quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Since they became commonplace, free-to-play games have been criticized as unethical, greedy, manipulative, pathologically damaging…you name it. (And the more famous ones are.) It’s something that I’ve been dwelling on for months, given that for the last year and a half, my job has had me making exactly the sort of game that hits all the low notes: free to play initially, with the ability to pay real money to hasten progress or buy performance-enhancing items. If I didn’t quit my job over it, it’s mainly because I don’t know where else I’d apply and don’t think I could make a living wage as an independent.

But as kneejerk distasteful as I find several aspects of what I’ve been doing, nearly every time I focused on a specific marketing or monetization choice, I saw common sense behind it. Take this example: giving the player one or two free uses of an upgraded game feature that normally costs extra. It’s nothing more than an unscrupulous way to get players hooked, right? It’s like drug dealers do: “the first hit’s free”. Well, maybe, but it’s also unreasonable to expect a potential customer to buy anything from you when they don’t know what it is or what it will do. And the best way to teach that to the customer is to let him try the thing out. It’s certainly better than simply throwing it into your game’s store screen with a brief text description like “This totem pole produces an extra 2 Jujubees a minute” or whatever. If that’s unethical, what about test drives? Demo versions? 30-second song snippets on a music site? Samples at the cheese counter? How skeezy must all those be?

When it comes to making sure your game will make money, the conventional wisdom is that you are, at best, unsavory if you incorporate elements into it that have made other games profitable or that you know from personal testing will increase your own revenue. You are told to go by your internal sense of ethics and your personal expertise as a professional, and not place too much faith the objective measure of what customers pay the most money for because that measurement is so easily manipulated. The methods of hijacking human psychology are familiar, proven, and more widely understood by companies like Zynga every day. Companies are criticized soundly for retaining game elements that they know are used heavily rather than accommodate vocal minorities that call for their removal.

Yet when it comes to designing what players can do within the game rather than what they can buy about it, we find a parallel situation with opposite advice attached. Here, playtesting and player observation are king. The designer who produces a mechanic or a control scheme or a tutorial level purely from intuition invariably creates a bad game. What you think players will want or do is invariably less accurate than what they say they want or will do, which in turn is notoriously far off the mark of what they actually want and do.

Got that? When you’re designing a game, it’s smartest by far to base your decisions primarily off what players do, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best. But when you’re selling your game, following that exact plan — basing your decisions primarily off what players do pay for, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best — makes you evil Evil EVIL!

I’m not sure why this is. Possibly it’s because human purchasing behavior is more susceptible to influence than play behavior is. At least, that might be a common first-order explanation. But consider:

  • The designer of Canabalt made the deliberate decision to allow the player to jump not only while his feet are on solid ground but also for a fraction of a second after running off the ledge of a building, when he’s technically in empty air and has already fallen a tiny amount. He did this as a result of so many test players mistiming their jumps and getting frustrated at the game for being oversensitive and unforgiving.
  • SounDodger and other “bullet hell” games have a convention where only the center point of your ship is vulnerable to collision, which leads to the satisfying feeling that you’re dodging death by the skin of your teeth as you sneak past enemies by mere pixels. (Actually, they’re so close that they’re overlapping you. It’s more like you’re clipping through them than sneaking by, but it still feels like skill.)
  • City of Heroes and at least a few installments of the Civilization series had custom random number generators to avoid outcomes that were mathematically valid but felt unintuitive or unfair to people, such as attempting something with a 75% success chance and failing twice in a row.

The common thread behind all these kludges is that players find games much more enjoyable when they blame themselves, not the game, for failing or losing or dying. Tweaks like the above are all accommodations to avoid the player feeling like the game is buggy, or arbitrary, or unpredictable, or too hard.

They’re also all psychological tricks.

So maybe designing games to be the most fun actually is precisely as unethical as selling them to make the most money. Maybe they’re both laudable. Maybe they’re both reprehensible. They certainly both can be more concerned with being believable than with being honest.

I don’t know. I just don’t. Every time I approach the issue rationally I get results that don’t match how I want to feel about it, and that’s a problem for someone like me who doesn’t want to believe things by fiat. I’m not sure how to evaluate this rationally. I can’t go by other people’s opinions because all possible opinions on the matter exist, and in effectively infinite (and therefore equal) numbers. If, ultimately, it comes down to me needing to decide for myself whether I’m ethical (as, you know, “one of those things no one else can do for you”), well, what’s to stop me from affirming myself the Dalai Lama from the get-go?

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Jonathan Blow (Braid) and Markus “Notch” Persson (Minecraft) conspired to bring some game freakonomics to Twitter.

Take two hypothetical games. They’re identical except for how they’re supported. Game A doesn’t cost any money to play, and there’s nothing to buy within it either, but it includes ads. Game B has no ads, but you have to buy it to play it. It costs $10 up front.

If you were to play only one of these games, which would result in you spending more money on average?

According to Blow and Persson, it’s Game A.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is mathematically impossible. How can the average of a bunch of zeroes be greater than the average of a bunch of tens?

But re-read the question. I didn’t ask how much you’ll spend on the game. I asked how much you’ll spend. Period. On anything.

The only rational reason Game A’s creator would monetize it via ads is if some ad company offered a deal comparable to what Game B is expected to make. And the main reason when that happens is that said ad company thinks it’ll be able to sell that ad space for even more money to outside businesses. And the main reason for those businesses to be willing to pay that much is that they expect the ads in question to generate an even larger increase in revenue than what they cost.

Now, sure, not all marketing campaigns result in a company bringing in more than $X of additional revenue for every $X it spent. Also, some expenses are like car insurance: people will have them regardless, and an ad will only change how they spend their money, not whether they spend. But as a general trend, advertising works. We know this because companies use it, and have for centuries.

So the safe bet is that, for Game A, a mathematically significant number of players really, truly will be influenced by ads to buy things they wouldn’t have bought if they hadn’t played this totally free game — so much so that the average ad-inspired expenditure across all players will likely average out to more than $10 a head.

A couple days later, Blow went on to tweet:

Sitting at a cafe overhearing a random person…try to explain tower defense games to his friend. It turns out the point was to explain how it seems lame to pay-to-win in an f2p game. I give this business model 1.5 more years. We need to make a "pay up front, no microtransactions, no ads" seal of quality that games can display or stick in their icons. (Also: this game will not ask you to rate it, or send push notifications of any kind, or refer you to other games).

He’s still pounding his “games should be honest about how much they’ll cost” drum, citing integrity and “non-lameness” as justification and alluding, once again, to the mathematical fact that any game that costs $X to acquire (for X ≥ 0) but also tries to get you to buy other things (whether it be by mentioning other games, popping up Coke ads, or offering more stuff for itself as In-App Purchases) will end up costing its players more than $X on average — and that makes the $X price tag a lie.

So could Mr. Blow’s pipe dream of unscrupulously ethical pricing pan out? Would his ambitions for non-deceptive up-front pricing in games survive contact with actual customers? Personally, I doubt it.

In February 2012, J.C. Penny shifted cold-turkey to a “Fair and Square” pricing strategy that got rid of all the seasonal sales, secretive discounts, web deals, preferred customer coupons, hidden surcharges, and so on — something that the CEO at the time called “fake pricing” due to how the price on the tag was almost never what the customer paid — and simply made prices much lower on average for everyone all the time. It failed so badly that the board of directors kicked that CEO out. The customers who used to seek out deals and only bought, say, a $20 shirt when it was on sale for $8 didn’t bother buying it now that it was always $9 because they didn’t feel like they were saving money anymore, and the impulse buyers who bought shirts regardless of price were now generating half as much revenue.

Distimo, an app metrics developer, stated that as of February, for every $1 spent to buy an app, $3 was spent to buy something from inside one. Giordano Contestabile, a business-type guy who’s worked for Popcap and ArenaNet, cited proprietary sources to update those figures to $1 and $19 as of August. In other words, these days only 5% of all revenue from apps is from people buying the app itself.

In light of all this, game developers are pretty much locked out of irreproachable levels of pricing integrity if they want to stay in business.

(to be continued)

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

I take it as a given that if two people both start with the same facts and both apply proper logic, they will reach identical conclusions. So if two people disagree, then either they’re not working from the same facts or at least one of them got the logic wrong.

Or, alternately, there’s a third option: they have different goals.

It’s not rational to like strawberries. Nonetheless, some people do it, naturally, and there’s nothing particularly despicable about it. And if you are one of them, it is rational to order strawberry shortcake for dessert rather than chocolate mousse or crème brûlée. You are not ordering the best dessert. You are ordering the best dessert for you.

So what happens when there is a disagreement and it’s due to different goals, or different priorities, or different ethics? How do we determine what goals everyone uses? If we should determine them rationally, well, all we’ve done is moved the disagreement back one meta-level, for no net gain. If we should let people determine their own according to their personal nature, we get bizarre results like violent criminals being legally allowed to assault people because it gets them what they want. If we go by some group consensus, some mean or median of personal natures across society (and this seems to be how it’s generally been done throughout history — social species, by definition, have consistent species-wide behaviors), we get something practical, but not so much rational as utilitarian. I don't really care for any of these options.

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