Ethics of free-to-play game design are called into question
GDC Online session discusses possible ethical concerns of “freemium” games
Free-to-play has definitely been moving from strength to strength in the last couple of years, with more and more developers testing the model. The advantages are obvious – you have the opportunity to amass a much larger player base than would have otherwise been possible, and it represents a continuous income stream, often greater than what you would have achieved with a standard boxed retail model.
However, a recent GDC Online session has developers questioning the ethics of these types of games.
“You’ve got a whole bunch of one-percenters paying for a bunch of freeloaders,” said Scott Dodson, chief product officer of Bobber interactive.
Amazon.com designer Nik Davidson continued on this line, pointing out the fact that the 1 percent who are spending money on this games may not necessarily be able to afford to do so.
“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!”
This is likely due to the fact that it is usually possible to spend a lot more on a free-to-play game than the typical 50-60 dollars one would spend on the boxed version. Davidson continued by criticising the UI and UX design of free-to-play games, suggesting it may kill the model.
“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.”
There have been cases, particularly in Asia, where gamers are spending more than they can afford on in-game purchases or LAN cafes, so the ethics debate is not without merit. What side do you come down on? Share your views in the comments.