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Are there moral limits of Monetization models?

Attempt to come up with a Litmustest for Customers if the Monetization model of a game can be considered fair.

Andreas Ahlborn, Blogger

March 27, 2014

5 Min Read

Guy Fawkes masked Justitia

While reading Sandels „What money can`t buy“ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvDpYHyBlgc ),

I noticed that there are certain paralells between what he calls „the movement from a market economy to a market society“ and how things like „buying upgrades“ for your jail cell or hiring „Linestanders“ for a congressional hearing, or cash incentives for reading books for minors can be seen as undermining certain values in a society and the things that are happening in our industry right now.

The Role that Justice plays in a society, Fairness plays in a Game.

It`s a much „softer“ concept, more open for debate but its multiple facettes are omnipresent in the most heated discussions in our community:

Is it fair that women are underrepresented in Videogames?

Is it fair that gaming companys doctor their previews of games?

Is it fair to charge 30$ for games that have only little more playtime than a demo?

Is it fair that I get sniped by aimbots in Multiplayer?

Is it fair that a super-successful kickstarter sells out to a giant company?

Is it fair, that most videogames are not playable by handicapped Persons?

Is it fair that I worked 500 hours for my  Level 90 charcter and now everybody can buy one for 30$ ?

Is it fair, that a game advertises itself as Free-to-Play without disclosing the impact it could have on my bank account?

The Fun in most games comes from this trust that the game is fair at its core. Meaning: equal chances to win for all participating Parties. That`s the reason why balancing a game is so delicate, if you can abuse gamemechanics to win every time, the game is ultimately no challenge.


The definition of fairness can go as far as in the  japanese game Go where it is considered fairer to handicap a more skilled player by granting the unskilled player a stone advantage, because it makes the challenge more interesting for both parties. This Meta-definition of fairness is as far as I know largely absent from videogames. Usually the better Player not only has the better gear and perks, knows all the tricks and exploits but he/she seems even entitled to shame „Noobs“ by calling them out after he annihilated them.

The Troll/Cheater that is breaking the Fairness and having fun despite the fact that there is no skill involved in aimbotting is playing a differnt game than the „honest“ player. He is only interested in getting a reaction out of the cheated player, like playing knock-and-run only to see how annoyed the people can get.

The Entertaiment Industry as a whole has taken the road „from Product-to-Service“, its prototype is moving away from the Singular Event model that meant the publication of a movie or a book or a conventional AAA-Game to cross-promotion, yearly IPs, monthly DLC and permanent Microstransactions.

I´m here not concerned with the question if a model like this, especially the Microtransaction model will be guaranteed to have a negative impact on your gamedesign, or if such things diminish the fun a consumer can have with a game, the perceived „entertainment value“. I´m not even debating the fact, that it can be more profitable/successful than any traditional Monetization model, but similar to Sandel I think that success is no proof that some things that might be useful at the moment can not be harmful in the long run.

In a previous blog I concentrated on the „Transparency“-Deficit, I found in some F2P-models I tested. I am well aware that this obfuscation is not because of unawareness but mostly a strategy to sneak your way into a users wallet, mostly the Big Spenders.

What happens to a gaming community if the developers enable the „wealthy“ or „addicted“ people to bypass the requirement to play the game, and „buy“ themsleves status/success? On the surface it looks like the 1-5% whales would finance the success of most F2P-games, so a developer might be tempted to design for these people as his/her main target group. What he/she it would be missing is, that the whales depend on the plankton and these are the countless F2P users that cant afford to pay, because they are too young or  do not have the financal resources. Either you treat your game as an ecosystem or a zoo. You can`t have both.

I want to close with the draft of some points/Questions I came up with, while asking myself if a F2P-model could be worth my or anybodys time.

The Question is: Are you being treated fair?

It is written from the perspective of a potential customer, but it might be useful for any developer to look into it and see how he/she can be a better Fairy.

Not surprisingly I found no simple rule-of-thumb that could be applied to most of the F2P models currently out there. The Numbers I give are purely illustrative and are mereley guesses, hopefully educated enough to have some relevance. I grouped the Questions under 3 Headers, with no specific order.


1.  Is there an early (<1 hrs in game) spike in demand for spending money to progress?

2.  Do you have the feeling that instead of satisfying your needs the first purchase you make leads to an immediate (<24h) urge to make another one?

3. Has spending money a significant (>50%)  impact on speeding up your progress?


1.  Is there an obvious misproportion in the conversionrates between the different currencies in a game and is this at first not obvious?

2. Are drop rates/chances in games with randomization obfuscated?

3. Is it difficult for you to estimate how long it would take you to get to most (>80%) of the content, be it either in time or money investement, say it could be anywhere between 100 and 1000 hours, or 100 and 1000$ ?


1. Can you name at least three items in the game, that are hard/expensive to get, that would improve your performance/fun significantly ?

2. If you lose to adversaries which have these items, do you feel cheated?

3. If you use one of these items yourself to win a game, do you feel like a cheater?


Maybe it boils down to the somewhat tautological rule-of thumb,

that a Monetization Model can be considered fair, if it is easy to judge whether it`s fair.

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