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Long-time game industry veteran and former Playdom senior game designer Greg Costikyan offers a practical look at how ethics in free-to-play design affects a game's success.
David Ogilvy, an important figure in the evolution of the ad business, once said "The consumer is not an idiot; she is your wife." He was responding, of course, to what he viewed as cynical and manipulative advertising; but in the F2P market, we -- not all of us, but certainly most -- are equally guilty of treating our customers as idiots; or worse, as sheep to be fleeced by manipulative and fundamentally unethical business practices. Or to put it another way, we have typically emphasized short-term monetization at the expense of long-term retention, risking annoying our players in order to improve short-term metrics.
Our F2P businesses have, by nature and culture, been highly focused on the short term; startups push to get things done now, to pull in revenues now, and basically have no long-term horizon, or no longer than the three to five years before a hoped-for "exit," a sale to a larger company or an IPO. I won't name names, but I know of at least one instance in which a F2P provider purposefully set out to maximize short-term revenues from a game, knowing full well that they were burning their user base and causing the game rapidly to decline, because they were nearing a buy-out and wanted to make this quarter's revenue growth look good, to support a higher sale price.
As well, our metrics make it very easy to see what happens in the short term, and much harder to determine how things affect the long term; if you make a change to your game, A/B test it, and the metrics say your ARPDAU has increased, the tendency is to say "Great!" and close out the test in favor of your increased revenues.
But what the metrics don't tell you is that you've also done something that annoys your players and, weeks or months later, will increase your user churn; and if you see churn increasing, you will have likely made many changes in the past weeks and months, and it will be difficult or impossible to trace back to determine which changes were most responsible.
And, of course, while our businesses contain many thoughtful and ethical people, it's also unquestionably true that they contain many cynical bastards who actually believe that deploying psychological trickery to gull people into paying more is good and appropriate business practice.
As a consequence, we see, in the F2P market, exactly what you'd expect to see: F2P games typically have a lifespan of a year or less. They grow, they pull in money, the audience starts to decline, and at some point the operator concludes that life-time value (LTV) is now less that cost of user acquisition (COA), pull the plug on marketing, and the game drops into a death spiral. Existing customers churn out and few new ones enter, with the game being shuttered shortly thereafter.
For someone like me, who has been involved in online games for decades, this is astonishing. Prior to the rise of F2P, online games had the potential to live basically forever; in fact, historically it has been actively hard to kill an online game. I'll give three examples:
Hundred Years War (hyw.com) began as a computer-moderated play-by-mail in the late 1970s, became an online game on the old commercial GEnie network, and is still played on the open web today.
Gemstone (www.play.net/gs4/) began as a paid MUD on GEnie, and still exists (and makes money for) Simutronics, its developer today -- a text-only MMO still with its devoted fans.
Ultima Online (www.uo.com) was launched in 1997 -- and continues to this day, with tens of thousands of players, a now-retro 2D MMO in a next-gen world.
And let's not even talk about Meridian 59 (www.meridian59.com), launched in 1996 and shut down twice by its operators -- and still alive today, supported as a free game by its fan community.
Now, you could argue that somehow the business conditions for these games are very different from the F2P market, and that it is impossible to sustain F2P games over the long term; and you would be wrong. FarmVille is the stellar example here; it still has a large and stable user base, and it still constitutes 16 percent of Zynga's total revenues, four years after its launch, and despite the launch of FarmVille 2.
At the last GDC, Mike Perry gave a talk entitled "Why Won't FarmVille Go Away?" Which it will not; neither I nor Perry see any reason it can't last for years to come, and for one simple reason: Today, although not in the past, it is managed specifically to foster player retention.
The Facebook market is, today, a mature one; there's plenty of revenue for Facebook games still, but it is not a growing market. The mobile F2P market is still growing fast, but in (at a guess) two to three years, it too will be mature. Mature markets require you to think differently: a gold rush may reward speed and short-term thinking, but a mature market rewards businesses that build customer loyalty. And treating your customers with anything other than respect is no way to do so.
Where does ethical F2P game design come into it? That should be obvious: Treat your customers with respect, and you are behaving ethically. Everything else follows from that simple principle.
The changes demanded by this shifting market will doubtless terrify many who are used to behaving in ways that seemed to work a year or two ago; but we should, in fact, welcome them. Consider: Would you rather work for a company that has loyal fans eager to play your game, or a company that assumes games are disposable trash, and players, marks to be fleeced?
Yes, I know, sometimes it's hard to respect your players, particularly after you've just watched a user test with your target demographic and marvel at how clueless they seem to be. Or look over the metrics for your first user experience, and see a big drop off when players are called upon to perform what seem like amazingly simple tasks. Particularly in casual markets, all of your players are clueless, and you need to design with that in mind; but regardless of their cluelessness, they still need to be respected. "All of our users are clueless" and "respect your players" may seem contradictory, but you need to act on both principles: You must both make your UI desperately simple, and your monetization system respectful.
As I argued above, it's often very hard to tease out the long-term impact of a change to gameplay from the short-term effects on other aspects. But in truth, common sense and a bit of intuition will get you pretty far; a gate that forces a player to either spam friends or pay money may make you a buck today, but any fool should be able to see that it will drive away players tomorrow. There's a reason Pioneer Trail failed; it pulls shockingly hard at the spam gate lever, and players quickly grew tired of it.
What else can help?
For a start, stop thinking of changes as purely things to impact your short-term metrics; think of changes as an opportunity to improve the gameplay. I'll give Dragons of Atlantis as a (bad) example here; if you look under the hood, it's pretty clear that the original designer had intended the game to foster a sense of strategy and positional warfare, but the combat system is so brutal that this never happens. You never leave troops at an outpost, because that simply leaves them vulnerable; and you almost never defend your home base (you set your troops to hide) because battles tend to result in the complete elimination of one side, and rebuilding your forces is a tiring, long-term grind. This has been true since the game launched, and despite the many updates Kabam has made, they have never bothered to fix the fact that they basically have a broken combat system -- I assume because the game is popular enough, and its producers are focused on changes that improve monetization.
If instead, they actually focused on the player experience, I think they'd realize that losing your whole army through a moment of inattention (or an attacker exploit) is a clear rage-quit moment, and that modifying combat to try to recapture the designer's original intent would likely produce a game that retains users longer. Perry, revealingly, says that one of the reasons for FarmVille's continued success is his team's work to continually add new content and features that surprise and delight its players.
I'm not saying you never make changes with a view to improving monetization; you should. But you should also be trying to make your game better purely from a game design standpoint. Any good live team should contain both a game designer as an advocate for the player, and a product manager as an advocate for monetization -- as well as a producer to determine where scarce development resources should be allocated, and serve as a moderator between the two.