Dan Bergin-Holly is a mobile games producer and product manager with a passion for helping teams excel in making great games. He is currently a product lead in mobile games company Exient, working primarily on Angry Birds Transformers in conjunction with Rovio.
A couple of weeks back consumer games media broke news about a patent recently awarded to Activision. The patent – hotly titled “System and method for driving microtransactions in multiplayer video games” – created a predictable furore among gaming fans and journalists. Amidst the great wailing and gnashing of teeth the patent was described as ‘dastardly’, ‘manipulative’, and even ‘evil’. But is it evil to make your players happy?
To recap the system as described by the patent – the basic idea is that a series of analytics measures would identify a player as having a ‘potential interest’ in a given in-game item. The system would then adjust the matchmaking settings of the game to ensure this player was exposed to that in-game item. If the player does make the purchase, the system would then adjust the matchmaking settings again to ensure the next match the player enters would maximise the use value of the purchase, making them feel a strong value return from their actions.
While many players focused upon the inherent unfairness of manipulating matchmaking processes to alter player behaviour – such practices are already commonplace. For example, consider a player currently on a hard losing streak – that player is at risk of churning out of the game in a rage quit, it would not be unheard of for a developer to temporarily manipulate the skill matching system so that the player is more likely to get a win in their next round. The player is given a potentially unfair advantage over other players for the sake of keeping them in the game and playing. Similarly with familiar design tools such as rubber-banding. If we accept game balance manipulation as ‘fair’ for these cases, why not for others?
"If a developer creates a new card set, weapon, or cosmetic skin that they think players will really love – is it evil to use every tool possible to make sure they see it?"Dan Bergin-Holly, Exient
Developers spend countless hours trying to work out how best to introduce players to new content. Producers and game leads spend days trying to justify prioritisation of content and features – often asking the question “How many players will see this, and will they care?” So if a developer creates a new card set, weapon, or cosmetic skin that they think players will really love – is it evil to use every tool possible to make sure they see it? This system gives developers a way to ensure players see relevant content in the game.
The follow-on to this is that a player who has made a purchase is then matched into a game which affords opportunity for this purchase to be actually useful or satisfying, in theory encouraging future purchases. The nature of this opportunity may require careful design choices but, to my mind, this is no more unfair than breaking a losing streak for a player. What’s worse than picking up an ace weapon only to never get a chance to actually use it? Ultimately the tool comes from the same place, a drive to make sure the player has fun and stays in the game. You’ve shown me something cool, I’ve invested in acquiring it, and now you’ll give me a chance to have some fun with it.
I’m happy, and you’re happy – is that so evil?