部分方法包含提供给玩家“有趣的痛苦”——这是Zynga 的Roger Dickey在描述玩家进入一个不舒服的位置，然后能够通过花钱删除这种“痛苦”的情况所创造的术语。
在那之后几天，Spry Fox的Daniel Cook发表了一篇名为“Coercive Pay-2-Play techniques”的博文，在文章中他带着一种半玩笑式口吻反驳了免费游戏。
Laralyn McWilliams是电子游戏设计师兼制作人，曾经作为SOE的免费儿童游戏《Free Realms》的创意总监。她也曾就免费游戏模式的优势与劣势做出了详细描述。
简单地来说：“如果你现在坐下并在《勿忘我》中投入60美元，并且游戏质量就是你所期待的那样，那么你的想法是否与投入60美元与《Clash of Clans》一样？许多人不会这么想，即使他们是基于同样的时间长短在玩游戏。”
Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games
by Mike Rose
Research in the field
Dr. Mark D. Griffiths is a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the psychology department at Nottingham Trent University. The professor is well known for his research in the field of video game addiction and gambling.
Griffiths published a paper last year in which he argued that social games have gambling-like elements, even when there is no money involved whatsoever — rather, they introduce the principles of gambling through in-app purchases.
“On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar,” he argues. “Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire.”
One element that Griffiths has found to be particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behavior in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement — that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards.
“Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior,” he says. “In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction.”
Griffiths also points to a “growing body of research” that indicates that players who are presented with virtual representations of money (virtual currency) will find that spending and gambling with this fake cash is hugely exciting.
In those instances when there is no money changing hands, players “are learning the mechanics of gambling and there are serious questions about whether gambling with virtual money encourages positive attitudes towards 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.”
In another paper published earlier this year with his colleague Michael Auer, Griffiths argues that “the most important factors along with individual susceptibility and risk factors of the individual gambler are the structural characteristics relating to the speed and frequency of the game rather than the type of game.”
“The general rule is that the higher the event frequency, the more likely it is that the gambling activity will cause problems for the individual (particularly if the individual is susceptible and vulnerable),” he adds. “Problem and pathological gambling are essentially about rewards, and the speed and frequency of those rewards. Almost any game could be designed to either have high event frequencies or low event frequencies.”
As a result, he argues that the more potential rewards that are offered to the player, the more problematic and addictive an activity can become.
Griffiths goes on to argue that it would be potentially possible for a “safe” scenario to be achieved, by which a game is designed such that players cannot spend money past a enforced structural limit — this would ensure that players were not able to develop a gambling problem, regardless of their susceptibility.
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.”
Tit for tat
Most recently, a pair of analyses on the topic of free-to-play spending coercion versus pay-to-play spending coercion was spread far and wide via social media.
Ramin Shokrizade, an industry consultant who has written numerous papers on the topic of free-to-play monetization, detailed his research into how social games will trick players into making in-app purchases through incomplete information and virtual currency.
Part of this method involves providing the player with “fun pain” — a term coined by Zynga’s Roger Dickey to denote the situation in which a player is put into an uncomfortable position, and then offered the chance to remove the “pain” by spending real money.
There’s also a sort of opposite monetization method to this, which Shokrizade calls “Reward Removal.” A free-to-play game offers the play a huge reward, and then subsequently threatens to take away the reward if the player doesn’t fork out cash.
“To be effective with this technique, you have to tell the player they have earned something, and then later tell them that they did not,” he says. “The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect.”
But the use of virtual currency is where the coercion really takes off, says Shokrizade. Griffiths stated before that spending virtual currency teaches players the mechanics of gambling, but Shokrizade goes a step further and argues that when players see their real-world cash in terms of virtual currency, it lowers the sense of anxiety and allows them to be less apprehensive about spending larger amounts.
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.
Though there’s no reference to Shokrizade’s piece in it, Spry Fox’s Daniel Cook posted a blog a few days later titled “Coercive Pay-2-Play techniques,” in which he takes to task many of the arguments against free-to-play with a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal of his own.
He notes that pay-to-play games invite players to spend large amounts of money without ever having played the game first, while some companies purposely use videos, adverts and previews to artificially increase excitement for upcoming and released games.
Cook adds that this pre-release “propaganda” means that developers don’t need to worry as much about the actual game design, and can simply make the sell by “having a catchy theme, pretty graphics and the ability to turn out short sequential games rapidly.”
He also targets Skinner Box game design, the various methods of sale such as bundles and time-limited discounts, and other forms of manipulation in free-to-play games. He closes by jokingly suggesting that pay-to-play games are hurting the industry, and are an immoral practice.
Cook is, of course, is making light of the free-to-play arguments a fair bit, although the overall point of the article is to compare just how “coercive” the free-to-play model actually is — especially when these worst-case scenarios are compared to the worst-case scenarios for pay-to-play games. Cook’s blog is well worth a read.
Laralyn McWilliams is a video game designer and producer who has previously worked on SOE’s free-to-play kids’ game Free Realms as creative director. She has written at length about the strengths and weaknesses of the free-to-play model.
I sent McWilliams much of the information I had uncovered while researching this article, and she told me, “From a practical perspective, people will always find an activity that attracts them to the exclusion of many other activities.”
She notes that whether we should be encouraging or discouraging this common human behavior comes down to two main factors:
1. Whether the activities being included are considered “valuable” or “worthwhile,” and whether the activities being excluded are (or are considered) “essential.”
2. Universal elements like food, sleep, health, hygiene, maintaining a source of income, and paying important bills.
“The first criteria is largely subjective and varies tremendously based on who’s doing the evaluation,” she notes. “Most people would agree that spending money at the casino to the extent that your bills go unpaid and you get evicted is a behavior we shouldn’t encourage. Most people would also agree that playing a game so many hours in the day that you don’t sleep or eat and your health deteriorates is also something we shouldn’t encourage.”
Where the conversation gets muddy, McWilliams argues, is when you begin to compare free-to-play spending with traditional retail video game spending. She notes that while we might pull a face at someone spending thousands of dollars on a single free-to-play over a year or so, you could argue that many players who purchase console and PC games may spend just as much over the same period of time.
“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.
“He probably wouldn’t question too much whether games in general are worth the money from the objective perspective — just about whether he’s buying them too frequently,” she continues. “There’s something in the way he spent money in the free-to-play game, though, that made him question on a fundamental level whether his money was well spent. Sure, some of that’s probably the social perspective right now that free-to-play games in general and virtual goods in particular are not expenses we value as much as expenses for other hobbies (including retail games), but I suspect he might still feel the same way even without that social input.”
With this in mind, McWilliams believes that are two fundamental questions that free-to-play developers should be asking themselves:
1. Should we try to be aware of unhealthy spend patterns in players and find ways to limit/discourage them?
2. Are we providing good value for money spent, and if we are, why doesn’t it feel that way to many players?
Says McWilliams, “Even if the percentage of players who fit in the first category is very small when you look at actual data (and compare it to the behavior patterns recognized as unhealthy addiction in gambling, for example), we should be concerned about the fact that public perception — even from our own players — would put far, far more people into the ‘unhealthy spend’ category, because there’s a fundamental feeling that any significant amount of money spent in the game is money that didn’t result in meaningful value.”
To put it simply: “If you sat down right now and dropped $60 on Remember Me, and the quality of the game was what you expected, would you feel the same about that as if you sat down right now and dropped $60 on Clash of Clans? A lot of people wouldn’t, even if they play the games for the same length of time.”
She continues, “Is it the intangibility of virtual goods? The fact that once you buy Remember Me, it doesn’t ask you to spend that same amount again next week?”
The International Social Games Coalition is a group that was set up earlier this year, with the aim to better educate people about the inner-workings of the social games business. I spoke with the group’s CEO Luc Delany regarding my findings.
(I should note at this point that the ISGC was set up by Zynga alongside a variety of social casino game companies, and it was a Zynga representative that suggested I talk to Delany. I say this not to undermine any of Delany’s points, but rather to give you the full picture when reading his views, and to explain why much of the discussion is focused around comparing free-to-play “whale” spending with “whale” spending in the gambling industry.)
“Lots of people have tried to draw the parallel between people spending money in social games, and real-money gambling,” he tells me. “However, the motivations for playing a gambling game versus any other game, or any other type of entertainment, are very different.”
He notes that in gambling games, there is a risk of loss, and the opportunity of winning — therefore the addiction that players have to free-to-play games is very different.
“There is a documented history of people being addicted to video games, and other forms of entertainment,” he adds. “I spend too much money on iTunes, and films I’ll never watch, just because I make an impulsive buy. People spend so much money on handbags, on golf clubs, on all kinds of other forms of entertainment, but gambling is very clearly defined as games where there is a stake, a chance, and a win or loss.”
I ask him about the example of Chris purchasing Team Fortress 2 “keys” in the hope that he will be rewarded with an “unusual” item, and then continuing to purchase keys until he found such an item. Isn’t there an element of stake and chance there?
“I don’t see it as the same issue as gambling,” he answers. “Under that scenario, how do you compare it to certain TV shows that are essentially the same thing? People text in to play along with a game, trying to find the money in the box — yet that’s not a regulated gambling service. As a society, we’ve judged that to be the motivation of a payout, that creates a certain risk amongst players. Therefore we’ve decided that this level of regulation is necessary.”
Delany is keen to stress that social games are already heavily regulated — there are consumer rights, data protection acts, unfair commercial practice directives, and more — and he questions, “Is there proof that this form of entertainment is more harmful or addictive than other forms of entertainment?”
At this point, I questioned how harmful or addictive a free-to-play game would have to be before we, as an industry, should have to take it seriously.
“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.”
“However,” he adds, “today there is no evidence to suggest that this is a particularly dangerous form of entertainment, as opposed to any other form of entertainment that people spend money on. We know that people spend too much money is all forms of entertainment.”
The road ahead
There’s a lot to take in here, and clearly my delving into the underbelly of free-to-play is just the tip of the iceberg. Whichever way the signs appear to point, a hell of a lot more research is needed to truly paint the full picture of what is going on behind the scenes.
It’s clear that no-one’s idea of a good step forward is to get government bodies involved in the process, regardless of whether it would benefit free-to-play players or not. As part of my due diligence for this article, I did get in touch with both the Federal Trade Commission and the UK’s Office of Fair Trading, to assess their views. I don’t expect to hear back from them for a while, given the volume of correspondence they no doubt receive, but I plan to relay any response to do receive.
In the meantime, it would seem foolish to let the topic lie, especially while the conversation is well and truly flowing. While research into the potential psychological elements of free-to-play game design continues, it’s my hope that free-to-play studios will at least take a hard look at the current design manifestos being carted around, and consider how they may be affecting the lives of their players.(source:gamasutra)