someone trying to sell drugs to an addict who wishes to quit, for example. If this is done knowingly, then the seller is sabotaging the buyer, acting against the buyer’s best interest for their own profit. Even if the buyer enthusiastically agrees to the exchange at the time, the seller is still intentionally exploiting the buyer’s weakness.

This highlights an often-confusing point: it’s not enough merely to get the buyer’s consent. Instead, the proper standard is that of mutual benefit. The most instructive example (which I’m borrowing from Jonathan Blow) is that of a con artist who scams an unwitting victim, perhaps by selling them a counterfeit item of little real value. The victim might fully consent to the exchange, and might walk away happily, never realizing that they’ve been cheated, but that doesn’t mean that the exchange was ethical. What matters is that the seller made money by exploiting the buyer, instead of working toward a mutually beneficial exchange.

All I’m trying to establish is that exploiting someone else’s weakness for your own profit is wrong, and it doesn’t matter what form that weakness takes. I hope that, without going into any detail about a particular theory of morality, we can at least agree on that as a foundation for further ethical claims.

Essentially, you should be trying to sell to your customer’s “best self”, a hypothetical version of them 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.

Of course, in most businesses, your product is offered to a large audience, and there’s no way to evaluate each customer one-by-one. That doesn’t mean that you’re free of ethical responsibilities, though. You should consider the effect that the sale would have on the audience as a whole, and you should do what you can to reduce the possibility of exploitation. This is why foods companies list their Nutrition Facts and suggest reasonable serving sizes, why bars refuse to serve patrons that are excessively drunk, and why casinos allow customers to ban themselves. These measures are meant to reduce the potential harm of exploitative exchanges, and an ethical business would enact them voluntarily.

Exploitation is unethical. But what does exploitation look like in the context of games?

Techniques of Exploitation

Some games are regularly accused of employing “psychological tricks” to exploit their players. Without specifics, this can end up sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theory. It’s not. The “tricks” are simply the exploitation of common weaknesses such as cognitive biases. Many cognitive biases are widespread, well-understood, and experimentally verified. Still, I’ll make the disclaimer here that I’m writing as a practicing designer, not as an expert in psychology.

Below I’ve listed a few ways that cognitive biases or other weaknesses can be exploited in games. These aren’t examples of wrongdoing per se; they are techniques that can be used unethically, but they can also support healthy mechanics or be included accidentally. In most cases, however, their primary effect is to exploit some psychological weakness for profit, and they should be avoided without good reason otherwise.

1) Exploit loss aversion

Loss aversion refers to the common tendency to care much more about losses than gains. To an irrational extent, players will seek to avoid getting a penalty or missing out on an expected reward. This bias can also manifest as the sunk cost fallacy, in which people act irrationally to avoid feeling like they’re wasting resources. The simplest exploitation of loss aversion might be “crop withering” mechanics, in which the game threatens to take away a resource or to erase an expected gain unless the player takes some action. There are plenty of other, more subtle uses of loss aversion. For example:

  • Make the player work for the opportunity to buy something (“You’ve unlocked a new purchasable item”). The player will not want to waste the effort that they already made to reach this opportunity.
  • Pair plentiful in-game currencies with scarce premium currencies (“You have lots of gold, but not enough gems”). The player will not want to let the plentiful currency go to waste.
  • Increase the amount of time it takes to perform some common action (“The build time doubles every level”). The player will not want to lose the rate of progress to which they have become accustomed.
  • Cause automatic growth to halt until the player intervenes (“Your collector is full / Your crops are ready to be harvested”). The player will not want to waste time by leaving the game idle.

2) Use variable ratio reward mechanics

Essentially, variable ratio reward schedules are slot machine mechanics. The rewards are based on random chance but remain linked to player inputs: the perfect combination to elicit compulsive behavior or addiction.

Randomness is not a bad thing in itself, and it’s often used in the service of healthy dynamics. Procedural generation uses randomness to provide variety, for example, and poker uses random chance to create dynamics of probability management and bluffing.

However, randomness can also be used to create gameplay that is both compelling and empty, a simple recipe for regrettable wastes of time and money. Variable ratio rewards can be combined with the illusory rewards from the near miss effect (the positive feeling of “almost winning”). It can also be bolstered by the gambler’s fallacy (“I’m due for a win!”) or the hot hand fallacy (“I’m on a lucky streak!”).

3) Use excessive extrinsic feedback

When a game gives positive feedback (any attempt at positive reinforcement), the player will enjoy it to the extent that the feedback feels true and meaningful. However, most players don’t stop to think about the validity of a game’s feedback; instead, they accept the feedback by default, subconsciously giving the game the benefit of the doubt. This may be especially true for less-experienced players. Excessive positive feedback can thus be used to string players along, giving them the illusion that they are accomplishing something meaningful.

This process could be as simple as doling out rewards or other positive feedback whenever the player is getting bored, whenever it could make the player re-engage with the game (e.g. upon logging in), or upon the completion of a trivial goal. The effect can be enhanced by building a structure or pattern out of such goals, e.g. by presenting them as a short checklist or as a set that must be completed. Wrapping goals together into a larger structure encourages players to see them as more meaningful, regardless of whether or not that’s true, and effectively creates a new mental reward that acts as yet another bit of feedback (“You completed a set!”).

In the worst case, the abuse of extrinsic feedback can undermine the player’s intrinsic enjoyment (the overjustification effect).

4) Offer purchases that short-circuit game dynamics

When a player wants to reach some goal (like earning an item, or defeating their opponents in a competition), the game can offer to sell them an advantage, or even to sell them the goal directly. This is often derided as “pay-to-win”.

In the most innocent case, selling an advantage is just an indirect way of selling a difficulty adjustment. In a presentation about the game Shellrazer, for example, the developers explained that they balanced the game for the players with lots of time or skill, while selling advantages to the players who had neither. We might see this as selling access to the easy difficulty mode. This strikes me as bizarre (why is a game primarily making money from the players who are presumably least-engaged?) but not necessarily unethical.

More often, though, selling advantages is a means of extracting money from a treadmill dynamic. The player decides upon a goal, starts working toward it, then decides to pay to get it right away (or more easily) instead. The player is essentially paying to play less of the game, short-circuiting the existing game dynamics in favor of more immediate gratification. It’s a poor trade of long-term gain (ongoing gameplay) for a short-term reward, except that the short-term reward is meaningless unless the player continues playing, e.g. by choosing a new goal and repeating the process.

When the game is intrinsically rewarding, a pay-to-win system is more damaging, since short-circuiting the dynamics will skip over the intrinsic rewards entirely in favor of the extrinsic goal. For a multiplayer competitive game, this process can potentially ruin the game for all participants, not just the player who paid.

5) Make purchases harder to evaluate

A game can get around a player’s better judgement by obscuring or inflating the perceived value of whatever is being sold. For paid games, this might mean any pre-purchase misrepresentation (e.g. “bullshot“).

In F2P games, this technique usually involves a premium currency, which keeps sales one step further removed from actual money in the player’s mind. This is doubly effective if the cost of purchases in the game is constantly increasing; this sort of inflation can cause a purchase of premium currency to seem like a great deal initially, only for it to rapidly decrease in practical value as the game proceeds. The game might also misrepresent its dynamics; for example, if it’s implied that a purchase will make the game more rich and dynamically interesting, but instead it just scales up all the numbers in a way that produces equivalent gameplay, then the player receives only a momentary extrinsic reward instead of ongoing intrinsic rewards. Any other sort of bait-and-switch would serve just as well.

6) Rely on post-purchase rationalization and restraint bias

In addition to the active techniques listed above, there are two cognitive biases that serve to passively amplify the impact of exploitative game design. Restraint bias refers to the tendency to overestimate one’s own self-control, which may lead people more easily into exploitative situations (“those tricks wouldn’t work on me”). Post-purchase rationalization is the tendency to justify voluntary purchases even if later information reveals that the purchase was a poor decision. This can combine with any exploitative design technique; if you can get the player to make a bad purchase, they might still convince themselves that it was a good idea (“If I already spent that much time and money, I guess the game must be fun after all”). It may be impossible to avoid these passive biases, but it’s useful to note how they can enhance or disguise the effect of exploitative design.

How to Not Exploit Your Players

The techniques that I’ve listed above can be hard to resist, in part because (since it’s possible to use them ethically, and since their downsides are not obvious) they’re so easy to rationalize. More importantly, exploitative design works. Even games that were designed to parody these techniques (such as AVGM,Progress Quest, or Cow Clicker) have surprised their creators with their popularity. If you’re using a simplistic metrics-driven design process, it could easily lead you toward exploitative game design, and it takes vigilance to avoid that pull.

If you want to act ethically, you need to honestly evaluate the value of your game. Keep in mind that games can have value beyond mere pleasure, and costs beyond time and money. People are affected in subtle ways by the media that they consume, and you’re responsible for those effects as well.

Here are a few tests that might help you get a better perspective on your game’s design. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but I’m hoping that they can provoke some thought:

  • Looking back with perfect hindsight, would a player feel that your game was well worth the cost, or would they regret the time and money that they spent on it?
  • Are your customers paying to play more of your game, or to play less?
  • If you removed as much extrinsic feedback as possible, would your game be worth playing?
  • Are you trying to get purchases during a “moment of weakness”, or would your players confidently make each purchase even if they had plenty of time to consider it? In other words, are you trying to circumvent the player’s better judgement?
  • Does your game design push the player primarily toward paying more money, or toward getting better at the game?
  • Are you faithfully representing the values and costs of your purchases, or do you make them harder to think about?
  • Do you expect that your typical target customer will, in total, be better off after buying what you’re selling?
  • Are you trying to increase profit primarily by increasing the value of the player’s experience, or by tweaking your monetization scheme?
  • Is your design primarily about presenting interesting gameplay, or about making the player take certain actions (driving metrics)?

Ultimately, these are components of a more important, more broad question: Are you doing what you can to ensure that the player’s encounter with your game is mutually beneficial?

Objections and Responses

In the sections above, I’ve argued that exploitative game design exists and that it ought to be seen as an ethical issue. There are a few natural questions and counter-arguments that seem to come up again and again; I’ve tried to offer initial responses to them here.

- You call it “exploitation”. My players call it “fun”. If people enjoy it, who are you to say that they’re wrong?

Recall the earlier example of the con artist selling a counterfeit product. The buyer might feel totally satisfied with their purchase, but that’s not enough to conclude that it was an ethical exchange. We have to look more closely.

Sometimes the player can benefit even when exploitative design is used. In small doses, and for a cheap-enough price, most games can be genuinely valuable to their players, even if only as an idle distraction. 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). Irrational loss aversion, compulsive behavior, and getting tricked into purchases are not good, valuable, healthy experiences, even though they are freely chosen.

In most cases, exploitative techniques surround a simple or vapid gameplay loop, which would normally lead to boredom. Exploitative design can get around boredom by using techniques like variable ratio rewards and extrinsic feedback, but boredom is sometimes a healthy reaction to wasting time. If your players knew this, fully understood your game’s dynamics, and saw through your game’s monetization design, would they still be happy to spend their time and money this way? If the answer is “no”, you’re exploiting their lack of understanding.

- My game is not unethical because it can be played entirely for free / because it has a cap on spending.

While these are good methods of reducing the maximum harm that a game can cause, neither method is a get-out-of-jail-free card. A totally free game can still be addictive and waste a player’s time, and a F2P game that fails to extract money from some players (despite its best efforts) is hardly worthy of praise. Similarly, a spending cap is not a complete defense; a game that exploits someone out of a few dollars is still unethical, in the same way that a thief who only steals a few dollars is still committing a crime.

- A lot of people use those techniques. Do you really believe that all those developers are evil?

No, of course not. In most cases, I think that these techniques are employed due to a designer’s lack of understanding, a naive reliance on metrics, or an innocent but misguided emphasis on monetization. In other cases, developers might knowingly work on exploitative games for practical personal reasons (after all, taking the high road can be expensive). I certainly don’t think that all exploitative game designers “are evil”. But, then, I don’t think that you have to be evil to do unethical things. My hope is just that good designers will reflect on their designs and consider what effect they’re having.

- Are you saying that the players of these games are stupid?

No. Maybe some players are, but everyone has biases, and everyone can be manipulated. More importantly, the players don’t bear ethical responsibility. If someone is scammed by a con artist, I don’t blame them or ask about how gullible they were; instead, I blame the con artist for exploiting them.

- What about [another common exploitative sales technique]? Are you saying that’s unethical too?

Yes, probably. Exploitation is far too common. Others have written about the subject with regard to state lotteriesweb designlending money, and social networks. Any time that someone seeks to gain at the expense of another, I’m concerned.

- You just think you know what’s best for everyone. Let them make their own choices! People should be free to waste their money if they want to.

I agree that people should be free to spend their money as they please. However, that doesn’t mean that you should be encouraging them to spend their money poorly. If someone is considering buying your product, and you believe that the transaction will make their life worse, you should not sell it to them. If you do, you’re knowingly profiting from their harm, and I call that unethical.

- “A fool and his money are soon parted.” These games may be exploitative, but the audience for them is huge. Even if I refuse to take their money, someone else will. If they want to buy my product, I’m going to sell it to them, period.

Yes, there are people out there who are ripe for exploitation. But just because they are especially vulnerable doesn’t mean it’s okay to prey on them, even if they are literally asking for it. I reject the idea of a dog-eat-dog world in which exploitation is the only way to get ahead. You don’t have to contribute to a collective wrong, and instead you can try to produce an alternative. The creators of Plants vs. Zombies proved that it’s possible to make a non-exploitative game that’s still a hit. Why not make that your ambition?

- Players will eventually realize that they’re being exploited and stop playing those games. The market will sort itself out.

I hope that this will prove true in time. But it’s not a sure thing (see the ongoing success of slot machines), and I suspect that a particularly vulnerable subset of players will continue playing exploitative games for a long time. In any case, it’s never too early for developers to start considering the ethics of their game designs.

- You can’t compare games to addictive drugs or to scams. Drugs are physically addictive, and scams involve lying to the victim. That’s not true of games.

Those differences aren’t relevant to my point. (In fact, I don’t think that drugs or lying are always bad.) I bring up these subjects as examples in which the buyer is making a voluntary purchase and yet the exchange is still exploitative. These examples show that it’s possible, and this dynamic is relevant when discussing exploitative games.

- Lighten up! They’re just games. Nobody’s dying here.

I admit, this is hardly the world’s biggest moral issue. But even a small wrong is still a wrong, and when it’s potentially repeated millions of times, it’s surely worth our attention.

- You say that sometimes those techniques are acceptable, and sometimes they’re unethical. Where do you draw the line?

They are unethical whenever they result in harm to others, usually by convincing customers to spend time or money without delivering sufficient value in return. Determining whether that’s happening is not always simple, but it deserves our earnest reflection.

- Why don’t you call out any specific games as exploitative?

I avoided giving examples of exploitative games here, since I’m mostly trying to offer a foundation for future discussion. I hope that others will write more specific analyses of existing games.

Related Material

Most of my arguments above have been made before by others; this article is just my attempt to combine them and restate them in a way that makes the most sense to me. If you’re interested in reading more, here is some particularly salient material from those other authors:

- Two talks by Jonathan Blow: Design Reboot (most relevant 16:15-31:30) and Video Games and the Human Condition, addressing reward schedules and exploitative design.

Achievements Considered Harmful? by Chris Hecker, discussing the effect of extrinsic rewards.

who killed video games? (a ghost story) by Tim Rogers, a look at the mechanics of monetization in social games.

Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games by Mike Rose, focusing on addiction.

Social Games vs. Gambling, by Raph Koster, discussing the similarities and differences of those two industry segments.

Contrivance and Extortion by Adam Saltsman, and Part 2, discussing the intersection of the “Checklist Effect” and microtransactions.

Let’s Admit it: Addiction is not an Asset by Drew Dixon, pointing out that “addictive” should not be a compliment.

I’d Like Fewer Addictive Games, Thanks by Patricia Hernandez, making a similar point.

Apple is Gambling by Colin Northway, attacking games that “basically earn their money from failures in the human mind”.

Shit Crayons by Ian Bogost, a response to the assertion that some exploitative games are actually about creativity.


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Darren Tomlyn
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This is an area in which the 'bigger picture' is required for everything to be recognised and understood in its full and proper context.

Since we've never had such a thing, however, a lot of the underlying problems just cause people to go round in circles.

The immediate part of the 'big picture' is an understanding of what games themselves actually are - what it is we (should) truly use the word game to represent in this manner. This then gives us something such design decisions and behaviour they enable to be related to, and to recognise any and all inconsistencies with such a definition.

If a method of creation and design to enable a specific type of behaviour, especially one that would be considered unethical, is not consistent with what we should call a game in the first place, then still calling it a game would then be unethical in itself, and be part of the overall problem.

Unfortunately, we have a very large and powerful industry involved in wanting the word game to cover a variety of different activities that should never be considered an equivalent of each other - because they profit from exploiting people who have never been informed and taught about such differences in the first place.

And they're winning.

This is not just a war of mechanics and design, but one of language and propaganda, and the definition of the word game, itself, sits right at its centre, since it governs how such creation and design is perceived, recognised, understood and then applied.

This has, unfortunately, been allowed to happen, because our current understanding and recognition of the language, itself, is also problematic. And so without fixing that, first, we're just going round in circles.

E McNeill
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For what it's worth, my article really isn't about the definition of "game". I think I understand what you're saying (that framing non-choices as games creates a manipulative illusion of agency), but do we really have to resolve the definition argument before discussing other aspects of ethics in games? Even if you think the bigger battle is one of "language and propaganda", my post is about mechanics and design, and I wish you wouldn't steer the conversation towards another topic.

Darren Tomlyn
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It's not another topic.

Just like a computer can be used to enable so many different types and forms of behaviour merely by using a few basic components to interact with, (keyboard, mouse, game-pad, joystick etc.), the basic elements that are used to enable games, can also be used as part of, to enable, other activities too.

Without the direct relationship to the word game, such elements have no meaningful context and relation to each other at all - which is one of the reasons we're having problems understanding and applying the activities being enabled. As such, how we describe what these elements are, and how and why they're related to each other based ENTIRELY on the activity they are used to enable, is what determines how and why they can be used to exploit people in the first place, based on their expectations of what people expect to happen.

There's nothing wrong or exploitative about a competition, if that is what a person is expecting to take part in. The reason we're having problems, is that a lot of power and agency is taken away from the player, and/or manipulated by the creators/designers, in a manner that is not consistent with what the word game represents, and therefore what the players truly 'expect' from taking part in such an activity.

It's ALL about the relationship between the story the player writes, and the story the game (and its creators) tell - it's ALL about using the story told to outweigh and manipulate the written story against the player, beyond the basic behaviour the word game represents (an application of). If this wasn't the case, there would be nothing to 'exploit' in the first place, because the player would have all the power they needed to ensure that would never happen - it would be only down to their skill or influence (depending on the type of game) that would determine how successful they are. (As I said in a reply below, merely making a game hard or easy, in part or as a whole, is not really part of this discussion, because it's consistent with the subjective application of games without any problems - just because a game is bad, doesn't mean it's exploitative.) The reason exploitation is happening, is that this is not the case.

Now if I told you that the difference between what the player does and what the game does, (on behalf of what it's designers and creators have done), isn't fully recognised and understood in the first place, then you probably wouldn't believe me - but it's true, which is also why an understanding of games (especially in relation to art) is a very large part of this problem. What we're seeing here is a side-effect of that, though often deliberate, rather than accidental - which is why the unrecognised relationship between games and competitions, especially, is also such a problem.

Trying to treat such individual pieces of behaviour in isolation, without understanding the activity they can form part of, (including that we're trying to design and create in the first place), is a mistake.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I agree that language is critical and that abuse of language is critical to the promotion of propaganda. This is a big part of the reason that I am attempting to create new language for the gaming industry to better define what we are discussing. For instance, in one of my recent articles (#2 in the first paragraph) I make a clear distinction between skill games (what we traditionally refer to as games) and money games (most of the games the OP rails against). The rise of money games is causing a lot of damage to our reputation as an industry because most consumers are seeking skill games and have a very difficult time finding even one option to choose from.

The situation is made even more challenging for the consumer because these money games are quite intentionally disguised as skill games.

Darren Tomlyn
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That's not where the distinction truly lies.

The fact is, is that when money is involved, very few games remain as games in the first place, usually becoming competitions, (though it is possible).

Only if money is part of the written story the game enables as part of its application, would it be consistent with remaining a game, that therefore involves money, and the ONLY candidate for this is poker, IMO, but even then it's still not consistent in its presence and requirement, (it's possible to win a poker-hand WITHOUT betting any money at all beyond the initial blinds, and therefore rely totally upon the cards that have been dealt to determine who wins and loses, which is its DEFAULT behaviour), which also has to affect its definition.

Money is also being used to buy elements that don't impact such activities as a game to begin with - (for example extra clothing for the character (playing piece) being controlled etc..) - in which case relating the use of money in such a description as a type of game isn't consistent either - it uses money in addition to it being a game, and therefore the description needs to reflect that.

Games of skill and games of chance already describe two different things, and are unrelated to what you wish to use the word skill to describe, here - in which case your description is also a problem, and inconsistent.

As I said, the problem is that the elements used, such as a computer, pictures/animation, some systems/mechanics and rules, do NOT, in themselves, truly define the activity they can be used to enable - it's how they're used and applied that matters, and since we have problems with our perception, recognition and understanding of such different activities and behaviour they can be used to enable, it should be no surprise we're having problems with such applications.

Ramin Shokrizade
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You provide no evidence, intuitive or direct, to support your assertion that my defining what I believe is a more relevant axis (skill vs. money) is inconsistent or problematic. That is, of course, unless you assert that all new definitions/language are inconsistent with all old definitions/language, which would seem to be a firm stance against innovation.

Darren Tomlyn
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Your use of the word skill is inconsistent for it also counts games which are CHANCE based, when the use of the word skill is to label and DEFINE games, to make a distinction between those, which are not. Therefore your use of the word is to DELIBERATELY confuse chance and skill based games as they are currently labelled.

If you disagree with such uses and definitions at present, then you need to explain yourself, as a matter of linguistics, why you disagree with their current use - (and I doubt you can do so, given both how common such use is, and how basic such words and information they represent is and are, in relation to games).

Analogy: You wouldn't want to use the word blue instead of the word colour, because it would no longer make a distinction between red, yellow AND blue truly possible, according to how the language is already used. To then try and say that red and yellow IS blue, would be inconsistent and wrong.

How we use language to describe itself, is, at present, one of the BIGGEST problems humanity has, that isn't fully recognised and understood either for what it is, how and why it exists, or what it affects. Your premise is still, ultimately, a symptom of such a problem, though very basic, simple, and obvious. If it's deliberate, then it fits with the problems being discussed - people not using language properly to describe what is happening, how and why, that then allows people to take advantage of the confusion being caused. If it's not, then I'm telling you to go away and think up another label and description for what it is you looking to represent, so that other, similar and related words (including chance and skill) and information can then be recognised and understood in relation to, because on behalf of humanity, I cannot accept the confusion such a description provides.

Tom Mason
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It's dangerous for any person to think that they can rightly judge what is harmful for people they don't know. That's a common excuse for tyranny. As long as there is no deception or coercion, I would call a transaction ethical. If the product delivered is exactly what was promised, then there's no deception. If the player ends up disappointed (buyer's remorse), he can ask for a refund or just not do it again. As far as I know, coercion in these app stores isn't possible. Thus, I would consider these games ethical (perhaps an argument could be made that they're deceiving consumers....maybe some games are!).

I think that ultimately, the market will fix this phenomenon. If players are really harming themselves, they'll figure it out and stop wasting their money. Therefore, ultimately, those who create real games will finally be rewarded better, while those who make empty, exploitative games will decline (they'll never disappear, as slot machines and cigarettes prove). Articles like this are fantastic for raising awareness and teaching consumers. As consumers learn to recognize these games for what they are, they'll find and spend money on better games.

In short, I'm inclined to judge the audience, not the author.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem with this, is the same problem with politics - it assumes the audience is informed consistently in the first place. This is not the case, (and not just for the audience, either, but also the developers/publishers etc.).

This is why the 'big picture' I've described above is such a big problem, and a large reason for the symptoms described in the post to begin with.

Tom Mason
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Yes, you're right that the problems are similar to politics. These types of "unethical" mobile games are a new thing, and it takes time for people in general to become informed. But on the other hand, how can we presume to judge that a particular game is harmful? Are whales addicts that can't help themselves or are they legitimately enjoying themselves? There are a LOT of players, and I would bet that the vast majority of them are keeping video games within a (somewhat) healthy budget. That's not really something we can judge.

This is a great thing to talk about, and I applaud developers who try to deliver games with real substance. Conversations like this raise awareness and will lead to the education that will ultimately help people make better-informed decisions.

Louis Diaz
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I whole-heartedly agree. Demand creates supply.

Darren Tomlyn
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"Yes, you're right that the problems are similar to politics. These types of "unethical" mobile games are a new thing"!

Not really. People have probably been taken advantage of in such a manner for millennia - it's just how we use the language to describe what is happening, and the way in which it is now being applied, using computers etc., that's different - but the reason the former isn't helping, and why we're not understanding such similarities in the first place, is because the language we use still isn't consistent enough.

One of the main roots of the problem is that the definition of the word game itself has changed over the past couple of centuries, without people being informed about it properly.

This has lead to its main symptom of causing confusion between what we now call games and gambling.

This is one of the main points of confusion that is being taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, gambling, in itself, still isn't precise enough for people to truly understand what is happening and why - the basic behaviour that is used to enable gambling, can still exist, and be used, without directly involving the act of betting money or some other similar mechanism at all.

This means that we have to different, completely incompatible, activities - (application of things that happen -> event ->activity) - that are being confused for one another:

Game n. A structured (rules-based) activity in which people compete by writing their own stories.

Competition n. (An application of compete.) (3) An activity in which people compete to be told a story (of whether they've won or lost).

The two activities described here, are, as I said, completely incompatible - yet the distinction between them isn't being made, because gambling, which uses competitions more often than not, (on behalf of the gambler), is still seen as being linked with games. (Which is why the Wikipedia entry for lotteries, which are one of the basic types of competitions, still calls them a game.)

Hopefully you can understand why it's easy to take advantage of the confusion between them - if you can convince someone that something they DO, is that same as something that happens TO them, then you can exploit them very easily.

But this still needs to be understood as part of a much 'bigger picture', as I said above.

E McNeill
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@Tom: I'm certainly not advocating legal intervention or anything like that. I agree that it's hard to judge what's right or wrong for individuals.

But if someone is selling a product that *they* (the seller) believe will be harmful to their customers, how can they have no responsibility for that harm? A purchase requires two willing parties, and they both are responsible for the effects of their decisions. Who's to say whether a whale is an addict or just an enthusiast? But if you built your game to be addictive, and you believe that it's not really worth that much money to anyone, and you're pretty sure that most of your whales are true addicts, how can you continue exploiting that addiction with a clean conscience?

I don't think it's certain that the market will evolve to protect players, and I don't think that the specific means of exploitation (deception, coersion, physical addiction) matters. I address these points in greater detail towards the end of the post.

Tom Mason
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I agree that people have been exploited for millennia. That's nothing new. But I think these mobile games that are doing it are a new thing for other reasons:

1. Millions and millions of people have such easy access to these games as never before.
2. Making payments is easier than ever.
3. These games are a new fad, just like the devices they're on.
4. Unlike PCs, most access to new content is driven through just a small number of app stores.

Those are all new, and they're all contributing to these hugely grossing games with very little real content.

I also agree that the word "game" has become too ambiguous. It would help if we could all agree on some new terms to describe the different experiences currently labeled as "games".

Tom Mason
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@E McNeill: I would hope that such a developer would feel bad for what they're doing and would make changes to their game to rectify the situation. It'd be like selling cigarettes to people. But if the developer doesn't see anything wrong with their game, and if the players don't either, then is there still a problem?

I also don't think the market will evolve to protect players, at least not in the sense that exploitative games will go away. i agree that there will always be a market for these games. But I do think that as players in general become more experienced with games, they'll get tired of empty games and look for better ones. The current situation, where we have lots of new players who have never seen these types of experiences before, will settle down over time.

Eric Goldin
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A discussion of whether it is dangerous for a person to judge what is harmful to others cannot be had until one defines 'harm' as it applies to this discussion. Though an individuals view of any concept is arguable subjective, certain concepts are 'muddier' than others. This happens to be one such concept. Could you flush out the concept of harm as you see it?

I will not argue against the fact that a consumer driven market is self-regulating. This declaration is true, but incomplete.

The part that is missing is how bad things may get before the market regulates itself and whether we are willing to endure that as much 'badness' as it takes. To this end, it is worth considering how ignorant/naive the consumer base actually is, how complacent the consumer base actually is, and the extent to which the now-wealthy companies can safeguard themselves against a consumer response when it comes.

I understand your inclination to judge the audience over the author. Still, does the weakness, neglect, or naivete of a group really excuse the man who takes advantage of it? If we extend this argument to its extreme (and I hope you'll forgive the crass nature of this comparison - I think it's an excellent one): How dark an alley must a woman walk through, how provocative must her clothing be, before she is just asking 'asking for it,' before she is no longer the victim, but the provocateur?

Tom Mason
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@Eric: That's an interesting example! =) So just to make sure I understand what you're saying, it sounds like you're likening the player to a woman in a dark alley, and the developer to a rapist. The developer sees the player's vulnerability and moves in to take advantage. I would hope we all agree that the rapist's action in that scenario is wrong, no matter where the woman is or what she's wearing. But a key difference between your example and exploitative games, IMO, is that there is no coercion (rape is coercion).

Are you saying that taking advantage of human psychological tendencies is a form of coercion? I would say it's just a potentially powerful form of persuasion. =)

Addiction is probably the case where real harm is being done. It would be interesting to understand better why people get addicted to games, and it would also be cool to be able to differentiate (from the developer's perspective) which players are addicts. Maybe there's no way to tell, but maybe there are some metrics which could be monitored.

Robert Green
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Another often overlooked question that employers should be concerned with is this: am I asking someone who got into this industry for the love of videogames to intentionally make a game worse than it would otherwise be, so that you can sell an IAP that fixes it? If so, what effects might that have on morale?

Samuel Green
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I went through this situation myself. I joined the industry and thought all these tricks and toll booths were horrendous as a game designer, that it was exploitative and wrong. Two things changed my mind.

1st - This is the business model. When these techniques are not used, the company makes no money and can't afford to make games anymore. It's not as easy as saying "oh.. ok... let's cancel our game and make a retail one", especially the way the market is going.

2nd - Interacting with the whales in our game (the top spenders), they freaking LOVE the game. Maybe I didn't see the basement dwelling digital meth addicts, but the hundred of whales that did interact with the game team were passionate, excited and very much enjoying their spending.

TLDR: Watching whales and looking at the reality of the market is what helps me sleep at night. And I haven't had a bad sleep in 4 years. This is the life, if you are in this specific space (casual F2P) and can't handle it then you should probably do something else. Maybe you'll revolutionize everything and save the rest of us.

Luis Blondet
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It seems to me that when talking about exploitative game design techniques, the critics always target F2P and barely touch the Pay 1st model, and as such, i think a legitimate critique is being used to hate on a new model that the critics simply do not like because they did not grow up with it or are not used to it. It brings them out of their comfort zone and the instinct is to attack.

I have yet to see an analysis that is whole, true and objective. I am still waiting for someone to mention exploitative techniques of the Pay 1st model, like deliberately keeping games unbalanced or bugged to raise the fan's hope that "it will be fixed on the next sequel", and thus, being able to sell them another copy of the same game with a few improvements and a new dress...and, ofcourse, NEW bugs, exploits or balance issues that will surely be "fixed on the next sequel". (Street Fighter, Armored Core, etc).

Until ALL exploitative issues in game design are covered, i'll continue to consider these type of articles biased. Sure, they are useful to a point, but incomplete in their analysis.

Darren Tomlyn
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There's still a difference between game design, and game production. Sure, problems with the former can affect the latter, but the latter can also exist completely separately from the former, too, and so talking about both in such a manner does not have to be applicable.

The OP specifically talks about game design, not production. If you don't recognise and understand the difference between the two, then you do not know enough to understand the problems to begin with.

Luis Blondet
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Deliberately designing a game to be unbalanced or implementing obvious exploits to keep the fanbased hooked that the grass will be greener in the next sequel has nothing to do with production and everything to do with exploitative game design. The difference is pretty clear.

Darren Tomlyn
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"Unbalanced" games are still a matter of purely subjective application in the first place, and therefore do not count as being generally 'exploitative', until it comes back to people needing to spend money (or equivalent) to succeed/win - which is part (though not necessarily directly) of what the OP covers. Again, people recognise a difference between 'good' games and 'bad' games regardless of 'exploitation', and it's still subjective.

As to 'obvious exploits', you need to be far more detailed, precise and specific if you want your reply to be relevant and mean anything in regards to this discussion.

The whole point is to recognise objective ways in which games are designed (mainly affecting F2P games, sure, but that's because they're the easiest type of game to use such things) in order to exploit the players to make the most money - IMO this gets really serious when they change games into something else without informing people about such a change - because people at this time do not know and understand any better.

No, this isn't all completely specific to F2P games at all, but it's a good place to start.

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Luis Blondet
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' "Unbalanced" games are still a matter of purely subjective application in the first place, and therefore do not count as being generally 'exploitative', '

That's not always true. If you spend enough time with a game, especially a competitive game, you will notice blatantly obvious balance issues that anyone doing a few minutes of playtesting will notice and the answer from the devs is always the same "It will be fixed on THE NEXT installment". This is how Street Fighter was for a long, long time and CAPCOM just sat back and raked in the cash as they implemented simple changes at drip rates. No example is better than how the milked Street Fighter II with nonsense revisions to stretch their justification to sell more games all the way to SSF2TCE. I used to play with tournament-level players and they all agreed. That is why pro-players prefer SSF2TCE, because it is the end of the line and the most balanced Street Fighter in the series, an apparent mistake by CAPCOM as they were never able to suck us back into the racket again with newer titles. Same thing goes with Armored Core, which From Software release a new "fixed" Armored Core EVER YEAR! So, please, stop defending a particular brand of exploitative game design just because it is not in vogue to do so.

"and therefore do not count as being generally 'exploitative', until it comes back to people needing to spend money (or equivalent)"

There are other ways to milk a mark and it is not limited to your personal preference.

"As to 'obvious exploits', you need to be far more detailed, precise and specific if you want your reply to be relevant and mean anything in regards to this discussion."

Sure. An example can be made with From Software's Armored Core series. Example; in Armored Core: Silent Line you had the shoulder boosters which drained all energy within 3 seconds, making it a useless part for any purpose, BUT WAIT! Armored Core: Nexus comes out and boy did those crazy guys at FS had good news! THE BOOSTER'S ENERGY DRAIN WAS LOWERED to the point were it was useful. Gee, the tourney scene better move on to Armored Core: Nexus thanks to those totally honest and not at all exploitative developers who took the time to fix it...we just all had to shell out another $50, just like the year before...and the year before that...and the year before that. Oh, BTW, Nexus came with bran new, inexplicable useless parts that were...wait for it...again fixed in Armored Core: Nine Breaker, just a year later! The same was repeated with the next annual installation, Armored Core: Last Raven.

"The whole point is to recognise objective ways in which games are designed (mainly affecting F2P games, sure, but that's because they're the easiest type of game to use such things)"

...and because it is in-vogue, hip and cool to do so. I am glad that the exploits from manipulative companies like Zynga and Moobage are being exposed. What i am not glad about is the incompleteness of such essays because of some weird, hidden adoration for the Pay 1st model. As long as Pay 1st exploits remain being protected with silence and omission, said critiques will remain incomplete, subjective and biased.

"No, this isn't all completely specific to F2P games at all, but it's a good place to start."

He only talks about Pay 1st exploits in two mere paragraphs and dedicates the rest 80% of this whopping article targeting F2P and not analyzing the entirety of exploitation practices that are, as the title wrongly suggests, "Beyond the Free to Play Debate". This is why i take issue with this article, it is misleading and incomplete while pretending it is not.

Robert Green
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I'm with Darren on this one. What a game community considers to be 'obvious exploits' often do get through QA unnoticed, not because they're not good enough at their job, but simply because no QA team will ever be able to spend even 1% as much time playing a popular multiplayer game as the players will in the first month.
Making a balanced multiplayer game is much harder than most people imagine, and the fact that they will often put out minor balancing updates suggests that they're not intentionally trying to exploit anyone.
Doing so would also be an incredibly risky business strategy, because actually gaining a reputation as an unbalanced game threatens to destroy any multiplayer franchise, in a way that would probably do more damage than you could make up by promising the next one will be better.

Luis Blondet
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I call bullshit. If you were ever a victim that was involved in tournament-level competition of a franchise, you would understand. As in the example above, a simple change on a part's energy drain setting is not subjective at all, it is a blatant attempt at making the next installment appealing without having to do too much work to make the marks pony up another $50. This practice is way up there with with "Fun Pain", yet it is not discussed along with the other exploits. CAPCOM is just as bad as Zynga, the only difference is that the way they exploit players is different, but that doesn't make them any less exploitative.

E McNeill
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Luis: This article isn't meant to be exclusively about F2P games, though I understand why you might see it that way. I sympathize with the common complaints about certain F2P games, but I like F2P as a concept, so my intent was to separate the exploitative design of those games from the fact that they are F2P. In other words, F2P is not a bad thing in itself, but exploitative design is a danger, and it's wrong in any type of game.

Dan Cook gives good examples of how paid games can be exploitative, which I fully acknowledge (and linked in the article). In my list of exploitative techniques, #1 and #4 are more F2P-focused, but the others can and should be applied equally to paid games.

Luis Blondet
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I'm not defending F2P and i agree that it can be done ethically, but my main point is that not all exploits are listed when talk about exploitative game design comes up in blogs and articles. The discussion is almost exclusively F2P while protecting the awareness of the other exploits through omission.

Why isn't there more talk about how exploitative CAPCOM is equaled to discussion on how exploitative Zynga is?

You can even use some of the same exploits to get players addicted to your game to ensure a surefire sequel sell. Has everyone forgotten about this?:

EverQuest wasn't F2P back then.

I appeal to everyone contributing to the discussion on this subject to please, please, please get out of the F2P exclusivity box and cover ALL exploits if we are to have a serious conversation about it.

Darren Tomlyn
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Games are powerful, yes - which is why they've been used for many reasons (both good and bad) for millennia.

But there's still a difference between designing a game to be exploitative for reasons OTHER than, ABOVE AND BEYOND, being a game itself, and merely being 'exploitative' BECAUSE it's a game to begin with.

Games are a naturally competitive activity. This fact ALONE, is enough to make them addictive for some people. That games can also then involve direct competition between people, is then enough to make them addictive for many others.

Any talk about exploitative design and production has nothing to do with the application of such competition in general, because of what games are.

You must understand that there is a difference between being exploitative because it's a game, and being exploitative because of OTHER ingredients added TO the game, in order to make it so, especially when they're additional, external and should be optional to a game itself, in general.

The reason why we mainly focus on F2P, is that it's precisely BECAUSE of this particular model that such externalities become so important and common - because the game itself is NOT what is being sold, and therefore it's the ADDITIONAL ingredients and behaviour that have to be valuable and sold in the first place. The moment they then impact the nature of the game, or even its definition AS a game, in a manner that can then be seen as unethical and inconsistent with such a definition, we then have a problem.

Since what games are is not fully recognised and understood, there's no 'anchor' to relate and understand all this to and by.

Luis Blondet
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Sorry Darren, i disagree wholeheartedly. Exploitation is exploitation is exploitation, period. EverQuest wasn't accidentally addictive back then, it was deliberately addictive with the same malice that FarmVille is, just because the monetization strategy is different does not justify or exempt it.

An example can be derived from Simon's Quest, the 2nd Castlevania in the series, who's devs at the time decided to implement the level system in an attempt to infuse their fanbase with addiction through level grind. It didn't work because the 1st Castlevania was appealing and entertaining, not manipulative and that cast a direct contrast with Simon's Quest. Should Konami released the first Castlevania with exploitative game design, it would've succeeded at capturing more players under addiction, after all, Konami is also involved in gambling machines, they even have a branch in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Dane MacMahon
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There's manipulation to some extent in all sales, from the colors of boxes to advertising to rosy preview events. It crosses a line for me when it effects the actual game, which is what subscription models, "free2play" and even some DLC models do. The game should not feel like a sales pitch itself for me.

Maybe that's an age thing, I don't know, but it's an emotion that isn't going to go away. My enthusiasm for games will.

Luis Blondet
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I get what you're saying, but changing colors, associating your product with happy people, etc is not exploitative, but it is manipulative.

When you decide to use addictive substances like processed sugar in your fries, that's exploitation. Because you know that there will be a predictable reaction based on science. Not everyone will be addicted, but many will. That is what happens when you use science and information to exploit people.

Dane MacMahon
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I'm not disagreeing but I think you are looking too "big picture" here. I don't want the game itself to feel like an ad or a manipulation. It's not the money really, it's the fact I'm used to 25 years of games being complete experiences devoid of advertising or upselling and now that's changing.

It could be my age, it could be disliking change, I can't really say for sure. I just know I played The Old Republic in desperation because I loved KOTOR and KOTOR 2 so much, but the fact the game was built to take forever to do anything in was obvious. The constant reminders to pay them extra money was aggravating. Having those manipulations change the actual game experience was too much for me.

I'm sure people raised on it will be fine, however. I am just trying to tell you somewhat rational reasons for why I and many others react poorly. It's not just a simple "old good, new bad" thing.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I do not rail against F2P business models. In fact, I ONLY make F2P business models. I am opposed to money games, and only build skill games. When I wrote the article cited above about common F2P tricks my intention was to illuminate some methods and trends which I felt were becoming "the norm" and which were harmful to consumers and the industry as a whole. I actually am opposed to the inequities in subscription based games and have explained the reasons for this in my Supremacy Goods microeconomic model. I have not done a comprehensive paper putting all of this together in one place yet, perhaps I should.

I never felt "exploited" in Everquest, so I have to disagree with these assertions. I was addicted because the product was really good, and it met my needs at the time. Such a product cannot be made again in the current environment due to the RMT issues that I have been writing about since 2000. My biggest complaint with subscription based games is that they typically undercharge, leaving untapped consumer budgets that open the door to RMT activity.

Dane MacMahon
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Sub games definitely feel made to keep you playing longer and paying more sub months. I don't know how anyone could argue otherwise.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm sorry, but you're all moving far beyond EXPLOITATION here, and starting to describe common human behaviour in trade.

This isn't to say trade cannot involve such exploitation, but there are conditions to be met in order to understand the nature of such 'exploitation' and if it even exists.

The first, is if such a trade involves a necessary good for which someone has a need for, and therefore is required to trade for it, at almost any cost.

This is obviously not required for games like these, as a luxury good, so there is automatically a limitation of the type and amount of exploitation possible.

However, there are two things that are causing problems, especially in combination, yet exploitation would not be the most precise description.

The most important, is if the trade is fraudulent - what you buy is not what you get. This IS a problem.

When talking about addiction, a distinction HAS to be made between being addicted because of something that happens TO you - i.e. being given rewards for doing something etc. - which is what gambling tries to involve, and being addicted to something you DO.

The latter, is completely SUBJECTIVE on behalf of those taking part, and although it is possible to happen and exist in any activity, it cannot truly be the responsibility of those creating the activity, for its presence and therefore definition and application. IF this is something that happens to you, then you need to get some help.

The former, is obviously far more of a problem, since it IS the responsibility of those creating the activity etc.. Again, however, we come back to recognising and understanding the difference between something the PLAYER does, and something that happens TO them, because it matters for the very DEFINITION of the activity in the first place.

There are two relationships that matter here:

Between games and competitions.
Between work and play.

The biggest problem is the former. Labelling an activity as one, when it should be defined as the other, is fraud, and should therefore be illegal. The fact it is not, is because of our problems with out understanding of the language itself, and the root cause of a lot of the problems we have, aswell as the amount of of influence behind such confusion - (e.g. the 'gaming' industry).

The problem with the latter ONLY appears, because people do not understand the true definition of games independently of such concepts - since they're being perceived as ONLY being play (non-productive), people struggle to recognise when that changes, and especially if they're designed in a manner that turns it into work.

As to selling items for games that are an addition to the game itself, optional, and not required to play it - what matters there, is if it is understood what is being bought, and an acceptance of the price.

If something is a FAIR trade, then it isn't exploitative - though, obviously, that is still subjective. If you don't think something is fair, then don't buy it, (with exceptions for necessary goods and fraud).

The only other matter that impacts this, is part of the far bigger picture - that games and other creative goods are generally held in a unique monopoly, and therefore if there is something you want, you may not always have any choice and power over how, where, when and for how much you can buy it. Again, though, it's all about making an INFORMED decision, independently of fraud.

Sean Hayden
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Great article McNeill!

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Eric Goldin
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Post withdrawn.

Timothy Alvis
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The moment a paid for currency is introduced that can have any material effect on gameplay is the moment where it is almost inevitable that unethical practices will find their way into the game. Even worse, it marks the moment where the walls that protect immersion and allow you to escape into the world someone has created begin to break down.

Free-to-play is not intrinsically unethical. In fact, free-to-play could be the -most- ethical business model when done properly as it would allow only those customers which felt it worthwhile to pay for the experience. It is shareware for the modern world. However, paid for currencies or manipulative practices surrounding microtransactions (especially those with temporary benefits) are so commonly unethical that it is fair to paint them with a broad brush.

So much so, that I cannot name a game using paid for currency that is not harmed by it. Making more money? Possibly. Game is worse as a result? Yeah.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem is when people make a game purely to make the most amount of money first, be a (good?) game (if a game at all) second. Such people will always exist, but there's not enough people around who are able to do the opposite and compete at this time, for a variety of reasons.

The fact is, is that there are things that can be done, within the F2P model or otherwise, that USE the game for what it is to make money - to sell and provide capability to the player without depreciating the capability they already have, (and without affecting any of the content, if necessary, either) - especially using computers.

But that requires an understanding of games we do not currently have - which is why I'm having to completely re-build the foundations to support and inform, and therefore allow people to fully understand, such a thing.

And it starts with the basic functionality and identity of language itself.

Ramin Shokrizade
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First off, I agree with Timothy. None of my monetization models allow a premium currency anywhere near my economies. I also agree that F2P is potentially the most fair model for consumers, which is why all my models are F2P.

To address Darren's concerns, I agree that a common language is critical. This is why I published papers such as The Language of Monetization and several articles (including the one cited in the article here) that explain the difference between skill games and various money games. Using overly broad language just causes confusion, sometimes intentionally.

As far as saying that we don't yet have the technology to deploy complex F2P games that avoid every single concern listed by the OP, this is not true. I've had such models for a few years now since I started working on this when I split with Nexon in 2001 over this issue. Granted they are not in the public space yet but this will change now that I am employed full time with a AAA F2P company that shares my concerns, and the concerns of the OP.

Timothy Alvis
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I recovered my Gamasutra account almost exclusively because of the posts I've seen you make on Gamasutra and the articles you've written. A bug caused it to take a while, so I missed them at their peak relevance, but glad to see you still around.

At first I thought the plugs for your papers was slightly irritating, your posts more geared towards self promotion than help. Then, after reading the documents, reading your threads and listening to the reasons why, I found that I was actually in FAVOR of you self promoting as often as possible.

The game industry has a cancer running rampant through it right now and the most profitable current revenue models are largely to blame. I'm very eager to see a game prove that profitability has its highest potential through universally beneficial practices so that this era can pass and we can stop having to always wonder whether someone thought this design idea would be fun or if they thought it would be a good way to coerce you into a microtransaction.

I hope wherever it is you're working, they're listening and listening well, and I hope it's a popular enough IP that it can have tremendous impact.

Matt Terry
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Great article, but the reality of our capitalistic world is that businesses will do just about anything to turn a profit and marketing in general is exploitative and almost always misleading (fast food picture vs what you actually get when you buy it). If you call out game designers and publishers you call out almost every single business industry.

Kurt Sparkuhl
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Thank you for the article! I found your insights into player psychology and motivation particularly fascinating.

Csaba Nagy
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E McNeil, thank you for such a comprehensive article. It's obvious you are very passionate about this subject and want to reach an audience as broad as possible. I think you could impact more people with liberal use of examples, especially since many people learn best by that method. I'd like to emphasize that since you point out that "sizable groups of game developers who...don’t know about exploitative game design." These people are being bombarded by friends, colleagues and the industry with "Best monetization technique" panels, blogs, workshops, etc.

The only games you mentioned were Plants vs Zombies, AVGM, Progress Quest, and Cow Clicker, but you never mentioned specifically why you chose to include them.

I hope that part II of your article is forthcoming with several good and bad examples for each of your Techniques of Exploitation (with some explanation regarding those concepts that are a little more subtle).

All these requests aside, thank you for aggregating and synthesizing, in one article, this complex topic.

E McNeill
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Thank you! :) I deliberately chose to avoid naming real-world games that I consider to be exploitative, since I feared that the conversation afterward would focus solely on those examples. Now that I've said my piece, the path is cleared for such discussion. Truth be told, I'm hoping that others will write their own Gama blog posts on this subject, using this article as a base for attacking or defending specific games or design patterns.

Greg Wondra
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I've often been at a loss to explain what IT is that turns me off to so many games nowadays. I think you pretty much nailed it. To me, I've often found the most "honest" games are the ones that absolutely ooze quality and craftsmanship.....there's real passion behind them that you can just feel.

Nooh Ha
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Is it ethically wrong if, in an aggressively monetised game which uses all of the techniques described in the article, 95% of the player base never pays but continues to play and enjoy the game. Of those 5% that pay, only a proportion may genuinely be "exploited" by these techniques (e.g. some might make only benign cosmetic purchases). Thus does the "exploitation" of say 4% of the player base outweigh the exploitation-free enjoyment of the remining 96%?

Emily Thomforde
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Thank you for the well-written and thought-provoking article. I will definitely keep your checklist in mind, both as a designer and as a gamer.

Matthew Buxton
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Personally I don't mind being exploited out of my time for trivial reward after all if none of us had this propensity no one would play games and certainly no-one would play Disgaea.

I do not however enjoy being exploited for money, one thing to bear in mind in all of this is that it is not the minds of designers you need to change.

TC Weidner
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wearing my "game player" hat I just have very little patience for any F2P games anymore. I find it analogous to sitting down at my kitchen table with some swarmy salesman all the while just waiting for the "whats the catch" moment. Then it comes, I recognize it for what it is, and I delete the app.

Call me old fashion but I rather just read up on a product, maybe demo it, and then purchase it, and then be left alone to enjoy it.

As a designer I would rather ask for donations than to build a game around "toll booths".

Samuel Green
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What about someone who needs to, you know... earn money to eat?

Amir Barak
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Well, if you can't make a good game (and I have a VERY narrow definition of what makes a game good) which sells to make you enough money to eat then go do something else instead of making an exploitative product.

I think a big problem in the industry is that too many people are making games.

Joseph Majsterski
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"Can’t all business models corrupt artistic intent, as Dan Cook keeps pointing out in exasperation?"

Not really. If you want to stay artistically "pure", that's not a problem. You can make whatever you want. If you want to make a living at it, you'll have to make something that other people want. Whether that intersects with your artistic desires is not always the case, but no one owes you a living, so I don't see that there is a sense of corruption in the process. Things like Kickstarter are a form of modern patronage, which wealthy nobles used to do for artists centuries ago. People funded in this way are much more able to stay true to their intents, I suppose. But people buy what they want, and it just so happens that a lot of people don't necessarily want a deep or meaningful artistic experience.

Harry Styles
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Hello guys! I am really impressed by the quality of the debate going on here. Ethics and gaming is a great topic to discuss about, as mobile gaming is now on an unprecedented hike and it's looking to go even further, with consequences that we can discover in-between the lines here. I shall gladly add to this thread whenever I can and will also be keeping it under close scrutiny.

Ramin Shokrizade
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When I wrote the article cited in the first paragraph of this article, I did my best to avoid moralistic judgments. This led some to wonder if I was actually advocating for the techniques described there (and here). My intent was to reach the widest possible audience, and to open the door to informed free thought/discussion, and thus articles such as this one. I personally think that all money games that are disguised as skill games are unethical. I had this concern as far back as 2001 when I left Nexon over this philosophical difference.

While it is important for me to educate on these subjects, and to create new language to better facilitate discussion on the efficacy and morality of advanced business models, this is not sufficient. If investors believe that money games are more profitable than skill games, they will only fund money games. This is very close to the current reality.

What is required here is the introduction of fair and transparent models for F2P skill games. This has become my purpose in life. I made the first such models in 2009 but it has taken me four years to convince investors that it is possible these will outperform money game F2P models. It has taken a lot of squealing to get to this point, with a lot of people complaining that I was self promoting. I would like to think I was promoting the same things you all want.

You see we can't even have the discussion the OP wants to have about "value" if the only options consumers have is between black feces, brown feces, and green feces. Which feces is better? None of these products are what consumers want. Until we start making the products consumers want then they don't really have a choice, and the existing products will not suffer the effects of merit-based competition.

Timothy Alvis
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Self promote. The industry needs more voices pushing against current F2P monetizatin and fewer voices rationalizing their choices for any number of reasons (buyers are to blame, capitalism is pure, other modes are just as bad etc.etc.).

You're right that the key is finding a benevolent model that works just as well or better financially. Funding determines where the jobs go. In previous experience, the question of "are you a mobile game?" really wasn't asking if the intent was to release on mobile, but it was asking if the intent was to release on mobile as F2P with coercive monetization tactics in play.

When that's the first question you're asked by multiple institutions, and it decides nearly every time whether or not you take the next step with them, the implications to the industry as a whole are clear.

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Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, the way everything currently fits together, (due to how we use the language to describe everything, whether in relation to each other or not), is the root cause of a lot of these problems.

It's pointless me selling you a 'game' if no-one truly knows what a game is, and therefore supposed to do and be. Is it really 'feces' if no one knows and recognises the difference, because that is now what the word game is perceived to represent, even if it's wrong?

Unfortunately, it IS what the word game USED to represent! The word game started out as a representation of what we would now call 'gambling'. One of the main problems, is that although what we call a game has now changed - (e.g. last I looked snakes and ladders didn't involve gambling) - a large industry doesn't want such a change to be recognised.

Which brings us all the way back to people being informed about what it is they're buying and playing. There is a reason why gambling is a regulated activity, (pretty much everywhere), and why there needs to be a distinction made for activities which use similar behaviour, (even if not quite the same), to make money.

The most important ingredient we need, before anything else, is a consistent definition, upon which a perception, recognition and understanding can be based, of what a game actually IS, today, WITHOUT the inconsistencies and problems we currently suffer from because of out-dated perceptions etc.. When even Wikipedia calls a lottery a 'game', even though most games are NOT lotteries, you should be able to see the size of the problem.

Now you may think that using the same word - 'game' - to represent two different pieces of information isn't problem - but it is if they're INCOMPATIBLE but still used in a similar manner, inviting confusion, which is what we have.

This is ALL a matter of linguistics. Which is where what I'm working on comes in... ('On The Functionality And Identity Of Language' is where it needs to begin.)

Pierrick Bignet
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Hi Darren,

First, I must say thay I am impressed by your english (in general).

Second, I agree with you on a lot of points : semantic IS important. You stress the problem in a good fashion.

But why I registered here is to react to your tone. I find it sometimes too aggressive, and even offensive. Which actually goes against your whole argumentation.

Finally, even if I agree with the importance of language, I can't agree with you on your definition of game. Game, like other words (art, for example) will never have a true, fixed definition. It's something expert and philosopher have been working on for centuries, and I don't think we will get an answer anytime soon. There is too much subjectivity in this word, and what it represents. Taking a scientific approach on this may clarify some points, but you will never end up with any "truth", in my opinion.

Sorry for my english, as a french native speaker I may not be as clear as I want to be.

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Darren Tomlyn
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Well, considering that I am English, if I didn't have a good grasp of the language I'd have problems, too.

As to the language I use, such is the nature of the problems we have, that there is very little I can do to add 'sugar and sprinkles' into what I describe. When people are wrong - the last thing anyone should ever want to do is say that they're not. The problem is not that people are wrong - but with understanding WHY. And that's what you're having problems with:

We have some VERY SERIOUS, FUNDAMENTAL problems, caused by VERY FUNDAMENTAL mistakes, with our perception, recognition and understanding of language itself. That such problems are causing a wide range of extremely numerous, basic symptoms, too, should be no surprise at all.

(These problems have probably (almost certainly) ALWAYS existed in some manner, for as long as language itself - but that also means understanding what language is, which is a problem.)

This has then provided the situation we now have - where people THINK we know and understand more than we actually do, when it comes to language - because everything we have is consistent with the underlying perspective of language that we've had for a very long time - (probably long before even Ancient Greece, where such symptoms of such a perception are still visible in the documentation evidence that has been left, (either directly or indirectly - (so I'm talking about the teachings and discussions of people such as Plato and Aristotle etc.)).

There are very good reasons why we've been arguing about the definition of art (or it's equivalent in other languages), for example, for such a long time, and still haven't fully figured it out, even today, though we may think otherwise.

It's because of these problems, that people such as yourself, do not feel that language can be very precise. The problem with such a perception, is that there is a MASSIVE difference between being imprecise, and precise ENOUGH.

People thinking that language cannot be precise is therefore part of the reasons why people are accepting too much IMPRECISION in its use, and especially its teaching and description, rather than understanding why it's not currently precise enough - especially in a manner that is consistent with how a particular language functions, since we have problems with recognising that.

The precision of language is therefore tied into such functionality and therefore its actual identity.

To say that language cannot be precise enough to do its job, is to therefore deny its very EXISTENCE.

Is that a position you really want to find yourself in - because that's exactly where you are according to what you've written. Unfortunately, based on other replies I've had over the years, you would not be alone.

Which should tell you a great deal about our understanding of language at this time.

There is a reason why what I'm working on is called 'On The Functionality And Identity Of Language' - because it's where the problems, that cause the symptoms being discussed in posts and replies such as this, are truly found - and the basic definition of the word game, along with art, puzzle and competition, and even work and play in relation to each other, are ultimately all symptoms of this problem, though directly because of our lack of understanding of the basic rules of (English) grammar that is then directly caused by the problems above.

Sean Chau
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I wanted to comment at how obviously disadvantageous it would be to try to trick or force players into paying money.

But then, I realized not everyone makes video games to make a fun game, lol.

Samuel Green
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Well written article, although there is one 'Objection & Response' you're missing out... and it's THE most important one to me (as someone who works in this F2P industry)

"Has any game been non-exploitative and made a profit?"

This is THE most important question, and I don't see it being referenced. This article, and many MANY other articles about F2P, mention a lot of problems with the industry but very rarely offer ANY solutions. Of course we resort to these methods, there are no examples of games that have been successful and F2P without them! Dota 2 is the closest thing to a non-exploitative F2P game that makes money... and it still uses Mystery Box mechanics (the random chance gambling one).

What can F2P do that isn't exploitative? Sell new content? Cosmetics? That's about it. Anything else you can do would fall into the exploitation methods. Selling new content just puts a retail business model inside a F2P environment and cosmetics rarely give you benefits that you seek in a video game (they're not functional).

What I took from Dan Cook's excellent article is that businesses have to trick people into paying for their product at some point, regardless of their business model. Retail games can trick people with flashy marketing. F2P has to trick them with added benefits and 'paying for cheats' (which I think is the best way to describe time-skipping monetization). Yes, there are some cases where a game is SOOOOO FREAKIN GOOD that people won't need to be tricked. There are a few games that people will buy even if there was no marketing spend. But these are few and far between, require tremendous genius to create and this is far from a sustainable business model.

Amir Barak
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Sustainable business models are for scam artists trying to sell you shares in properties with a view of the beach.

E McNeill
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Yes, selling content and cosmetics sounds like the right path to me, though the definition of "content" is very broad. I think that Dota 2 would be a good example if they removed the mystery boxes (especially with the innovative community content system), and my own game Auralux has done well just by selling extra levels.

I think there's a lot of room for innovation in F2P, too. Bennett Foddy had a good talk at GDC this year that discussed different ways to monetize a game. I think that selling plays (arcade-style) might be done ethically, and I'd like to see people experiment with selling entry into a tournament, or selling higher difficulty levels.

I reject the idea that businesses have to trick people to succeed. I don't think there's anything wrong with showing off your product's good side, but you should be aiming to improve people's lives with your product. If instead you expect that the net effect on the audience will be negative, then you really shouldn't be selling like that. No one has a right to succeed in business, and I'd rather see someone leave the industry than exploit others.

Mike Bueltel
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Buying extra levels in a game feels like buying a sequel/expansion pak. I like that aspect. It's when games entice/require you to spend money to advance the game itself, that spoils it and it feels cheap. It makes me feel like the game is useless. It would be like if an NFL team pooled all of their salaries together to purchase a Super Bowl title...instead of earning it from playing the game of football.

Manuel Scherer
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Thanks for the article. I also felt, that we should approach that new terrain with caution.
It remembers me of a GDC-Europe-Session a few years ago, when the F2P model wasn't so popular yet. The topic of the session was F2P "tricks". Finally, in the questions round, a student stoop up and posed the exact same doubts as you did. He was laughed at by the presentors, and many of the audience. That was a shame. It is a true and valid concern, we can't just waive it off with our arguments, as well as we can't just leave F2P, but it's the same with everything, it's about the extend we use it. I think the global economy crisis should have left everyone with the insight that we are not that good at realising, when we are stepping over a dangerous border, so thanks again for pointing this out. It's an important thing that should be mentioned and be kept in mind.

Jedrzej Czarnota
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Great article, very informative. It is good to have an overview of all those possible mechanisms. It would be interesting to see if over-exploitation of those unethical (in your article) techniques could lead to the erosion of this business model in general, caused by customers developing distrust towards F2P games as trying to cheat and, in a way, rob them. Some games, such as World of Warcraft, which have been constructed around the mechanics of the feeling of flow, now have acquired bad press around them relating to them being 'addictive'. Such reputation must be damaging when attempting to gain new players (especially between kids and their concerns parents). I wonder if similar thing could occur here.

Mike Greening
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Great article and very insightful comments. A couple of points I'd like to make as a researcher of the F2P, casual, Facebook "game" consumer (aka. the Zynga customer) for the past three years.

1. I'm a bit surprised that none of the comments really address who it is that is deciding to participate in this type of online activity (Facebook "games"). Context around the meaning of the word "games" is largely irrelevant to this group, consciously or otherwise. They are participating in an activity, and whether or not they call it a game is a matter of convention. They don't make the connections that other commenters here do about how something being called a "game" means it should deliver this or that set of experiences. There is no thought that resembles "Gaming? You mean like gambling?" or "This is clearly a money game and not a skill game." Any talk of the definition of the word "game" and its context is reserved for people who care much more deeply about the craft of game-making (i.e. the audience gathered here), and generally not for people who are engaging in activities called "games" on Facebook. Most would not identify as "gamers".

2. Regarding the OP: Caveat emptor has existed since economics was even a thing, and probably way before that. The burden is always upon the buyer - always has been, and always will be, as a fact of basic economic culture. In matters of public health and safety (drug abuse, health care, basic human necessities), governments and policies are created to ensure that caveat emptor is not the rule (with varying effectiveness). However, in the case of discretionary, luxury spending, which F2P games definitely are, caveat emptor is, and should be, in force.

Whenever we try to suppress a demand for something on moral grounds, we fail (see: porn; The Prohibition). Demand for premium items in F2P games exists, of that there is no question. The OP suggests that we should actively change our products on moral grounds, against the demand of customers. I'm not an economist, but from where I'm sitting, economics has never worked that way. The comment "I agree that people should be free to spend their money as they please. However, that doesn’t mean that you should be encouraging them to spend their money poorly." assumes that it's possible to define for all people who might spend money, what "poorly" means.

I feel that the arguments in the OP are high-level, philosophical arguments about game-making that are very much worthy of our attention and examination as developers - but only in order to create better products that players actually like more and that provide superior entertainment and value.

ps @Darren: Your will to create clear definitions around the word "game" is genuinely admirable. No question this would help everyone concerned about the issues in the OP. Of all the inexact sciences in the world, language is probably near the least exact - I feel you're going up against a tsunami of culture, but I am definitely interested in reading your next pieces.

Darren Tomlyn
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I feel I should reply to the last bit:

"Of all the inexact sciences in the world, language is probably near the least exact"

No it's not, really - but such a perception, again, is a basic symptom of not understanding what language actually is, because of how and why it functions.

Language is COLLECTIVELY subjective, not individually, which automatically limits how inexact and imprecise it can actually be. There is some 'wriggle room' within its application and use, but not as much as people realise.

Yes, I've had some people try and argue that language can be used in any manner we like to mean anything we want, but that's WRONG. For communication in general - sure, but not language. Language is more specific and limited than that - but that is not recognised and understood. Language, by its very nature, requires additional rules. How the rules are applied can be (collectively) subjective, sure, but they still have to exist. And these rules naturally limit the impact of such individual subjectivity in its use.

The problem is that we do not fully understand what these rules are, and therefore fully understand how and why they exist, and even how they fit within the basic definition of language itself, (though there is more to the problem of defining language than just this).

Mike Bueltel
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When I've played Facebook games like Kingdoms of Camelot, I had a good deal of fun at first. I didn't think too much about buying the ability to build an extra Castle and such...but when I realized that the game had no real goal...I lost interest....and figured out it was nothing but a useless time and money sink.