I'm an analyst for a gaming company too, so let me offer my perspective. I consider myself to be an ethical, non-creepy person, and I disagree with what this person says.
Yes, gaming companies are extremely data-driven and they measure everything they can. I'm in charge of dashboards that have over 300 KPI's (key performance indicators) on them. What do we measure? A whole lot of shit. ARPU, ARPPU, HC (hard currency) spend/gained, SC (soft currency) gained/spend, Retention, DAU, Spend DAU, Gained DAU, Downloads, Activations, plus funnels for every page, every user action you can think of.
Do I think measuring all this is creepy? No. Why? Because when I come in the morning, I look at my stats. I'll be able to tell within an hour if the build the engineers shipped the night before had a bug that affected 30% of our users in a certain location. I'll then report this to the Engineering team, they can create a hotfix, and users can be happy again. Engineers are happy knowing that we have actual data to validate and confirm their gameplay suggestions (made during scrum/sprint planning sessions). I also report monetization metrics to the VP's. They want to know if the boatloads of money they are spending on user acquisition are actually paying off. And the PM's want to know if users are playing the game, or how far they get into the game.
Yes, we maximize for users who spend over $10k. These users even have names. They're called "whales" in industry parlance. Why wouldn't you want more of them in your game? This is a business afterall. I feel just as bad as the next person wondering whether some of these "whales" are addicts. I don't want to be creating products for addicts. But what if these users are just rich people who have tons of money to spend off the cuff? There's no way we can know because we never get that data. All I see is what's reported in ItunesConnect.
Do we ever record any personally identifiable information? No. Do we ever sell or distribute this data to outside parties? No. Can any of this data ever be used maliciously? No.
Personally, I like the way game companies work (hence why I work in the industry). It teaches you to measure everything. You make decisions quickly. And no one can argue with the facts. You'll know real fast whether the product is shitty and you can do an about-face, gather the troops, and push out something new.
"Whale: A poor player with a lot of money to lose."
I don't want to be creating products for addicts. But what if these users are just rich people who have tons of money to spend off the cuff?
Sure, just like at casinos.
You're right, in a way; there are people with more money than brains who are happy to blow a good chunk of it gambling and are really no worse off for it because they're rich. But, realistically, you and I both know that's never the whole story.
You and I also know that this isn't a problem inherent to just casual mobile games. It's a chronic problem to the gaming industry as a whole, and its not going to stop people from making entertainment for the millions of users who aren't addicts.
I think his problem (the previous poster) is not that there are addicts who happen to play these games. Sure there are addicts out there and you're not going to stop them.
He is pointing out that, like casinos, these games are specifically targeting these addicts, and these games probably couldn't even exist without the addicts to support them.
>its not going to stop people from making entertainment for the millions of users who aren't addicts.
These games aren't made for the millions of users who aren't addicts. These games are made specifically for addicts.
>Yes, we maximize for users who spend over $10k
It's like the difference between selling alcohol and selling cigarettes. Alcohol is mostly sold to normal people, and percentage of the population abuses it, but virtually every single cigarette made is sold to an addict.
Alcohol manufacturers could exist without addicts, cigarette companies couldn't.
If you make a Farmville type game there's a good chance you are depending on "addicts" to keep you in business.
I'm not declaring casual games to be immoral by the way. I'm just pointing out the difference.
I understand. But who is to say that these big spenders are actually addicts? Is the probability of this type of user being an addict greater than the probability of being plainly rich?
Targeting is your word, not mine. We cohort users by spending activity and learn from them in the same way a Macy's buyer will learn from their most loyal customers. My friend works as a buyer for children's clothes and they make the same business decisions I make about inventory and store layout.
We maximize for users who spend large amounts of money (incidentally none of ours have spent $10k, more like $100) because this and engagement data is the only data we have in determining customer loyalty. So we ask ourselves questions like "If this user found enough value out of this feature to spend $100 on it, we should make more like this".
If someone wants to pay you 10 grand that's his decision. I don't ask for a credit report before I take money from a customer either, so for all I know I've taken money from people who couldn't afford it. I don't think it's your job to predicate every transaction on your customer's financial/emotional health.
However, I do think the closest moral analog to running a casual Farmville type game is running a casino. If you're fine with running a casino, I'm not trying to stop you.
That's a good question. I would think there are more people with serious gaming addictions out there than there are people rich enough to spend more than $10K on a game without it affecting their economy in some negative way.
If you really want to find out if targeting these users to maximise profits is harmful or not, I think it's a good idea to ask these spenders, perhaps have them take a survey. If you don't want that, I'm pretty sure there's research out there on gaming and spending habits that can shed some light on the question.
[Edit: I see that you sell through iTunes connect, and I don't know if Apple permits you to have anonymous user surveys in you app. Even then, I'd guess that you wouldn't risk your highest paying customers reconsidering their gaming habits by asking them uncomfortable questions in a survey. Given that, I would think actively looking for published research papers would be a good idea.]
It's a disturbing feature of modernism that people are hyper-focused on "evidence". Most studies are pretty inconclusive anyway. People know, in their heart of hearts that these games are pointless and exploitative. We don't know what the effects are. In a better culture we would tailor our arguments in accordance to our ethics, not look for excuses to keep profiting off something questionable.
I agree. The point I was trying to make was that his question is not unanswerable, although he makes it out to be. "Who knows, maybe what I'm doing is alright after all?" Studies don't have to be conclusive in order to make him more informed about that.
It's pretty obvious that these games are just elaborate slot machines. Like slot machines, the companies involved simply don't care about the ethical issues. And you're apparently happy to profit off these activities until the evidence sticks to you. Just like the cigarette companies have always been eager to profit off a questionable business due to "lack of evidence". For shame.
One of my greatest worries going through Engineering school was working on a product that would inadvertently harm people.
I once wanted to work at a Lithium Ion battery start-up because I wanted to help create an energy source free of geo-political and climate turmoil. Then I discovered those sources were some of the most toxic to the environment both in the harvesting and the disposing of the material.
I then went on to do graduate research in explosives detection. We created machines that would help detect bombs in Iraq and landmines left in a peaceful villages. But then TSA used the machines to look at people's private parts and there was a mass privacy scare.
My point is: you can't go life worrying who might use the things you create for harmful purposes. You may be ignorant, but the alternative will drive you insane.
You do realize that the whole point of these games is socially engineering people into parting with as much money as possible, right? They're paying money for a chance at winning certain pixels and you're pretending in your head that they're all wealthy millionaires and justifying it to yourself.
If you don't want to make games for addicts perhaps you should stop working for companies that make games for addicts. You're not fooling me.
> You do realize that the whole point of these games is socially engineering people into parting with as much money as possible, right?
Isn't this the point of any business?
> If you don't want to make games for addicts perhaps you should stop working for companies that make games for addicts.
I don't believe we make games for addicts. When I show our game to my friends and family they say things like "oh this game is cute", "this creature is funny", etc. The vast majority of our users are people who enjoy casual gaming when they're bored sitting on a plane or on the train.
That vast majority of your users account for what, like 10% of your revenue, or less? The real point of your product is targeting addicts, whales, as you called them, and manipulating them into paying money for nothing. Yes, actually nothing, because you rig the odds and dangle carrot shaped pixels above their heads and use every psychological trick in the book, the state of the art, to get them to keep playing.
That is not the point of business for me, most businesses offer something of value.
No, you get to decide what the point of the business you work for is. No one else does, you do. There's no rule that says the point of any/every businesses is to get people to part with as much money as possible.
In a way, but at my last employer, the people being socially engineered were employees of our clients who then had to jump through several hoops to justify their plans - often numerically - and get business spending on our services authorized, not putative millionaires trickling down their personal hard-earned wealth.
This is the problem with large businesses; they can always say the supposed positives to the majority outweigh the real harms they are doing to a minority. Don't you think inducing people to click on stuff over and over with absolutely no skill is unethical? Comparing "social games" to other harmless diversions is like comparing a culture of drinking a few beers at the end of the week with a culture of encouraging people to drink as much as they want.
I think there is a middle way in everything. For instance, you can run a game company without targeting serious addicts. You won't make as much money, but maybe you'll feel better. You don't have to go insane, though.
So, because sometimes you get it wrong you should go through life without considering the consequences of your actions? I don't think that's a good way to approach ethics. A better idea would be to learn from these incidents, speak out against your old employers and be more prudent with future employers.
"I don't want to be creating products for addicts. But what if these users are just rich people who have tons of money to spend off the cuff?"
Did you ever stop to consider perhaps money isn't the worst fallout? The families of addicts suffer as well–and I suspect, when we look back years from now, we'll see a pattern of spouses and children ignored & damaged because companies like Zynga analyze/optimize everything in order to maximize engagement. A single person can't compete with that.
You're not just engineering people to part with their money–you're using your skills to get them to part with their time.
Sorry, but I consider what you do (& Zynga does) unethical.
I believe that people can make judgement calls about what do to with their free time. I don't think what I do (which is to perform analysis) is any different than what the same analysts at Blizzard do when they make Starcraft or World of WarCraft. Or the people that performed analysis at Nintendo when the first Duck Hunt came out.
I have friends who play Starcraft II a couple hours a day. I've known people who will skip work and play 8 hours a day. I've seen a 60 minute story on someone who was addicted to World of Warcraft. This is a chronic problem of the industry as a whole, but its not a reason to stop making games because the majority of users can have fun responsibly.
What WoW was and what it is now are different things.
WoW vanilla was an MMO, WoW Burning C was basically moving towards the disney land model and away from the mmo.
The overall business model has acknowledged the power of the Zynga model, and all actions so far have been moving towards Zynga's model and not away.
It's the difference between building a game to sell an "experience" to a customer, and building a game to maximize the amount of revenue generated from each player.
Imagine if film makers stopped trying to make good movies and instead focused on making movies where you had to pay more money to see the ending of a movie, or perhaps to pay to see a different ending to a movie. You'd sit down in a theater and then right at the climax of the movie you would have to pay more to continue watching.
Then making movies would be less about making a "good" movie and more about creating the best hook to get people to pony up more cash.
If pg is sitting off in the background trying to convince people to click buttons with zero thought being exercised, then yes, Hacker News should be voluntarily time-limited. Until then, it is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Video games and TV have always been pretty pointless, but at least you were exercising some skill. These games are no better than slot machines, which are regulated in many places for good reasons.
I doubt there more skill being exercised when watching TV or looking at cat pictures at Reddit. I don't play these games but I think they probably are more engaging than other activities.
Zynga games and slot machines are an easy target for because they are time sinks that aren't common in HN crowd. But imagine some outsider looking at your day under a lens and regulating how you spend your time.
What should be the metric by which you classify an activity as being "good"? Inducing happyness? I bet if you ask Zygna customers they'd all say Farmville is their favorite game. Productivity?
Should people be allowed to spend large amounts of money to buy cars they don't really need? Electronics?
I'm not saying the govt should regulate Zynga. I'm pointing out that they do regulate slot machines. That's because people know slot machines can be bad for people, and are generally a pointless waste of time and money that feel good in the short term. Clubs and pubs that operate those machines and know damn well that people misuse them resist these regulations to the last. The same attitude toward voluntarily stopping these things is being displayed here. And the TV thing was an accidental misstatement. I think the same thing is true to some degree or another of serialised TV and most MMO's. Serialised TV is all about making you want to see the next episode. MMO's are all about rewarding high play times rather than skill.
People have the right to decide whether they smoke cigarettes, too. But most people can see it's a harmful addiction and that it is plain unethical to profit from it. And yeah, I think World of Warcraft falls into the same category. Why don't they put hard play-time limits on the game? Because they don't care if you waste your life in front of their game.
"Yes, we maximize for users who spend over $10k. These users even have names. They're called "whales" in industry parlance. Why wouldn't you want more of them in your game? This is a business afterall. I feel just as bad as the next person wondering whether some of these "whales" are addicts. I don't want to be creating products for addicts. But what if these users are just rich people who have tons of money to spend off the cuff? There's no way we can know because we never get that data. All I see is what's reported in ItunesConnect."
I think the somewhat layered nature of it is what creeped me out. It kind of reads like an internal dialogue of somebody trying to justify their own actions to themself.
As I said in another comment, I think this industry is still in its infancy and getting a lot of its mechanics worked out. I don't honestly believe we make a game targeted to addicts, otherwise I could not work there in good conscience. But I'm also not ignorant in thinking that addicts aren't part of our userbase.
The question that confronts me when I go into work everyday is how can we make this game fun for everyone, and how can we make money in a non-destructive, ethical manner?
>how can we make money in a non-destructive, ethical manner
I have an answer, provide people with tools that make their lives better. Does the service you're providing actually make people's lives better. And I don't mean does it make their lives more entertaining. There's no objective way to measure this, so it comes down to a VALUE judgement. YOUR value judgement. And it's not about making money, it's about making products, services and tools, for people. For people, like you, me and your mom, and my mom.
Also you said 'These users even have names. They're called "whales"'. No that's not their names, their names are bob, joan, mike, susan blah blah blah even if you don't have those names in the data, they exist. seriously, its easy to forget when you abstract them away, but there are actual humans at the end of each one of those clicks.
Have you seen Rain Man? Remember that control room from which the casino executive monitors what's going on on the casino floor? That dashboard is your virtual control room. To me, the "free-to-play" social gaming industry appears to be eerily similar to the gambling industry. You even use the same terminology ("whales"). And the gambling industry has always been a little shady, trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of people who can't really afford it. Maybe that's why it appears creepy to some of us?
That is a good point. And actually I didn't know we used the same terms!
I'm obviously aware of what goes on in the industry and its similarities to gambling are something I think about a lot. But as an analyst, I feel like I have a lot of power in helping to create games that are fun and engaging, plus learning how to drive a product to be successful. I don't think of it as a spam machine or a front for taking money from the poor.
Maybe the business model needs to be changed. If its virtual currency that makes it creepy, then maybe switching to a fixed-cost product is something the industry as a whole needs to move to. We're still in the infancy here in learning how to harness mobile devices to make better products.
The fact that your job exists is kind of the creepy part. Games that are just made for fun don't have teams of analysts trying to optimize games in order to modify player behavior. That said, your comments have been pretty interesting. How did you get the job in the first place?
Well, analysts aren't exactly new. Do a search for business analyst and you'll see lots of jobs posted at hundreds of companies. The difference is that mobile game companies deal with extraordinary amounts of data so they actually need people who not only have statistics knowledge, but programming knowledge as well. So I don't think its creepy (obviously), I just think this industry is so new that a) people are unfamiliar with the role and b) the business model is (apparently) controversial and in constant flux.
I came from a web company. I was a data analyst there too. But I really wanted to work in the mobile industry and figure out how to deliver insights on a completely new platform also at massive scale as well.
I have worked in mobile e-commerce analytics but on the engineering side. It seemed like the analysts we had usually had a business background but I was always too busy to ask them how they got into it.
It's weird that you think that "traditional" (whatever that means) games don't have analysts looking at player behaviour: in the games industry we call them "game designers" or "producers". Some game designers do some creative work but there is a lot of metrics-driven design in most games.
Fair enough, that part was a little hyperbolic. What I meant to say is that these people may not be aware of how much they spend overall, because it's in such small increments. I can't prove it, but I think if Zynga would offer their games for a monthly fee, even the players that regularly spend more than that amount would quit, or not subscribe in the first place. Somehow some people are much more comfortable spending $1 twenty times than $10 once.
That effectively means the only way to "win" is by becoming a whale; casual play is basically not rewarded. That's the problem I have with most online games; the greatest benefits go to those spending unhealthy amounts of time and money on them. IMO a mature gaming industry will be one that is able to reward a similar playing commitment to a weekly trip to the cinema; 2 hours play a week is still rewarding. That would make games attractive to a much larger audience IMO and be sustainable; you're not pushing players to burnout.
Just out of interest; do you track KPIs around hours of play per day? How many hours is a typical whale spending?
"Do we ever record any personally identifiable information? No. Do we ever sell or distribute this data to outside parties? No. Can any of this data ever be used maliciously? No."
Similarly, it's not a big programmatic change to start tracking PII as well as cross-referencing to existing information. So while you may not have any ill intentions, I doubt you can speak for all of Zynga's actions over time.
I would emphasize the "over time" component since it tends not to be taken into account by most people which is a big reason why we are being bombarded by SOPA-like legislation. (Didn't win this one? No problem, we've got ACTA, etc. And should ACTA fail, I'm sure there's something else over the horizon)
Even if they did, I'm not so sure it would be that big of a deal (to most users anyways). I mean, Facebook has all of that data and more, and they definitely sell it to 3rd parties. Hell, you can learn anything you want about a person using their Graph API.
So even though I don't believe in it (I deactivated FB for this reason), I'm not sure how much financial benefit you can gain from <UserID> <StrawberryFarmID> TSV files which most of this data is anyways.
"when I come in the morning, I look at my stats. I'll be able to tell within an hour if the build the engineers shipped the night before had a bug that affected 30% of our users in a certain location. I'll then report this to the Engineering team,"
Why aren't the engineers doing this themselves? (Honest question, not snark) Analyzing performance/results data is (should be? :) )part of all engineering.
They do. But sometimes these bugs are less obvious and hard to spot without data. In this particular case, it was an animation bug that occurred during a tutorial of a game, whereby the animation caused the game to crash, but only on a subset of older IPhones and under certain memory conditions. So even though the build got through QA, it was tough to understand what would happen out in the wild. Well, on that morning I noticed that a large percentage of our users were starting this particular tutorial step but not completing it. And since all of our data is cohorted by both install date and build version, the engineering team knew exactly where to look to fix the issue, despite no knowledge on my part of a bug ever being introduced.
What are some good resources for engineers to pick up some advanced analysis skills (specifically to do the kind of work you do)?
Is it as simple as going back to college to do some courses in Advanced Statistics? Any particular sub branches of stats/math to focus on? Any good books you can recommend ? Thanks in advance.
PS: I work in Machine Learning,and am fairly knowledgeable in maths/stat but often have difficulty recommending the right sequence of books,courses etc, to people who want to follow a similar path - it doesn't help that I am entirely self taught - and often have to mumble vague generalities like "learn all the math you can and learn to code really well" etc. Recently I am getting questions about how someone can get good at "data science" and "behaviour analysis". Just wondering if there is a standard learning path for something like "casino science"
I think learning statistics definitely helps. Simple things like averages, stdev, probability, etc will help you. Also a healthy knowledge of SQL goes a long way.
But more importantly, its learning how to be a detective. For example, I'm not strictly a math person. I also know Python and PHP and use it to write scripts when I need to validate a theory, often working with raw logs.
You also need business acumen. Analysts are like consultants in that they work with a variety of teams and stakeholders. Everyone wants to be sure that the decision they're making is the right one, and data can help them do it. So you need an understanding of what the core issue is, how the stakeholder wants it solved, and the engineering capability to get it done in a timely fashion.
One of my favorite books is Collective Intelligence. Its a soft-intro to machine learning, and having read that and gone through those exercises along with taking a formal class on machine learning, has helped me see the importance of statistics applied at web scale.
EDIT (to the PS):
I don't think there's a standard teaching for data science. Everyone screens for it differently. If you apply for a job as a data scientist at LinkedIn for example (I did) they'll expect you to have a fairly formal CS background and will throw you questions any good software engineer should be able to solve. But they also ask you questions like "design a news feed" or "whats a good algorithm for a spam filter and how do you score it" or "how do you make an algorithm work with little data". I think "data science" is actually learning how to apply statistics at web scale problems, so my advice would be to look at things like recommenders, spam filters, classifiers, NLP, etc.
I don't think you feel as bad as the next person wondering if the people spending 10k are addicts. If you did, I don't think you'd be willing to maximize how much money you can get out of them, and I don't think you'd be willing to call them whales. You can justify it to yourself saying you have no real evidence they aren't getting 10k+ value out of the game but I rather doubt you are particularly confident of that, either. And I doubt you went into the industry to spend your time trying to satisfy 5% of your users, especially given you have a deragatory name for them.
Which isn't to say I think terribly poorly of you, but it isn't entirely non-creepy.
Out of curiosity, do you offer users a feature to prevent themselves from spending money if they self-identify that they have a problem?
The article's "At the end of one sprint, a QA dude was complaining about the drop rate of a specific item being absurdly insane, and therefore UnFun. I looked at the code, and tweaked some values, gave it back to QA guy, and fun was restored. Product Manager overrides this, goes for unfun, yet more profitable version." speaks against your "and users can be happy again."
I think having all that information is fine, but the issue is Zynga just focuses solely on that, they don't try to make games fun. They just make games to make money, even taking out features that are fun to users. So do you measure those metrics and say, "this feature doesn't make enough money so we're gonna cut it even though users think it's fun?"
I realize this is a rhetorical question, but the serious answer is that you can't measure fun (without an EEG?), just proxies for it. Typically these are things like how much time someone spends doing something, how much they spend on it, how much they talk to their friends about it. I'm pretty sure that yes, the dashboard physcab maintains supports these. If you have a better way of measuring fun then you can make several fortunes selling this.
> Brogrammers are mostly Silicon Valley / Harvard type douchebags who got into programming. YCombinator drop outs. Years of experience in managed and web languages, but who have no idea how to setup a build system nor work in native code.
I think I met more brogrammers working for Amazon in Seattle and hanging out with Microsofties, than in the Bay Area.
I almost feel like "real geeks" are a rare breed these days. It's so rare nowadays to meet a hacker that likes to hack, as opposed to a coder who's really in it so he can afford to rage at the club every chance he gets.
I'm concerned Zynga will work out who he is and decide to retaliate a) out of spite and b) to re-affirm a culture of fear to keep other ex-employee's quiet.
He mentioned he quit in August (I wonder how many engineers quit in August? Single digits?) and uses curious language quirks like "[they gave] nay fucks". As a Brit he sounds potentially British to me.
I know people in Zynga's management - they'll relish the opportunity to fuck this guy for contravening some part of his NDA. I'm sure Dani is pissed.
If you are going to 'whistleblow', people, be careful.
What I find most odd is all the talk about contractors. It sounds to me like being a contractor at Zynga is the same as being a contractor at every other company on the face of the earth. In exchange for not getting benefits or job security, you get a higher hourly rate and overtime. Nothing evil about that, just a reasoned financial exchange. If you don't want to be a contractor, don't accept their job offer!
I used to work for a company that (over my time there) seemed to use contractors more and more, and the justification was always to cut costs. I'm highly doubtful that their hourly rates were as high as one might imagine a temporary position to be.
I wasn't privy to all the details, but the impression seemed to me that it was a cost-cutting measure (no benefits for comparable pay), and a hiring-cap dodger, since at this company they didn't seem to count.
The increasing use of contractors-as-full-time was part of the reason I left. I personally knew two people who were getting strung along by HR with vague promises to turning full-time, and one who was unceremoniously let go when he was getting close to the legal limits. This seemed like a regular occurrence. I hated working next to people who had no benefits, no job security, and were doing precisely the same work as full-timers.
Most bodyshops due hard-line negotiations with the employees.
One particularly nasty one that I ran into would arbitrarily delay payment to employees for 90 or 120 days, unless the employees agreed to pay 10% for a weekly paycheck. The bad ones are even nastier to folks on temporary work visas.
If they are a good place, they will pay people whatever the fully-loaded cost of an employee is. Contractors aren't getting rich.
My experience at BAC was that contractors were used for the ability to be fired for no reason. Employment is at-will or whatever, but apparently firing full-time employees is nearly impossible (until they get promoted to Director or above).
As for pay, we were hiring people right out of college at $65 an hour plus overtime, which works out to over $130,000. That's more than I made as an employee.
Finally we have a good term for these guys - Brogrammer.
Brogrammer - Brogrammers are mostly Silicon Valley / Harvard type douchebags who got into programming. YCombinator drop outs. Years of experience in managed and web languages, but who have no idea how to setup a build system nor work in native code.
I dunno about his assessment of Brogrammers. Engineering departments have always had a sizable Bro contingent. The typical male Stanford CS student could very well be the paragon of the programming Bro... and they are usually pretty good at what they are doing.
Maybe he's getting Brogrammers confused with web dev scenesters. Awesome Tumblrs, lo-fi keytar side band, scruffy hair, interesting glasses, polaroid cameras. I don't know if those guys have a name yet. Hipster is too easy...it's never really been "hip" to have a desk job.
Seems to me that Zynga is just operating like a credit card company. This isn't a judgment, I just find it have an emotional response towered MasterCard or Visa. They also do a lot of data analysis, only care about their best customers, and copy each other at every turn. I still use them.