A session on the ethics of free-to-play game design at GDC Online has turned up some strong opinions on the methodology and motivations of the business model, with senior developers indicating that the area could well be on a path of self-destruction.
The session, reported by Gamasutra, featured senior Amazon.com designer Nik Davidson, Scott Dodson, chief product officer of Bobber Interactive and Immersyve's Scott Rigby.
Whilst some of the comments were decidedly tongue-in-cheek, particularly some of those from Dodson, several serious concerns arose about both the morality and sustainability of current methods of player engagement, retention and monetisation.
"This whole concept of freemium play, in my opinion, is the most radical form of entertainment socialism since Obama got elected" Dodson quipped. "You've got a whole bunch of one-percenters paying for a bunch of freeloaders."
Davidson also courted controversy, albeit in humorous tones, by pointing out that those who are often most tempted by monetisation incentives are perhaps not always the ones who can afford it.
"We like to think that the ones spending vast sums on these games are sons of Dubai oligarchs, but we have the data to prove that they're not, and that they probably can't afford to spend what they're spending. We're saying our market is suckers - we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!"
Davidson didn't stop there, criticising UI and UX design and analogising it to a creeping death for the genre.
"The long-term danger is that we are poisoning the well; we're watching a large-scale tragedy of the commons play out on our player bases. Our audience is becoming inured to viral trickery we employ to get people what we want to do.
"For example, good UX design says 'Find the button the user is most likely to press, and make it as large and central and green as possible.' So what social games designers do is put the button you want to press and make it small and gray and uninviting, and make the button that shares to your whole friend feed that you just passed level two of the tutorial. We've boiled the frog."
Davidson still has hope for free-to-play, however, and feels that there are laudable developers working to better the market.
"Our industry bears the characteristics of a gold rush," he commented. "In any gold rush, you have honest prospectors and you have claim jumpers."
Immersyve's Rigby questioned a separated area of the business, asking whether the terminology of free-to-play signifies some less than desirable thinking behind the language.
"What do we call our best customers these days," Rigby asked. "I'm not sure I'd want to be called a whale by anybody. 'Sticky' is not, generally, a good quality. I think we have this subtle language of control for our customers, and when paired with our ability to collect data, it raises some interesting ethical questions."