Ethical Games: 254 Shades of Grey
I’ve been putting off this topic for a while now. It’s a complicated beast that’s hard to address objectively. It’s not at all black and white. And while it may, from the surface, seem like this is only an issue that matters to game designers, I hope that you’ll stick with me as I get to why it’s important for anyone downloading a game -- especially if it’s free -- to first consider whether the game’s business model is ethical. If the long scrollbar looks daunting, then skip ahead to the “Why it matters” section.
Black, white, and everything else
Free-to-play games are more common than ever, but there are still plenty of premium games out there -- games that you pay for once and get all the content forever. These sorts of games usually fall comfortably into the ethical category (#ffffff), designed and released with no controversy. On the other end of the spectrum (#000000), there’s that time when King.com trademarked the word “candy” and then sued CandySwipe, the very game that they heavily copied when making Candy Crush Saga (the issue was eventually resolved amicably, which likely means that a lot of money was exchanged).
Between these two extremes are downloadable content, pay-to-win games, and other microtransaction games that have successfully extracted tens of thousands of dollars from some vulnerable players. This expansive ethical minefield spans all the way from #010101 to #fefefe -- 254 shades of grey.
Legal vs. ethical
I want to carefully distinguish between these two words because, in a controversy, it’s common for a studio that finds itself in an ethical grey area to defend its behavior as 100% legal -- and they’re probably right. There are plenty of things that are legal but unethical -- like a lot of the shenanigans that caused the collapse of the housing market in 2008. On the flip side, there are some behaviors that are considered ethical but illegal. Most Americans will support a terminally ill patient who self-medicates with marijuana, even though it’s illegal in most states.
I make this distinction between legal and ethical because I want to make it clear that most of what we find in the ethical grey area is currently legal and is likely to stay that way. We can’t rely on our legal system to make ethical decisions for us.
The grey area
More often than not, it’s games with in-app purchases that find themselves somewhere in the grey area. The writers over at Extra Credits made a great video on why many free-to-play games, as currently implemented, are badly broken. They focus primarily on how the current model is unsustainable from a business perspective, simultaneously driving away players while driving up advertising costs. I want to focus more on the ethics of these games.
Most players are savvy enough to understand that when we download a “free” game, it’s probably not really free -- it’ll tempt us with microtransactions that let us play longer, level up faster, or look cooler. Chances are that you’ve never paid anything for those kinds of games, so you may wonder where the money to support those games comes from. What you may not know is that for these kinds of games, half of the revenue comes from just 0.15% of the players! Put another way, if you have 666 players who have downloaded your game, the game is making most of its money from just one of them. Game studios lovingly refer to these high-rolling players as whales.
Generally speaking, these sorts of games prey on people with addictive personalities. I doubt that the designers are evil people, deliberately out to find these sorts of victims and part them from their money. These games are made by perfectly well-intentioned folks who use algorithms to figure out what makes the most money. Every sound, every reward, every timer is perfectly tuned to maximize profits. It’s an amoral design process that just happens, as a byproduct, to make most of its money from a very small group of individuals.
Are those people victims? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect that many of them are fully aware that they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on games. Some have the means to do that. And most will probably say that they’re happy with their purchase (cognitive dissonance is likely to figure into their response). But any time a game is designed for addiction and allows players to drop an unlimited amount of money, its ethics should be considered questionable. This is exactly the reason why gambling is illegal or regulated in most places.
Breaking implicit promises
It used to be that if you bought a game, you could reasonably assume that all of that game’s content would be included. Somewhere along the way, downloadable content (DLC) became a way for studios to offer a little extra for their hard core fans. Today, DLC abuse has spiraled out of control. For instance, consider Train Simulator, available for $39.99 on Steam. Not cheap, right? So you get everything, right? Not even close. If you were to buy all of the DLC for Train Simulator, it would cost you more than $2800!
Do the ethics of a game’s financial model matter from an economic standpoint? Only if players make their purchase with ethics in mind. As it stands, microtransactions games currently reign as the clear financial winner. In the US, 79% of app store revenue comes from microtransactions -- a number that’s likely to climb. In China and Japan, that number is 94%! For all of these games in the ethical grey area, it’s hard to fault the creators. Games are a cutthroat business. If you want your studio to survive, you need to go where the money is. If there is a niche that hasn’t yet been exploited, it will be, so you might as well be the one to get there first. That’s the nature of Capitalism. Just like metrics-based game design, Capitalism is amoral. If money can be legally made on the backs of victims, a product will rise to fill the niche.
Where is Extrasolar?
Part of the reason this topic is particularly relevant to Extrasolar is that we considered several options for our game economy. We could have used microtransactions where you pay a small amount every time you want to take a panorama photo or shorten your time delay. But instead, we chose to sell the game as episodic content -- a model where if you pay $25, you’ll get everything we ever release.
A lot of successful game designers have told us this was a mistake -- that we should have at least one item in the game that can be purchased ad infinitum -- some way to take advantage of our whales. From a purely economic standpoint, they might be right: not choosing microtransactions may have been a mistake. It may end up dooming our beautiful, award-winning game. But to us, this decision was a moral one and we wanted to at least try to make the game financially viable with the economic model that we consider to be most ethical.
Why it matters
If there’s just one thing that I want you to take away from this article, it’s the understanding that games won’t get more ethical on their own. It’s up to you, the people who play games, to shape the economy. Your choices matter -- a lot! As long as people keep playing Candy Crush Saga while decrying premium games as too costly, freemium games will continue to reign supreme and more creative games -- games that are costly to produce and require experimentation -- will be stifled.
This isn’t just true for games. Every purchase we make has ethical consequences. Most grocery stores now have a vast array of eggs ranging anywhere from $1.50 to $7.00 per dozen. Depending on your choice, you may be supporting cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, organic, non-GMO, or locally produced -- it’s overwhelming! Everyone’s price-to-responsibility threshold will be different. What’s important is that we simply take the time to understand the trade-offs and at least attempt to make a responsible decision.
In our global economy, it's more common than ever for our purchases to have far-reaching unintended consequences. Whenever you buy something that seems too cheap to be true, it’s likely because of an externalized cost that’s hidden from you -- like unregulated pollution at the site where the product is manufactured. Freemium games are no different -- when you download a free app, you’re implicitly supporting its economic model, even if you never pay a dime. Every download counts as a vote that keeps the game at the top of the app store: in essence, free advertising. Somewhere down the line, in this huge collection of unsuspecting advertisers, lies the whale -- the externalized cost.
So how do you make responsible game choices? Do your research. Don’t be seduced by the free button. Read the game’s description to try to understand how it makes money. If it’s not clear, be suspicious. Ask the developer for clarification. Thankfully, both Google and Apple are moving toward more transparency. Google has already started labeling games that have in-app purchases.
Finally, and most importantly, if you see a game that you like or a game that is genuinely different or has a niche audience, support it! Even if you can’t pay, share the link with your friends. Always remember that players are more empowered than anyone else to make the game industry a more enjoyable, more ethical ecosystem.
Other Kickstarters to watch
Speaking of genuinely different games with a niche audience, I want to draw special attention to Elegy for a Dead World. Like Extrasolar, Elegy is experimenting with entirely new ways of telling a story -- in this case, asking the player to write the history of a civilization, pieced together from incomplete fragments.
Another great match for sci-fi fans, Flagship is a real-time strategy game where you command a fleet from the bridge of your own starship, exploring the stars and expanding your territory to save humanity from being wiped out in a hostile galaxy.