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September 30, 2012

Ernest Adams on civility and its opposite in game design


Ernest Adams: Selling Hate and Humiliation

At that time I didn't anticipate just how nasty online games could become, and I certainly never dreamed that game designers would start encouraging that nastiness and selling people virtual goods that let them hurt each other in real, not virtual, ways. But that's what's starting to happen.

Free-to-play is a comparatively new business model for us. Free-to-play (F2P for short) means "sort of free." The game is free if you have a lot of time, but if you want to advance at anything other than a glacial pace, you have to put money in, and that enables you to get ahead faster. Paying money also gives you an advantage over those players who don't pay.

Zhan Ye explained in his lecture that in F2P game design, every feature must be measured by two metrics: is it fun, and does it make money? The designer is no longer free to concentrate purely on creating a fun game; the designer must be a businessperson.

I ran this idea by Martha Sapeta, who's the lead designer on Sorority Life at Playdom, which makes F2P games. She told me that at Playdom, every game feature must drive one of three things:

Daily average users, which simply means "number of logins"
Re-engagement, which means number of people coming back to play again
Monetization, which means people paying money for advancement or other game features
This is a new way of thinking about game design for me. In RabbitJack's Casino, fun correlated directly with revenue. We could concentrate 100 percent on fun because that was what earned us money. Players paid for the game continuously; we didn't have to coax them to make additional expenditures.

Then I moved on to EA, where we made games sold at retail. The designer of a retail game thinks about whether features will be popular or not, but he is free to take a holistic approach to it. He doesn't have to measure moneymaking potential feature-by-feature.


Avoiding hate doesn't mean we have to get rid of competition. A close, hard-fought game is a fun one. When the 49ers beat the Broncos in the closing seconds, I cheer. But that doesn't mean that I hate the Broncos or their fans. I don't have any ill-will towards the Broncos at all. If you watch American football players, they'll knock each other down with incredible violence... and then they'll help each other back up. There's no hate there so long as nobody is cheating. Boxers, fencers, and wrestlers don't hate their opponents. Hatred clouds judgment and inhibits peak performance.

There's a social convention called sportsmanship that is designed to keep competition on the right side of the line. I realize that the concept of sportsmanship sounds like something out of the 19th century; perhaps it has no place in the tough, nasty world of online gaming. But when competition turns to hatred, you have gone too far. If you are building games that foster tribalism and hatred and cruelty, you are doing evil.

There is no such thing as artificial hatred. All hate is real. And we should not be selling it.


Posted by Rafael Fajardo at 12:00 AM