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Free-to-Play Isn’t a Special Case in Ethics

Looking at why free-to-play as a business model, while having unique characteristics, shouldn't be considered a special case in ethics.

Ian Griffiths, Blogger

September 6, 2016

12 Min Read

Over the past few years, more than that even, there has been a lot of discussion around free-to-play games and ethics. There have been arguments, mostly using anecdote and relying on bias, that free-to-play is unethical and a pernicious model used in games. I want to look at how the issues of ethics in free-to-play games aren’t particularly unique and explain why I think that free-to-play is actually pretty good for all of us.

A Bit About Ethics

As much as I find posts that start with the definition of a word a little cliché I think in this case it is important as there is some crossover in relation to morals. Ethics are a set or system of moral principles. They are essentially a set of concepts that recognise acceptable behaviour in our society and are a useful notion in helping us understand what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong' and not just on a personal basis. It’s important to note that the law, while often involving ethical behaviour, does not always define it – what is legal is not always what is ethical and vice-versa.

Games Aren’t A Special Case

I often get frustrated over talk about the issues of ethics in free-to-play gaming, usually because understanding of ethics are flawed or selective. Where they claim to see ‘unethical’ behaviour in free-to-play games they ignore the exact same actions in many other areas of life; retail, the service industry or even utilities. It’s not that I’m saying that ethics don’t come into play – it’s just that free-to-play games are not special case in relation to paid games or even other types of entertainment and media.

Elements like social proof, loss aversion, price discrimination and all types of selling methods that play on behavioural economics are seen in every market, from government bonds through to used cars, wherever selling goods or services is involved. Games are nothing special in this regard.

Value Is Determined By The Player

There is a general misconception about the idea of value that is used as an argument against free-to-play games; it's claimed that games don't give the player value for their money. This is largely because people struggle to empathise with the value that others place on things that they themselves aren’t interested in.

For example, I don’t play an instrument yet the people I know that have spend thousands of pounds on that hobby. It's not something that I would spend that amount of money on but does that mean that those people are wasting their money? Of course not. We all see value in different things, I’ve spent over £150 on Dota 2 and I don’t justify it because I spent almost 1,000 hours playing it – I justify it because I wanted those awesome things. It’s the same as when I buy things I don’t need in the real world, like a second pair of shoes, it’s because I want them.

Some people would point out that the differences between those items is that things like instruments are real, tangible goods whereas items in games are intangible. It’s important to mention that just because things aren’t tangible goods doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. Many things that are the most valuable to us have little or no real world presence. Think of films you’ve watched, music you’ve loved, long weekends you’ve taken, for something to have value it has to have meaning through an experience and virtual goods and services can do that just as real ones can.

Spending Habits and Privacy

There is a common belief that players are somehow unaware of the purchases that they are making or perhaps tricked into them but this is just not the case. The notion that players lack agency over their purchasing decisions is absurd; they don’t just whack out their credit card just because a 25% off promotion popped up on screen. The people who spend in free-to-play games are intelligent adults with the means of owning and using a consumer electronics device and understand what they are buying – in legitimate purchases they are not being lied to or misled, they are making rational decisions about their purchases.

There are an incredibly small minority that struggle with purchases, they go beyond their disposable income where their spending habits eat into money that should be going to essentials like housing and bills, again this is not unique to games but it is an important point. I question the idea that this is something that developers can or even should address because it strays into areas of moralising and invading privacy. No developer is the player’s guardian. While there are responsibilities on developers they do not have the right to know what someone spends their money on or whether they can ‘afford’ things beyond what a payment provider might tell them. Imagine if stores questioned you as a customer with – ‘are you sure you can afford this?’ or ‘I think that’s you’ve already bought enough chocolate/bacon/gingham shirts this week!’ It would be borderline offensive for a business to intrude on your personal spending habits, to assume that they knew what’s best – it would be infantilising, rude and problematic for consumers in the long-term.

In what situation could a developer even check for this information? Questionnaires that would be invasive, ‘reasonable’ spending limits would be absurd - what’s expensive to one person is pittance to another and again I don’t see why a developer should be the moral authority on what value is to a player. For me, offering something like a monthly spending limit would be unreasonably enforcing an idea that the average player is not capable of managing their money. We already have lots of consumer protection which, quite rightly, protects us from predatory practices. I just don’t accept that we as an industry should foster the notion that we define when enough is enough for a consumer, after all, what kind of lesson is being taught if consumers are led to believe that they shouldn’t have to manage their own finances? Infantilising players won’t help them in the real world and it doesn’t let them learn from their mistakes. I do sympathise with those who struggle in this areas but that’s something that needs to be solved with education and appropriate state intervention for individuals not a damaging approach of unsolicited intervention by game developers.


There is an argument that games put us in some altered state which might make us more susceptible to purchases although there’s little evidence outside of anecdote that suggests that gaming makes us more vulnerable than watching a film or exercising. If we’re going to suggest that we shouldn’t be allowed to make purchasing decisions when we are in anything other than a relaxed state then we wouldn’t buy food when we’re hungry or games when we’re bored or any number of things. Of course there are already consumer laws around pressure selling and I am by no means going to advocate anyone breaching those or using methods that would be in breach of them.

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some people who aren’t more susceptible to make impulse purchases than others, or that games tend to work on a lot of positive feedback loops and these can be used to make us want to purchase virtual goods. However, I don’t believe that people lose their decision making faculties because of a few flashing lights and jingly tunes. Internet and television advertisements use the exact same methods and there isn’t the same kind of outrage that we get about free-to-play games. Again even where the small minority are influenced there is little we can do about it without unjustifiably impacting on the freedoms of the majority or on our own freedoms as game developers.

As a form of free expression we can’t realistically suggest that games should alter their designs because some players might be influenced by such things. Again it would be infantilising and potentially even unethical to even try.

‘Whales’ Aren’t A Problem

I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘whale’ although it is a well understood word so it’s useful in its own way. One of the big draws of free-to-play from a developer’s perspective is that it solves the price-elasticity problem in a lot of cases because a player can decide how much they want to spend based on their own demand for the virtual goods sold.

A charge levied against many free-to-play games is that they rely on ‘whales’ to survive and well, yes, this is the strength of the model. The definition of a whale will change between companies, some choose a specific $ value others choose a point on the Lorenz Curve. The top 10% of spenders and these players can make up anywhere from 50%-75% of a game’s revenue, perhaps more and would spend in the region of $100 or more each month on the game.

There is a notion that gearing a game towards ‘whales’ is an ethical issue and while it may not be the smartest thing to do from a business perspective it’s not unique to games. I hear very little complaint about brands offering watches for £10,000 upwards or designer brands selling shoes in the region of £1,000 or more. We already tackled the issues of ‘value’ and ‘nudging’, these people are making a conscious choice to spend this money, in fact they have to top-up their ‘virtual wallet’ dozens of times in order to do which means that they are made fully aware of the transactions at numerous points.

That some people choose to spend a lot of money on a free-to-play game does not mean that there is an issue with those games. If all these people are doing is spending their disposable income and they know what they’re getting then there’s really not much of an issue at all. ‘Whales’ aren’t some phenomenon in free-to-play games, they are just the realisation of wealth as distributed in the world – some people are just rich and they choose to spend that money on games.

Being Upfront With The Player

I believe that, quite the opposite to many pay upfront games, free-to-play can offer the player much more insight into the value of their purchase. This argument has been made before but I want to reiterate it. There are many of us who have purchased games and still not got around to playing them, in those cases our value from the titles is currently zero. There are games I’ve purchased and just not enjoyed and films that I’ve thoroughly disliked and I had no idea that would be the case before purchasing them, but I’m not necessarily entitled to a refund for them. Paying for things you don’t enjoy isn’t a lot of fun.

Frequently we might base our decision to buy a game on a trailer, an advert or even just hype and end up not getting the experience we thought we would. Some games incentivise pre-orders where a player might not have a full understanding of the product before making a purchase. Many games embargo reviews until close to release date, though there is often good reason for this such as getting a good build or holding back from spoilers, which in some cases might stop a consumer getting information from a trusted source before they make a purchase.

In a free-to-play game the player generally knows the value of what they are buying because the majority of players that spend do so after playing for a period of time that lets them understand the game and their appreciation of it. In free-to-play games the player typically knows what a ‘life’ or ‘extra turns’ gets them. They know what the $20 premium outfit will do or what the feeling of opening a treasure chest or mystery box gives them. Even when confronted with some monetization tactics that we see in almost all areas of retail, from bundled purchases through to time limited offers, the player in a free-to-play game knows the value and hence is often making an even more informed and rational purchasing decision. It’s much like a repeat purchase of a favourite beverage, a consumer is empowered by knowledge of what they are getting.

It’s Complicated

Ethics are complicated and how they apply to free-to-play is complicated and will be constantly shifting. In general, whenever I’ve discussed ethics in free-to-play games in detail I’ve found that they’re more used as a cover for those who just don’t like the notion, the methods, the way the free-to-play model impacts on game design but haven’t found a better way of vocalising that distaste. I understand that attitude but I disagree with it and while there might be problems around a minority I don’t know of any ethically or morally clear way for developers to resolve alone.

I believe that free-to-play games are good and struggle with ethical quandaries no more or less than any other consumer product. Free-to-play has had its problems, as has almost every area of business and commerce. However, in general the vast majority of people involved in making free-to-play games are dedicated to delivering a fun experience for the player. Free-to-play is a business model that sprung up as a means to compete in a fairly closed market of gaming. While it has caused some saturation in its own way it’s also led to some incredible innovations around games as a service, around what games can even be. Free-to-play has been a big driver of e-sports and almost singlehandedly propelled an entire genre, MOBAs to be the most popular type of game in the world.

I’m not saying that every game should be free-to-play, far from it, many games just wouldn’t work with the model because of the way it impacts on design and development. Yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, much of the world loves free-to-play games - that’s why we’ve seen growth year on year since their inception. These are games that delight a broad range of players that games have never reached before and that’s good for our industry, for diversity and for the field of game design and development.


This post/blog and comments represent my own personal opinions and does not represent those of my employers or associates, past or present. This post is for informational purposes only, it is not advice of any sort. This post is presented on an as is basis and I make no claims as to its accuracy, suitability or completeness. I will not be liable for any negative consequences arising from interaction with, or use of the information provided.

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