I’ve recently had to reflect on my attitude towards free-to-play games. I recognise there are two sides to the issue, and I’ve been trying hard to reconcile them.
On one hand, I think that free-to-play games can be exploitative. They include mechanisms that maximise the amount of money people pay and maximise what the industry calls ‘retention,’ the amount of players coming back for more. Inherently, there is nothing wrong about either of these. With most players playing for free, the money has to come from somewhere. The possible problem lies exactly in this equation: with few players paying, the few must pay more. And this seems to be the case, with only 0.15 percent of players paying 50 percent of the money. In industry lingo, these players are called “whales.”
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with paying money for something that you value. People are willing to spend money on all kinds of things, including games they enjoy. Spending 1000 euros on a free-to-play game you enjoy should be viewed inherently as valuable as spending the same amount of money on going to watch football or concerts. Both are fleeting experiences. The game might be shut down by the developer, but the concert will definitely be only a memory after a year.
I think games suffer from a “reality deficit” in this regard. They are viewed as virtual and unreal, and are not valued as much for that reason. Virtual objects are not real, the argument (wrongly) goes. Yet, people are willing to spend money on them, for very real reasons. “People buy virtual goods for the very same reasons as they buy other goods,” Vili Lehdonvirta writes in Virtual Consumption. I think there is no inherent reason why virtual goods should be less valuable than physical goods, but it might take some convincing before the public agrees with me.
However, it is problematic to think that because players are free to purchase what they want and as much as they want that this practice is free of ethical considerations. Mike Rose’s Gamasutra article highlights some of the problems with the practice. Seeing paying customers as free agents makes sense from a business perspective, but the psychological tricks and techniques the developers of free-to-play games use show that they are very aware of the psychology of the model they employ. Studies in psychology show that we are far from rational actors capable of judging what is best for us, and are prone to all kinds of faulty thinking.
This does not mean that we are not responsible for our own actions, but it also means that the fault is not solely ours. More than one in five of those who pay more than $50 are unhappy of their purchases. There is a disturbing parallel between free-to-play games and gambling, which has not gone unnoticed. Most people have no problem with gambling, but some do, and some of those that do develop pathological patterns of behaviour that can be very destructive to their lives. Same kind of pattern exists in free-to-play games: most have no problems, but some do. The part that bothers me most is that the free-to-play model is based on the few: a tiny fraction of players must pay a lot of money so that most of the players can play for free. As the Gamasutra article highlights, it is not always the people with the most money that spend most. Usually we accept that people are free to do what they want with their money and time, but in some cases we agree that their behaviour has become pathological and destructive, or in other words: they are not free anymore, but bound by their patterns of behaviour.
Saying that it is not the developers problem is taking the easy road. With new forms of gaming, new possibilities lie ahead. But at the same time, new problems loom overhead. I think the industry needs to take responsibility for the choices it makes in the patterns it promotes. Free-to-play is still a relatively new model, so the choices may not all be apparent. But some choices are more apparent than others: it’s not hard to notice the predatory patterns that some publishers have adopted, sacrificing gameplay on the altar of revenue only to notice that worshiping that particular false god may not be worth it after all.