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Of money, games and trust
by Laura Bularca on 04/04/14 04:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

This article was originally posted on my personal blog and it does not reflect anybody else's views but mine.  

What do you think about Oculus being bought by Facebook? What is your stance on the ethics of free-to-play games? Do you crowdfund game projects, or maybe you are still favoring the old way of buying games, from a store, in a neat box and with a fixed, arguably high price?

There is a revolution happening on the internet, a somewhat peaceful one but nonetheless fierce, where every idea, price point, solution that involves paying for games is scrutinized, accused and defended.

Crowdfunding and Compassionate Commercialism

Every time I read one of those awesome articles about this huge subject of crowdfunding, I cannot help but think about Dan Gilbert and one of his old blog posts called Compassionate Commercialism.

In this article, Gilbert tells the story of him giving money to a beggar, only to realise that his compassion and willingness to help was invested in an actor that scammed him. Analysing the situation, he writes about how this happening is a crime worse than stealing, because it slaps your good will in your face and turns you into a bitter, less trustful, worse person. A person that becomes unable to distinguish a genuine need for help from a false one, and whose solution is to turn his back on helping anyone, even though we are wired for compassion, even though, as humans, our first real tendency really is to help those around us.

".....that this was the most damaging crime I had ever experienced. [...] the actor on 68th Street had taken advantage of my helpfulness and taught me to be worse."

Crowdfunding feels a lot like Compassionate Commercialism to me. And stories like the Oculus one, or the Double Fine one, or the fact that only 1 in 3 successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns delivered what they promised, makes me less supportive towards the amazing game creators with projects on Kickstarter. I am failing myself in my belief that I am a passionate supporter of the indie scene. I have always seen crowdsourcing platforms as something more social than I should have, as a way to connect creators with players so that amazing ideas can become realities, and not so game creators can become filthy rich. I also believe in the concept of enough - earning enough to continue to create, entrusting yourself in the hands of your fans who would ensure you a decent, comfortable life as opposed to having more money than you can count, more than you could possibly spend in a lifetime.  But the rules of capitalism and nowadays economies are based on earning more and more and more.

Free-to-play and the false need to coerce

On the other hand, free-to-play is arguably more about coercion than value, and sadly a lot of studios just don't do what data shows they should do. The idea of free-to-play has been scrutinized and judged so harshly, that it became almost a shame to claim you are a game developer if you work with this particular model. But just like crowdfunding, I believe this is an issue of trust as well. Trust in the value of your game, in its quality, and in the people who play it. Trust that your fans will support you even if you do not force them to. As a really rich guy once said, one of the most important rules for success is: Provide something of value, and people will pay you for it!

Which is what some people do. And - surprisingly - it works!

What do you think is more ethical: to ask for money for your awesome idea and then to underdeliver, or to be tricked into feeding money into your game experiences of choice? Here is something to consider.

There are other ideas on the table, too. There is also the traditional model of selling a game neatly packed in a box, that I don't even dare to debate because I cannot possibly understand the nostalgy towards that opaque moment of our young game dev history. In the meantime, being an indie game developer does not get you enough money to have a decent living. And then, there is April Fools with crazy ideas like this one. I am so sorry this was just a joke, but I believe it will not be a joke for long. There will be more ideas, more debates, more passion and more betrayals, just like it is happening now with crowdsourcing and free-to-play.

The act of buying, and especially the act of buying entertainment (like games), is a constant vote towards the world we want to live in, whether we like it or not.

The one and only acquisition I made in a game via microtransactions was this little guy. The only crowdsourcing campaign I supported was this one, because I know and deeply admire the people behind it. I occasionally buy games from Steam and once in a while, I coerce my husband into gifting me collector editions. Every money I spend on games is a statement of support toward its developers. In my mind, I never really buy a product, but instead, I say: I believe in you, creator, I like your idea and I trust your quality as a person or a team.*

This is me saying: Farewell, world! I will be in ESO for the next few years!

Sometimes I cast my vote wrongly and I feel bad about that. But practice makes perfect and I am getting really good about my spending choices. I am acutely aware that I am able to make better choices because I am a game developer myself, and that if I would not be one, I would not be able to see through the lines of an article, a press release, a Steam page, a Kickstarter campaign. The fight I try to carry is one for a better education of our customers in terms of what it means to make games. That is one thing we can do, but there are others.

I am NOT trying to say that awesome game devs should NOT be rich. If they deserve it, they really SHOULD be. I might not like capitalism that much, but frak, I want to be able to sustain my standard of living by doing the game dev things** I am passionate about, too. But how do you quantify deserving that? My take involves trust in yourself as a developer and in your fans, and let them Make you or Break you. And give them the tools*** to do so consciously, to prevent the trolls.

Yet I tried and failed to answer a deep, inner question, which is, what IS fair? What is that model to pay for games - and game devs- which is intrinsically ethical, honest, and rewarding towards true talent and dedication? Something that allows you to nurture amazing people, as well as encourage emerging creators? Something that involves transparency, an open window towards development that promotes conscious consumers? Something that makes people aware and responsible of their choices to buy, thus collectively voting towards a better, fairer world?


*In reality, I never buy anything game related. Instead I make my husband gift it to me. And I love him so much for this. 

** This includes, but is not exclusive to making awesome games. It definitely involves a lot of writing.

***I hate to link my own articles, but I really do believe in this idea of Conscious Player and the fact that we, as game devs, are responsible to make this type of person alive. And I did not find it anywhere else on ze internetz.

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Matthew Fundaun
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You pays your money, you takes your chances. Sucks that trust isn't always followed up on, even when people intend to do so at the beginning.

The point on spending our money according to how we want the world to be is a good and easily forgotten point. We vote with our feet- and our cash. If a product is successful, then people will do more like that product. It's a little like Call of Duty, and how things have degraded to the current point of Ghosts. If people keep buying it, then they'll keep doing the same thing without innovating.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, luck has an all-too-large effect on how things go, particular for Indie. Knowing the right people and putting in the effort only primes things for us getting lucky and making it big.

Kickstarter is a step in the right direction. It's certainly a very intriguing exercise in cutting out the middleman and eliminating some of the steps standing between producers and the market. It's not perfect, but at the very least, people have mostly managed to avoid the obvious and purposeful scams.

I've been skirting around the issue of 'How to make things fair' too, but really, that's a question without a solid answer right now. If I had one, I'd be in corporate conferences rather than talking on blogs. It's a question that applies to damn near everything, right up to 'How can we make politics and elections fair?'

Still, when it comes down to it, the three requirements for success are still three requirements. Effort and dedication genuinely are required, both to keep trying and to network. And that, at least, sounds pretty fair to me, even if the road is a twisty minefield.

Richard Vaught
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I think you are falling into a trap of absolutionism. Not all pre-packed games are a waste of money, and there will always be a place for people wanting to have the disc on their shelf. Free-To-Play is not inherently evil, though it is much abused at the moment. Kickstarter developers are not inherently evil, but there are definitely people that take advantage of it. However, with kickstarter there are some built in safeguards, but I digress.

The point is that any of these business models COULD work and COULD be ethical. They are just tools in a large toolbox. A hammer is not inherently evil, but can be used to kill. It is the person that wields the tool that must be ethical. And here is where the line must be drawn, by developers and customers alike. We need mechanisms to drum the frauds, con-artists, abusers, and thieves out of the industry for good. Right now, about the best we can do is say "Bad developer, no twinkie for you."

Laura Bularca
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Thank you for your comment, Richard!

The cause I am fighting for is not to pick up the best one solution from all, or figure out a completely new solution, but instead, to educate the players so they are aware of all these -shall we say- problems whenever they back a campaign on Kickstarter or whenever they purchase something in a free-to-play game, or whenever they buy a game from the store - or even just when they donate on a developer's website.

And you are quite right in saying that any of these models could work and they are actually working right now (there ARE successful Kickstarter projects that delivered and even over delivered, there ARE ethical free-to-play games, there certainly are packaged games out there that are worth buying, as you can see I am holding a huuuge package in my arms and very happily, even :) ) BUT bringing these stories in the spotlight is our task as creators, so that players make an educated choice and perhaps a philosophical one whenever they give their money to a game dev team or another.

Josh Neff
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"There ARE ethical free-to-play games" Yes there are, but part of the problem is that this is such an exception that it must be pointed out. The reputation that free-to-play games now have, is well earned. It will take quite a bit of time before the general gamer populous will stop looking at free to play with a jaundiced eye.

Implying that gamers aren't already making an educated choice when it comes to where and how they spend their money ignores the abuse that many free-to-play game developers have already imbued into their design philosophy.

Additionally, with the likes of EA and King Ltd. still committing frequent affronts along free-to-play lines, it will be very long indeed before many gamers are willing to try free-to-play again.

Michael Joseph
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For me fair would be reinvesting all profits (your modest salary deducted beforehand) into future game projects. Fair is not sitting on and accumulating those profits and becoming a parasite of the world's generosity.

Samuel Green
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If you create something truly incredible, why should you have a modest salary? Haven't you earned the finer thing in life?

Michael Joseph
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Unquestionably, one has "earned" under the language of the capitalist religion whatever it is one has. I don't subscribe to that faith and I don't see the point in debating you as if we were coming from the same place.

Laura Bularca
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I think this is a wonderful debate, and sort of the point I was trying to make with the idea of "Earning Enough". That "enough" is very hard to define, but I wish there was a way to define it so that, indeed, that extra cash can go towards more great projects and/ or great causes.

I know roughly what "enough" is for me. But I wonder if others ever ask themselves this question, with this idea of giving away the extra, or stick to the capitalism principles of earning as much as they possibly can.

Ian Richard
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To me, I don't even consider "Fairness". I do what I feel comfortable doing and don't worry too much about it. Like MANY things... fairness is relative and therefor someone will always hate me for my choice.

I've rarely felt as cheated as I did when I bought Mass Effect 2 and found it was a pure shooter. My hopes, dreams and biases shaped the experience that I received. Just because I felt cheated doesn't mean that Bioware did anything wrong... it means the situation didn't match what I hoped to received.

The same goes for F2P games. I've spent time and money on some of these games and felt entirely satisfied. Yet, people still lecture me for being "Mind Controlled" because F2P is black magic. Yes... they use marketing techniques... but that doesn't mean I can't actually enjoy their product. I'd rather take 5-10 minutes here or there to play than play the modern "8-hour story based linear shooter with B writing and 95% on metacritic"

There have been a few edge cases where one can argue truly evil behavior... but most of the time it's just difference of opinion. Fairness depends on the player as much as it does the developer.

As of now, I sell my board games to publishers and release my computer stuff for free online. By choice, I'd like to develop a following on patreon and do away with all the "selling" because I HATE sales.
That said, I'm not going to judge someone for selling so that they can put food on the table.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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"But the rules of capitalism and nowadays economies are based on earning more and more and more."
And that's why WE should try to change it. Both capitalism and the economy are determined by us (the people), and both capitalism and the eocnomy will change when we start to change. And it may be difficult and we'll make mistakes. But I think it will be for the best.
Even if you get scammed every once in a while, as long as you don't give everything you have, you'll be good. Also, if you have enough, why not share it?