Time vs. Money in MMOs and Arbitrary Lines in the Sand

Omg I am doing it again. Stahp m….too late!

Two bloggers against whom I harbor no particular ill will, which helps when ordering and formulating thoughts, are going at it: Eri is very angry at the free-to-play model, in regards to a specific, exploitative subset of games. Tobold argues that free-to-play games aren’t in fact funded by masses of poor and gullible people, again by example of a specific subset of games (which gets another reply from Eri). 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. On the other hand, it’s probable that in games like LOTRO or Allods, dedicated longtime players spend more money overall than short visitors, especially when the shops offer power-ups for alts and endgame-relevant items. Not all F2P is created equal.

Meanwhile in comments and elsewhere, the discussion has gone completely off the rocker once players start defending their love/hate for payment models by (ab-)using the old worrysome “addiction”-card. The issue aside that we cannot exactly equate lockboxes or micro-transactions in games with casino-like gambling since psychologically this is a simplification with certain problems, I am really quite vexed that something as complex as addiction gets pulled into payment model arguments by...players . There’s already a degree of compulsive behavior being facilitated by basic, everyday MMO design without qualifying as addiction. Addiction doesn’t “just happen” because of game- or payment model design, any more than depression happens because you watched too many sad movies. Addiction to games or gambling (or anything else) shows when other risk factors (such as distraction or withdrawal coping mechanisms) are already at play – which yes, makes many activities potential escalators.

There’s a way of making statements pro/against payment models for games without dragging in the flawed narrative of those who hate online gaming in the first place –

What I would appreciate and that’s a general statement, is that players stopped drawing that arbitrary line of ‘money spent’ being worse than too much time spent on MMOs. It absolutely isn’t true – losing grip on online gaming can have the same devastating effects (and happens a lot more often I’d wager) than erm, going broke. I don’t know anyone that went broke but I do know people perpetuating an unhealthy state of mind through escapism (I also know the opposite), to a point where it ruins their social and professional lives. That’s why the whole ‘dangerous addiction’ argument within anti-f2p arguments is so disingenuous. Let’s just agree right now that to a person that is already at risk, and only then, an awful lot of things can be harmful – lest we not start sounding like those who blanket condemn all online gaming because of its dangerous social hooks and manipulative progression-based content. (In reply to Azuriel elsewhere)

So much for that. Tangentially, my own brother is the one anecdotal example I can think of in terms of financial debt because of his Ultima Online addiction 17 years ago, amassing phone bills in the thousands of Euros for my parents in that early age of dial-up modems. UO didn’t have lockboxes any more than WoW does and yet, these MMOs are fully capable of serving good or bad, depending on a person’s situation.

In conclusion, once more

It’s important to be a vigilant consumer and be critical of what you’re served. It’s equally important not to turn a blind eye to what’s already there just because you’re more familiar with it. F2P games can be insidious cash-cows; F2P games can also allow someone with a small budget to participate in social gaming activities. Subscriptions can be a great, straightforward deal for regular players; subscriptions are also known to create a sense of “obligation” that some players actively avoid because it ain’t good for them personally.

But then, I have this feeling all along that our good old (and young) blogosphere is mostly in agreement on these matters, once all that righteous rage is spent anyway.

21 comments

  1. I’ve spilled my share of virtual ink over payment models. I’m just… stingy, and hate paying for time. I’ll always side with a Guild Wars or Wizard 101 “buy content, play whenever” model over a sub or annoyingly monetized F2P models.

    Mostly, though, I’m pretty “live and let live” these days. If it offers me good value, I’ll buy. If not, I won’t. I love that there are several options out there, giving consumers choices. I do wish I could convince Blizzard to adopt a “buy and play” model, but I have other, more important windmills to tilt at. *shrug*

    1. It’s the same for me – I like several f2p MMOs but am also subbed to one or two usually. And a lot of people would buy WoW if it went b2p, just to have a go when they otherwise wouldn’t.

  2. What a fantastic post!

    From the logic people are throwing around in those debates, I guess all of them must want to do away with alcohol as well, because for sure it ruins many more lives than any type of gaming.

    Personally I find it pretty easy to control how I spend my money, but a lot harder to control how I spend my time. That is one reason why I was late getting into MMOs, because I heard all the stories about out-of-control WoW-habits, and I could see myself being susceptible to that.

    Seems to be not uncommon either. How many times have we heard people say things to the effect that “I used to have a problem with playing far too much… but I’ve got a grip on it now…” ? I’ve never heard anyone talk in the same terms about spending too much money on games, though I dare say that does happen as well.

    1. Myeah, essentially rules created over extreme examples are not good rules. Some mobile games are pure trash and I wouldn’t be sad to see them go but there’s plenty to take their place. I don’t believe in blaming symptoms when you could be looking at root causes. If we focused our energy on that, we’d not be needing these discussions.

  3. It’s just as disingenuous to downplay the fact that many of these companies use psychological manipulation in order to ring in the greatest number of profits. This isn’t even an industry secret. It’s considered smart business. So the idea that people pointing out the risks and dangers of addiction in these games is somehow an overreaction is absurd. These are facts.

    There are games which use casino-like features/mechanics. How is this not true and why do you consider this a playing of the “old worrisome addiction card”?

    The whole thing about contextualizing addiction is a moot point. Maybe I have a dry throught and runny noise, but I’m not quite sick. This isn’t somehow an argument against my wife turning the fan on high at night knowing that I’m weak. She’s still wrong for that. Me having symptoms prior is completely irrelevant so long as she is aware that turning on that fan will more than likely make me sick.

    The question isn’t whether I’m prone to manipulation. The question is whether it’s a legitimate business case for some game company to abuse my pyschology in order to get more money out of me. Yes, there are other things in life which try to abuse us in much the same way — but we’re talking about games, not those other things AND those other things are also wrong! F2P games are especially guilty of this kind of manipulation, since their model frequently depends on this very manipulation of player behaviors. Do you think this isn’t the case?

    I don’t get your point here or see this as refuting the arguments you present. Companies absolutely plot and plan how to part me from my wallet and this includes inserting game mechanics that put me in a behavioral cycle that’s difficult to break (that is *the* reason they design it that way — so that you keep inserting coins). This is a true statement which companies aren’t even shy about announcing, so why do you think it’s wrong/false/illegitimate for players to point this out?

    1. I think you read my post in one way and I wrote it in another. If I failed in bringing my message across, let me retry:
      I am nowhere downplaying anything. I am in acceptance that some people would struggle with the more insidious types of f2p games and I’m no fan of Candycrush and co. What I’m making a point of is however that a) not everyone refers to the same type of f2p games in their criticism, b) it’s not as simple as equating payment models with addiction and c) all MMOs and subgames too are manipulative and potentially problematic for ‘somebody’. Subscription MMOs aren’t some altruistic club of antroposophic developers – they’re designed to keep you playing and count on the whole psychology of unsub hesitation (and those neat auto-renewals).

      So the bottom line for me is, be equally vigilant and critical. Know about extremes but don’t let them be your only point of reference. Also in reply @ Pasduil.

      And I very much hope your wife wouldn’t turn the fan up. But the correct analogy would have to be that there’s many more people in that room with you and that there’s different kinds of fans.

      1. I think I understood you, I just don’t see a clear point here, even in your well-written article. I guess I didn’t feel the critics in question weren’t being equally vigilant? (only in that they spoke of some particular things they saw going on instead of *every* thing that’s going on).

        I think games which want to adopt the F2P model are always deciding whether to manipulate their players or sell a game. It seems more often that not they choose a mix of both and I think feel that’s a really huge problem, as a gamer. I’m more likely to resent games for going down that road, despite their quality. It’s not necessary to abuse me to keep your company afloat, yet I think this is precisely what developers feel pressured to do. I don’t think this is a “sometimes” occurrence. Wherever I see a F2P game I see developers grappling with this question of where they will draw this line.

        As I mentioned on Eri’s article, some devs really don’t care that much. As far as they’re concerned, the player deserves whatever they pay for (which I’ll say again: is nonsense).

        Here’s a question in this case: Do you think this is a truly rare situation? I don’t think it’s clear to me what “types” of F2P games you’re pointing at when you say critics are only selectively criticizing the model (hey sometimes I’m slow …and I’m a bit more than sleep deprived these days so bear with me). I guess I see it as perfectly fine to criticize one “type” (whatever that means here) and not talk about others.

        Also, what other points of reference are you referring to (not entirely sure I follow you mean there)?

      2. And to be clear: I’m speaking more directly to your ridicule of critics bringing up game addiction, not just the part about the F2P model.

  4. The part of this debate that always throws me is the bit where an “addiction” to online gaming ruins someone’s social and professional life. There are, of course, examples where that is genuinely the case – we’ve all seen them in the media. However, it seems to me to be entirely legitimate to exchange one set of social interactions and/or one set of professional aspirations for another.

    I have always failed to see why ceasing to go to the pub five nights a week in favor of raiding five nights a week represents a social net loss. Neither do I understand why choosing to work in a job that covers necessary expenses but requires little or no commitment beyond contracted hours in order to make the most of available leisure time for online gaming is inherently inferior as a life choice than choosing to concentrate on a career that brings in much more money but takes up much more time and energy.

    I spent more than two decades socializing extremely heavily. I calculated at one point in the 1980s that I hadn’t eaten a single meal at home for over nine months. I went to countless concerts, movies, parties, played in bands, was active in clubs and organizations and pretty much lived in clubs, pubs and other people’s houses. I loved it. It was a great life.

    That had tailed off somewhat by the mid-90s but I was still very actively socially. Then I discovered Everquest. Within a few months most of that socializing was a thing of the past. Since Mrs Bhagpuss embraced MMO gaming every bit as enthusiastically as I did there was no disharmony over the change of lifestyle. Instead of going out to meet people we stayed in and had the world come to us.

    Fifteen years later I think that was a good trade. It’s probably been better for my physical health and it’s very definitely save me a fortune. It’s also, on balance, been at least as entertaining and amusing. You could look at it from the outside and say an addiction had taken hold (or at least an obsession) but I would suggest that, from the outside, you could just as well look at the pub/gig/movie/party going life I led from the late 70s to the early 90s and say I was addicted to conversation and socializing. Only no-one ever does say that, do they?

    The only thing that matters as far as I’m concerned is whether the individual concerned is happy with the choices he or she has made and whether he or she has fulfilled whatever responsibilities to others he or she would reasonably be expected to fulfil. Outside of that it’s no-one else’s business how people choose to spend their time or their lives.

    And in case that sounds as if someone has criticized me for the choices I’ve made, no, they really haven’t. It’s all worked out very comfortably so far. Long may it continue!

    1. It’s not about people who play MMOs instead of going to the pub or watching TV. If they’re in control of their behavior and their life is in good shape then there’s nothing addictive about that per se. But there’s plenty enough examples of people who themselves say they have or had a big problem. Here’ one:

      Confessions of an MMO Addict, Part I

      1. That’s why I said “he only thing that matters as far as I’m concerned is whether the individual concerned is happy with the choices he or she has made and whether he or she has fulfilled whatever responsibilities to others he or she would reasonably be expected to fulfil.”

        That is the element of the equation that is frequently omitted in my opinion.

      2. No disagreement there. Hence also my “Ain’t no shame where there’s fun” -post from a while ago. More power to anyone happily living the virtual life, I do too. Generally a lot more good that I’m seeing than bad.

        The flipside I think is pretty well explained in the article on coping mechanisms I linked; the two studies are interesting in so far that they say for real issues, gaming helps shortterm but not longterm – and it’s also not to blame even if it can’t help forever. That’s a pretty moderate and reasonable outcome for studies.. ;)

  5. eeee…hmmm.. well with addiction there are a certain number of factors that can influence people with the predisposition, both psychological and biological, and these are being played with amongst certain design approaches to creating this games. And considering the DSM criteria it probably could be considered an addiction in some cases.

    and for the analogy it would be more like witnessing a terrible accident making you sad. Yeh some others that witnessed it might not be affected but others could fall into depression.

    I get what you are saying, it doesn’t just happen and there are many other factors involved but the model of these game payment and mechanics can be a part of these. Is it ok for them to be the last push, the final nail?

    1. Well, if we stayed with the accident analogy – do you blame the accident for that one person that was pushed over the edge?
      Am really not trying to advocate for horrible payment models here, I agree with you that they are trash. I also understood that your own rant was about really big offenders which is fair enough (I have no problem with rant posts, I have written my fair share of them ;)). Nonetheless, you always have a choice, you can play them or not. Everything that’s being sold, marketed or even communicated in this world is about manipulation. I have a very extreme opinion maybe that we are always and constantly manipulating each other.

      Would I prefer some of the more vicious systems to be gone? Sure. Do I think they are ultimately responsible for somebody who’s on their way down? No. If I am unwell to the point of suicidal, a kitchen knife is dangerous. I work in a clinic that specializes in drug addiction rehabilitation: the core principle is always removing people from triggering environments yes (and then look at root causes) – but it’s never “ban drugs”. That is an important difference imo.
      Am just very uneasy about banning anything because of outliers/extremes, such reactionism is always tricky and mostly ineffective (am for example also very weary of the state trying to sell us ‘security’ aka surveillance over privacy and personal freedom) even if well-intended. So this is really where am coming from, am not championing for companies like Zynga.

      1. Rather than write another long reply, I’ll just say I don’t understand your point once again, but I don’t think I’m going to get any clarification either.

        The question here is still *not* whether anyone of us is on the edge. It’s that companies would stand to profit if you were — and they’re literally counting on it. And yes they are responsible for adopting that stance and the consequences of it (though of course we all bear some responsibility for our decisions; that’s obvious). I’m also wary of the “you have a choice” argument. It really misses the point here, which is that our choices are being staged in order to reap greater dollars from us.

      2. Actually they do not only profit by the few that go over the edge, that wouldn’t be nearly profitable enough. Candycrush is played by any conceivable demography and has tons of customers who’d tell you they love the game. But of course it’s a manipulative business model and of course it benefits from the ‘misery’ of some – just like 293736394047374040374 other products do.
        If you’re looking to hold them responsible, you can. And if you’re looking to save ‘risk groups’, you need to understand that something else is ready to take that place. At some point, you will have to stop laying the blame on symptoms and look at the whole picture – not laying blame at all but understanding situations. That’s the process family members of addicts tend to go through.

        But hey, if you really wanna go there, start with tabacco because there’s literally no benefit from smoking cigarettes to anyone. It is by far one of the most vicious industries to date and despite all this, I don’t believe in prohibition of drugs. In reality, we need to learn deal with things that aren’t good for us.
        Anyway, I can’t clarify it any more than I already have, Doone. We don’t have to agree on everything and I don’t think we’re focusing on the same questions.

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