Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

Developers question the ethics of F2P design at GDC Online

"We're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!"

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 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."

Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

More stories

US game spending up 3% to $4.4b in September, says NPD

PS5 ends Nintendo Switch's 33-month run as top game console in units sold

By Jeffrey Rousseau

Valve ban deals blockchain gaming a big blow | Opinion

With Steam banning NFT and blockchain-based games, where is the blockchain revolution supposed to happen now?

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (7)

Jeff Lindsey Senior Producer, Arkadium9 years ago
Does our industry often question the retail methods to create purchases (conversion)? Shelf height/store placement, misleading advertising, doctored screenshots on the box, putting system specs in tiny print, price anchoring, packaging color and form factor, fake/pre-marked-up "sales"... even something as simple as x.99 pricing. While I agree that many F2P games take it too far, it feels like it's just the (often clumsy) result of developers needing to take on the job of marketing and conversion themselves when dealing with digital products.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Michael Sandercock Lead Game Designer, Secret Location9 years ago
I think you're casting a large net around F2P. Some F2P games go too far, sure, but some does not equal all. This article is just click bate opening with a quote like that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michael Sandercock on 12th October 2012 6:33pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
No wonder.

The game industry abuses its own people.

In fact, it really doesn't see people at all. It sees things. Platforms. Technology. Bureaucracy. Efficiency.

In other art forms, there is the focus on the artist. In the game industry, the focus is on things. If visual art ran like the game industry, everyone would focus on paints and canvases and so on - but the voice of the artists would be reduced to dead rules.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 12th October 2012 8:12pm

2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (7)
Michael Schiciano Musician/Composer 9 years ago
Drawing a comparison between the Game Industry, and other 'art forms' is a bit of a poor line to draw, IMO. A more direct comparison could be drawn between the Game Industry and the Film Industry, or even the Book Industry (though not as strongly).

Games naturally have the potential to be a powerful medium for artistic expression, but that 'focus on the artist' is definitely more visible in the smaller scale, independent, or solo produced titles we've seen, and I'd argue that we're in a better time for that side of the craft of games to be visible than we have been for quite a while.

I'd also say that it's not surprising that a degree of more-or-less-abuse happens in the Game Industry...because it's an industry, one of production, and unfortunately, we've seen many, many cases of this happening across industries.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development9 years ago
With great power comes great responsibility, and when it doesn't abuse is inevitable. Now with todays technology it is possible for even fewer to have even more of the wealth, gaining it in a short period of time, unbalancing not only the economics of the industry but negatively effecting all those involved, and all the customers too.

We know how easily human behaviour can be exploited, how easily we can be 'forced' into implicitly making decisions we are unaware of, and it doesn't take a genius to see how bad that is to abuse excessively and to have no ethical or moral responsibility.

I despise the responses that attempt to attribute the coldness to "business", hiding behind a term when in fact these businesses are structures created and used by human beings, with decisions being made by humans, and even when a computerised system is used to make decisions, it is still the human that decides the system and its workings, and the human who has the freedom to intervene. "Business" is what you want it to be, especially when you are cash rich and in control of a market, to which there are absolutely no excuses.

Dog eat dog mentalities should be confined to the pits.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 15th October 2012 2:52pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive9 years ago
Behavioral Game Theory much?
We've seen this coming for a while. Some designers even refer to F2P as "the dark transaction".
I wouldn't be surprised to see some regulation eventually, ala gambling, since F2P can tickle those same mechanisms.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext9 years ago
I don't see anything new here.This appears to just be random, baseless badmouthing. On the other hand, there was a very GOOD (or at least honest) presentation of F2P made at GDC:
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.