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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games
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Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games

July 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 9 Next

He adds that there is currently no proven link between free-to-play "whales" and addiction. "I would personally like to see wide-ranging independent studies done before we jump to any conclusions about any negative psychological effects."

Cousins is also keen to stress that the overly negative responses that I received may well only represent a very small proportion of "whales."

"When looking at a small sample size there is always going to be a lack of certainty in extrapolating that data to a larger population," he says. "I think if we see a broad proportion of the spending userbase reacting as they claim to have in these accounts, it's easier to read this as the developers having discovered a damaging method of psychological consumer manipulation."

"When a very, very small proportion of the userbase react in this manner, while sad, it's easier to read this as perhaps individual issues with those people which may be expressed in any number of negative ways, not just with spending in free-to-play games. I'm sure small numbers of very negative stories could be found for spending on almost any product or service."

He clarifies: "I'm not suggesting either is true, just that we would need to do a broader set of data gathering before I'm comfortable reaching any conclusions."

I ask Cousins what systems his team at DeNA has in place to reduce the number of players who can potentially be exploited in its free-to-play games.

"The systems we have in place are simply our own moral judgment as a team of game developers," he answers. "We regularly reject ideas out of hand because we feel they are potentially exploitative. I suggest other developers do the same, but individual games are unique and there are no hard-and-fast rules."

An industry source at one major social game company told me that the stories I received are "pretty extreme, and definitely not the norm."

The source noted that game companies are already subject to a number of regulations -- consumer protection laws that require companies to treat players fairly. Citing the stories I received, the source said, "We wouldn't want our players to be playing like this, because it's just not fun, and it's not what the purpose of our games is."

"Our games are made so that you have short play sessions," the source added. "Our games aren't meant for these long play sessions where" -- the source references the story of the mother playing Mafia Wars -- "those are not what [our] games are about."

The source said the company's game sessions are short -- about 10 minutes for some of its most popular games. The company purposely makes game sessions short, such that players will connect with others, the source said. Like most free-to-play businesses, very low percentages of customers pay any money at all.

I also got in contact with other free-to-play developers, including those mentioned in the stories I received. Nexon's North American director of PR, Mike Crouch, appeared to be interested in providing me with answers, but after weeks of correspondence went quiet on the topic.

Meanwhile, Valve's Doug Lombardi chose not to respond to my multiple requests for comment, even though he did get back to me on an unrelated topic in the meanwhile.

And while it at first appeared that Sony Online Entertainment might talk to me about PlanetSide 2, I was eventually told that the company wasn't interested in responding. 

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 9 Next

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