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The Designer's Notebook: Selling Hate and Humiliation

April 8, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

The first job I had in the game industry was programming the PC client for suite of four online casino games collectively called RabbitJack's Casino. They ran on a small network that ultimately became America Online. The players couldn't win real money, but every day that they logged in they got 250 points to play with, and some of the good players accumulated millions of them.

RabbitJack's was a nice place. People were courteous, and there were a lot of volunteer helpers around to make sure they stayed that way. There was no such thing as "griefing." About the worst thing you could do as a player was make the other players at your table wait while you placed your bet, but since you had to bet within 12 seconds or lose your stake, it was never very bad.

The players paid $6 an hour -- ten cents a minute -- to play RabbitJack's. In retrospect I think it was the most honest business model the game industry has ever had. As long as we were entertaining people, we made money.

When they logged out, we stopped making money. People paid for exactly as much entertainment as they got, period. The price was ridiculously high by today's standards, but it was all completely straightforward.

I was pretty fired up about online games at the time. I could easily see the potential they had. The first lecture I ever gave at Game Developers Conference was called "The Problems and Promise of Online Games." The problems I listed were mostly technical ones, which we have long since solved.

At that time I didn't anticipate just how nasty online games could become, and I certainly never dreamed that game designers would start encouraging that nastiness and selling people virtual goods that let them hurt each other in real, not virtual, ways. But that's what's starting to happen.

A few weeks back a message dropped into my e-mail inbox with the subject line "An Obscenity." It was from Rich Carlson, one of the Digital Eel guys. All it contained, without further comment, was a link to the slides of a lecture given by Zhan Ye, the president of GameVision, at the Virtual Goods Conference 2009. The lecture was called, "Traditional Game Designers are From Mars, Free-to-Play Game Designers are from Venus: What US Game Designers Need to Know about Free-to-Play in China."

You can also read a report about this presentation on Gamasutra.

At the moment, free-to-play has the whole retail game industry in a tizzy. I saw the same thing about 13 years ago when Deer Hunter came out. A game that sold at gun shops? For $15? And was selling like ice cream in a heat wave? Deer Hunter upset the familiar business model and spawned a legion of instant imitators. The question on everybody's lips at the time was "Does Bubba really play computer games?"

As we now know, Bubba does -- and so do a lot of other people we had been ignoring. Deer Hunter was the first game to demonstrate the potential of the casual market, a good ten years before we started using that term. The freak-out at the Game Developers' Conference over Deer Hunter is long forgotten, of course, but it was paralleled at this year's conference by the freak-out over Farmville and other free-to-play games.

Free-to-play is a comparatively new business model for us. Free-to-play (F2P for short) means "sort of free." The game is free if you have a lot of time, but if you want to advance at anything other than a glacial pace, you have to put money in, and that enables you to get ahead faster. Paying money also gives you an advantage over those players who don't pay.

Zhan Ye explained in his lecture that in F2P game design, every feature must be measured by two metrics: is it fun, and does it make money? The designer is no longer free to concentrate purely on creating a fun game; the designer must be a businessperson.

I ran this idea by Martha Sapeta, who's the lead designer on Sorority Life at Playdom, which makes F2P games. She told me that at Playdom, every game feature must drive one of three things:

  • Daily average users, which simply means "number of logins"
  • Re-engagement, which means number of people coming back to play again
  • Monetization, which means people paying money for advancement or other game features

This is a new way of thinking about game design for me. In RabbitJack's Casino, fun correlated directly with revenue. We could concentrate 100 percent on fun because that was what earned us money. Players paid for the game continuously; we didn't have to coax them to make additional expenditures.

Then I moved on to EA, where we made games sold at retail. The designer of a retail game thinks about whether features will be popular or not, but he is free to take a holistic approach to it. He doesn't have to measure moneymaking potential feature-by-feature.

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Andrew Drebit
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This article is hilarious. The title should be changed to "Crotchety Old Man Yells At Children From His Porch." Artificial hate is seen everywhere there is competition: Watch a hockey game sometime, or a boxing match, or any other sport. When you're competing against someone else you're powered by your own desire to win and your desire to see the guys on the other team lose. Then you finish the game and you all go have a beer and a laugh.

The author claims that telling someone to stop playing an online game if they are being harassed or bullied or not enjoying themselves is "like telling someone who gets obscene phone calls to just get rid of their telephone." This is absolutely ridiculous. A telephone is an essential real-world object; a video game is a place where I go to have fun. A better analogy might be that it's like telling someone who's being harassed by people at one bar to start going to another bar instead. You know, perfectly reasonable advice that any sane person would follow.

Thanks for the laughs though. I haven't chuckled so much while reading an article in a long time: There was even an invocation of Godwin's Law!

Matthew Mouras
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@Andrew: tsk tsk. You're being rude and overlooking some interesting observations in Adams' post. Some of the article might be seen as a drawing a personal line in the sand, but it shouldn't be derided and dismissed wholesale.

Will social psychology lead us to more fun in our games, or just make them more addictive? Is the type of development described in the article truly using hate as a tool to motivate? If so, what does the success of that model say?

It's a toughtful piece and I appreciated it.

Felix Adam
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Nice to read :) More game should have a 'Code of Honor', either implemented in its mechanics (Honor system in some MMOs, like Ultima Online), or be established in the playing community's mind (Fighting games come to mind, although I know opening the "Don't do X tactic because it's cheap" debate is not the focus here, but you get the idea ;) ).

David Hottal
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I'm torn on this... On one hand, I think, "Let designers do what they want to make money. People can vote with their cash." On the other hand, I think of the larger social impact and know we need to be more responsible.

This is the same dilemma that every company faces. A company exists to make money. It takes a strong leader to be altruistic and give up profits for the sake of the greater good.

Andrew Drebit
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@Matthew You're right, there are interesting observations to be made about these types of things. Many of them are made in the original slide deck that Mr. Adams used as the inspiration for this piece. However, equating people's ideas about online games with Nazism and spouting borderline racist remarks about the Chinese psyche aren't really the best way to make a point.

Tim Carter
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Life is cheap in Communist China. Over there you can work for a year in a sweatshop for deferred pay (you have no choice) then after that year your manager can decide you didn't do a good enough job and deny all pay. (This tends to lead to suicide - but the attitude is there are too many people anyway...) Then of course we know anything not controlled or sanctioned by the state is deemed evil. Falun Gong. A non-state sanctioned Dalai Lama. Etc.

But they work hard and buy the bonds of the Western governments. One day the debt will all come due.

Justin Nearing
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Personally, I think designers need to be businessmen, especially in a F2P model. If you are going into this space and you want to stay profitable, you have to tip your halo, dismiss your sense of morality and start making a game that is "fun" (brings new users in everyday, and brings old users back- that is the only definition of fun that matters) and profitable. Since everything a user does is tracked through your metric tools, you start to understand player behaviours. You then add content to the areas of the game that are popular and profitable. Morality is never a part of the equation.

Zynga has been called many things, but moral champions isn't one of them. Farmville plays off peoples behaviours just as much as any game described by Ye. For instance, if you leave your crops long enough, they rot and die. This feature was implemented to directly shame users to rebuild their farms (literally a quote from one of the talks at GDC this year). And yet 30 million unique users play this game everyday, and every developer wants the same for their game.

I don't understand western developers preoccupation with being morally correct. This has *nothing* to do with morality, and everything to do with understanding what players are doing, and giving them more of what they want. The F2P model is approaching science- cold hard math based on the metrics provided by your millions of users.

Besides, if your feeling bad about losing your code of ethics and moral high ground, but have a game that's made you stinking rich, you can just buy yourself a boat. Seems to work for most people.

Tim Carter
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@Justin: Nobody is disputing that you have to make "a game that is "fun" (brings new users in everyday, and brings old users back- that is the only definition of fun that matters) and profitable."

But at what price? And are you willing to be predatory in doing this? In fact, unpack "fun". Do we want "fun" to mean sado-masochism?

It's not about being "morally correct". It's about being moral, period.

Simon Ludgate
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I just can't wrap my mind around why anyone, aside from the very rich, would even want to play such a F2P game. Why would you even want to start playing a game where you know you'll be bullied, humiliated, tormented, and controlled, without any hope of ever advancing to the upper tier? Maybe there is such a vast difference in American and Chinese cultural psychology that game design is radically different in each nation, but I doubt such a game would ever be successful in North America.

Patrick Dugan
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"maybe he's not aware that in the West we fight tooth and nail to maintain our freedom."


In the west the modes of control are just more sophisticated.

Nathan Hill
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Well I can certainly see the appeal - the tribalism evolving into proto-feudalism. Its a social mechanism, your boss, your co-workers are in it, they support you (like long term guilds but grounded in real time) and the illusion of power and control is certainly there and over a long enough period you in turn will feast upon the fresh meat while at the same time the surrender of control to be a cog in a larger machine that unlike reality you have a potential chance of actually directing with realtime results. Easy to open, diminishing returns, it's just like Western MMO's with a more aggressive model that allows you to bypass grind for cash and the acknowledgment that not everyone is created equal, that a fair playing field between 14yr olds and 34 year olds with hard currency and life experience is an unreasonable task by appealing directly to the lowest common social denominator.

Sadomasochistic? Yes. That's what competitive gaming is ranging from Chess to Counter Strike. Does that diminish the appeal, hell no. On a base level take a look at the more liberal society of Japan, the core of manga is sadomasocistic hentai - a culturally ingrained and accepted trope in a male dominated society.

Harsh I know but so is reality beyond the closed doors of the studio model :D.

E Zachary Knight
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"Sadomasochistic? Yes. That's what competitive gaming is ranging from Chess to Counter Strike. "

The problem with your point here is that in both Chess and Counter Strike, you and your opponent are playing by the same rules.

The point that Mr. Adams is pointing out is that is it justified to allow people to pay to humiliate their opponents or to put themselves into a position where they are no longer playing by the rules of their opponent?

Let's take Chess as an example. Both players have the same rules, the same playing pieces. They are playing on a level playing field and the winner is based on who has the most skill.

Now let's say that we are turning chess into a f2p game. Now we allow any player to pay to turn any of their pieces (other than the king of course) into a Queen. Now instead of 8 Pawns, 2 rooks, 2 knights, 2 bishops and 1 queen I now have 15 queens because I spent the money needed to change all my pieces into queens. Now the only people that have a chance at beating me are those that also have enough money to do that.

Now let's add another rule that allows me to pay to remove any piece from my opponent's side at any time I want (aside from the king of course) so now I can conceivably pay to win the game without even so much as giving my opponent a chance to win.

I think it is still possible to keep a game fair while at the same time allowing for the purchase of in game items. It just requires a different mentality than what is currently expressed in f2p design.

Timothy Ryan
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Ernest, you never fail to entertain even when conveying a serious message. I appreciate your social-conscience and desire for fairness and balance.

Games have long been based on human conflict though in very abstract forms - like Chess as a representation of a medieval battlefield. But as technology has improved, the form is no longer so abstract. If it makes us question our design, then it's really just making us question our nature. If people don't like it, they'll stop playing.

Andrew Vanden Bossche
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I have to say I'm absolutely fascinated by the games he's talking about. It's like an RTS where all the units are individual players. It doesn't seem like such a bad deal for the minions, since they get free stuff showered on them in exchange for loyalty. What a strange system, in which players are mercenaries for other players! I can certainly see the appeal for both sides.

This is separate from the issues of hate and humiliation, I think. However, the only difference between those and the Chinese model is paying for the privilege; tools for harassment and humiliation exist in other games as well.

World of Warcraft, in fact, has an item ( called the Toy Train set which forces everyone around the train to do a particular emote accompanied by an extremely annoying sound effect. Players would drop this in raids, causing the 25 nearby people to do it at once, an absolutely torturous result for anyone who plays with sound.

Griefing and bullying is a big problem, but is there any evidence to suggest tying it to micro-transactions makes it worse?

Nate Logan
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@Ephriam and pretty much everyone else

I have a feeling I'm going to get some flak for this, but with all this talk of level playing fields I feel like there's a deeper hidden assumption here.

We can certainly agree that basing success in a game on wealth is no basis for a level playing field, but what about skill? What about talent?

Let's talk about Chess for a second. My success against you in Chess will depend on my critical thinking ability, my knowledge of the rules, my familiarity with what works and what doesn't as strategy goes, and even my knowledge of you as a player and a person.

Most of those come with practice, but what about in-born critical thinking skill? Certainly there are players out there you could never beat, and players that could never beat you.

From the point of view of the game proper, Chess is balanced and fair. But when I sit down across the table with a grand-master, is that game going to be "fair" anymore? When I connect to a Counter Strike session with someone with the reflexes of a wildcat, will that match be fair? What do we even mean by fair, and do players across the board feel the same way?

I'll admit that I've played childrens games before where the role of critical thinking was diminished to the point where I would invariably lose to the kids. Part of me felt that the games were unfair *because* my adult skills were of no use to me, like in most of the real world. But isn't that technically a more balanced playing field?

All players by necessity bring something with them from 'real life' into all games which affects the game's outcome. F2P games add personal wealth to the list, and that feels unfair to me, too. But, people are born into wealth just as they can be born into talent.

Help me think through this: what makes wealth so different here?

Simon Ludgate
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@Nate: "Help me think through this: what makes wealth so different here?"

What makes winning a game "fairly" different from winning a game with cheat codes? What makes winning against your friend through superior skill and tactics different from winning by unplugging his controller? What makes a degree earned through years of study different form a degree bought from a website?

@Name: "All players by necessity bring something with them from 'real life' into all games which affects the game's outcome."

Basically, it's the same as playing sports: sure, players bring "something" from real life with them, but you expect it to be their skill and physical ability. You wouldn't want to play a sport against a team that brought more "real life" with them, like guns to shoot you every time you touched the ball.

When you play a game, you want players to bring themselves to the game, not their worldly possessions.

E Zachary Knight
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Here is what I think will explain the issue here and how it does not apply to skill based imbalance.

When the game is imbalanced because you have more skill in the game, that is outside the realm of the designer's control. The Designer cannot force us to be on the same level of skill. What he can do is give us both the same rules and allow us both to develop those skills needed to succeed. The designer cannot control how we get those skills.

On the other hand, the imbalance brought on by wealth is completely in the control of the designer. The designer can control how much money is needed to get an advantage. The designer can control what advantages are given based on the money exchanged. They are in complete control of that balancing situation. By imbalancing the game to be in favor of those that have more money to spend they are creating the issues discussed.

E Zachary Knight
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Here is an example of imbalance brought upon a game by the introduction of wealth. American Baseball:

The New York Yankees are able to essentially buy the World Series because they can pay to buy the best players due to the lack of salary caps in the MLB. Do you really think the sport of Baseball is fair?

Nate Logan
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That's pretty much what I'm trying to think through. We bring with us the assumption that games are to be won through skill, and that's the main ideal we as designers bring with us when we make games. We can all agree with that.

My question is where this insistence that skill ought to be the tipping point comes from. Why is that our definition of fair? It seems like we go a step beyond the simplest possible logical definition of a "balanced" game when we add this. It's a question so elemental I can hardly begin to analyze it.

Nate Logan
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"When the game is imbalanced because you have more skill in the game, that is outside the realm of the designer's control. The Designer cannot force us to be on the same level of skill. What he can do is give us both the same rules and allow us both to develop those skills needed to succeed. The designer cannot control how we get those skills."

Really good thought. Maybe our expectations of a game really are tied back to our expectations of its designer, and if as players we feel unwronged by the designer, then all's fair.

Heck, that would explain peoples' reflex to blame a higher power (e.g. God) when life seems unfair. Y'know, to blame a "designer" when the game of life isn't skill based. It does seem like a pretty deeply human response, even outside of games. (The best game design insight seems to apply to human psychology in general.)

Kevin Crawford
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I work in F2P, and although I can understand WHY they design the games like that in order to maximize revenues in certain territories, not all F2P developers/publishers share the same ideologies. I hope this article and others that follow do not destroy what credibility or trust we have built (massive uphill battle) with our gamers over the past few years, especially in the West. My hands are not dirty nor have any various war crimes been committed. This guy has made some GROSS generalizations about the F2P industry based on how some, not all, of the Chinese companies decide to prioritize their development. I love how he tries to compare the workings of WESTERN games (Club Penguin, FarmVille) to said Chinese MMOs. Apples to Apples my arse. WEST is not EAST and people need to stop comparing the business dealings in different territories as the Chinese that are being vilified so adamantly in his article I'm sure do not think their ideologies are Hitler inspired.

Chris Sykora
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@ Kevin:

I agree. There are some interesting points to think about in the article but it seems like a lot of boo hoo. Possibly someone who misses the days of yore.

The one thing that sparked my interest was the Deer Hunter craze. Glad it was mentioned because I didn't realize it was such a tidal wave success.

Thomas Westin
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I do think there is a need of ethics in game design but I think it is not confined to online games, F2P or east/west differences. One example is the "Americas Army" game which is pretty cynical: use the passion of young people to recruit them for war. And that is not all: some of them get back from war dismembered and disabled and can't play the games they loved to play.

Spencer Cathey
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Is this the same Ernest Adams that gave a lecture at the 96 GDC entitled "In Praise of Sex and Violence?" What happened to "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," or "There's a sucker born every minute?" Don't switch horses in the middle of the stream, you are in an exploitative business, stick to the basics, or go write educational software.

There is no politically correct way to make a bunch of dough off people's weaknesses. Its what you do with the money afterwards that's important. Capisc?

John Hay
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"When the game is imbalanced because you have more skill in the game, that is outside the realm of the designer's control."

Skill is definitely NOT outside the designer's control.

Take WoW as an example. There are systems in place to limit the effect of skill on leveling speed. Without such systems, elite skilled players could fight much higher level mobs, potentially, AoE'ing fighting many mobs without taking any or much damage. But in WoW, no matter how skilled you are, you can't kill mobs that are much more than 4 levels higher than you (at least efficiently). At +4 levels, mobs get crushing blows that hit for much more damage, you miss much more often (potentially affecting critical abilities), and the hits you do get will be glancing blows or partial resists that reduce the damage that you do.

This substantially reduces the std dev of how fast players level; elite players can't level much faster than "noobs." Since WoW is subscription based, this directly translates to revenue.

The same can be said for PvP. An elite-skilled player that just hit max level has no chance of competing with an average-skilled player that has been playing for many months acquiring gear.

The underlying principle is the same for both models: money equals power; only the payment models are different.

ken sato
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What about content?

One of the things that makes DLC, at least in FPS titles, is shared content such as map packs. If you don't have the updated map packs, you can't participate in the new levels until you do.

Now lets say you do this weapons? Say you can get the WWII weapon pack for MoD2. Regardless of weapons being better or not, let say you can't pick up the WWII weapons without the DLC.

It would be interesting to see what, apart from added maps, causes players to persist to hold the title if there were game limiting factors that were introduced and yet still allowed concurrent play.

What about new perks, or old ones? Or a DLC that updated perks and kill streaks (using MOD2) but still allowed players to engage in matches where the old ones were in play. Do you like MOD2 enough to get the fixes or updates like dedicated servers, specialized spawn, etc?

The player in me has my stomach turning, the producer in me can't wait for the planning meeting...

wilson le
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As much as I respect Adams' past works, this article reeks of taking things at face value and arriving at unsubstantiated conclusions.

Has he played said games? Does he live in China? How much of this is from actual experience? How can I take this article seriously with such hyperbole and inaccuracy?

Paopao Saul
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I agree with Ephriam. 'Fairness' should be based on skill. And I'll add that it should also be based on content as well. Did people forget we have a thing called 'match-making' in games?

Examples for balancing based on skills: high level WoW players are 'matched' with high-level mobs, online multiplayer match-making tries to get people with the same 'skill' (win ratio, play-time etc.) together. Even proffessional tourneys like EVO have a ranking system to pair same-'skilled' opponents. Take chess for example, in a tournament, no one would match a newcomer against a grand master.

As for balancing based on content, its much more complicated, but not impossible. A 'wealthy' player should be matched to another 'wealthy' player on f2p PVP, base on their load-outs. If they want to figt other players with less enhancements, they would have to remove their equipment.

As long as systems are in place to make the game fair, which might equate to fun, it doesn't matter if the developer uses psyche tactics to generate revenue. At the end of the day, its up the the designers if they can sleep well at night.

However, I'm against any sort of tactic that tends to generate negative emotions specifically against other people, especially for the sake of profits.

Tony Ventrice
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I'm surprised nobody has pointed out that the games described are not limited to China; we have them here. I'm a designer on one of them. They're the Mafia games and they make a lot more money than the farm games do. The only difference I can see with what's described in China and what we have here is that the Chinese are about one generation of game evolution ahead of us. What the Chinese have formalized, our gamers still have to imagine on their own. Western gamers create clans on their own, develop hierarchies on their own, pay homage to each other on their own. It's what they want. As a designer you either give them more of what they want or you step aside and let someone else do it. Turning up your nose is a good way to get left behind.

Xiong Jack
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I'm a Chinese game designer and I have worked in both west game company and Chinese online game company. I’d like to answer the question why Chinese player accept the “rich man hire poor man” mode in online game. Most of the Chinese gamers are students, workers and peasants. Online game is the cheapest entertainment they can have (they may just has 200~300 US dollars income per month, after pay for the daily life, only 10~20 dollars can be used for entertainment a month), they get fun when a rich people hire them in game because they are rewarded with better equipment, bigger explore-able game world. These players still play games to escape, not to experience the problems of the real world.

But don’t take this mode as the only game mode for Chinese online game. This trick doesn’t achieve success in every MMO RPG game. I have to say online game development in China keeps changing base on Marketing feedback. When somebody told you “Hi, it’s the No.1 design rule in Chinese market”, don’t believe it easily. I confess that some companies go too far to earn money by take advantage of human weakness. But I wondered how long it will last if it exceeds certain line.

Jeremy Reaban
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Speaking of gambling, that's another cornerstone of "free to play" games. In many games, you don't actually buy something in game (like a mount or outfit), you merely buy a chance of obtaining it.

Sometimes quite pricey. For instance, in Atlantica Online, the normal gamble box for a mount is $10. That's right, $10 just for a chance of getting a mount. They don't actually publish the odds or anything, but it seems to be less than a 10% chance of getting one.

It really preys on people's gambling urges. Some people literally spend $100s just to get an item. Just keep buying until they get one.

Arjen Meijer
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Nice story Ernest, I wanted to point out an assumption you made on page two about players not wanting to have the same problems in a game as they already got in real life and then later saying they copy there work into the game ;)

But looking at the comments you did an excellent job on getting people talking.

Stephen Chin
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To answer the comment about fairness, you're right, it is an assumption. In PnP RPGs, there is an inherent unfairness to the game - the GM has arbitrary power over the other players. This is unfair from a power standpoint. Players that have more money can buy more rules (which in tern the GM can override as they see fit). However this is not the only fairness or lack there of. There is the implied social contract that players more or less treat each other fairly and act to provide an environment of fun for each other. This does not need to include winning or happiness (in the sense of carebear everybody hug everyone).

This is where, Ernest is concerned, I believe.

Take for instance a game development team. Imagine one where everyone on the time is constantly arguing with each other, undermining each other, and rallying around cliques and factions with opposing goals. Certainly it's an interesting drama and it may produce something grand... but while that's good for the team as a entity, it is not so good for the people that make up the team. The team happiness may be awesome (AAA-title that made millions! Yay!) but the people happiness may be be incredibly low (I'm miserable for having worked 120 hour weeks for the last 18 minutes while in constant states of tension and warfare). And what happens is that while the team-as-entity does okay, the workings of such are held together by a shoestring and ready to implode or leave. One or two people may 'balance out' by feeling hugely happy but that doesn't balance out the team.

Which leads into one distinction that Ernest also makes in whether or not designers should worry about the individual or the players as a whole. That is, is it okay to have miserable players who live interesting lives surrounded by the few elite and by extension, ignore turnover of player so long as new players replace them or should we worry about each player as an entity in and of themselves.

Stephen Chin
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Append: That is to say, the implied contract between designer and player that the designer will not take advantage of the player or at the very least, that the designer is not trying to make the player miserable (if not necessarily having fun). Are we willing to actively make people miserable past the point of "Grr... I lost! I'll try harder!" or "Ha! That was fun playing with my friend even though I lost" and get to the point of needing to appeal to the hand of God (ie the designer) to do something about it.

John Trauger
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This is a rich commentary on chinese society. Remember China is a communist autocracy. It's not a western democracy.

I'm poor, but the payoff for working for a rich character is better gear. There's an implied social contract. The rich and powerful are forced to *notice* the poor they use in their intrigues. China has such a huge population that most jobs probably treat workers the way we did 100 years ago--as replacable widgets. In the game, the rich player's ability to do that is limited.

The real world chinese environment probably has a lot of restrained frustration. the ability to inflict humiliation is a moment of personal power which is, by requirement, rough on the the person being humiliated, but a prized moment in for the person doing the humiliation.

That's what Ye is selling: He's selling the ability to be "in charge" to the people with money. To the poor, he's selling powerful people that are forced to notice the powerless they use as cannon fodder. Also a moment of being the victimizer instead of just the victim. That's got to be powerful stuff.

China also doesn't have an army of lawyers ready to sue over emotional distress. We have to be nicer because someone will take a game conflict into a genuine court.

The closest we have to the style of game Ye is talking about is Eve Online, which come to think of it, might be a pretty good match, except it's not free-to-play and doesn't *sell* humiliation that I'm aware of.

Christopher Enderle
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These games really seem to be following the "games as service" model. In the US, as the industry moves from creating a product to creating a service (since that seems to be where the money is...) will it be able to use the first amendment defense as it has on past state legislation? It seems that in the quest for profits the industry is going somewhere that will leave it much more vulnerable and regulated. It looks like another boom/bust waiting to happen.

Bart Whitebook
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"Most importantly of all, Las Vegas does not deal aces to rich players and deuces to poor ones. Rich players can play for longer before they run out of money, but everybody plays by the same rules regardless of how much money they have."

At a certain level, rich players are widely reported to demand and get better odds for certain games such as craps, not to mention valuable rebates and incentives not available to the common gambler. While the games are not rigged, not every game is played by the same rules.

However, you are correct insofar as casinos only offer these relaxed rules/odds exclusively to wealthy patrons in semi-private or private play.

Stephen Chin
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Odds in payout amounts (ten times your bet if you get blackjack instead of double) would not really be a change in the rules. Even using more or less decks isn't altering the rules or odds. Adding or removing cards that would be. And, bare in mind, most people have a poor understanding of probability and one can be assured that casinos will alter the odds to fool the rich into thinking the actual odds have changed when, in reality, no such change has happened.

And as for incentives and rebates, that's not a matter of the game. That's a matter of the casino offering customer service so that someone who is perfectly happy dropping and losing 10K on a weekend without thinking about it keeps coming back to do so. You give them free stuff and make them feel special so they want to come back even if they're losing money.

Rando Wiltschek
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I really don't see the big difference between games where you directly pay money into the game to have an edge to to "regular games". Take high-end FPS games. If you're a poor sod with a 5 year old PC, your chances are pretty slim. If you can "just" afford a 768kb DSL line, you may already be on the losing side. Your wealth indirectly translates into your ingame performance.

Consider formula 1. Better car, better racing (I'm not an expert here so I may be wrong). Consider the before mentioned sport teams that can just hire the best players.

Lots and lots of games already do not reward the "better" player (whatever better means here) but the player who spent more time playing the game ("oh no, I got owned by an unemployed guy! damn you and your free time!"). Mostly the surplus of free time also translates into better skills (good old days when I could practise 4 hours every day..). Is that really fair? I think the common perception of fairness is already very skewed, so the offering of games that -balance- between people with too much time but not much money and people with too much money but not much time, I find a good thing to have.

And, like mentioned before, it can't be that bad, or people would just play something else if they'd feel like treated unfairly.

And to debunk the example of playing chess, where one player can remove the other player's pieces for money - isn't it like both players can do so? Thus both play by exactly the same rules! The line is just drawn by who is more serious about the game (willing to pay more money - or as in our contemporary games, willing to spend more time).

Ryan Vachon
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I'm not so sure that we can really say that we are selling hate. While hate can have real world effects, it really boils down to how the users or players decide to use the games and software we provide. Sometimes we unwittingly foster negative environments in the games we make (like the Halo community is so often) because it is so difficult to manage the online interactions in the types of "Traditional Games" that support internet play.

Ross Bohner
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@Tommy: Yes, by most moral standards it is wrong to profit from exploiting hate. But you do bring in another facet to this discussion. I think the increased profitability and moral implications of establishing virtual social hierarchies within games from real social hierarchies is an intriguing subject, but the initial motivations for playing the game and player types are still relevant.

I am curious on how methods described in this article transfer over to the different player types and what are the implications of doing so. Would a socializer pay more to have additional communication abilities? Say for instance an ability to publish a virtual newspaper in the game world?

Segmented abilities for explorer types have essentially been set already in games like WoW. While blizzard does not exploit this tactic explicitly, players spend more time farming in WoW specifically to buy flying mounts. Yes explorers can be expensive but aren't they also the players who are most likely to buy into the methods on described here?

My personal design preference agrees with the author about building games for fun and let profits directly result from games's fun factor. But every definition of fun I have seen as been nebulous and the social aspects of MMOG makes it doubly so. (For instance, the implications of game theory on fun is a relatively unresearched and complex subject)

Creating fun games is hard. Creating moral agnostic media is much easier and much more profitable. Frankly there will always be a range of content created and we are still learning this range within video games. To use the movie industry as an analogy; one of their ranges is Citizen Kane to porn. Pornographic movies as a whole will always make more money and in some respects drive technological conventions. I do see the exploitation of human weaknesses through incremental reinforcement in games as morally equivalent to pornography. In the end the tactics you use should depend on what type of developer you want to be.

Good article.

Pin Wang
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"Ernest, you never fail to entertain even when conveying a serious message. I appreciate your social-conscience and desire for fairness and balance.

Games have long been based on human conflict though in very abstract forms - like Chess as a representation of a medieval battlefield. But as technology has improved, the form is no longer so abstract. If it makes us question our design, then it's really just making us question our nature. If people don't like it, they'll stop playing."

Completely agree with that statement. And what's with this ridiculous misconception of China that Ernest Adams has? It's completely over-regulated, but people are exploiting each others hatred?

To be frank I don't think he understands F2P games or China, and this is fueling a little bit of ignorance-powered hate that ironically shines through in his article.

Ernest Adams
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I said nothing in this article about Chinese people as a whole, either as citizens of communist China or as persons of Chinese ethnicity. Those who have played the race card in this discussion haven't read closely enough. My objections are to the kinds of free-to-play games that the Chinese game development community is building; and it disturbs me that Chinese gamers are playing them.

I have taken it for granted that Zhan Ye was telling the truth. I have no reason to think otherwise. If you dispute his characterization of these games, take it up with him.

Quan Ngo
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I'm quite excited with some of Zhan Ye's generalizations on Chinese MMORPGs. The way he expressed is quite gross though, and I think that's why so many people argue against him.

I think the ultimate goal of MMORPG game designers is to create games that people want to play, stay, and pay.

Many people feel "shocked" with Zhan Ye's opinions, but come on, aren't RPGs about Role-Playing? Game designers build virtual medieval worlds (with roles from warlords to peasants). If people wants to take a role in those virtual worlds, then the game designers are successful

I'm from Vietnam, and I do think that Vietnam's market shares some similarities with that of China