In Praise of Ethics and Money, Part 2

Here’s my thesis: when you allow game design to be separate from monetization design, you divorce design from creative control – and the game experience inevitably suffers.  Oddly, this separation has been the case for so long in our industry that (outside of the scruffy indie crowd) we’ve all sort of accepted this as just the way things are.  Going the other route, making monetization an integral part of design, can lead to scamming your players – or to experiences they see as inherently valuable.

And unfortunately, this separation has led to a sort of ivory-tower entitlement on the part of many designers: “let me design the perfect immersive experience, and I’ll let the mercenaries deal with extracting money from people so we can get paid.”  I believe this is the source of a lot of the squawking now about ethics and monetization – yes, we should behave ethically in all our dealings; but designing gameplay to support monetization is not inherently unethical!  And even more unfortunately, I think it’s led us to largely forget or ignore the possibility of creating experiences for which unethical scamming is entirely unnecessary.

Ostriches and Commerce

To put this in the context of the current social games explosion, there seems to be a backlash gathering to Farmville-style gameplay and the free-to-play monetization model that we now know works extremely well.  This isn’t based on a business case, but on something that dresses itself as an ethical argument.  I think that here maybe there’s a tinge of designer umbrage and entitlement coming out, as designers finally have to squarely face the fact that their products are commercial in nature.

Commercial games have always been, well, commercial.  They’re about making money.  I’m not sure how anyone was unclear on this concept.  Yes, most game developers would love to make finely crafted gameplay experiences that people will gladly pay for – many of us hold Walt Disney (the visionary, not the corporate monolith that has become his gravestone) as a sort of patron saint for his ability to elevate a tawdry entertainment experience to something that creates cherished memories for generations of families.

Until recently though, for many of us there’s been an artificial separation between game design and game monetization; we could tell ourselves we were designing pure immersive experiences, and let someone else worry about how we were all going to get paid for it.  Unfortunately this has meant for years that “the suits” have been in charge of what designers were able to make, and even the designer’s place in the process.  I’ll illustrate with two direct quotes from EA executives to me on this topic in years past:

“No one wants play a game about farming.”

This was said to me emphatically after a pitch for making a farm game (and this was after Harvest Moon had been successful).

My other favorite is,

“Here at EA, we’re moving away from the game designer model.”

No other “model” was mentioned in this conversation, but the implication was that game designers aren’t needed to make good games; producers and the like can handle this just fine (even at the time, this made me think of Larry Levy and his disdain for writers in The Player).  From friends who have remained at EA, this ‘model’ seems to have largely taken hold, as “Producer II” employees are often what would be thought of as “game designers” if, you know, you thought game design was important.

Monetization as Design

The point is, when you divorce design from monetization, you divorce design from creative control, and you inevitably cheapen the resulting experience.  Now with social games, designers have to – and have the opportunity to – confront both at the same time: monetization becomes part of the game design, rather than a regrettable activity that could be foisted off on someone else.

The question becomes, can we do game design and monetization design in a way that remains ethical, respects the players, and respects the design?  I believe we can, though there are always ways to go for the cheap thrill (or monetizing experience).

I mentioned Walt Disney earlier; I believe his experience in moving carnivals from dirty, dangerous, crude things to “the happiest place on earth” is instructive (no surprise, given all that Walt is still teaching us as designers).  I’ve taken my family to the Disney theme parks many times. I’ve gladly forked over a lot of money for the experience.  It’s not that I’m a theme-park nut; I’ve gone to many others and come away feeling much the worse for wear (such as parks like Six Flags in Dallas that aggressively spams their customers after they’re already in the park by playing loud loops of video commercials over and over again while you’re stuck in line for a ride).

The difference that I see here as transferrable to social games is that the Disney parks create an experience I want to have, repeat, and share.  It’s the difference between saying “please help me build my barn” on Facebook and “you have got to see this video.”  The first is designing from scarcity and the second is designing from abundance – the first is making the player your minion, forcing them to go grab others if they want to play, while the second is about creating an experience that is so valuable to them that they want to bring others in to share it.

If you’re stuck on the former, all of a sudden scammy offers and surveys and ways to trick your players (remember the earlier social apps that would commandeer your address book whether you liked it or not?) seem like what you have to do to monetize your game – this fits into Pincus’ “every horrible thing” category.

The other path makes your players into partners and ultimately evangelists: they share their experience and invite others in because of the value they perceive in the experience, not to use them as the means to some in-game end — Mafia gang, barn-raisers, crop harvesters, etc.  If you respect your players and their experience, then suddenly they’re not sheep to be sheared or stepping stones to your own in-game success; they’re people who will happily pay you for your creativity, and moreover will tell other people about their experience (so they can come pay you money too).

Ultimately, the monetization argument in social games isn’t about ethics, or not just about that.  It’s about good design vs. bad design: Design that provides experiences that makes the player feel glad to have been there, and those that make the player have to turn around and scam their friends like you scammed them.  Focus on providing experiences that feel valuable (while still entertaining, fun, etc.), and monetization will take care of itself.

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