On Freemium, playstyles and evil game design

In a couple of Gamasutra blog posts, Adam Saltsman (of ‘Canabalt’ fame) ranted against what he feels are ‘evil’ game design systems. I characterized his arguments as ‘hysterical’, which is perhaps a bit unfair since rants are meant to be hot. Anyway, at some point I felt compelled to write a long reply, and I’m reposting it here. I’ve edited it only slightly, so it’s possible that some of it is confusing outside of the context of the original discussion.

My guidelines are not for gamers; they’re for humans. My guidelines are not about styles of game or difficulty of game; they’re about treating players with a modicum of respect.

Now, we agree that all players and all humans should be treated with respect. But there is no inherent lack of respect in ensuring that your game encourages players to pay if they like the game and want to enjoy more of it. If anything, you are asking players to respect YOU as a creator by paying something for the enjoyment they derive from your work. Short of a pure donation model, this encouragement must affect the product you create in some ways. That doesn’t make the creator greedy, which seems to be Adam’s characterization of the monetization process.

In the section ‘As Long As It’s Fun, It’s Ok,’ Adam says:

if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve more checklist progress with less gameplay.

Adam is talking about ‘the gameplay’ as if it were a single, indivisible unit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most modern games, and particularly most successful games, are not reduced to a single element of gameplay, but rather support and combine a wide array of experiences, mechanics and play styles.

Different players are interested in different mechanics and playstyles. Equally important, even the same player will be interested in different mechanics and playstyles at different points in time, depending on mood, available time and other factors external to the game.

Let’s take FarmVille, which I assume would be a good example of what Adam calls ‘predatory’. People play that game for different reasons and in different ways: to build and decorate a pretty farm (gardening without the dirt); to compete with others (without the stress of a direct confrontation); to relax with a mindless passtime (where you click things and nice stuff happens); to figure out the optimal strategies (and probably move on afterwards); as a collector / completionist (sometimes even obsessively so). I’m sure there’s more.

Most games mix and combine the mechanics that support all their different playstyles; a player can’t ONLY play the mechanics she is interested in and skip the rest. I can’t ignore the loot in Diablo and only play the combat game; I can’t skip boss battles in Bayonetta; I can’t skip the exploration in Shadow of the Colossus.

Freemium games by definition must embed their payment encouragement elements within regular gameplay. One of the ways they do this is by asking players to pay if they want to skip or ignore some of the aspects of the game that are not of interest to them. To characterize this as ‘the checklist is more important than the gameplay’ is a terrible, terrible simplification.

Doing this embedding without ruining the integrity, value and fun of your game is a very delicate design and balancing process. Most games that try get it wrong, and among those that get it right, some can reap massive benefits if they are aimed at the right audience.

Player power curves, and defined goals, are age old mechanics in a designer’s toolbox. A common trend is for sophisticated players to mock the distilled versions of these (leveling up, and explicit lists of goals / quests) as simplistic. And I guess they ARE simple! That’s why they are so successful: because they work as mechanics that a less sophisticated player will enjoy, understand and want to work with.

Same goes for randomness: it’s an incredibly easy way to create uncertainty, variety, anticipation, and similar feelings that are pervasive to most play experiences.

An evil designer may try to create an evil skinner box using these mechanics, but that doesn’t make the mechanics themselves evil or unethical in any way (just like in the original skinner box the lights, the electricity or the cheese are not evil). And outside of gambling, I don’t know of a game that consist purely of a skinner box.

The fact that most successful freemium games derive their revenue from a small % of the playerbase to me means that these games must contain a lot of unadulterated, not-evil, absolutely ethical value for their players. If that were not the case, any players that evade the skinner mechanism that forces them to pay, would simply not play at all. Therefore, the evil skinner component that worries Adam so much must, in fact, do not exist or be minimally present, buried under all that value. Most designers will call this presence simply ‘understanding basic human behaviour’.

One thought on “On Freemium, playstyles and evil game design

  1. Pingback: 驳Adam Saltsman对“邪恶”游戏机制的看法 | GamerBoom.com 游戏邦

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