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Contrivance and Extortion II: Clarifications, Feedback & Suggestions

Predatory game design seems to be a real problem, and most of the "defenses" for it are poor (so far). I also attempt to lay out some guidelines for ethical game design that integrate the good things that freemium models have to offer.

Adam Saltsman, Blogger

October 20, 2011

12 Min Read

I don't hate the freemium business model.  That is a silly, made-up word anyways, and as many people rightly pointed out, is a term that can be broadly applied to include things like shareware or other transparent and common business models.  Even downloading demos and unlocking the full version of a game could be considered freemium.  Others rightly observed that freemium has all sorts of advantages - players can try games for free, pay for as much game as they want, and so on.

However, my previous article was specifically about the most popular, most widely talked about, most widely implemented and most widely marketed modern expressions of the "freemium" or "free to play" business model.  The least harmful of these expressions is "level up faster" style freemium (Forever Drive, Jetpack Joyride to a lesser extent), in which the value of an extrinsic checklist takes priority over any intrinsic interest or value in the game system.  The most harmful of these expressions is "pull the rug" style freemium (Infinity Blade), in which the rate at which players progress through the intrinsic and extrinsic systems in the game is suddenly changed at some optimal point, hopefully after "hooking" players.

As expected, the article got some strong reactions, from both sides of the camp (if that is such a thing).  The strongest reactions, not surprisingly, were from developers of games that use these business models.  Many were from developers who don't actually use these specific designs, and with whom I have no gripe, but I guess "freemium" is a touchy subject for a lot of people!  Again, I don't think that freemium is inherently evil, regardless of how silly a word it may be.  But these particular expressions of it are definitely evil, as I explained.

I hope that this somewhat clarifies my stance: "level up faster" and "pull the rug" style designs are unethical and dishonest, and the popularity and momentum of this approach is bad for players and the industry at large.  However, unethical game designs are not limited to just freemium games!  There are many games that are shallow and addictive, using simple psychological hacks like skinner boxes and checklists to engage people beyond the point when the system is offering up intrinsic pleasure.  These tactics have existed for decades, but the rise of "social games" and "freemium games" have pushed them back into the spotlight.  I propose a new term that includes all of these abusive, manipulative and addictive game designs: predatory game design.

Before I introduce my suggestions and ideas for ways to take advantage of the positive aspects of freemium, I want to address some of the most common, kneejerk reactions to predatory game design criticism (including a lot of freemium game criticism), and why these are utterly illegitimate defenses of these unethical practices.  This doesn't mean there aren't other, more legitimate defenses; I have just seen these ones pop up a lot in the last two days, and would like to address them in bulk.

Whiners, Trolls, Hurt Feelings, Meanness, Tone, etc

This defense takes many forms, thus the long title, but the result is the same no matter what: a dismissal of the argument without actually addressing any of the points or presenting a counter-argument, and a simultaneous attempt to discredit the original presenter (in this case, me). Some quick examples of the actual manifestations of this defense:

"[responding] won't do any good, and it'll waste my time + raise my blood pressure."

"I'm so tempted to write a counter blog post, but it would just be feeding the trolls. Whoever argues the longest wins."

"I can't believe all the bashing I'm reading about freemium games! The argument is "they're not like games I like, so they're crap"."

"If you’d asked first, we might have engaged in a philosophical conversation about it, because we might have had the impression you were actually curious to discuss rather than soapboxing.  Now, forget it."

"Yet another article complaining about In-App purchasing. How droll."

"The whole argument behind the blogger's post falls down to two points that are thinly veiled.
1. f2p players are dumb.
2. f2p developers are thieves who are just money grabbing.
Whenever you see an argument like that you're either looking at someone trying to join a political race, or prey on ignorance. Neither are respectful or adult ways to start a conversation."

This defense accomplishes two important things, neither of which are actually defenses of the practices in question.  First, it prevents them from having to actually point out any actual flaws in my argument.  Second, it mis-characterizes both my argument and the arguments of anyone bothered by these trends as being about personal dislike, rather than evaluations of game systems and player psychology.

Players Voted With Their Wallets

This defense takes many forms as well, but I think that phrase sums it up very nicely.  The argument here is that because predatory game designs actually work, and the developers make money (and lots of it), that that somehow validates these designs as ethical.  This is sociopathic reasoning.  It is like arguing that some activity or other is only illegal if you get caught, or that if you can't prove that i'm lying, then obviously i'm not.

The fact that predatory game designs reap massive financial rewards should be setting off warning alarms in our heads, not indignant defenses of the practice justified by circular logic and correlation.

Games Have Always Been About Greed

I like this one a lot, for multiple reasons.  First, it is a tacit admission that predatory game design is in fact greedy and bad for players, the humans who support us in our creative endeavors.  Second, and I say this without irony or sarcasm, it rightly points out predatory game designs that pre-dated the modern freemium business models.  Common examples are the grind-fest of Diablo, or the quarter-sucking arcade machines of days of yore.  While I would argue that those games were at least more transparent about your psychological and financial investment, they are valid points, and should be part of the discussion.

However, "of course these games are greedy" is a pretty sad defense.

All Games Are Addictive

While the line between genuine intrinsic engagement and addiction may sometimes be fuzzy, that line definitely exists.  Some of the most influential games of recent times could hardly be described as either addictive or designed with player addiction in mind: Braid, Ico, Flower, Portal, and so on...

The idea that all games are addictive is demonstrably false, and no excuse for creating deliberately addictive and predatory games.

Players Have a Choice

Similar to the "players voted with their wallets" defense, but different in some key ways.  In this defense, the argument I believe is something like "hey man - we just put some things up for sale.  if people buy them, they buy them - it's their call.  how is that bad?"  This is profoundly disingenuous.  You could make the same claim about grocery stores, but there is an entire industry dedicated to figuring out how to "make" people shop.  Pretending that that same process is not happening in predatory games is ridiculous.

Predatory game designs can and do design environments to strongly encourage and incentivize the purchase of unnecessary things by manipulating player psychology.

As Long As It's Fun, It's OK

NOTE: I may update this section at later, as this is exactly what Tak Fung (Forever Drive) and I are discussing right now.  So, this section is my theory and my understanding, and I may be able to update it with better ideas later!

This defense is specifically for "level up faster" style freemium models of predatory game design.  This is I think a particularly insidious idea, because, unlike the other defenses, it can be hard to spot what's wrong with it until you back up about 10 feet and see the big picture.  This idea is one of the reasons I wrote that article in the first place.  I think it is an idea that is very sticky, very attractive, and even masquerades as ethical, or at the very least lawful-neutral.

This idea could be paraphrased as such: "Some players just don't have as much time as other players.  I want to provide a deep play experience for as wide an audience as possible, including people who are busy.  If they have money, and want to skip ahead, why is that bad?  Especially if the game itself is fun?"

Untangling this proposition forces us to back up a bit and examine the whole game system and business model and the way they connect, and question some of the assumptions in that idea.  First, games in which you can "level up faster" are, by necessity, games with an experience points system or leveling system of some sort.  We can take that for granted.  Second, usually if there is an experience or leveling system, there is some kind of checklist somewhere, where the player can unlock new things based on their experience or level.

The "as long as it's fun, it's ok" argument posits, then, that as long as the intrinsic play or game experience is more interesting for players than the extrinsic checklist component, using an otherwise predatory game design pattern is acceptable.

However, if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve more checklist progress with less gameplay.  That would run pretty directly counter to the whole game design.

However, if the checklist is in fact more compelling than the gameplay, and more important, then one can see how players would be willing to spend real money to avoid gameplay and acheive more of the checklist.

I think it is very important to acknowledge this basic relationship, this basic systemic implication: if you sell the ability to "level up faster", your business model probably depends on making money from the people who enjoy your game the least, and are the most succeptible to manipulative and addictive checklist features.

I would really love to be wrong about this, but I can't see this problem from another perspective (yet).  If there is another side, please share it in the comments!

Doing It Right

So hopefully by now you understand the types of predatory game designs with which I take issue.  There are some sound arguments against these kinds of designs, which I have tried to present in these two articles.  The widespread use of these designs needs at the very least to be defended if it is going to continue unquestioned; it's not an issue that can be ignored or dismissed anymore.

However, as many people (including myself) have pointed out, it's a lot easier to knock a house down than it is to build it up in the first place.  So, a proposition: let's knock down the house we built so far; it's a crappy house.  It takes all the worst aspects of game design and amplifies them using all the worst aspects of this new freemium craze.

Let's build a newer, better one in its place.  Let's look at the positive aspects of freemium, and build games around those things instead.  Let's give this business model a good name, and in turn give this massive sector of the game industry a good name too.  Here are some things that freemium is great at:

  • Convenience: If I want to buy add-ons for a game, leaving the game and going to some other menu or system or device or geographical location is awesomely enough an absurdity in this day and age.  Getting more content in the most convenient way and supporting developers at the same time - what could go wrong?

  • Lower Customer Risk: The days of buying a $60 game and hoping it doesn't just thoroughly suck are thankfully behind us.

  • Flexibility: Episodic games, cosmetic alterations, global buy-ins... there are genuine opportunities for experimentation and more, better ways for players to support us.

Probably there are even more advantages to this whole "freemium" thing, and in-game purchases, but these are the ones that stick out to me.  None of these things are inherently evil, obviously.  These all sound profoundly ethical, even.  Maybe we need some guidelines, going forward; maybe we need to erect some artificial contraints to keep us honest.  I would like to propose a few here, and I hope that we can continue exploring these in the comments:

  • In-Game Purchasing Presentation: We need to balance the convenience offered here, and the intrusion into the game.  Once i'm done playing the game, and have exited back to the game's main menu, if I can access a store there, that's a big improvement I think.  I don't have to go back to the app store just to get more levels or the next episode, but it's also not being stuff in my face as I play.

  • Checklist Usage: Checklists are one of the hallmarks of predatory game design, but we can ask ourselves a couple of simple questions when we are adding a checklist to our game.  First, how is this checklist presented?  Does it only appear if the player seeks it out, or is it constantly automatically presented?  Second, what is the function of the checklist?  Is it just a way to assign some trivial significance to player time spent in the game (an important metric for offering more IAP opportunities!), or does it provide some more interesting goals for the player?  In Bit Pilot, there is a checklist that encourages you to play the game in weird new ways.  In Costume Quest, there is a checklist that helps you avoid missing any story bits.  In neither game does the checklist automatically appear during play.

  • Skinner Box Usage: Random drops and other gambling systems obviously should either be abandoned entirely or used with extreme care, especially when coupled with real-world money systems.  I can't think of a time when this is an ok system to use honestly, but maybe someone will come up with something in the comments.

The goal with all of these guidelines is to reduce contrivance and increase convenience.  Freemium game technology can be one of the tools we use to increase convenience, but if it is at the price of contrivance, we are doing a profound disservice to the players that support us.

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