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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 4 of 9 Next

"The creation of addiction-driven games needs to stop, for the sake of everyone those games take advantage of," they continued. "If companies like [that company] refuse to change how they conduct business, then the problem will only be solved if they go out of business. While it is unfortunate that people are losing their jobs, that may be a necessary, painful step in ridding the world of one of the harmful aspects of gaming."

I showed the stories I had found to the employee, who found them upsetting. "When people play games, they are entrusting the developers with their time and money," they told me. "As developers, we have a responsibility to make sure that we give them something equally valuable in return."

The ex-employee says that it all comes down to one main point: "Enabling self-destructive behavior is wrong."

"It's wrong when the tobacco and gambling industries do it, and it's a shame that portions of the game industry do it too," they added.

Despite this, the former free-to-play employee says that they don't believe government regulation would be a good way to fix the issue. As they point, some of the mechanics utilized in these games are used elsewhere in a more positive way, "so regulation could cause collateral damage across the games industry."

They added, "Based on their track record, I certainly don't trust Congress to pass responsible legislation dealing with video games."

And yet, the trouble still remains: The free-to-play model has been proven to work best when games find and exploit whales.

"Any [free-to-play] game that makes it virtually impossible to advance beyond a certain point without spending money was almost certainly designed with whales in mind," the employee notes. "Games that allow players to advance to the highest level without spending anything are less exploitative. At least they don't actively encourage addiction."

Now that my source is out of the free-to-play space, they are happy to be making games that don't exploit players anymore. "I'm now working on serious games, which have the potential to produce a substantial, positive effect on the world," they tell me. "I'm sorry for what I've done, but I promise to more than make up for it in the future." 

Free-to-play developers speak

It's clear, then, that while a large portion of free-to-play consumers are able to take business model in stride, there are also those whose lives are being strained and, in some cases, even ruined by a number of these games. With this in mind, I took the commentary I had found straight to the developers, to gauge what exactly is going on, and why these people are spending as much as they do.

Battlefield Heroes is an instructive example of a developer moving toward an emphasis on incentivizing players to pay. When the game originally launched, it was a true free-to-play game. Players could jump into the game, sample everything it had to offer, grind a bit to unlock specific elements, but generally get plenty of enjoyment out of it for free.

Unfortunately, the amount of money coming in wasn't good enough to keep the game afloat, and so a large-scale price restructuring was developed, as detailed in this article. With this in place, players were now a lot more restricted in what they could see and do, and had far more grinding to go through to unlock items -- unless, of course, they chose to pay real money.

Ben Cousins was the senior producer on Battlefield Heroes back at the time when John (whose story is told above) found himself addicted to the game. Cousins now works on free-to-play games for DeNA, and is an outspoken proponent of the free-to-play model.

Upon reading John's story, Cousins remarked that numerous Heroes players were upset when the price restructuring occurred within the game. This led to lots of negative comments on the official forums, and stories such as John's.

However, Cousins notes that the restructuring led to an influx of revenue, it had the effect of safeguarding of many jobs on the Heroes team. Essentially, by forcing players to grind just that little bit more for items in the game, and by introducing weapons that gave paying players an advantage, the development team at EA caused an uproar among fans -- yet suddenly its long-term revenue was assured, as many of these very same players stuck around and submitted to the new pricing regime.

"I believe that the responsibility to control spending on any product or service lies with the consumer, unless there is some scientifically proven link to addiction as is the case with products and services like alcohol and gambling," Cousins tells me. "When these links are established, I feel industries should self-govern first and if they fail to act responsibly, be subject to governmental control."

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 9 Next

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