Angry Birds - Mighty Eagle

The (im)morality of pay-to-win games

Freemium with micro-transactions seems to be the the direction the game industry is headed, as virtually every mobile game developer is now adopting it. In case you’ve somehow missed this trend, freemium games are theoretically feature complete, but have some system of in-game monetization to generate revenue.

The problem, and the reason I bring up the concept of morality, is that nobody is monitoring what content gets sold as in-app-purchases. I suppose it’s every company’s right to determine what content they charge for, just as it is every consumer’s right to purchase that content if they want to, but I think it corrupts the ‘spirit’ of gaming when gamers can pay to make the game easier.

This is particularly problematic in a multiplayer scenario: if games are intentionally skewed to favor the highest-paying player, how is ‘winning’ at all a reflection of one’s performance in the game? The gaming community has been pretty vocal about the negative implications of this trend – it’s nothing new.

I would argue that the single player P2W IAPs are even more destructive to the spirit of gaming though, as they’re not as blatant in their execution. Allow me to illustrate my point with an example, the “Mighty Eagle” from the Angry Birds franchise. It’s essentially an IAP that beats a level for you.1 In other words, players can pay money to skip the game’s content. I ask you: what is the point? Why even play the game if you only intend to purchase content that will allow you to not play said game? It’s a paradox that leaves me a little stumped. I think it has something to do with misguided feelings of gratification, particularly with children who, let’s be honest, are kind of stupid.

Does that mean IAPs are bad though? I would argue that any business model that puts power in the hands of the consumer is healthy, and I would also argue that IAPs do just that, so long as they are employed in such a way that they do not upset the balance of the game’s mechanics. I view freemium titles as more functional demos – you’re allowed to play a fully functional game for free, presumably enough to get a sense of whether or not you enjoy said game, and the option is there if you would like to customize/expand the content of the game a bit.

I know many gamers complain that they shouldn’t have to pay for additional levels or characters or other forms of IAP content, but let’s remember what life was like before the Internet. Let’s go back 20 years or so: imagine, if you will, that some sweet game just came out, let’s say it’s Spaceship Warlock. Your friends at school tell you it is THE BOMB. You convince your parents to take you to the computer store, where you will spend your saved allowance on a shiny new copy of what will hopefully be an incredible gaming experience. How much do you shell out for Spaceship Warlock? $95. Ninety-five dollars + $400 for the system it runs on. What’s more, you take it home and play it, and it’s completely weird and you stop playing it after like two days (only to dig it out of your closet twenty years later and replay it for kitsch value).

Ninety-five dollars. And we’re complaining about extra content being bundled into dollar purchases? Are we spoiled or what? Seriously though, game developers have to make money somehow, and IAPs are honestly a very fair and cool way of doing it if it’s done right, as the amount you pay is commensurate with the enjoyment you’re getting out of the game. Don’t like the game? Uninstall it – you paid nothing for it. Like it? Buy a new character or level or whatever, most likely for the cost of a candy bar.

Seriously though, ninety-five dollars for Spaceship Warlock. Personally, I am happy with where technology has taken us and I will embrace ethical IAPs in the games I design for the foreseeable future.

1There are a couple caveats, i.e. ‘destruction’ rating. I’ll give them that they at least tried to preserve the spirit of gaming a little bit.