The games industry is, as its name implies, an industry—built upon a standard funding and revenue cycle one would expect from any industry. Video games have been the subject of business, mass-marketing and profiteering since their inception. Only until recently, however, there was a clear line between the game and the business. Money was spent to play the game, of course, but the act of playing the game was divorced from the act of spending money on it. One might have had to scrape together the cash to purchase Super Mario Bros. but, once the game started, the player would be far more concerned with mushrooms and turtles than the money that had been spent for the privilege.
As we read from Huizinga, the act of play requires the theoretical “magic circle,” a quality divorcing the act from real-world concern. Should anything breach the circle, either from the outside or from within, the magic is broken. Players of any game—from Call of Duty to stickball—tend to react viscerally toward anything which disrupts the magic circle, so it’s no wonder to witness the increasing frequency of uproar and outrage toward downloadable content, microtransactions and DRM when they disrupt the act of play by bringing real-world concerns into the game.
The topical example is the recent Simcity debacle, the furor surrounding which is almost entirely rooted in the game’s business model rather than the game itself. In short, the (traditionally single-player) game requires a constant internet connection to play, which became problematic when its authentication servers were overwhelmed and players were left waiting in a virtual queue or were simply booted out to the main menu. Further controversy erupted when modders discovered the game could easily be played offline by editing a handful of configuration files. The boondoggle peaked when Amazon ceased taking orders for the game and Electronic Arts began offering free copies of other games as compensation.
Opinions and uproar notwithstanding, Simcity is a textbook example of this fundamental repulsion to anything which disrupts play—in this case, the business model. Similar stories surrounding DLC and DRM, including the remarkably similar Diablo III launch and its real-money auction house, aren’t difficult to find. The variations upon these stories would imply the act of spending money within a game is not the core of the revulsion but instead when outside concerns (money included) intrude upon the ‘rules’ of the game, namely business decisions. Publishers have been attempting, with varied success, to monetize not just the sale of the game but also the act of playing the game. These are merely the negative results of that experimentation.
This attempt at monetized, or otherwise highly controlled play has given way to what I would consider an unrecognized genre of game: the profit-motive game. These are the games whose mechanics are designed from the ground-up with the business model as their guide and all other genre labels taking a backseat to this sort of design. That could mean anything between a game whose mechanics are designed to encourage spending to one to which access is strictly controlled to prevent piracy or modification (again as a profit-motive decision). This is hardly a new phenomenon granted many arcade cabinets utilized similar practices, but the profit-game has only recently made a comeback following the death of the arcade. Zynga’s lineup, namely Farmville, is the most noteworthy attempt at the profit-game, designed to hook the player before not-so-subtly recommending they buy their way to victory. Zynga is hardly the only company making the effort, however. A cursory glance over the iTunes top-charts will show a vast majority of its top-grossing apps labeled ironically as “free.” Clearly they’re getting the ‘profit’ part right, but can they still be called games?
The question is whether a game designed to involve spending can function as a game. There’s certainly precedent to support the notion, else it’d be difficult to call anything in Los Vegas “gaming,” but even gambling is debatable. Is poker still a game when played for money, or is it something else? Are games played in a casino still games or have they been tainted by the business? Huizinga did not go into great detail, but he didn’t seem to care for the idea of profiteering as an act of play. Assuming it’s even possible to create a game specifically to encourage superfluous spending and still call it a game, how would one go about doing so without breaching the magic circle? On an even broader level, is it possible to design a game specifically as a business venture without disrupting the nature of play?