Playing The Blame Game

ea-is-evil

There’s been some outrage in the video game community lately about a recent mobile game, Dungeon Keeper, released by EA, a game which, according to said community, embodies the worst and most cynical of what the mobile game industry has to offer. Why the outrage at this particular game? Well…

  1. It’s an EA game. EA was once the pride of the video game industry. Back in the late ’80s to late ’90s, EA released classics year after year like they couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. In true “you either die a hero…” fashion, however, their phenomenal successes led to interest by the world at large and EA became a corporate behemoth more interested in vacuuming up talent wherever it could find it and putting it to work 80 hours a week pumping out half-finished yearly installments of the most lucrative properties than creating the labors of love that characterized their earlier days. Today, EA, together with Activision, represent to many gamers everything that is unsustainable and wrong with the modern video game industry1.
  2. It’s a “remake” of a classic title. The original Dungeon Keeper (1997) holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers and was a product of the EA golden age.
  3. It’s a “broken-by-design” free-to-play (F2P) game2. These types of games are only “free” in the loosest sense of the word. While there is no charge to download and begin playing the game, your progress in the game is punctuated by hours-long wait times to perform even simple actions, forcing players to wait upwards of 24 hours before an action completes and being allowed to queue up another. The only way to actually play the game continuously is to pay real money for resources which eliminate or reduce the timer mechanic. The exchange rate of this resource is such that to have an experience roughly “comparable” (see #4) to the original Dungeon Keeper game, a player would have to pay tens or even hundreds of dollars.
  4. It is not anything like the original game. Even putting aside the F2P mechanics, very little of the game experience actually resembles the original. If the art assets and the title were changed, it is debatable that anybody would conclude that this new game were even so much as an homage to the first Dungeon Keeper.

Predictably, gamers are upset about the game and its business model. It cheaply cashes in on a classic title while engaging in psychological warfare with players in an attempt to separate them from their money. And what to make of the overwhelmingly positive customer reviews for the game on the App Store? Many are convinced that this means the future generation of players will accept this type of “gameplay” as standard and, as such, it will become increasingly widespread. Gamers are calling EA out, vicious in their criticism of the title and its predatory business model, but is that where the problem is?

I wonder what legitimate justification we have in blaming EA for creating and releasing such a game if people are willing to play it and pay money for it. Obviously, if people weren’t paying for these types of games then there wouldn’t be much reason to continue releasing them. Does EA have any responsibility to adhere to some standard of integrity with regards to the games it releases? In two words: absolutely not. Why should they? The responsibility for the enforcement of “integrity” lays with the customer. That’s the way the it works. It’s a voluntary market.

In my mind, it’s every bit as insidious as EA’s repulsive business practices to imagine companies should cleave to some arbitrary standard of conduct with regard to the type and quality of their products. So long as they are not doing anything illegal, the notion that they’re doing anything objectively wrong or evil is misguided. EA is not your friend, nor should you expect them to be. They’re not on your “side.” They want your money and they’ll happily take it if you’ll give it. The idea of the benevolent business, of companies and individuals laboring for the love and passion of their work with money as simply a byproduct is often symptomatic of a very dangerous and pervasive mindset that seeks to dictate remuneration rather than allow it to emerge a result of free exchange. We can hope for (what we consider) better, yes, but we should not expect it and we should never enforce it.

Companies like EA by and large reflect the tastes of the market they serve, therefore the market shoulders the blame. Dungeon Keeper may be cynical, it may be exploitative, it may even barely qualify as a game at all, but it also represents jobs, and it represents what we, as a game-playing public, have told them we’re prepared to pay for. This is not a defense of the new Dungeon Keeper, of EA or of such so-called “games,” it’s simply an opportunity to take responsibility.

After all, if a seal bathes himself in blood and swims lazily across the nose of a shark, whose fault is it if he gets bitten?

5 thoughts on “Playing The Blame Game”

  1. The F2P/P2W (pay to win) model has been out for a few years and seems to be the next direction for games as opposed to what was the subscription. Now instead of paying $50 for a game and getting occasional updates to fix problems they have DLC for $5+ which adds a little to the game or the F2P model which allows someone to try the game before spending a boatload of cash to play. The latest iteration of the Star Wars game has gone F2P after starting out with a $50 price and a $15/month recurring cost. Of course the F2P is woefully short of what you get by subscribing, although you can pay to have an ‘upgraded’ free to play experience ($5 gets you an updated access with a little bit more).

    What I do like about this F2P style is that you can also spend money to gain access to specific things without paying for a subscription on a monthly basis. It also allows you to find that if you like the game you can spend your money there, if you don’t, all you wasted was some time downloading and testing it out.

    Developers have to make money somewhere, somehow. Even the large companies like EA who have been branded as bad are still trying to make money less by relying on advertising and more on people having no patience with games.

    I get the argument that this mobile game is nothing like the original. That’s just wrong, and completely misleading.

    However the F2P issue is simply a matter of people having little or no patience anymore. Today everything is about ‘now’. I want it ‘now’. As if how fast something happens on a game is of utmost importance and the world will come to end if I don’t have it immediately. Sorry but I have no sympathy for that aspect of this world.

  2. There is a widespread perception among detractors of the free-to-play model that it encourages developers to exploit a consensual grey area. Our models of markets generally assume all actors are equally well-informed and are able to rationally evaluate all available options. Situations in which these assumptions are violated tend to cause concern; casinos, for example, often seem designed to cause people to make worse decisions than they would choose to if they were making the decision in another circumstance.

    F2P games at their worst deliberately cause players to believe a goal will be more attainable than it actually is in order to cause them to commit to it. Once committed, they are presented with the option to pay additional money in order to accomplish the goal they originally chose under the assumption that it would be free. Considering time as part of the cost paid for the accomplishment of the goal, the whole design of the monetization scheme is intended to cause people to pay a large part of the cost before learning the whole cost. Unscrupulous car dealers often pull the same trick of tacking on some undisclosed fees only after the prospective buyer has put a great deal of time into arranging the purchase. If the only options are “free” and “coerced”, these look like they’re probably free, but these departures from the economist’s ideal decision-maker make it seem like that very dichotomy obscures the salient details rather than clarifying them.

    There’s another, less theoretically interesting problem: the monetization landscape is changing very rapidly, so the inference from EA’s choice to use this particular structure to it being the one customers want is unusually poor. We simply don’t know whether they’d have made more profit on a more traditional model, because the mobile space is so different from anything they’ve dealt with in the past.

  3. “the inference from EA’s choice to use this particular structure to it being the one customers want is unusually poor”

    That’s not quite what I was saying. It’s not a question of EA using a particular structure because they honestly believe they’re delivering what customers are asking for. Like you say, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. EA is simply responding to the incentives we’re giving them. Whether or not we “want” exploitative F2P games is separate from the obvious fact that we are indeed playing and paying for them (quite voluntarily, and in an industry where alternatives are quite readily available), and as far as EA’s concerned, that’s motivation enough to keep making the choice to use the model.

    Apart from that, I agree with what you say. However, I think the onus to do proper research and become a more informed market participant is increasingly on the customer in this era of copious and free information. Ignorance is simply no longer the excuse it once was.

  4. “However the F2P issue is simply a matter of people having little or no patience anymore. Today everything is about ‘now’. I want it ‘now’. As if how fast something happens on a game is of utmost importance and the world will come to end if I don’t have it immediately. Sorry but I have no sympathy for that aspect of this world.”

    Some people want to be able to play a game without having to take day-long breaks in between mining out one block of a dungeon. If that desire can be considered wanting “instant gratification,” I guess I plead guilty. :)

  5. The argument from existing evidence to what will make EA the most money is weak for the same reasons I suggested the argument to consumer desires is: free-to-play is young enough that no one understands it completely–most people don’t even have a reasonable taxonomy which captures the salient aspects of the ways in which different monetization schemes differ. You certainly might be right that this particular scheme is what will make EA the most money, but no one is able to say that with confidence because the evidence is so scarce. The poorly understood nature of free-to-play also weakens the argument that people ought to be informed, because we simply lack the vocabulary to describe games in ways which easily distinguish between what a player may find acceptable and unacceptable.

    I also wouldn’t rest too much of my argument on overwhelmingly positive reviews. Apparently the Android version only sends you to the review page if you tell the app you’ll be giving it five stars. Many gamers hate free-to-play games of all stripes without recognizing the role of gamers unlike themselves in providing the market for them. So the broader point you’re making here seems accurate and absolutely worthy of consideration. However, this particular game seems to employ sketchy enough maneuvers that it seems like a particularly poor fit for analysis in terms of consent. When the very information which is supposed to be freely available and help undermine the defense of ignorance is deliberately and systematically corrupted by the developer, that seems like a very difficult case to make.

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