The Podcast: It's a family show

Discusses E3 data leaks, abuse against Ooblets developer, the impact of mass shootings on games and the FTC's loot box workshop

Rebekah, Brendan, Chris and Haydn are on hand for this bumper episode to discuss a long, complicated and frustrating week in the games industry.

We start with the leak of thousands of journalists, analysts and content creators' personal information -- including phone numbers and postal addresses -- via E3 media lists. We discuss the ESA's handling of the situation, the impact it may have on next year's E3, and the potential for abuse against those affected.

From one form of abuse to another, we discuss the vitriol directed at the indie developers behind Ooblets, and how the team has addressed it. The cause of such anger? Why, Epic Games Store exclusivity of course.

Then we discuss the fallout from the weekend's two mass shooting in the US, which have somehow inevitably (but tenuously) been linked to video games. (To the point where, just hours after recording, it emerged that Walmart was pulling displays and demos for violent games from its stores)

Finally, Brendan and Rebekah recap the revelations of the FTC workshop on loot boxes, including news that Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft will now require all developers and publishers to declare their odds for loot drops.

All of this while watching our language. Mostly.

You can listen to our latest episode below, subscribe to our RSS feed, or download the file directly here. It is also available via Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, Player FM, TuneIn and other widely-used podcast platforms.

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Latest comments (10)

Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch11 months ago
One of the reason for currency obfuscation in games is that it maintains the ability for non-spenders to purchase 'premium' items.

If something is only available as an IAP (In-App Purchase) you can only buy it with real money. If it's available for Gems and Gems can be purchased, earned, rewarded and so on then those items are not locked off from non-spenders while still being monetisable.
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment11 months ago
To pile onto Ian's point, using a separate "premium" currency allows for more granularity in rewards. You could give decimals of a cent of value for beating up a Lv 1 Slime for instance.
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment11 months ago
Honest question: I hear the words, "scummy, manipulative, exploitative" a lot when game monetization techniques are discussed. I can't say that I've ever heard anyone describe Amazon's storefront using words like these. There is a lot of data science behind the layouts, recommendations, seamless purchasing and information presented on any given page in Amazon. As one whose job is to use data to get the most relevant bundle of items to the right user at the right time and at the right price, I don't believe that there is a difference between what I do and what data analysts / product managers at any B2C company does for a living but I feel that games gets all the hate. What is the difference?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eddie In on 11th August 2019 5:14am

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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz11 months ago
Eddie and Ian, why not have two prices for items then, the amount you pay with VC and the amount you pay if you want to buy it with actual money? Nintendo effectively does this with its online storefront, even letting people cash-in their Nintendo reward points to lower the real-world money cost. This addresses both of your concerns, and makes the value proposition more clear for the player.

As for what's different Eddie, the answer is a whole bunch. The vast majority of what Amazon offers has a pretty clear value proposition: X amount of money for Y goods. It doesn't try to hide what I'm spending or what I'm getting. Many games typically do both.

Amazon is also a storefront first. It's not a game, which already is toying with people to create feelings of joy, frustration, relief, excitement... When you're already pushing people's buttons and then you tie the purchase decision into every aspect of the game, you have a lot more options to manipulate people who are already engaged with the game part of it. Everyone likes to talk about how powerful games are as a medium, but it seems nobody wants to think twice about how we might be abusing that power as we push for engagement, no matter how unintentionally.

Amazon also makes it very easy for me to track my spending. There are obviously loads of games out there I haven't played, but in my experience the only way for me to track how much I've been paying over a span of time is to search through my email for platform holder transaction confirmation receipts.

Games are a lot better at applying social pressure to purchase more. Amazon can ask me to tweet out my latest purchase, but games put me in a clan and give me a limited time event where everybody gets a prize if we collectively pass a threshold so I can either buy a bunch of consumables to carry my weight or I can selfishly play for free and let the team down.

There are other differences, of course. But as I think I said during the podcast, these various tactics all build on and feed into one another, so it's difficult to say "THIS is the point at which it becomes predatory" and easy to say "Well everything this game does is defensible individually in some context, so it must still be defensible even in the context of being layered with dozens of other decisions and mechanics."
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Eddie In Product Manager - Games, Mobile, Boss Fight Entertainment11 months ago
@Brendan Sinclair: First off, take an upvote!

The ability to offset a dollar amount with earned soft currency (or even coupons) is entirely controlled by the platform. Right now, I have to tie a SKU to a specific price point. Yours is an interesting idea for sure and I'm sure many would give it a look if enough platforms announce their plans for features like this.

I appreciate your point of view that games have a lot of levers to create demand and influence purchase decisions. I used Amazon as an example but my point encompasses all of retail. Think about Nike and high-fashion - there is a very good reason why each of these companies have a strong social media presence and a solid network of influencers. Are we also to indict Nike for using popular athletes and influencers to manipulate consumers for wanting to play ball with overpriced shoes? As someone who got laughed at for wearing K-mart shoes on the court, I can attest to the many levers of big brands to create demand and influence purchasing decisions.

Amazon is also a storefront first. It's not a game, which already is toying with people to create feelings of joy, frustration, relief, excitement...

I get your point, but I sense there's something deeper in this quote. Is much of the aversion to microtransactions in games caused by just that - that someone put a storefront in a game?

To your point about spend tracking, I agree that there is a lot of responsibility that comes with operating a storefront - customer service, return/refund policies, account management, security, tracking purchases, ensuring that purchased items don't go missing... etc. I'm fully on board with trying to improve our storefronts and policies to be more consumer friendly. In my experience, I have not encountered anyone in my profession that tries to deceive or exploit users; the ones that say they do should smarten up. There are aggressive sales people for sure, but folks like that should remember that the idea is to increase your revenue by communicating value more effectively.

The last piece is that spenders/whales aren't dumb passive members of the community - if they find something unpalatable with something I did, they'll REALLY let me have it. If a publisher goes too far or does too little, whales are on the front lines. See the consumer backlash with Smilegate and their game Epic Seven. That entire company got beat into submission.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eddie In on 12th August 2019 5:56pm

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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch11 months ago
@Brendan Sinclair: Currency obfuscation isn't a complaint I've ever really heard from players, they don't seem to take issue with it and are far more concerned with fairness, game balance, performance, bugs and so on.

Regarding your idea of having the IAP and a VC price, while the IAP would be clear that system alone would lose the granularity of purchasable VC. For example if an item is 10 Gold and that's 10 dollars and I earn 1 a day then I can choose my play/spend ratio. There are other reasons to have virtual currency but it's worth noting that a lot of developers start with something like 100 VC = $1.00 to set a base rate of more easily understandable prices, of course that starts to go awry when considering different national currencies.

Your idea that you would get the same granularity by having some sort of conversion that reduces the IAP price is interesting. As Eddie points out it's not currently supported at the platform level, at least not with a lot of workarounds and certainly not in a granular way. I don't think the experience for that would be clearer than the standard VC approach. You would need a different intermediary step for the conversion but you'd also need to hold in your mind that x points is a $1 reduction and the national currency differences would still come into play. I'm not saying it couldn't work I just don't see that it's all that different.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch11 months ago
These podcasts is that they're a bit of an echo-chamber. On the whole the group seems to be fairly anti-capitalist, and certainly highly critical of any non-critical path methods to sell an item to a consumer.

I feel as though there's a general assumption that anyone involved in game monetisation is acting entirely in bad faith; that it's all about manipulation and deception to extort money from people but that's just so inaccurate. Like honestly, please spend a week shadowing the people who make these games and you'll find passionate people who care about their game, their players and want to keep the game fun for players and importantly functioning as a business so that it can stay that way.

In one bit Rebekah says that $0.99 purchases are put in as a tactic to get young players to make purchases. It would be interesting to know who said this but I don't think you'd find any developer who puts in small transactions to get young people spending in a game. They may put in small transactions to encourage buy in but there's no evil business guy planning to manipulate young people for goodness sake.

Perhaps the podcast could expand to have some guests from some of the big f2p publishes or whatever to give some explanation, or if you want to keep it internal perhaps just a bit more balance, someone to play devil's advocate, I dunno.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ian Griffiths on 13th August 2019 2:35pm

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Rebekah Valentine Staff Writer, GamesIndustry.biz11 months ago
@Ian Griffiths: Hey Ian! Just to answer the question about who mentioned the $0.99 purchases thing, that would be Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for policy and privacy at Common Sense Media. She said this during the final session of last week's FTC hearings, which I wrote up more fully here:

I don't have her specific quote included, just paraphrased. The hearing is recorded on the FTC website, though, if you're curious. Johnson talks about that specific issue around the 1:57:00-ish mark here:
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz11 months ago
This is a great conversation.
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Ian Griffiths Product Owner, Hutch11 months ago
@Rebekah Valentine: Thanks, I'll take a more full look at the video when I get a chance.

So, I think this pretty much confirms what I'm thinking; that these are assumptions coming from people not working on monetisation in the industry. I think that it's a bit how people view government where they see something they don't like and then assume it's purposeful and done with sinister intent.

To reiterate my point, I just have never heard of anyone purposefully implementing people to take advantage of younger players nor would anyone that I know in the industry consider that even slightly acceptable. To be honest the people behind these games and the monetisation are usually exceptionally busy engaging with upcoming content and features and even in the design phase just aren't going to be focused on anything but the main experience.
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