I recently discovered a fascinating article on Gamasutra called “Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games”. In this article the writer, Mike Rose, heard accounts from people who had dropped seriously large amounts of cash on various free to play games. There weren’t a lot of MMOs specifically mentioned, with the closest examples being things like Maple Story and Planetside 2, while other games such as Team Fortress 2, and various Zyngor style social games were also discussed, although I’d argue many of the business practices were so similar to what we see in MMOs as to make no matter.
The article goes in to some depth about the ramifications of these stories for the free to play industry, and speaks to both former and current free to play developers who offer a wide range of perspectives on the various business practices being used in free to play games. Some felt that using gambling like mechanics such as lockboxes was unethical, because it deliberately played on a certain element of weakness in potentially vulnerable people, while others felt that only consumers had the responsibility to make their own choices regarding sensible spending.
These issues are hugely complex, and require a much greater level of academic research into the similarities between gambling, and some of the most common free to play business practices, in order to deduce whether some greater level of responsibility is required by developers.
However, it is not that aspect which I wish to comment on specifically, but rather on some of the personal stories revealed in the article, by people who’ve invested up to $30,000 into these games. So here are a few separate quotes from one particular story about a man named Chris, who spent thousands on Team Fortress 2 ‘crates’ (basically lockboxes):
“My savings got wiped out pretty quickly — although it should be noted that at the time I didn’t have much put away to begin with,” he explains. “The real trouble wasn’t that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal.”
“I’ve never really been addicted to anything else, so I can’t say for certain whether a ‘real’ addiction would be stronger,” he notes. “I would say that it felt akin to what I’d expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like — social pressures reinforced a behaviour that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I’d never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life.”
“There were nights where I’d be up until 3 am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler’s fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I’d be sure to win this time,” he adds. “Then I’d wake up the next morning and see that I’d not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk.”
This is but a small part of one story contained in the article, and I’d really recommend you read the whole thing, as I believe it’s an important issue and touches on many different perspectives. But, all this brought one single point home to me, and it’s somewhat contrary to what many MMO players seem to think. The‘whale’ (I really dislike this term by the way) phenomenon, in which it is generally accepted that a very small percentage of players in a free to play game spend hugely disproportionate amounts of money on the game, and effectively pay for the vast majority who will never spend a penny, is well known to many MMO players. Yet, most have always presumed that these so called ‘whales’ can afford to do so. This article brings up the rather depressing possibility that maybe they can’t, and shelling out this kind of cash has huge ramifications on their life outside of the game.
There is much work to be done before we can gain a fuller understanding of the sorts of human psychology at play here, but the article makes pains to point out that most players who had dropped significant sums of money on these kinds of games were happy to have done so. But, the fact that there are such extreme cases does make me squirm a little, even if it is a very complex discussion.