A recent post over at Healing the Masses has been making the rounds and generating a lot of comments. Many, many readers have thus far been unable to read the opening lines which indicating that our beloved Queen of the Rant, Eri, is not in fact behind this particular one.
That honor belongs to me.
Eri and I share a close blogging relationship. We often collaborate, discuss drafts, and generate future topics for one another through our frequent Steam conversations. She had just gone to print with her ‘Free to Play Fuckery’ tag with an article that I enjoyed. In a similar vein, I expressed an anxiety to her about mobile games having Super Bowl Ads. We both agreed that the thought deserved further exploration and that a guest rant might be the way to go.
As I had missed the Super Bowl and all of its ads, my own inspiration came from a post on Contains Moderate Peril. There, he discussed these ads as offering a normalization of gaming for the event’s massive audience:
“Despite what some gamers may think of mobile gaming, its mainstream success has contributed to making the pastime more socially acceptable. I consider that a good thing. Regardless of its original intentions, #Gamergate did tarnish the reputation of gaming in 2014. Perhaps popular culture references such as Liam Neeson playing Clash of Clans can contribute to reversing that trend. Who knows, as more people adopt mobile gaming it may even lead to an improvement in the quality of the games themselves?”
While I don’t disagree with the need for gaming to reverse the bad publicity (and the root causes) of #Gamergate, I am not prepared to let mobile gaming be the champion. There are certainly gems that don’t abuse their payment models, but neither Clash of Clans or Game of War are THOSE mobile games. Both are built from the ground up to monetize the player in ways that not even the grindiest of subscription-based MMORPGs could have ever conceived of prior to the invention of Free-to-Play.
Admittedly, an obscenity-filled rant isn’t the best way to discuss an issue that I feel is still quite serious, but I also didn’t intend for it to be taken this seriously. Never in my wildest days would I present an argument to convert you to my cause in such a form. Similar to Zero Punctuation reviews, the idea was to take a semblance of my real beliefs and hyperbolize them (and my delivery) for humor.
Since we’ve barely been able to get the post’s attribution right, I suppose it is only natural that the intent and purpose be distorted by the forever echoing chambers of the Internet. Commenting here and there seems to do little, so I will take my time here to address some concerns.
Tobold started things off with playing the personal responsibility card. In his view, my example of Joe Nobody was a misleading caricature of a typical F2P whale that doesn’t actually exist. In his bubble, Tobold’s whales are all affluent, well-off, and utterly bored business types with wealth to spend on frivolous things like video games.
“In the end the attempt to paint Free2Play players as Joe Nobody’s is exactly the same as pretending that hardcore gamers are unemployed losers who moved back in with their mother and play in the basement all day”
Again, my intention was to not paint a comprehensive picture of your average whale. I assumed the line “and move in with grandma who smells” might indicate my attempt at humor and levity. This was not a serious example and it is unfair to paint it as such. An entire industry has formed around ‘whale hunting’ and I think that is a serious ethical hazard, but those most afflicted by an over-indulgence in F2P spending are every day sufferers who waste lots and lots of money without necessarily gaining a whole lot. Some of you may argue that F2P has empowered those with less means or less access to play more games, but I think the entire model has eroded away the value of the money we spend on games and the games we get for our efforts.
Tobold’s second issue has to deal with the addictive qualities of a standard subscription-based MMORPG, and how my example’s protagonist could have fallen just as easily into despair from intense anti-social behavior brought about by his escapism into that world, without the payment model having any real influence.
Others have chimed in to make the same point and I don’t disagree on the sentiment. Humans are creative creatures and when our lives don’t go the way we think they ought to, we cope in some fascinating ways. Escapism in particular is a lot easier done with games built to be escapist, but it could just as easily occur in books, movies, or television shows. Before his death, my brother lived a very troubled and lonely life – his only recourse for a long time was Harry Potter.
I do not disagree with the concept of certain individuals being predisposed to dangerous levels of escapism, but such a phenomenon being possible in a subscription MMORPG doesn’t excuse F2P games for their own failings. The entire payment model works best when a game is designed to be easily and frequently monetized, so F2P mobile games are created with stringing along the player in mind. Super Bowl ads are a big deal because these games need large amounts of people trying their game so they can get the few willing to pay invested in their product. Cast a wide enough net and some oysters will have pearls.
Not all F2P models are equal, of course. I doubt I am on record for saying anything nice about League of Legends, so I will admit that I love its model. Unlike many F2P mobile games, gameplay isn’t gated by time or cost. The entire game can be played – though in a somewhat limited way power-wise – without spending a dime. Yes, you can speed things up by purchasing champions rather than grinding for them or you can level faster with experience boosts. You aren’t really paying to win though and the game isn’t relying on problematic lockboxes to rake in cash. For a final word on Tobold, I agree with Syl when she said:
“They’d probably really agree on many basic principles, if they were actually talking about the same thing; there are some pretty awful mobile games out there right now and some MMOs do f2p worse than others.”
Much of the argument back and forth has missed or ignored my rant’s point altogether. I am aware of the current market, of those F2P experiences I deem worthy of my money and those I do not. However, my rant was intended to illustrate my fear that the overwhelming success of F2P mobile games would have a negative long-term effect on MMORPGs which have rapidly adopted similar monetization tactics, systems, and features. There in the opening paragraph, I set it all up with is brilliant pirate reference:
If two piece of shit mobile games can garner enough money to afford spots like these with people some of us have heard of, then how can any of us expect F2P MMOs to become less “ARRGGGH, MATEY! I am overcharging your credit card because you played drunk and lonely last night, you big fat fucking whale!
I stand by those feelings, even if my chosen form of expression seemed to mislead so many. Whether I have a preference or not, publishers will push their games toward the path that makes the most money. With the incredible financial success that so many F2P games have garnered, whether their gameplay merits it or not, how can we expect any developer to stand against that pressure? Presuming a guaranteed hit, no company in their right mind after seeing today’s market would opt for it to be a subscription-based game rather than a F2P one because the latter will rake in more profit.
That troubles me. While some of you may feel like this entire argument is a tired retread, I still believe that the F2P model negatively impacts the design of far too many games and they remain financially successful despite it. This is where many would argue that a free market is the fairest way to determine the value of something, but the very concept requires rational participants and that’s hardly the case when games are being designed to zip, zap, and bamboozle players by appealing to their irrational interests. To me, homo economicus is a mythical creature, so when a game like ArcheAge has a monetization model that gets in the way of it being game, I’d like to follow Eri’s lead and leave it behind, but sadly our “votes” don’t amount to much and the game continues on affecting future players/designers/publishers and their ideals of what games can be and should be.
It takes a lot to make a MMORPG, so most are created with a conservative approach that tries to appeal to broader market norms (just like AAA games). Whether we like it or not, MMORPGs are first and foremost a product – World of Warcraft’s massive success, as well as their prohibitive development costs, guaranteed that. Indie developers can make artsy games because the costs are within reach. Kickstarters can try and make quality MMORPGs, but we’re all waiting patiently to see how that plays out. The MMORPGs that do get made sink or swim by how well they monetize their players since apparently there are too few interested players to keep a smaller population MMO afloat via just the subscription model. That means F2P, and the outrageous success of mobile games utilizing various aspects of the model, have completely altered the future of the entire genre.
The genre is already leaving my own conception of it behind. Admittedly, that’s the natural progression of most things; in life, things change and often despite individual protest. Still, I know I am not alone in feeling left out. I also know that I am not the only one cautiously optimistic for niche MMOs via Kickstarter or those born by the F2P model’s mere existence to speak to my interests directly again. There are plenty of great experiences left to be had and more will come – things like this will reach a new equilibrium.
But when the future of a genre I have loved for most of my life hangs in the balance, you can’t blame me for being a little anxious, a little fearful, and a little slow to embrace these new norms, can you?