Earlier this week, British tabloid rag The Sun ran an article about a young British girl who bought up £900 worth of gems in short order playing GameLoft’s mobile My Little Pony game. This was hot on the heels of the BBC reporting a similar story about a five year old British child racking up a £1,700 bill in the same situation. While this is a bit of coattail riding by The Sun, it is still an all-too-common problem that pops up time and again. This time, it’s dragged our colorful equine heroines into the fold, and instead of teaching lessons of friendship, the Mane Six find themselves embroiled in today’s mobile gaming spotlight.
Why is a game about colorful cartoon horses part of the debate about gaming economics? Read more to find out.
The First Hit’s Free
Introduced back in November of last year, the My Little Pony mobile game by Gameloft has made misstep after misstep in its acceptance amongst fans and families alike. What looked like a cute town builder on the surface was, like many current freemium games, really set up to be a time sink. The goal of the game is to build up your own version of Ponyville and run the local economy. By completing quests and doing tasks, as well as sharing with friends, you earn various currencies in the game like bits, gems, and hearts. New ponies, buildings, and decor are purchased with a variety of these currencies. Everything in the game has a cost, whether it’s expanding your open space, clearing up obstructions, or even completing quests.
This is all intentional, as the ultimate goal of the game is not to stop Nightmare Moon, believe it or not, but instead to line Gameloft’s (and, by extension, Hasbro’s) pockets. The game is specifically designed to have you expend either a lot of time, or a lot of money, and since most people value their time a little more, people might be inclined to shell out for a bag of gems to help finish the game a little faster. But when you’re all done, what you’re left with is a treadmill designed for you to spend, spend, spend. Oh, sure, you can derive some entertainment value from it. I certainly did; it was fun to set up a Ponyville, play ball with Sweetie Belle, and go apple picking with Applejack. But that value was short lived, and the lack of depth in its game mechanics as well as its transparent greed turned me off of the game as well as keeping it off my niece’s iPod. It’s a shame, really. The game clearly had some fans of the show working on it, with the use of common fan names and an awareness of what’s popular amongst fans of all ages in the game’s flavor. Production values were certainly quite high, as the game had all-new dialogue recorded by the show’s real actresses and music by Daniel Ingram and Will Anderson. It’s like a siren—she lures in you in with her beauty and song, only to trap you.
Our forum thread has discussed the game and its economy for quite some time, as well as its inner mechanics behind the odds and costs of the game, compiled by Chromadancer. To say they’re slanted against the player is an understatement. Sure, you could win Princess Celestia in the balloon pop game (which costs gems, mind you), but the odds are so astronomically low that you’d be better off pulling the slots in Atlantic City. Everything in the game consumes resources, and all of the mechanics are designed to repeatedly take them from you faster than you can earn them. The game spawns rocks and debris constantly, which you need to clear to keep your town looking nice or to build more shops. Some have thwarted this in cute plans like “Operation: Pave Equestria.”
In the early days of the game, some of the gem prices for the ponies were astronomical compared to the amount that the game actually dispersed them. Rainbow Dash, critical to completing the game’s story, cost 500 gems (equivalent to $50), and God help you if you actually wanted to collect gems in the game. The only methods in the early going were either to keep tapping on Derpy (who had a chance of dropping a gem), hope you got some via the free balloon pop game, watch a few rare advertisements, or level up. Normal shops do not dispense gems, only bits. The amount of time you would have to spend to farm 500 gems was beyond crazy, and Rainbow Dash is required to complete the game. Only after massive outcry did Gameloft finally take mercy on its users and lower the cost of certain quest-critical ponies like Rainbow Dash so that you could at least have a fraction of a chance at completing the game without emptying your piggy bank.
But the story of Gameloft and the MLP mobile game is a symptom, an expression of something very wrong in the gaming marketplace in general. It’s the same song sung by a different bard, and it all started with Zynga’s FarmVille and the revolution of “social gaming.”
Paying the Piper
At last year’s PAX East I sat in on a very interesting panel hosted by Scott Rubin of GeekNights. The panel discussed the mechanics of games and how the monetization of gaming changes how we build said mechanics. This is true all the way back to the arcade, where our favorite arcade games were designed to get us to pump quarters into them as fast as we could. Games were designed to be very difficult, dying a lot meant more players pumping in quarters. Our home console games took the same tack, extending their limited resources by making games very difficult. These design decisions would make a $60 Nintendo cartridge last more than an hour. Whether we like it or not, economics have always been a part of game development. Developers need to be paid, and the guys selling the company stock need their yachts. How they manage to get money from you (because, let’s face it, somebody’s going to pay) will affect everyone playing the game, whether or not they’re filthy pirates.
You don’t even have to look at the mobile marketplace to see how monetization affects gameplay. The gamer’s old nemesis, Electronic Arts, provides several examples of how business models effect the development of their games. “Fun” is not the first factor for many of these decisions, but rather making sure that people pay to play. The most recent example of this has to be EA’s latest release of SimCity, which has been such a catastrophic failure that they will be smarting for some time. It pains me so much to see it struggle, because SimCity is one of my most favorite franchises ever; it’s the reason I begged my parents to get me a Super Nintendo back in the day. Notwithstanding the game’s actual flaws (simulation bugs, city size that’s too small, and so on), several decisions were made early on in the game development from an economic standpoint. The game would be always online to circumvent pirates. This mandate led to significant changes in gameplay, resulting in what used to primarily be an offline single player game turning into a multiplayer online affair where a player’s actions have consequences for others sharing a region. Downloadable content would become a fixture of the franchise, which up until this point relied almost exclusively on a dedicated community to create new content. Needless to say, the game hasn’t exactly gotten off to a hot start.
Another prime example is the Madden series of football games. Every year brings a minor engine update along with a roster update for full price. Since EA has an ongoing deal with the NFL giving them exclusive access to NFL teams, the game has a functional monopoly in the market. With no competition, EA is free to keep their $60/year price scheme intact, with little need to actually improve their game. The practice of annual sports game updates has gone on for decades, but it somehow feels more… crass in this age of online connectivity and patching. Economics demands that Madden release every year. It may be one of those games that might actually be better off in a subscription style format, but that’s a topic for a different article. The allure of a yearly cash cow revenue stream is too tantalizing to refuse, and it does have an impact on the game as a result.
Games based on microtransactions (often dubbed freemium or free-to-play) are all the rage these days, and they’re not very different than the arcade games of yore, if you think about it. They’re designed to extract as much revenue from people as possible, but the sheer difficulty of arcade games is replaced by psychological tricks. An article written in 2011 by a gaming industry veteran who was knee-deep in the mobile/social/freemium/adjective-du-jour of modern gaming goes through the whole psychological treadmill that these games foist upon their often unwitting players. Instead of paying a flat fee to buy a game, like most people do, or a subscription fee in the case of online role playing games, free-to-play games start out with giving the base game away for free. By hopefully giving a user a good taste of the game, the developer hopes they will enjoy it so much that they will purchase items available inside the game, either to accelerate their progress or improve the game a la console downloadable content. It’s not unlike shareware on the desktop, at least, on the surface.
This model, in the right hands, can be quite liberating for a game. A great example is Theatrhythm, a Final Fantasy-based music rhythm game. Theatrhythm was first available on the Nintendo 3DS as a full game with downloadable content. On iOS, the game engine is free, with users able to populate their library by purchasing individual songs or song packs. The whole game itself is free; you don’t have to pay money for time or power-ups. Money only buys you more songs to play, and it gives it an incredible amount of flexibility as you only buy the songs you want to play. It’s a great way to pick up people who might want to play a couple of Final Fantasy songs but don’t have a 3DS or didn’t want to shell out $30+ for the Theatrhythm cartridge.
However, most free-to-play games don’t go this route. Instead, they build their games on the mechanics of earning some kind of currency or tally. The game has a good pull (like, say, pastel ponies and their cute zen garden of a town) and the time curve increasingly ramps until the user has to make a decision: either they can spend so much time working to unlock their next level or toy, or they could simply give five bucks to the friendly game and save themselves that grief. It’s frighteningly effective, because it’s the same as all of our base economic decisions we make every day. We choose to buy clothes instead of making them. People eat prepared foods instead of expending their own time to cook. Tax preparers earn their living because people find it easier to have them just handle it instead of spending tons of time learning how to prepare their own returns. It’s one way games have aped real life a little too closely.
The MLP: FiM game by Gameloft fits the stereotypical free-to-play model to a tee. There’s a lot going on when you’ve got a mid-level town, which is right when the supply of “free” stuff starts to dry up. Collecting stuff from your ponies is fun. Building and rearranging the town is fun. Sights and sounds abound when you interact with your pony friends. But invariably, you will hit a wall. Gameloft is banking that someone must have their favorite pony, and will invariably shell out when the month-long grind time to get Rainbow Dash looks too bleak. While they did tell us in a hands-on preview back in October that you could complete the game without spending any money, that is true only by technicality. You’d have to grind for months to earn enough gems for Rainbow Dash alone pre-patches and under the old price scheme. The game is more completable nowadays due to said price reductions and patches, but that still doesn’t change the transparent greed foisted upon the user. Come for the pretty ponies, stay for the brutal mathematics indeed.
Some fans took matters into their own hands and hacked or exploited their games. Gameloft’s security in the early days was woeful, since save files were unencrypted and online price lists could easily be hijacked, all without jailbreaking your device. Some saw it as a sort of form of payback or protest against the prices, and indeed people will push back against what they perceive as unwinnable odds. Gameloft has tried stamping out each of these exploits with successive patches, but enterprising users are still finding ways around the blocks. Even then, this doesn’t change the fact that the depth of the game is so incredibly shallow that users will bore of it eventually. Why would the developer care? After all, they’ve already got your money, if you spent it on gems. This is why it’s such a tragedy when a game’s primary focus is to extract revenue from an audience instead of being a genuinely good game on its own merits. The Pony game was on shaky ground already in terms of gameplay mechanics, the additional crimes of greed and boredom are the killing blows against any kind of long-term player commitment.
Fixing the System
Games and their mechanics aside, there’s also another field of landmines and traps when it comes to these kinds of situations, and it’s that the parental controls and access limits on these devices border on the Byzantine. There is a considerable amount of granularity offered to the user in, say, Apple’s iOS, but they’re all hidden in “restrictions” underneath the general options. Not exactly front and center. To their credit, Apple’s default settings for In-App Purchases are considerably better than when they first bowed. In order to complete an In-App Purchase, you must enter your password to confirm the purchase. This is, nominally, enough to keep children out of the parents’ wallets. However, there is still a hole here that can trap the unwitting. After confirming if you want to buy the In-App Purchase, the phone prompts you for a password to confirm it. A child could click through the “do you want to buy screen” and present their parents with a password field, and for less technically savvy parents, they may not understand that this is actually going to cost them money because they haven’t seen the purchase confirmation field. To make these even more problematic, the default iOS settings have a time period after entering in a password where the password is cached, for lack of a better term. This way someone can make multiple purchases without having to retype passwords every time. So once you open the gate, your child is free to keep pressing that “buy more gems” button without further bugging of parents.
Apple’s current parental controls do give them an out against these situations, because they present you the opportunity to make this situation not come up at all. Parents can turn off in-app purchases, or make it prompt you for a password every time so that even if you do want to give your child some gems, they can’t go and immediately buy more without your knowledge. But the fact that this keeps happening shows a flaw in the system, though how this flaw can be fixed is a subject of debate. As someone who has extensive experience in the user interface and interaction field, I would fix this by first turning in-app purchases off by default. If you want to enable in-app purchases, you have to actually go to the Restrictions settings panel to enable them purposefully. A user who never wants to be bothered again will only have to do it once, while keeping inadvertent purchases for others at a minimum. After that, the in-app purchasing system needs to be overhauled completely. Instead of two separate popup notifications, the device should spawn a roll-up window with a password prompt and explicit details about the purchase including the price in a clear, easily readable format. Apple already has a mechanism like this for a user logging in to a new WiFi access point; it could be easily adapted to in-app purchases to make what the user is doing even more clear.
Ultimately, no amount of computer engineering can work around social engineering or misunderstanding. Nevertheless, a well-designed system can help eliminate the vast majority of problems and minimize these kinds of situations. That’s what making a user-focused design is all about.
Power to the Players
When I initially reviewed the Gameloft game back in November, I thought my review was fairly even-handed. I praised what I liked, and criticized what I didn’t. But that was only after a few days of playing it after the game’s release; I hadn’t even gotten far enough in the game to acquire Rarity. In the coming weeks, we all faced the grim reality of the game’s economics. Up till this point I had managed to avoid these kinds of games, but I couldn’t resist checking out one based on one of my favorite franchises. Experiencing the free-to-play mechanics for the first time opened my eyes a bit. Free-to-play was something I dismissed with a bit of passive derision. But this stuff is changing gaming, and definitely not for the better. The free-to-play model has moved beyond phones and wacky Korean RPGs. It’s infecting everything from shooters (the now defunct Battlefield: Heroes) to city builders (SimCity Social), because games companies are desperate for money in this economy and the promise of an easy revenue stream with little piracy is too good to pass up.
What’s doubly worse about this is that there is an opportunity cost presented by this game. Hasbro, our ever-loving corporate overlords, didn’t accidentally choose Gameloft. My Little Pony’s previous entries into the video gaming field were shallow attempts done on the cheap. They did not treat the property or its players seriously, like most games targeted at very young gamers tend to do. If Hasbro was going to venture out into licensing Ponies for a game again, they were going to do it in a way that would earn them some cash, and capitalizing on the current free-to-play craze with a company that is well-versed at creating such games at a low cost is a slam-dunk move from a brand exploitation perspective.
Previous games in the franchise were neither a financial nor critical success.
By taking the easy way out, Hasbro has left more opportunities on the table than I care to catalog. I attribute Friendship is Magic’s core success to giving a creative team license to build upon the fabric of a franchise in a deep and engaging way. Emotional investment in characters and what happens to them is what hooks people of all ages and gets them to stay. Why not apply this to video games? There’s already precedence for this from Hasbro itself, and it’s the Transformers: War for Cybertron series of games. War for Cybertron was a critically successful game, popular amongst Transformers fans and non-fans alike. By giving a team enough rope (and budget) to create a proper AAA title, War for Cybertron was able to rise above the usual licensed game criticisms, much like Batman: Arkham Asylum did a year earlier. Even outside of video games, this example has proven itself true once again with the Pony comic books, which have beaten all expectations to become one of today’s top selling titles amongst all ages while still retaining its artistic integrity. It can be done—it just needs the right people.
By going this route, Hasbro has dismissed the potential of engaging its target audience with a rich gaming experience, instead choosing to see them only as a source of dollars. Girls love video games, and gaming is an activity that does not see gender boundaries. The mass outpouring of fan game projects shows that Friendship is Magic is a goldmine for interactive play. A dedicated team who cared about the project could produce a video game to rival the show in terms of technical excellence and storytelling prowess. There’s even opportunities to make varying games for different ages based on, say, the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the Mane Six separately. If such a project is in the works, then I will gladly play it. But I’m not optimistic. The video game box has been ticked on the hottest platform with the best chance to see a return on investment. Making a game is a hard endeavor. It costs a lot of money and requires creatively dedicated people. But all good things in life are hard and take work and effort to achieve. Girls are an audience that deserve to be catered to with just as much fervor as boys, and a high quality Friendship is Magic title could have done that. The Gameloft game, unfortunately, is not that game.
While the media will continue to use these tales of woe from families to stoke their view counts, it does help shine a light on the free-to-play problem for the general public. Until recently, the dialogue about free-to-play has mostly been in gaming circles, which is not known for its openness. Sometimes bad press can have its benefits, as it took vast public pressure for Apple to change its originally flawed in-app purchase implementation. It’ll take a lot more press to get more people to wise up to the traps of most free-to-play games.
As for me, I hold out hope that, some day, a proper game built from the ground up to entertain will be produced under this franchise. I want to be able to sit on the couch with my niece and enjoy a rich game with a sensible story and high production values that can stand on its own as a game, not a vehicle which only serves to extract her from her money. They’ve done it with the show, and they’ve done it with the comic books. Make it happen with games. ■