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

July 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

Heroes of spending

Battlefield Heroes was another free-to-play game brought up on my journey to find big spenders. Unlike Kyle, John hugely regrets his free-to-play spending -- he was working a part-time job at the time that he became addicted to Heroes, and he ended up splashing out the majority of his paychecks on the game, spending over $2,000 in total.

"I would call it the creme of the crop in terms of pay-to-win," he says.

My research didn't just focus on triple-A PC games either -- many of Nexon's free-to-play titles came up numerous times. One player told me that he has spent around $3,000 on MapleStory, including dropping a whole $500 in an attempt to create a single weapon in the game. But he says that he is easily one of the lower-end players, and that he regularly talks to people who have spent upwards of $10,000 on the game.

"It's pretty much for more numbers, if I had a gun put to my head," he says -- and he's not done yet. "The gear grind is pretty much infinite, and the only reason I'm not playing right now isn't because of the money, but because I'm waiting for the level expansion as well as a raised damage cap, which are out in the Korean server but not the global one."

Another player I talked to found themselves spending more than $5,000 on a Nexon game called Mabinogi, mainly on cosmetic items. "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."

"I can't say I really regret the spending," he says. "I loved the game, and I still miss the friends I played with. Five or six grand isn't too much to pay for the amount of happiness I got out of it."

However, he admits that it definitely felt like an addiction. "Both buying the points, and gambling those points on random drops would give me a rush," he says.

I also came across numerous far more outlandish stories. One player, who called himself Gladoscc, told me that he used to play a web-based MMO called eRepublik, in which players waged wars against each other.

In total, Gladoscc spent more than $30,000 on the game. "The geniusly evil part about eRepublik is that you have to spend money in order to neutralize the enemy's money," he says. "It's spreadsheet PVP, though. The social aspect is what kept me in."

When he managed to finally kick the habit, a random stranger added him veryon Skype weeks later, only to discover that it was the creator of eRepublik. He had hunted down Gladoscc's details so he could ask him why he had quit, and try to entice him back.

By far the worst story I discovered was that of a mother who became addicted to Mafia Wars on Facebook, and ended up sinking tens of thousands of dollars into it. As her obsession grew, she began to withdraw into the game and care little about the life going on around her.

"The last time I can remember going over, her entire room was filled with just hundreds of pizza boxes and McDonalds bags," says an old friend of her son. "When you enter the house, the smell just smacks you in the face, even though she basically just stays in her room."

The friend even alleges that as a direct result of the mother succumbing to the allure of spending more and more on the game, her son ended up dealing drugs simply so he could afford to keep payments up on the house and keep food on the table.


I also received messages from people who claimed to be ex-employees at free-to-play companies, and who told me that their respective employers would often build games purposely to entrap these "whales."

One such response in particular (for which I was able to verify the respondent as having worked at the company he named) gave a stark picture of what's going on behind the scenes. I've chosen to blank out the name of the company as I see this as being able to apply to multiple game studios, rather than just the one discussed.

"I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career," the person told me. "But I recognize that [company]'s games cause great harm to people's lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players' investments of time and money. [company]'s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It's not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.

This employee chose to leave the company as a direct result of feeling dishonest due to the work being done -- feeling like they were making the lives of a select few players worse.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 9 Next

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