Coercive monetization models are used by many of the large corporations that dominate the “Pay to play” (P2P) charts in retail, console and mobile.
They employ carefully engineered psychological traps intended to defraud ignorant players of their money. This shocking expose shines a light on their dark, inhumane practices. Be forewarned: Despite extensive examinations of opinions similar to my own, I am intentionally unaware of any company that manages to use these systems of coercion in a positive manner.
1. Purchasing sight unseen
The primary method is to get a player to purchase something without ever playing it. If you can get players excited about a new game, most will buy it with little more to go on than a box shot and a video. Many secondary techniques tie into this basic strategy of deceit.
Companies intentionally avoid releasing demos or providing free trials in order to increase the number of purchases independent of whether or not a player might enjoy the actual game.
2. Use of propaganda to artificially increase excitement
P2P publishers feed players videos, paid end caps, advertisements and canned previews. Often the marketing spend for a title is greater than the development budget. It is cynically assumed that if you shout targeted propaganda at an audience, they will buy in increased numbers.
3. Limiting information to prevent alternate opinions
Since no one can play the game, the publishers are able to keep any information about the game tightly focused on the most effective message that drives purchases. Heavy use of the captive fan press ensures that press releases are repeated verbatim.
4. Distorted game design
Since all that matters in order to make the sale is the initial propaganda, the actual game design is sacrificed. You make money by having a catchy theme, pretty graphics and the ability to turn out short sequential games rapidly. As a result, P2P encourages developers to short, consumable interactive sequences with shallow, low risk, well-worn mechanics. I hesitate to call them “games”. Most are little more than a collection of puzzles or QTE that can be clicked through in 5 to 10 hours.
Also because all that matters is if someone buys the box, game designers need not worry much about retention or engagement. Most P2P games are built with little care given to the final few levels. It is common that 50-70% of players never complete a P2P game.
5. Targeting those least able to understand modern sales techniques
Though it might be a stereotype, most P2P titles target poorly socialized teenage males. Unlike women, an educated demographic that makes the majority of purchasing decisions in Western markets, these younger males are likely to naively buy into the pre-sales propaganda without critically questioning its actual purpose. Now if these were shopping savvy 40-50 year old women, you might be willing to say “Let the buyer beware”, but can we really expect an audience that has difficulty buying fresh boxers on a regular basis to purchase games responsibly?
6. Bundling and time-limited sales
One of the more effective methods of psychological manipulation is to bundle multiple products together and offer them at an apparent discount. Players perceive they are getting a massive value when in fact they are just accumulating more games that they are unlikely to play or even enjoy.
This also preys upon those damaged individuals that possess strong hoarding inclinations. How many times have you seen players with vast collections of hundreds of uncompleted games? This is an obvious sign of mental illness which P2P developers are all too willing to exploit.
7. Skinner Boxes
Players end up treating game purchases like a slot machine. They may buy dozens of games in a year, but only one or two will be worth their time. This creates a random reinforcement schedule that sets up a form of psychological addiction. Players find themselves stalking the latest game sale in the hopes of getting a new hit of gaming goodness. Of course the system is rigged so that it is nearly impossible to know upfront whether the game in question is worth their money. So they press the ‘buy game button’ and spin the wheel. Oh, the Steam sales!
In the process a few ‘whales’ spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month on games. Some even purchase meaningless, ostentatious ‘arcade cabinets’ or inordinately expensive peripherals that retail dealers call ‘consoles’. Most of these claim their purchases are part of a healthy hobby and have no regrets. However, I’ve gone out of my way to find adults with poor spending habits that have stripped their meager bank accounts to ‘collect ’em all’. Some young men holding down minimum wage part time jobs were forced to eat ramen in order to continue their spending spree. This deceptive form of capitalist gambling, aka ‘shopping’, ruins ruined lives.
Other means of manipulation
This small sampling of techniques points to the deep corruption inherent in both making and selling P2P games. There are numerous other other manipulative practices:
- Use of fake tribalism: “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”
- Collector’s editions: Use of socially questionable materialism to artificially increase ARPU.
- DRM: The pay before you play model leads directly to DRM as a means of artificially blocking non-paying users from trying the game and seeing if they might like it. Piracy becomes meaningless if you provide a long term service or hobby, but that is not the optimal strategy for money-grabbing P2P firms.
- $60 price tags: If you are selling a fantasy product, you might as well take any willing mark for as much as possible.
- False console cycles: With a mere billion dollars on fresh propaganda, P2P companies know that they can artificially stimulate a mass of people to invest in a new console and then repurchase their old games all over again.
- DLC: Since P2P is essentially about churning out cheap, consumable content, these “games” only get upgraded if the expansions take the form of cheesy modular DLC. Mechanical upgrades that improve the core gameplay or social systems are rare since there is little financial incentive.
- Overemphasis of reviews instead of actual player behavior: Good reviews are just another form of message control and propaganda. This is why dev bonuses are tied to Metacritic scores instead of statistically valid player metrics.
There is a substantial human cost to these shenanigans. Through I have zero hands-on experience making P2P games (and honestly have no interest in them), several inexperienced indie friends attempted to make a P2P game. After one attempt in a crowded and competitive market, they failed to buy a Tesla. Since I personally enjoyed the prototype they showed me at a game jam, I think it is clear that all the blame for their game’s failure (and subsequent public emotional turmoil) can be laid at the feet of the P2P business model. This is not the silver bullet you fantasized about as an inexperienced non-developer.
In the end, P2P hurts gamers and the game industry as a whole. I urge you as an ethical designer to reject this immoral practice. The egregious abuse of players by popular pay-2-play practitioners makes any use of P2P invalid. I question if it is even possible to make a moral P2P title. (Indies should especially distance themselves from this culture that is little better than legalized gambling.)
What we really need is to make great games where players can try the games for free and then make an informed decision on whether or not the game is worth their money. In an ideal world, games should be meaningful long term hobbies that enrich a player’s life, not some cynical scam job reliant on engineered propaganda spam, sexed up artwork, forced sequels and a captive press.
Imagine games where players only pay their hard earned cash if they find the gameplay meaningful. They can try any and all of a game for free as long as they want. If they don’t feel the game is adding to their life, then they can leave at any time.
Sadly, such an honorable course seems unlikely. No doubt that we’d see overblown rhetoric and misappropriated science denouncing such an idealistic experiment by those deeply involved in coercive, yet highly profitable, P2P businesses.
PS: When posting comments be sure to see if it passes the “I understand that this essay is satire” check. I’d hate for there to be any sort of embarrassing misunderstandings.
PPS: These are exciting times where business models and design problems are evolving radically and rapidly every month. That multiverse some call ‘free to play’ is mutating along dozens of different variables. The old familiar retail ‘pay to play’ model is also fracturing into something new. If you think you grok how any current business model works, you probably are several years behind.
The uncertainty and change can be scary. Maybe you recently played a game that was different than ones you played as a child. Or you heard some stories. And now you feel the urge to express your emotions via loud opinion spewed onto the internet. Oh look…more precious time passed while you were ranting and you learned nothing.
Polarized views backed by mere opinions fails to move the science and craft (and ethics) of making games forward. What are you personally doing with code and art and functional gameplay in order to carve out a viable, sustainable future for great games? Let’s talk about that. Mere gnashing of teeth, often witnessed in the same form as the essay above, is noise that drowns out thought.