I don’t have an issue with microtransactions in games, because they provide a way to fund a lot of games that I enjoy (like League of Legends for example). My problem is when free to play games abuse the idea of microtransactions and game design to manipulate and addict their users, thereby increasing the bottom line of the company. One of the key features of having a company is to make money; I acknowledge, support, and love that. But, creating a game that manipulates users, rather than just creating a game that is fun, is a line I do not think should be crossed. There is a deep and visceral part of me that hates when game companies cross the line from compulsion to manipulation.
Zynga games (The company that has brought you blockbuster games such as Farmville! and Mafia Wars!) is the big dog on the casual/social game block, and in my view is the primary culprit of this kind of behavior.
My core problem with microtransactions (and how Zynga uses them), is that Zynga’s business strategy is one of focusing on the money, not on the games. And it’s not the money focus that’s even the problem, it’s the unethical behavior associated with how they obtain that money through games. Zynga has focused mainly on
- Metrics-led design,where game designers build games that deliver to a spreadsheet, rather than aim to delight gamers
- The exploitation of whales, where most people play for free, but a few spend a bucketload of money
That’s the issue here: exploitation and delivering to the bottom line rather than delivering a product for users.
Quick aside: microtransactions within games (when done right), have been a great boon economically to the games industry. “China thinks so, in principle at least: it has said it wants to tax its virtual-goods market, thought to be worth around $1.5 billion a year,” stated by The Economist. ::thumbs up::
There is a right way and a wrong way to do microtransactions. The right way involves micro transactions that do not influence game mechanics. This allows for users to play the game how they wish, without influencing in-game mechanics, economies, or core competition. Having microtransactions that influence game mechanics creates an automatic hierarchy of players, those that can “pay to win”, and those that are left on the bottom.
To quote Wired: [emphasis mine]
Nobody made the case as explicitly as Zynga… And though Zynga executives claimed their games were all about bringing friends closer together, they carried a whiff of exploitation. FarmVille, Zynga’s flagship franchise, encouraged people to publicize their every action on Facebook newsfeeds and pester their friends to join them. It kept players coming back by setting onerous time limits—return in 16 hours to harvest your rhubarb or your fields would be riddled with withered stalks. And it compelled them to pay money if they wanted to avoid mindless tasks or lengthy delays.
This comes from an article about a game that was created called “Cow-Clicker.” It was created as a satire, a way to show people the core mechanics of what Zynga was doing.
There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow”—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.
Stupid right? A great way for the indie game community and others to protest and satirizethe tactics, design, and un-artistic intentions of Zynga.
And then something surprising happened: Cow Clicker caught fire… Bogost watched in surprise and with a bit of alarm as the number of players grew consistently, from 5,000 soon after launch to 20,000 a few weeks later and then to 50,000…
I’m torn when I try to talk about this topic at this point. The rebel and independent side of me is happy with what Bogost has created, and horrified at the masses thinking that it was a “real” game, and not satire. On the other side… am I just being elitist and snobbish when something simple is so enjoyable? What if the platform and the metaphor are changed and you look at one of my favorite genres (MMOs), and boil it down to its base mechanics, there are remarkable similarities. The aforementioned Wired article addresses this fact as well.
Nick Yee, a research scientist at PARC, the Xerox-owned innovation center, has been studying massively multiplayer online role-playing games for 12 years. He says that good games usually offer meaningful opportunities for achievement, social interaction, and challenge; otherwise, players become little more than rats in a Skinner box, hitting a button to get a jolt of reinforcement. “The scary thing about Cow Clicker is that it’s just an incredibly clear Skinner box,” Yee says. “What does that say about the human psyche and how easy it is to seduce us?”
The quote comes back to emphasize my initial point, games should be created to “offer meaningful opportunities for achievement, social interaction, and challenge,” and I believe adding microtransactions to core game mechanics is what turns a game from this path into the Skinner box.
If my bias against casual games begins to show through, this is the reason why. I like casual games, I enjoy playing them. My issue is with the ethics of freemium games; the developers who think it’s ok to make them, and the people that blindly play them, without realizing the consequences.
tl;dr (Some NSFW Language)
(This comic represents how many gamers feel about microtransactions, but in relation to my post, I think Valve does it right. The microtransactions don’t influence game mechanics. <3 Valve)
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.
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