What is "Dark Side Monetization"?
Delving into dark game design patterns
I've recently released my latest book “Game Design Deep Dive F2P” where I discussed the ethical, and not-so-ethical, aspects of monetization and live service games. As a companion piece to my talk about “player-friendly design”, it’s time to talk about the other side of the coin with dark side monetization.
Dark side monetization encompasses the shadier side of monetization tactics and systems, borrowing heavily from the gambling and casino industries. As I discussed in my previous stories, it is entirely fair and ethical for a developer to earn money through the content they make for a game. However, when a game is being tweaked and balanced to convince or fool someone into spending money, that’s when we cross a line.
As I've said before, there isn’t “one thing” we can say that automatically makes a game ethical or unethical; rather, it's about the systems the game uses and how they are being used to balance the experience.
For a lot of third-generation mobile games – those released in the past four years or so – the monetization itself is, in a sense, separated from the act of playing the game. Yes, you can roll for a five-star character or gear in Genshin Impact, or get a UR in Dragon Ball Legends, but the gameplay itself should not be balanced around just one character or the most powerful characters. One of the things I like about Arknights is that content is not designed around having only six-star characters. The monetization simply gives you tools, but the act of playing and enjoying the game should be divorced from it.
Unethical approaches to monetization involve scenarios where said monetization directly interferes with gameplay, but also where the game is overtly balanced toward spending money. This might involve "VIP" systems or exclusive rewards for spending money, creating mechanics that exist solely to force players to pay, and in general including systems that aren't at all about making the game experience better but are simply about revenue. If you can spend money to simply bypass content, or if the "free" experience is weighted heavily against the player, then you're probably looking at unethical game design.
Let's take a look at Marvel Contest of Champions as an example. The game routinely hits you with special deals and offers regardless of the level you're playing at. But here's the dirty little secret: the game gates purchases in such a way as to avoid transparently communicating the true cost. So, you'll pay money to get the chance to pick up 3 and 4 star characters. But, once you've acquired those, you'll find they quickly become obsolete thanks to the existence of 5 and 6 star characters. This system is underwritten by a difficulty system that radically spikes so that the characters you just purchased are simply non-competitive. Worse still, playing through the regular content simply isn't enough to provide you with the resources required to unlock characters at the next level/tier. Your only path forward is to pay. But as I just pointed out, this design is obscured/hidden from the player at the outset. You'll only be asked to pony up more dough after you've reached a certain commitment threshold. No doubt some proportion of players are more likely to invoke the sunk cost fallacy as they continue to spend money on a system that is less like a linear progression and more like a hamster wheel.
At this point, it's possible that some gamers will claim that they can play even the most unethical games and avoid falling for these tricks and traps. Some will argue that these mechanics are okay because "you don't have to buy them". But as I've said in previous stories on this topic, this kind of unethical design is not about the most hardcore players. So, in my case, as an experienced gamer, I tend to know what I'm going to spend money on and what I'm going to ignore – in other words, I focus on the investments that will provide long term value rather than quick shortcuts. But these systems aren't designed for players like me. They are built for the people who are likely to succumb to the pressures of gambling; they squarely target addictive personalities. In these scenarios, players have been known to keep spending until they get exactly what they want, regardless of its real value in the long term experience. These are players who could easily spend hundreds – or thousands – of dollars on games like this.
No doubt some proportion of players are more likely to invoke the sunk cost fallacy as they continue to spend money on a system that is less like a linear progression and more like a hamster wheel.
Players vs. the House
In my previous story about pricing, I said that we are well past the time where clearly signposted minimum and maximum pricing for digital purchases is required. Game developers and publishers have free reign to dictate pricing, odds of success, and whether or not there is a pity mechanic. Regardless, I think there's clearly a balancing issue at play when a gamer's entire experience can revolve purely around unlocking a single "good" character.
No one should ever feel that they "need" to have a piece of content in a game to enjoy it (where that piece of content is a specific purchase), nor should a game attempt to provoke those desires. If some video games are going to operate in ways that are essentially no different than casinos, then casino-like rules should probably apply. For example, it might be worth considering hard limits on play time for these kinds of live service games. Right now I'm playing Arknights, which does require a daily login, but where I can complete all my daily activities in about 15-20 minutes. Some games demand that you login multiple times per day or spend at least an hour (sometimes more) playing each day, especially in the late game.
Live service developers do deserve money for keeping their games running, growing, and popular. But there are ethical and fair ways to do this that don't involve tricking or trapping players.
Locking Down P2W
One of the goals for my book is to finally put into words what unethical and "pay to win" (P2W) practices mean for the industry at large. I think we've collectively spent far too long debating the meaning and difference of terms like "free to play" (F2P) and "pay to win", which is why I think it now makes sense to simply focus on player-friendly design regardless of the monetization model. Just because a game has some kind of monetization system doesn't automatically mean it's P2W. Similarly, a game that only monetizes cosmetics or provides free currency isn't automatically a fair experience for players.
The cash value of these games – the ultimate verdict – comes down to how monetization systems are implemented in practice. Both Path of Exile and Warframe, for example, feature extensive monetization systems (Warframe might come close to having the most of any live service game in existence). And yet, there's absolutely no pressure to spend a single cent on these games. They are enjoyable enough on their own terms, and gameplay isn't unfairly gated behind shady monetization practices.
This is why I think we need to move away from thinking about P2W as being, in and of itself, the sole arbiter of a game's quality (that is to say, outright accepting or rejecting games on the basis of their P2W status). Rather, I think we need a more nuanced understanding of how monetization systems are leveraged and whether or not these implementations are ethical. There are still plenty of F2P games being released that rest on very shady monetization practices, but said practices are sometimes ignored by critics who tend to emphasize the "good stuff", like when a game gifts you free resources (as an example). The thing is, it doesn't matter if the game is gifting you free resources on a daily basis, if those resources aren't enough in and of themselves to enjoy the experience over a period of time.
Monetization practices in games are something of a Wild West at the moment; I believe it's well past time for the game industry to set clear standards around fair and unfair practices. In my previous book, I discussed the fact that governments are now looking more closely at F2P games (with loot box bans already in effect in some markets). If the U.S. government decides to implement just some of the laws that exist elsewhere, this could potentially decimate both the F2P and mobile markets. As with the creation of the ESRB in the '90s, the industry really needs to take a stance on this before the government comes in and writes rules that severely limit developer/publisher freedom.
I want to end by re-emphasizing the point that, of course, live service games should charge money to players. These games can be expensive to maintain – let alone continually enhance over time – and it's reasonable that the people building and maintaining these experiences should be funded to do so. But there is no excuse whatsoever for actively tricking players out of their money, or hiding the true cost of an experience in order to lure new players in.
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