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When does effective free-to-play design become an ethical matter?
When does effective free-to-play design become an ethical matter?
October 12, 2012 | By Patrick Miller




"This whole concept of freemium play, in my opinion, is the most radical form of entertainment socialism since Obama got elected. You've got a whole bunch of one-percenters paying for a bunch of freeloaders."
- Scott Dodson, chief product officer of Bobber Interactive, playing the role of "soulless capitalist" in a panel on the ethics of modern game design at GDC Online with Nik Davidson (Amazon.com) and Scott Rigby (Immersyve).

Other choice quotes from the panel include:

Nik Davidson opening the conversation of ethics in game design:


"Our industry bears the characteristics of a gold rush, and in any gold rush, you have honest prospectors and you have claim jumpers."

Scott Rigby on "whales" and other business terminology:

"What do we call our best customers these days? I'm not sure I'd want to be called a whale by anybody. 'Sticky' is not, generally, a good quality. I think we have this subtle language of control for our customers, and when paired with our ability to collect data, it raises some interesting ethical questions."

Davidson on the target market for free-to-play games:

"We like to think that the ones spending vast sums on these games are sons of Dubai oligarchs, but we have the data to prove that they're not, and that they probably can't afford to spend what they're spending. We're saying our market is suckers -- we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!"

Scott Dodson on the industry's responsibilities:

"I don't think it's always our responsibility to baby-sit people. My kids are 9 and 12, and they've been playing World of Warcraft since my son was 5 and sitting on my lap. I've never had an unauthorized purchase."

Davidson on the dangers of making unethical games:

"The long-term danger [of employing psychologically manipulative design techniques in games] is that we are poisoning the well; we're watching a large-scale tragedy of the commons play out on our player bases. Our audience is becoming inured to viral trickery we employ to get people what we want to do. For example, good UX design says 'Find the button the user is most likely to press, and make it as large and central and green as possible.' So what social games designers do is put the button you want to press and make it small and gray and uninviting, and make the button that shares to your whole friend feed that you just passed level two of the tutorial. We've boiled the frog."

What do you think? Should we as an industry consider game design a matter of ethics? If we should, how should we try to design with ethics in mind?


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Comments


Maria Jayne
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I've always thought the term "users" was an interesting description of customers. There is another industry that calls its customers users but their business practices are.....questionable.

Adam Bishop
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I see what you're driving at, but I think the term "users" actually makes sense. For example, if I've created a soccer game and I use the term "players", that could refer to both the virtual athletes in the game or the real people sitting in front of the screen. Using the term "user" erases that kind of ambiguity.

Luis Guimaraes
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I call them "The Player".

David Canela
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It's good that people are talking about this ( though how many attended that panel?)

The socialism blurb is funny. Not sure how it was meant (roleplaying) but it seems to suggest:
x is socialism.
My ideology says socialism is bad.
Thus, x is bad.

Instead of using a pattern like:
X is socialism.
What is the actual outcome of applying socialist principles in the case of x?
And then determine whether x is bad.

Thom Q
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I always can't help but smile when I see Americans using big words like Socialism. It's like children who have heard a word somewhere, don't know what it means but for the broadest of context, and keep using it wrong, time and time again :D

Ahh, US & their words that end with -ism.. ;)

Jeremy Reaban
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It's a bad quote because it's going to devolve into an argument about politics.

Lance Douglas
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@ Thom Q

Thank you for sharing your bigotry with us.

Just like how everyone who lives in the Netherlands wears wooden shoes and lives in a windmill. And we all know that all Europeans are raised in a gang of pickpockets from an early age. It says so right there in Oliver Twist.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Thom Q - Right, because all Americans are uneducated simpletons who have no idea what Socialism is. :P

Amir Barak
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@Thom Q
Ahhh, people with their big umbrella words like "Americans". I remember another group of Socialists that had alot of national pride and started bunching the rest of the world into very distinct groups... but I'm sure it all ended amiably, right?

Trolling aside there, should we consider game design in ethical terms? I'm not sure, is it better to just make "free"-to-play games and steal money? Sure people are dumb and people are sheep and people will pay... but does that make it alright? Me, I don't think so, but then again I have a very low opinion of many so called "games" and so called "game designers"...

Lance Douglas
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@Amir Barak

Good point.

National Socialism (German: Nationalsozialismus; common English short form Nazism)

Is this what socialism means to all Europeans, or just some of them?
Is it fair to judge all Europeans according to the actions of just some of them?
Are all Europeans bigoted, or just some of them?

Thom Q
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Come on people, a little joke never hurt no one :D No point in the Bigot-calling and breaking of Godwin's law :)

Jason Lee
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That final quote really is at the core of the issue, and is what I like to call the difference between a company like Zynga and Rovio. Both are massively successful, but you compare the UI decisions of one company to the other and it becomes very clear what their central goals for their product and company are.

Dev Jana
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Are we still calling Zynga "massively successful"?

Thom Q
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In a world where ad campaigns are designed to also stimulate subconsciously, where about a third of those ads are just there to make sure you remember the name of a product or company you have no interest in and will never use, where department stores use a whole range of psychological tactics to get you into buying mood, from placement of products to scented poles, I think you'd have to be pretty clever and evil to un-ethicaly squeeze money out of your players.

Freemium games will be short lived. I've mentioned this time and time again; Piracy is not the problem. Declining sales for the consoles is not the problem. It's the games and hardware (and the lack of) we produce what's the "problem"..

Jeremy Reaban
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It's kind of ironic that the guy from Amazon is bringing up ethics, when they (as a company) are essentially trying to drive out retail sales of virtually everything, almost as a company policy.

Thom Q
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I don't think that in this instance it's unethical. It's more of a total shift in society and a dose of healthy competition. It's way cheaper to order online, as it is to sell online, that gives any good webstore a huge leg up on retail stores.

And it's not only Amazon. Retail sales in my country, The Netherlands, are also declining rapidly due to people ordering online. But, we don't have a dutch Amazon, most of the online shopping is done with national web-stores.

Lars Doucet
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I'm with Jeremy on this one - a good rule-of-thumb test for "is X ethical" is, "does X hide and externalize it's true costs?"

Buying physical goods online has a hidden cost, which is the impoverishment of local economies, increasing dependence on long-distance shipping, fuel consumption, and pollution. Instead of communities providing and producing their own goods locally for a local market, which keeps money in that community, now large amounts of (currently) semi-cheap fossil fuels are being spent in order to ship things manufactured in distant countries from distant warehouses to your front doorstop.

Sure, for the customer it's convenient and nice, but it drives local businesses away, consolidates capital into a few small hands, and wastes an enormous amount of energy. Not to mention that it works best when commercial transportation infrastructure is subsidized by the government (yay corporate welfare!) - WalMart and Amazon can outcompete the local stores because citizen's tax dollars pay to make them these nice shiny roads that their trucks drive on, and they don't even have to pay for the large maintenance costs these large shippers cause in damage to the roads.

The problem, as usual, gets worse with scale. In the Netherlands, "national" is about the same scale as (and often smaller than) "state" over in the US, so even if everyone buys online, money is not moving as far outside of your community, so the effect on your local economy is less.

Buying DIGITAL goods online is a bit different. There's still some bad things - for instance, money is still leaving your community and going to some distant place, and yes, internet servers and the subsequent energy costs aren't free. On the plus side, you're eliminating the need to print and ship CD's and drive to a store and waste gasoline, so I think it could balance out in terms of energy, or at the very least be less bad. And in terms of community economy, it empowers people who live in the middle of nowhere to sell goods to the entire world, without having to set up expensive storefronts that serve only a small amount of people. There's still the potential for capital consolidation and power-grabs, but so far it's had the opposite effect in empowering individuals and small businesses instead of solely benefiting large corporations.

E Zachary Knight
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Lars and Jeremy,

You forget that economies always shift towards efficiency. When an inefficiency is in the market, people will try to find a way around it. That inefficiency can be price, it can be travel it can be warehousing etc. We have had long distance purchasing of products ever since we had long distance communication. As that ability to communicate over long distances has improved, so has the ability to order goods from a long distance.

This ability to order over long distances has also made the process of selling cheaper as well. No longer does a business have to maintain hundreds local storefronts. They can trim that down to a handful of centralized warehouses and shipping centers.

Does this mean that local economies need to adjust? Yes. Does it mean that Local governments need to adjust? Yes. Life changes. People change. Technology changes. It is no surprise that economies and governments will need to change as well.

If local governments that are used to getting their funding through local sales taxes find those receipts falling because of shifts in consumer buying patterns, then those local governments need to alter the way they do business in order to better meet the needs of their citizens within the new social norms. Trying to reverse progress and change in order to maintain the status quo will never work. That is what attempts at forcing online companies to pay local sales taxes attempt to do.

Dave Ingram
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@Lars -- well said

David Canela
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I don't see how the desire to control a market is unethical in itself, though. The means used to achieve that goal may be.

Simon Ludgate
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"We're saying our market is suckers -- we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!"

I think this is the most poignant quote of the list. If there's anything ethically questionable about F2P, this would be it.

Steve Fulton
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I completely agree. This bothers me every day when we talk about making Freemium games.

Kevin Nolan
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Though it doesn't have to be. One doesn't have to cast a big net and haul in those that are vulnerable to hard-selling. Not all F2P need be ethically questionable.

Games can be like a high pressure salesman who nags at the player all the time, or they can be like a pub landlord who keeps his customers visiting by being friendly. Well, some pub landlords anyway :)

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GameViewPoint Developer
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I think we underestimate people/players/users (whatever you want to people who play games) too much. Firstly as we all know (or it's been stated at least) MOST people do not spend money in F2P games, the figures usually branded about are up to 5% spend. The argument being that the 5% are suckers, and have somehow been brainwashed into spending money. Well here's a crazy thought. Maybe that 5% are just enjoying the game so much, they want to spend money, yeah I know, nuts eh?!

And don't forget, this is a situation (usually) where they have been allowed to download/play the game for FREE, they are given some entertainment completely without them paying anything for it. So you could argue they are already in credit (entertainment wise) before they even get to the point where they have to make a decision whether to pay to keep on enjoying the game.

This is as apposed to a pay up front game, where you have to shell out your money before you even know if you will like the game or not! that to me seems unethical, not being able to try something for free.

I think perhaps there is some room for better explanation of costs in F2P games though, rather than them springing up on players, the likely costs being better laid out early on, so players know what they might have to pay to continue enjoying the experience beyond a certain point.

Ujn Hunter
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"This is as apposed to a pay up front game, where you have to shell out your money before you even know if you will like the game or not! that to me seems unethical, not being able to try something for free."

It's called a Demo. Demo is short for Demonstration.

Tyler King
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The problem is not that that 5% you speak of is not enjoying the game. They probably love the game. The problem is that often times many of that 5%(the whales)are addicted to the game(Not in a good way.) and just like people who are addicted to slot machines in Vegas will keep spending and spending simply because they are addicted rather than the fact that they are loving life. To pay up front for a game, especially a mobile game for example, you would be looking at most $15.00(Final Fantasy games)($60 for a pc or console game). That is an expensive app in comparison to most apps out there. However these 'whales' are spending hundreds of dollars on that game alone and as stated their studies show that often times these big spenders probably don't have the money to be spending that kind of money on a game. When was the last time you spent hundreds of dollars up front on a game?

TC Weidner
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the 5% are not unlike the reason the auction business has proven effective for millenia. Flaws in us humans. Hell ebay made a fortune flaunting this flaw. The fact that you get a few humans bidding on an shiny object leads to sudden irrational thought, thoughts of being attacked, thoughts of " i'll show them" all sorts of crazy emotional responses which lead to people way overpaying and bidding for a product. Same types of irrational emotions and actions are at play here in much of this 5% I suspect.

GameViewPoint Developer
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Something everyone misses in the F2P debate is that F2P games are often games that need to be updated and added to over time, how would a one off up front payment be fair on the developers in that situation? games that evolve over time require some kind of continuous payment system for them to keep on going, otherwise all you have is the kinds of games that have a set in stone linear experience, i'e game types of the past. F2P has evolved out of the new kinds of games, games which need to adapt to the social situations they provide the players.

Adam Bishop
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Guild Wars 2 is a pay-up-front proposition with some new content being added for free and some being sold as expansion packs. Seems like a perfectly reasonable business model to me. I don't see why F2P is seen as the logical outcome of ongoing development. Charging people for content makes just as much sense for an ongoing online experience as it does for a packaged, finished product. That's not to say that no one should ever go the F2P route, but the idea that it's the only way to fund ongoing development is strange.

GameViewPoint Developer
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@Adam, I think subscription or DLC is just as valid as F2P, but if anything F2P is much harder to design a game around, than the other 2.

@Joe, The problem I have with this argument is that it can be applied to just about anything in modern culture, whether it be people tuning in each week to catch up with their latest TV show (shows have always used a "cliff hanger" ending to keep people coming back), or just the techniques advertisers use in general to try to get peoples attention. People spend their money/time on things that they get some kind of enjoyment out of, regardless of the reasons that brought them to that stage. Obsessiveness in anything is a bad thing, whether it be gambling or watching too much TV, and of course the same is true of games, free or otherwise.

Having said all that I would have no issue whatsoever with caps being placed on spending inside F2P games, there could be a kind of F2P/Subscription hybrid, where it's a F2P system but there's a monthly cap of say $30.

GameViewPoint Developer
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@Joe, actually TV shows are a very good example because I can never be bothered to wait a week to see the next one, I either see them as a boxset or (and here's the point) I pay to see it straight away on iTunes. So there you have an example where the show was designed to keep me watching, and I happily paid (probably works out more expensive if you pay per episode) to see the next episode quicker than I would of otherwise had done.

Do I think there's anything ethically wrong with any of that? of course not, do we expect production companies to put warning msg's on the front of their shows that say "Warning, you might enjoy this show and really want to see it, so you might end up spending more than you need to, to find out what happens at the end of the story sooner"

I think many arguments against F2P simply fall apart when you really look at what's going on. When I downloaded Clash of Clans the other day, straight away on the loading screen was a big msg saying something like "This game contains IAP's, which can be turned off", I think that's pretty clear. You seem to be arguing against developers wanting to make their games addictive, and getting paid well if it's a hit, I don't get that. Even so, like I've already said, having caps on monthly spend of IAP's inside games would be fine. The default could be $30, and the user can change it up or down if they wish, if the player get's near the limit of their monthly spend a warning msg pops up telling them.

Equally though, as far as I know a lot of F2P games allow the player to play the entire game for free, it's just it will take them a lot longer to do so, and if people want to speed the process up that's up to them (as with me spending to see a show quicker).

TC Weidner
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the discussion isnt about some single player game in which you can speed to the end. How many F2P games are simply single player games? not many, and there is a reason for that. You need the multi player element in order to exploit the vulnerable human nature elements at play here.

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Mihai Cozma
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I committed myself as an indie dev never to make a freemium game, ever! Selling games by unit or as a service with monthly payment is enough for me.

Kevin Nolan
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Fair do's. I assume you made that commitment because you believe freemium can only be successful if it's ethically dubious. I don't think so - friendly service can be even more important than hard sell. Plenty of examples in every high street.

Amir Barak
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Actually both "freemium" and "Free"-to-play are definitions based in a very specific lie, that the given service is free and yes there are plenty of examples for these things outside of video games; it still doesn't make the practice ethical, just popular. If you walk into a bar and they say that the beer is free but glasses cost 5 dollars than beer isn't free... If you pay for a hotel room and they put you on the 20th floor then tell you that each elevator trip costs 2 dollars then you'd get pissed off, it doesn't matter that you could, technically, walk up the stairs (if you physically can that is), you'd still think it's a rip-off. When you subscribe to a "free-to-watch" movie letting service but each delivery costs 5 dollars then it isn't a free service, I'm not saying they shouldn't charge money btw, I'm saying that it is a LIE to call it free. When someone gives you some heroin to try it's not because they think you'll like it, it's because they want you to get to a place where you need it and start buying it from them; the first taste isn't free, you just pay for it later that's all.

Whether developers like it or not (and those developers that are involved with Freemium and Free-To-Play usually don't) these games types are based on exploitation. There are hidden costs when purchasing, or paying, for the product. And by definition a hidden cost is a non-ethical practice otherwise it would be a visible cost.

Exploiters always have very logical sounding excuses for why they are ethically alright. I'm sure every slave owner, money lender [shark] and drug pusher believe or believed that what they are doing is excusable because of various reasons... The number one of which is that people DON'T have to buy this rubbish. Yes well, if people don't have to buy it then you also don't have to sell it...

Kevin Nolan
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You could argue that Free To Play is a dubious term (though given that only around 5% of F2P players ever pay, that's a pretty good case for retaining the 'free' bit) but Freemium is a fine description - free or premium.

I'm a developer on free to play/freemium games and I don't think it has to be exploitative. The costs don't have to be hidden - I don't think offering charged-for services or products inside an otherwise free game is hiding them. And frankly trying to rip off the customer with hidden fees when all you're you're offering a fun little game would just lose us customers (in comparison, companies like Ryanair can get away with hidden fees and not lose customers because they go after folks who might otherwise not be able to afford to go holidaying.)

I'm happy to have my logical sounding excuses challenged. I worry that what I'm doing is ethical too. So far I think it is.

David Marcum
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rant
Good, I hope this panel was well attended. Hey, GDC Online attendants did you go? Was the discussion of any value? The problem is the people that design these know what they are doing. When the goal of most/all your design choices are to manipulate people into either paying or shilling, you either think it's wrong or you think, well they don't HAVE to do that. If you're such a social Darwinist that you think it's okay to do this type of thing, who or what is going to change your mind? You have made a choice, and with every implementation of restricting/delaying the PLAYers enjoyment you are making a choice. With every hard to find check box you are making a choice. There are other choices out there. How about make it actually fun. People GIVE money to people on kickstarter everyday, sometimes it's for a reward, other times it's because they like the idea and WANT to give their money in support. What affect do you want to have on people?
/rant

Curtiss Murphy
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What's the alternative? Free is the new economy. People expect it.

When I charged up front, few people saw my product. When I made it 'Free-To-Buy' (buy at end if you liked it), lots of people saw it, and 5% bought it. My best customers come back to follow-on products (ie search for 'Gigi' on iOS), but I don't have a mechanism for them to pay more, so they're not 'whales'.

Was the math a wash in the end? Less paid up front, but ... only 5% paid anyway. I need to test it. Next release, I'm considering trying $0.99 up front again. I make better products now and have an established customer base, so people might pay up front, but ... SoE and others have said FREE-TO-PLAY is the way to go.

/scratches head

David Marcum
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Curtiss
Put vanity items in, build no wall between your players and the fun. Make it clear, to the players, that your items will not effect the balance of your game (if PVP). Basically let players pay more as a way of saying, "I like this, I want to support this". You won't make the kind of money the manipulators make. But you might find you make enough, with the added benefit, of having no regrets about the ethical decisions you made. This could all be on top of your free-to-buy decision, just make it abundantly clear that any purchases after the free-to-buy purchase is simply a way for the player to be generous. If you give people a chance who knows?

Aaron San Filippo
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This was our dilemma too. Then we realized that mobile doesn't have to be the only place to go. On PC, people are willing to pay for quality games.

Steve Fulton
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I think you did it the right way. No whales involved, just gratitude for a job well done.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Ethics are a personal thing; it depends on the designer, and if he values the intelligence and well-being of his would-be customers more than their wallets. It has very little to do with the medium, as we can see unethical practices in the paid market (spurious advertising, bought reviews, those kinds of things).

That said, free-to-play is something that can prey on the consumers goodwill and naiveté, if poorly administered; but since you can fool all of the people all of the time, that just do not seem viable in the long haul.

Ramin Shokrizade
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As far as the socialism comment goes, if there was more equality in these games I would agree. I personally love designing socialist virtual economies, but what we have now is closer to despotism with a few whales totally raping the "free to lose" players in competitive games. The label socialism might apply to those games with minimal competition (not the trend of what is in the pipe though).

As far as the trend towards coercive games goes, I think consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and hardened by our tactics and are pushing back. Coercive games are going to have an increasingly difficult time breaking even in the current and future markets.

Curtiss Murphy
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"I think consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and hardened by our tactics and are pushing back."

So what am I missing? I want this to be true, and yet, farmville clones dominate every App Store.

Kevin Nolan
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I could be wrong but the trend with Western multiplayer games is that performance boosts by cash are fairly minimal (eg. premium weapons in Battlefield Heroes are only 10% better) to nonexistant (vanity items only, or a wider variety of powers that are all balanced against nonpremium ones, or purchases only let you level up faster). It's a very different matter with many Eastern markets, as lots of Gamasutra articles have detailed.

I agree that consumers are becoming savvy towards coercive games - I think that's a lot of the reason why Zynga is entering rough times (and their games are _possibly_ edging towards being more friendly than coercive as a result).

Curtiss: because lots of people like resource management games. Are they really all that coercive? Mobile apps and current Facebook titles are toothless in comparison to what Facebook games used to be capable of.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Curtiss: Last year 57% of all game industry investment went to Facebook game development. Almost all of this was an attempt to copy Znyga-like mechanisms. While this is a failed strategy as I explained in my July 2011 "Zynga Analysis" paper, there are still a lot of projects in the pipe. It is too late for them to undo their development, so it is better for them to deploy and at least recoup some of their investment.

TC Weidner
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@ kevin
I played BfH quite a bit in beta and when first released, until it went to crap, No one had to tell me ( or not tell me that Cousins left ( they kind of tried to hide the fact), you could tell something went astray after releases. Anyway, I can tell you for a fact, while many BfH premiums are simply cosmetic, many others are not, and without using real money your were severely handicapped while playing. Cannon fodder.

Would you play baseball if the other team paid for a 4th out an inning?

[User Banned]
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Lance Douglas
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@Joe Wreschnig

'Don't use "rape" to mean "winning by a large margin." '

So you support pay-to-win? Isn't it unethical to give a huge advantage to those who pay more over those who pay less? Wouldn't that feed the "addiction" you are complaining about? Or are you just clutching your pearls over the use of a specific word, and unable to grasp the concept of metaphor?

Darcy Nelson
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@Lance

"Or are you just clutching your pearls over the use of a specific word, and unable to grasp the concept of metaphor?"

I'm with Joe, it was a shitty use of the word 'rape' by Ramin (although otherwise I agree with him entirely.) I just don't think it's something to be bandied around for the sake of metaphor or illustration.

Lance Douglas
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@Darcy Nelson

Its a shitty act (understatement). But, the word is just a word, and only has as much power as you give it. And sometimes its the perfect word for the feeling you wish to express. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lighting and lighting bug." (paraphrased) Whenever you start playing word police, you are getting into dangerous territory, and begin to erode freedom of speech. In fact, the mood of this whole thread has the air of puritans and prohibitionists. If you have an addiction to games, stay away from games. If you have an addiction to alcohol, stay away from alcohol. But saying that everyone else must do without, because a few people have a problem, starts to border on fascism. There are certain things in movies that I don't like, but I don't demand they be banned from movies. I simply leave the room, or better yet, fast forward. Of course, children should be sheltered and protected until they are mature enough to handle things. But adults should be able to say, and do, and play whatever they want, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else.

Lance Douglas
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@Joe Wreschnig

The observation that group pressure can be used to silence individuals is as valid at a small scale as it is at a large scale. Your claim that the concepts I was discussing only apply to governments and don't apply to communal or peer pressure is called a false dichotomy, or false dilemma, also refered to as a disjunctive fallacy. So instead of debating my position head on, you tried to introduce irrelevant information to distract from a valid argument and change the subject. This is called a red herring.

Rape apologist? The very first sentence in my post was "Its a shitty act (understatement)." referring to rape. You seem to be confused, so let me clarify for you. I was saying that rape is horrible and unforgivable. So not only is your false accusation an ad hominem attack, and misrepresents my position making it a straw man fallacy, but it is also 100% WRONG.

Gendered insults? Males can be raped too. Reference Jerry Sandusky and catholic priests. So that characterization is also 100% WRONG.

Your false accusations and misrepresentations of your opponent's position makes you seem not only "disingenuous and crankish", but also desperate and mentally deranged.

Ramin Shokrizade
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In the USA when a company puts out an online game the ESRB rating will say something like "Your play experience may vary" because the hosts of the game have no control over how you will be talked to or treated. For those of you who have never experienced a Chinese "pay to win" online pvp game, the use of the word "rape" may seem totally inappropriate. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you have never had the experience I am describing. That is great, and I have been struggling for seven years to introduce more friendly models so that you never have to have this experience. I truly believe that the product being sold in these games is the ability to violate those who have not paid.

Kevin Nolan
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TC Weidner - sadly I've not played Battlefield Heroes enough to get a personal opinion. However, according to http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/33371/GDC_2011_Perfecting_The_
FreeToPlay_Battlefield_Heroes.php#.UHtB98XA_ng the implementation of slightly superior premium weapons (as in 10% better) actually saved the game from being canned.

Would I play basketball against a team that paid for massive advantages over me? Probably not. Would I play against ones with slight advantages whose money allowed the court to exist in the first place? Probably, especially if I reckoned we could kick their asses anyway.

TC Weidner
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Kevin

Sorry, I dont agree at all. Why play a game on an unfair field? there are plenty of other places and thing that allow for fair competition. I played BFH for a good year before it was soft released, than for a while longer. You could actually watch the game go down hill as you continued to play and test.

The bean counters came in and wrecked the game. It was and is obvious. But as you say, you werent there, you didnt play it, I did. They ruined that project, pushed out a soft release, all because of greed.

Sean Kiley
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Might look a bit like socialism, but it's all voluntary exchanges of money, so... who cares!

Dave Ingram
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I'm with @Ramin in regards to the socialism quote. A system with a few very powerful players and many second-class citizens is the farthest possible thing from socialism. Subscription games are socialist -- the same resources and opportunities are available to everyone (outside of individual time constraints).

As far as the ethical issue in general, I could not agree with this unless we lived in a world where government mandated exactly which games people must play. In a free-market economy, players can leave any game at any time, and can spend whatever they want in whichever game they choose. There is always an avenue of escape from a predatory game.

As far as the question of addicition is concerned -- do we really want to go down that road? I could try to list all of the inherently harmless things that a person can become addicted to, but I don't have an eternity to write this comment.

Adam Bishop
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"I could try to list all of the inherently harmless things that a person can become addicted to, but I don't have an eternity to write this comment."

I think once someone begins spending more than they could afford on a product on account of addiction it becomes difficult to argue that it is inherently harmless.

Dave Ingram
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Good points, guys.

Adam, "inherently" means "in and of itself, without considering any external influence." For example, a gun is inherently harmless because all it can do is sit in place, but it becomes dangerous when someone pulls the trigger (an outside force acting on it). A game literally does nothing until it is played -- it is inherently benign.

Joe, the only things that can truly be designed to be addictive are those that cause a literal chemical dependency -- we're talking heroin, cocaine, liquor, etc. All other things rely on influencing psychology, which has a purely internal source. If an "addiction" does not have a chemical depency component, then in reality it is a psychological habit. Games are designed to induce habitual play, and that's good business.

Free-market capitalism says it's ok to take advantage of people's psychological eccentricities in the marketplace, and I agree. The key factor is that personal choice is always present, and there is no real danger inherent in quitting that forces people to continue (like potentially fatal heroin withdrawal symptoms that almost literaly force people to keep using). Again, any person can quit any game at any time with no real consequences. Every time someone clicks "login" they are making a conscious personal decision based on expected and desired benefits.

Also, what I meant by "going down that road" is: are we really ready to say that products that are designed to induce strong usage habits are unethical? Are fast-food, pornography, music, television and high fashion unethical? All of these things are designed to build strong buying habits, and it is possible to go broke on any of these things.

Adam Bishop
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"For example, a gun is inherently harmless because all it can do is sit in place, but it becomes dangerous when someone pulls the trigger (an outside force acting on it). A game literally does nothing until it is played -- it is inherently benign."

By your definition virtually everything is inherently benign, which doesn't make much sense to me. Classifying guns, heroin, and feta cheese as equally benign strikes me as pretty absurd.

Dave Ingram
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You are beginning to see my point, though. It is people's personal choices that make things dangerous. Eating feta cheese 10 times per day can cause massive coronary failure and early death, just like making 10 transactions a day in an f2p game can make you go broke. Both are equally benign until they are abused.

TC Weidner
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but the problem remains, if creating "predatory" games becomes more and more the norm in this industry, it is just setting itself up for the next big failure.

The first failure came when using the old tried and true sales method was abused. Too many third parties simply shipped any old crap in a box and flooded the market with crap, and too many customers felt burned, the entire industry died. I was there it was dead. Until nintendo came in, and one of the things it did was make sure every game sold on their system pasted certain quality hurdles.

Im just worried that this industry is setting itself up for another great collapse with this new reliance on "predatory" design.

Developers shouldnt have to try some cute news ways or trick customers in order to get paid. Its just nonsense and this whole notion that games need not cost anyone money is just setting up for disaster.

Darcy Nelson
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Considering that dev companies are basing their business models off game addicts ("whales"), I don't think it's viable to question that game addiction exists.

"There is always an avenue of escape from a predatory game."

You could say that about alcoholism too- "you can always stop drinking" but you must admit it would be a lot more challenging if someone kept telling you over and over that six-packs were on sale at the corner store.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I certainly want to, and am, going down that road :) With my time spent as a neuroendocrinology researcher studying chemical addiction, the time I spent working at the Betty Ford Center, and my 30,000 hours studying online game behavior, I am convinced that games are potentially addicting. I even think that games release enough of the hormones involved in sex that they can become sexual competitors in relationships.

In my role as a monetization designer, it is my job to maximize consumer motivation to spend. I use all the science available to me. While I don't hold back, I do worry that my products can become too engaging. This is why the last four monetization designs I created (Army Rage and 3 unannounced titles in development) all have negative feedback loops that kick in during extreme play durations to counter-incentivize play to allow players to "come down" long enough to sleep/eat/bath/etc.

While I am tempted to say I do this for ethical reasons, I do honestly think that by not encouraging unhealthful play our customers are more likely to stay with us for the long term.

Amir Barak
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@Ramin
Then stop.

You, specifically, and people like you are a cancer in the industry.

Why do you do it? What motivates someone to willingly rape other people? Is it the sense of power or just the paycheck you get or just for kicks because you think people are dumb?

I come off harsh and I apologize, I know nothing of you as a person and I'm sure you're very nice but it makes me so very very angry!

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Amir: Two years I applied for a PhD program in Public Health to study the adverse affects of gaming addiction in humans. I could not convince the head of the department at UCLA that this was worth studying, despite the backing of a good portion of the other faculty. My quest to make games healthier, and also more profitable, is one I take very seriously since I am also an exercise physiologist and the health of my generation and future generations is important to me.

Perhaps you can clarify exactly what it is that I am doing that you find objectionable, because I do not yet understand your position.

Amir Barak
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"In my role as a monetization designer, it is my job to maximize consumer motivation to spend. I use all the science available to me."

Dustin Chertoff
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What is the difference between a game that charges a flat $15 a month fee and a game that implicitly encourages players spend $15 a month through in-app purchases? In either case, there is a gate that the player must get through: money. Freemium spreads out the number of transactions over the length of the month, and unlike in a subscription game, does not cost you money (through the paid for but unused minutes of play time) when you take a break from playing.

Now, there is certainly an issue if the expected amount a player needs to pay is something ridiculous (>$20 USD let's say). But assuming the expected amount that a player should have to pay over the course of a month is roughly the same as the average game subscription cost, where is the ethical quandary? And if some players want to shell out lots of money on expensive in-game items, what's the problem there? Some people spend $10,000 for fancy watches in the real-world, when the $5 variant does the job just as well - I don't hear anyone arguing that Rolex is an unethical company.

Robert Boyd
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The big issue is that freemium doesn't have a cap to user spending. You get addicted to a subscription based MMORPG and you're spending $10-$20 a month. You get addicted to a freemium game and you could be spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

And we live in a world where you can get high quality games for $1-$60. You're going to have a hard time convincing me that ANY video game, much less a freemium one, should be worth thousands of dollars.

Dustin Chertoff
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Why should freemium be treated differently from any other store though? Is it the responsibility of a department store to prevent a person from buying a $100 shirt because they already bought 3 other $20 shirts? Should a restaurant deny a customer from ordering a $100 dollar dessert because they already spent $60 on dinner? Both the department store and restaurant use psychological marketing techniques to encourage people to both come to their stores, and ultimately purchase items/services from their stores. Why is it that bad when applied to freemium games, but acceptable business practice for other stores?

What is the fundamental difference between an in-game store and a real store? Is it the tangible good or fulfillment of a basic need that makes real stores different, and therefore subject to different rules? One could argue that the purchase of in-game goods fulfills a psychological need for positive emotions.

The one place I would agree that it is unethical is where you pay real money for a chance at a random in-game reward, where the probability of getting a desirable reward is very low. If a player spends real money, they should get exactly what they want/need.

Dustin Chertoff
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I'm not ignoring your post, just trying to get to a clear distinction of why F2P stores are different. Essentially, you are saying the difference is the time required to go from a decision to purchase, to when the transaction is completed and goods are delivered. This you define as friction. To be more complete, let's define friction as the total time to acquire resources for a purchase, to decide to make a purchase, to complete the transaction, and to have goods delivered.

Let's look at the case of online purchases at Amazon where product recommendations are front and center. In this case, resources for a purchase are the same as for a freemium game - have a credit card. There is no person to interact with that shifts the time scales, so friction to decide remains similar to freemium stores. I suppose the act of clicking on multiple links to see if there is a product you have interest in increases interaction time, but I'd argue the difference is insignificant. Once you finally click your cart to purchase, your account/cc information is saved for you and in a few seconds your order is being processed. Again, this is similar to purchases through a freemium store. There is, however, time to reconsider your purchase before it ships. This is a clear difference, but who knows how often orders are canceled. For the majority if people, once they make the purchase they don't reconsider whether they should have made that purchase.

The friction between these two settings is very similar. Were a freemium store to include a timed return policy for unused purchases, assuming unuse could be tracked, it would be equivalent.

The ability to return a real good is the main difference here. Include that ability and perhaps the ethics equation changes completely.

To your example, bars should withhold alcohol to people too drunk because of the potential for imminent physical damage to the drinker (i.e., alcohol poisoning), or to others around (i.e., drinking and driving). Spending more money than you can afford to spend does not present an imminent physical danger, and should be classified separately. It doesn't make encouraging such a practice ethical, but it is different. It's more akin to gambling than to bars.

E Zachary Knight
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Robert, Joe,

What is the difference between someone who spends $1000 a month in a F2P game and someone who spends $1000 a month at Gamestop? What is the difference between someone who spends$1000 a month on a F2P game and someone who spends $15 a month on WoW while at the same time spending so much time on it that their education, career or family life suffers?

Ramin Shokrizade
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I have no problem charging a player $1000 in a game. When I was farming EVE Online and making $6000 a month I would not have blinked at paying $1k a month to play the game. The difference here is that in almost all cases in F2P games when people spend 4 digit sums they are buying Supremacy Goods http://gamasutra.com/view/news/177237/The_new_rules_of_monetizati
on.php#.UHoMe8XA8gV

As my paper describes, this suppresses spending by other players and ultimately leads to what I consider poor monetization results. The result is poor conversion and severely reduced product lifespan.

Jannis Fritsche
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i wont think to complicated on this topic. Everything what's fun can make you addicted or make you spend more money then you initially wanted. I think the important point in Free 2 Play Games is, that the game shouldnt force you to spend money. Games where you just have ingame disadvantages or simply cant build any building without spending money is just not free to play.The disadvantage for the people not spending money is just reducing anything competive in the game to a joke. I really dislike the point of "buy 2 win" games are called free to play. Even if its not really wrong i cant take it seriously. But i can understand that this is an interesting market for the big publishers, while i think this should not be the philosophy of making games.

David Eckelberry
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I've always liked Nik's ability to construct colorful metaphors.

Of course, to extend Davidson's logic to ourselves as developers, we should doubt that the ethical operators will be the winners in this wild west. Maybe customer relationships can prove valuable enough to police major development studios, but rogues and scoundrels continue to profit by manipulating behavior as thoroughly as possible.

Jody Sol
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I always hate hearing business types in the industry call their customers "consumers".


Especially since they have already chosen a perfectly applicable term for themselves: Gamers.

Konstantin Yavichev
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All this is not so bad when you look at Call of Duty franchise. The game has very little innovations with each iteration, but millions of people still buy it every time. Do they get all that much entertainment out of it, especially third, fourth, and so on, time around? Or do they get it because everyone else is getting it? Which is type of peer pressure to me.

I think there is also problem with entertainment industry in general. Take music, film, casinos, strippers, whatever, there is always some percentage of "users" who just cant say no, who can't stop. They are just filling some sort of the void, they need help.

Christian Kulenkampff
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Subscription games like WoW also depend on addiction-like behavior. Even games that monetize through upfront payments may gain market exposure through addictive gameplay (longer playing times). F2P may be the most extreme monetization model, when it comes to net worth of addictive gameplay elements, but anyway most if not all games bear a risk of addiction.

Where do we draw the border? When is addictive entertainment unethical or even illegal time/resource theft? In an utopic society every adult person should be able to individually decide this. Since we do not live in such a society we should create laws by consensus that mark too unethical behavior as illegal. And this is what will happen sooner or later if game companies use too dangerous practices. The "complete gotcha"-ban is one of those laws.

The use of "hacks for game monetization" is never a good deed, but calling it unethical is like calling alcohol and tobacco unethical. Gambling and spending resources for imaginary values are part of our culture, part of our human nature. And many people want to live this out.

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Christian Kulenkampff
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No, I wouldn't, because I think teenagers are not adults. In a society we have to balance protection of children and freedom of adults.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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All successful games use a variety of means to boost engagement. Some of the methods might be considered unethical when applied to minors. As Joshua points out, setting adulthood at some arbitrary age does not magically grant all people that reach that age the judgement to avoid coercive marketing. Governments are slow to act in order to regulate industries unless their actions are really objectionable. I don't support some companies in our industry trying to see just how far they can go before regulation is applied.

I also have to reiterate that my biggest concern about coercive monetization methods is not that they are unethical. My primary concern is that they are poorly producing. I don't mean to suggest that making better designs is easy, and with the push to make cheap and low quality products for FB and mobile markets, I can see why no effort would be made to use higher performing monetization methods.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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@Joshua: These lines of morality are hard to quantify, and will vary by location and culture. I personally think it is best to not try to push those boundaries just because we can. In the end, each country or state will determine for themselves at one point the negative externalities of our commercial action warrant regulation. This has already begun in Asia. I would much prefer to not provoke the specter of regulation, because this can harm just as much as it can help and once released that specter can be hard to exorcise.

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Tyler Shogren
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The fact this is even a question is ridiculous. If you design a game around inducing microtransactions, that's unethical. Period. If you design a game to manipulate player behavior outside the game, that's unethical. Period. Any model in which the in-game benefits for payment are not totally obvious to a total newbie are unethical. Period. For an ethical example, see Valve's Man vs. Machine model, wherein the gameplay is divorced from the payment model.

A game is for fun. The industry can experiment with compromising that for profit for a few years until the community burns out/gets burned and then it's back to real games. The push for free-to-play is a direct result of the failure of the industry to produce new, fun games worth playing. Instead of addressing this problem, the industry wants to trick consumers into paying for even worse games. This is not going to work in the long run.

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Michael Joseph
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Thank you Tyler.

It's rediculous but it's understandable. Being "great" is no longer something people strive for. They just want to make money.

These are highly cynical times and hypocrisy abounds.

Darcy Nelson
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Gambling addiction is recognized as a serious issue, I wonder if there are any outreach groups dedicated to helping people with game addiction?

I like the idea of a spending cap on Freemium games. There would inevitably be workarounds, but it might make someone pause and reflect on their spending habits.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I believe the first clinic for the treatment of gaming addiction in the USA opened its doors in 2009. I believe there have been such clinics in Asia since 2005. I think spending caps are important to prevent the negative effects of Supremacy Goods as described in my recent microeconomic model:
http://gamasutra.com/view/news/177237/The_new_rules_of_monetizati
on.php#.UHoMe8XA8gV

The groups using these methods that many here describe as unethical are under the false impression that coercive monetization methods pay out well. They don't as my paper explains. Unfortunately there are a lot of ethically challenged players in our industry that will chase anything that looks like free money. Free money is almost always an illusion and most of the investors on this path are going to lose their shirts this year if they have not already. I'm not here to judge their moral compass, just to tell them why they are following the wrong prophets. The markets take care of the rest.

Maria Jayne
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If freemium games were required by law to tell you every time you went to purchase something your total spent on the game, it might force people to question how much they are spending. As opposed to using false game currency conversion or waiting for a bank/card statement a month from now.

For example you reach to the "buy now 10% off!!!" button on your favorite game in store browser and the next page is "you have spent $2,346.22 since joining us, would you like to continue with this purchase?

The legislation would have to require it to be a big question with large bold text centered in the screen. So it couldn't be manipulated into something like a Eula you just click through. It would actually be a use of metrics that was in favor of the consumer. Of course it has to be law, no company would willingly try to put you off spending money no matter how unhealthy your life is becoming, hence cigarette packets.

Ramin Shokrizade
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What would be even more effective, though possibly unethical (hey I can have fantasies too!), is to do the following in pvp "pay to win" games: On the rankings tables put how much each player has paid in the game on that server. This way people would know just how much of that power/advantage was paid for. This would add stigma to purchases. Obviously this is not in the best interest of developers, but I have seen some companies (IGG in particular) that actually broadcast in global chat when someone does certain kinds of spending. This was very important in my research as it allowed me to estimate the spending habits of those I was studying.

Maria Jayne
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@ Ramin Perhaps instead of one leader board where the people who have paid money for advantages are set against those that haven't. You have two leaderboards, one just for paid players and one for the none paid.

The player base could then choose which they wish to set a goal for or measure against themselves.

Christopher Engler
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A better economic allusion to freemium would be capitalism, not socialism. If I have lots of money, I can pay to advance faster and gain more in-game privileges in the process. If I don't have lots of money, I have to spend more time and effort to get to the same place. Then whenever I feel like my hard work and ingenuity finally enable me to compete, those with money can outmatch my time and effort by simply spending more money. I find the act a bit degrading, personally.

Ramin Shokrizade
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This is my biggest concern with these models. Gamers come to our games to escape the unfairness of the real world, to live in a fantasy world of opportunity. If we then take that opportunity away from them if they don't give us money then we are just slapping them across the face with the same systems that they came to us to escape. I don't think this makes us popular with the consumers we seek to serve.

Luis Blondet
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Those quotes read like a meeting over at the Legion Of Doom http://youtu.be/4hZ-il7Ey9I

Mark Venturelli
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"When does it become"? It has always been!

Jason Carter
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I think there is a difference between "freemium" and "free-to-play" models. I think that freemium has a slightly negative connotation to it as a subset of F2P games.

Freemium suggests that you get part of the game for free but have to pay to enjoy it all or to be part of the top tier of players. This can be done right, but I feel that it has to have a very certain set up.

Free to Play can be done a bunch of different ways and I think can be done very ethically and successfully. Namely, one company that comes to mind is Riot. Sure they are the giants of F2P atm and are extremely successful off of this model. But they do it ethically and use the F2P model very well.

This is in part because you purchase permanent things (skins, characters, etc) that have very little impact on your playing habits. In fact Riot actually promotes saving your money for what you really want with weekly sales on various champions and skins. In addition any content that affects game play (champions, rune pages, etc) can be bought with in game currency accrued through playing the game. This is vastly different from games which you spend money on 'advantages' over other players like XP boosts or extra play time or other gimmicks.

Riot's model works because they understand how to make it work and base it around providing a phenomenal service to players with content worth saving up and spending your money on. If this can be emulated by other companies then the F2P model can work very well, otherwise, it's just done wrong mostly.

The F2P model is certainly viable and ethical if done right. The problem is everyone wants to jump on board and has no idea what kind of boat they are on.


TL;DR: F2P can be done right, but I feel is most often not.

Amir Barak
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Dunno, not meaning to flame but after reading lots of these comments and talking to people, it seems to me that a common line is, "yes, free-to-play is easy to abuse and our competitors are definitely doing it wrong, but we... we are doing it right."

Nooh Ha
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Given that you can have free to play games with subscriptions as their revenue model, surely the title of this debate is misleading. Most of the comments appear to be about microtransactions.

Microtransactions, free to play are freemium are not synonyms.

Cordero W
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http://www.outofmygord.com/archive/2010/02/10/The-Psychology-of-E
ntertainment-Will-Video-Games-become-too-Real.aspx


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