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The Ethics of Game Design

Video games have always walked the line between providing entertainment and making money. With the rise of social games, the line has begun to blur calling into a question of ethics.

Video games have always walked the line between providing entertainment and making money. With the rise of social games, the line has begun to blur calling into a question of ethics.

When we use the term "game design", it can mean a lot of things: from a zerg rush in Starcraft, to collecting stars in Mario Galaxy and even the hook of Farmville. With the rise of social and mobile games, the push to grab the "non-gamer" market has never been stronger. From that, more titles are trying to attract people using specific design, such as incredibility simplified mechanics, monetization and the use of face book features.

While the use of these tactics have been denounced by mainstream designers and the indie market, that doesn't exclude them from trying to hook people to their games. MMOs with huge leveling curves and grinds, titles that require the player to keep playing and even Civilization that coined the phrase "one more turn." Let's not forget the F2P market which has been designed to get people to constantly spend money. All this brings up an issue that we haven't discussed much in the industry: Ethics in Game Design. Or to be more specific: Are there mechanics in design that could be considered unethical?

Mainstream Catch-up:

Mainstream and AAA developers have been hurt the most in the last few years. The mobile, indie and social market have grown considerably and are providing content to gamers at a fraction of the cost of a company like EA or Nintendo. To combat this, we've seen an increase in micro transactions designed to reduce the time playing a game.

Both EA and Capcom with their games have purchasable cheats available that reduce the difficulty of the game. The reason is that they don't want people to be stuck at in one game for a long time; they want them to finish the game quickly then buy more content or another game. This mentality is reminiscent of the arcade era: where arcades were designed around a quick turnover between players.

Some of the most highly regarded games use tactics to get people to continue playing. PopCap games are designed in such a manner. Their games are made to quickly get into and understand, then provide constant hooks to keep them playing. In this regard, Zynga and PopCap are two sides of the same coin. Both try to hook people as quickly as possible and use their design to keep them playing. Where PopCap tries to keep people playing to see the entire game, Zynga wants them to keep spending money.

Many Indie developers cry foul over tactics like the ones mentioned, however they aren't distinguishing between monetization like Zynga and EA, and design like Civilization and PopCap. There is a prevailing attitude among certain Indie designers that they are better than designers that use mechanics to get people to play (and continue playing) their games. However, that viewpoint may be just as short-sided as mainstream designers trying to speed up people's playing experiences.

Art vs. Business:

While I was at GDC this past year, I attended both the independent award show and the choice award. At the beginning of the Indie award, the host gave a speech that left a bad taste in my mouth. What it basically amounted to was: "Indies are the only ones who can make unique games because they are the only ones smart enough and brave enough to do it and that's why they are the best." And it felt that a lot of people agreed with this statement.

I have a lot of respect for Indie designers who are creative enough to make unique games. However with that said the attitude that you're better then someone because you don't care about money is very disingenuous. This feeling gets back to the "games as art" argument that some Indies talk about: that a game should not be aimed to make money but to make a statement.

No matter how many times designers say it and if they shout it out from the rooftops, the Games industry at the end of the day is a business. If you’re not making money with your games then you are not going to last. Saying that you are creating a game for art's sake and not about the money is a misnomer.

Unless you have a lucrative part time job, or a rich relative about to kick the bucket, the profit of your game is a huge deal. Making what could be considered an "art game" or something not intended for the mass market is fine. However, don't rub it in people's faces that you don't care about the money, as there are plenty of designers who could use that.

Now, this is not me raising the war banner against the Indie community. As I've read more stories of Indie designers whose success of their game would mean the difference of having a roof over their heads, or being thrown out on the streets. These stories usually end with a happy ending of the designers surviving and making more than enough money to continue doing what they want. They're not being smug about it, but grateful to their fans for helping them survive.

Shades of Grey:

This takes us back to the original question: "are there mechanics that could be considered unethical?" Thinking about it, this question is similar to a blog post I made several years ago. I talked about the idea of gender specific mechanics: or if some mechanics were predisposed to appeal to men or women. My thoughts concluded that mechanics by themselves were not, but how they were used in the design of the game were.

That same opinion is where my thoughts are on ethical design. At the end of the day, what function do these mechanics serve? If it's to keep people playing or seeing content, then I'm perfectly fine with it. However, if the mechanics only serve the purpose to force people to spend money then I think that's unethical.

When I played World of Tanks, the further I went, the more pressure there was to spend money. Once you get to the higher tiers, it's very easy to lose most of your in game credits on tank repairs due to how little you make unless you play perfectly. However, if you spend money per month on a premium account, then you won't have that problem thanks to bonus credits earned per match. Premium tanks (that can only be purchased with real cash) come with a credit bonus for using them, further giving the incentive to spend money.

Looking at other games in the Free-To-Play market is where things aren't so black and white. With League of Legends for example, while the designers obviously want you to spend money, everything that is game-play related can be earned over time. Yet in Age of Empires Online, your strategies are neutered unless you spend money on a premium civ and skirmish mode must be bought. The give and take between providing entertainment and making money is a tricky balance, and one that has gotten harder to keep.

As a positive example, while I was at GDC I attended the discussion about the merits of F2P design moderated by Tom Chick. There, one of the developers behind the F2P game: Realm of the Mad God made a very convincing case that I didn't think about.

He said that with F2P and the monetization available, he was able to create and support a game where he didn't need to assault players with advertisements and gated payment mechanics. All by keeping the game free and giving the choice for players to spend a few dollars on little things. This was really the first time that I heard a great argument for the pros of F2P design.

Recently, the line has begun to blur even more in the social and mobile game market. Over the last few months social and mobile games have been moving from emulating titles like Farmville and have begun cutting out the middle man as it were. Apps and simple games built around casino play like Poker and Slots have begun to show up. Personally I find this troublesome as recently I had chance to witness the real life equivalent.

Viva Las Vegas:

I just got back from a family vacation in Las Vegas. As someone who isn't a gambler I had plenty of time to examine the casino culture and I personally find it very unethical. From the slots to the hotels themselves, the whole industry is not built to provide a service to the consumer, but instead to take their money.

Everything in the casino is designed to get you to spend money gambling. And if something can't be used, then it is made as frustrating and out of the way as possible to convince you to not do it. The hotel rooms had very little in the way of amenities, as they want you out on the floor at all times. Unless of course you booked a suite, where you must have had to spend a lot of money or got enough comps gambling to afford.

The thought of this mentality seeping its way further into game design is one that scares me. I'm ok with games like Mario or the "One More Turn" persuasion of strategy games. But, when a game is designed from the ground up to do nothing but continually take money from me, I have a problem with that.

With so many sources to play games, this discussion will not be going away anytime soon. As social games try to keep people playing, mainstream designers will keep a close eye to see what worked and what didn't. And as the age of digital distribution and DLC grows, we'll need to figure out exactly where the line is between taking money and providing content.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye

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