Robert Leach's Blog
I know, the title is heavy-handed but I'm currently losing sleep over an ill-advised late-night double-latte and my mood has grown somber. One thing that has been rattling around in my brain lately has been social gaming: notably the games of the heavy-hitters like Zynga, EA, Playdom (Disney), and many others.
My biggest concern is that it seems like these social network games are using F2P (or the microtransaction model) to target individuals who might not be able to choose not to pay money: addicts, in other words. The target percentage for paying customers for social network games is between 1% and 3% of players.
I'd accept those numbers on face value (it is the internet, after all) but for the fact that the charging options for these games are not anywhere near the costs associated with a traditional AAA title or any subscription-based website (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Rhapsody, etc). In the world of console and PC games, a brand new AAA title will cost $60 - more on very rare occasions - and less in most cases. Most non-AAA titles are selling for much less new due to heavy competition from independent studios. The range beneath AAA is anywhere from $5 to about $40.
Now, go to any major social network title - Farmville, Gardens of Time, etc - and check out the monetization structure. Players can buy the following gift amounts in each games' respective currency: $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, and often up to $200. Words for Friends on the iPhone offers the user a buy-in of up to $100 for in-game cheats.
For another example, it's important to note that I can go out and buy, straight off the shelf in Best Buy or as DLC from Big Fish Games, top-tier Hidden Object Games like the Mystery Case Files series for around $20 (or less) apiece. Playdom's Gardens of Time Hidden Object Game allows the user to purchase in increments up to $100; to buy all of its available content would cost well over $1,200 of actualy US currency. All of the Hidden Object Games in the world right now don't add up to that much. Admittedly, a lot of this money would be invested in buying a series of 64x64 graphics to beautify one's garden (Currently, the Statue of Poseidon graphic would cost me just over $5 of actual money to purchase. That's $5 for what amounts to a low-res screen icon). To buy only gameplay levels would cost me around $600.
So, who's buying all of this content? I believe this question would require some serious consideration (and hopefully some ample research) because it's my fear that the people who shell out this kind of money are addicts - people who suffer from an illness similar to hoarding or some other type of obsessive compulsive behavior. Perhaps the answer is as simple as children who aren't fully developed brain-wise (watch Aasif Mandvi's interview with the Tap Fish CEO, both hilarious and illuminating) are buying into all this. If either is true then companies that participate in this type of game "design" are no better than Big Nicotine or drug peddlers whose primary source of income depends on repeat customers who are chemically and emotionally bound to the product.
It's a potential problem that I believe needs further looking into. If a problem is there, then maybe we, as an industry, need to work towards a solution that allows this popular form of entertainment to still make some money without fully exploiting individuals with specific disorders. Improved design and more traditional up-front payment structures would go a long way towards this.
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