Earlier this week, Mike Rose posted an excellent article on Gamasutra about the ethics of free-to-play game design. Despite similarities in name, free-to-play games are not the same as freeware games. While the latter are games that are actually given away by their developers, free of charge, free-to-play games entail a business model in which the game itself can be downloaded and installed for free, but (and rather ironically, I might add), actually playing the game involves in-game purchases of some kind. The nature of these purchases varies from game to game, from some purchases being merely some form of cosmetic status symbol to others where it is difficult or impossible to play the game without paying. While even in successful games, most players tend to spend relatively little money on such purchases, a small percentage of the player base spends massive amounts of money playing the game. These high-spending players are referred to as “whales.”
Rose’s article, which was the culmination of two months of work, focuses specifically on the ethics of a business model that exploits whales, and those among the whales who are not just big spenders, but compulsive spenders. The individual stories he relates are typical (but certainly no less disturbing) tales of addiction. Savings are lost, relationships are strained, and a once enjoyable pastime turns into a spiral of compulsion and depression.
The article comes at a very timely moment. Among developers, the free-to-play model is seen increasingly as the way of the future, ready to sweep away the traditional home purchase model just as it swept away the coin-op arcade model. At the same time, more players seem to be increasingly fed up with in-game purchases. Over the last few years, the exploitative nature of the free-to-play model has become one of the topics my students have most frequently asked me about in class. It has also become one of the topics that students are most outspoken about. While students in an upper-level videogame studies course are hardly a representative sample of the game-playing public, these trends suggest to me that the unrest and dissatisfaction at the free-to-play model is far more widespread than developers believe it to be.
The discussion on Gamasutra also seems to support my assumptions about the public perception of free-to-play games. Although there are some who defend the model (some being obvious trolls), most of the comments seem to echo the dissatisfaction of my students. In all this discussion, however, the focus seems to be on whether or not the plight of the whales is sufficient to render the whole business model unethical. While there are certainly compelling arguments that it does, I would argue that the flaws in the free-to-play model go beyond encouraging blatantly self-destructive behavior.
Last fall, I attended the 2012 Pushbutton Summit, where I attended a presentation about mobile game design. Unfortunately for me, the presentation had almost nothing to do with designing game mechanics or virtual environments, but rather was about how to tweak your game so as to maximize in-game spending by players. The panelists discussed how “AAA games don’t take advantage of the whales” and about the optimum amount of free in-game credit to give players to get them hooked on payed content (apparently it’s about five dollars, if you’re wondering). The recurring themes were that of transitioning players from non-paying (which they referred to as “minnows”) to paying (or “dolphins”) and ultimately to whale status, as well as how to set up your purchases so that you are able to funnel away the maximum amount of available funds from each of these groups. In other words, getting the dolphins to spend as much as they are willing to spend, and making it possible for whales to theoretically spend forever.
Not surprisingly, I disagreed with a great deal that was presented in the panel. Any business model that is designed to be able to take an infinite amount of money from customers warrants intense scrutiny, at the very least. However, the problems don’t stop there. Trying to squeeze every last cent that you can out of the dolphins and minnows before making them ragequit isn’t exactly my idea of responsible (or sustainable) game design, either. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a product that people want to buy and want to spend their hard-earned cash on. However, when the focus shifts from making a product to simply collecting the money, it’s a problem. As one commenter put it, designers move from being game designers, to simply being revenue designers.
I have argued elsewhere about the problems that come from fundamentally shifting the business model of the videogame industry (not that it couldn’t be shifted in positive ways, but that rarely seems to be the issue). I generally find the shift to the free-to-play model to be one of the more disturbing trends in videogames today, especially when consequential projects like the OUYA console make free-to-play a mandatory aspect of games on their console. Fortunately, free-to-play seems to have a different connotation on the OUYA, as most of the popular games are really more of a paid download with a free demo version (though there are a number of other models, such as “nagware,” as well). I find it an interesting and significant rhetorical move that since their original Kickstarter campaign, the OUYA team seems to have changed “free to play” to “free to try.”
The free-to-play model is hopefully starting to receive the public scrutiny that it desperately needs. I only hope that as we debate its ethics and utility that it’s not only the whales that we are trying to save, but the dolphins and minnows as well.