Speaking of decadence, I spied this post earlier from a video game developer who spoke openly about the terrifying data collection and psychological manipulation of players. Many, many modern games are made to deliberately hook players into sustained play and payment behaviors based on lessons learned from the gambling industry. I’ll quote the post in full in case it’s deleted later:
I worked on Neverwinter, the free-to-play MMO that came out several years ago. Many F2P game systems are lifted directly from the gambling industry, so let me give you an idea of what supporting that means for video games, gamers, and developers.
Loot boxes in games are a familiar topic for a lot of people, but they often discuss the wrong angle. Most gamers comment on how annoying they are, but few people address how harmful they are.
First, to deconstruct what a loot box is for those who don’t do F2P games: It’s a package you open that has a % chance you’ll receive one of a number of cosmetic or gameplay-altering rewards when you open it. You pay for the privilege to open the loot box.
This pay-for-potential-rewards structure is lifted directly from casino gambling — slot machines in particular. In fact, most of the win rates and feedback systems for loot boxes are lifted directly from slot machine design. Here are some aspects that are similar:
Sounds and visuals designed to heighten excitement and anticipation
Low initial investment
Intentionally stingy rewards
Highly broadcast high-end rewards
Let’s break these down.
Pay-to-play means you’re locked out of content until you drop some money, and that does some weird psychological things I’m not qualified to talk about. Regardless, it sets a barrier to entry, but it’s designed to be low enough (penny slots, anyone?) that anyone can play.
Sounds and visuals play a huge part in making loot boxes. They have a specific cadence built into them which increases tension over a short time, and then they flash pretty lights and play exciting sounds. Slot machines perfected it, and now video games crank it to 11.
Low initial investment is incredibly important for gambling because it tricks your brain into thinking you’re not spending much money, even if you end up spending dozens or hundreds in the end. This ties in well with the intentionally stingy reward cycle, which I’ll get to.
Accessibility in slot machines is walking up and popping a penny in, but accessibility in loot boxes is even more insidious; you spend some time playing the game, you get a free taste, and then you have to pay to play once you get that initial adrenaline rush.
Intentionally stingy rewards keep people coming back, and spending more money over time by constantly teasing the possibility of a greater reward. You see this with slots, and you see it with the possibility of winning a sweet new skin, only to end up with ugly poop.
Highly broadcast high-end rewards are things like the bright flashing lights, loud bells, and other aspects of winning you see from slots. You get the same thing for free in video games because people want to show off their shiny loot, and they even make videos about it.
So. What all these reward systems do is give you a trickle of excitement with the occasional punctuation of winning a little bit, and that system is incredibly addictive for many people. Let me give a couple of examples.
You hear about people with gambling addictions blowing thousands of dollars at a casino. These people get addicted to the risk/reward cycle of gambling; it literally makes happy juices squirt into their brain. The EXACT same happens with loot boxes, and there are metrics.
Those metrics aren’t just “this person is spending X.” No. When I was on Neverwinter, I heard a conversation about one of our highest spenders who was a single mother of 3-4 kids in Kentucky. The people making the game knew who this individual was and how much she spent monthly
That may not sound super terrible, until you hear that this single mother was spending over a thousand dollars a month on in-game items, people knew her salary range, and could literally stick a pin in a map with her physical address.
It’s important for people running these games to have metrics and info like this so they can tailor the experience to you. This is where video game loot boxes are actually more insidious than casino gambling; they don’t just take your money, they tailor your personal experience.
Companies who produce games with loot boxes tailor your experience so that the amount they make off you is maximized. For most people this is pennies per month, but for some people they’re literally tailoring the game to take advantage of your gambling addiction.
The killer thing is that, without whales — without the people with gambling addictions — these systems fail. If you’ve ever done any reading on how airline ticket pricing works, it’s a similar business model. A small number of high spenders keep the whole thing afloat.
So, to get back to the Unity link: Supporting the gambling industry is lucrative, but also INCREDIBLY unethical. You’re supporting a system designed to literally, not figuratively, LITERALLY prey on the addictions of a relatively small number of people.
All those talks at GDC a few years ago about monetization? Preying on addictions.
Loot boxes in Overwatch, Apex Legends, Fortnite? Preying on addictions.
Monetization and marketing experts? Preying-on-addictions experts.
Interestingly, this is the same system Valve uses to exploit artists who make skins and items for TF2 and DOTA2. A few “lucky” people get their items selected (by a black box selection process) which strings others along to keep creating free content for them.
They pay for none of the labor involved in making skins for DOTA characters, but reap 70% of all profits, which equates to millions of dollars per year. Good times.
Anyway, this is why I’ll never work on another F2P game again, and this is why seeing Unity openly talking about how they’re supporting the gambling industry makes me never want to touch Unity’s tools again.
They deleted it, so here’s the original text of the
I was perhaps somewhat lucky (or cursed?) that the peak of the malleability of my imagination and my free time came as an adolescent in the late 90s, when 3D videogames were relatively primitive, and all the truly great games I played required vast amounts of reading. They were also slow and required vast amounts of patience. I won’t pretend they were anywhere near as healthy as good books, but they were different back then. They were made to be stories, singular aesthetic experiences. They weren’t designed as manipulative, predatory services whose purpose was to squeeze as much money as possible out of individuals for as long as possible. Even online games then were completely different. We weren’t stealing money from our parents to afford a neverending stream of Fortnite content, because that kind of garbage simply didn’t exist. If you wanted a new skin for your character, you taught yourself Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro and made one yourself.
I like to think that in another universe video games continued down that promised path to becoming a genuinely respectable artistic medium rather than the bloated and decadent machine that it is today. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions to the rule. I’ve written on them several times. But exceptions they are, uncommon and frequently despised. Video game addiction is a feature, and those plodding, thoughtful tales of literary aspiration are the bugs.
The video games we have today, the games that dominate headlines and bewitch hundreds of millions around the globe, with their ceaseless, soulless noise, addictive mindlessness, hideous banality, and naked domination of the consumer will, are perhaps the games we deserve in the late capitalist West.
In that way, I suppose, they may be the purest art form of our age.