The Grumpy Troll

Ramblings of a grumpy troll.

Musings on in-game paid consumables

This post references "I" quite a bit, as I'm exploring my reactions and thoughts on a particular topic; all ethics are subjective at some level, and I hope that by exploring my reactions a little I can contribute towards a healthy debate, while noting that my reactions are not absolutes that should guide others. Particularly, I am not a psychologist and many of the issues here could do with input from such for someone trying to come to an informed conclusion of action to take.

I recently had cause to relent and reluctantly purchase an iPad, which has led to my looking around at the ecosystem a little. This includes having a game on it which I can play when without connectivity and wanting to chill.

One item installed last night is a strategy-type game, with in-game purchasing of consumables. This poses some slightly worrying ethical issues, to do with addiction and abuse of addicts. Never having purchased items in-game before, I decided to do so ($5) to explore the user experience and what happened as a result. I wasn't intending to write up anything, I just wanted to better understand why people spend money on in-game items. I have not spent more money on further upgrades, none of this post is written from bitterness, I deliberately mentally wrote off that $5 as the cost of exploring, as someone who writes software, why this is so profitable for companies.

I fully support the idea of extensible applications, where you get a base system free or cheap and pay for additional features you need; I'll caveat that with a requirement for up-front clarity about what will be included in the base system and any particular upgrade, so that people know what they are and are not buying with any particular purchase. Deliberately nebulous definitions would seem to constitute fraud. I hasten to add that this does not apply to the game I purchased, which is very clear about what any particular purchase gets you; I'm speaking in generalities.

Whether the purchasing needs to be in-application is more dubious. A considered purchase doesn't need spontaneity and folks can choose to go grab the upgrade. Android apps tend to manage this by having a button which takes you out to the Market, although that does mean that such apps tie themselves to the market they choose instead of being agnostic of which market they're purchased through.

I also believe in freedom of markets, which includes an absence of other people saying what two folks can choose to sell between themselves, subject to ethical issues. Freedom from market regulation shouldn't permit slavery, for instance. So there inherently is some kind of restriction on what should be permitted; typically for phones and tablets this will come in the form of Terms of Service restrictions from the marketplace operator, together with applicable existing regulation.

If someone wants to buy a fancy new sword in their game, that's an upgrade, it can help them, I can see people choosing to spend their money in such a way, even if I wouldn't myself. I think. Unless the game is free and it's a way to give back to the creators of the game to support ongoing development and I make that conscious choice.

In this case, the US currency money went on "diamonds" which could be used in-game for purchasing further items. Some were upgraded components, which rapidly become eyebrow-raisingly expensive in non-game currency terms. To an extent, the intermediate currency hides the real-world cost from the normal thinking process of the player: it requires skill in mental currency conversion to assess the actual price of something being purchased to make adequately informed judgements on worth versus cost. That's a little iffy for my tastes, but not the focus of my concern.

The problems arise from the way that diamonds can be spent on refreshes (not capacity raises, just filling) of "energy" and "stamina", which are consumable and can be worked through in a mere couple of minutes of play. This enables the player to continue playing "now" instead of waiting for a recharge. Each of those two consumables extends one dimension of the type of game-play, as the game is effectively two games in one, so each provides a short burst of one type of game-play.

In addition, the way the game time continues to progress while not playing, combined with alert notifications to summon the device owner back into the game, is clearly engineered to keep the user at the game and keep pulling them back for more, with each time they're pulled back including a temptation to spend in-game currency to increase the duration of the "fix" they can get.

While all games are fundamentally designed to manipulate the player, to get them to enjoy the game, and advertising is designed to manipulate a person to get them to spend money, the sort of manipulation which lulls people in to play, play repeatedly, and spend money while doing so, with a little disconnect between the money they play with and the money that obtains that, seems to bear strong similarity to gambling, and casino gambling with chips in particular.

There's a difference between making a product enjoyable, so that folks consider their purchase money well spent and will come back to buy from you in future, and making a product which pulls folks in repeatedly, getting them to spend money which soon disappears. The rewards and stimuli may in some ways be similar, but the consequences in money extraction are not.

I don't favour inviting government to write laws to regulate markets they don't understand, but given the existing regulations around casinos as a precedent and the nature and motives of the psychological manipulation involved, if things continue as they are I consider new laws a natural consequence, even in the USA. The only way that wouldn't happen is if existing laws can be interpreted to cover this behaviour in ways which would result in some hurried class-action settlements.

A problem is that the folks providing the marketplace get a 30% cut of the money, so as (typically) corporations bound to obey their prospectus in how they serve the shareholders, typically placing "profit" as the top-most method, those folk are not naturally going to be able to restrict the use of the market without facing shareholder questions and liability. But they should be working to regulate how the market can be used, to demonstrate that governmental intervention is not needed.

I suspect that things will get worse until part of some law provides legal protection against shareholder action for reducing the more rapacious forms of revenue collection from the markets; this could act as an enabler for the corporations operating the market to clean up how the markets are used, to avoid particular intervention in how the market itself operates.

-The Grumpy Troll


It's very like a Skinner box, with a blatant tradeoff: you can wait to play more, or you can pay to play now. Most of the facebook-game genre works the same way. But if you go outlawing explicit pandering to people's base desires, you eliminate almost all advertising and most politics. Hmmmmmmm.