Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games

In this extended article the ethics behind F2P are tackled with a view towards criticising the ‘addictive’ elements of the model that it has over some players. Straight away an interesting but unstated assertion is made as the classification of ‘whale’, a term usually reserved for pay-to-win models, is used with reference to Team Fortress 2, a game that only allows for aesthetic purchases to be made.

The article is based on multiple interviews with high spending players and developers from a variety of games and lots noteworthy points and quotes are invoked that are worth highlighting.

Online swag and the ethics of F2P

“Now that I think about it a bit, it’s almost a way for me personally to feel a bit richer than I really am. I might have an older car and a bit of a run down apartment, but online I’ve got all this nice swag that lots of people aren’t willing to spend on. It’s a nice way to make yourself feel special.” 

The $10,000 game

‘My research didn’t just focus on triple-A PC games either — many of Nexon’s free-to-play titles came up numerous times. One player told me that he has spent around $3,000 on MapleStory, including dropping a whole $500 in an attempt to create a single weapon in the game. But he says that he is easily one of the lower-end players, and that he regularly talks to people who have spent upwards of $10,000 on the game.’

The $6, 000 aesthetic difference

‘Another player I talked to found themselves spending more than $5,000 on a Nexon game called Mabinogi, mainly on cosmetic items. “There were plenty of times when the rent would go unpaid because I had spent the money on the game instead,” he says. “However, I don’t know if I can blame the game for that. If I hadn’t spent the money on Mabinogi, I would have spent it on something else.”

“I can’t say I really regret the spending,” he says. “I loved the game, and I still miss the friends I played with. Five or six grand isn’t too much to pay for the amount of happiness I got out of it.”’

Spread sheet pvp and $30,000 investments

‘I also came across numerous far more outlandish stories. One player, who called himself Gladoscc, told me that he used to play a web-based MMO called eRepublik, in which players waged wars against each other.

In total, Gladoscc spent more than $30,000 on the game. “The geniusly evil part about eRepublik is that you have to spend money in order to neutralize the enemy’s money,” he says. “It’s spreadsheet PVP, though. The social aspect is what kept me in.”’

Mafia Wars addiction destroying family

‘By far the worst story I discovered was that of a mother who became addicted to Mafia Wars on Facebook, and ended up sinking tens of thousands of dollars into it. As her obsession grew, she began to withdraw into the game and care little about the life going on around her.’

F2P developers the new tobacco industry?

‘”I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career,” the person told me. “But I recognize that [company]’s games cause great harm to people’s lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players’ investments of time and money. [company]’s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It’s not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.

The ex-employee says that it all comes down to one main point: “Enabling self-destructive behavior is wrong.”

“It’s wrong when the tobacco and gambling industries do it, and it’s a shame that portions of the game industry do it too,” they added.’

The ethics of pay-to-win versus fair free to play

“Any [free-to-play] game that makes it virtually impossible to advance beyond a certain point without spending money was almost certainly designed with whales in mind,” the employee notes. “Games that allow players to advance to the highest level without spending anything are less exploitative. At least they don’t actively encourage addiction.”

[similar to me own stance on the issues that suggested a certificate of ‘fair play’ could be something that should be made obvious in the future]

World of Tanks and fair F2P the answer

‘”Free-to-play games have the challenge of being sometimes viewed as low quality, and we want World of Tanks to serve as proof that a quality and balanced free-to-play game is possible,” he added. isn’t the only company that feels this way. Hi-Rez Studios has released a string of free-to-play titles, including Global Agenda and the more widely acclaimed Tribes: Ascend.

Both are notable in that players are very accepting of these versions of “free-to-play”: You can download the game for free, and then play for as long as you want, with no advantages given to those people who choose to purchase vanity items and the like.’

The goodwill behind fair F2P

‘While you might guess that Hi-Rez doesn’t make as much money as some of these more exploitative studios, it’s notable that around 10 percent of Tribes: Ascend players choose to pay money — a figure that is much larger than the 1, 3, and 5 percents that I’ve heard from the majority of other free-to-play developers. Harris reasons that this is down to trust, and players feeling like they are getting their money’s worth.’

MOBA leading the way

‘”I personally think that it’s going to go down over time,” he adds, “because if you look at the games that are having the most success — League of Legends, Dota 2, as well as our own titles — they are not perceived that way, not perceived to be pay-to-win as much. So those games seem to be having more traction.”’

Gaming ethics the new review criteria?

‘”But game journalists and reviewers could play a valuable role — in reporting how ‘exploitive’ specific titles are or are not,” he says. “I don’t think a game critic’s rating of ‘Graphics Quality’ or ‘Audio Quality’ is all that important anymore — now that so many games are free-to-play, people can try for themselves. And even with buy-to-play, potential buyers can see graphics and gameplay on YouTube or via live streaming.””But ‘exploitive mechanics’ could be harder to detect in a single ‘Let’s Play’ video, so game critics could help a lot in that area,” he adds.’

Psychology of F2P and the comparisons to gambling

‘On the topic of in-app purchases, Griffiths says, “The introduction of in-game virtual goods and accessories (that people pay real money for) was a psychological masterstroke.”

“It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return,” he continues. “The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking.”

Griffiths argues that the real difference between pure gambling games and some free-to-play games is the fact that gambling games allow you to win your money back, adding an extra dimension that can potentially drive revenues even further. This, he says, is why some free-to-play game studios like Zynga are currently moving into the pure gambling market.

Griffiths goes on to reason that the lines between social free-to-play games and gambling is beginning to blur, bringing along with them “various moral, ethical, legal, and social issues.”

Griffiths is keen to stress that, as of yet, the psychosocial impact of free-to-play games are only just beginning to be investigated by people in the field of games.

“Empirically, we know almost nothing about the psychosocial impact of gambling via social networking sites, although research suggests the playing of free games among adolescents is one of the risk factors for both the uptake of real gambling and problem gambling,” he adds. “Whatever research is done, we can always be sure that the gaming industry will be two steps ahead of both researchers and legislators.”’

[I would argue there are significant differences in the motivations of players in free-to-play games and gambling games as the aims of the games are vastly different. Gambling games are all about money. Pay-to-win games, while money driven, attempt to cloud that distinction]

Ante Games

Elsewhere, Shokrizade details what he calls “Ante Games” — those free-to-play titles that appear to be games based on skill when you first boot them up, but gradually turn into a money game, as the more experienced players put real money in to beat other players. It’s worth reading Shokrizade’s entire article on the topic, which also delves into “Progress Gates” and sales boosts.

Are people the problem here?

[Important to remember here that these behaviours are only exhibited by a minority of the people playing these games and there is the argument that if these models did not exists then some other addictive activity (even buying normal games as is argued here) could fill the void.]

‘”I suspect that if he’d spent the money on retail games, he’d walk away saying, ‘I keep having trouble making rent because I’m buying a new game every month. I have to figure out a way to cut back,” she says of one of the stories I collected.’

‘”I don’t have an answer for that,” answers Delany. “If you look at stories about people being addicted to things, whatever is the latest form of entertainment gets hit with that badge. In the ’90s it was games consoles, in the ’80s it was television, before then it was radio — radio was going to destroy culture etc. So it’s not a new discussion, that people scrutinize new forms of entertainment. It’s a healthy part of society.”’

The comments section is also alive with activity in this article and many good points are made that are worth checking out. What exactly is exploitation in games, can it be expanded to time (Fuchs would argue so anyway)?

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