Thought Experiment – Cash Shops and Theft
So I’ve recently realized something that I’m sure many cellphone owners or Facebook users have come to know for quite some time: These games are terrible. What annoys me the most about them is the apparent non-game nature of them. These are secondary jobs, fund transfer programs, masked as games. They use game tropes to hide the rather linear nature of their purpose. A video game sold in the store is trying to make money by providing you with an experience, these games are being marketed as free with the soul intent of abusing psychology to milk funds from your wallet.
It’s diabolically genius, some people with development experience apparently fell upon psychology studies and realized how easily they can manipulate people. The knowledge itself is obviously not too expansive considering that nearly all these games use the same tricks.
If you want to know whether something is a game or if something is a fund transfer program masked as a game, check the fundamental game design. In your average game, say Sim City, things are priced to promote growth in the user. The game captures your attention by creating an interesting atmosphere with an obvious growth and progress system. The pricing of the items in the game have no other intent but to synergize with the design scheme, they want to challenge you and provide you with a fun experience.
Then look at say, Sims Social. Here is a title that recently had a patch that dramatically raised the prices of the items in the game by as much as 10 times. A chair that used to cost you 60 currency in the game now costs you 600. It seems arbitrary till you realize what this factors out to, it will now take you 10 times longer to achieve the same amount of progress that it did prepatch. These games have a single sign of your progress, the amount of currency you carry on hand. Signatures on their forums show people touting their millions of currency and proudly displaying it. This is for good reason, the entire game focuses on the money. It rewards you with flashes of light, popups congratulating you, and reminders of missed income.
This is all to inevitably lead you to their cash shop. In many free to play games this name is 100% literal, they are selling you the money. That’s it. It is a shop to buy cash. 5 to 10 years ago you would have found these shops on cmgsccc or gamefaqs, they were known as “cheat codes”. Basically some games were designed poorly and had too much filler in them, you used cheats to overcome bad game design and enjoy the actual good parts of the game.
But now it is no longer a matter of oversight. These games are being poorly designed on purpose to aggravate people into purchasing currency to bypass the poor design. You aren’t playing constantly because the game is engaging, you are (in many cases) playing it because it is designed to motivate you to load it up. Plants wilt, shops don’t give you funds till you click them, relationships plummet, these things become secondary relationships.
The most interesting part is how bland it all has become. You can gauge how these games will play out within minutes of seeing their user interface. Alternatively you are likely to know how you will be treated by a game merely by the genre that it is in.
Allow me for this moment to explain to you ever single city building facebook or iphone game you will play for the next year or every one that you have played prior.
You begin by making an account, innocuous enough, and the game prepares the tutorial. It will first point you to the source of population or energy for the game. You will begin building this, one of two things will happen then, either the first building will take about 30 seconds or you will be given the in game currency to fast forward to completion.
Next it will show you to the first income generation building, it will have you build it, explain to you how it has a maximum limit and that you need to turn on alerts to not miss out on anything. This will either take a minute or they’ll give you another of their currency.
They will then lead you through a few of the tools, movement, storage, and explain how to visit a friend. This is critical, establishing that your accomplishments can be viewed by friends helps to solidify the idea that this is a tangible progress.
You will then be given access to a small pool of buildings dependent on your level. These will take slightly longer to built, 3-5 minutes usually. Once you have gotten a few up you will be hit with the first blow.
The next thing you build will take 30 minutes to an hour. Then shortly thereafter you will be hit by building times of hours, and finally days. Each time the game will give you an option to quickly buy cash to bypass the delay.
The humor behind this is the game boils down to trying to unlock everything, that’s the only endgame. There is no actual stated goal, the game implies however that maxing out is the most important task and reminds you by telling you that you could easily do so for just 32.99 (the actual price for a bundle of gems on an Iphone “free” game).
But here is the dark truth, once you do buy this currency you suddenly have everything. There is no game left. This is how you are gotten, they prey on our desire to get a quick fix. We are predisposed to desire a quick jolt of pleasure over a delay for a potential larger jolt of pleasure in the future. This is the source of so many financial mistakes that to see it abused in my second favorite hobby is disheartening.
How do I know that there is no game left? Well that’s what leads me into the original point of this article. I’ve cheated, not in the damaging sense, I haven’t charged credit cards and then done chargebacks (thus costing the companies 20-50 dollars in fees from google or paypal), no there are ways in many games to bypass the purchase altogether.
You would think this would open up some kind of paradise, that I would be surrounded by the full wealth of heaven. What this did however was just reveal the true darkness of “free” facebook and phone games. There is nothing there, the entire thing is a façade to try and milk people for money. There is a promise of a better future at the end of the tunnel, but as South Park so eloquently put it “You never catch the dragon.”
So I wonder then, do people feel about this sort of action as they do piracy? Does anyone honestly think that a person who couldn’t cheat in the cash would break down and buy it? Allow me to expand upon it in a little more detail.
Lets say you have 2 literally identical games, every single 1 and 0 is the same. Then after this is completed a totally arbitrary cash shop is added to the second copy, it allows you to rush through the content at lightning speed if you so wish to pay.
You then have 2 people, each of them cheats to get infinite money in the game. Is the first one right in doing so? Can a product creator make something that was previously legal illegal?
What if they both were cheating on just one game but then the cash shop was added. This game is now 100% identical to the original second title we theorized but was finalized after launch. Does this suddenly make it unacceptable or is this fundamentally different because of the timing? Sounds arbitrary to me but something must be different.
If I’m running an MMO that people are cheating in constantly and then one day I start charging for the in game money can I then take every cheater who continues to cheat to court? This seems to me like a fantastic loop hole. Has it been so long that people don’t remember gameshark?
Do these games even deserve our protection? Intentionally designed to be frustrating in order to maximize returns. How on Earth is it legal for children to play these games but not visit a Casino? Both are designed entirely with the goal of manipulating the host into relinquishing the largest sum of cash they can muster.
But that is my conundrum. Could I create a game, and later add a cash shop, and suddenly begin filing for reimbursement with the authorities for users I catch cashing in for infinite money? Can I claim damages? State that they would have paid if such avenues were not available. This to me sounds completely and utterly ridiculous.
I am beginning to wonder if the reason people look so poorly upon Piracy is because they can relate it to something they were previously taught was wrong, namely theft. But the two are remarkably different. In either case the assumption that the “thief” would have purchased the item given no other option is naïve. However in the original use of the word “theft” there was a 100% loss of income, a product was removed from the store and could no longer be sold. You literally went into the negative.
Similarly, if you charge back after a purchase from one of these games you are literally stealing from them. They have a fairly large chunk of change removed from their account permanently as part of the agreement with google checkout or paypal.
So I can see how a chargeback could be seen as theft. But for me Piracy falls into this second unusual world with cheaters on cash shop games.
Is there a real world example of this? If people had been using a park for years and then the park owner suddenly started charging an entry fee, would we celebrate their audacity when they started filing trespassing lawsuits against people who entered without buying a ticket? Would this be a noble thing to us? I’m not even sure this example is similar enough, I’m having trouble finding a real world example.
In the case of the digital world, unless you are hosting the game online, there is no loss of revenue from a person experiencing your creation.
While I’m on the thought, could I put up a game for free, later start charging and then demand anyone who picked it up before the price tag was added stop using it? Would this be different than adding a cash shop in post?
What is it about having the cash shop from the beginning that makes it so fundamentally better and acceptable?
It’s a weird world, the best I can advise is that if a game fits my little story above and you see the pieces all falling together: don’t invest in it.
It’s one thing to sell themes, I’m a fan of games that sell actual content, I don’t usually pay but I respect their decision to have artists making content constantly and putting it out for people to buy. However when people start intentionally inflating the time it takes to accomplish tasks and then selling you the sensible design for a premium, that’s abhorrent.