Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Are Addictive Free-To-Play Games Ethical? Let's Fight!

Come with me now, as we stare unflinchingly into the face of Ultimate Evil.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post defending Big Free-To-Play. You know, the evil, soulless big money mobile game makers us indies are supposed to totally hate and stuff. Because finally managing to turn your mom into a serious gamer was SO BAD.

My piece received rebuttals that were worth addressing, and I want to do a little of that now, because I have a new game coming out soon, and I could use the clicks. So.

Objection 1:

Most free-to-play game profits come from a handful of compulsive whales who spend a ton of money. These games use a wide variety of psychological trickery to force players into being addicted and spending outlandishly. This is unethical.

The first two sentences of the previous paragraph are unquestionably true. The big question is the third sentence. Are these games unethical?

And trust me, the techniques these games use can get really shady. For example, a game might offer you the chance to spend money to win a tough level. If you do this, you may well find that the price to do it goes UP. Once the game identifies you as an easy mark, it will start milking you for cash.

Is this sort of thing morally wrong? If you answered quickly, you might want to rethink it. It's a hard choice. A gray area. Internet debates tend to deal really super badly with issues with gray areas, but we might as well dig in a little. Indies developers tend to want to see themselves as moral people, so the question is how we feel comfortable getting money away from people is an important one.

"Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err and even to sin." - Mahatma Gandhi. So you see? I'm right and you're wrong.
A Relevant and Instructive True Story

We used to handle all of my company's sales ourselves. We could charge credit cards, and people would call us to talk on the phone to an Actual Person. Yeah, it was a total pain.

Every so often, we'd get a person who just had bad credit. They'd give us a credit card number. It would be rejected because they were at their limit. They'd give another. At their limit. Again and again, until they finally found a credit card that they could squeeze another $25 credit out of to buy our game.

Whenever this happened, we'd think, "Dude, you are in a lot of debt. You're in trouble. We don't know what you need, but it's not our game."

We could have refused the order from Mister Way-In-Debt. Or, we could have given the game away for free.

We never did either. We took the money.

So you tell me. Was that the right thing to do?

Doesn't the mere presence of this image make my arguments feel more right? (Yes. Yes, it does.)

And Who Cares?

Every so often, someone will think, based on my work and writing, they can nail down my political views with a simple label. This always makes me laugh a little. My political views are a dog's breakfast of points of view from all over the spectrum, shaped by a lifetime of experience. Much like yours.

(The United States is in a situation where it seems like each half of the population thinks that the other half are idiots and jerks and their beliefs are utterly wrong and indefensible. Which would mean that 100% of us are wrong.)

One of my points of view is that we must always place great value on personal responsibility. If person A wants to sell something at a given price and person B (freely and without coercion) wants to buy it at that price and the exchange does no clear, measurable harm to any person C, then that exchange is fine. It should be allowed, and any busybody D who has an opinion about it should probably go bother someone else.

This is a really rough philosophical position to take. Is running a casino ethical? Is the state selling lottery tickets ethical? Is selling meth ethical? Is selling tobacco ethical? (My personal answers: No. NO. No. Just barely yes. Though I might change my mind tomorrow.)

And, even if these four things are not ethical, should they be prevented? Because preventing them has a cost: Infringing on the freedom of the people involved to do what they want with their limited time on this Earth.

If I refused to sell a game to Mister Way-In-Debt, I am taking away his freedom. If I give him the game for free, that infringes on my freedom to make a living and buy little trinkets like food and shelter.

And who knows? Maybe selling the game to Mister Way-In-Debt helped him. The $25 price isn't crippling, and our games are huge. They might have kept him out of trouble for 40 hours. Or gave him a few moments of peace from his quite possibly considerable troubles.

The point is that you shouldn't judge. I shouldn't judge. Mister Way-In-Debt is a free person. That freedom is of far bigger importance than the game, or the debt, or your opinion.

This is even true for entertainment products. Remember, I come from a country where the right to "pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the second sentence of our founding document.

"The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities. But even the strongest, most free individual cannot find the proper mana cost for Starving Buzzard." - Ayn Rand
Whoah! This Is Getting Heavy!

I know, right? That's what happens when you start tossing around trivial little words like "right" and "wrong".

So Answer the Question. Are These Games Right or Wrong?

I don't know. I change my mind about it every other day.

Look, the facts are that these games are almost entirely subsidized by taking the brains of some compulsive, addiction-prone "whales" and cracking them wide open. They spend literally ridiculous amounts of money, and the rest of us get games for free. And yes, this makes me feel icky.

But if I went out of business and had to look for work and the only job open to me was working on a game like that? I'd probably take the gig. I wouldn't feel super-awesome about it, but I don't think it's so objectionable that I'd starve for the principle.

Ethics can be muddy ground. Even on the Internet.

"Here I go with the timid little woodland creature bit again. It's shameful, but ... Ehhh, it's a living." - Bugs Bunny

Gee, Jeff. Thanks For the Wisdom. Would You Like To Close This Out By Getting REALLY Pretentious?

If you don't mind.


Oh, hang on just a second. I'm going to get all bedrock ethical ethos with you.

I don't think it's safe to drink alcohol, or smoke, or gamble, or become a stuntman, or climb Mount Everest, or blog on social justice issues, or do drift racing, or ride horses, or fight in The Octagon. But I have to respect your freedom to do those things, as long as the only person harmed is you. Which means I have to allow people to provide the ability to do these things, because forbidding them would infringe on your freedom to have them.

This isn't kooky libertarianism. This is a fundamental principle of my country.

So think what you want. Say what you want. Try to direct compulsive spenders to more reasonable alternatives. (I think it's bonkers for anyone to spend a ton on Candy Crush when so much cheaper equivalents are available.) And that, I'm afraid, is the end of the issue. If you, with the pure power of prudence and rationality on your side, can't convince the lost to play a different game, maybe your viewpoint wasn't as indestructibly self-evident as you thought.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

On New Games, Rewrites, and the Pain of Higher Prices.

Fourteen years without an update is long enough.
We have finally announced our next new game. It's Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. It's a complete, ground-up rewrite of Avernum 2, which came out in 2000. It, in turn, was a rewrite of Exile 2: Crystal Souls, which came out in 1996. We at Spiderweb Software are about nothing if not integrity.

You can see a trailer and other info here. Avernum 2 is probably tied with Avernum 3 for our most beloved game, and I know a lot of fans are looking forward to a reboot. Now with better design (I hope), a better interface and graphics (in my opinion), and the ability to run on tablets (yay).

We don't half-ass our rewrites. This one is taking a full year. New material, new quests, a new dungeon, more dialogue, actual boss fights. You might not like our work, but you can't fairly say we're not trying.

But enough self-promotion. I've said a lot of overly self-assured stuff over the last few months about the state of the indie games biz. Now that I'm having to actually make hard choices and release games, I wanted to talk a little about how I'm adjusting to the New Game Reality.

Sometimes, you don't need a full 140 characters to drop the truth bombz.

We're Raising Our Prices.

I thought this tweet covered it perfectly.

I have said for years that indie developers have to be careful not to charge too little for our products. Most of us tend to the needs of small, niche audiences, and we have to make sure to set a price for our specialty products that enables us to stay in business. For a long time, our new RPGs were $20.

But then something happened I would never have predicted: The Indie Bubble. Almost overnight, there was a massive increase in demand for games like mine, and there weren't many good titles. All of a sudden, my games were getting the sort of placement on places like Steam we could never get in a normal environment.

So we reacted accordingly. We lowered our prices on Steam and similar services to $10, a price low enough to motivate people who stumbled on us on the front page of Steam to give us a try. Tons of people were seeing us for the first time, and we tried to take advantage.

Things have gotten back to normal. We are back to getting a modest amount of visibility and press, and most of our sales are from fans and members of our particular niche. Our last game, Avadon 2: The Corruption, sold a reasonable number of copies, but the $10 price didn't generate enough revenue to make writing the game worthwhile. We can’t run a sustainable business on $10 games.

So we're going back to the old days. Our new games, going forward, are back to being $20. We have to count on existing fans and retro RPG gamers to provide enough sales to stay in business.

It's terrifying. What if our audience isn't there anymore? What if there is now too much competition? What if my games just can't cut it anymore?

It's scary, but it's been scary since we started out in 1994. We've had times when we flirted with going out of business, and I'm sure we will in the future. But the days of universally cheap indies are over. A lot of small devs are raising their prices, and I'm one of them.

And look at the bright side: All of our games will be cheap eventually. Steam sales still exist, and we'll still put our older games out there with steep discounts. It'll just mean you'll have a longer wait until they are two bucks on Steam or show up in bundles.

One Implication Of This

I have always believed that if you're going to charge $20 for a game you have to have a demo. Ten dollars is cheap enough that you can get away with it. However, if you're going to charge $20 for a game you can't get a refund for, I feel you are ethically required to give a gamer a way to check it out and make sure it'll run on their machine.

Of course, we never stopped making big, meaty demos available on our web site. And we never will.

TL;DR version: This is how you should picture me.

Rewrites. Remasters. Remakes.

Indie game developers seem to be having a real Sophomore Slump problem. When I look at developers who had a hit, I'm not seeing a lot of really inspiring follow-ups.

Sure, there are a few developers (like Supergiant and Klei Entertainment) who have really managed to keep their momentum going. However, a lot of small devs who produce a great game either go crazy and quit, get caught in an infinite development cycle on a new product, can't even get started on a new product, or release a new product that's just kind of meh. I was smart and avoided this problem by never releasing a great game in the first place.

This is why I think you're going to see a lot of indie devs recycling their hits. Remastering them and releasing them on new consoles. Rereleasing them with new material. Doing full rewrites.

This is as it should be. It's good for developers and it's good for gamers.

For developers: Look. Writing a game is hard. Writing a good game is harder. Writing a good game and actually having it catch on and become a hit is catching lightning in a bottle. It's almost impossible. It almost never happens for one developer twice. If we let developers turn one hit into a career, it helps more developers make a living, which encourages the writing of more games.

For gamers: Look. If a game is fun, it doesn't stop being fun. Castle Crashers will still be awesome a decade from now, and I am surprised that it hasn't been ported to the new console generation yet. I talked to several developers at PAX about the expanded versions of their games that are forthcoming, and I'm thrilled. I liked them before, and I'll like their new levels on the PS4.

One of the things I've always hated about our art form is how it discards its classics as technology moves on. Anything that keeps good designs fresh and playable is all to the good.

A large part of my professional life now is acting as curator for the things I made when I was young. I spend my time trying to be respectful to the work of my younger self, bringing it into the modern day while preserving the stuff that made people love it in the first place. It's a very different sort of job, with its own challenges, but I do enjoy it. I wish more people did a better job of respecting what they made when they were young. (CoughGeorgeLucasCough)

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 is one of my favorite games of the last console generation. If it comes out for a console with online matchmaking, that is the console I will buy. James Silva, MAKE IT HAPPEN.

When Will My Rewrite Be Out?

I've been shooting for early December, by my increasing old-person-exhaustion is making it hard to keep up the furious pace of younger days. The Mac and Windows versions will probably be out in January. iPad a few months after that. I don't know how to develop for Android and getting a good person to do a port is hard, so I'm not sure if that will ever happen.

And that’s what we’re up to in the Business World. New game soon. Hope you like it!