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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 8 of 9 Next

Though there's no reference to Shokrizade's piece in it, Spry Fox's Daniel Cook posted a blog a few days later titled "Coercive Pay-2-Play techniques," in which he takes to task many of the arguments against free-to-play with a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal of his own.

He notes that pay-to-play games invite players to spend large amounts of money without ever having played the game first, while some companies purposely use videos, adverts and previews to artificially increase excitement for upcoming and released games.

Cook adds that this pre-release "propaganda" means that developers don't need to worry as much about the actual game design, and can simply make the sell by "having a catchy theme, pretty graphics and the ability to turn out short sequential games rapidly."

He also targets Skinner Box game design, the various methods of sale such as bundles and time-limited discounts, and other forms of manipulation in free-to-play games. He closes by jokingly suggesting that pay-to-play games are hurting the industry, and are an immoral practice.

Cook is, of course, is making light of the free-to-play arguments a fair bit, although the overall point of the article is to compare just how "coercive" the free-to-play model actually is -- especially when these worst-case scenarios are compared to the worst-case scenarios for pay-to-play games. Cook's blog is well worth a read

Other perspectives

Laralyn McWilliams is a video game designer and producer who has previously worked on SOE's free-to-play kids' game Free Realms as creative director. She has written at length about the strengths and weaknesses of the free-to-play model.

I sent McWilliams much of the information I had uncovered while researching this article, and she told me, "From a practical perspective, people will always find an activity that attracts them to the exclusion of many other activities."

She notes that whether we should be encouraging or discouraging this common human behavior comes down to two main factors:

1. Whether the activities being included are considered "valuable" or "worthwhile," and whether the activities being excluded are (or are considered) "essential."

2. Universal elements like food, sleep, health, hygiene, maintaining a source of income, and paying important bills.

"The first criteria is largely subjective and varies tremendously based on who's doing the evaluation," she notes. "Most people would agree that spending money at the casino to the extent that your bills go unpaid and you get evicted is a behavior we shouldn't encourage. Most people would also agree that playing a game so many hours in the day that you don't sleep or eat and your health deteriorates is also something we shouldn't encourage."

Where the conversation gets muddy, McWilliams argues, is when you begin to compare free-to-play spending with traditional retail video game spending. She notes that while we might pull a face at someone spending thousands of dollars on a single free-to-play over a year or so, you could argue that many players who purchase console and PC games may spend just as much over the same period of time.

"I suspect that if he'd spent the money on retail games, he'd walk away saying, 'I keep having trouble making rent because I'm buying a new game every month. I have to figure out a way to cut back," she says of one of the stories I collected.

"He probably wouldn't question too much whether games in general are worth the money from the objective perspective -- just about whether he's buying them too frequently," she continues. "There's something in the way he spent money in the free-to-play game, though, that made him question on a fundamental level whether his money was well spent. Sure, some of that's probably the social perspective right now that free-to-play games in general and virtual goods in particular are not expenses we value as much as expenses for other hobbies (including retail games), but I suspect he might still feel the same way even without that social input."

With this in mind, McWilliams believes that are two fundamental questions that free-to-play developers should be asking themselves:

1. Should we try to be aware of unhealthy spend patterns in players and find ways to limit/discourage them?

2. Are we providing good value for money spent, and if we are, why doesn't it feel that way to many players?

Says McWilliams, "Even if the percentage of players who fit in the first category is very small when you look at actual data (and compare it to the behavior patterns recognized as unhealthy addiction in gambling, for example), we should be concerned about the fact that public perception -- even from our own players -- would put far, far more people into the 'unhealthy spend' category, because there's a fundamental feeling that any significant amount of money spent in the game is money that didn't result in meaningful value."

To put it simply: "If you sat down right now and dropped $60 on Remember Me, and the quality of the game was what you expected, would you feel the same about that as if you sat down right now and dropped $60 on Clash of Clans? A lot of people wouldn't, even if they play the games for the same length of time."

She continues, "Is it the intangibility of virtual goods? The fact that once you buy Remember Me, it doesn't ask you to spend that same amount again next week?"

Article Start Previous Page 8 of 9 Next

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