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There are times when it is gambling, however. Take the game Call of Gods. They frequently promote spending thousands of dollars on premium currency (gold). 1 Kred = 1 Gold. What are the biggest gold sinks in the game? Unguaranteed returns. There are very few situations where you can use money to directly buy specific in-game items of any real worth.

Advanced Transmutation for high end equipment and gems has the following structure:

  • Red (very rare) Equipment/Gems requires you to put 6 Orange (rare) pieces of Equipment/Gems up for transmutation.
  • Standard cost for a single Advanced Transmutation attempt is 10g.
  • There is a bulk attempt option that costs an extra 1g per attempt.
  • Advanced Red Equipment Transmutation has a success rate of 3%.
  • Advanced Red Gem Transmutation has a success rate of 6%.
  • Successful Advanced Transmutation rewards you with a random Red Gem or random Red Equipment of random level (even 40 levels lower than you).
  • A failure has a chance to delete one of the Orange items.

It is not uncommon for players to spend 500-1,000g (500-1,000 kreds) to get a random item that doesn’t mesh with their existing equipment. I have personally seen players complain about losing 2,000g trying to get one item. There are 8 equipment slots per hero that can hold up to 6 gem slots (it costs hundreds of gold just to have all 6 gem slots open, without gems). The strongest players in the game have 3-6 gems in every equipment slot on 6 different heroes (48 equipment slots), and a lot of other equipment that has been upgraded and is unsellable.

The CoG developers are fixated on giving people a “chance” at desired items rather than directly giving them those items. Rewards for events are most commonly “packs” which give random items. The odds of getting a quality item are unrevealed, but since high end loot is globally announced upon acquisition, it’s easy to see that the odds are well below 10%.

This game feeds upon people who are prone to gambling addiction. Unethical? Absolutely.

 
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I’ve got to sleep, but I think you guys have good points.

Moshdef, I think it is very hard to draw a line in the sand somewhere. What makes something an innocent intimation of revenue and what makes something designed to target vulnerable players? It’s hard to say for certain, however, if you’re doing something with the goal of targeting those vulnerable players, you should probably take a hard look in the mirror.

IceWeasel, that’s also interesting. I guess a lot of these premium content games do essentially add a gambling element of some sort in order to increase the addiction value and money spent.

 
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Originally posted by Moshdef:

One thing to note is that apparently the industry term for players who spend that much in a game is “whales”, and that alone leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

I wasn’t aware that the term was actually being used in the online gaming industry. That’s an old casino term for a high roller. Yet another gambling tie-in…

 
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I agree that it is very tricky Bob, but that’s why I’d like to discuss it. I think we need to be able to distinguish between what is right and wrong when it comes to this premium content. I know we can’t start separating games onto two sides of the line, but I do think we can start to define what we think is unethical when it comes to premium content. All of your comments so far have definitely helped me to think about this problem, and I hope we can continue this discussion to the benefit of ourselves and others who may be considering questions like these.

 
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I’m curious as to what’s your goal with this discussion. Unethical practices regarding premium content will still continue, as there isn’t much preventing them and they’re proving to be profitable. Some will say the players are to blame for spending too much. Some will blame the developers for being manipulative. Even if we come to a consensus if something is ethical or unethical, then what?

 
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I would expect this to become a major issue in the media at some point, and it will be what triggers regulations and laws about online gaming, for three reasons:
1. Research shows that the “whales” in gaming aren’t usually people who can afford to spend that sort of money on a game.
2. Gaming addiction has been debated for a long time now, but it’s undeniable that “whales” are addicts.
3. Not only are they addicted, but like the casino industry, gaming companies specifically target these people and try to get as much money as they can from them.

There is a lot of unethical behavior regarding microtransactions, in my opinion. Of course, the problem is with the players as much as the companies, in some ways. Players are just as greedy, and because of this, it’s easy to manipulate them into handing money over. It’s endemic to the internet, the view of wanting everything right now – for some people, it displays in the refusal to save up to buy a game, rather than pirating it. For others, the idea of watching a 20 second ad before getting to play a game is outrageous. And for some, having to actually practice at a game long enough to be good at it is completely unthinkable, and they’ll hand over cash to buy the illusion of superiority.

Yes, I’m generalizing. Yes, there are always people who’ll justify it as their hobby, or by saying they don’t have the time to play the game properly. No, these aren’t valid reasons, the same way you wouldn’t accept someone spending $3,000 at the casino and saying it was their hobby. People will find a way to justify anything they do.

Of course, this can’t last. Right now the stories about people who’ve spent thousands on games are still pretty far between, but only because the mainstream media hasn’t started sniffing around yet. As the stories start to come out, you can expect to see people pushing for legislation and restrictions on it, just like gambling has. It won’t happen this year, because free-to-pay is still finding traction among bigger studios, but it will happen.

Like many other industries, online and offline, the rush to extreme ‘monetization’ is a bubble that can’t last. It benefits the early adopters, but there are many casualties among everyone else.

 
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Dever, I don’t think a discussion needs to change anything. The discussion itself is the result of the questions I asked, and having this discussion is my only goal here.

Saybox, I agree but again I think there is a distinction between gambling and directly paying for something, even if it’s only in-game content, but as IceWeasel pointed out there are examples of direct gambling in these games. However, I do find the parallels between gambling and some of this pay-2-play addiction to be very troubling.

I also agree that as this becomes more prevalent, the problems with addiction will become more widely recognized. Just as adv0 pointed out that it may become a more accepted hobby over time, the truly deviant behavior of players being led around by the nose by exploitative moneygrabs will also be put in the spotlight and (hopefully) called out as being unethical. As this develops, I believe it is in Kongregate’s best interest to distance themselves from such practices and be a voice for respecting players of free games.

Although it is my opinion that these practices can be unethical, I’m still very much on the fence about when the line is crossed. I think this is a good discussion to have, as I think it is providing quite a bit of perspective on the topic. I hope we also hear from some users who believe premium content is always OK.

 
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Originally posted by Moshdef:

When, if ever, is paid premium content in a free browser game unethical? When is it perfectly OK, or is it always OK? Please be respectful of other opinions.

When it is required to get paid content in order to otherwise finish a game.

So basically, pretty much always ethical. As long as it is 100% optional, no harm done. The players will decide if it is worth the money or not.

 
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Actually, I’d forgotten a more blatant gambling feature in Call of Gods.

Cross Server Arena Betting

You bet gold on a player to win the PvP tournament across all Kong servers. The winners split the gold pot. That in itself is gambling, but it gets worse. You also have to pick a number from 0-9 that will match the final digit of the winner’s unit losses. In other words, even if you guess the winner, you still only have a 10% chance of winning. Even if all participants agree to rig the rankings, it’s still a lottery. On top of that, CoG “taxes” the winnings by 20%.

I’m not sure of the legality of gambling premium currency for more premium currency.

 
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Originally posted by IceWeaselX:

I’m not sure of the legality of gambling premium currency for more premium currency.

It’s definitely legal if the game doesn’t support cashing out the in-game currency for real-world money. That’s one of the reasons it’s usually against the game’s TOS.

When a game supports it like the Diablo 3 Auction House, it’s still legal, but there are more restrictions like tax laws and the amount of money that can be transferred. Only South Korea considered it gambling because the auction fee is non-refundable, and the item isn’t guaranteed to sell, not because of the chance of an item drop.

I’d imagine it would be different for actual gambling (placing a bet) with in-game currency and not just auctions when you can cash out for real-world money.

 
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Originally posted by IceWeaselX:

Actually, I’d forgotten a more blatant gambling feature in Call of Gods.

Cross Server Arena Betting

You bet gold on a player to win the PvP tournament across all Kong servers. The winners split the gold pot. That in itself is gambling, but it gets worse. You also have to pick a number from 0-9 that will match the final digit of the winner’s unit losses. In other words, even if you guess the winner, you still only have a 10% chance of winning. Even if all participants agree to rig the rankings, it’s still a lottery. On top of that, CoG “taxes” the winnings by 20%.

I’m not sure of the legality of gambling premium currency for more premium currency.

It is illegal, In the United States at least. You can not bet on games of chance online involving real money. Only betting in legally accepted skill based games is acceptable(and even then, only in some states).

However, while it does technically break laws, so does most of the internet. The way I see it is that someone is going to break the law for any number of reasons(one of the biggest one is that many laws are retarded). What if I think a law is unfair? I will be highly tempted to break said law. Almost everyone has broken the law at some point, it is just either too hard to catch everyone, or the crime is so minimal that authorities consider it a waste of resources to bother.

In the end it comes down to this. If some fool is willing to give me $100 to gamble, and I am GUARANTEED that $100 whether he wins or loses, then all i got to say is…Thank you. Would I feel at all guilty? hell no. I place no blame on devs. I place all the blame on players who dump ludicrous amounts of money into these games. If it makes so much money, then how can any of them be blamed for continuing it?

I do wish players would stop putting so much money into these games. Nothing will change until this occurs. Until then, I cannot fault any dev for trying to milk it’s player base while they can.

 
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I’d answer from a personal pragmatic point: in general for me it’s OK when there’s a free trial with some advanced features locked and/or a time-limited full game trial. So I’m able to take a look and see if I’d like to continue as a paying customer or won’t play at all. I’d accept some sort of “VIP subscriptions” with extra content beyond “normal payed content” like special limited events, tournaments, etc. Latter extra-payment part is obviously case-dependent.

I find the scheme with limited “energy” and “pay for every bit of content” like in many browser multi-user games just sick. The more it limits my actions in real time and begs for another penny for another gem/dragon coin/inventory slot/etc. during free trial, the less is the probability I’d ever continue (even for free).

Latest example is Clash of the Dragons, I spent 4 days straight just to get 2nd and 3rd badges! Also Time World comes to mind, I doubt I’d ever get last badge despite the fact that I enjoyed the game overall.
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Another thing: don’t know how it’s in other countries but in Russia there’s a legal rule that forces vendors to accept returns if it comes out that item is of improper quality (was broken in some way by manufacturer or vendor for example).

Multi-user games are a different matter. If user pays for game and later it comes out that game initially contains bugs while devs don’t care fixing them I see no legal option how to get back $100500 already invested. :D

 
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Originally posted by bobby71983:

In the end it comes down to this. If some fool is willing to give me $100 to gamble, and I am GUARANTEED that $100 whether he wins or loses, then all i got to say is…Thank you. Would I feel at all guilty? hell no. I place no blame on devs. I place all the blame on players who dump ludicrous amounts of money into these games. If it makes so much money, then how can any of them be blamed for continuing it?

I do wish players would stop putting so much money into these games. Nothing will change until this occurs. Until then, I cannot fault any dev for trying to milk it’s player base while they can.

Ludomania is an officially recognized Impulse Control Disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (used worldwide for diagnosing conditions) is altering that classification in the upcoming update to an Addictive Disorder. Sufferers literally cannot control their urges to gamble. Do you really find the developers blame-free if they are taking advantage of a recognized disability/disease?

 
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It would be a stretch to say they are targeting specific people with such a disability/disease.

Their audience includes much more than those people – pretty much anyone able to pay or able to entice someone to pay for them.

EDIT Why can’t we have amazing discussions like this in the Game Design forum?

 
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Originally posted by BobTheCoolGuy:
Originally posted by Moshdef:

That’s really interesting, Bob. I honestly hadn’t thought of that yet and I’ll think about it more before I decide how I feel about it. One thing to note is that apparently the industry term for players who spend that much in a game is “whales”, and that alone leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

Yeah, I may have ranted about it before. :D And don’t get me wrong, I know developers put a ton of time, effort, and money into games. And I don’t blame them for trying to make a boatload of money, or Kongregate for trying to make lots of money, it’s clearly an easy temptation to fall for. I see the counterargument: “What’s wrong with people with lots of money spending it on our game if they want to?” And I think Emily and Anthony are both great people, and I appreciate all the things they’ve done for Kong and helped me with personally in the past. But I still don’t think it’s right. Check this out: http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/84728657

An excerpt: “First Advice #1 Make sure players can spend $1,000+”

that was eye opening…

 
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Ideally that’s not the target audience. Realistically, with the numbers involved and the amount of participation, it’s very, very likely that those are the people draining their wallets. I won’t name players, but I’ve spoken to several who have made reference to their real world gambling habits. Creating an atmosphere of unreliable return where the odds are stacked against the players, yet have a minute chance of a large payout is pretty closely recreating the casino experience. There are further “features” and tricks in game presentation that fool players into thinking they have more control than they really do.

For instance, the infamous Wheel of Fortune in CoG animates a spinning cursor to choose one of 16 assorted prizes. While the spin is in motion, the player can hit the Stop button, ostensibly to time it just right and choose a good prize. Except that Stop is just visual cake. It’s a lie. The prize is determined as soon as the Start button is pressed (switching to the System log shows the item hits the player’s inventory immediately), and the animation/Stop function are to keep players thinking that the failure can be overcome by further attempts to “learn the timing.”

 
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Originally posted by UnknownGuardian:

It would be a stretch to say they are targeting specific people with such a disability/disease.

I think when the advice is “aim to catch whales” and “make sure there’s always more to spend money on” it’s pretty clear who is being targeted :P

Originally posted by UnknownGuardian:

EDIT Why can’t we have amazing discussions like this in the Game Design forum?

Pretty much because the game dev boards are dominated by people convinced that programing is the only important part of game design, and who will shout down anyone who isn’t an elite AS3 coder. Also, excessive mod control in the wrong places.

 
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Originally posted by bjjdude:
Originally posted by BobTheCoolGuy:

that was eye opening…

Heh, I remember how Kong lost almost all its shine when I looked through some of Emily Greer’s photoshop presentations on the developer site of Kong last year.
Till then, I was stupid enough to believe most important thing for Kong are the players. That we and Kong are in some kind of healthy symbiosis. Games and good customer care to have happy players that then spend some Kreds in this or that game and click some ads so Kong can make a living.
After reading those presentations back then, I see the friendly atmosphere here as well-calculated. Kong tries to pamper us and create this family like atmosphere cause it boosts loyalty and chances that players spend money here. The real (and maybe only) interest that Kong owners have in us is our money.
Sentences like “Can pump a critical mass of socially-connected gamers into a game quickly” (http://developers.kongregate.com/news/kongregate-gdc-talk page 5) and “Achievements incent players to get far enough into the game to get addicted” (same source) seriously disgust me.
Remember the “MMOs are ruining Kong”-thread, where several statements from Kong employees made it seem as if Kong only has to adept to the changing flash games market that is dominated by MMOs those days? Well, what they didn’t tell you is that for example Emily Greer is also supporting this trend if she gives lectures about how to not cap what you can spend on a game, about pampering your whales, about not making cosmetical premium content only etc. They for sure aren’t fighting this trend of cash grab MMOs with such presentations, although they made it seem as if they would be unhappy with the trend just like we players complaining on the forums.

Anyways, what often really disappoints me is the behaviour of premium content buying players.
I’d like to give an example, Fantasy Online. I like that game a lot, but a certain issue seriously annoys me:

A long while ago you could buy a premium item that you wanted in the shop. Fair deal.
Then the dev came up with the brilliant idea to sell boxes instead that randomly give you one item out of a certain set. So if a set contains 5 items, you will have to buy a lot more than 5 boxes cause you get the items randomly and you probably get at least one of the set-items multiple times.
But people kept buying the stuff and looking at some charts in the presentations on the developer site, the average revenue per user went significantly up.
Then some months later, the dev came up with yet another brilliant idea to maximize his profits.
Some boxes now contain a very very strong item, but the chance to get this item from the box and not some other stuff is around 2%.
People raged again, people complained, but having a look at the charts, the revenue went up again.

It would be nice if players would more often act as one team and give the dev the cold shoulder by not buying these boxes. If almost noone would buy the boxes with 2% chance for the uber-item it would be a message to the dev, “no, we don’t let you rip us off”.
Sadly there are always enough addicted players or people that don’t care about money to buy enough of them apparently.

 
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To balance the argument for Kong a little, the presentations also say that Kong relies on the revenue from those games, and ad revenue alone doesn’t make up very much of their turnover.

 
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@UnknownGuardian, @saybox

Well, guys, maybe you start a topic in Game Design forum mentioned above?

Again, it’s my personal view and I can’t say for others but for me browsing through 100500 games bearing a desire to play and 99% times finding another piece I’m not interested in became rather frustrating. Up to the point I’m considering in future to offer some kind of sponsorship for a gamedev but get a game I’d really want to play. For instance it came out that hiring coders and getting “another generic MMO” costs ~$1.5K on russian freelance market. That doesn’t include server payments obviously. Don’t know world prices for such a work.

Atm it’s not a business offer yet, I’d like more convenient approach first. But if the situation won’t change and I still have such a desire I’d definitely consider it.

 
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@UG

To say the developers of such games are unaware of the addiction and how it can affect individuals is even more of a stretch, isn’t it?

@Thyrael

Indeed it is very troubling, and I completely agree with you that players need to make a stand against that kind of exploitation. One of the first steps is recognizing that this is going on and that it is not an accident, it has a very specific purpose (one that ties right back into the discussion about addiction).

@Saybox

I don’t want to hurt Kong, in fact I think we can help by pointing out the games or the practices within games that are unethical and exploitative. I think we should all continue to support Kongregate by being vocal about the big moneymaking games, both in support and condemnation.

 
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I’d say they hit the unethical point when they begin to exploit addiction-like tendencies in players. The word ‘addiction’ as I use it isn’t necessarily the right one in all cases because I associate that with a form of dependency and that isn’t present in all cases, but the mechanics of how it works is essentially the same.

It’s the gambling industry in another form – hooking, exploiting and milking a small number of whales while presenting a professional-ish friendly image and backing it up with the thousands of happy, non-hooked casuals who can be considered hobby gamblers/gamers. We provide a service for all these low-investment fun players, blah de yadda blah.

There are hints of the alcohol and tobacco industries in there too.

But in saying that I’m also pointing out that this is how so many businesses work. You’d have a job finding a company which doesn’t engage in exploitative practices in one way or another, and it’s accepted by us as something that just happens. Until we take the time to think about it, and even then the conclusion is usually ’that’s how the world works’.

In closing… what especially bothers me about the Flash MMO market in particular is that a lot of the time (I’d say most of the time) the game is never intended to have a long life. It’s designed around two or three surges of players, then once the playerbase declines the developers string along users with lies about ‘updates’ while they work on their new game. Then they repeat the two-or-three-peaks lifecycle. And then they do it again. And again.

That’s what especially stinks about this industry in particular.

 
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Originally posted by NeilSenna:

In closing… what especially bothers me about the Flash MMO market in particular is that a lot of the time (I’d say most of the time) the game is never intended to have a long life. It’s designed around two or three surges of players, then once the playerbase declines the developers string along users with lies about ‘updates’ while they work on their new game. Then they repeat the two-or-three-peaks lifecycle. And then they do it again. And again.

That’s what especially stinks about this industry in particular.

^ Yup, it seems so.

In a certain MMO I played a couple of years ago there was a case that may be viewed as a throwing away a milked whale (I may be wrong cause I’m aware only of that part of whale-gamedev interaction that was posted on the forum). In short a certain player spent 100500 moneys on game. His char/guild usually was placed on top place or among other tops in game char/guild ranking.

At one point game rules changed in a way that player most likely should invest more moneys or accept the fact that his leadership was no longer guaranteed. Also that certain player was frustrated. He felt that gamedevs should listen to his opinion much more than they did cause of his many moneys spent. Yup, the story could be viewed as a freakish TEH DRAMA, but overall was just a sad litmus test. I wonder how many gamedev teams could that player hire to produce “game out of his dreams” for himself instead of spending on his char in MMO he had no control of?..