Ethical Monetization

02 Oct

Lately, I’ve been reading Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. I appreciate game design of all sorts, and thought that a book about the design of slot machines would be enlightening.

I’m not done yet, but I’ve been thinking about two big things in the book. The first is less relevant to this post, but I found it interesting, so I’d like to share that. Contrary to my expectations, people who are habitual slot machine players know that they aren’t going to win. Their goal is to play the game itself, keep engaging in the loop, and enter a meditative state of flow that one player termed the “Machine Zone”, where all that exists is the player and the machine. This effect is so strong that the book relates a story where a man suffered a heart attack at a slot machine. Paramedics were called in to take him away, but during the entire scene, no one else on the machines noticed. They were just completely absorbed into the flow.

The second major thought on my mind are the ethics involved, and how the free-to-play game market is facing a similar reaction. The slot machine industry talks about how gamblers need to take personal responsibility to not spend to excess, while simultaneously researching and refining techniques to keep players on the machines for longer periods of time. The cognitive dissonance is concerning. You can’t have it both ways. Players can’t be in full control of their own behavior while at the same time having their behavior controlled by a designed experience.

Game design has the power to shape human behavior. It’s important to be ethical about it. Slot machines have the power to make ordinary people oblivious to a man in need of immediate medical attention, using nothing but flashing lights, spinning reels, and controlled probability. If you’re designing monetization features, you need to treat your players with respect. You want your players to give you money. In fact, you need it. People need to be paid, and the servers need to be kept running. You need to convince your players to pay for the game, but there’s a fine line between persuasion and coercion.

To me, the greatest monetization happens when a player wants to spend money on a game. They play the game, see something they like, buy it, and come away with happy thoughts. The next time they see something they want, that happiness is reinforced. Compare that with a player who doesn’t want to spend money on a game, but feels that they’re forced to. “Ugh. Fine,” the player says as they roll their eyes. They might pay for the game again and again, but when they eventually stop playing, how likely are they to come back? How likely are they to recommend the game to their friends? What happens to the reputation of the free-to-play space as a whole? Monetizing responsibly isn’t just about ethics. It’s about effective long-term sustainable business practices.

The line between good monetization and bad monetization is difficult to draw, and there are a lot of gray areas. My current mental model is that it comes down to the attitude towards the players when it’s designed. Good monetization is designed to have players asking themselves “If I buy this”, and bad monetization has players asking themselves “If I don’t buy this”.

“If I buy this new weapon, I can do some cool stuff with my friends.”

“If I don’t buy this new weapon, I’m going to get destroyed in PvP.”

“If I buy this kitten, I’ll have an adorable animal companion.”

“If I don’t buy this kitten, it’ll be sent to a kill shelter.”

The best monetization is about selling players something they want, not about threatening the players if they don’t buy something. It’s difficult to draw a line, since convincing someone to buy something is also based on creating a desire for it (which is why I made the examples that I did), but what I’ve laid out here is a general guideline. This is subjective, but it’s a solid starting point, and if more free-to-play games are designed with more respect for their players, then the industry could shed its exploitative reputation.

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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization


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