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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games (gamasutra.com)
63 points by svenfaw 49 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

From my experience, free to play games are basically always guaranteed to be deceptive in order to recoup the cost of development.

There are a few examples that don't fit, like; TF2 and Fortnite I suppose. But I'd always rather pay a fixed fee for a game and be confident there's no incentive to sell me something...

It's ironic that you mention TF2 as a good example as it is the very first example of the opposite in the linked article.

Fortnite, besides having their own issues, also have the issue of "secondary whale-chasers" which is all those youtube videos proclaiming that they found a hack to enable a bunch of skins or similar for free. This means installing (what I assume to be) bitcoin-miners on each twelve year old's machine. You'd think that wouldn't be possible on a machine used by a twelve year old but Epic is extra helpful in that it basically requires its game launcher to be run as admin (because of its frequent updates to Fortnite that requires admin rights). So I assume most parents make their kid's account admin out of convenience.

That has become a major source of problems in my household. I don't live with my girlfriend and her 4 kids (my stepkids, I'm not disowning them, just explaining quickly the situation). Youngest son has a PC, and due to experience gained with the older son (now 18), his account is locked down and I'm the admin on the system.

I often have to use TeamViewer to access the PC to allow Fortnite to upgrade, and they don't understand why I still insist on this - my warning about just about all the possible negatives have been completely ignored, but I'm sticking to my guns. I know I'm fighting a losing battle and eventually will have to give up on this, but at the moment, it's working. I'm sure most people have given up, made the kid and admin and the computer is awash with issues as a result.

Obviously if I'm not available (which is often the case as I'm self employed in a number of roles, most of which mean I can't be available instantly), then it has to wait, and you'd think the world was ending!

Would a possible solution be to buy them a more locked down system like a nintendo switch or an ipad and tell them if they want to play a game they either use that or the non-admit user on the PC?

You can't compare iPad and switch games to the ones on pc. They are totally different.

Literally the game they talked about (Fortnite) is available on both iOS and Switch. Anyway when I was a kid I only cared about having good games to play (and even the "good" part is debatable), not which specific games - there's plenty of great stuff to play on the switch.

> Anyway when I was a kid I only cared about having good games to play

This was generally true for me too, but in 2019 games are primarily a social hangout spot. They're like a park or a concrete basketball court next to the parking lot, where the kids come hang out and shoot the shit in the lobby even if they aren't actively in a match.

Not being on the same game your mates are playing is akin to telling your kid "you can't go to your friends' park 30 minutes away, why don't you hang out in our perfectly nice backyard with a basketball hoop"

Edit: upvote for the rest of your comment though

The the kids mess up the machine and keep the recovery option close at hand. Tell them to store everything they care about (homework) in Google Drive, Dropbox, or the like.

The solution my friend's had with their kids is only the parents knew the passwords. Serving as perpetual gatekeepers would be exasperating, but it was effective.

Does windows not have something like the setuid bit on Unix? I guess even if it did expecting parents to know about that is probably asking a bit much.

Fortnite has been criticised for it's store. Item's are only available for a limited time (24h?), with no guarantee of when they will become available again. This creates the 'Fear of Missing Out' incentive for people to spend.

I've not played it first hand though.

On the otherhand, this article is discussing someone addicted to the gambling element of TF2's crates (aka loot boxes).

Its not just addicted to gambling. Its addicted to social interaction, as in lonely and trying to fit into a community at all costs.

I don’t get why sibling LifeLiverTransp is getting downvoted. One of the main ways games like fortnite sell their stuff is by social pressure.

One can not customize one’s avatar at all without buying stuff. So you’ll be stuck as a default clone to the derision of friends and enemies alike.

And the game is very much aimed at being played by school friends.

Not sure why you're getting down voted. What you say is true. Jim Sterling makes videos about this regularly over at YouTube.

I don't know enough about Fortnite to tell if it's deceptive, but whatever they are doing its efficient enough that kids get bullied in school as 'defaults' if they only have the default skins, those you don't have to buy.

Which I find quite problematic. Moreso as the spending is unlimited. It's so sad that we allow the socioeconomic structures to be replicated in games targeted at pre teens.

If you have any ideas to keep people from forming socioeconomic hierarchies, we're all ears. It's quite unfortunate, but this is what people do.

I think that most free to play games where the priced items are only cosmetics don't try to addict you to buying. Competitive games can never put any pay to win aspect in their pricing model - League of legends, CS GO, Dota, Overwatch.

Weirdly though competitive games in the end do make you buy somehow. Those games are ridiculously addictive to the gameplay itself and somehow they have huge player bases that stick for a long time. From my entire high school 2 years ago - 50% of the boys were addicted to playing some of the top free to play titles. When you put down thousands of hours in a game spending cash on it becomes very normal.

Eh.. TF2 you could get things that change how you play

Fortnite (and other cosmetic only games) do not alter the game play

I’m interested in learning some of the techniques that make gaming more enticing. I’ve got some educational apps for iOS that I would like to make more engaging. I’ve noticed that after 5-7 days retention really trails off. Do people buy into badges, leveling up, daily streaks, etc?

Two of my apps:

Hundred Words: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/hundred-words/id1469449237

Language Pairs: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/language-pairs/id1438817614?...

Most general advice I can give is to make sure your games have engaging core loops at three different temporal scales: moment to moment, minute to minute, and session to session.

Moment to moment is the really gamefeel stuff like how it feels good to make a line in Tetris or step on a goomba in Mario. While the player is playing your game they should constantly be experiencing these moments.

Minute to minute focuses on how engaging your game is within a session. If it's a level-based game does it have that "just one more round" feeling?

Session to session is all about having the player set something up before they stop playing, so that they look forward to the next time they can play. The most famous example is the plow-plant-harvest loop that made Zynga a billionaire. You came back to the game cuz you wanted to harvest all those crops for the rewards. But if you think about what the session to session is in Pokemon Go, the curiosity of what's in your immediate area, you can see that there's a lot of design space here.

5-7 days retention sounds like at least one of these loops is missing or broken. Don't be discouraged, getting all these things to overlap is hard.

Caveat: I know nothing about gamification. This is the observation of an uncle.

I agree with the commentators saying that FortNite is the newest, fastest growing social network. I spent a year watching my nephews play FortNite and Roblox. Their communication (voice & chat) with their friends is a HUGE factor. These MMORPGs are their social world.

Transposing with my own childhood, it'd be like if my friends and I had every Star Wars and GI Joe and Lego set AND awesome walkie talkies. Basically, crack for kids.

(FWIW, I spent much of the year dragging my nephews and their friends to museums, galleries, hiking, swimming, etc. They all pretended to hate it, but would nonetheless still enjoy themselves.)

> Do people buy into badges, leveling up, daily streaks, etc?

No (and yes). Some people who thrive off of tangible validation may, but you will not drive long-term engagement or real enjoyment from it. Badges/levels/streaks and other "meta-game" only add value to a strong game itself, and is just a small part of the more holistic art that is game design. Same with vibrant animations, cool sound effects, pretty particle effects. Another small part.

It's better than nothing, to be fair, but if you really want to make your apps enticing in the way games are, you should play and get into a few games, and then study the vast field of game design as you see fit - presenting a challenge with demonstrable mastery, balancing multiple viable strategies, social components, enjoyable mechanics, challenge pacing, providing flow state, etc.

Otherwise you will just end up with an app with badges, and we kind of have enough of those.

There are a lot of articles on gamasutra (also GDC videos on youtube) on different aspects of this, but the quality and exact applicability is going to vary a lot, here's a couple of short ones that call back to psychology 101 that may be useful. For me personally the core gameplay/learning experience would need to be interesting/useful for the the other 'gamification' features you are thinking about adding would contribute to my motivation, you might be thinking about cause and effect backwards here. I remember learning to type when I was a child because the game that taught it was so fun (standards were low back then) not because I really wanted to learn to type.



My son explained it to me (11 year old) - Basically if you are "default" you suck. I have 20+ gamedev experience, and I didn't know what it means. Basically if you have the "default" skins you suck. You need to get shiny new outfit, that would cost some v-bucks.

I have the opposite experience (in LoL which I played for too long some time ago). If you encountered an enemy in default you knew you were in for a beating. Most probably a smurf (high level player on a fresh low level account).

Most of the really good players I knew couldn't care less about skins. People that did suck bought skins to feel better about themselves ("yeah, you won, but I have a $20 Udyr skin, noob!") Except one guy which was pretty good but had a gambling problem and liked the random aspect of buying chests.

What you describe is probably the social dynamics in your son's group of friends, which are probably kids and mostly suck, which makes buying skins the social signaling of their worth, for lack of a better metric.

Wouldn't being constantly killed by the same default guy hurt more? If I would be a pro gamer I would do just that, just to troll them.

People are social creatures, and have a strong innate desire to stand out and express themselves. If a game successfully creates a social atmosphere, selling cosmetic items can be a lucrative business.

It's essentially the digital version of the fashion industry, which most people seem to viscerally understand-- aesthetics are the primary motivator for most people's clothing choices, and they are willing to pay a significant premium for some items on this basis.

There's a whole genre of Fortnite pros trolling as defaults on Youtube.

Feels like fortnite is the new addidas and Nike...

Exactly my thoughts. Growing up in Bulgaria in the 90s - that was the thing. I was (and still am) into heavy metal so did not care a bit, but could still "feel" the pressure...

Not related to games, but the stuff in this book is pretty informative, albeit disturbing. I listened to the audio book a couple years ago.


Very cool that you made these apps. I’ve wanted to make some educational apps for quite some time, but have been too lazy / indecisive about the whole thing.

If you don’t mind sharing, how are the apps doing? Are you seeing consistent downloads? How about pricing? I noticed both are free—are you planning to monetize at all?

You don’t have to answer anything you’re not comfortable with. This is just a space I’m interested in, and I wanted to see how your experience has been.

Not the person that created this thread, but I've had a bunch of music education apps in the App store for a couple of years. I get a decent amount of downloads, enough to make $60-$120 a month. I sell them outright for $3.99 (Canadian). I actually found I increased sales when I increased the price, I used to sell them for $2.99. I haven't checked recently, but there weren't many high quality music games there, mostly basic looking drills that weren't themed. I'm sure I could increase my sales if I was savvy at marketing and had the resources to commit to it.

Thanks for the response. That’s pretty cool to hear. So it sounds like you get anywhere from 15-30 downloads per month. That’s not bad for money earned while you sleep.

I’m thinking of getting into the space to see how I can do. My eventual goal is to earn $1000 / month without too much maintenance / time beyond the initial development.

It's really great for that to be honest: I don't have to worry about the games once I upload them (unless I decide to update them or make changes). I also run a site with music games for teachers that's subscription based and that takes up more mental bandwidth from day to day than the apps since I'm always trying to improve it to help keep customers subscribed. If you head into the App store with modest expectations, I think it can become a decent source of income. I talk to relatives and friends and they seem to think that having an app in the store means you'll get millions of downloads a month, but I think that skewed perception is created by the focus on the really big apps in the store (that seem to get a lot of help directly from Apple in how prominently they're placed in the store).

There are over 2 million apps in the store so it’s hard to get noticed.

Yeah that’s what I was thinking—that the store is so over saturated right now that it would be hard to make your app visible.

Facebook is full of free to play games and so are Android and iPhones.

I'd rather pay a flat fee for a game and not be forced to buy in game currancy to buy gems and other things to buy extra items in the game.

Some people pay hundreds of dollars on ingame items to become a wallet warrior and beat the grinders playing for free.

I briefly worked on recommenders for a fair sized fashion retailer. I was flabbergasted to learn just how much certain shoppers spend. (Though we purposefully called them "platinums", vs "whales", internally. Better optics.)

For me, becoming more aware of "whales" highlighted other power law distributions, Pareto's Law, or whatever we call it, throughout society.

A few "bad apple" cops get most of the complaints.

A few alcoholics drink a lot more than others.

A handful of people do most of the property damage crimes.


So whatever else comes from this "freemium" awareness, there are some useful, important policy implications.

At Disney we called them “Good Customers”

I would peg it down to innumeracy and inability to handle relativism and anchored valuations.

I would wager the same people who become whales are merely the same who would overspend on traditional sales periods for physical stores.

If I say you need 2 gems to buy a hat and there's 7 quoofs to the gem and a quoof costs 3 for $4.99 it's not your fault if you can't process how much a hat costs, child or adult. Let me put a 60 second timer while you think about this special offer to add some pressure. Don't ask why the hat price isn't in dollars so you'd readily understand.

Facebook actually asked developers to make more confusing abstractions to exploit children they identified using parents funds. They wanted misunderstanding because the children would spend more and they would refuse the refunds and leave kids explaining perhaps a multi-thousand dollar series of transactions to their parents.

I would wager whales are simply being exploited more than anything. Defrauded. There simply are no people who accidentally spend $6000 in Target because it's not possible to accidentally spend that much money unless someone is duping you. If nobody is trying to defraud you, and you walk into any retail store, you're not going to spend $6000 by accident.


Exploitation of children is an important but separate issue that I would argue falls on the parents. I would argue that while the scenario you describe is a gotcha moment, after two or three times it’s really on you to understand what’s going on. Either way, it’s driven by innumeracy. It may still be exploitation so I’m not really disagreeing.

I do think you’re wildly off base thinking that people don’t drastically overspend at physical stores for physical goods though.

If obsfuscated pricing causes children to disassociate spending money, and obfuscated pricing makes "whales" out of 1% of adults that are spending outliers by 4 orders of magnitude how can it be a separate issue? I think it is the same tactic applied to two demographics that are both incapable of unpacking maliciously-complex pricing.

The children make the fraud apparent. FB defrauded their parents and they ______ the children to do it. They ______ adults in the exact same way and 1% are as susceptible as children and end up spending thousands and being called "whales". They have to suck it up and the kids can get their parents to demand the fraud be reverted, that's the only difference I can see.

BTW I'm not saying people don't overspend in retail stores. What they don't do is discover days or weeks later that some of the products actually cost thousands.

I think that your depiction of whales is generally incorrect. There are certainly apps that try to trick kids by requiring currency that is not-obviously real money. These exist for adults too, but aren’t what people refer to when they talk about whales.

Whales make such payments intentionally. They understand that they’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars- and are doing so in bulk transactions because it’s the most cost effective rate. They play a game regularly and spend so they can maximize their standing whenever new content is released (very frequently).

That is to say, whales exist in games with transparent pricing. I don’t recall specifics but I think Pokémon go was a good example of this. IIRC you could buy coins that were useful for buying poke balls and egg incubators. Not 1:1 but hardly abusive. Whales still spent (spend?) thousands on it.

Edit: every so often I click on an ad for the most awful looking porn based online game I come across just to see what it is. It’s quite surprising to see how deeply implemented some of their gameplay is given their garbage marketing strategy and value prop. What is truly fascinating however is how incredibly complicated some of their micro payment systems are. Dozens of resources introduced around every corner with unclear ways of acquiring any of them in game but each one noting that it will be required to unlock some stupid scandalous picture and can be refilled for $5. Whatever your mental model is for the insidiousness of app based micro payments is, you might find it bizarrely entertaining to explore how much worse it can get in such a context.

I think whales are just a bunch of companies selling a lie that combining all the dark patterns = great customers.

You say they're happy to do it but just to "find" a whale you must disassociate real spending and transactional cost, obfuscate real currency, create inconvenience etc. Nobody went in wanting to spend thousands and 99.99% opt-out of paying. That's 0.01% of customers being happy and a generous use of the word since they were never offered a version that wasn't a sales funnel of dark patterns.

I actually played a game where whales spent huge amount of money, after a while it continued mostly because I wanted to understand who these people were.

Several are exactly like you describe, others need the anchor of money to loose as to feel invested, others simply have a lot of money and for whatever reason want to win in a game, and others simply thrive on causing misfortune to others through their financial advantage.

Those very whale friendly games are, as a sort of ecosystem echo, as fascinating as they are disturbing.

I play gacha games that are friendly towards F2P people. I’m curious what game allows rich players to cause misfortune to F2P players.

Honestly that sounds like a better reason to whale than I had ever encountered

Isn’t this (2013)?

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