Of money, games and trust

What do you think about Oculus being bought by Facebook? What is your stance on the ethics of free-to-play games? Do you crowdfund game projects, or maybe you are still favoring the old way of buying games, from a store, in a neat box and with a fixed, arguably high price?

There is a revolution happening on the internet, a somewhat peaceful one but nonetheless fierce, where every idea, price point, solution that involves paying for games is scrutinized, accused and defended.

Crowdfunding and Compassionate Commercialism

Every time I read one of those awesome articles about this huge subject of crowdfunding, I cannot help but think about Dan Gilbert and one of his old blog posts called Compassionate Commercialism.

In this article, Gilbert tells the story of him giving money to a beggar, only to realise that his compassion and willingness to help was invested in an actor that scammed him. Analysing the situation, he writes about how this happening is a crime worse than stealing, because it slaps your good will in your face and turns you into a bitter, less trustful, worse person. A person that becomes unable to distinguish a genuine need for help from a false one, and whose solution is to turn his back on helping anyone, even though we are wired for compassion, even though, as humans, our first real tendency really is to help those around us.

“…..that this was the most damaging crime I had ever experienced. […] the actor on 68th Street had taken advantage of my helpfulness and taught me to be worse.”

Crowdfunding feels a lot like Compassionate Commercialism to me. And stories like the Oculus one, or the Double Fine one, or the fact that only 1 in 3 successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns delivered what they promised, makes me less supportive towards the amazing game creators with projects on Kickstarter. I am failing myself in my belief that I am a passionate supporter of the indie scene. I have always seen crowdsourcing platforms as something more social than I should have, as a way to connect creators with players so that amazing ideas can become realities, and not so game creators can become filthy rich. I also believe in the concept of enough – earning enough to continue to create, entrusting yourself in the hands of your fans who would ensure you a decent, comfortable life as opposed to having more money than you can count, more than you could possibly spend in a lifetime (like, say, 2 billion dollars, compared to which 8 millions and something looks like scraps).  But the rules of capitalism and nowadays economies are based on earning more and more and more.

Free-to-play and the false need to coerce

On the other hand, free-to-play is arguably more about coercion than value, and sadly a lot of studios just don’t do what data shows they should do. The idea of free-to-play has been scrutinized and judged so harshly, that it became almost a shame to claim you are a game developer if you work with this particular model. But just like crowdfunding, I believe this is an issue of trust as well. Trust in the value of your game, in its quality, and in the people who play it. Trust that your fans will support you even if you do not force them to. As a really rich guy once said, one of the most important rules for success is: Provide something of value, and people will pay you for it!

Which is what some people do. And – surprisingly – it works!

What do you think is more ethical: to ask for money for your awesome idea and then not to deliver what you promised, or to be tricked into feeding money into your game experiences of choice? Here is something to consider.

There are other ideas on the table, too. There is also the traditional model of selling a game neatly packed in a box, that I don’t even dare to debate because I cannot possibly understand the nostalgy towards that opaque moment of our young game dev history. In the meantime, being an indie game developer does not get you enough money to have a decent living. And then, there is April Fools with crazy ideas like this one. I am so sorry this was just a joke, but I believe it will not be a joke for long. There will be more ideas, more debates, more passion and more betrayals, just like it is happening now with crowdsourcing and free-to-play.

The act of buying, and especially the act of buying entertainment (like games), is a constant vote towards the world we want to live in, whether we like it or not.

The one and only acquisition I made in a game via microtransactions was this little guy. The only crowdsourcing campaign I supported was this one, because I know and deeply admire the people behind it. I occasionally buy games from Steam and once in a while, I coerce my husband into gifting me collector editions. Every money I spend on games is a statement of support toward its developers. In my mind, I never really buy a product, but instead, I say: I believe in you, creator, I like your idea and I trust your quality as a person or a team.*

DSCF1931
This is me saying: Farewell, world! I will be in ESO for the next few years!

Sometimes I cast my vote wrongly and I feel bad about that. But practice makes perfect and I am getting really good about my spending choices. I am acutely aware that I am able to make better choices because I am a game developer myself, and that if I would not be one, I would not be able to see through the lines of an article, a press release, a Steam page, a Kickstarter campaign. The fight I try to carry is one for a better education of our customers in terms of what it means to make games. That is one thing we can do, but there are others.

I am NOT trying to say that awesome game devs should NOT be rich. If they deserve it, they really SHOULD be. I might not like capitalism that much, but frak, I want to be able to sustain my standard of living by doing the game dev things** I am passionate about, too. But how do you quantify deserving that? My take involves trust in yourself as a developer and in your fans, and let them Make you or Break you. And give them the tools*** to do so consciously, to prevent the trolls.

Yet I tried and failed to answer a deep, inner question, which is, what IS fair? What is that model to pay for games – and game devs- which is intrinsically ethical, honest, and rewarding towards true talent and dedication? Something that allows you to nurture amazing people, as well as encourage emerging creators? Something that involves transparency, an open window towards development that promotes conscious consumers? Something that makes people aware and responsible of their choices to buy, thus collectively voting towards a better, fairer world?

 

*In reality, I never buy anything game related. Instead I make my husband gift it to me. And I love him so much for this. 

** This includes, but is not exclusive to making awesome games. It definitely involves a lot of writing.

***I hate to link my own articles, but I really do believe in this idea of Conscious Player and the fact that we, as game devs, are responsible to make this type of person alive. And I did not find it anywhere else on ze internetz.

2 Comments

  1. Paul

    Whooookay *cracks fingers* got some ground to cover here.

    On crowdfunding.

    In principle, I love the idea. Gamers participate in the funding, we eliminate the big boogedy man publisher and developers get more leeway to do what they really want. I’ll get back to this in a second.

    In practice, I’ve only funded projects that were run by people I already knew were capable: Torment, Hero-U, Wasteland 2, Dreamfall Chapters

    Or just games that plain looked amazing (The Mandate).

    I still support it as a viable funding platform for those that don’t want to be at the mercy of The Man. And so we come to the Oculus Rift debacle.

    Some say they feel “betrayed” by the move. While I feel that it’s quite a strong word, I can definitely sympathize with the feeling. People went in giving their money to someone unwilling to compromise with a big manufacturer and we know what happened. I think this opens the discussion for a larger issue of what is morally ok to do in crowdfunding.

    As a sidenote, I find it a bit funny that Carmack left id Software to do something special and now works for Facebook.

    On free to play:

    I have no problem with the model. Valve implements it sensibly and efficiently. They charge for cosmetization and offer you the ability to trade, grind and craft. Pay-to-win is an entirely different monster but the choice still lies with the player. I am personally opposed to holding progression hostage in exchange for money. I think the freemium model (where paying gets you some content earlier than if you would grind for it) as it is implemented in World of Tanks is still an acceptable practice.

  2. Every purchase is an issue of trust. There are countless retail sold games that cannot justify the price tags in terms of content provided and execution. And there are games like Gary’s Incident or Guise of the Wolf which are basically packaged scams. That isn’t to say that there is not a great difference between a failed Kickstarter and a failed product that you elect to buy. But still, a consumer cannot shrug off his responsibility of making informed purchases. There will be breaches of trust, but these should diminish the trust placed in people, not in the model.

    That said, there is no magic bullet regarding … “when to ask money for the game”. Because there is more to monetization than just what follows. Crowdfunding usually works(by which I mean, it produces the expected result) with an experienced team fulfilling their vision and not the publisher’s. Free to play works with games that have a strong social and competitive component. Classical pay before you own works for everything else (And even this is not as simple as it sounds. Controlling how the price varies is very important.). Also, crowdfunding isn’t mutually exclusive with the other two. Then you have microtransactions and subscriptions and DLC. Distribution plays a significant part in all of it.

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