The mobile gaming market is a crowded place. Games stand uncomfortably, shoulder to shoulder, looking up with puppy dog eyes, begging to be picked up and taken home. They wait in a valley of hope and gaze upwards towards their gods: a few very profitable “free” games that have made their fortunes by slowly (sometimes insidiously) draining bank accounts via micro-transactions. As a result, more and more developers have started implementing various versions of the free-to-play model, but as their numbers grow, so too do the voices of annoyed and disgusted gamers everywhere. Forums have become littered with complaints and some critics have started paying more attention to ‘payment models’ than the games themselves. At the same time, players are increasingly being left with a feeling of distrust and are starting to question the legitimacy and even ethics of such methods. While many people agree that certain game design choices can be distasteful and even “gross,” can they actually be unethical? If so, when does a game cross that line and what makes some ‘free to play’ games ‘okay’ and others an affront?
Let’s examine some current trends in free-to-play gaming. First, the methods that generate the least controversy or spite: implementing a pay-wall (essentially the same thing as offering a demo), where you pay once to unlock the entire game after a certain point; offering cosmetic items at a small price that don’t affect gameplay; charging a fee to unlock new characters that are different but not “better”; or providing convenience items, such as allowing more simultaneous multiplayer games. On the flip-side are surefire ways upset users: the ability to pay for an unfair advantage (killing any semblance of balance); disruptive ads that cannot be removed regardless of the amount of money spent; timers that lock you out of the game at every turn unless you pay up (not the least bit fun and a bit demoralizing); and currency systems that require hours of boring and pointless grinding unless you pay (at which point, there is nothing left to do). Each of these methods has one thing in common: they eschew good design in favor of “good” business. They are designed to control you and cajole you, to own your experience. In each case gameplay and immersion take a backseat to monetization, giving rise to that little thought in the back of your mind that you are being actively toyed with.
Whether or not these practices are unethical is a tough question. These are choices after all. No one is being forced to participate. Many developers though, actively and deceptively sneak in ways of hooking players and it’s rarely if ever clear from the onset what you are getting into. These are very real problems. You might decide to purchase a five dollar coin package thinking that it will be enough to unlock the full experience, only to find out through a further investment of your playtime that it would take fully ten times that much. Now you are faced with a sunk cost of sorts and quitting feels like a waste of money. So maybe you buy some more. Some cases, such as the classic $99 IAP (in app purchase) even seem designed to fool you – or some unsuspecting child – into spending huge chunks of money. This type of psychological manipulation is disturbing and I don’t blame folks for taking personal offense when a game’s pricing model dictates their experience and/or belittles their intelligence. It’s no fun to get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain and discover a snake oil salesman.
Personally, I feel that there is a place for free games; a happy medium between free love and capitalism. It’s a model that allows for almost anyone to try and enjoy games and, in theory, it means that good games will make money and bad games will fail. Unfortunately, so many recent games have broken the trust between developer and player by way of cheap trickery that the good ones sometimes get overlooked. At this point many gamers are so twitchy that they will shoot down anything that even resembles dishonesty, even if it’s something legitimate. To be fair, not everyone has the patience to dig through forums in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, nor should they be required to. For the free model to work going forward, some very real trust needs to be re-established and unless a developer already has a proven track record, fair or not, they need to go the extra mile to do so.