There are ethical choices in every market of video games. But one of the most complex sets of choices comes from the mobile market.
There is an ongoing debate as to if any in-app purchases in games aimed at directly at kids, is considered unethical. Our game is not marketed towards children at the moment so we will not explore this right now.
Many mobile games make their money off of what have become known as ‘whales’. These are super enthusiastic fans of a game who spend thousands of dollars on the game to progress rapidly. Many times this can go from being very supportive of the game they enjoy to becoming an unhealthy obsession.
We can help manage that though the choices we make during the design stages. Some choices are ethically sound and have a natural end point.
e.g. You can play throughout the entire game without spending any real money, however, there is a set of 10 cosmetic items that are available for purchase.
In this case, the average user will either not purchase a skin at all or will purchase their favourite skins and ignore the rest. For the app to produce more money, more cosmetic items need to be made. The issue with this is that the amount of money spent on making the new content might out-weigh the money generated. As such with no continuous source of money, the app may not make enough to produce more content.
Some have no limit but are not manipulating the player to purchase more.
e.g. You can play through the entire game without spending any money, however, spending money provides items that make completing the game easier.
In this case, the game can continuously make income from the players that want the advantage in completing the game.
Another situation is where the game is made to manipulatively make the player spend money but have a limit.
e.g. You can play through 9 levels of the game but to get to the 10th level you must either wait 3 days or spend $10.
This is where ethics start coming into question, however, there is still a limit. While this doesn’t foster the obsessive money spending, it does prey on players drive to complete the game by forcing them to make any real progress.
Finally, there is a form of manipulating players to spend endless amounts of money on the game.
e.g. You must compete against all your friends but if you have this potion, you do 50% more damage for 1 day.
For the player to compete against anybody using the potion, they require the potion themselves. The potion then runs out, which they then need to buy again. This can very easily lead to excessive spending within a game, especially if there are a multitude of items like that. While many players don’t enjoy games like this, the handful that do can sometimes spend thousands on the game each.
There are more variations of these but this illustrates the effect that the design of the game can have on its players.
At times there are very vague lines as to what is ethical and what is not. Sometimes a system that created with consideration for ethics can be abused in ways people were not expecting. A case happened not too long ago were players were essentially gambling with skins in a popular online shooter. Now at first glance, that is fine, but combine that with the fact that the skins were often traded for real money and you find that your game promotes gambling. It is not always easy to tell if what you are implementing is going to have consequences, but at least keeping these things in mind when making decisions can have a big impact on at least a few of your players.
For Splop we identified that we would not be able to produce enough content in the time we have. As producing ‘skins’ would require remakes of almost all our art. As such we decided to go the second route I mentioned, and have items in the game that can make finishing the game easier, but there is no real need to do so.
We attempted to make our power-ups require some form of planning to use. Our first power-up is the Jelly Bomb, this allows you to destroy any single jelly and gain its worth in points. This may seem like an immediate boost to use, however destroying a jelly at random could prevent you from collecting it with the same colour, doubling your score. Or it could block off a path that you would have been able to take with another jelly. Our second power-up Telesplopper allows you to move any jelly to any open spot on the field. This can be used to set up new pathways, maximise score and so on. Finally, the Oopsie allows the player to undo their last move, removing any points they earned for it. This is designed to be used to when the player realises that they could have taken a better path or when the player has accidently moved the wrong jelly.
We purposefully designed each powerup to have some level of planning to use effectively. No power-up gives an advantage freely. This is to prevent a player from buying an endless supply of power-ups and simply breeze through the game without thinking. One power-up that was considered for a while was a ‘double points’ for 3 moves. This, however, encourages an endless spending cycle. With enough double point power-ups, the player will have double points the entire game. If the player has double points the entire game, then they will most likely win with no planning, making moves at random.
Our power-ups are built in a way, that even with an infinite supply of them, you still need to plan out your actions. This limits the advantage you can gain from power-ups.
During our level creation, we decided very early on that every level should be completable without any power-ups, even if it takes a couple tries. This was to stop situations of games having levels that are near impossible without spending money in our game.
We also added the ability to view ads to earn the in-app currency. This was so that players, that choose not to spend real money on the game, could gain access to our power-ups if they are struggling on a particular level.
In the later stages of the game, we decided to introduce an in-app currency, this was to allow the players more choice in what powerups they purchased. Previously the player would have to buy ‘packs’ of powerups to make it worth their money. Introducing the in-app currency meant they could spend smaller amounts of money on the individual powerups that they felt they required.
Each area of monetization in our game was looked at from an ethical standpoint and a few things, like what power-ups we implemented, and how you purchase the power-ups, where changed to suit the ethical stance we had for the game.