GDC Panel Discusses the Importance of "Exploiting Human Weakness" in Free-to-Play Games

Disturbing Talk On the Free-To-Play Business Model Given At GDC Europe

Social engineering, it’s not just for breakfast anymore. Apparently, it’s not just for hackers anymore either. It looks like somebody’s been reading Influence by Robert B. Cialdini. Earlier this month at the Games Developers Conference in Germany, there was a disturbing panel given on aggressively going after gamers’ wallets. This is nothing new, however it became unsettling when the discussion turned to purposefully “exploiting human weakness".

Teut Weidermann, lead designer of Settlers Online for Ubisoft’s Blue Byte Studio, explained how to make profit from the free-to-play business model. He stated that you have to think about making a fun game, but monetizing it at the same time. Making the game fun will attract users. Once you have those users, figure out ways to monetize them, or the game can’t go on.

“The most common thing is player level- that’s something everyone can now grasp. You can monetize this with speeding up experience, but you have to make sure that paying players usually can’t be identified. If you hide from the players what other players are actually paying for, you can get more money without making players angry.”

To illustrate his point, he literally went into a discussion of the seven deadly sins. Oh no he didn’t -- sorry, he did. Think of the movie Seven meets Office Space, without the funny. He seemed to contradict himself with his discussion of Envy. Players should not be able to see what other players are paying for, but you also need to be able to see your neighbor’s possessions, because then “everybody will steal, and this will be a lot of fun".

Again, this is not really anything new. The micro-transaction model has become the norm. However, the points made about Gluttony and Lust were the most telling, and show the biggest weakness in this strategy fed by corporate greed. How can this business model work and be sustainable? If you (as a player) know that other players can buy instant leveling upgrades, then how do you trust that the higher level players you run into are legit? How can you compete online if you don’t just simply buy all of these upgrades yourself?

This is my biggest concern: games need to be fair. When players can just simply buy an advantage over other online players instead of earning the upgrades, that rubs everyone the wrong way. This is when games stop being fun. It’s also a bait-and-switch to have a game cost a certain price (or be free-to-play, as the case may be), then have players realize the actual cost when they see the upgrades and items they will need to purchase to be able to compete.

Which brings up another human weakness not discussed at the panel: OCD. Hardcore gamers will naturally want to get all of the achievements or trophies to get that 100% completion on a game. Most of the time, when DCL becomes available, this automatically raises the possible achievements/trophies the next time you load the game, whether you purchase the DLC or not. Then unless you buy the DLC, you will never have 100%, and that partial completion will always be staring you in the face. I first experienced this with Super Stardust HD on the PlayStation 3.

Blue Byte Executive Producer Christopher Smitz gave the most unsettling statement of the day, and we can only hope that his view is the exception and not the rule.

“Game design is not about game design anymore- now it’s about business.”

Ranters, what do you think of the micro-transaction model? Do you agree with the seven deadly sins approach to game development?

The current game in the Setters series, The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom, is available now for the PC.

Source: Gamasutra

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