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Contrivance and Extortion: In-App Purchases & Microtransactions

Games that abuse checklists and include In-App Purchases are deliberately contriving their designs in the worst way in order to extort money from players, which is unethical and unacceptable design practice.

At IndieCade last week, Jon Blow (BraidThe Witness) used the term "contrivance" to describe all the bullshit we put between players and the game; between players and the puzzle; between players and the system; between players and the experience.  Whether the contrivance is intentional or not is not as important as its mere existence, the fact that it is a significant obstacle, whether the part of the game that is the most interesting is exposed as much as possible to the player.

Last night I got caught up on some recent and not-so-recent iOS games that I'd been meaning to check.  These games were all official Apple "Game of the Week" or otherwise pretty hefty critical and commercial successes: Forever DriveInfinity Blade, and Jetpack Joyride.

I also checked out two smaller titles: Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD.  Super Crossfire is a really solid and simple arcade game (ported from the highly respected XBLIG title of the same name) that takes some of the arena shooter innovations from the last few years and puts them into a Space Invaders game with a cool "warping" mechanic.  Async Corp (pointed out to me by Simon Flesser of Ilo Milo and Bumpy Road) is a strange and wonderful little puzzle game that I am still rolling around in my head, and may write more about later.  Actually, Bumpy Road is rather important to the points I am about to make...

I want to make three distinct points, which I will elaborate on below.  The first is that developers need to be more cognizant and responsible about something I'm calling the Checklist Effect.  The second is that In-App Purchases violate the sacred circle of play in a profound way.  Games that do both of these things, that abuse checklists and include In-App Purchases, are deliberately contriving their designs in the worst way in order to extort money from players, which is unethical and unacceptable design practice.  Finally, games that intrude on my phone's home screen with advertisements for other products, using the iOS notification badges especially, though less contrived, are contrived for the same greedy reason.

The Checklist Effect

I was originally going to call this the Pokemon Effect, but probably that would be illegal or something.  And besides, it complicates things a bit.  This probably also has an actual neuroscience or psychology term that I should be using, but I haven't worked out what that would be yet.  Regardless, the Checklist Effect is that subtle and slight psychological effect that seeing a big checklist of in-game items or abilities has on players.  It is usually a subtle push, a barely detectable need to "accomplish" everything on the list.  This could just as well be called the Achievements Effect probably, but that complicates things too.  Checklists outside of games can have a similar effect I think - a slight pressure to check off each item, to be done; mischief managed.

It is time to acknowledge both that this effect exists, and also that most of the time this is a manipulative and unpleasant thing to do to players, all the more so because they may not realize it is even happening.  I frequently do realize it, and it is a big turnoff for me.  In Simon Flesser's ridiculously charming game Bumpy Road, players can discover or pick up polaroids or photographs from the main characters' past life.  As far as I can tell getting these pictures is tied more to time spent playing or distance traveled, more than skill or understanding.  To be fair, play skill and understanding do make distances easier to travel in games like this... but the relationship still stands.  When I opened up the photo album menu feature, to check out the story unfolding in the photographs I'd recovered, I found that after playing for 5 or 10 minutes I had collected only 1 or 2 of what seemed to be a hundred or more photos!  Some quick mental math reminded me that I don't have that many hours to spend on something that isn't inherently deep and engaging.

On the flipside, I have played some iOS games recently that had really interesting achievements or checklists.  Shaun Inman's The Last Rocket, with a total of four achievements, asks the player to play the game in a new, weird way for each item.  Zach Gage's Bit Pilot makes absurd and wonderful demands of player's skill: no single achievement takes more than a minute or two to earn, but requires incredible dexterity and focus.  Some of Bit Pilot's achievements are limited to fewer than 10 players so far!  In both of these cases, the games themselves stand on their own, and the checklists exist only as bait to lead players to a new epiphany or new understand of the game system.  These are responsible and ethical uses of checklists in games.

The Sacred Circle

This is an old idea about games and play, usually credited to Johan Huizinga, the oft-quoted author of Homo Ludens.  The idea of the sacred circle is that it is the boundary between the imperfect, consequence-laden, quantum and random real world we all inhabit, and the perfect, impossible and imaginary world of games and play.  The sacred circle is the line that divides the real world from the ancient, powerful and beneficial world of play.

The integration of in-app purchases feels like a brutal violation of the sacred circle; it is allowing the real world, and my real money, to intrude on and influence my performance.  To me, this is different than a poker buy-in, and different from deciding to "unlock" the full version of a game from inside a demo.  These processes are in some fundamental way external from the game itself, from the actual state of play.  These "games" may be a pleasurable activity for many but this seems like a profound corruption of millennia of play.

Together, a Maelstrom of Suck

When you put these things together, you get "games" like Infinity Blade and Forever Drive.  The moment to moment play is engaging for a few minutes or even an hour, but then we have seen pretty much all there is to see.  The systems themselves are not deep enough to merit or encourage further exploration for their own sake (intrinsically), so an extrinsic system (a checklist) is created to subtly (and not so subtly) nudge the player forward, well beyond when the player has completely explored the system, puzzles or overall aesthetic experience.  That in and of itself is bad design, but games like this push it even further.

The checklists in these games have been very deliberately designed to require a certain amount of grinding or waiting to advance.  We either have to fight the same fight over and over, or race the same tracks over and over, until we can afford the next item on the checklist, which will enable us, largely irrespective of our own skills as a player, to proceed.  If it was possible to succeed in these games without the checklist, that would be one thing.  But these games are very deliberately designed to ensure that not only do you need the checklist to succeed, but in fact successfully completing the checklist is prohibitively slow and/or annoying to do.

That's when they step in, like a mafia godfather, and offer you a deal you can't refuse: you're a busy guy, you have kids, you have a job; if you slip me a little cash under the table, I'll help you level up a little faster, maybe get through that next part of the checklist by tomorrow.  This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life.  Developers who deliberately engage in this kind of design should be ashamed of their creations.

Unethical Intrusion

Jetpack Joyride, though guilty of the checklist effect, largely sidesteps the aforementioned Maelstrom of Suck by primarily selling totally unnecessary cosmetic items, and providing (to many) a reasonable balance of play-time and in-game currency rewards.  My beef with Jetpack Joyride is not that it is genuinely evil, despite their irresponsible use of checklists (hundreds of items with an average price of $5000, when my first play of the game netted me a mere $300).  My beef came when I decided to try out the next game on my phone only to notice a little notification badge had appeared on the game's icon on my home screen.

Intrigued, I opened the game, but couldn't find the notification on the screen I resumed from.  Intrigued further, I skipped back to the main menu screen and found it on a little tab up in the corner.  Feeling relatively satisfied and still curious, I opened the tab... and discovered an ad for a game made by some other company.  This is a whole other kind of contrivance but motivated by the same greed and lack of respect for players.

Let's all remind ourselves, as we build games, commercially and otherwise, that contrivances are bullshit.  If your game is not first and foremost about the player and the experience, then you are not building games.  You are building micro-retail stores, maybe, or greed engines, or something.  I don't know.  But it's not a game, and I don't want it on my hardware.


If you want to know more about the math and psychology behind how games like Infinity Bladeand Forever Drive work, I highly recommend my friend Tim Rogers' excellent series who killed videogames? (a ghost story).  If you want to check out Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD, a pair of ethical and interesting iOS games, just click their names!  (actually Super Crossfire HDdoes have in-app purchases but for the life of me I can't find where to get them or what their purpose is).  You should also check out Bit Pilot and The Last Rocket if you never got around to it, their achievement design is really good.

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