Is crowdsourcing less ethical than free-to-play?

Ben Cousins looks at the "ethical scorecard" for a variety of business models; F2P is under fire from the establishment, he says

Free-to-play (F2P) for many is still a dirty word. The biggest complaint often voiced is that F2P simply isn't ethical, that it's loaded with bait-and-switch ploys, and that it's targeting children as "whales" more than any other group. If you ask Ben Cousins, GM of Scattered Entertainment, none of this is actually true. In a GDC talk titled "Is Your Business Model Evil? The Moral Maze of the New Games Business" he looked at an analytical model for determining how ethical a business model is or isn't. His "ethical scorecard" yielded surprising results.

The key ethical issues listed on the scorecard include:

- Are purchase decision aimed at under-18s?

- Is it easy for an under-18 to spend without parental approval?

- Can the consumer play the game before spending?

- Are independent reviews available before spending?

- Are there time-limited offers? Random chance? Emotional appeals?

- Is the minimum purchase size under $20?

- Can the consumer spend more than $240 on one game?

- Can customers get refunds easily?

By assigning a +1/-1 point value to a yes/no response on each of these questions, a simple score can be determined. The higher the number the better in terms of a model's ethical nature. In the end, Cousins' scorecard looked like this:


As you can see, F2P games (whether for kids or adults) scored towards the middle to even positive territory whereas crowdsourced games, subscription and arcade were found to be less ethical overall. Interestingly, while crowdsourcing is vastly different from F2P, there are some parallels. Around 50 percent of total revenues on most crowdsourced games comes from just 10 percent of users; that means that crowdsourcing actually follows a similar "minnows and whales" pattern as F2P and yet Cousins noted, "I've never seen people accusing Kickstarter as manipulative or coercive."

Why is that? Cousins believes it's a result of how the "establishment" in the games industry perceives games and business models. The models that are treated as benign ended up scoring badly, and yet F2P, which scored fairly well by comparison is often under fire. Cousins said that developers are "dealing with the shock of the new" when it comes to business models like F2P. They fear the worst, but over time as more research comes out and as they see that bad things aren't really happening, that fear dissipates. Even the telephone, as a new technology, was considered to be dangerous at first. In fact, pinball machines were made illegal in New York City up until 1976 because Mayor LaGuardia alleged that these pinball games were robbing school children of money.

Cousins also said that F2P is suffering from the "outsider effect," meaning that F2P developers are often outsiders compared to the establishment, and if you don't know the people it's easy to assume the worst. Another factor is that the establishment wants to protect their definition of a "real game." Cousins said that this is often defined as "how I experienced games in my childhood" or in a "golden age." The establishment doesn't believe that F2P games respect the history of gaming.

The truth, however, is that F2P is the world's biggest business model by participation and soon it will be by sales as well, Cousins believes. This rapid growth can be threatening to the establishment who are worried that their power will be diminished by this growth. Another argument is that games are art and that art shouldn't be directly mixed with business or marketing. F2P games essentially marry commerce and design in a very upfront manner and some in the establishment consider that to be sacrilegious. For other models, the aggressive marketing takes place outside the game, not in it. But it's for that reason that Cousins thinks that game reviewers need to pay special attention to monetization in F2P games. He said that reviewers should specifically be looking to review monetization, and not just the game itself.

Ultimately, the stakes for F2P are massive now, and competition is extremely fierce as a result. Cousins said he's seen some F2P competitors attacking each other in order to gain an advantage. "I think that's unnecessarily bringing up issues that don't exist," he said. If anything, it's time to "stop infighting, and come together as an industry." Cousins believes that as F2P continues to grow (he thinks F2P revenues will surpass traditional by 2017) and the overall industry expands, there will be more and more scrutiny from the outside, and the industry will need to work together to defend itself.

Latest comments (16)

Robert Watson Senior Game Designer, Jagex Games Studio2 years ago
This is laughable. Seriously.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Robert Watson on 20th March 2014 7:11am

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital2 years ago
With the same kind of logic and scorecard, I can prove to you that dictatorship is much better than democracy (provided that the dictator is a decent person) and that war is much better than peace (provided that nobody dies).

There is nothing wrong with F2P. What is wrong is the way it is being abused by many studios who spend their time and money to create the best possible money-extraction mechanisms (and then perhaps add some city building graphics to make it look like a game).

In the traditional business models, you have a certain value that you offer and a price tag attached to it and every consumer can make a more or less educated decision. But with abusive F2P (and that is a different business model than F2P), the customer never truly knows the proposed value and never truly knows the attached price. He must spend more and more without knowing when his needs will be satisfied. And that's wrong.

But for the sake of argument, I am not saying that is the case with all F2P. A lot of them offer a very good idea of the value - price relationship. I am not talking about Team Fortress, or World of Tanks...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jakub Mikyska on 20th March 2014 12:34pm

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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 2 years ago
You can't really argue it in that way. That's like saying 'religion is evil' when usually problems you hear about stems from people.

Yes a lot of F2P games have been seen in a bad light but that's not because the game itself is necessarily bad, often it has just opened the doors for human greed and the fingers should be pointing towards them, not F2P itself.

And regardless of if we're talking about F2P games or not, I'm not sure you can really fairly score anything subjective using a point system.
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Show all comments (16)
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd2 years ago
This is ludicrous. They are about as directly comparable as apples and the moon. F2P is a monetization model built into the product to encourage impulse and addictive spending. Crowdsourcing is micro-investment. Yes, not everyone who takes part understands that, but it's not a preorder, nor are you spending money for the developer's profit. You are investing in the creation of a product, while F2P is investing in the continued experience. Crowdfunding exists to support things you believe in. It's a donation, and Cousins either doesn't understand that or is being intentionally deceptive.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nicholas Pantazis on 20th March 2014 11:02am

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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 2 years ago
"Is Your Business Model Evil?"
And here i always thought the answer would be a much simpler: "Depends on how you use it"
Any business model can be unethical: all it takes is to deliberately play your customers for fools. F2P is a model that just happens to be easy to exploit in that direction. ...and despite those scorecards, i still believe it a lot easier to exploit than crowd-funding.
Cousins also said that F2P is suffering from the "outsider effect," meaning that F2P developers are often outsiders compared to the establishment, and if you don't know the people it's easy to assume the worst.
I think it's actually more like the other way round:
F2P gained a very bad reputation due to the enormous number of poor quality games that still rack up a load of many thanks to (borderline) scam tactics. As a consequence, F2P developers are getting the "scammer" rep by association.
When i don't know better, I generally tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. And i did. Then I worked for a bit in one of these pseudo-game companies that abuse of the F2P model and I quit after only a few months exactly because the reality was actually as bad as people say. Now i'm, yes, going to assume the worst and be very cautious about joining another studio dedicated to F2P games.
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 2 years ago
why did he left out the -10 colum for f2p games? I thought this was about "ethics" and not revenue.
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Dan Amerson General Manager, NC, Organic Motion2 years ago
I concur. It's not really a sound analytical model based on the facts reported here. It seems structured to justify some very ethically ambiguous practices that occur in F2P games.

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 years ago
All my respect to him... But I just CAN'T believe this affirmation.

Because if voting with your wallet, which is technically what crowd-sourcing is, and allowing the final user to decide what he actually wants instead of the opposite (something that far TOO MANY companies are trying to impose) could be debated inside the industry as "less ethical" then we are heading in a completely wrong direction.

Maybe I would focus this more into what actually is according to so many studios: Crowd-funding gives you creative freedom, the confirmation that people wants your product, and breaks you free from the modifications and requirements that a distributor would impose you (let's be honest, if this last point were not an issue you would not see as many studios jumping into Kick-starter instead of showing their project in a big company's offices).

Btw, I don't like Free 2 Play in general but that was quite the generalization there. We may find lack of integrity in some Flash games that aim kids, but not every F2P is the same.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 21st March 2014 8:44am

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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios2 years ago
My main issue with F2P is not the ethics (although I do think it's massively open to abuse) but the design issues - most monetisation strategies encourage devs to insert micropayment prompts into the core gameplay loop. As someone who prizes immersion, I see this as a periodic reminder that you're playing a game.
It's not a massive issue in the mobile market where play sessions are short and engagement with the gameworld is pretty shallow, but seeing AAA titles feature micropayments saddens me. Buying DLC from the front end is fine, but imagine playing Skyrim and being prompted to pay 69p to unlock each dungeon...
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
Imagine a f2p movie. Just press play on your TV. If you want, you can watch it free of charge. But at certain intersections, you can chose to watch the more interesting sub-plot unfold, instead of the more boring one. You get the extended action scene with more robots fighting, instead of a woman giving birth during an alien invasion. At the end, you may chose to buy the extended ending offering better closure to all the plotholes you came across earlier.

Now imagine paying for a movie and having the feeling of its creators trying their best all the way through. No cop-out scenes that are in there so somebody can claim it was free, if you wanted to. Old fashioned, honest, give me your best, here is my money.

Wait, Unrated director's cut special extended edition you say? ...
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Anthony Gowland Consulting F2P Game Designer, Ant Workshop2 years ago
"Imagine my straw man for a terrible way of making a f2p movie - wouldn't that be terrible?" why yes, it would.

You could also do a f2p movie by doing a normal movie. The paid elements would be special features, allowing interested viewers to hear commentary and/or behind the scenes making off stuff for scenes they really liked.

I suspect most people aren't bothered with special features, otherwise studios wouldn't go in for repeated special editions trying to "double dip" their biggest fans, and digital purchases of bare bones films wouldn't be popular. So you've probably already got something that loosely maps to a f2p spend curve anyway.
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Jeff Litchford Vice President, idol minds2 years ago
Let's keep it real. Generally I hear a figure of 3-5% monetization rate being bandied about and then a whale percentage of .15%. So this means that 95% of the gaming population plays the entire game for free and 99.85% don't spend any really significant money...

The consumers sure don't seem to think F2P is evil... it's only the devs who dislike it.
So why do devs dislike it. Could it be because they want to build detailed and immersive games that fewer and fewer fans seem to want or enjoy...
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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 2 years ago
So why do devs dislike it. Could it be because they want to build detailed and immersive games that fewer and fewer fans seem to want or enjoy...
Sorry, but your statement is not quite correct.
First of all, i'm very much sure that a more immersive experience is actually, and by far, more likely to generate a strong fanbase, although it might have a smaller number of players. Please take into account that someone playing a game, even if with a certain dedication, does not necessarily make him a fan of said game. The behavior between a fan and your average player is quite different (in a F2P game you might consider the big whales as the fans, and you clearly stated they're, in fact, a minimal percentage).

But making something immersive is not really it, either. The problem between Devs hating the F2P model, especially on mobile platforms, is that an enormous amount of games shows a distinct lack of innovation and creativity. This is not because the Devs working on them are boring people who can't have bright ideas, but because the company/studio they're working for does not encourage new ideas. Too risky. Instead they railroad their developers into recycling and cloning what has already proved to work because that's the safe way to get revenue. If you're a creative person, then you can't NOT hate this.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paolo Giunti on 23rd March 2014 4:36pm

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Mariusz Szlanta Producer, SEGA Europe2 years ago
Great article James, thanks for sharing.
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Rusty Buchert Executive Producer, WhiteMoon Dreams, Inc.2 years ago
F2P can be alright if it is done ethically and not constantly in the users face/paywall to play. (Looking at Dungeon Keeper). What tocks me off on this is that it is one giant add for Ben and what he is doing. Of course he is biased towards F2P, this talk was generally a giant advertisement. This is part of the reason I strongly dislike talks anymore at GDC. They are platforms for advertisements in disguise.

Remember for the last 5 years Ben has been espousing "the End is Near" for everything but F2P. God knows how many these sound bites have been on this site.

Sorry for ranting but heavily biased/agenda driven "stories" tend to get my dander up. Especially when they are driven by slamming something else and "Look how wonderful we are". Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics does not prove the validity of your position. You just spin the data to get the "results" you want others to hear

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rusty Buchert on 25th March 2014 7:22pm

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Michael Schiciano Musician/Composer 2 years ago
The scorecard's own design seems to be a bit problematic, especially depending on how the 'scorer' decides to apply these points out. Also, by forcing all of these to a strict yes/no or +1/-1, it over simplifies the concept of ethical vs. unethical, especially since the analysis is being applied to the _entire_ model, and not specific case studies. If I wanted to apply some analysis here:
- Are purchase decision aimed at under-18s?
Let's assume No for the sake of an 'adult' crowdsourced game. (+1)
- Is it easy for an under-18 to spend without parental approval?
Easy if they can steal their parent's credit card, but no more difficult than other cases, so No. (+1)
- Can the consumer play the game before spending?
If the proposed game has a demo by the time the crowdfunding pitch begins - Yes. If not, No. This is the same with ANY game, though, with the exception of F2P. (Neither +1 nor -1)
- Are independent reviews available before spending?
Define 'independent reviews,' I would say that a lack of reviews does not make a game less ethical, but manipulation in the review process could make a case for less ethical. (This also doesn't warrant either a +1 or -1)
- Are there time-limited offers,? Random chance? Emotional appeals?
So saying yes to any of these means a -1, I take it? One could apply this to all games then, practically, depending on how loosely one wants to interpret 'emotional appeals.' (-1)
- Is the minimum purchase size under $20?
Depends on the project. (Neither +1 nor -1)
- Can the consumer spend more than $240 on one game?
Usually when someone is paying this much towards a crowdfunded game, they aren't strictly paying that 'for the game,' but are either getting extra items, or even a chance to offer their input in the game itself. The wording of this question seems malformed for the purpose of analysis (Neither +1 nor -1)
- Can customers get refunds easily?
If on Kickstarter? If the project is not fulfilled, then yes. If it is, and the consumer is just dissatisfied with the product, then no.
- - -
My point is that even if I were to accept the above analysis as an effective means of evaluating ethics, using it to paint broad strokes about ALL games under one category or another simply makes the discussion of ethics both too simple and overly complicated at the same time, to me.
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