The beginning of the year is a good time to reflect on our day-to-day lives and where we could – perhaps should – make some changes. It's a clean break from the old habits, a fresh sheet of paper on which to write our future, a new beginning. In short, it's time for New Year's Resolutions.
The last time I wrote something like this was 2019, when my proposed resolution for the industry was "Let people know what they're buying."
Yes, that's setting the bar low, but I have to say the industry has made some real progress on this front.
We haven't had a scandal over unconscionably cheap swag in a misleadingly advertised collector's edition in a while, and vague season pass content descriptions seem to be less common, at least outside of the fighting genre.
Loot boxes have also been removed from a number of popular games, and even where they remain, publishers have been experimenting with more transparent implementations of the idea.
All in all, that's some progress. Good job, games.
So for this year, I've got a new resolution that sets the bar similarly low: only sell your stuff to people who want to buy it.
Just like the 2019 resolution, it sounds pretty simple, right? Aren't we already doing this?
But just like in 2019, the answer is, "Not as much as you might think."
And one big reason for that is the industry's attitude toward friction. Generally speaking, "friction" is a bad word for much of the games industry.
After all, developers, publishers, and platform holders have long worked to smooth over things that come between people and the games they play, not the least of which being the sometimes steep cost of admission.
STAT | $853.68 – The price of the Atari 2600 at its 1977 launch (adjusted for inflation to 2020 US dollars), according to a TechRaptor round-up of gaming prices adjusted for inflation over the years. The average cost of an Atari 2600 game at launch worked out to $170.70 in 2020 US dollars.
The move from cartridges to cheaper discs polished away some of that cost friction, and the advent of digital distribution was like leaving the games industry in a rock tumbler for a century or so.
Consumers didn't need to worry about games selling out, or even going to the store to get them. Ad-supported and free-to-play business models could not only eliminate the cost friction for players, they could be incredibly lucrative for publishers. The ubiquitous success of the smartphone meant billions of people around the world suddenly had game-playing hardware on their person virtually every moment of the day, often tied to credit cards that could turn everything into an impulse purchase, from a $1 mobile game ("premium") to a $100 bucket of virtual currency ("free-to-play").
Never before was there so little friction between the decision to buy a thing and the thing being bought.
But a little more friction in this case wouldn't be such a bad thing. A couple decades ago, you could make a purchasing decision on a game and have plenty of time to think it over as you went to the store (or perhaps multiple stores, given the possibility of games selling out). You had time to change your mind, to reconsider the value proposition, to see if your interest in it was simply fleeting or something more durable.
Today if you're grappling with a purchase decision, it only takes a moment of weakness to lose that battle of willpower. There's so little friction in some cases that you don't even need to make a purchase decision.
QUOTE | "On mobile devices, the button to preview different outfit styles appears directly below the button to purchase items, as shown in the screen capture below. To preview styles, players must tap the button labeled 'PREVIEW STYLES' with their finger. But if in the process a player instead taps the adjacent button labeled 'PURCHASE,' Epic immediately deducts the cost of the item from the player's V-Bucks balance." – In a complaint against Epic released last month, the Federal Trade Commission laid out a number of dark patterns the Fortnite maker deliberately used "to dupe millions of players into making unintentional purchases."
QUOTE | "Epic feared that adding a confirmation button would add 'friction', 'result in a decent number of people second guessing their purchase', and reduce the number of 'impulse purchases'." – The FTC suit explains why Epic did nothing to address the problem of unintentional purchases despite its own employees expressing concern about how sketchy it all was.
And while Epic had reduced the friction for buying items to greased-up-bodybuilder-on-a-WD-40-Slip-n'-Slide levels, it was throwing rock salt into the gears of the refund process.
After numerous complaints from customers and concerns from employees, Epic finally allowed users to cancel their one-click purchases, but only for a limited time and if they hadn't yet moved off of the purchase screen. Initially, it looked like this:
But after customers started actually pushing that "Undo" button more than Epic would have liked, it rearranged things to look like this:
There's a whole lot of extra friction there. "Undo" has become "Cancel Purchase" and moved from its front-and-center positioning to the fine print options on the bottom of the screen.
Additionally, it now requires the user to hold the triangle button for a length of time instead of simply tapping it, a confirmation mechanism people never had to use to buy the thing in the first place.
Additionally additionally, the note that you can only cancel a purchase for a short while or until you leave the screen has moved near the bottom of the screen and is much harder to read against the illustrated background.
Additionally additionally additionally, it looks like tapping the triangle button instead of holding it will result in the player trying to buy the item as a gift for someone instead of refunding it.
Additionally additionally additionally additionally, it's unclear if accidentally tapping triangle instead of holding and choosing the "buy as a gift" option would count as having left the screen and make the purchase permanent. Why, it's almost as if this was deliberately designed to confuse people and prevent them from doing the thing they actually want to do!
At least Epic added a two-factor authentication requirement for sending gifts so you might not mistakenly buy a second item while trying to refund the first mistakenly bought item.
(Update: After publication, an Epic representative reached out to note that the company changed the payment process in September of 2022 to include press-to-hold payment confirmation and make the refund process more clear. The FTC complaint states that Epic did not even allow in-app refunds until June of 2019, and was already receiving complaints about the use of dark patterns in the refund process by September of that year.)
Dark patterns like this are truly loathesome and shamelessly underhanded tricks, but they're also effective.
STAT | 35% - The decline in Fortnite's undo purchase rate after the above changes were made.
Obviously, not every game is as nefariously designed as Fortnite. Not every company will be as morally negligent as Epic Games. Not every employee who pipes up with an, "Are we the baddies?" will be ignored.
But just as obviously, not every game out there is such a huge success that it will merit the attention of the FTC. Not every company that uses dark patterns is called to account for their transparent disregard of customers' actual intents and wishes.
And most damningly, Epic was by no means lying when it characterized what it was doing – crimes worthy of a $520 million settlement, in many cases victimizing children – as "long-standing industry practices."
QUOTE | "The video game industry is a place of fast-moving innovation, where player expectations are high and new ideas are paramount. Statutes written decades ago don't specify how gaming ecosystems should operate. The laws have not changed, but their application has evolved and long-standing industry practices are no longer enough." – Epic's comment on the FTC settlement.
It's a good reminder that "Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I?" is about as compelling a defense for the government as it it for any pre-teen's parents.
So for 2023, let's re-examine all such "long-standing industry practices" that draw complaints and concerns – the things we know are OK to do primarily because that's just how things work in the industry – and consider how we can improve them by adjusting the friction.
Stop using friction to thwart refunds, to lock people into ecosystems with high switching costs, to keep them from opting out of mailing lists or ad tracking, to keep them from cancelling a subscription, or to get them to unknowingly sign away their first-born as part of an end-user license agreement.
Start using friction to ensure that your customers actually want to be your customers, to let them shape and control their experience with your games as they choose, and to make sure your products and services are looking out for them first, and you second.
A little friction gives people a moment to turn off autopilot and think about what they're doing, a speedbump to make sure they're taking action thoughtfully, an opportunity to rein in a fleeting impulse.
If that sinks your business, maybe your business wasn't so good to begin with. But if you're not scamming people and producing something actually worthy of the asking price, surely you can survive a little friction.
The rest of the week in review
QUOTE | "Before us is an opportunity to make big changes and bring equity to the video game industry. We want to put an end to sudden periods of crunch, unfair pay, and lack of growth opportunities within the company." - Zenimax Online Studios senior QA audio tester Victoria Banos talks about the goals of Zenimax Workers United, the newly formed union comprising roughly 300 QA developers across all of Microsoft-owned Zenimax's US operations.
Regular readers of this column might see as the first continuation of one of the big market corrections of 2022, the curbing of long unchecked corporate overreach, in this case by organized labor.
QUOTE | "The freedom to change jobs is core to economic liberty and to a competitive, thriving economy. Non-competes block workers from freely switching jobs, depriving them of higher wages and better working conditions, and depriving businesses of a talent pool that they need to build and expand." – US Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina M. Khan explains why the regulator plans to ban non-compete clauses in employment contracts, showing that the governmental regulation aspect of the market correction we talked about is also stretching into 2023.
Regular readers of this column might see as another continuation of the curbing of long unchecked corporate overreach, in this case by government regulators.
STAT | 6% - The year-over-year decline in UK video game unit sales, according to GSD market data. Interestingly, the slide was attributable to fading catalog title sales; new release game sales were up 20% year-over-year.
Regular readers of this column might have already known that 2022 was sneakily solid on the new release front.
(As much as I enjoy wallowing in self-serving and unbecoming "Told you so" entries, I'm going to stop for the rest of the column because I want to take the high road. And because there's a non-zero chance I ran out of things I was right about.)
QUOTE | "After four years, thousands of pages, and a lot of coffee, Wireframe magazine's time is drawing to a close. A confluence of factors mean that issue 70, out today, is the final edition in print." – Wireframe Magazine announces the end of its print run. However, the plan is for it to "return in an evolved form" at wfmag.cc.
QUOTE | "Accessibility is an important topic to us at PlayStation, and we want to continue raising the bar to enable every gamer to experience the joy of play." – Sony "raises the bar" by unveiling its own accessibility controller almost five years after Microsoft debuted the Xbox Adaptive Controller. At least Sony got here quicker than Nintendo, which despite marketing the Switch as having "something for everyone," appears content to let third-party peripheral makers fill the accessibility controller need.
QUOTE | "Drivers and front seat passengers can access games while parked or charging, while those in the backseat of vehicles where rear entertainment is enabled can play anytime on the road." – In announcing a plan to put its cloud gaming service into a variety of cars, Nvidia makes it very clear company management was not as recklessly foolish and negligent as Tesla management, which added the ability to play games on the car's touchscreen panel in December of 2020, did it in such a way that drivers could play while the car was moving, and only disabled it a year later after the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally took notice.
QUOTE | "Blockchain has been an object of exhilaration and a source of turmoil, but with that in the rear-view mirror, we hope that blockchain games will transition to a new stage of growth in 2023." – In his now traditional New Year's Letter, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda confuses a car's rear-view mirror with its windshield and windows. A simple translation error, I'm sure.
QUOTE | "In 2023, I believe at least one big company will ignore the current crypto winter and try to finally marry NFTs or other crypto elements with a top IP in an actual game." – Among our panel of industry analysts making predictions for 2023, Dr Serkan Toto was bullish on blockchain gaming.
QUOTE | "I'm expecting quite a few blockchain games companies that secured early-stage funding in 2021 and 2022 to fail to secure additional funding when required in 2023 and, as a result, will go out of business." – Ampere Analysis' Piers Harding-Rolls was not.
QUOTE | "2023 will see a significant increase in VR ownership and usage. By the end of 2023, VR usage will near double-digit penetration rates in the US." – Elsewhere in our panel predictions, Midia Research's Karol Severin expects VR to finally emerge from the trough of disillusionment this year.
QUOTE | "New breakthroughs across artificial intelligence and cloud computing will allow game developers to create more complex and higher quality worlds in less time and at a lower cost." – Finally, Niko Partners' Lisa Cosmas Hanson expects the future to arrive in a hurry for AI and cloud computing, with additional ramifications for user-generated content platforms.
QUOTE | "While not a gamer himself, Roger nevertheless understood how to create video game mags that enabled their writers to connect with their readers in ways that no games mags had done before. His ideas were revolutionary and completely changed the face of the UK games press." – Jaz Rignall mourns the loss of Roger Kean, the co-founder of seminal UK gaming magazines ZZap!64 and Crash, who died this week after a years-long illness.
QUOTE | "So many of our greats have fallen. It's so very sad. My condolences to his friends and family. Archer had a gift. Everything he touched was as close to perfect as our nascent form would allow. And he was a gentleman. We will miss him. We must remember him." – Shahid Ahmad remarks on the passing of Dropzone and International Karate developer Archer Maclean, who died last month at the age of 60.