Mo Monetization Mo Problems

I honestly have no problem with paying for video games. I pretty much grew up in arcades, as a matter of fact. When you move between five schools across two countries in four years, you don’t have a lot of time to make friends. I could always, however, count on two things: 1) my older sister being a total dick and lying to me about trolls living in the sewers, and 2) arcades. I was never the best wherever I was, but I guess I didn’t need to be. I would quarter up and spend my afternoon watching and playing Mortal Kombat.

In a rough estimate, I’d say that 100% of all my money from ages 1 to 12 went into video games. Then, I got into Magic: The Gathering and eating shitty foods with my friends, and despite now being a full grown adult, most of my income still goes towards video games and video game-related items, so really believe me when I say that I have no problem with paying for video games.

Except when I’m screwed out of my money, which is what modern monetization feels like. It comes across like mobster goons coming into my store and demanding “protection” money just so I can stay open. At an arcade, you pay to play commensurate to your skill level. If you suck, you are going to end up playing a lot less or paying a lot more. It seems like (because it is) a totally fair exchange. You are earning your playtime; your limitations are defined by you and only you, not a laundering exchange between you and a company.

Which defines the experience when playing something like a Zynga product, games that run entirely on the concept of player energy. Simon Parkin of Hookshot Inc. has a fantastic write-up on the problem with the so-called innovation and how it brings down game design in its entirety. Parkin puts it most effectively when stating that if, for instance, you are playing Pac-Man, “excel at the game and you get more for your money,” a business dynamic that “in and of itself is fun.”

Under the monetization model, the 50-cent entry fee would be waived for the fact that you now have an energy bar, and each pellet you eat depletes a portion of the bar (with, as per usual, the only way to beat a level is to eat all the pellets). When you hit empty, you are prompted with a notice to either wait five minutes to continue playing or pay another 50 cents to replenish your energy. “Theoretically you could complete Pac-Man without ever spending a nickel: it would just take you three weeks.”

Parkin, however, misses a key point. He nails it when he says that it “creates a class system within players” and that it diverts “attention and resources from the design of enriching, challenging, enjoyable play systems,” but misses the fact that this design actually punishes the player for playing the game. You could, theoretically, continuously play this monetized Pac-Man for free and forever by simply clearing out a section of the maze and then take a few (hundred) laps while avoiding ghosts. The same goes for the Zynga games: just browse menus forever.

But that is not playing the game. Actually playing the game requires you to eat pellets and planet seeds and slaughter cows, and each of those required actions depletes an overarching resource of yours. You don’t just lose a cow or a seed or a Pac-Man life; you lose the ability to just play the entire game. You can’t earn more money to buy more crops or eat more pellets to beat the level; you’re simply done. You’re not even at a game over screen. You’re just out of the game entirely.

Which, unfortunately, brings up another problem: monetization brings you out of the game. As Ken Williamson at Gamasutra puts it, it breaks the fourth wall. It, in fact, does the exact opposite of in-game economy and currency systems, which bring you further into the game. Whether you are paying direct money or exchanging into an arbitrary currency such as rubies or fuel or energy, you know you are actually handling real currency. Your usual calculations of min-max values for weapons or power-ups or whatnot are suddenly backed with a faint hint of “I should probably be saving this money.” It is the experience of standing in the aisles of Best Buy, game in hand, and wondering if this is a good idea in microcosm. It is the elevator pitch equivalent of the minor anxiety caused by making a fiscal commitment.

And then you have to concern yourself with consequences of directly breaking the fourth wall, which defeats one of the expressed purposes of video games: escapism. Every time you are reminded that you are not actually in this world of pellets and ghosts or of ostriches and knights, you are further reminded that you cannot and will not ever be able to do these things. When that prompt comes up saying that you’ve “done run out of energy, pardner,” there’s nothing you can do to prevent being dragged—kicking and screaming—out of the world you were just in. And good luck trying to get back in. The door is closed and the way is shut.

That is, of course, unless you have 50 cents to spare.

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