“Games as a Service” needs a service redesign

Max Taylor  | 

There are many instances throughout history of companies dedicating themselves to short-term financial gain and reading this financial success as customer satisfaction, whilst blinding themselves to the long-term unintended consequences. Today, this is happening with Games as a Service (GaaS) – those addicting, wallet-emptying “bonus” features on both premium and Free to Play games. Being mindful of the unintended consequences of greed and fear is all part of good business, but previously fair deal between gamer and publisher has recently grown bitter due to the current monetisation formats. A service design approach to GaaS is needed to improve the industry, and it’s needed now.

 

The Psychologists of Mass Consumption

Let’s start by outlining how little agency we have when it comes to engineered rewards. In the 1930s, renowned behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner found that we are all basically slaves to our conditionings. Moreover, this conditioning can be easily manipulated and installed. This had been presumed for years but it was startling to see it in action so succinctly in lab rats residing inside the Skinner box. When a button was lit, the rat would push it and receive food, reinforcing and manipulating it to continue pushing the button.

Eventually, the rat gets bored of pushing the button after the rewards become too saturated. But if you randomly and intermittently reward the rat with food, the anticipation reinforces the behaviour. Regardless of the appearance of the reward when the button is pushed, the rat continues to mindlessly push the button. Indeed, this finding perfectly carries over to us humans and our man-made reward systems (tipping, gambling, social media notifications). This would become one of the most applicable psychological findings for business for years to come.

Skinner’s box is most game monetisation services in a nutshell. Random allocation of reward is the most effective way to sustain addictive behaviour.

Edward Bernays is another prominent figure whose work echoes in today’s arsenal of digital psychological weaponry. Arguably Bernays’ work has better held its ground against time compared to his uncle, Sigmund Freud. In the field of PR, Bernays was a master of crowd psychology, but subscribed to the idea that the masses are mindless and stupid; easily manipulated into consumption by a single actor. When the green packaging of his client’s cigarettes did not sell due to a colour clash with contemporary women’s fashion, he successfully manipulated women’s fashion sense into wearing green by constructing a hyperbolic event known as the “Green Ball”.

Bernays: Green needed to be fashionable in order to pedal the cigarettes within this packaging.

Today, the game industries hyperbolic events like E3, PAX, TGS and the Game Awards all serve the same purpose as the Green Ball: to herd the cattle to the feeding trough. The list of issues with these events are endless; and long may it be so as I have enjoyed many beers laughing and cringing at the sophistry and spin which run rife here. Nonetheless, the connection between Bernays and E3 are obvious – for both, the idea is to hype us on ideas we would otherwise reject.

 

A History of Gambling

There is one more puzzle piece missing: trading card games (TCG). TCG’s are colloquially known as “cardboard crack” for good reason – the booster pack. These packs contain random cards of varying rarity to which the buyer is blind, making each booster pack purchase a gamble. This is ultimately designed to have you open your wallet and let the cashier rake money out of it, much like a corner shop gambler oblivious to an ever-growing queue behind them as they feed their addiction for scratch card wins. You are the lab rat, the button is money and the food is the expectation of a rare card.  

Cardboard crack: “Just hook it straight to my veins” (Magic the Gathering TCG)

Notably the reward is not just the card itself. Before you open the pack, the mind is lost in anticipation – will it be the rarest card of all? Or will it be valueless nothing? Of course, the odds are wildly stacked against you. At least in this form, you had the barrier of physically going to the shop to have your cash converted into unsalable piffle. Nowadays you can do the same anywhere, with your phone plugging you in to the matrix.

The advent of the smartphone meant the advent of mobile games, and mobile games were virgin territory – free from the shackles of the traditions of console gaming. At the time, nobody knew what would manifest on this new platform – would it be a new form of art, entertainment and creative expression on the go? Or would it be a modernised Skinner box where we vacuously tap the shiny touch screen for an arbitrary reward? Sitting in the present day, I needn’t inform you which way it went.

The successful F2P mobile game service for Clash of Clans – You must pay for premium in-game currency to stay on top of your game.  The behavioural economics here have been leveraged to maximise profit.

On mobile games, Free to Play (F2P) service models reign supreme – hooking you with a cunningly addictive introduction, before hitting a paywall or a point where time between intention and action is so lengthy it makes sense to pay to proceed (especially considering you have already invested your most irreplaceable resource, time). In my opinion, this is a fair deal when done right. However, done right is a rarity and this is where good service design is required to research and create the right balance to offer a service where most gamers are happy to pay (not just the “whales”, but more on them later).

F2P mobile games have multiple gimmicks aimed at your psychological weak spots, sometimes they fire on all cylinders and every trick in the book is available all in one game, to the point where there are arguably more monetisation stratagems than gameplay. But one method has become exceptionally notorious and effective: the loot box. This is the same blind anticipation principle employed by Magic the Gathering booster packs, except that now game assets have replaced physical cards.

Satire of the mobile F2P model. Perhaps gameplay experience was better before.

Rat, button, food = human, money, loot box. It’s the same, except that food has some intrinsic value to the lab rats’ survival. The game assets unlocked by loot boxes (like in-game character skins, cosmetic items, in-game boosts) are all affective design pieces, allowing the player to reflect on the status symbol of holding some rare item that most other players do not have. Readers of Don Norman’s Emotional Design will be all too familiar. This peacocking effect is the cosmetic reward for most MMORPGs, where you grind for 200 hours and slowly watch your character grow from rags and crab slaying to riches and dragon slaying.

In a loot box economy, things are different. A top tier loot box item simply means you have shelled out more money than your fellow players or are just incredibly lucky. Either way, over time you realise it hardly reflects your ability or skill, and you become disenchanted with the system and subsequently the game, especially once you notice the game has been purpose-built to monetise from a loot box core.

 

Games as a Disservice

As you may have heard, triple-A game publishers have snapped the whip at their studios to push for F2P monetisation services within their premium priced products. The temerity is baffling to almost everyone involved in making or playing games. To rebut this, the talking heads at the hyperbole events try to massage the psychology of the masses with phraseology, stating that they have made a move toward Games as a Service (GaaS). I needn’t go into deep detail here on the exact issues with the microtransaction services in premium games that have already been highlighted online around the gamer echo-chamber. The consensus is that current loot box service design hinders the gameplay experience.

“But” – I hear some say, repeating PR rhetoric – “buying loot boxes is optional and only hold cosmetic items anyway”. This is how far the Bernaysian termites have already spread. To implement a service that continues to generate revenue post launch, the design pipeline needs to be diverged so far from its regular course that you arguably end up with an entirely different game. Critics have been largely upset that this is the end of premium single-player experiences, as GaaS is best optimised within multiplayer platforms where players can peacock their cosmetic items. I would argue that this is an extreme prediction, but nonetheless, I second their motion.

The Loot-box – “definitely absolutely not visually aimed at children and gambling addicts….” – EA (probably)

“But” – I hear others say – “games are more expensive to make these days, but still have the usual price tag. They need to make more money somehow”. This is unquestionably correct. But it’s clear to me that the rise in expense falls nicely into Pareto’s 80-20 principle. 20 percent of a games features cause 80 percent of the return on investment. The important 20 percent here is gameplay, game mechanics and the actual user experience of playing the game. This is what sells. Yet there is another 80 percent of features and polish which simply wouldn’t be missed, yet probably took a development team a lot of time and money to implement (hence the expense).

The contents of a loot-box. This is the rare occasion it contains something worthwhile. Can you spot the rare asset?

Each premium game has its own strategy for how GaaS should be implemented. Destiny 2 cleverly encourages you to pay for premium currency for a reward that it hooks you on during the games introduction, but is rarely given to you during the end-game. Call of Duty: WWII has players opening loot-boxes in front of each other within a social space, and rewards them for watching others open them. Shadow of War has an end-game which requires you to either put in an inordinate amount of time grinding unless you fork over the cash to buy loot boxes and bypass the tedious processes. Star Wars BattleFront 2’s loot-box service was so poorly designed that EA’s stock took a hit. Critics regarded it as a “pay-to-win” system, whereby someone who threw enough cash at it would be inordinately more powerful in-game than someone attempting to grind the rewards organically.  The take home point here is some of these services are just about acceptable, but so far, most of these services are poorly designed and have not yet integrated successfully with the gameplay experience.

Massive successes like PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds, selling millions in early access with barebones features and Xbox 360-era graphics, prove that simply getting the gameplay experience to be fun is the most important thing. The triple-A games industry is massively overspending on each product, and the customers are being made to swallow the cost with, what has thus far been, hindered experiences. Nobody  wants the immersion of competing as a space ninja spoiled by prompts to open their real-world wallet and find their real-life bank details.

Now onto the “Whales”. This dehumanising industry nomenclature describes the demographic from which the majority of cash is generated. Presumably, the metaphor of sea creature size representing cash input to F2P monetisation services carries on all the way down to the lowly krill, such as myself. Again, this is the 80-20 principle at play – 80 percent of the revenue is generated by 20 percent of the customers (although statistics suggests the ratio is closer to 99 to 1).

Some monetisation services are financial successes… so far. EA’s sports games like FIFA have “ultimate team modes”, which are exactly the same as booster packs but with sports players on the cards. This strategy generated $650 million in 2016 alone. $650 million has been spent… on Fifa The Gathering. To make matters worse, these games are on annual release cycles, so you can kiss your hard earned virtual cards goodbye the next year.

Magic the Gathering TCG, but with football instead. One of the most financially successful GaaS so far. But is it sincerely successful?

It is wise to be cautious of these financial statistics as they do not tell the whole truth, and in some cases they tell the opposite of the truth. Gary Vaynerchuck has a perfect and entertaining example (which you can watch here) of the discord between how key performance indicators may seem on track in the boardroom, but in actuality the customers are fuming. With the sales of games still as high as they were with or without microtransactions, and with the microtransactions still reaping plenty of cash from players – why would the industry boardrooms even break a sweat? The truth is the public understanding of GaaS is still low, but its growing, and it’s not looking good. Star Wars Battlefront 2, with its “pay-to-win” scheme, was the biggest disaster to date. Most gamers surely noticed this, meaning now is the time to act on redesigning GaaS to be as acceptable an experience as possible.

This finally brings us to the main problems: how long can this last? How far can publishers push it? Are childhood spending and addictive personalities ethical concerns that will enter the public consciousness in the near future? Are the current GaaS models actually just gambling, cunningly disguised games?

Personally, I have only spent £8.99 on Overwatch loot boxes – but I still felt like an idiot. A friend of mine has spent almost £10,000 on the aforementioned FIFA teams and has seemingly reached a point of learned helplessness, where all that remains is bragging rights. Subsequently, I have since not purchased games I would have otherwise happily picked up, and I know I am not the only one who has done this. It’s not even out of protest or principle; I don’t pick these games up because they are poorly designed around GaaS and currently GaaS takes the long term fun away from the experience. It feels like an unacceptable deal. Most people are not stupid and are capable of chartering their losses over time. As the masses slowly become more awake to the subterfuges of the current design of GaaS, it seems the game industry may only be winning a short-term pyrrhic victory and should start taking another look at itself.

A smart snipe aimed at the studios utilising F2P monetization in premium priced games.

 

What can Service Design do for GaaS?

I personally believe that a service can be designed which contains an ongoing revenue model, but appears fair and acceptable to the majority of gamers at the same time. Game publishers appear confused as to what is and is not working in terms of experience, and that absolutely needs to be amended. Currently, the service is not widely accepted because it is not inclusive – it caters to a few whales whilst everyone else has to be pestered by a real-world call for cash in what was otherwise supposed to be an immersive and fun experience in a different world. But we can’t go back to a time before GaaS now; that horse has bolted!

Service design is a holistic approach and subsequently its definition can sometimes seem esoteric. Nonetheless, the overarching theme is that its an evidence-based optimisation of the back- and front-end experiences of a service, and all its moving parts. Service design is the perfect method to help solve the issues surrounding GaaS, because it takes into account business goals, development team aims, and player experiences – the whole enchilada.

Service design involves a deep dive into how the behind-the-scenes strategy impacts the customers experience. The process begins with procuring insights from real users and business stakeholders through a series of research and analysis. These insights are a gold-mine for inferring future strategies and design implications. This not only clears up any miscommunication between the customers and the boardroom, but provides a plethora of actionable knowledge which can drive massive evidence based change and works towards making both the users and workspace better.

Ultimately good service design bolsters word of mouth (WOM). WOM is king in experience products like these and it is axiomatic that it reflects the user experience and service design of the product. Get it right, and you’ll get a small number of highly loyal and loud sycophants who will quickly get your product renown to the masses due to a snowball effect (think Apple). Get it wrong, and you end up with mass disenchantment due to a small number of influential youtubers and journalists spreading their dissent across the web. Either way, the loud minority is the lens through which people view the world. The loud minority is truth.

Overall, GaaS is likely a short-term win followed by forthcoming long-term customer discontent. As the masses continue to consume the smear campaigns of the loud minority, which currently compete with the insincere corporate Bernasian spin, more people will become disenchanted from the industry as a whole (both paying players and content-creating developers). Good service design is user-centred, and calling games that encourage gambling behaviours “services” is ridiculously presumptuous, if not outright corrupt.

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