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Ethical Design: Are Most Social Games Just Virtual Slot Machines?
by Tadhg Kelly on 01/26/10 08:08:00 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.

Alan sent me a link to a curious new game on Facebook the other day called Warstorm. The idea seems to be that of a card game in which you select heroes and troop units and fight battles. At first I thought it looked interesting, with comparatively high graphical polish compared to most and even some reasonably stirring music. However, after taking time to choose cards and build a squad etc, the actual battle component of the game was automated. The game basically plays itself.

I mean no offence to the Warstorm developers, players or community when I say that this trend of self-playing games drives me nuts. It’s not their fault because it’s pretty typical of most Facebook and web games, especially role-playing games, to the point of being an accepted convention. In real terms, when you strip away the graphics of these games, what you are left with is simply a button called “Quest” (or “Do Job”, “Start”, etc). You push it and then the game returns a value of either Win or Lose.

In a similar vein, I read an interview with Randy Breen, new CEO of SGN, and a particular part of the interview caught my eye. It went like this:

RB: That’s what a game like Mafia Wars [on Facebook] essentially creates. The interesting thing is that you’re still motivated by that simple triangle I described. Push button, get thing, go do another thing, get award, go on to the next thing. You see people that may never have played RPGs getting into the game mechanics. They may not understand what’s going on, but they get some fulfillment out of leveling.

On the surface this may sound perfectly reasonable to you. Every game developer wants their game to be played, preferably addictively, because it’s so awesome. The concept of addiction in that sense is the same as someone addicted to watching Stanley Kubrick films, or engaged in the sub-culture of Star Trek (to an extent). Addiction in that vein means interest, passion and true engagement. However what Randy is (unintentionally I think) relating in the above quote is not the addiction of engagement through awesomeness. Instead it is the addiction of compulsiveness.

The social game development community has been exercising a willing blindness to the qualitative aspect of the addiction that it is trying to spread. Much as it did when it took up with the obviously lead-gen based offers systems only to fall foul of scam accusations later, there’s a real sense of the elephant in the room around the whole social application industry, and that elephant is called “ethical design”.

Social game developers as a group tend to treat all activity as “engagement” to position themselves as a forward-looking business finding its market fit and revenue in a new environment. However I think many would privately acknowledge that the kind of engagement that they are spreading is behavioural and compulsive rather than passionate and awesome. The reality is that they’ve actually sort-of kind-of half-intentionally built a virtual slot machine industry.

Slot machines work by inviting a player to insert a coin and pull a lever in the hope that they will win. The resolution of this action is simple, but it is accompanied by a pretty show of spinning tumblers, nudges or other mechanisms that give the player some entertainment and the feeling that they have a little bit of control. The result of a win is some money, which the player usually ploughs back into the slot machine once more, steering toward an inevitable defeat.

It may be argued by some that this qualifies as a game. I disagree. The key differences between a slot machine and a game are all to do with agency (how many meaningful activities can I do) and grok-ability (can I learn the game, get better at it, improve my skill and strategy). Games are high on both, whereas gambling is low on both. Games create situations that keep the player playing through the emergence of interesting choices (to paraphrase Sid Meier). But gambling creates environments in which players have little agency or opportunity to grok, instead keeping players playing with behavioural manipulation.

Slot machines are essentially just behaviour-guiding time exercises which last as long as a player has coins. The occasional releases of victory along the road help to provide the enjoyment, but most players eventually realise that they are just wasting their time. Some players, however, become compulsively addicted to the machine. The main mechanic of most social games is oddly similar.

In social games, the equivalent of the slot machine lever is the Quest button. Whether it simply spits out a Win/Lose dialog or a more sophisticated routine (like the resolution animations in Warstorm) the result is the same as scoring 3 cherries on a slot machine. The game just decides if you win or don’t and invites you to try again.

If Quest is the same as a slot machine lever, then Energy is the same as coins. Energy is a mechanism by which a game meters out how many actions you can do in a game session before you must either leave, or buy some more Energy with real money. Energy is a part of the reward mechanism for levelling in some games (you achieve your next level and your Energy instantly recharges) very similar to the occasional wins from a slot machine.

In the early days of social games, I didn’t think that Energy was a bad thing but lately I’ve started to regard it as an exploitative game mechanic and am wondering whether Facebook should ban it.

Energy basically has two negative qualities:

Firstly, it preys on compulsive behaviours. The human mind is a fallible thing and compulsiveness is one of its darkest parts, sometimes ruining lives through physical, emotional or psychological problems. Arguably anything at all can become a compulsive addiction, from World of Warcraft to alcohol or even Twitter.

As developers, however, how we treat our players’ tendency toward addiction speaks volumes as to our character. Blizzard does not set out to make a game that will simply trap users into engagement patterns when they make their next great game. Blizzard are trying to create loyal fans and customers and genuinely entertain them through being awesome, so that their addiction proves worthwhile.

Slot machine makers, on the other hand, are not trying to do that. They are trying to simply ensnare players. Energy and time-waiting mechanics do much the same thing. Preying on compulsion is a negative user experience overall, just as tricking into publishing on news feeds and other devious tricks were.

(An important distinction to be made is that Energy is not the same thing as a daily chip allowance in games like Poker on Facebook. Chips in that context are a resource you play with, the important part of that being the word “play”. Chips in games with high agency and grok-ability are fine.)

Secondly, Energy is a perfect way to subvert the intent of metrics. Daily Active Users (DAUs) are the life-blood of assessing the real success rate of the social applications industry. So if you want to create an app with high DAU and get up the charts, the easiest way to do it is to use Energy. Forced little-and-often game mechanics are the key to inflating DAU above the true level of player engagement to appear more successful and dynamic than you actually are. If you took away the energy element of most RPGs, for example, is there actually any more than an hour’s worth of actual game in there? So aren’t those RPGs basically cheating the metrics system by essentially forcing players to keep coming back to hit that DAU ping.

Ultimately it appears that many developers have concluded that they have hit on a way to make easy money, which is why Facebook has to keep cracking the whip and restricting what could have been great boons to the platform. The internet’s history with exploitative business practises is that they tend to flame out. Developers also shouldn’t necessarily expect a right to make money in any deceptive way that they deem fit. Spam e-mail marketers used to say the same thing. Cigarette companies and fast food chains use a similar buyer-beware justification.

What’s wrong about this whole way of approaching players is that it fundamentally disrespects and preys on them. The real problem that social games as a sector has is this amoral attitude to its players, and that’s incredibly risky. The whole reason for the success of social games has been built on the exploitation of a golden opportunity but it’s being ruined by easy-money attitudes to users, growth, monetisation and so on. The result is that the social games industry has built a series of games that need to trick their users to keep playing. Their lifetime value is likely shockingly poor.

That ethical mismatch has bred a gnawing suspicion among game developers outside of social games that something is amiss. Some are even convinced that social games in their current form are an unsustainable bubble that will deflate or burst. They smell that something is amiss, and what they are sensing is valid. Ethically speaking, developers of any kind are often uncomfortable with the idea that their purpose in life is to simply feed peoples’ addictions if only for the reason that that kind of thing feels “evil”.

No matter how many times social game developers try to paint their market as something new or original, the same unease remains because of how little agency or grokking their games contain. All the well-meaning talk of socialising as a new frontier or reawakening the spirit of family boardgames doesn’t shake the feeling that it’s all a bit of a con. Even family boardgames are actual games that you actually play.

So why should you care?

Well even if you are happily amoral in this environment, your image to users matters. Negative reputations, and seedy online businesses tend to become self-limiting ghettos and not world-spanning agents of change. Just like with any segment of entertainment that engages in exploitation, they lose their legitimacy and become targets. Legislatively, financially and culturally, exploitation without value is usually a one-way ticket to a dead end. Even if you are helping Haiti with charitable donations and trying to be good, it fundamentally remains the case that your business is built in part on stringing players along rather than delivering value to them.

I would also make the actual ethical argument, laying business rationale aside for a moment, that this stuff should be making any developer genuinely uncomfortable. I don’t believe that any of the major or minor social game developer are bad people deliberately trying to milk a market as fast as possible. I think it’s more the case that they have grown up in a metrics-driven culture and the logic of competition seems to dictate that they have to go certain ways. But actually it does no such thing. There are many ways to compete. In the videogames industry there have been many great and terrible developers and publishers who also had their own ethical dilemmas and came down on one side or the other of the value-creation (“light side”) versus value extraction (“dark side”) equation, and in the end the value-extraction companies have tended not to last because nobody cares whether they live or die.

Are all Facebook games like this? Nope.

Virtual pet simulators are not. They may have addictive qualities but they allow users to spend some time in a creative, consequence-less environment and develop a personal relationship with their chosen pet avatar. This is engagement-addiction rather than compulsion-addiction. Nor, I would argue, are Poker games. Even though Poker has a traditional association with gambling culture, it is actually a very skilful game with high agency and grok-ability.

Farming games, however, have ethical issues. There is certainly more to do in a farming game than your average Facebook RPG, and the appeal is more creative. Those are genuine positives delivering value to the player. On the other hand they also tend to use Energy mechanics and much of the activity is essentially click maintenance (planting, growing, coming back later to harvest) which isn’t a high agency activity by itself.

So should anything be done?

There is the thought that Facebook will become concerned about the kind of engagement that social application developers are driving to their site as their user base matures. Facebook has so far proved very canny in understanding this risk (value is how they trumped Myspace after all), and they worry about how users regard them. They want to be an online social operating system, but the activities of dubious games risk painting them as a den of virtual iniquity and time-wasting. They’ve made rulings about banning deceptive publishing, invite gating and other seedy practises by developers in the past. So banning Energy might well be next.

However, even if Facebook don’t intervene, the real answer is to make games. Actual games that players can meaningfully play. At its root, what would it take for the Warstorm developers to turn their game into a real game? Let the player do meaningful things during their game that affect the outcome. That’s all. Meaningful, interesting choices, the heart of gameplay, is why World of Warcraft is such a huge success and doesn’t have to keep nudging its players to play some more.

Let me choose which enemies to attack, let me play my cards myself. Let me choose whether to heal a wounded soldier or let him die. Go the extra step. Give me a game that I can play for as long as I want every day and keep that day meaningfully interesting. That’s how you will win my loyalty and the loyalty of millions of players, and turn us into customers who’ll pay 20 or 30 cents per DAU instead of the measly 3 to 5 that you score now.

Ethical design ultimately wins in the long run because it makes you build better software. Which is what we’re all here to do, after all.
Twitter: @tadhgk

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E Zachary Knight
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I am glad that someone else has been thinking of this. I have been frustrated with the insistence that we cannot no matter what we do, beat one of these games faster than the developer decides.

Zynga has been really bad in this regard in their game Mafia Wars. Over the last few months they have been severely limiting how often you can level up which means that they are limiting how often you get that refil on energy.

They have cut a lot of the experience gaining from the game. Fighting in the game used to average around 2.5 experience per stamina point spent. It now averages about 2.2. Every expansion brings new jobs, but with every expansion, the average energy to experience ratios drop meaning that it takes longer to play through the new content.

They have added increasing job requirement for each level of job completion. Meaning it it takes 3 of a certain item to do the job on level 1 of job completion, level 3 requires you to have 9 or more of the same item.

Everything they have introduced to the game is designed to keep the player coming back everyday to play. They don't want people to "beat" the game to quickly or it looks bad for them. They like being able to say "We have 10 million daily players" It is not so good to say "We have 10 million daily players when we introduce new content, but once everyone beats it, we level off at 10 thousand a day."

That doesn't justify what they do. Blizzard has 11 million subscribers and they don't have to rely on such measures to keep people playing. They have quality content that people want to play and it allows for the agency and grok pointed out in this article.

Chris DeLeon
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They manage to recreate the social pressures that MMORPGs do (helping friends, keeping up with the Joneses) minus the part that I can identify as a videogame. I like to prod those of my friends who are most active in social gaming on what their view is of the experience, and I've never met anyone that was thrilled with it. "It's something to do," seems to be the most common response I've heard, a far cry from the experience of actual videogames that inspired me to go into development.

As best as I can tell, they seem to have captured a lot of people's time and attention, but have not won many (any?) player's hearts or minds.

On the note of addiction, I'm reminded of Jonathan Blow's remarks in 2007, also covered in Gamasutra:

...where he was considerably less kind to World of Warcraft for its own form of statement-free, draining addiction (which by the crack-cocaine standard set by Zynga in recent memory, does seem somehow less like a drug by comparison).

I'm surprised that discussion of ethics in game design, particularly in relationship to Facebook applications, didn't mention the shamelessly derivative work, clones of clones (at best reskinning), often outright copying another developer's art, concept, and mechanics. To the extent that game design has aspects of art, beyond merely being someone to fill in details of entertainment-industry business ventures, surely at least attempting originality must count for something. This lack of wiggle room for actual game design to take place - the comparative lack of variety in implementation, and resulting tweaking of one another's formulas - is the biggest sign to me that these are slot machines, just disguised with a new enough packaging to dodge the stigma that puts people on guard about gambling addiction.

Matt Fister
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I wonder if the players of really simple social games believe these games have agency and grok-ability. Certainly really addicted slot-machine players do - they develop rituals and try to figure out which and when machines are hot or cold. Maybe making meaningful choices is a turn-off to social game players.

Bart Stewart
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What a great essay! Thoughtful, articulate and very timely -- quality workmanship here.

I see no way to resist offering a couple of comments. :)

1. Energy is the obvious form of monetization for social-network games. FB could simply wave a wand and say, "no more Energy-based games," but that would likely turn off many of the developers they'd presumably like to attract.

So what's an "interesting choices" alternative to Energy that developers would be willing to embrace because they perceive it as being at least as effective as Energy as a revenue generation hook?

2. The points about there being some developers willing to take advantage of the addictive-compulsive potential in some people, while other developers are not, reminds me pretty strongly of Robert Axelrod's notes on "the evolution of cooperation." In the terminology of the Prisoner's Dilemma on which Axelrod's studies were based, ethical games would be "cooperators" while advantage-taking games would be "defectors."

One of Axelrod's remarkable findings was that, given certain qualities of the system in which interactions take place, it is only necessary for five percent of the population to cooperate at the beginning for them to eventually dominate the entire system. And they do this not by being more intense competitors, but simply because cooperating with each other creates islands of trust in a perilous ocean. This stable expectation of trust allows cooperators to outlast the advantage-taking operators, who eventually run out of marks, turn on each other, and exit the system.

I wonder if this is a valid way to understand the many developers now diving into the warm waters of FaceBook. Certainly the highly social aspect of FaceBook creates a perfect environment for many interactions -- cooperating or defecting -- to occur constantly, which is very close to the kind of environment that Axelrod studied. If it is, then Axelrod's work describes some specific system-conditions that are required for cooperation to succeed -- or to put it another way, for choice-offering games to drive out advantage-taking games.

For a system to allow cooperators to win, that system has to support at least the following three qualities in its participants:

Sociability: players are able to interact with each other easily and frequently. In order for trust to emerge and to create a perception of reliability, there have to be many opportunities for interactions among many of the participants in the system. (This is similar to the way in which the "velocity" of money -- how often it changes hands -- helps determine total economic activity.)

Non-ending: there's no set number of turns after which the game ends. If there is, then games will be developed that cooperate until the last turn and then always defect. If instead games are designed so that they have no ending (as perhaps Mafia Wars is being redesigned-in-progress to do), then there is no obvious moment for defector games to take advantage of a player's compulsiveness.

Recognizable: cooperator games (and, perhaps more importantly, game developers) are immediately and reliably identifiable as such. Gamers need to be able to easily distinguish between the games (and developers) who'll take advantage of them and those who don't. In part this is an argument against anonymity, but it's also an argument for simplicity -- it's hard to know quickly whether a complex system is a cooperator or a defector.

So -- if any of this makes sense, then the question becomes: how can FaceBook encourage sociability, open-endedness and recognizability in the games created for their platform? In other words, what steps could FaceBook take with respect to their architecture and their service rules for developers that would promote the development of games that are open-ended, recognizable and encourage a high volume of interactions?

Tim Randall
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Good article.

While we're on the subject of ethics: I hope it isn't just me who's dismayed to see social games marketed using lines such as "PLAY AT WORK!" How can that be any game's major selling point?

Anatoly Ropotov
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I've designed dozens of gambling games in my life. I did anything from virtual sports, to sportsbooks, to lotteries, to multiplayer casino and slots.

There's a simple ethical line.

No cash-out - no gambling.

Gambling intentionally puts money into the center of the game and doesn't let you gamble the system.

Could you imagine if 95% of players would come to casinos for fun to socialize and 5% would pay for extra services, not for gambling itself. That would be fun - social experience instead of a gambling one, however there would be no sense of loss and win, unless everyone would get a certain amount of chips every day.

Facebook poker games are really good at introducing you to the misery level where each chip matters, thus forcing you to pay or look foolishly in eyes of your friends when you beg for chips as either a loser, or a cheapskate. That's low, but would it be fun otherwise? No. Go look at hundreds of other "not fun" multiplayer poker rooms that lack socializing and sense of achievement in comparison to your real life friends. There are some extraordinary ones (like PKR), but it's a very rare case.

I agree that in certain cases where virtual currency could be transferred from player to player, even in social single account environment like Facebook, it could lead to gambling-like experience. In that case it's a very tricky issue - more of a legal one, than an ethical one. When a tricky "cash out" scheme exists in a game where a large part of virtual money is earned by luck instead of skill, publishers need to pro-actively monitor external reseller communities and punish players or otherwise, essentially, they could be considered as an operator of a gambling software (without a license).

I would still say that a set of semi-gambling games represents a very small, isolated subset of social experience which has its own audience, that would still play it elsewhere.

As to "push button and get result" - well, anything could be addictive.

I totally disagree on Energy with you. Cooldowns are as old as MUDs and they are an essence of a balanced online game. The fact that energy refills are now being sold... Well, take a look at Namco selling virtual gold in a single player jRPG. It's the "consumable DLC" trend that you can't deny - players were ready to pay a fortune for a guide book, for gamegenie, nowadays it's Energy or Fertilizers. They want to get more experience per minute.

Do you want to get all that experience for free? Well, you could enjoy any freeware flash game with leaderboard. Or casual game with Facebook Connect feature. As much "free" experience as you want. The difference is - unless it's played in SOCIAL CONTEXT, it's not so much fun.

Joshua Sterns
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Interesting read. I am almost tempted to check out more Facebook games to form my own opinoin.

About half way through the article a Simpsons quote came to mind from Mr. Burns. "Family. Friends. Religion. These are the three demons you must slay to succeed in business."

Kumar Daryanani
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They're not even slot machines, at least with slot machines you get the illusion of a chance of a 'win' or a cash-in. At this point, most of these games just evoke the image of a rat in a cage licking the nicotine drip from that quit-smoking commercial.

Since most Facebook 'RPGs' are essentially expending a finite resource (energy) in order to obtain a return (exp, items, whateve), it might be argued that the player agency lies in the choice of which quest to do, what items to try to collect, etc, but the argument breaks down when you are forced to do certain missions in order to be able to proceed with the game.

Eric von Coelln
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I think this is a lot less an ethical issue as a disagreement on what kind of game should be made in the social space. At this very early stage, there is either massive audience and very rudimentary game play or potentially more engaging game play that takes detailed thought (like Crazy Planets or Wild Ones where you have to map out your moves) but doesn't go mass.

Fundamentally the vast majority of Facebook users are looking for simple game play - some quick diversion - thus developers have been conditioned to create short game-play. Marc Pincus said back in a December interview with Eric Eldon on InsideSocialGames, "We would all like to think that complexity is great, but we haven’t proven it yet. Do we want to be raising the water level an inch for everybody or a foot for 10% of the players. We tend to stay more in our mass market games like FarmVille and try to raise them an inch. It’s very hard to introduce more complexity. You don’t know which 10% of users want which mechanic. It’s not our model to aim at 10%. We’re still at the growth stage. It might eventually be interesting to segment and try to build deeper games for smaller groups. But we want large group memes.”

David James of Three Rings would be happy with two orders of magnitude less - creating a game for 260,000 DAU instead of 26 million - where it was more engaging and in depth but a larger percentage of people were paying.

And I think the Facebook and social infrastructure could and will support both models. Whether they both get VC funding is a different subject.

But back to the ethical part of doling out energy. Isn't every game, to some extent, feeding compulsive behavior? Bejeweled Blitz is the essence of short game play - 1 minute games allowing the user to figure out how much of his 5 or 10 minute break in the day he'll spend on the game. There is no limit to the actual number of games I can play though, and I could play for 2-3 hours to try and compulsively beat my friends score. At least with doling out energy, when I run out I have to step away from the game or part with cash, which usually snaps me out of it. I think your suggestion of banning energy actually could drive MORE compulsive playing.

Isn't this the same dilemma for people who create highly engaging console games? The Wii acknowledges this by stopping every now and then and reminds people to put down the controls and go outside to play. The difference is with a paid console game, the developer never has to confront the compulsive behavior they feed directly - they just take their money from retail and typically don't have a relation with the user. With a freemium social game, the only way to make money is to face that compulsive behavior in the eye and figure out a way to charge people for it. It's still early, and thus crude. Over time it will be more honed and involve much more interesting ways for the user to be engaged. And let's just hope there will be someone there to fund it.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Eric,

I think the core tenet of my response to your thought "Isn't every game to some extent feeding compulsive behaviour?" is this:


Andre Gagne
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Have you checked out ZT online? There was a really good analysis up somewhere one the net that showed how the most powerful players were essentially playing a slot machine all day (provided the Chinese government hasn't taken it down for insulting their tradition...)

James Blair
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"... after taking time to choose cards and build a squad etc, the actual battle component of the game was automated. The game basically plays itself."

Sounds like a certain Football Manager series of games.

Tim Johnston
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Catch 22: You need to make the game compelling for people to play. But, you cant make it SOOOO compelling that people burn through the content faster than you can create it. You can make assumptions about the amount of time casual users will spend playing, but again, good games tend to turn casual users into hardcore ones. You cant deny that Mafia Wars has created a system that works. The problem is that the bar is just incredibly low. Most people playing these games are simply passing time while the food is in microwave or the copy machine is making copies. At the end of the day, I have a hard time taking someone to task over something that is free, unless its encouraging behavior that is unethical, immoral etc.

I agree in general that these are not "games", but more like virtual hamster wheels. For that reason, they do have a lifecycle and very little long term growth/development potential.

Once again, it seems the best way to solve all these problems is --- MAKE A GREAT GAME. One that DOES have a higher level of agency and grok-ability. The challenge is always how to get someone to pay for something in a market that has lowered the price bar to zero.

Eric Hardman
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Great article, very thoughtful and well written. I think you may be correct in saying that these sorts of games are unethical (they make me uncomfortable, but I just stopped playing them), but I'm not sure there's a result on the other end of this insight. Porn, fast food, violent lyrics, reality tv, and many things in our society could be considered unethical by various standards, but they have found audiences and have a right to exist. I guess violent video games should be thrown in there, too.

As a designer I find them uninteresting and as a player I felt brain cells withering, kind of like watching commercials. Still, many people would rather have a job than not, and there's nothing terribly unethical about developing these things. It's like the difference between cage fighting and cock fighting: martial artists choose to be there while cocks are thrust into the pit, truly preying on their most primal survival instincts. Fb RPG players willingly engage in a harmless pastime and get to develop their own meta-story that includes their friends and family.

The potential upside is twofold. One, more jobs for game developers and a more diversified industry. Probably the best designers are going to get better ideas and move on other companies. If you look at this as part of the process of social game evolution, rather than the result, there are interesting lessons to learn from this phase and an incredibly exciting future! The second upside is growing the user base. I know people who play Mafia Wars who never, ever, in a millennia would play an RPG like WoW, Dragon Age or Final Fantasy (as different as those all are from each other.) Yet, they are taking the first baby steps down that path, learning the thrill of leveling, investing energy in an invented persona. Some percentage will look for deeper games as a result, and that's good for all of us.

Once again, compelling read, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

John Hay
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@article: While the Mafia Wars-type RPGs are bordlerline, I certainly don't have a problem with the farming games. You have to consider the audience. My Mom is never going to play a platformer or a shooter--she quite simply doesn't have the dexterity/timing to be skilled enough at such a game and would quickly lose interest. She might play FarmVille. Just because a game doesn't meet your threshold of challenge doesn't mean that it is exploitative--people enjoy different levels of interaction.

@Ephriam/Tadhg: While WoW has a high level of agency/grok-ability, it definitely does rely on artificial measures to keep people playing. It has countless reputation grinds, raid lock-outs, long raid/instance attunement quests, and the acheivements system. It greatly capitalizes on different styles of reward schedules that reinforce each other: fixed-ratio (leveling, tokens dropped off bosses to buy epic vendor items, PvP honor system), variable-ratio (random drops off bosses), and fixed-interval (daily quests). They have been artifically gating content since classic with AQ (you literally had to open a gate); Sunwell in BC; and Crusader and now ICC in WotLK. ICC has to be worst--the content has been developed and in the game for a while now, but it is still inaccessible. They are gradually opening up new wings with several weeks/months in between. Heroics won't be accessible until after you have killed Arthas--ie. no one can do heroics yet because the wing Arthas resides within is not yet accessible. The point is that they go to great length to extend the life of content and ensure people keep active on their subscriptions as opposed to blazing through content and then dropping their subscription until the next round of content is released. I contend that there is nothing necessarily wrong with that.