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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games

July 9, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 9 Next
 

This story is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra's best stories of 2013.

"I'd use birthday money, I'd eat cheaper lunches, I'd ask my wife to pay for dinner so I'd have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game."

Chris was in his mid-20s when he began spending a few dollars here and there on Team Fortress 2. All of his friends had recently moved out of town, and his wife was now working a nighttime job, leading him to take solace in an online TF2 community.

At first he'd simply buy some TF2 "keys", use them to open some item crates, then dish some of the contents out to players online and keep the good stuff for himself. He enjoyed the social interactions that came with these giveaways, and it seemed worth it for the money he was paying.

But soon Chris discovered his first "unusual" item, marked with a purple seal. "I had this unbeatable rush of adulation and excitement," he says. "For someone who didn't get out much I was on cloud nine. And at that point things changed -- I started chasing that high."

Addict-to-play

For around six months following this discovery, Chris found himself draining his bank account until he didn't have a spare dollar to his name -- all for a selection of pixels that would hopefully be wrapped in a purple glow.

"My savings got wiped out pretty quickly -- although it should be noted that at the time I didn't have much put away to begin with," he explains. "The real trouble wasn't that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal."

Chris even had a few health scares along the way, and found that he couldn't afford to pay the medical bills because his savings account had been stripped for TF2 money.

"It got so bad that at one point Steam actually blocked my credit card, thinking I was some sort of account scammer, and I had to open a support ticket to tell them, 'No, that really is me spending whatever savings I have on this stupid game with fake hats.'" he says. "And like any addicted user, my social element didn't help -- most of my outside-of-work contacts were people I just played TF2 with. At work I just wanted to be uncrating things, and when I was uncrating things I just wanted to see better results."

It was when his out-of-control spending began to have an effect on his relationship with his wife, that Chris finally realized that this needed to stop.

"I've never really been addicted to anything else, so I can't say for certain whether a 'real' addiction would be stronger," he notes. "I would say that it felt akin to what I'd expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like -- social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I'd never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life."

"There were nights where I'd be up until 3 am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler's fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I'd be sure to win this time," he adds. "Then I'd wake up the next morning and see that I'd not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk."

Those were the mornings that felt the worst -- when the reality of what Chris was doing hit home the hardest. He'd feel hugely depressed and worthless, and swear to himself that he wouldn't be back again... and yet, the moment another paycheck came through, it was gone as quickly as it came.

Chris' behavior during this time is how people in the video game industry would describe a "whale"-- someone who spends large amounts on free-to-play games, and essentially makes the business model viable by balancing out the 99 percent of players who don't ever fork out a dime.

And while Chris is happy to admit that a portion of his addiction was no doubt down to his own silly mistakes, he reasons, "I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting 'whales' like me isn't somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren't after everyone for a few dollars -- they're after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands." 


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Comments


Dane MacMahon
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It's kind of like gambling, isn't it? Most people can do it responsibly but the addict percentage is high enough we regulate the hobby to some extent. Some would argue too much, some would argue not enough. You say government bodies getting involved is not desired, yet obviously the precedent is there.

The only F2P game I've ever played for an extended period of time is The Old Republic, and I only spent five dollars on it, but it was obvious the whole thing is designed to get you to be irresponsible. The ethics of that might require a higher authority to figure out.

Doug Poston
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It *is* gambling, the payout is just in "virtual hats" instead of cash.

Not to say gambling is wrong, but people should call it what it is.

m m
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@Doug Poston- In most cases it's not gambling. In gambling there is a (very very high) chance of not getting returns on your wager. In F2P games, your micro transactions almost universally return a specific and chosen digital product. While that may be poor compensation for many people, for some it is just what they wanted.

There are examples of micro transactions that are legitimately gambling but they are few.

Carsten Germer
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@m m && @Doug Poston:

Saying F2P _is_ gambling misses out some discerning points.
Only gambling is "gambling" and as long as players don't gamble in a game it is, well, not gambling per se.

On the other hand some of the F2P mechanics to get players to buy stuff, scarcity etc. are _very close related_ to gambling. But there are better suited minds then me who have done research in this area ^_^

Monetization mechanics in computer games can be much more sophisticated then, say, the mechanics of a one-armed bandit.

Personally, I think F2P mechanics, used to extend, can be much more harmful then run-off-the-mill gambling mechanics.

Dane MacMahon
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The gambling comparison was more about the impulse. If a fraction of people cannot control it then government will want to regulate it.

Douglas Scheinberg
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SWTOR started out as a subscription game, like WOW. And you can still be a subscriber and get pretty much all the benefits of everything you can pay cash for separately.

Doug Poston
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@mm: I can see your point, not all F2P transactions are a gamble. But in the first case of this article, TF2 Hats, it is very much gambling and should (IMHO) be labeled as such.

But some F2P games use the worse kind of gambling tricks to get people to spend money. At least when you gamble in Vegas you get to know your odds (which can be 98% or higher).

Nooh Ha
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Article exploring the gap between gambling vs chance mechanics in games:
http://www.develop-online.net/blog/303/Gambling-with-gameplay

E McNeill
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This is an important article. Thank you for writing it! I have lots of things I want to say; here are a few:

1) The usual defense we hear is that the players spend their money willingly, and that they are responsible adults. But this defense only works when the trade is not exploitative in any way. This article focuses on one aspect of exploitation (addiction), but there are lots of ways that a game can exploit its players. You don't have to be addicted to be wronged by a business, and you don't have to go bankrupt either. I think our ethical concerns extend far beyond these worst case scenarios.

2) A lot of the best stuff I've ever heard on this topic was said several years ago by Jon Blow. Look up his lectures "Design Reboot" and "Video Games and the Human Condition" on YouTube.

3) "Games that allow players to advance to the highest level without spending anything are less exploitative. At least they don't actively encourage addiction." I disagree. They limit one axis of harm, but keep in mind that totally-free games can still be addictive, and that exploiting someone's time is just as ethically wrong as exploiting their money.

4) Another occasional defense is that any time voluntarily spent playing must be considered "fun" time. But even if we accept that playing the game is enjoyable (not always a given), there are different levels of "fun" or fulfillment that people can experience, and very low levels of fun (essentially "killing time") might not be a good thing in large amounts. I tried to have a conversation on this subject on reddit once: http://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/1d51ab/im_a_video_gam
e_designer_trying_to_figure_out_an/

Gosh this is a big subject. I should write my own article. Gah.

m m
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The problem with applying your concept of "exploitative" mechanics is that virtually any hobby includes these mental exploits. Why do you think people keep trying to learn the guitar? Or write? Or build models? Or hike? Or play the stock market? Or get degrees? Or learn to cook?

Virtually any common human activity involves at least one component that is exploitative to our individual psychology. Singling out video games is disingenuous.

Fun time is also a very relative thing. I get absolutely nothing out of a game that doesn't make me mad at least part of the time. I need that hard marathon to get my runner's high, and this is a common component of what makes these activities, video games included, such a draw.

E McNeill
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@m m: I can agree that a video game, as an object, doesn't carry moral weight. But the designers of the video game can choose whether to make it more exploitative or less exploitative. I'm saying that designing games to be exploitative is morally wrong. Anyone who tries to exploit people through any of the other activities you list is also committing a moral wrong.

Consider, by way of analogy, a person who makes cigarettes. If you try to design your cigarettes to be safer and less addictive, but otherwise very appealing (in flavor, value, etc.) I would consider you to be acting ethically. If you try to design your cigarettes to make the most profit while ignoring the harmful effects, I would say that you're acting unethically.

As game designers, our responsibility is to minimize exploitative techniques in our games wherever we can.

m m
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I see, I have clearly misunderstood your original point!

But then, we run into additional problems. To what degree is it acceptable to prey on people's naturally occurring compulsions? You cannot say "none" because then we'd all do nothing. That (x) hobby exploits these compulsions is the basis for most human activity. Few people genuinely chose their hobbies, rather the hobbies specifically posses qualities which appeal to the nature of the user's compulsions. So there must be a thresh-hold, a line over which further exploitative programming becomes, not a necessary component of good game design, but a detriment to its user that provides no meaningful benefit.

To further illustrate the difficulty of this we can go back to the gambling analogy. There is a practice that is designed to take this concept to its bleeding edge of solvency. And yet, Las Vegas does not stay in business soley on the backs of the poor few who have no capability to control their behaviors. Casino gambling is the most vehemently predatory form of capitalism possible without crossing the line into direct fascism. And yet people love it. Gambling laws are routinely becoming more permissive in even a highly conservative nation like the US. So where is the line? How do we identify it? How do we defend our position in the presence of far more exploitative industries than even the most greedy f2p publishers could ever hope to match?

E McNeill
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It's about whether you try to prey on compulsions or try to enable people to make the best decision for themselves. Consider the example of food. If I make some tasty food, obviously some people are going to have compulsion problems with it. That's not my fault, and other people will surely want my food on a rational basis too. But it's my responsibility to consider the harm that my food might do, and to enable people to make a good decision. So, I suggest reasonable portion sizes, and I list the Nutrition Facts, and maybe I adjust the recipe so that it's a little healthier.

Gambling is similar. Some people have huge problems with it, but other people enjoy it in a limited, healthy way. So, an ethical casino might do things like allow "problem gamblers" to ban themselves (which many casinos do), or set limits for themselves at the start of the night, or help them stop their addiction in other ways. I also think that the moral value of gambling differs greatly from game to game, depending on the level of skill vs. luck involved, but that's another conversation.

m m
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You didn't answer the question. Where specifically is the line, not in your metaphorical food industry, but in micro transactions.

Nicholas Lovell
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This is an important article and ethics in F2P are something which we will need to address (F2P and paymium are here to stay, and will be the predominant business model for most games by value pretty soon. Note that I define "Skylanders" as a paymium game because of its core business model).

but this sentence on the first page is pretty inflammatory and, I think, wrong. "they're after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands."

Nicholas Lovell
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There is also a very odd transition from being about "whales" to being about "pay to win". The two are completely different issues. A transition away from pay-to-win says literally nothing about a company's attitude to whales or exploitative practices
(For a start, highly competitive players are only a proportion of players, and there are many other motivations for playing, spending in or committing time to games)

Nicholas Lovell
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All that said, the issue of ethics is important in F2P, and will continue to be so. It is important to have this debate and am delighted that journalists like Mike are putting the time and effort into balanced, considered reporting.

Kenneth Blaney
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Although I agree that the change you mention seems out of context with the title (possibly the writer didn't come up with the article name?) whales vs pay-to-win are not entirely different issues. What is being sold to whales in a F2P game? It might be easy to say "virtual goods" (or the more glib "assortment of pixels"), but what is really being sold in reinforcement of status. That is, I buy something that allows me to customize a character and immediately everyone sees me as something special. Pay-to-win is a special case of this sale of status as now it isn't just a sort of peacock social status by an in-game superiority. So how do they draw in whales? Allow them to buy physical power over other players and then congratulate them for using that power so they can reinforce their idea of superiority. Even if they think it is fake at some level, overall it still feels good to win.

Writing this out, I realized this dynamic is probably more similar to prostitution than drugs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are at it again.

m m
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Haha! "will be the predominant business model for most games by valve pretty soon."

And shortly thereafter will either bankrupt Valve or be rightfully thrown aside.

I have yet to meet a gamer with a legitimate investment in the medium who thinks f2p leads to good game mechanics. Almost universally these titles tend to suck. They cannot be compared to the titles that standard market models put out because the impetus is different. Many older gamers have an unfairly rosey view of this point, but take the case of the video arcade from the long long ago (1980s). Those games were SHIT. Complete and utter drek. The only thing they provided was a prettier on-screen show than could be had from an Atari or an NES. The level design was specifically built around a model who's chief impetus was to get you to pump in as many quarters as possible. This lead to an ethos that completely eschewed good game mechanics. And this ethos is being repeated almost in its entirety in the world of F2P games.

My point is, even if you were magically given all the benefits of micro transactions for free, these would still be shitty games and, as demonstrated by the Xbox One reception, we are living in times when gamers are just about sick of being viewed as revenue streams. The f2p model is cannibalistic and a sure road to destruction for any developer dumb enough to try this gamble.

Nicholas Lovell
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Wow, m m.

Way to miss the point and be smugly elitist at the same time.

I said the predominant business model by value, not by Valve, meaning that it will provide the revenues for most of the industry.

But more than that, you said "a gamer with a legitimate investment in the medium". Which leads me to believe that people who play Candy Crush are not "legitimate". Or Hay Day. Or Simpsons Tapped Out. Or Bubble Witch, or social games, or ios games, or browser games. Or anything else.

Why not just come right and say it: I'm a bigot who like my industry exclusive, but now they are letting into my hobby, I want to lash out and tell them they are not legitimate?

m m
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Elitist, yes. Smug? No.

I have no problem admitting to holding certain standards to terms. I do not welcome just anyone into my circle of friends and hobbies just because they apply a label to themselves. Standards are a good thing and I'll make no apologies for the self entitled who want the game but don't want to do the work. Casual gamers are casuals, and that's fine. If you are not clearly aiming your product at niche markets then you have failed before you even began.

I have hidden my thoughts behind no ambiguity. You are absolutely right: I do not welcome the glut of casual gamers who have done the the video game market what was done to the music and film industry. More power to them, numbers are the name of the game in any business. But yes I do resent the dumbing down of the medium for the purposes of mass consumption. I resent it even more for the fact that this trend is more of a cultural phenomenon than a product of market forces. It doesn't have to be this way. So long as we gamers as a culture decide we are not going to address certain problems within the industry and within our own ranks like settling for for cookie cutter crap, F2P dreck that is nothing but a giant pile of steaming micro transactions and thoughtless game design, the market will respond to the casuals first. There is no shame in expecting more out of people and there is even less shame in striving to be better than the next.

But nice try at hiding your mediocrity behind self righteousness. If your game design is as flimsy as your personal resolve then I have little to worry about from your team.

Zach Zebrowski
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This was great read, thank you!

Noirin Curran
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This is a great article - really interesting stuff. It seems to be the general consensus that regulation would be a bad result for everybody concerned, especially as so many psychological techniques are very effectively used by games in a positive way.

I think that most of us can say that we know at least one person who was "addicted" to a game at one point or another. I've seen it happen to quite a few people, but adding money as a whole other element in the equation makes the topic even more complex, and makes the topic even more complicated to research.

I'm hopeful that some research into aspects of this will emerge soon, as there are more and more people studying games in academia, which is great to see. This is such an important topic and brings up a lot of pressing questions about video game ethics that need answers.

Yuval Bayrav
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I find this article to be very interesting.

However, if the vast majority of players in F2P games never pay a dime, and among the few that do pay "a good portion... felt that, despite spending in the thousands, they had got their money's worth", then it begs the question - what is the actual % of players who become so addicted that it threatens their well-being? And how does it compare to other, more socially-accepted activities?

It bears pointing out that there are many activities in which a small minority of people decide to invest outrageous amounts of their money. For example, I personally know of a few people that spent thousands of dollars on bicycle equipment, which I find ridiculous, but it's their money to spend. Yet no-one would ever characterize cycling as a negative activity or call to limit the max amount of $ spent on it.

So I guess it is really a question of how socially-acceptable the activity is.

Alex Boccia
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Free to play is almost always a long-term negative, imo.

Nicholas Lovell
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Do you have any reasons, other than a knee-jerk "I don't like it"

Nooh Ha
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Almost always?
Care to provide examples?

Remy Trolong
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Excellent article, really. As an indie, free-to-play meant the gold rush for me, we have examples of games making millions by day.
Your researches revelated what was logical : those 1 or 2% of people paying on the "i-don't-know-how many" millions users panel are "abused".
I really thank you for your investment in this subject, and really hope it will result in good things for the gaming industry. I think we should (players, devs and writers ) be aware of what is done, and encourage people who build a real trust between studios and consumers. You should know what you buy, for each $!

Nicholas Lovell
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@amir Surely all games have to make money. This is a business. What am I missing?

@m m: You argue that bad SEO is bad, but good SEO is good. You then argue that bad F2P is bad, but stop there. Surely the logical statement is that bad F2P is bad and good F2P is good, just like good SEO.

And I'll take your bet.

Peter Christiansen
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While the question of exploiting the most vulnerable customers is certainly an important issue (since that's the one that has the potential to ruin people's lives), I think that the free-to-play model is problematic even for those customers who don't fall into that category.

I attended a tech summit last fall that happened to have some presentations and panels on "game design" featuring developers from some prominent web and moblie developers. As it turned out, it was just a huge discussion of how to transition the maximum number of players from "free" to "paying" to "whale" status, with almost nothing relating to actual gameplay. The question that kept coming up throughout the discussion was "How can we tweak our game to get every last bit of available money from these different groups?" - not just the whales. If someone had just happened to walk in not knowing that the panel was about videogames, they might have just as easily assumed that the men on stage were talking about oil fracking as about taking money from customers.

The issues is certainly more complicated than simply saying free-to-play is inherently bad and traditional models are inherently good. Still, any business model that revolves around trying to come up with elaborate schemes to take every last cent of available funds from your customers rather than something like making a really good game (which for some reason sounds strangely idealistic) should really throw up some red flags when you think about it. Even if free-to-play companies found some way to protect the whales who might develop serious problems, that doesn't mean there aren't still problems with the way that the free-to-play model treats players, whales or not.

This was an excellent and timely article, Mike. Thank you!

Nicholas Lovell
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The first of my Design Rule for F2P Games? The game must be fun. What's more, this will be how it works best for businesses in the long run.

Stefan Park
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Very interesting. I think all businesses should be about providing value for money, not milking it's customers dry. There are a few companies that value the "value for money" proposition (not in gaming) and they prosper very well, have great customer loyalty (without the need for loyalty schemes to try and entice customers to come back). A bad example of milking the F2P comes from a company here that kept raising the price of it's "packs" for it's games to ridiculous levels, yet people were still buying. Sure it makes them money, but you also need to have some social responsibility, which this company seemed lacking. I'd love to say this wasn't typical of the games industry, but I'm afraid it really is.

Amir Barak
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@Nicholas
And if your second one is, "the game must make money" then you're not making a video game you're making a slot machine.

m m
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You very aptly highlighted the problem with the free to play market. These developers would do well to take a few classes in good SEO practices. I make my money writing articles with an SEO bent and I can tell you this: Undeniably, there is a direct relationship between quality information, and monetization (is that a word?) of a reader. This isn't the early 90's. You can't just cram key words into an article and expect to game the system. You -might- get ranked higher on Google (not likely after the Penguin update) but more traffic is not always synonymous with higher turn over. In fact, in the age of social media a crap money-grab article can just as easily lead to a disaster as it can simply provide you with no benefit for your minimal investment.

My point is this: Free to play games are based on a model that attempts to squeeze every last dime out of the consumer and it does this by using gimmicky market trickery. If you want to monetize your user base you must provide them with a quality experience. Yes, there are compulsive people who would push a "kill me now" button just because a sign told them to. But attempting to fund an industry as expensive as that of video games by relying on just weak minded individuals is madness. When I write my articles, they provide useful information that is valuable to people who will purchase, and those who will never spend a dime on my product. The keywords show up organically, they are not designed to fit some ridiculous density figures. I would bet money Mr Lovell, up there in the comments section, has to meet a certain density of "transaction points"; moments in the game specifically tailored to compel a potential customer to open their wallet. This cramming will lead to interrupted game-play, which inherently breaks the much sought-after immersive experience all gamers play to achieve.

Much like key word cramming in my articles would inherently lead to junk data who's only purpose is to game Google's algorithms, transaction cramming to a specific density (which is absolutely necessary if a company is to have even semi reliable forecasts of expected net profits from any title individually) inherently leads to junk games.

This principal is universal in business. A product will sell itself if it is high quality and your clients will be you own viral advertising agency. If you build a business model that is blatantly based on exploitation for its net gains, you are signing your own pink slip. This model is only useful to corporate execs who plan to sell off their company as it starts to crumble. It is vulture capitalism that leads only to short term gains with a profoundly dangerous impact on both the specific company involved and the industry at large. Any "game designer" who defends it is not a game designer.

Tony Harrison
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Interesting article, but as Nicholas Lovell says there seems to be a slight conflation of "whales" and "pay to win"; Kyle is a whale in PlanetSide 2, later the suggestion is that Wargaming.net aren't gunning for whales due to changes in World of Tanks removing real-money-only advantages.

Having played the two, I don't see a significant difference between the current World of Tanks model and Planetside 2; both offer premium/subscription options to speed things up, the items that can only be purchased with real money in PS2 are cosmetic, weapons can be bought either with real money or in-game-earned certificates (granted you'd have to be playing a crazy amount to earn the certificates for piles of weapons, but that's hardly dissimilar to World of Tanks and the amount of credits you have to earn for high tier tanks). I don't know how much Kyle spent on Planetside 2, I'd be shocked if you couldn't find someone who'd spent the same or more in World of Tanks; I made a post ( http://www.kiasa.org/2011/06/28/free-to-pay-to-play-to-win/ ) about payment models in 2011, about three months after the release of WoT, and a chap in the comments reports a clan mate who'd already spent $360.

The idea of "whales" spending massive amounts on a game makes me very uncomfortable, especially those who can't really afford to do so, just as the idea of people sinking absurd amounts of time into games, particularly MMORPGs, at the cost of the rest of their life makes me uncomfortable, but I feel that, when well implemented, free to play can work.

Simon Ludgate
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I think the most telling part of the article isn't even F2P related:

"There were plenty of times when the rent would go unpaid because I had spent the money on the game instead," he says. "However, I don't know if I can blame the game for that. If I hadn't spent the money on Mabinogi, I would have spent it on something else."

All the stories about "exploited whales" are stories about fiscally irresponsible people. These are people with low incomes (and quite possibly low education) and the inability to budget towards financial growth. They are going to misspend their money, whether on F2P games or something else.

That F2P games try to exploit these kinds of vulnerable people is deplorable, to be sure, but the problem lies in the social acceptance of mismanagement. So long as there exists a group of people who can't hold onto their money, there will exist countless people holding out buckets for them to dump the cash into.

As the article itself points out, this kind of exploitation is the exception, not the rule. "There are plenty of happy free-to-play customers out there, and the aforementioned story from Chris only makes up a very tiny portion of the tales I received." So what we actually have is a model that allows for uncontrolled spending, and for the majority of people this is a nice way for them to dispose of excess income. Meanwhile, a smaller group of people are swept along in the tide of spending, and because of their irresponsible behavior we vilify the F2P model as a whole.

Understand that I'm not voicing my support for all F2P here: I often find it implemented in an exploitative manner too. But my solution to the problem is to simply not play that particular game. There are other games with very reasonable F2P models, which don't require endless spending in order to enjoy. Can we, as members of the game development community, condemn an entire business model -- the one that may well have kept our industry afloat through rough economic times -- because of those games that abuse it?

I think we would we be better off focusing our efforts praising those games that are good and condemning those games that are bad. We would be better off providing our financial support to those games that are good and denying our cash from those games that are bad. We would be better off guiding our community to identify good F2P games from bad ones rather than throwing a blanket of badness over the whole affair.

Paul Johnson
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Amen.

Alan Boody
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I think the argument here is about the ethics of the game developers that weave a net that combines unlimited spending with coercive monetization tricks in order to catch whales.

"All the stories about "exploited whales" are stories about fiscally irresponsible people. These are people with low incomes (and quite possibly low education) and the inability to budget towards financial growth. They are going to misspend their money, whether on F2P games or something else."

True, but just because you replace a game with gambling, a crack addiction, meth addiction, or whatever other addiction, doesn't mean that it's now ethical or right.

Furthermore, the hardest step towards treating addiction is the person's recognition of that addiction:

"I can stop smoking anytime I want."

"I only have a few beers every night."

"Yes, I spent hundreds on that game, but I had fun."

Robert Crouch
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This kind of attitude excepts the idea that addictions nothing but a person's willing decision not to kick them.

It's not really the case though. An addiction usurps the afflicted's ability to make rational decisions.

The fact that many of these F2P games are designed to encourage addiction in their users is what happens to be the moral question.

It's not a matter of "Oh shoot, I misjudged my available money and missed rent because I'm not very good at math." It's more "I know it's hurting me, but I'm still compelled to keep paying for some reason, and it's ruining my life."

I don't see a moral issue with creating a game where some players become addicted and overspend. It's impossible to fully control player behavior to stop that, and trying to do so could harm the game. I do see a moral issue with creating games that rely on addicting and exploiting customers and then designing them to have the maximally addictive impact.

Gabriel Kabik
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"These are people with low incomes (and quite possibly low education) and the inability to budget towards financial growth."

I think you can make your point without stooping to assumptions like these. The world is full of affluent, educated people who fall prey to addictive, self-destructive behaviors all the time.

Amir Barak
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@Simon
I'm not sure you've understood the stories here to be honest. These are not about people with low income and low education that are simply fiscally irresponsible. In fact quite the opposite (which is the more disturbing aspect of it) it's about people like you and me and your friend from across town that were in a vulnerable place and were taken for a ride. Like it or not it could happen to anyone, anyone...

"There are other games with very reasonable F2P models, which don't require endless spending in order to enjoy" again, this falls under that mythical "other camp" theory where F2P games have like an evil camp and a good camp. There is no other camp, anyone making F2P games is making them in one camp, and it ain't the happy beaver camp I'll tell you that.

" Can we, as members of the game development community, condemn an entire business model " yes, and we should.

"- the one that may well have kept our industry afloat through rough economic times " bah, and pwahahaha... really, really, kept the industry afloat. If all F2P games disappear tomorrow and the entire industry collapses then someone would make another game two months down the line. The industry is not a thing, much like EA, Valve and/or Zynga are not a thing (people seem to have an affinity with anthropomorphizing companies). The industry is made out of many many different individuals and the ones that are serious about making games would make games even if those games MADE NO PROFIT WHATSOEVER! yes, crazy I know, but hey, maybe it's a good way to weed out the game developers from the industry's profiteers...

Zach Gage
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One thing that it doesn't feel like people are talking about is that even if relatively few people are having irresponsible experiences with free to play games, that doesnt change the fact that these games are designed for THOSE people.

If you're only making money from 3% of your users (these are your customers), and 1% of your users are behaving irresponsibly, thats a whopping 30% of your customers that are behaving dangerously! That strikes me as a huge ethical dilemma. Sure you could say free to play games are designed to draw in as large a crowd as possible, but that doesnt strike me as entirely accurate. The part of their design that matters in an ethical discussion is their money making aspect, and that part is designed entirely around the 3% who actually do pay.

This is why something like tribes, where 10% of the users pay feels a lot more healthy to us, the unhealthy user-group is a lot smaller comparatively.

Alan Boody
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@Amir

Bravo.

Samuel Green
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Great post Simon. The exception to the rule, the smallest minority, can't determine how the rules work for the 99%. Some people go crazy with alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling... most people do it in moderation and it doesn't harm anyone.

Do we need disclaimers like "Playing this game may contribute to your downfall" before people start a F2P game?

Serious question!

Lewis Pulsipher
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Outstanding article.

Anytime a game designer's focus becomes extracting money from players, rather than entertainment (or education, or other non-financial goals), then they're no longer game designers, they're revenue designers. F2P can be designed to be entertaining, but can it then sustain itself?

Alan Boody
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Exactly. Great name of them: revenue designers.

Nicholas Lovell
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I think that statement is nonsense. I see no reason why a game designer having financial objectives is no longer a game designer. Unless you are the kind of person who think a band selling records is a "sellout" or an artist who makes money from their art is somehow no longer an artist.

Gabriel Kabik
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I wish the piece had spent more time talking about this issue (the ethics of being a game designer in the F2P world) rather than what it really ended up covering, which is the debate over selling them. Corporations and drug dealers will always be around to design things to exploit the bad habits and predilections of some people, the ethics of business will ALWAYS be in question. But the artists and creators who design these exploitative systems should know better.

Jamie McGlynn
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What Lewis Pulsipher said pretty much describes what Japan-based CyberStep Inc. have been doing for the last three-or-so years. From what I know, they've shutdown three services from their North America arm and one from Europe. And there was one thing in common with them, they actually built most of their games around the "pay to win" (P2W) concept, but passed them off as "free to play" (F2P), and this intentional misrepresentation being amplified with dishonest and uncaring staff.

A close friend of mine told me about WarGaming's much more open approach, and the importance of how the difference of making the gaming experience the same for both paying and non-paying players alike acts like a powerful, yet humane approach, to attract new players and build a sustainable relationship with the playerbase community.

At the end of the day, people expect value for money, but I don't think a percentage of game-makers realize the importance of this fact.

Amir Barak
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@Nicholas
A band creating music for the sake of making money isn't a band; it's a bunch of assholes riding a trend and making rubbish (quantity of purchases does NOT equal quality of product). And an artist making art for the sake of profit will compromise his/her vision in order to accommodate shifting trends, so no they're still an artist just not a very creative one.

Game designers that design games to maximize profit do so at the cost (hehe) of the game's narrative and thus produce (in my opinion) the equivalent of candy floss; a shit product that's bad for everyone but is still quite popular because hey, we're all f***ing addicted to sugar.

Sauli Lehtinen
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Exactly.

I wouldn't have problems with my game destroying someones life. Sad, but there are million ways to do it. It becomes a problem if you intentionally design the game to suck every last penny of weak people and good game design is sacrificed for profit. People are good at destroying themselves and you shouldn't worry about it. You should worry about games.

Making good games should be the main goal. Even if it might be hard if you are working on latest yearly update of a hockey game or a hunting game sequel number 24 you should always target for the best possible gaming experience. The moment you intentionally make game worse for higher profit you have stepped into the dark side, which leads to designing extortion mechanics instead of enjoyable games...

Everyone working on f2p games that are intentionally made worse for higher income should ask themselves why they are working on game industry. If it's for love of games then you have failed. You are like an artist who started his career to make art that matters to him, but eventually turned out to design ads for tobacco manufacturer. Now please stop polluting games and consider a less questionable career in extortion, drug dealing or politics.

Chris Londrie
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Your dividing line doesn't work. Here's Why:

I'm playing Super Car Racer 19, I can change the skin on my car so it's now got flames down the side! This is awesome, customizing my car is great! The game would be a better game if you didn't have to pay for that skin, but if you do, then it's worse, so that means anyone who sells anything in any game is automatically 'darkside' in your description.

Lewis Pulsipher
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@Nicholas Nonsense? Having financial objectives and designing to extract revenue continuously are two very different things. You can design a game to be entertaining and still have a financial objective. In F2P it becomes very hard to design a wholly entertaining game and still make enough money to sustain the effort.

Lewis Pulsipher
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@Amir
Many great artists wanted to make money with their product. For example:

"You can, for example, count on the fingers of both hands the number of musical compositions Mozart didn't write for money, and negotiating with Beethoven was like trying to take a steak away from a hyena."

"A composer has to eat, make the rent, and pay the cable bill, just like the rest of us. Be assured that poor composers do not choose to be poor. There is nothing romantic or Bohemian about it; poverty, if you'll excuse me, sucks."

Prof Robert Greenberg in "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition"

There is nothing wrong with making money by being entertaining, what's wrong (in my view as a designer) is making money by being a revenue designer.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kristian Roberts
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@ Lewis

Brilliant. Revenue designers? Brilliant.

I agree with your notion that there is not inherent conflict between gettin' paid and artistic/creative integrity. But, as you note, it is possible to swing that balance in a wonky direction: i.e., way from making games that happen to be F2P and towards revenue models that happen to be skinned with a game. Ideally, one strikes a balance between the two, but in the latter case you're designing a gambing machine (whether or not there is something inherently wrong with gambling is a separate, if related, issue).

With this view in mind, we then conclude that F2P is neither good nor evil on an a priori basis, but that (surprise!) it comes down to analyzing specific cases to determine how exploitative they are -- and then passing righteous judgement accordingly.

Damion Schubert
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You're right. Because if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that Valve's team did a terrible job making an innately fun game in Team Fortress 2.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Mike, this is a very powerful article, and thank you for citing me. I've been interviewing "whales" since 1999 and I realize just how hard it is since they don't often like to talk about their habits. In the early years I would just survey customers in order to maximize my personal profits since I got my start as a virtual goods seller. There was no altruistic motivation, that took years to develop. Eventually I became haunted by the possibility that my actions and the actions of my peers would create a situation like, well, like what we have today.

Making models that would create extreme revenues was not all that hard. What took just as long was figuring out how to deploy models inside F2P that would set maximum fair spends that would not lead to unhealthy behavior. This is a very challenging added layer that many in this field don't feel obliged to bother with. Why cap spending when you could, you know, not cap spending? I hope in my various papers I explain why, but for most the answer is not intuitive.

As many of you point out, the line between gambling and current F2P monetization is razor thin, and getting thinner. What should worry you more is that interactive media is MUCH more powerful than traditional gambling mechanisms. IM is so powerful that the trend is for it to be bigger than all other forms of entertainment combined (except perhaps eating and sex) by any measure. Of course people are already working on combining eating, sex, and IM.

Soon people are going to laugh at casinos for being so archaic, considering how much more money can be made through exploiting the same people in IM. IM has at least two characteristics that Casinos don't:

1. Peer to Peer reinforcement. When you do something cool in a game, you get the admiration of your peers. The closest thing to this in a casino is winning a jackpot, and this sort of adoration is short lived.

2. Persistence. Again, short of winning a jackpot, there is little of real worth you get to hold onto after visiting a casino. In a virtual world you can build all sorts of virtual wealth that is there for you every time you log in. "Yea it took me 400 hours to earn this sword, and people know it every time I whip it out!". I really get into this when I talk about equity effects.

So the "casinoization" of games is inevitable in our current society, with our current rules. At least in casinos you can set a minimum age. Online this is hard to do outside of Korea. My understanding is that there you have to use something like a social security number to log into games to prove your age. Of course Korea is way ahead of the rest of the world in gaming, by necessity, since they are the world's top gamers.

Mark Venturelli
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My respect for you and your work grows daily! Keep doing what you're doing!

Kristian Roberts
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@Ramin

I am curious as to why you feel that the casinoization of games is *inevitable.* Likely? a natural extension of prevailing social norms? sure, but inevitability has a little more of a foreboding doom sense to it...

Given your rather prolific nature, I'm sure you've got a handy link to an article wherein it is all nicely explained for me :)

Tyler Shogren
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F2P games are like vending machines: they have their place, but I don't want to go to a supermarket full of them.

Doug Poston
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Most "F2P" games are like slot machines.

I live in Vegas, so I don't mind slots. But I don't want to see them at "Chuck E Cheese"

Mike Jenkins
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Mike, amazing job. Truly wonderful.

This quote by Dr. Griffiths hits something that I have always felt very strongly:

"Griffiths goes on to argue that it would be potentially possible for a "safe" scenario to be achieved, by which a game is designed such that players cannot spend money past a enforced structural limit -- this would ensure that players were not able to develop a gambling problem, regardless of their susceptibility."

The fact that the majority of these f2p games do not have a cap on the amount of money a player can spend on them is what exposes them as evil. If a player is going to give you investment level capital in return for some boosts and a sword of slaying, who are you to stop them? If they didn't give you the money, they'd give it to someone else, right? Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Chris Hendricks
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I'd agree. A game that has a reasonable cap on the maximum possible amount you can pay is much more justifiable.

Nicholas Lovell
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Why? I really want to know why you would stop the Sultan of Brunei from giving you a million dollars. And how much do you think is "justifiable"? $1? $10? $100? $1,000? $10,000?

Gabriel Kabik
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That's ultimately what ethics is though, Nicholas. Ethics are not always intuitive, nor are they always shared. You don't have the same ethical boundaries as the people you're disagreeing with here. That's why they/we might not feel comfortable taking that much money.

Alan Boody
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@Nicholas

There's a point where capitalism becomes greed, unethical and wrong.

Carlo Delallana
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Sultan of Brunei? Let's be real here. Optimizing a game for the "Sultan of Brunei" is not a realistic design goal.

Amir Barak
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because capping the amount a person can spend on your product means you're not an asshole.
As for how much, that would require research into minimum wage, cost of living and market expectations (or something like it).

m m
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This is an application of liberal regulatory behavior that is obscene even to a dyed in the wool socialist such as myself. Though I don't have a fiscally conservative bone in my body I would never think it is alright to place such a limit as I don't think you have a shred of evidence that supports your "pay caps will prevent gambling addiction" notion. Gambling addicts have built in pay caps. It's called the amount in their bank account. And addicts will routinely go broke in pursuit of their obsession. This doesn't change the fact that gambling addicts are the exception to the rule and need to be addressed, not by an industry wide regulation that would damage the solvency of the business, but in a specific manner that target those with aberrant psychologies. The same is applicable to ANY capitalist pursuit. By your logic we should put limits on the amount of strings musicians should be able to buy because the vast majority of those who try to make a living as rockstars fall flat on their ass. Music destroys more lives than even lousy game models like the F@P example could ever hope to.

The issue at hand is not that the industry is "bad" but that there is an unfortunate statistical outlier demographic of people who cannot handle themselves when confronted with this stimulus. F2P games are almost universally crappy games. I wont defend them as an entertainment form. I simply do not understand the glorified slime mold who gets anything out of that blatantly bad form of game design. But to say the industry is responsible for policing its users' behaviors is completely crossing the line. YOU are responsible for your behaviors. The fact that game designers do not put a cap on this is proof of nothing more than they've subscribed to a piss poor example of how to produce a good game. Even the best F2P game will not pull in the kind of numbers, nor have the social ubiquity, of any form of casino gambling. Putting a cap on their model would effectively make it insolvent.

You want to argue that F2P games are trash because they are designed by a process inherently geared to make money in a way that precludes the fundamentals of good game design? I'm behind you all the way and I want to subscribe to your newsletter. But trying to say that the industry is responsible for its users' behaviors is simply not in line with the way virtually any capitalist nation functions. If you can provide cited examples from respectable behavioral specialists that suggests pay caps will avoid aberrant behaviors, then you have an argument that may change my opinion. But failing that, your argument naturally reduces to "I don't like it so it's obviously bad".

Mike Jenkins
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m m, you alluded to government so many times that someone might actually think that had anything to do with what I said or even how I feel. For the record, I'm a libertarian, and am the last person on earth who would want government involvement. Your rant is so bizarre and off topic I almost think you replied to the wrong person.

Still, you clearly are not on the same page as me - for example, your guitar strings example is cute. It will hold water as soon as music companies hire psychologists to determine the most efficient ways to exploit people with addiction issues. Until then, stick to using casinos for comparison.

"Gambling addicts have built in pay caps. It's called the amount in their bank account."
An entity which would use psychological tricks to take every penny from your bank account while providing nothing of real value is evil. I didn't say it needed government regulation.

Martin Petersen
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Say 'NO' to F2P, and other hard drugs!

Ian Young
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I've played my fair share of F2P games, and looked at it from a developers point of view.
As a consumer, I dislike the use of "Whale" and other such terms, and find it indicative of the developer's unpleasant view on their player base, seeing them only as a resource, to be milked with micro transactions. When a developer reaches that point, often they genuinely do not see that what they are doing is, at best amoral, and at worst, skirting the edges of legality.
From a developers point of view, If you have a game that you want to get out there, and remain on the market for more than a few months, it's a tempting model to follow, as it offers pretty good returns on investment, but requires you to overlook the reason why video games exist: to provide fun for everyone who plays it.
I would hesitate to call F2P applications "games", as many titles require excessive grinding, in order to acquire resources that other's can just pay for, or you simply don't get to play when your "credit" runs out. They are more like fruit machines, or "one armed bandits", so called for a very good reason.

I've heard arguments like "it's just good business", and "it's not our fault people spend that much money". To these arguments I say this: These are the arguments that casino's and online gambling sites use, and they are government controlled (as they should be). The mere fact that this article concerns F2P, means that the games are in fact, not free to play. You are still paying for your experience, or the "whales" are paying for you.

I personally believe that any game which markets itself as free to play, should be just that, rather than "play now, pay later". When I buy a game, I expect it to be completely available to me, to be playable whenever I wish, subject to progress. I do not appreciate hidden costs after point of sale. I do not appreciate pay to win. I do agree with ethical microtransactions, such as aesthetic upgrades, or more inventory space, just so long as it's reasonably priced, or it can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time, through gameplay (or both).

I personally believe free to play had potential, and was a good way for smaller companies (like Grinding Gears), to fund their project long term, and pay their bills, but sadly, the bigger companies (Yes EA/Zynga, I'm pointing at you lot), abused this, and warped it, from an honest way to fund games, into a way to squeeze every last cent from the consumer.

The responsibility lies with us, as developers, to create ways of monetizing our games, which are transparent, ethical, and honest, just as the responsibility lies with the consumer, to control his or her spending. The difference is, that vulnerable individuals can be hurt when we do not take this responsibility seriously, all in the name of "good business". This kind of behaviour disgusts and repulses me, and if we cannot handle this responsibility, then government control is needed.
I'm sure there are many games out there that do F2P responsibly, but there are far more that do not, so If legislation is required, it is because of those developers. Not the consumers. It is these same developers who give the good ones a bad name, and bring the industry into disrepute. Seriously, how can we be expected to be treated as more than greed fuelled, faceless corporations, when that is exactly how we act, on the whole?

m m
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Your argument hinges on the notion that gambling is regulated for the sake of its users' welfare and not simply because the state wants its' share of the profits. The vast majority of people who enjoy gambling can do so within their means. Gambling addicts are relatively rare when compared with the numbers of people who gamble and will never do so in an unhealthy manner. The issue is used as a smoke screen to get wide acceptance for the practices of regulation which ensure state and federal agencies get their cut.

It is also done because gambling is a far more ubiquitous behavior than free 2 play gaming. While I personally do not like either of these institutions, neither do I demonize them as being inherently bad. F2P games are typically crappy experiences from an entertainment point of view, and are so because the motive to make money on a pure micro transaction model has lead to an ethos that precludes the fundamentals of good game design. But this doesn't make them evil, nor does it inherently make them responsible for their users' behaviors.

Can you cite evidence for your notion that gambling regulations exist for the legitimate welfare of the populace? If you cannot, your basis for comparison is void. Can you cite proof that an industry should be responsible for the behaviors of their users? From my viewpoint, most regulation is handled or mandated by external political forces. Budweisser is not responsible for enforcing traffic laws nor should they be. Remington is not responsible for enforcing public welfare, or fire arm transportation laws, nor should they be. McDonalds is not responsible for enforcing the nutritional habits of their customers, nor should they be. All three of these industries fill the marketplace with goods that have done more damage than all the bad gamming habits in the world could ever match. Yet we acknowledge on a cultural and political level that, while regulations may be necessary for these industries, it is the responsibility of congress and regulatory bodies to enforce them and not the industries themselves. Where then is your precedent for this notion? F2P models are not like failing to enforce proper food handling policies in the kitchen. That is a threat perpetrated by the producer. There is no inherent danger in the F2P model such as exists in mishandling food. But then, we don't blame restaurants for their customers' over eating and getting heart disease, do we? Because we understand that end user behavior is the responsibility of the end user.

Jay Grule
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I'm the owner and lead developer of a multi-million dollar game studio that exclusively produces free-to-play products. I've designed and implemented several F2P systems, and interact daily with thousands of customers.

I could probably earn several honorary doctorates of psychology were I to write about my experiences and lessons learned in this industry. It has radically altered my view of humanity, behavior, ethics, and morality (both simulated and real).

This is going to sound cruel, but it all boils down to this: "A fool and his money are soon parted."

And by that I mean their money is going to be spent frivolously regardless of circumstance.

If not in a game, then on some other fleeting whim like music, movies, spinning hubcaps, truck balls, etc.

Even people living paycheck to paycheck, as highlighted in the article, have no problem disposing of what should really be non-disposable income.

So... The money is out there, clutched in frantically-waving unwashed hands, begging for something to be wasted on.

We supply for a demand. If there was no demand, we couldn't do what we do.

You could ban F2P games and burn your so-called evil developers at the stake... And it wouldn't matter. You would still have people buying stupid things they don't need and can't afford.

The problem isn't with games. The problem is with humanity.

E McNeill
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Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present: The Enemy!

You're right, that sounds cruel. You describe your customers with contempt and imply that your own product is a frivolous waste. And that's okay because... your customers are especially vulnerable?

What a horrid justification you have. And one that's equally easy to apply to any form of "parting fools from their money". If you conned them out of their money, or sold addictive drugs, would you see it as just another supply meeting demand? After all, they were going to waste that money anyway, right?

Here is specifically why this is disgusting:

A) It's not true that they will necessarily waste their money. What if you were to offer, say, a good game instead of an exploitative one? Entertainment that's fulfilling rather than a waste of time, and that doesn't try to wring the customer dry? Not all media is a frivolous waste, you know. I don't see why they'd turn down a good offer, and go waste their money elsewhere. No, they're wasting their money because you went out of your way to sell them something frivolous.

B) Even if they were going to waste that money on some other exploitative predator, that doesn't absolve you of your personal responsibility. An individual contribution to a collective evil is still wrong.

So yeah, I agree, the problem is with humanity.

Jay Grule
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Mr. McNeill,
You jumped to some mighty conclusions about me and my company, based on assumptions devoid of fact.

First -- We do offer good games. My top priority has always been to make fun, challenging, and fully playable products that do not require money for any level of achievement. 95% of our top players are free users who have never spent a dime.

We don't need or use gimmicks or exploitative mechanics. We make money because we offer good products.

Second -- I do have some mild degree of contempt for some players. The people living paycheck-to-paycheck who can hardly feed their children, but won't bat an eyelash to drop $50 on a Sparkle Pony are absolutely deserving of contempt.

Your problem is that you're incapable of putting blame where blame is due. You're so angry at "Corporations" and "The Man" that you can't help but see victims everywhere, instead of what they really are.

Your worldview is far more repulsive than my own.

You view people as mindless sheep, helpless and stupid, whom you must step in to protect... Because obviously you know what's best for everybody.

Tell me about contempt again. You're disgusting.

E McNeill
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Consider a drug addict and a drug dealer. The addict clearly bears some responsibility for their condition. But ultimately, self-harm is not a moral wrong. The dealer, on the other hand, is knowingly profiting off of the addict's weakness. The dealer knows what is happening and is facilitating the addiction, and thus the dealer shares in the responsibility. And the dealer is harming someone else, which makes it actually immoral on their part.

If a con man scams someone out of money, is the victim at fault for being gullible? If someone leaves their car unlocked and a thief steals it, is the car owner at fault for being foolish? The answer might well be "yes", but that doesn't absolve the thief or the con man of responsibility.

I never said that the victims share no blame. I never said anything about "Corporations" or "The Man". But I do say that if you consider your most lucrative customers "fools", and willingly take money that you know they can't afford, then that is exploitation. We're both saying that some people are bad at making these purchasing decisions. We agree on that! But I'm saying that they are deserving of our compassion and protection, whereas you view them with contempt and ask them to waste their money in a way that profits you.

I don't know what your games are like. I'd love to know, but I doubt you'll show me. Maybe they really are fun and challenging and non-exploitative! But the worldview you're defending is just wrong.

Chris Londrie
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To know before purchase if a customer can afford to spend that money would require them to submit to a full financial audit, that's absurd, we should treat people who have problems with addiction with therapists and medication, not by burning developers at the stake because they are the minority.

Alan Boody
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@Jay,

There's also the argument that since you're a self-claimed 'elite' that you're more responsible in society. Instead of being responsible and leading society, you cater to the problem to enrich yourself. Preying upon people trained to impulsively buy stuff.

Even though the consumers are responsible for their individual lives there is also responsibility on corporations, "The Man", etc as well. The more money you have the more power you have. This means that you can either act responsibly with that power or not.

You want all the privileges and perks that come with power, but none of the responsibility and leadership that is required for an ethical society.

Mark Venturelli
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This Jay guy is so amazingly, unashamedly immoral that I'd say he is a fake. But both of McNeill's replies above are textbook examples on how you answer these weak excuses for degrading people's quality of life.

Jay Grule
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@E McNeill
The drug dealer comparison is inanely ignorant and fallacious.

Hard drugs are biologically toxic to humans, regardless of that person's socio-economic status or mental state.

Games do not cause a chemical dependency in the user, and may be safely played without fear of death or ill effect.

A person may make unwise choices regarding how they game (relationships, hygiene, etc), but the responsibility for those decisions rest solely at the feet of the individual. You cannot protect a grown adult who doesn't want to protect themselves.

It is not a game creator's job to be responsible for someone's life choices, and it is not practical to expect a game creator to police the lives of players.

I'm not going to pry into a user's bank account to see if they're financially stable enough to consider playing my game.

I'm not going to quit my job and become destitute out of fear of someone spending too much on a game.


You don't have a pragmatic solution, because you're willfully ignorant of the problem.

You want to blame game developers and pretend that everyone is being victimized.

There are no victims. They all have the easy option to turn the game off and walk away.


@Alan Boody
We're not building nukes, or cloning human embryos.

We make dots move around a screen, they go "pew pew pew", and someone can pay a dollar to make them purple.

There is no soul-searching ethical or moral conundrums to unravel.


@Mark Venturelli
Immoral degrading of people's quality of life?

Drama queen much?

People play games for entertainment. It improves and enriches their lives.

We've had six couples meet in our game and get married in real life. They'd probably disagree with your thoughtless assessment of them.

They've had a real, tangible, life-altering experience playing our game... And for most of them it was 100% free.

Amir Barak
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Bravo sir for a perfectly executed troll. Of course the best trolls are best when executed but that's a different discussion.

I think you've missed the point of the debate here but I doubt you'd have anything interesting to offer given your previous statements :P

But hey please feel free to keep waving your "multi-million dollar" rooster because you sir are the MAN, yup, the most awesomest person on the face of the planet!

Alan Boody
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@Jay Grule

Nor are drug dealers building nukes or cloning embryos.

True, you build a game and you make the dots go "pew pew," but then when you add in a coercive monetization layer you're now subject to ethical questioning. Also true is the fact that you shouldn't need to look in someone's bank account to determine if they're financially stable enough to support your game. However, a drug dealer doesn't need to either.

In fact, your arguments resemble that of drug dealers rather closely or other people who place all the responsibility on the consumer. What's most telling in all this is that a lot of f2p consumers who pay big money into the games sound a lot like drug addicts.

I also know exactly how addicted people can get to 'f2p' games. A few years back I did graphic and game design on a browser-based text mafia game. The game made its money on a few individuals that would spend around $500 - $1000 a month. One of these individuals asked the owner to put a cap on his monthly spending since he was starting to blow his rent money on the game. Then, after the cap was put in place (it was something like $100 a month) that same individual came back an hour later and begged to have the cap removed.

This same individual even admitted that he was addicted to the game and couldn't control his over spending despite the fact it was affecting him financially IRL. The ironic part about this is that the game didn't have any of the coercive monetization models that Ramin mentioned in his article a week or so ago.

I can only imagine the lucrative business that coercive monetization models bring in at other games designed by 'whalers'.

TC Weidner
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umm "Jay" this is an industry site, to be taken seriously how about your real name, company name and so forth. What and who are you hiding from?

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Jay Grule
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@Alan Boody
Let's extend your argument beyond F2P games to demonstrate its absurdity.

I've spent over ten-thousand dollars on iTunes for music. I love music and can't get enough of it.

I have nothing tangible to show for this massive expenditure.

How angry are you at musicians for tricking me into paying for vibrating air?

I'm guessing you're not all that upset, which is wildly hypocritical.

Although similar to a drug dealer, my rationalization is far more ethically sound:

A drug alone will kill you. A block of code, or a piece of music, will not.


@TC Weidner
This is my real name. I'm not speaking as a company. I'm speaking as an individual.

My opinion is not a solitary one. I'm saying what thousands of other developers are thinking.

You won't get an honest discussion if it has to pass through rosy corporate bullshit.


@Joshua Oreskovich
You've misread my original post. That isn't my motto.

Fools will always part with their money.

It isn't a business plan -- It's a statement of fact.

I didn't make a game to exploit anyone, or to abuse weak-minded sheeple.

I made a game to pay the bills and provide for my family.

If your best solution involves my family starving because getting paid for my work is unethical, then prepare to be profoundly disappointed.

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Jay Grule
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@Joshua Oreskovich
Again, you read what you wanted to read, and not what I actually said. Take another pass for comprehension.

Calling players sheeple was paraphrasing my detractors.

I have more respect for my users than any of you -- I believe they are rational, intelligent adults capable of deciding what is best for themselves.

You and your ilk believe you know what's best for the rest of us, and are trying to ram your authoritarian worldview down everyone's throat.

I have no qualms about being a capitalist, just as you apparently have none about being a complete fascist.


And yes, putting food on the table absolutely trumps your disdain for the free-to-play model.

I can't even imagine holding such a view in a competitive job market. It's total poison.

I'm guessing you've never had a real job, work for a university, or in government.

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Jay Grule
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@Joshua Oreskovich said,
"...there are two kinds of employees family and niggers."


Wow. Tell us all about morality and ethics again, you racist piece of shit.

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James Henn
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What it comes down to is this: is the content the game is providing in line with the amount the player is being asked to spend? If the answer is no, then it is exploitative and immoral. I don't exactly know what that ratio is, but I bet it could be quantified.

Chris Londrie
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The beauty of capitalism is that this will find it's own balancing point, I don't think we're quite there yet, but it's on it's way, some will oversell now, others will undersell later, but the consumer himself will vote with his dollars if he feels it's reasonable or not. If they're buying, it's reasonable, with the exception of aberrant psychologies.

Josh Neff
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“It must be noted at this point that a good portion of the "whale" correspondence I received was from players who felt that, despite spending in the thousands, they had got their money's worth” Of course they did, cause they love their pavlovian addiction. Why would anyone tell you otherwise when the same social pressures coerce them into exactly the same reactions as Chris?
“Other players also told me that they loved the free-to-play model, and that if they ever did feel like they were spending too much on these games, they could easily stop any time they wanted” - Much in the same way drug addicts and alcoholics love their respective addiction of choice... and they can stop whenever they want? The parallels there exist for a reason I'd say. I'd argue you wont find many willing to admit being exploited.

Damion Schubert
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We have a relatively low limit on how much people can spend in the game. To go above that, you have to actually call in and have that limit removed. We have had people threaten to cancel their subscriptions because we didn't remove that limit fast enough or raise it high enough.

People like to spend money on their hobbies. You can spend thousands of dollars on paperback novels, knitting supplies, magic cards, car engine parts, or gold clubs, and no one blinks an eye. The difference between those hobbies and Free to Play games is that you can actually try these hobbies, and frequently take part in them substantially, without paying a dime.

Damion Schubert
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We have a relatively low limit on how much people can spend in the game. To go above that, you have to actually call in and have that limit removed. We have had people threaten to cancel their subscriptions because we didn't remove that limit fast enough or raise it high enough.

People like to spend money on their hobbies. You can spend thousands of dollars on paperback novels, knitting supplies, magic cards, car engine parts, or gold clubs, and no one blinks an eye. The difference between those hobbies and Free to Play games is that you can actually try these hobbies, and frequently take part in them substantially, without paying a dime.

Teut Weidemann
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I am now playing arrogant. Sorry for that.

This article and the comments show how far behind the industry is in this regard. F2p is >10 years old now, has been well established and the discussions has already been done - not not in US. So this is old. This discussion is so old that is bores me.

You compare f2p to gambling. BS.

You want spending caps. Bs. Tell the US guy he can'T spend more than $200. Thats ok, but the Ukrainian guy says thats his monthly income. So how do you want to even out the spending over the world? You can't.

So there is a golf player. He is spending like $1000 per month on courses and new balls. He is clearly a whale. Does any Golf club limit the spending on their members?

People. If players spend a lot of money on a game its not a game anymore, its their hobby. You want to regulate this as some human beings can't control their spending habits? Welcome to humanity.

The reason you never encountered those people before is that you put a $60 (game) + $399 (console) pay wall in front of you. Any f2p gamer would be considered a whale spending $460 on a single game. You never complained about that.

I am still bored about this discussion.

TC Weidner
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the problem Teut is that the discussion goes much further than just "taking advantage of compulsive users". On sites like this with professionals in the industry the topic goes much further into such things as ethics and game design. Did you really get into this profession to design games around monetization models? When designing a game is having to worry about setting up toll booths throughout, really the most ethical, best, and most fun way to go about creating your dream game?
The discussion and debate goes on because there are no easy black and white answers.

Alan Boody
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A golf course, designed by a f2p game designer:

The first few holes are of normal golf course standard. by the third hole additional sand traps, water traps, and smaller lanes are implemented into the design. Golfers are bombarded with signs that say, "replace your ball outside of trap for $1.00."

Gravity is adjusted so that balls don't fly as far. Golfer is bombarded with advertisements suggesting they upgrade their clubs and ball. They're offered packages of $9.99, $19.99, and $29.99. Each package has better balls and clubs that last longer. All balls and clubs have a limited duration (one to three holes depending on package).

Value is plastered all over the ads with words like, "Buy the combo of golf clubs and balls and save $10!"

To tee off from a tee it costs $10 per hole. Otherwise, you have to tee off from the ground. "Bundle all 18 holes for $99.99. A $180.00 value!"

So, by this point, is the golfer playing an elaborately designed money leeching machine or are they golfing?

Alan Boody
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"The reason you never encountered those people before is that you put a $60 (game) + $399 (console) pay wall in front of you. Any f2p gamer would be considered a whale spending $460 on a single game. You never complained about that."

This throws out the fact that consoles end up with hundreds to thousands of games that are all then priced at $60 (at launch, with reduced pricing a few months after launch). Secondly, to play a mobile game you have to have a lengthy contract or slap down a couple hundred for the better ones. For a tablet, you'll easily fork over a few hundred. To play from a computer? You could go cheap and pay a few hundred, but you won't be able to play the latest games with the best graphics.

However, with a computer, you could also use it to write, run a business, create games, or many other things. What else can you do with Candy Crush Saga besides deny your addiction if you're a whale?

So, your analogy here doesn't work.

Amir Barak
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" Any f2p gamer would be considered a whale spending $460 on a single game"
and um, how much are you paying for your phone/tablet plus a data plan to be able to play these so-called "free-to-play" games?

Also, I understand my analogy is somewhat disingenuous to the actual hardware/software/peripheral costs (since you could, in theory, go all out and start factoring in electricity costs etc). I'm just highlighting the fact that these particular costs are not really a part of the 'whale' equation.

And finally, I should've probably read the comments beforehand rather than skim them. Alan Broody says the same in a much better fashion :D

Eric Robertson
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With respect to the poster, no.

This has very little to do with monetization. The same self destruction can take place without a single dime being spent on a game.

I would argue the Time spent on the game is equally expensive as the dollars they spend, and in most cases, worst. We are trained to pattern filter out money requests, we are less trained to filter spending 20 hours a day playing an online game.

ex. My first online game was low tech and in generous terms, ugly, but one of the players divorced his wife to keep playing.

Kristian Roberts
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Ok, I've been waiting for someone to push the argument here. (In truth it's been done a couple of times above, but i'm lazy and flipped to this conveniently at-the-bottom-of-the-page comment).

By opening the door to non-transactional addition (i.e. not about money or some proxy thereof), you've (perhaps unwittingly) asked a very interesting question: Is being addicted to a game bad? Now we're not talking about the ethical implications of designing games to generate the maximum about of revenue, but rather the implications of designing a game that is hard to put down. Think of all those reviews that laud a game for its "addicting" or "habit-forming" gameplay. (As I write this, I recall the loading screen in Baldur's Gate 2 that reminded players that they needed to eat...). Is there really any difference between "spending 20 hours a day playing an online game" and being unable to stop hitting the "Next Turn" button in a Marathon Civ session? Is it any different from the old coin-op days where "just one more quarter" in Shadow of Mystara would get me to the next boss (or so I told my coin provider...err...mum)? Oh, I suppose I brought money back into the argument there...oh well.

What if I extend this argument to TV? (ever watched every episode of a TV series in a row, even though you knew you really should go to sleep because you have a big meeting in the morning?) Or Books?

I'm not (at all) absolving F2P developers from all responsibility nor suggesting that, in many cases, they aren't deliberately creating circumstances where people prone to addition can be exploited. Rather, I'm saying that (IMO) we need to keep the debate focused on the evils of this particular business model (perceived and/or real).

Eric Robertson
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Kristian,
Yes. One thing I must agree on is monetization does 'add' to the addiction of the game, but is only one part of it.

That being said, I don't think game designers have the power to discourage players to invest time/money/effort into a game and thus become addicted(or just emotionally invested).

If we did put in any caps, players would just make multiple characters, and thus, we do not have the authority to fix it, and thus (in my mind) have any responsibility.

Overall, I believe it is presumptuous to accept responsibility for something one does not have at least a moderate authority over. I sleep well at night.

Remy Trolong
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Finally whales appears to be a good reason to argue on F2P model, with good and bad arguments.

To be honnest, I see F2P as something frightening. It shoved the gaming habits we had, it is showed as the NEW WAY TO MAKE MONEY, the most efficient, and soon everything will be free-to-play... Maybe people who dislike this model are just full of nostalgia, maybe they just see where it's leading us and don't like it.

Like others i want to make games like those I played younger, sometimes for a story, for an unforgetable "4-players-evening" or else, games where you know what you buy.

I think some dislike F2P because it led us to a world we don't want to see, where every games will have content you'll have to pay more to unlock, where you don't know that if you pay, you'll have this full experience or not, and if yes, for how much time?

"Whales" are a part of this model, and sure we can be more responsible thinking about them, but after reading many comments, it's hard not to think that we can't be responsible for all people who can't manage their spendings... It appears more as a social disease that some games try to capitalize on.

Although, we are still responsible of what we do and what we offer, making conscious choices.

Martin Petersen
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Being a community of industry people, I'm surprised how few are concerned about the implications these "creative" business models might have on the development process! Whether or not F2P can be done in a justifiable manner (I believe we have examples showing that it can) is not the only issue in question...

If F2P truly is the model to rule them all, then our design process will be largely impacted. This immediately reduce the level of artistic/poetic expression in the games we're making, since these are typically difficult to do as F2P. While I don't think F2P will end the world, I fear we lose out as an industry if customers grow accustomed to F2P games when not all games thrive under such conditions. Hopefully I'm wrong, but we might see even fewer Journey's, Walking Dead's and Proteus' in the future as it becomes increasingly difficult to charge for games upfront...

Remy Trolong
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You're absolutely right, we can't end in a an industry driven with F2P model. Numbers make people crazy. There was a time Rovio's free games were generating 1m $ with adds per/months, and we have example of paid games selling by millions too, but games like Puzzle & Dragons generates this in a day, it's logical for companies to invest in.
F2P exacerbate the frustation feeling when you prefer paying for a full game than never knowing when the purchase will end.
But nobody wants the same thing, and those who will prefer keep making/playing games offering an experience without asking every 2 minutes to buy a sack of gold or a bunch of crystals will still do it, with passion.

Maybe, in the future, being Indie will mean not doing F2P :)

Andrew McKay
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Interesting article. I've generally stayed away from all the MMO and games where you have to pay regularly to play. I like DLC, I was happy when they added it to Sid Meier's Civilization V as it lead to lots of variety and things to try. There is a game that is addicting, the expansion just came out and I started playing again and it has lead to some late night.

I think some people are more susceptible to addiction than others, but I'm not psychologist. I think any well designed game whether it is a Sid game or Tetris or even say Super Mario Brothers can be addicting, beyond captivating. The problem comes when it starts affecting your health because you spend all your waking hours in front of a computer/console or you neglect personal relationships or damage your finances.

There was a story of a guy who's fiancee left him because he spent too much on iTunes Music going deeply in debt. People damage their life with dangerous obsessions all too often, the problem with some of these games is they are designed specifically to be addicting. If you like fly fishing and think about fly fishing all the time and spend your vacations fly fishing it can get expensive with gear, flies, trips, trucks, boats, hip waders etc. but generally people don't get addicted to fly fishing, it wasn't designed to be addicting.

It is definitely a problem that affects society, even just spending too much time online looking at YouTube videos or Pinterest, people lose track of time, but that doesn't have a pay as you go model.

On one hand it is hard to break bad habits, especially addictive bad habits like smoking, but on the other hand "A fool and their money are soon parted." People have to take responsibility for their own actions and their own spending. I myself need to step away from the laptop more and go to the gym.

Ray Beez
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I am really uncomfortable by the article's suggestion that any sort of "regulation" is required or an option to consider. There was a time when I would come home after work and rent a Super Nintendo game to play that evening and I did this 5 times a week, sometimes renting two at the same time. I do so despite having a very limited budget. I also ate lunch out every day instead of bringing a (much cheaper) home-made munch to work every day. Were rental video stores responsible for my video game excess? We're restaurants at fault for my irresponsible decisions? Sometimes I ended up having to borrow money because my bank account was Zero and payday still a ways away.

I was irresponsible. I made bad choices. Just like these F2P players, I am responsible, not the providers of the goods.

Gil Salvado
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I'm glad this article shows some examples that free-to-play can be done socially acceptable.

I have to admit, I was a bit naive to think 'whales' where mostly people who could afford spending large amounts of money. At least that was the image of these people we were talking about in our meetings and discussions, when I was still working at a free-to-play game studio.
Every time when we ask about what would happen to the games balance if a whale would tip it to its favor, the answer always had been "we solve it, when we get there".

Free-to-play is the newest model and to some extent it receives a larger amount of guilt for the current state of the games business - this is the only part where I am with Delany - but for me this prove that this new model is still in its infancy. Companies like Wargaming.net, Hi-Rez and Riot Games seem to have founnd a way to grow up and show us a path of how it can be done. Becoming socially acceptable and more profitable along the way. However, it does not come to a surprise to me that this realization comes from PvP-centric studios first.

Stock Watcher66
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Great article and good comments.

Now I will drop the big one since this is critical to any business.

Has anyone defending the F2P business model actually stopped and talked with your customer base (other than Mr. Shokrizade who I have tremendous respect for his work) to see if this model is even considered acceptable to them? I bet none of you have. Instead, you have taken your view of your customers and are applying your logic to make you feel better about exploitation. Your may argue you are not exploiting, but when you can create both the "problem" and the cash shop "fix" you are exploiting customers.

Let me give a few examples of other industries that have tried this, against their customers wills, and have met, industry-wide, with untimely ends.

1.) Video Rental Industry: Used to nickel-and-dime customers for every little thing they did. NetFlix and monthly subscriptions to streaming killed a $280 billion industry. Why? Because customers universally HATED being nickel-and-dimed but the companies justified their "need to put food on table". Amazingly, NetFlix seems to be able to put food on the table without having to use the old nickel and dime video rental model of old.

2.) Online Recruiting: Monster is tanking in a industry consistently producing double-digit year over year growth, why, because they continue to nickel-and-dime customers.

Why will F2P eventually fail (along with it's evil twin DLC)? Because the majority of customers HATE the business model (and P.S., they feel as if they are being exploited). I have personally done the research among more than 10,000 gamers and I will confront anyone of you head on who defend this BS business practice. Even the ones who play for free all the time HATE this model because of the purposefully limits (heavier grinds, better looking armor skins, faster farm production, limits on daily builds, better RNG in store bought chests versus world drop ones, etc.) for not paying and making them feel inferior.

Fact is, the F2P business model (at least for Western markets) is a pile of trash in customers eyes and once a company comes along with a good title and a more universally fair business model (like NetFlix did in the $280b video rental industry), the F2P model will go down and go down hard.

So, while you all argue back and forth, perhaps you should actually ask your customers if they like the model before you argue your one-sided viewpoints. Businesses do not survive without customers. This F2P model is a plague on the whole industry right now that is being crammed down customers throats like the old video rental industry. Funny how a company with a few hundred million in revenue brought down a $280 billion industry. All because they stopped and talked to customers then delivered what customers wanted.

Here's a parting thought for those defending F2P business models: There are some very questionable practices in some companies in the world, much, much more questionable than anything in gaming. So why is it, that EA has not once, but twice, gained the glorious title of WORST COMPANY IN AMERICA? Because customers feel they blatantly exploit their customers (at least other industries try to be a little more subtle about it). Guess what - in more than 10,000 customers I surveyed they feel the same damn way about the F2P business model. So look at the company you are keeping and wake up before your industry joins the likes of Blockbuster Video.

Tony Harrison
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It's a compelling argument *if* there's a "universally fair business model"; any ideas what that might look like? Flat rate subscriptions to single games don't seem to have worked, that crazy old idea of "buy the game then play it" certainly isn't dead but equally isn't working everywhere. Could cloud gaming like Gaiki or OnLive offer a NetFlix-esque model, or does it need something even more radical?

Damion Schubert
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Of course we have. On SWTOR, we've done focus groups. We've tested the GUI for the stores. We've done extensive testing on the pricing. We've directly engaged our community, both on the forums and in person, in live 'cantina' events around the country. We pay very close attention to the mood of our players, and react as quickly as we can if we feel that we've screwed up somehow. We're currently examining how to loosen our free play restrictions. But by and large, the majority of our players are in favor of the F2P transition.

Most of our players are big fans of our monetization approach because the price is very, very good. Because it is free. A majority of our players now never give us a red cent. Another huge hunk of players stay at a price equivalent to the old subscription price or less. A fairly small number of players monetize above that mark, with a very small number monetizing at very high numbers. Which is a good thing - they subsidize the gameplay experience that literally millions of players have gotten to try for free.

The problem I have with critics of the Free to Play model is that they set up a dichotomy that's unrealistic, between 'free 2 play with microtransactions' and being completely free, which of course is a false comparison, as it turns out game developers need to be able to pay their mortgages. The real comparison is between being able to play the game for free, and be enticed to upsell if you fall in love with the game, or being forced to pay $60 bucks for a game that turns out to be bad, broken, or simply not for you. In the old days, you had to pay that huge box fee just to see if you'd like the SWTOR experience. Now you don't, and literally millions of people who didn't try the game before have had a chance to do so now and taken it. As a result, our servers are full, our group content kicks off without delay, and our subscribers are happy because the influx of free players make the world a happening and lively place.

There is a huge misconception that Free to Play is here because publishers are cramming it down your throats. The opposite is true - the market is demanding it. You can now play AAA games for free - can you imagine shipping a League of Legends competitor with a $60 dollar price tag? Now that customers have had a taste of being able to play a game substantially without having to drop a dime, it's going to get increasingly harder for game companies to demand $60 bucks up front for that gaming experience.

But by all means, continue to feel ripped off because a mostly free game hopes that you might spend $5 or $10 bucks on it down the road.

Mike Scott
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Games these days are designed to be addictive in every sense of the word. In fact, have a good look at any course on game design/mechanics fundamentals, and it outlines how to make the player's interaction such that they feel compelled to return to it, they instruct you on how to make the game addictive.

Ideally, the compelling force to return is "fun", but I've seen other forces pull a player back to the game, and have had it happen to me as well. There's this "hope" that the next few minutes will make the game worthwhile. I suppose, in a way, it is still "Fun" which is that compelling force.. not because you're having fun, but because you're almost sure it's right around the corner.

THAT, is the element that makes some games a lot like gambling, even with no money on the table.

I've noticed that this is especially true of games with integrated chat. In some games, for some players, the Chat element is the whole point of playing, with the game itself being a sort of time killer until certain chatters return, or a good conversation starts.

This scenario feeds addiction, and is present in a lot of games. It USED to be that having a game be called "addictive game" was considered high praise. Like Tetris or something. Attempting to regulate the industry by removing certain forms of reward systems, and eliminating behavior modifying to achieve addiction, would remove most of what's in every game.

Most games have a real element of fun in them, but for some of these games, they're fleeting moments, rather than a steady supply of fun. The reason for this is that you never want to truly satisfy the player. If you satisfy the player, they lean back in their respective chairs, pleased, and happily leave the game.. satisfied, and satiated. The whole focus in game design is to never give them anything but the promise that the game will become better, the further they progress, or give them accomplishments that they feel they can brag about.

Everything in a game is geared towards reward systems for behavior modification. You click on a button, it makes a happy noise, maybe shows a neat animation, and also possibly gives a player a temporary advantage. The player is happy to have done that, and that's the basic reward for everything in the game. It's either fun, or promises to lead to fun.

The thing is.. the player can't just sit there and hit that button, there's a cost for that, and maybe it's money, maybe it's in-game money, or maybe it creates a need for grinding, maybe it's just a timer, or maybe the advantage is a plateau where others will also elevate themselves towards, or perhaps it's a win, and requires a restart to do it again, or a rank on leaderboards, or straight-up bragging rights. The point is, the quest goes on to be able to successfully hit that button again.

Remove that from games, and games will no longer exist. Even Chess gives you the satisfaction of beating an opponent, Risk gives you bragging rights, etc..

It is the function of being a video game that it's typically, an escape from reality, and being rewarding in some way. An addict, will always be an addict to stuff that pushes away reality. That's where the hygiene goes away, bills aren't paid, etc, it's true of literally anything that pushes away reality.

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Gerry Quinn
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Companies might consider talking an idea from online poker sites (and I assume gambling sites in general) which is that players can self-restrict the amount they want to spend. For example you can tell a poker site that you don't want to be able to deposit more than $50 in any one week, and they will not accept deposits beyond that amount.

Pete Smith
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I paid for TF and TF2 and I am not a fan of the free-to-play model. It destroyed TF2 in order to bring in money through processes that took too much focus away from the game and brought in people as players who were more attracted to the hoarding/collecting aspect that TF2 incorporated. This completely halted gameplay as many times most player characters would be standing around talking about hats and trading. Valve's greed undermined a great game and Valve now won't even talk about it. Although I stopped playing it, it would be nice if they put a $50.00 per month came on in-game purchases for everyone.

Regine Pfeiffer
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Hi everyone
I am supposed to write a first comment immediately, so here it is.
I am German and I am a free-lance-researcher for KFN, Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony. You can check it out, their site is in English, too. They have done and are still doing a lot of empirical research on video-game-addiction.
My particular interest have been f2p games for some time. What interests me is their monetization ethics and the connection between f2p games and addiction. I have a particular and unusual (also expensive) way of doing my research: I attend monetization conferences, and also buy post-conference material from conferences that I don’t attend. So I listen to what the industry has to say. Of course this method cannot prove that monetization practice increases the risk of addiction, but there are strong reasons to be suspicious. And of course, there are games that are particularly addictive, in the clinical sense of the term. Not meaning just attractive. We have identified some culprits in our research.
Now a number of German experts have made a book on video game addiction, and are presently working on the second edition. I am responsible for the chapter that explains the inside of the games: What are the addictive qualities. And this time I had to add a large part on f2p. I found the things I described rather depressing, and then after I had nearly finished writing, I discovered this page and Ramin Shokrizade’s Top F2P monetization Tricks. I was just overwhelmed with relief and the sense of support and confirmation, so I wrote about you in my book chapter.
I am 72, in my former life I used to be a teacher of English and German, also I taught computers as an autodidact. Games – I don’t play them myself. I work together with young gamers, we record sessions and then I analyze the videos. This should do for today.

Regine Pfeiffer
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In case you don't recognize from my name, I am a woman, so maybe this helps to understand that I don't play.
I have started CandyCrushSaga now.

Matt Ployhar
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I think there's a ton of valuable insights in this article; however, it doesn't really address some of the core root issues as to how & why F2P became such a force to start with.

1) Piracy - was so bad in Asia that it was the only business model that proved to be resilient enough to capture some ROI back to the Game Devs. THERE IS NO PIRACY WITH FREE TO PLAY.
2) Follow the Money - Who does F2P really threaten most? Answer: Console hegemony. Please don't ask me to 'air the dirty laundry'. Trust me... a very large proportion of the largest AAA ISVs in the Western Hemisphere LOVE the cause/effect that Consoles have done for their bottom lines. Want a fighting chance as a small to mid size Game ISV? Consider F2P or some derivative thereof.
3) F2P - No COGs to speak of. No Returns to speak of. No royalty to speak of; etc = more money back to the Game Dev. Also; less middle men.

Ethics? Yes - I'm admittedly a gamer. Also a gamer that has in times in his life been overly addicted to video games. However; there's ethics questions surrounding 1) the Gamer, and 2) the Publishing/ISV side of the equation. Both need scrutiny but for entirely different reasons.

So... before we start demonizing F2P too much.... I'd pause a minute. I'd say while we're going through some growing pains with F2P; my hunch is that it'll shake out eventually. Let's recognize first how it's revolutionizing the games industry and its benefits first. Let's also put the 'bad' under a microsope and try to see what we can all do to help make it better.

Ian Griffiths
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There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Then of course, there is anecdote.

Despite what Shokrizade, Rose and co say, people do not have some incomprehensible lack of agency in their lives. If they do not want what these games offer they merely need close or delete them. There are many points of friction in making a purchase from the App Store to entering one's payment details, people are free and able to stop at any one of them.

As anyone who has worked on real freemium titles from the Product side of things will tell you, the hardest thing is getting people to spend, followed closely by getting them to stick around. This anti-monetization sentiment that runs through Gamasutra is really quite tiring, all of the serious players in this field are not 'tricking' anyone, they are not lying to them and they are not ripping them off. It's frankly rather incredulous that commentators think they are so gifted that they, and not the average player, are the only ones who can discern the systems and mechanics these games use.

Jon Boon
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If these games are not taking advantage of a player's spending habit, why don't any of them have an upper ceiling that if a player spends X dollars on a game, they own the game, in whole? Why is there not a "It's free to play, with micro-transactions, but if you spend X dollars, you don't need to spend any more?" You've made your money, they have their game at a price they choose to spend up to, everyone's happy, and no one is taken advantage of.

It's because these developers know they can get more money out of you if they don't have that ceiling. They didn't create a good game; they created a "monotenization strategy". There are very few games that I have played that have micro-transactions within them that I would consider a well-designed game (Path of Exile for an example of a f2p game done right).

Ian Griffiths
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"It's because these developers know they can get more money out of you if they don't have that ceiling."
This is somewhat of a trite observation. I'll throw up a question though, how many retail stores have any upper limit of what you can buy? Does the government have an upper tax limit where you don't pay any more?

What is so special about game developers and publishers that they have to have some notion of - 'you've made enough money now'? In general we don't hold any other companies to this standard with the possible exception of natural monopolies like utilities.

When you say 'well designed' I assume you mean 'games that I like'. There are lots of free to play games that are good and fun - Tram Fortress 2, League of Legends, DOTA2, Warface, Battlefield Heroes and many more.

I really dislike this notion of free-to-play 'done right'. I think what people mean when they say that is that almost all of the game's elements are available to those who will not spend money. Ultimately, the measure of whtether a game has done free-to-play 'right' is by looking at its audience numbers and commercial success.

Jon Boon
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So is Wal-Mart "retail done right" because of it's audience numbers and commercial success? Is McDonald's "Fast Food done right"? Sorry if I don't think that catering to the lowest common denominator is making the industry better.

And yes, I believe that all of the games elements should be available to all those that are not willing to spend money if you are a free to play game. Those elements that aren't should be elements that do not affect gameplay in the least, such as skins and such.

I understand what you are getting at when you ask the question about upper limits. However, unlike retail and such, gaming is more akin to gambling, which is regulated. Either the games need to be regulated in the same way by the government, or else impose these ceilings so that regulation is not needed. I don't want the government's fingers in the gaming pie screwing up yet another thing they touch, and so I say put in the caps. At the very least maybe it will inspire developers and publishers to simply create games that are good (so that people want to buy them), rather than creating exploitative money-grabbing strategies that sacrifice quality and morals for a quick buck. (Of course it goes without saying that I do not say this to mean ALL free to play games, just the vast majority of them).


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