The 2014 Game’s Developer Conference (GDC) was held last week, where many people in the gaming industry flock to learn about where game making is going in the future with panels discussing AI development, game design, art design, and much more. It is an interesting event especially if you are interested in the creation of games and just the industry as a whole.
I never really paid attention to GDC in the past – it is not the most newsworthy event in terms of the general population – but this year something about it definitely caught my eye and not in a good way. It seems to me that GDC is hosting panels and sessions that discuss specific ways to exploit consumers.
Granted, there are plenty of other very interesting panels at GDC, on topics like the future of AI or how to write a game narrative, but there seems no doubt to me that there at least several panels that are about exploiting consumers for more money.
There are also plenty of other worthwhile panels that help developers, particularly indie developers, to learn how to monetize their games because if they want to keep making them, then they need to make money off of them. Panels like understanding the trends of indie game consumers –data that would be difficult for indie developers to get on their own. Those kinds of things are totally valid and totally moral.
The list of panels you will find below is decidedly not moral. Also, these are only the panels I thought were obviously exploitative, meaning I did not include those that seemed borderline and I could only really know if I viewed the panel myself.
- Social Whales: Understanding and Leveraging a New Kind of Player – A “whale” is someone who spends a lot of money on in-game purchases, so much so that they provide the vast majority of money from in-game purchases. This panel more or less discussed how to exploit and profit more off that kind of player.
- Economies Unite! Cross-Platform Monetization and Player Retention – At face value, this seems pretty innocuous. However, it is essentially encouraging cross-platform development for the purpose of making money – not whether or not it makes sense to have a game on multiple platforms.
- Selling Luck: Redefining Monetization in Free-to-Play Games – This can be summed up in a quote: “Similar to a “mystery prize” model, attendees will learn about the psychological implications behind selling good luck to players over selling a set amount of coins.” It is manipulation by essentially playing on people’s psychological connection to gambling.
- Why Whales Sing: Heavy Spenders Drive Virality and Retention – Another discussion on how to exploit “whales.”
- Why Players Don’t Spend In-Game and How to Change This – It is all basically said in the title. But, if you read the blurb about it, it is about how to exploit the psychological behaviors of a person to entice them into buying things in-game.
- Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner – This one is probably one of the most damning. Just look at the title, it almost says “Hey, we know its wrong, but how can we get away with it anyway?” It says “Safe and Legal Manner.” That alone suggests those at the panel know it is probably wrong.
- High Value Monetizers – Debunking Assumptions Using Personality Psychology – Again, another panel on “whales,” but this time a discussion on how everyone else has their understanding of “whales” wrong. This panel then offers how to truly exploit “whales.”
- The Four Emotions That Monetize Free-to-Play Games – “Participants will walk away with four emotions to design into their next game to increase monetization.” That is all that needs to be said. That is the exploitation in a nutshell.
Most of these surround discussions concerning in-game purchases and microtransactions. I would first like to point out that this article is not advocating either for or against in-game purchases. Regardless of how you feel towards that issue, there is no doubt that what these panels discuss is exploitative.
Before moving on,you can check out here for the full list of panels and discussions. There you can find even more that seem sketchy at best. Also, you will see just how many cool and interesting panels there are – GDC is not all bad, but the panels I discuss here definitely are.
So why are all of those panels listed bad? First, at best they are in a morally gray area that is up to debate – and even then just barely. The essence of each discussion is about how to take advantage of a player to make the most money off of them – usually through some kind of psychological exploitation of a player’s behavior. Do I really need to say any more than that?
It is manipulation at its finest in hopes of a higher monetary value per player. It is not about whether some kind of in-game microtransction may benefit the way players play the game (the discussion of in-game purchases aside) or a player’s inherent enjoyment, but how to manipulate them to give the developer/publisher more money. That’s it. There really is nothing more to the panels other than the specific way they discuss to exploit players.
It is cold manipulation too. Players and consumers are not discussed about or treated as if they are people. The panels use incredibly dehumanizing terms like “whales” as if it were some kind of funny inside joke in the industry. They don’t care about the experience of the player – unless the player seems to somehow enjoy giving them more money, then they’ll pay attention. Quality of product (how good the game is) appears to be irrelevant to this batch of panels.
There is some shame behind it, at least. Or there seems to be. They hide behind terms like “player retention” and “leveraging.” There is no real vagueness to the terms, if you think about what they mean for just a second you will understand. But, if you were just skimming through some article titles or something similar, you would likely move right on through.
This isn’t true for all of them either, as I was going to give an example (probably hyperbolic) of what it would look like if they didn’t hide their content behind technical words, but some are already here on the list above, like “Why Players Don’t Spend In-Game and How to Change This.” I tried to give them at least some shred of humanity, but I couldn’t even do that for some. There is no shame in that particular title.
My biggest issue, and this is where my idealism shows the most, is that none of these are inherently about how to make or facilitate the creation of a good game. It is all about how to make money using games and how to exploit the consumer to do so. I know gaming is a business, but you would think that at a conference devoted to game developers every effort would have been made to make it a discussion about how to make the best games possible – not how to make a game to exploit in-game purchases. (Again, there are still a lot of panels that are about game development, but, at least to me, they get overshadowed by this nonsense)
I debated whether or not to put GDC to blame because they are hosting an event where the panels discussed here were probably in high demand. It just made sense for GDC to fill that demand. However, GDC did allow the panels to go forward and gave the various panels the opportunity to discuss their topics at the conference.
At best, GDC included the panels to placate the most important attendees to the conference, at worst GDC supports these kind of business practices.
It is impossible to say either way, or anywhere on the spectrum, but the fact remains that GDC facilitated the panels and gave them a venue to talk about their exploitative tactics.
Let’s not forget the presenters of these panels either, they definitely take a great share of the blame for these poor business tactics too. Rather than list them here, thereby providing even some small amount of advertising, you can find who gave the panels/presentations listed in the links above.
Was all of this too idealistic? Maybe. I know a lot of this goes on in every kind of business everywhere. Regardless, GDC included these panels when they should not have.