The Morality of Free to Play

Whenever you get something for free, it means that somebody else is paying.

Michael Arrington has an essay on TechCrunch called Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell. And he’s asking who actually pays for the massively popular social games that are taking over Facebook. You might think that games like Farmville are free to play with options for players to spend real money on buying extra assets in game if they want. And then the micropayments fund the game. You’d be right, but that’s not the whole story.

There’s also a whole infrastructure of adverts attached to the games, where players are offered in game currency for filling out forms, subscribing to unrelated services, etc. And some of these adverts are actually scams (ie. tricking people into signing up for $10pcm mobile phone subscriptions). One thing’s for sure, there’s a vast amount of money on the line here, and the scammers are likely to pay the game producers at least as well as the legit advertisers if not better. If you read the comments on the article linked above, you’ll see several from people claiming to be involved with either social networking sites or games, who comment that the offers which monetize the best are the ones which scam or trick users.

As gamers, what we really want out of the whole system is fun games. So any payment scheme that motivates devs to produce anything that isn’t a fun game is against our best interests. Still, assuming that scammers will pay well for the opportunity to have their adverts embedded in a game with in-game incentives to sign up for the scam, what does that mean?

  • In subscription MMOs, it’s been said that casual players subsidise the hardcore so devs are motivated to produce content for the casuals.
  • In some types of F2P game, the hardcore players subsidise the casuals, so devs are motivated to produce content for the hardcore.
  • In a game funded by adverts, the advertisers subsidise all the other players so devs are motivated to produce content that drives people towards the adverts.
  • In a game funded by scams, the scammers subsidise the players, and the scammers are subsidised by the gullible/stupid people who fall for the scams. So devs are motivated to produce content for the gullible/ stupid or which helps trick people into the scams. Also, some of those gullible/ stupid people are actually children (who might be expected to be less sophisticated in parsing adverts, especially if they really want the in-game currency.)

Even if you don’t care about other people getting scammed, as a gamer you might not want games to go that route. Because our ideal is always that our games are paid for by people who want exactly the same things as we do. Which probably means us.