(note: this is a response of sorts to Ethical Free-to-Play Game Design (And Why it Matters) by Greg Costikyan and to some of the comments posted below that article. I would have commented on the article itself, but I need illustrations and links to make my point).
Costikyan’s recent op-ed and the comment storm that followed it created way too many points of debate for a 1:1 response, so I’d like to focus on just a few points brought up by the myriad of excellent thoughts and comment responses. And I would like to use car analogies, because I deeply love cars, and never overlook an excuse to talk about them.
This is a Reliant Robin.
As a car, it is a miserable failure. As an object of aesthetics, it is beyond any redeeming characteristics. As an object of pop culture, it is inevitably mocked and derided. This fiberglass 3-wheeled aberration features a 784-cc engine (4-cylinder, each cylinder the size of a pill bottle), a roofline about even with the door handles on most cars and the handling, despite its tiny size, of a carnival float.
Produced from 1973 to 1981 in Tamworth, England, this ridiculous pseudo-car was a niche product for a very peculiar niche indeed - people who needed a car, but were too cheap to pay the road tax for having one (which would be 1/50th or less of the value of a normal 4-wheel car). The lack of a 4th wheel and engine displacement below 1000cc put this in the motorcycle category, thus saving you a few “quid” - truly, the automotive equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Who could be so incredibly cheap that they would force themselves into this hideous plastic menace just to dodge road tax, and yet wouldn’t get a much cheaper motorcycle with a sidecar?
That would be this car’s many, many fans and dedicated, proud drivers.
How is this possible, you say - it looks like a fiberglass bathtub had sex with a tricycle! Jeremy Clarkson crashed one on his very first left turn! How was this miserable, niche-targeted idiocy not just forgotten and buried? Well, go ask the numerous and active fan clubs, not just in the UK but indeed worldwide.
Which brings me to some of the many excellent points that Greg Costikyan brought up in his editorial. He cited a few games as examples of games with very long lifespans and dedicated fan bases, including Ultima Online and Meridian 59. I agree with his examples, but I think he missed an important point. True, these games were well-designed to “foster user retention,” but in the examples he cited, the creative torch of the game has long since passed from the designers to the players of the game themselves.
These game succeed and persist not because they were ethically designed - heck, Meridian 59 could cost you over $100 a month to play, as it was pay-per-minute! - but because they developed a self-sustaining community that in turn defined its own rules and behaviors they felt were correct.
If you ask a Reliant Robin driver why they drive an ugly, underpowered bathtub pretending it could share the road with Jaguars and Aston Martins, you would receive a punch in the eye. After you recovered, you would then hear a long list of reasons which, remarkably, would take each deficiency that seems obvious in this car and invert it to become a feature or benefit. Spend some time in Reliant Robin forums, and you’ll see: the low roofline “allows me to see round the corner before I get there.” The incredibly slow acceleration “keeps mum out of trouble.” The rattling, hollow fiberglass body “is easy to patch, just takes a bit of cloth and resin - do THAT with your aluminium Porsche!”
This isn’t mere rationalization - it is a mindset, one that is based on the viewpoint that what most think is “bad,” they will choose to see as good. Robin fans aren’t irrational; you won’t find a Reliant Robin fan arguing that he can beat a Ferrari (“also made of fiberglass, well some of them!”) or that black is white or up is down. They have simply chosen their niche, and walled it up to make that niche a fortress. They are creating their own reasons to love and cherish the car, and forging new territory as they attempt to spread the influence of the car and evangelize it.
Similarly, these self-perpetuating game communities have achieved a level of transparency and shared understanding that allows them to feel a degree of control, of authorship. They trust in the systems of the game world (and resist change to them fiercely!) and feel confident welcoming new players to the fold. It is this trust and transparency that makes the game last.
I always told my students that designers create the game, but players make the game. Corny, yes, but true in the long term: The Sims series, Second Life, and yes even FarmVille have passed the point of developer content and moved to a self-perpetuating community of users that are effectively (and in many cases, literally) making their own world either out of social context and storytelling or actual game systems and content.
So, what the heck does this have to with “ethical” design for Free-to-Play games? Rather than defend a blanket position (“F2P is inherently unethical/F2P is the only way to do games now”) the existence of these “Reliant Robin” games seems to indicate that defining ethics and the greater good, in games as in life, is entirely dependent on the audience.
A well-designed game that properly educates the game audience can use micropay content and even pay-to-win strategies and not leave users feeling hurt, abused or left out. Educate the players and teach them how to play within your rule set to their advantage, and you are ethically in the clear; try to deceive them with 5+ currencies (disguising which is “hard” and “soft”), shifting prices, mismatched battles against paying users and brutal difficulty spikes, and you have strayed into “unethical” territory.
The existence of the Reliant Robin fanbase indicates two things: First, loyal fans, once they exist, will swallow most negative aspects and rebuff most criticism with amazing resiliency. They will be a small group, but proud and vocal. Second, once the goal of educating the players in the economic and social rules of the game has been accomplished, those who buy into that system become evangelizers and educators of these systems for others.
The Reliant Robin fanbase exists because of the total transparency of the subject - you can see these fiberglass boats-on-a-trike for what they are, flaws and all; no one is going around claiming 8-second ź miles and 300,000-kilometer lifespans, and everyone who has one literally stops people on the street to show it off and brag about it.
The same is true of the "Reliant Robin" games. Trust me, I have been dragged into Meridian 59 conversations before - you would think the fans of the game actually developed it themselves, and were hosting it on their own Wildcat BBS in their parent’s basement.
Free-to-Play, even if it is play-to-win, becomes ‘ethical’ if all the users/players involved are completely clear on the details and how they function. if I lose a fight and I can see clearly that the player I am fighting against used two paid boosts to beat me, I may dislike the outcome but I certainly can’t accuse him or her of “cheating.” I have a choice - pay up and level the playfield, or drop out, or fight others that aren’t using the boosts. Good design makes all these choices valid, clear and accessible. Games stand a chance of becoming a Reliant Robin when all the rules and systems are spelled out and easy to see, clear to players both new and old.
Making the game more difficult over time so that playing without paying becomes a brutal, thankless experience is ethical as long as the player can clearly see that this will become the case. It is the deception involved in leading a player down a path and THEN dropping the hammer on them that causes the complaints of “unethical” design.
Similarly, constantly re-tuning and messing with the rules and internal structure of the game alienates users over time. F2P games tend to be launched and THEN designed, due to the breakneck pace of the market, but this severely harms the goal of having transparent rules and educated players - it is no mystery why some of the most dominant F2P games out there are also some of the oldest! They long ago stopped tweaking their rules and systems based on server analytics and instead settled in to a loyal user base. The games that chase ARPDAU with constant, invisible messing about behind the scenes are exactly the ones that really, really piss veteran users off.
Some final thoughts: Can you deliberately design a Reliant Robin game? I’m honestly not sure. There is an organic process taking place; some games (and some cars) find an audience, and some do not. I think the game design lesson of the Robin is pretty simple: stand out, be quirky and unique, turn faults into assets if you can, and target a specific audience. Providing users with tools that allow them to create their own limited content is an absolute win and a superb investment of development time, but it is rarely ever carried out; such elements may flip a game from being an also-ran to becoming a Robin.
And I like that the Robin has a fan base, even though I would never buy one (or even use one as a boat anchor or chicken coop). It says to me that even ugly, lumpy games with obsolete mechanics might find an audience and a community with a little luck.