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Mastering F2P: The Titanic Effect
This concept was first presented at the Austin Captivate Conference and at the Panama International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) summit, both in early October, 2013.
For hundreds of years musicians, artists, and storytellers have been thrilling us and even bringing us to tears with the power of their craft. When we are pulled into the story, whether by sound, sight, or some combination, if the sensation is intense enough it can cause our moods to change and our bodies to respond. Shakespeare was particularly expert at bringing audiences to the highest of highs, then dashing them to the lowest of lows, before passing the hat to his shaken but thoroughly thrilled audiences.
With the introduction of recorded sound and then movies, storytellers have had over 100 years to further refine their ability to thrill audiences. When television was introduced, things changed. Artists could no longer “pass the hat” so they switched to commercials as the business model that powered the distribution of cutting edge media. This transformed the relationship between producers and consumers, creating a new economic dynamic that favored the larger producers that could afford TV advertising.
At the dawn of the 21st century this dynamic began to break down. Consumers now had the ability to avoid TV commercials, forcing advertisers to move out into the internet where consumers were lurking. Consumers were now spending a huge amount of time browsing the internet, using social media, and playing games.
Then something profound happened.
Companies realized that it was now possible, through the power of interactive media, to pass the hat again. Now storytellers no longer needed to partner with sponsors who wanted to sell consumers products. The story was the product again. This time, however, things were different. Interactive media could pull in audiences by the millions or even billions, from the privacy of their homes. With the advent of F2P, we now have the ability to “pass the hat”, even to children of any age.
Now imagine if we had an audience watching Titanic, near the end when the passengers were dying by the hundreds, and the audience is almost entirely in tears. The viewers are certainly experiencing an altered state of consciousness, complete with physiological changes, that might make them more vulnerable to certain suggestions. If we could put two green buttons on the screen at that moment and ask our audience for money, we might have great success.
Imagine the first button allows the viewer to change the ending of the story, so that Leonardo lives, gets married, has children, and goes on to be immensely successful. This only costs $10.
Now the second button says that for only $1000 the movie makers will go back in time and save one passenger on the titanic that otherwise would have died. While this scenario seems implausible, if it was possible I suspect both of those buttons would get a lot of play, especially given the mental state during which they were presented.
But in interactive media, this scenario has already been done. In my 2011 Zynga Analysis paper I described something very similar in a Zynga game called FrontierVille.
More than any game in the Zynga stable, this game seems the most child oriented. The gameplay is extremely simple, all characters are childlike and cartoonish, and the goal of the game is to build a homestead so that your sweetheart can relocate to you so that you can get married.
Within the first hour of play in FrontierVille the player will be shown a wounded, bloody, and crying baby deer. I described this as “Dying Bambi” in my 2011 paper. The player is told that the deer was attacked by coyotes and unless the player gives Zynga $5 quickly, Bambi will die. While such horrifying appeals might be easily resisted by an adult, it seems likely that a traumatized child might go to extraordinary lengths to save Bambi.
Such lengths could include going to your neighborhood Walgreens, Sam's Club, Best Buy, Randalls, Gamestop, Target, Radio Shack, A&P, Stop and Shop, Rite Aid, 7-11, Walmart, Safeway, Kohls, Albertsons, Publix, Toys R Us, Speedway, etc and buying a Facebook Gift Card. These cards are apparently also available in Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
This allows any form of existing Western parental consent to be bypassed by a child of any age. While the Facebook Gift Cards may be the most widely available game currency cards in the world, they are hardly unique. Apple iTunes Gift Cards, for instance, are just as widely available.
I don't see the Titanic Effect to be inherently malicious, it is a tool like any other and can be used to benefit or harm consumers. Unfortunately, it is currently being used by the industry almost entirely unethically. I realize that ethics can be subjective so I am going to attempt here to rigorously define what I see as both the ethical and unethical uses of the Titanic Effect.
If you have a consumer enraptured by the Titanic Effect and bring them to a state of elation, and THEN monetize them, I call this Elated Monetization. I see this as the height of our craft. You have made the consumer happy and then you passed the hat. They gave you money in return for your entertaining them, just as Shakespeare did in days of old.
If you have your consumer enraptured by the Titanic Effect and then put them in distress, either by threatening them (by holding Bambi hostage), making them lose (Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle and Dragons), or putting them under time/economic/competitive pressure/threat (almost any competitive or midcore game today, including Kabam or Kixeye games, or Clash of Clans), then offer to sell them relief, you are engaging in Distressed Monetization. I consider Distressed Monetization unethical.
Note that in all cases, I consider the use of the Titanic Effect against children unethical. This even applies to Elated Monetization because children cannot be ethically asked to make financial decisions. I made this explicitly clear to the ICPEN in Panama last week as they struggled with how to properly regulate our industry, given its complexity, ruthlessness, and potential value to society.