Business Model as Genre

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.

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The galaxy is at stake and I’m just sitting here reading my credit statement.

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.

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Unless you want a tragically redemptive journey or something lame like that.

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?

  6 comments for “Business Model as Genre

  1. althky
    April 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

    The game on my mind as I read this was League of Legends, and I’m now struggling to decide if I should be defending it or damning it. I think it is relevant though, since a big part of League of Legends’ success is its free-to-play business model.

    League of Legends implements one of the better free-to-play models in which, theoretically, you can acquire every effective gameplay option (mostly a larger pool of Champions) for free, given enough time and persistence. You can expand your options more quickly by spending money, but theoretically, you’re not at any serious disadvantage using what you happen to have. You can also spend money to acquire visual differences to your character, which are not available with free currency.

    Aside from the business and pricing model itself, which I will forever find troubling, League of Legends does a good job of keeping up the magic circle. From the main page in the out of game client, only a small part of the screen is devoted to advertising items on sale. No monetary involvement is visible at all from in-game. Links to the store are not excessive or intrusive. Once you’re in-game, there’s no advertising, links to the store, or concern for the business side at all. Though I am hesitant to say it, I think League of Legends might stand as an example of “a free game done right”.

    “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?”

    I don’t know if League of Legends qualifies to be a profit-motive game exactly, but one unarguable fact is that it’s possible to spend ludicrous amounts of money on League of Legends. It is something like $8 to purchase most Champions, of which there is now over 100; each of which has at least two or three “skins” (visual modifications) worth between $4 and $20. Though I’ve personally resisted the temptation, I know numerous people who have let several hundred dollars slip away buying skins. If it’s not a business model that encourages overspending, it’s at least one that allows it. However, this isn’t a huge problem for the game’s success because it properly holds up the magic circle for play itself.

    • Cameron
      April 5, 2013 at 9:46 am

      I’ve never played League of Legends, so I have no basis of knowledge to talk about it, but there’s an important distinction to make between games which monetize play as a supplement and games which are designed specifically to monetize play. I wouldn’t call Team Fortress 2, for instance, a profit-game. It has gone “free-to-play,” but paying for things in TF2 is an after-thought rather than a core principle of design. Superfluous charges don’t change the nature of the game, being mostly cosmetic, and a refusal to pay for them isn’t punished or discouraged in the gameplay itself.

      I recently tried out The Sims: Freeplay on iOS, which is a different beast entirely. In a similar fashion to games like Farmville, your sims’ “energy” is a finite value which can be replenished instantly by paying for it. By design, the game is very difficult to play without shelling out dollar after dollar and it’s arguably impossible to get anywhere within a reasonable amount of time without doing so. Other games like Tiny Tower are similar, requiring an unwieldy time investment to accomplish anything without putting a lot of money down.

      I’m not sure about League of Legends but, judging by its popularity alone, it either isn’t overly intrusive with its business model or it hit the gold-mine and found a way to monetize play without breaking it.

  2. April 15, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Interesting post, but where are these images from? (You gotta give credit where it’s due.)

  3. erosenzweig
    April 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Ahh, the old art versus commerce debate. How art does get it’s ass kicked.

    I’d argue that they still are games, just really bad ones, but that is probably due to me just having a broader definition of “game” than you do. Otherwise we are in agreement. And I’m okay with them being bad games. Cuz I gotta little thing called faith, me compadre.

    Because in a world were Budweiser and Coors dominated the market, micro-brews started popping up, and now I can go to any grocery store and get a beer that doesn’t make me ashamed to be an American. Where large studios peddle crappy flicks, independent films funded themselves into prominence and raised our expectations for the films we pay to see. When Brittany Spears was recording, the Foo Fighters still make the charts.

    People will always try and peddle crap were they can substitute quality for a cheap buck, but somehow, art still manages to wriggle itself up like a sapling through concrete.

    And yes, in a free market economy where the audience doesn’t receive the education to raise their tastes to be able to appreciate the finer things, there will always be those profiteers, and many times they’ll even be in the majority, but Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid will have a longer lasting effect on game designers than Call of Duty 14 3/4.

    Eventually EA will learn that publishing games like $imCity is bad, but it will only be when we make it unprofitable by expecting more from our games. So lets all hike up our comfy pants, and head over to Steam and Humble Bundle and embarrass EA.

  4. April 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    This is an interesting approach to critique, and I like how it lets you deal with key issues related to the contemporary gaming market.

    I’m often interested in preservation, emulation, and related things, so I’ve been wondering how a DLC/DRM-Dependent game should or could be preserved? This is a bit of a naive example, but if, say, a game required players at some point to pay $15 to obtain the weapon they needed to defeat the Big Boss, how would a future archivist recreate that moment? I mean, I realize that a with such a mechanic might automatically be the kind of thing we aren’t interested in preserving 50 years on, but it’s usually the case in looking back at gaming’s history that the things we’re interested in now are rarely the things someone thought to preserve.

    So in a pay-to-play emulator, would it use virtual currency? If so, then the raised stakes of monetary commitment wouldn’t be available as a part of its aesthetics.

    But then if it used real currency, would it adjust for inflation?

    • Cameron
      April 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      It gets even worse when you consider MMO’s. Far and away beyond a matter of jerry-rigging the game to work on newer hardware, MMO’s just stop existing entirely when they reach the end of their lifespan. With how much of an MMO’s actual programming is proprietary and server-side, there’s no real way to preserve one following shutdown (and all the attempts I’ve seen at reviving defunct MMO’s either failed on a technical level or simply don’t have enough of a following to emulate the social aspects of the game.) It’s like setting an exhibit on fire because the museum is being renovated.

      I’ve been reading through the only archive I can find for Neverwinter Nights (the AOL MMO), and it’s downright elegiac. Hell, someone made an emulator for the game, and that ended up shutting down.

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