Xbox Studios director of live operations Crystin Cox shared some advice for developers on how to deal with monetizing their games in an ethical manner in a recent episode of Google for Games' Game Dev Dialogs podcast.
Cox, who was previously a lead game designer and head of commerce on Guild Wars 2 and a former game director for Nexon's MapleStory, said developers would be best served by treating all their players with the same care they treat the children who play their games.
"Within any age group, there's vulnerable groups and vulnerable for a variety of reasons, but still vulnerable," she said.
While the basic ethics of fairness, respect, and accountability should be the same regardless, Cox said vulnerable populations will have "edge cases" that developers need to consider and address, no matter how frequently they come up.
"It's easier to just accommodate them than it is to deal with the consequences of not taking into consideration how you're going to manage the more vulnerable population," Cox said.
"Because even if I remove ethics from this conversation and we just talk hard business, there's nothing good about having thousands of thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars charged back onto credit cards and then getting fined by credit card payment companies. So there's tons of risk associated with allowing things like exploitative spending or binge spending."
Despite that, Cox was clear about not wanting to rely on hard business considerations for ethical decisions. Too often she talks to developers about ethics and finds they decide what's acceptable based on whatever players want or will tolerate. She said she tries to push them past that line of thought.
"What if players would tolerate anything," she asked. "What if your players would be happy with anything you did? What would you do then? Where are your lines? Not just, where are you worried about displeasing your player base, but what do you really feel is ethical?"
"If you really are willing to just do whatever doesn't upset your players, can you ever speak to your player base with conviction? Can you ever stand up for yourself?"
Those questions need to be answered because anyone who defaults to "whatever the players will tolerate" as an ethical litmus test is probably not considering which players that covers, or how the developer is supposed to know about which ones aren't tolerating something.
As she explained, "If you really are willing to just do whatever doesn't upset your players, can you ever speak to your player base with conviction? Can you ever stand up for yourself? Because these are things that can really happen. You can really get into a situation where you've made a decision and you might be in a position where one of your developers is going to sort of get thrown under a bus. Are you going to stand up for them?
"If you don't come from a place of having your own solid ethical guidelines that you really feel and that you are true to, it can be very challenging to actually work through those problems."
Cox didn't have specific answers as to what makes one monetization practice ethical and another not, but offered some general advice to developers.
"Think about regret, and design to reduce regret," she said. "Walk through your player experiences, anything you purchase. Is this likely to produce regret? Regret is a good red flag for something that's going on that isn't right and probably isn't going to pass the long-term test for being sustainable, or fair, or easy to understand."
Beyond that, developers should consider the position of power they have in regards to something they may care deeply about, which is the game.
"They don't really have a lot of direct control over this, and you do," she said. "You made this thing they really want and you decide whether they can afford it. You decide whether it's feasible for them to get that thing. This often leads into pricing strategy and things like that.
"You really want to be careful to avoid getting stuck in the high spender paradox, which is: if you focus on high spenders, then you will design all your monetization to appeal only to high spenders. Then you will only have high spenders and then you will create this constant cycle that you can't get out of."
Beyond that, she advised developers to be more patient and trusting with their players instead of pressuring them to spend on the game straight away.
"If you can, in any way that you can, be a little bit more patient and a little bit more trusting that if your players love the game, they will come to a place where they want to pay," she said.