Ethics and Free-to-Play

In principle there is nothing wrong with F2P. Offering something up for free and allowing people to purchase “added value” after they’ve established whether they like the experience is commendable.

However as the industry seems to be drifting towards F2P as the business model of choice, we (as developers) need to be clear on the pitfalls of the model. If we are not already designing a F2P game we are likely to be very soon. When we do it is important that we are armed with knowledge and tools in order to capitalise ethically on the model.

None of us want an exploitative game on our conscience or CV. None of us want to be called “crack-dealer”. None of us wants to have created a game brought up as an example of a “Skinner’s box”. No-one wants an article in the Daily Mail talking about little Johnny and his mother’s credit card (only avoiding the word “whale” because they don’t know it).

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the pitfalls. It is merely my attempt to get my thoughts on the subject in order.

Through writing this and discussing it with people I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to create F2P games that are both ethical and successful. But in order to do so we have to understand how our decisions affect our games.

The main thrust of this post is identifying incentives the F2P model will place in front of us that may be ethically questionable. My argument is that an ethically suspect incentive need not turn into an ethically suspect game. If we recognise incentives as choices we are informed and can make a choice. There’s nothing wrong with F2P. Theres only things wrong with our choices.

I believe we have to consider ethics early. It’s much easier to not create an unethical game than retract an unethical game once its live.


In the infancy of F2P games there were a string of exploitative non-games that are great examples of unethical choices. These aggressively monetised, opaque, viral skinner’s boxes have taught us a lot about the pitfalls of F2P. I am not going to discuss them explicitly as they have been discussed to death elsewhere. I believe we are moving away from them and I believe we can make some far more interesting F2P games.

Beware of the Whales

One of the biggest issues facing free-to-play is the reliance on whales.

Let’s just look at one of the arguments that is rolled out in defence of certain games: “A tiny percentage of people pay for the game. The vast majority never spend a penny”.

What this means is that a tiny portion of the audience is covering the whole cost of the project. To deal with this we need to look at what this tiny proportion is getting for their money.

A common argument at this point is that the tiny proportion should take responsibility for their own purchasing decisions. This is partially true but at some point you (as a creator) have to take responsibility for what you produce. At some point in the spectrum of “I provide X, but people have the choice of whether to buy it” you have to take responsibility for your creation (whether it is games, crack or custard creams).

As a creator of games I feel it is my responsibility to at least consider what the people that provide my salary are getting for their money. The fact that they are happy is not sufficient for my peace of mind. People can be happy while being manipulated in an unethical way.

So what are they getting for their money if 95% of the audience are playing for free? In some cases the 95% will be getting content they didn’t previously have and the 5% are happily paying for added-value.

However in other cases the 5% are covering the cost of the product through compulsion and clever manipulation of their capital vices (see GDC Europe: To Succeed In Free-To-Play, ‘Exploit Human Weaknesses’).

When you play a game you are being manipulated. We lead your eye subconsciously with a light in the level. We make you more likely to press a button by putting it in the right place on the screen. We have loads of techniques at our disposal. When they are used to improve the experience for you, they are benign. In fact they are positive. But when they are used to get you to do things that we want you to do – that you might not want to do – it is easy to see how sinister they become. We can engineer a set of circumstances in a closed world where you are much more likely to make a purchase. To a large extent we control your environment and what’s available to you. In the game world we can make it rain and then sell you an umbrella.

Many people would say that people are capable of deciding for themselves what to purchase. If we make it rain they can just exit the world. But we are very good at creating a system where you are not aware that we are suggesting you do things. And some people are more susceptible to this than others. In my view it is our moral obligation to protect all people at every level of susceptibility.

If your game makes its money from 5% of its audience you want to be sure that these people are not being manipulated into covering the cost of your project. They should be getting perceived value for money and should have a good idea of the money they are spending. Ask yourself if, when presented with total expenditure in your game, whether your 5% would be happy. Not ignorantly happy but happy with good information.

The first problem with F2P is that we have these tools and we have to have the resolve to not use them to manipulate people into parting with their money. We have to make money. F2P games are getting more expensive to make. But if we manipulate the customer then we are making money at their expense. There are ways to make money with their open-eyed consent.

One Way Glass

Related to this is the transparency of purchasable items. A F2P game often has many ways in which the user can pay. And many F2P games have an ever changing landscape of things to buy. This means that every moment or penny a user spends in the F2P world means he/she becomes more invested in an uncertain cost world – in which the future payments they will “need” to pay are uncertain.

We need to be aware of this and understand that what we offer has an effect on the world.

Let’s take one example…

Imagine we have a multiplayer F2P game. We have lots of players invested in the game. They have spent varying amounts of money. We introduce a damage increasing item for a nominal fee. An individual player can buy an item that increases their sword damage by 15%. Added-value right?

Let’s look at what effect this actually has. Let’s assume some people buy it. In order to stay competitive other people will have to buy it. Or people could leave. If the damage and the price are set appropriately we find that people don’t. No-one wants to lose the investment they have already made.

The game is not improving for the players. Overall everyone is increasing in power in step. We are simply demanding payment. If no-one bought the item then the game would be as good as if everyone bought the item. The only significant difference is that an amount of money has moved from the community to the developers. Your free experience has become not free and yet has not materially changed. There is no added-value.

This is only one example. Depending on the specifics of your game there will be other examples of ethical and unethical items. My point is; when we introduce one we have to consider its implications on the game and as a purchase.

For this example you simply have to decide whether selling something that has no added-value is ethical.

We Are All Pushers

Another technique used in some F2P games is viral-spreading. There are two main strategies for this.

  1. Making “spread the word” the default option and “continue” a secondary option.
  2. Incentivising the user to “spread the word” through some in-game reward.

We’ve all experienced games where the we are offered 200 coins for getting friends to play or a splash screen in the centre suggesting that friends might want to know about your progress (with the continue button buried somewhere you would never think of looking).

The latter is a pretty clear cut manipulation. (To me) its indefensible.

Thankfully it seems to be falling out of favour. I suspect this is largely for practical reasons. The ill-will it engenders makes it non-profitable. I would like to exclude it on ethical rather than practical grounds – but excluding it on any grounds is good from my point of view.

It’s less clear the problems with the first one.

Why is offering a reward potentially unethical? It could be argued that it is a manipulation of the player for the developers gain. But then the manipulation is actually an extrinsic reward.

For me the level of problems with this depends on the details of the game and how aggressively it is done. If the game is bad then we are “paying” our players to be junk maillers. If its good then we are encouraging our players to “spread the word”.

This sounds like a weak position but its important. The games that do this the most tend to be the bad ones that rely on huge exposure to get sufficient whales. If you feel it is required it may signify a more underlying problem.

I think at the point you are considering doing this consider why.

You Used To Be Fun

A professional issue with F2P is the repeated claim that we must start thinking about the business model from day one of the design.

With a boxed-product you would typically try to create the best thing you possible could so the public, critics and your marketing department would buy, like and market it respectively. Your focus was purely on fun.

If the advocates of F2P are to be believed, designers need to add another string to their bow. They need to know how to weave monetization into the design from day one. Monetization is not a fun activity for the user. We must work out how to extract money from our customers as part of the design.

I believe that a lot of the resistance from the developer community is due to this simple fact. Instead of focussing on creating the best experience we can we are constantly distracted by the necessity to monetise. An argument could be made that because of this distraction we make worse gaming experiences – purely through lack of focus.

I personally don’t believe this. I am advocating looking at fun, monetisation and ethics when you are designing a game.

The Trouble With Addiction

Addiction is another incentive F2P places in front if us.

Addiction is not a new concept in games. I have been addicted to many boxed-products. Plenty of people are addicted to subscription products.

Why am I raising it here then? The main reason is that in F2P there is a huge incentive to create addiction. It’s a very good thing for keeping your customers in a space where they can purchase. In the increasingly competitive world of retaining customers is getting harder and harder.

With a boxed product that incentive is smaller.

If you buy a box of X off me and it’s all you will ever need then why would I make it addictive? I have obtained all the money I will ever obtain in the initial transaction. You could make a boxed-product that is addictive and that may be morally questionable. But there aren’t the same incentives to do so.

However if I give you a sample of X and rely on you giving me little bits of money for a bit more X at regular intervals there is a big incentive to make it as addictive as possible. It is the incentive for the developer that I am warning against.

So is addiction bad? We used to refer to how addictive games were as being a good thing. What’s the difference here? The difference is partially down to the fact that we are getting a lot better at creating it. We are much more capable of making more addictive experiences – mostly thanks to metrics.

The positive addiction we used to refer to had a starting point of fun. Experiences were addictive because they were fun. Now it seems its possible to create addiction without the necessity of creating fun.

It’s completely possible to create a boxed-product that is addictive without being fun – but why would anyone bother? I am an advocate of looking at the play patterns in a boxed-product and seeing if they are ethical too. I am just specifically warning against the incentive inherent in F2P.

The question we should ask is “Are we creating addiction without fun just to keep people there or are we creating something fun that our customers want to come back to?”


F2P is here to stay. But it is relatively new and poorly understood.

When creating a F2P experience I believe we need to create something both ethical and profitable. It is our responsibility as developers to consider these (and other) issues. This is the point at which we all have to draw our own line between profiting and profiteering. It is not clear where that line is but we have to find one we are individually comfortable with.

This is the beginning of my attempt.

  • Don’t exploit whales
  • Charge only for added-value
  • Consider the implications of each item introduced
  • Don’t trick people into promoting the game
  • Consider carefully incentives to promote the game
  • Fun is the starting point. Not addiction.

Further Reading

Chasing The Whale: Examining The Ethics of Free-to-Play Games – Mike Rose
Content is king: the growing pains of F2P
When Does Effective Free-To-Play become an ethical matter?
Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design
Whales,True Fans and the Ethics of Free-To-Play Games
GDC Europe: To Succeed In Free-To-Play, ‘Exploit Human Weaknesses’