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?