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Hey, Kid, Got a Dollar?

Jeremy Monken | 13 May 2012 13:00
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About a week ago, I was poking around looking for a new game for my iPhone. I checked the EA Daily Deals site and they were featuring a game called Monopoly Hotels. I assumed, since they were advertising it as a "deal" that maybe it was a paid app game that had gone on sale. I've grown wary of the free games the app store has to offer, as I have downloaded so, so many terrible titles. Maybe this would be a fun hybrid of Monopoly and Sim Tower that would keep me occupied on the subway.

It's no shocker that the good will fostered by the games industry is being manipulated and fed on by short-sighted, greedy monsters.

Not surprisingly, it was just another digital begging app that is designed around constantly asking the player for more and more money to do less and less stuff. But, like another EA title, Theme Park, and countless other apps, this one had another level of awful. It was designed for kids.

Little kids.

To anyone paying attention, it's clearly no shocker that the good will fostered by the games industry is being manipulated and fed on by short-sighted, greedy monsters that want nothing more than to squeeze out the biggest profit as possible, as quickly as possible, no matter the cost. It's reality TV. It's fast food. It's something that only thrives in a world where the consumer isn't paying attention and is too preoccupied to care.

Which is terrible, but completely understandable. If you're bored at work and you actually think it's worth your money to drop a buck or two on Farmville or something, that's your choice. But kids don't have income or a strong grasp on the value of a dollar. To create a game for them where the value of things is purposely obfuscated and made to look fun and cartoony is reprehensible.

Erik Asmussen, who recently gave a lecture titled "The Gamer Brain" on using psychology to make games fun and profitable, explained, "Game companies will probably try and push this as far as they can, until it hits some tipping point where parents feel it's no longer worth their investment. I don't think we're at this point yet, and that's why you're seeing more aggressive monetization games like Theme Park and Monopoly Hotels. We're starting to see games that are 'games in name only', and are making minimal efforts to hide the levers they're pulling to extract more money from players. I would say this feels a bit like a betrayal of the original purpose of the medium."

Asmussen, who developed the iOS game New World Colony and other apps for his studio 82apps, believes there is a much more tasteful approach to using apps like these to try and make money through microtransactions.

"I think Tiny Tower is an example of in-app purchases done well," Asmussen said. "You can play the game for a very long time (as in fact, I have) without spending a dime. I almost want to buy something in-app as a way to reward the developers. You can unlock new content all the the time, and waiting does not feel painful because you can generally find things to do in the app without feeling like you are barricaded by some cost barrier. DragonVale also seems to have a fairly ethical model. Sure, you can pay premium currency to speed things up or unlock new content, but most of that can be unlocked simply by waiting. Premium items are generally ancillary to the core game. And neither game is tacky about pushing premium items at you, the way that Theme Park and Monopoly Hotels do."

As a game developer, I worry about the long-term impact games like these have on the industry. They're not designed to earn money from the player based on the quality of the experience, they're designed to wear down the player with their slow pace and inaccessibility of their content until the player's will is broken and they spend money. When this tactic is aimed at kids, it makes parents worried about introducing their kids to games and disgusted with the medium.

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