Like Gambling, drinking, drugs and other compulsive and addicting behaviour, gaming can be a form of escapism. Life can be a drag but it’s nice to have the options to focus on something achievable, like beating the other team in Team Fortress 2 or grinding to get that next tier of loot in games like Runescape. But as much as games can turn the ordinary into extraordinary, they can drag players along with a carrot on a stick until they lose time, money and health. With games reaching more platforms and more users than ever, many developers are taking advantage of the Free to Play model, where the game is free, initially, but developers can make money through in-game micro transactions that will improve the player’s chances at succeeding or give them cosmetic items to show off to other players. It is these systems that can be used in exploitative ways to burn players out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and completely disrupt their lives. Is this behaviour ethical? Are game developers responsible for their systems and the effects they can have on vulnerable players?
Let’s roll back to square one. In the Free to Play (F2P) model, the vast majority of players won’t spend a cent on the game. A small minority will happily spend a modest amount on the game, but an even smaller amount are “Whales”, players who will spend a significant majority over all other players. Whales are the backbone of the F2P model and will be a significant contributor to the company’s profits. It’s in the company’s best interests to maintain Whales, because without big contributors like them, how will they make money?
In a Gamasutra article by Mike Rose in 2013, Rose discusses the ethics of F2P games. In his research, he was reached out to by vulnerable players who were formerly “Whales” sucked into the F2P model. A player under the alias of Gladoscc allegedly spend $30,000 on a game called eRepublik, a game where money is integral to winning matches with other players. After he quit the habit, he was approached by the creator of eRepublik, who asked why he had quit and tried to entice him back in. Another user mentioned their mother, who had lost tens of thousands to Facebook affiliated Mafia Wars, and secluded herself from the outside world. Her room was full of McDonalds bags and her son had to deal drugs to keep food on the table. In an example provided by Adam Alter, a straight-A student with plenty of opportunity fell into World of Warcraft addiction. He secluded himself for 45 days straight, having a doorman bring in fast-food for him. At the end, he gained 20KGs, his skin was pale and he lost hair. After the 45 days, his mother found him and took him top get treatment at reSTART, an internet addiction treatment centre.
Behaviour like this is no different to addiction to drugs or gambling. Even the brains of people addicted to these types of games are no different to those addicted to Heroin. They are dependant on the game giving them their next hit, and will chase that high for as long as it takes. Dr Mark D. Griffiths in Rose’ Gamasutra Article elaborates that this kind of addiction is created largely through unpredictable rewards. Similar to the way that slot machines work, knowing there is a possibility of winning becomes highly addictive and enticing for players. Griffiths goes further to explain that virtual goods and in-game currency further exacerbate this effect, and encourage positive attitudes towards gambling.
Who is at fault here? Are slot machine designers responsible for Gambling addictions, or are people with money to blow responsible, knowing that their chance of winning the jackpot is approximately less likely than a terrorist attack? Australians gamble more than any other country person-by-person, and lose more – approximately $990 per Australian citizen. Maurice Blackburn Lawyers filed a suit against the Pokies Industry in 2016 to fight the deceptive manipulation of Pokies to addicts and recognise that they are at fault for the design of their products. They alledge that Poker Machines use deceptive game mechanics that make the chance of winning seem higher than in reality, and misleading amount returned to the player. While the case is still going and isn’t likely to totally uproot the industry, it aims to create legal requirements to their design that reduce the impact on players and become transparent about their chances of winning. Do games need legal restraints in order to curb the ethical dilemma? A former employee of a F2P game studio doesn’t think so, believing that similar mechanics are implemented responsibly elsewhere and regulating this behaviour might cause problems. Games are inherently designed to be enjoyable and repeatable methods of escapism, so we can’t make a sweeping statement that enjoyable game design is inherently bad or should be restricted. However, predatory monetisation strategies are the defining factor here. The F2P model (and other micro transaction strategies) rely on “Reward Removal”, a strategy that Ramin Shokrizade discusses in which a game will threaten to remove the fun from the game unless the user pays money, like games that will let you continue after losing a game by paying real-world currency to get another life. He continues to describe “Ante Games”, games that masquerade as a skill game at first glance, but actually rely on purchasable upgrades that give players a competitive advantage. Gamers often call these element “Pay to win”. These microtransaction methods are worked into the design of the game to hook the player from the start and use the design to influence users to spend money.
So what are game developers to do? As Mike Rose continues, Battlefield Heroes initially started with a true F2P model where players could enjoy the full game for free, but this model didn’t generate enough money to keep the game afloat. EA had to drastically change the model for the game in order to generate the money necessary to be stable. In this circumstance, simple micro-transactions without Reward Removal wasn’t enough for the studio, the predatory elements were necessary for the studio to make money. However, the monetisation restructuring lead to more revenue and the safeguarding of jobs at the studio. Adversely, World of Tanks developer War Gaming removed its predatory monetisation strategy to avoid problematic spending and garner goodwill among players, and for the most part, it appears to be working for the studio. Todd Harris of Hi-Rez studios mentions that the company too prefers to stay away from exploitative monetisation strategies in order to maintain goodwill among players. He reports that 10% of Tribes Ascend players have paid money for the product, versus the 1-5% of other games. Harris believes that as the games industry and gaming culture recognises the negative consequences of exploitative game mechanics, they will be left to the wayside for games that respectfully treat players.
The culture shift away from F2P games is already occuring. Battlefield Heroes’ team immediately felt the backlash from players when they revamped their monetisation approach. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds felt their own backlash when they announced their own microtransaction strategy. Much of the backlash stemmed from the game already being fully-priced and in Early Access. Overkill – creators of the F2P game Payday – faced a massive backlash after refactoring this game to adopt microtransactions in order for the game’s continued development to survive. The backlash came off the back of the lead saying that the game will never have microtransactions just 2 years prior. A year and a publisher acquisition later, the microtransactions are now gone. As players recognise the problematic and at time unethical ways that microtransactions exist in larger AAA games, there’s hope that culture will make its way towards ethically grey games like Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and others, or risk being left behind
The future of microtransactions and monetisation will hopefully result in great reform for the industry. As we consider the effect that a game’s design can have on a person, we should recognise that developers are to an extent responsible for ensuring that players have a healthy relationship with the game.
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Grubb, J. (2017). PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds microtransactions lead to first major fan backlash. [online] VentureBeat. Available at: https://venturebeat.com/2017/07/26/playerunknowns-battlegrounds-microtransactions-lead-to-first-major-fan-backlash/ [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].
Klepek, P. (2015). Payday 2’s Microtransaction Nightmare Just Got Worse. [online] Kotaku.com. Available at: http://kotaku.com/payday-2-s-microtransaction-nightmare-just-got-worse-1738701965 [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].
Mauriceblackburn.com.au. (2016). Landmark lawsuit filed against pokies industry in Federal Court – Maurice Blackbrun. [online] Available at: https://www.mauriceblackburn.com.au/about/media-centre/media-statements/2016/landmark-lawsuit-filed-against-pokies-industry-in-federal-court/ [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].
Rose, M. (2013). Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games. [online] Gamasutra.com. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/195806/chasing_the_whale_examining_the_.php?page=4 [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].