A Response to Jim Sterling’s “Monetizing Whales For The Retention Of Virality” video

(If you haven’t yet, you should probably watch the video in question. Yummy, yummy context.)

First off, I want to say that I greatly respect Jim Sterling’s work. He’s a great reviewer, does fantastic videos on the video game industry and tends to be a nice counterpoint to a lot of the other video game journalism that tends to be afraid to outright criticize publishers and developers doing terrible things.

Of course, while I respect him, that doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with his points on occasion, as I do with some aspects of his latest video. His video tears into the GDC conferences that occurred last week, and that many of the panels had names that were, well, somewhat disheartening at first glance.

Again, please watch the video, because I don’t want to accidentally misrepresent his points on the subject, and i’d like to just go right at them. Also, I’d like to stress two things:

1: I did not go to GDC, so I can hardly speak on the actual content of the panels myself. Its entirely possible that the panels were indeed all kinda evil… but Jim Sterling didn’t go either, and at no point brings up the content himself.

2: I want to avoid “Games need to make money” as an argument. It’s a trite cliche, and while on the surface true, it doesn’t say “How much” or “What is acceptable and what isn’t” and “”But chasing bad profits is a bad idea for all involved”. Lets just assume that a game needs to make, at the very least, a small amount of money… because, for everything made commercially, that’s true. 

First things first…

The Introduction Example

The panel that Jim Sterling was talking about, which he calls “How to Safely Monetize Teens” is… actually not that bad, apparently.

First off, it’s actual title was “Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner“, and came with the following description:

This session will discuss how to maintain parental control over teen spending in the digital era, while also safeguarding their identity. By facilitating a parentally approved transaction, this can protect game developers against chargebacks and friendly fraud.

Based on that description… it seems like a legitimate concern and a pretty important topic. The title is inflammatory, to be sure.

And, as luck would have it, one of the attendees live-tweeted the session: “The #monetizing #teens #GDC panel“, and, from context, seems to have mainly been about the legal issues involved and urging to try to keep parents in control, and the panel never really dived into anything controversial, the panelists largely dodging the trickier questions.

Granted, as the author of the post, Ben Abraham, wrote:

I wonder if before the talks title went viral, there was plans for a more audacious talk – a talk in which the industry’s monetization mask would have slipped, and gone completely unnoticed…

Which is possible, and probably why the people doing the panel tried so hard to dodge the questions, but as the tweets seem to indicate, the prepared presentation seemed more focused on trying to avoid getting teens to spend their parents money without a care in the world.

So, that’s part one…

Doing Talks on Monetization Models

Let me be honest: I hate the term whales (in this context, F2P players that make up the vast majority of purchases), and I think that any game that chases whales exclusively is setting themselves up for massive failure. I have no doubt that a lot of the panels and sessions that Sterling name-dropped were full of terrible ideas and weak monetization strategies that would kill a good game if implemented to their logical extent.

But note the word “A lot”. And not “All”.

The problem is… well, Monetizing F2P games isn’t easy. The way you make a F2P game is to make the best game you possibly can and then make the game less enjoyable in specific ways so that you can sell them back to the player. Even the most innocuous methods, like new outfits or emotes with no statistical benefit to the player, is removing things from the players so they can be sold back to them, in exchange for getting the REST of the game for free.

It’s a bit of a paradox, and there’s a lot of games that do it terribly, like the iOS Dungeon Keeper, Trexels and Heroes of Dragon Age (…2/3 of them from EA, cough cough). And there are some games that do it well (although its hard to say which ones without getting into revenue numbers, but Loadout and Path of Exile have been praised for their F2P generosity).

Ideally, the point of these panels would be to share what worked, what didn’t work, what worked in the short term but fell apart in the long term, and so on and so forth… and I’d wager that, in at least one of those panels, that’s what happened.

But… yes, as long as games require at least a modicum of funding in order to be made and supported, there needs to be discussions on how to best make money without hurting the overall game. Otherwise, it’s probably that you’ll see more follow-the-leader terrible ideas like Dungeon Keeper iOS.

Of course, I can’t say for certain. But lets face it: Every essential part of video game development will need to be discussed and debated and such, and Monetization is probably always going to be on that list.

Reducing the Backlash

I’m honestly trying to find this panel in the GDC 2014 listing, but thus far? The closest one I’ve found is “You Own the Game but the Community Owns You“:

Gamers believe they own the brands, which is a bit of a dilemma for the developers and publishers who have to make decisions based on a much broader need base than a vocal minority. Ideally, game companies won’t make or need to make decisions that go against this outspoken group, but often there is a need. So gamers feel jilted, like the game cheated on them, when they never understood the nature of their relationship.

Okay, the description is maybe a bit douchey, but it’s not like there’s not a reason this panel exists. For example, Jim Sterling put out a video last year titled: “I’m Going To Murder Your Children“, with the following description:

If your first response to a game creator doing something you dislike is to get personal with them and threaten their families, you waive any righteousness you might have had. Seems like a no-brainer … yet so few of us seem to have brains.

It’s sad this episode had to be made, but here’s a Jimquisition about how you’re a total piece of shit if you threaten to murder somebody’s child. Yes … this had to be pointed out.

That’s the backlash that was almost certainly being talked about. There’s plenty of legitimate reasons that a game developer might do something the is in the best interests of the game as a whole, but the players may react poorly to:

  • You overpromised at E3 a few years ago about what the game would be able to do, and now have to disappoint the players now so that they don’t feel cheated when the game does come out.
  • A popular item/character/weapon is overpowered, and you need to nerf it to bring it in line with the other weapons.
  • Someone made a mistake, something bad happened with the game and you need to get the players to understand this as you compensate them for the problems.
  • The game, or an update to the game, just wasn’t as good as you thought it’d be.

The point is… these things all happen, and there’s absolutely a need to be able to communicate with the players well enough in order to make the bad news not… well, spring up death threats and vitriolic hatred that the video game industry is so good at.

In any case, Jim Sterling, if you’re reading this? I do apologize for the snarky comment I shot at you over twitter. Unfortunately, making clear and accurate points can take more than 140 characters, so I do hope these 7500+ characters will do a better job of it.

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