Greedy Goblin

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Game development ethics from a rational standpoint

I wrote Why games and devs must meet high moral standards. The post was a bizarre one. On the one hand I meant it seriously: without legal protection and ability to sue for refund when delivered a product that doesn't live up to the specifications one can only trust in the ethics of the other participant. On the other hand I realized how stupid it is to demand game devs to be particularly ethical and cited Derek Smart. Thirdly, writing about ethics by a business-focused kind-of-objectivist is weird as I don't even believe in its existence.

The Albion Online Corruption case (which with 99% chance ends up with a "Don't play Albion Online" page tomorrow), made this mess clear. There is absolutely no reason for Sandbox Interactive (the developer company of Albion) for allowing premium currency speculation. The speculators will have huge amount of currency making any kind of gameplay irrelevant while every penny they made will be RMT-ed at the expense of shop sales, directly hurting the company on top of the loss of revenue from frustrated customers leaving because their game experience was damaged. Why do they do it?

They don't. Corrupted devs do, who want to steal from their company. This is why there is no dev reply in the threadnought, despite they are very active in the forums to explain features that simple minded players wanting to "fix" something intentional, or admit that a broken feature indeed needs fixing. Funnily, the thread isn't banned either. None of them wants to put their name next to this "feature" with the post or with a deletion seen on the logs. They just hope that the whole thing fizzles out and when some scandal come out, they can just play innocent while the bitcoins from goldsellers is already in their accounts.

Funnily, goldsellers themselves aren't shy defending the "feature":
I miss the old days when goldsellers were hiding behind 1 days old alts and faced ban when caught. I don't know when did they realize that finding connections to individual devs is possible and profitable. Probably it happened by some small time sellers finished college and started "living the dream": became lowly paid, 14+ hours working devs and figured how much power they got with very little supervision. From there, "connected" goldsellers had nothing to fear short of a scandal, just remember how Somer Blink was promoted for being "one of the most awesome community sites" not long before having to ban them for RMT scandal. History repeated itself when they unbanned another major RMT site which was forced to be banned half year later after I threatened them with a lawsuit.

Why am I writing this? Because "ethics violation" in the business world can mean two things: sexual harassment and stealing. Companies don't want to air the laundry, they just fire the harasser/thief instead of pressing criminal charges. In this framework everything make sense: demanding "ethics" doesn't mean pleading to the tooth fairy, but calling investors to look after their own profit. What the gaming industry is lacking is audits of development. I'm sure that investors audit sales to prevent employees stealing product codes. They just don't realize the value of in-game assets despite the illicit RMT market is several billion dollars. I think investors believe that devs are just modeling orcs and coding fireballs which they have no business with and simply unaware how many million dollars of theirs can be stolen by "lousy" anti-bot measures and "features" that allow "connected players" to put their hands on half of the game economy and RMT it away.

I looked for salvation from game corruption everywhere, except the most goblinish place: the investors. This is why there never was a corruption scandal in WoW: the corporate behaves as a corporate, probably every department is properly audited and forced to adhere "ethical code". So the biggest red flags in a game studio are exactly those that make gamers excited "we are not corporate", "we are indie" and "crowdfunding" (hey, Star Citizen will surely be great from that $145M).

Sure, these corporates only run popular titles now which are naturally casual, easy and moron-catering. But sooner or later they will do what big film studios, having their "searchlight" department running smaller games for niches.

It doesn't mean that some indie-kickstarter games can't be done right. I'm sure that both the Crowfall and the Camelot Unchained directors are doing a work of love. But unless they can somehow audit their workers, their noble quests will be derailed by a few bad eggs who can't resist a couple $10K bribe. Albion could have been a great game, but it won't be. It will be shipped with a broken economy, with blatant goldselling and players turning away disappointed after a month.


inihility said...

Hey Gevlon, found your blog recently and have been enjoying reading a lot of your posts.

Being an aspiring game developer myself these posts about game development and ethics really opened my eyes, not that the subject never occurred to me but never gave it much more than a passing thought.

Currently I'm playing Albion Online and I can't help but agree with your posts about the economy. I have similar doubts about SI doing anything to rectify the problematic areas (primarily gold speculation, but I'm also concerned about the economic power that comes from multiple alts), but part of me hopes it works out somehow as AO has a lot of potential to be a great game.

If you do continue to play AO, I'll be following your blog posts on the game and maybe even see you in-game.

Smokeman said...

I know right? There are things you cannot do in a game if you want to claim to have "ethics." And number one is link your in game currency to real currency.

Oops. Wait. Your ideal game does just that, with it's trade in game currency for power.

Something of a conundrum, here.

Gevlon said...

@Smokeman: you have two and only two options as a game dev:
- completely make player-player trading impossible/irrelevant/super-regulated (WoT, WoW, BDO)
- you sell game currency in the item shop

Everything else is goldseller land

Anonymous said...

So I'm not sure i understand your beef with albion correctly.

* Gold / silver exchange rate depends on supply and demand
* Speculation on gold price is the most competitive form of money making
* Game company can fix this exchange rate by spawning silver or offering discounts on gold purchases
* Insider information regarding gold / silver rate fixing and general purchasing habbits make gold speculation especially lucrative
* You expect devs to get bribed into sharing this information to players involved in various forms of RMT (twitch giveaways as well as plain old gold selling) and assume they designed this whole system with the purpose of enabling RMT.
* Even if the devs have the best intentions and didn't mean to enable RMT you still won't play this game since the most optimal money making gameplay would involve speculating on gold based on out of game factors.

Did i get it right ?
The conection between enabling gold speculation and RMT seemed far fetched to me, maybe i'm retarded but consider making a schema (even a shitty paint one) on your don't play albion page for us readers with poor mmo economy understandings.

maxim said...

I have an allergy to sitations where there are two and only two options -.-

An interesting thing to consider is what advantage exactly do goldsellers have that makes them a force so overwhelming that you need to either completely forbid trade or introduce an effective divine intervention into the market.

Most current MMO economies are built around the notion that the more time you spend in the game the more you get to farm. Maybe if we could somehow dissociate time spent on the game with the amount of resources obtained then goldsellers wouldn't be so dominant?

There is also a broader question to consider. Suppose we somehow created an economy in which there is a viable player market that is somehow not goldseller dominated. What would prevent a goblin, who is simply more adept at playing this market than regular folk, from becoming a goldseller in this market then?

Aren't we basically saying that in order to create a game without market issues we need to create a game that (among other things) necessarily limits the potenital of goblinish play? Isn't this kind of self-defeating? (goblins are the people who enjoy the market the most)

Gevlon said...

@maxim: it's not the goldsellers who are so powerful, but the demand for power by players. The EVE injector prices proved that they value game access zero (actually negative) and pay only for the skillpoints:

So, as a game dev you have two options:
- you allow players to get power by paying
- in the name of fairness, you don't and create an "equal chances" niche game

If you choose to allow the first, you are just dumb if you let players sell this power to other players instead of selling it yourself.

From player perspective, if power for money is allowed, it's also better if it comes from the dev, because at least it supports the game and it prevents disruptive farming (botting, multibox-nolifing)

To your question: the only limit before goldselling is the will of the company to ban them. Withot bans and hurdles, EVERY game will be goldselling paradise, even if the best way to get in-game value is market. There is a reason why goldsellers USUALLY don't run markets but bots: you risk your capital to banning. A botter only loses his farmer character and whatever resources it collected today upon banning.

If you consider player trading so valuable that you don't want to remove it from your game, you must very aggressively punish goldsellers and goldbuyers (people who give/receive wealth to/from other players without compensation). "Very aggressively" means accepting that you sometimes punish innocent but weird players who give serious wealth to friends.

Removing nolifing and multiboxing make goldfarming harder (and I suggested just that in EVE) but just as you said, it wouldn't remove goldselling.

My favorite is the BDO system, where prices are fixed in a range and players can only trade by these prices. Granted, the implementation in BDO is lousy (some prices are very far from equilibrium, therefore allow goldselling). Assuming the dev-set price is perfect, the system is equal to free market with only preventing blunders (someone selling very low for being dumb/careless) and goldselling (which is essentially purposeful blunder)

Anonymous said...

peak behind the curtain.

Paying to Win: Battlefield Heroes, Virtual Goods and Paying For Gameplay Advantages by Ben Cousins

yes the only thing a game dev worries about is to keep investors happy. that is paramount. how they do it on what expenses short, mid or long term. doesn't matter. you as player with whatever reach does not matter.

The only thing that matters is milk customers out of their money. the more the better.

on gold sellers. remember glider for WOW? the right guy was responsible for that software and was sued of course. yes reversing netcode and building headless clients for farms is tough work but apparently you can make good and fast money, if you have the wits and brain for it.
the insight from them is that companies really don't care about this stuff, they only do something because of the "community outrage". they purge at points where banned customers most likely will buy another account.

Smokeman said...


All right, you've convinced me. My position on selling power items has always been "Don't do that." But the facts cannot be ignored. If you don't, and you allow the possibility, someone else will. And you won't like that. At the same time, if you clamp trades in a draconian manner, you will have a riot as people can't get a boost-up. So if you clamp trade, you have to sell boost-ups.

So the answer seems to be three pronged:

1: Sell in game currency and power items in a cash shop. Base the prices on relevancy of the item, with the "best" items excluded. (The Pareto rule applies.) in game currency automatically tracks this because the "best" items cost much more due to demand.

2: Have a process in the server cluster dedicated to acting as an equilibrium seeking price broker. The price of everything in the game is recalculated based on actual sales on a several times a day basis. This allows prices to fluctuate as supply and demand dictate. There is no "auction house." If you want to buy something, you do it. At equilibrium price. If you want to sell something, you do it. At equilibrium price. The item's tool tip popup diaplays the current equilibrium price for that item in the current region. (Regions could have baked in offsets for "rarity"/"surplus" of item types in that region. Players cannot control that.)

3: Player to player trades are par value only. The only exception being characters on the same account... and for that, they might as well share currency and bank. When you put an item in a trade window, the equilibrium value in currency shows on the other side. You can add items to drop the currency part of the trade, but the "Trade" button will only stay up when the trade is at par. Obviously, this means the fastest way to buy/sell is through NPC vendors. But if I'm in a raid, and a vendor would be inconvenient, and I need "Buff Food" I can traded it for your un-needed items (Even trash drops that I can vendor for the same price later.)

How to pitch this to the players? Lore! Your in game society prides mercantilism and fair and equal trade above all else, and insists that a trade given has an equal return.

Anonymous said...

Can you elaborate how the speculation aspect is SO bad? Lets say that the premium currency was not re-tradeable removing the speculation (could only be sold for gold by the player who bought it). Now most of the 'bad stuff' would just use gold instead of premium currency. You would remove the ability of a few people to 'bet' on patches etc, (and possibly make occasional considerable profits). Don't get me wrong I also think this wouldn't be good for the game, but I don't see how it would be game breaking either. More comparable for standard patch speculation that hc-eco gamers take advantage of. For example; New item needing x in next patch -> stockpile x.

Slawomir Chmielewski said...

Morality is not being "nice" or "good". Morality is practical, as shown by animals which have evolved rudimentary "moral codes" and they never thought about being nice to each other.

There is no such thing as group evolution (that is, evolution never selects for traits that are good for a group of animals if they aren't at the same time good for the individual). This means that morality is good for the moral individual.

If you decide that you don't care about "thou shalt not kill" then all your neighbours will be more likely to die. However, there are many, many people around you and only one you. Which means that the person most affected by your immoral conduct is yourself: you will most likely die when one of your would-be victims defends themselves.

Morality is logic. The commandments (at least some of them) did not come from some lunatic who saw a burning bush, they are ideas evolved with our cultures. Thus, a statement "ethics from rational standpoint" is a tautology.

Dàchéng said...

"Corrupt devs", you say.

Why on earth would corrupt developers work for an MMO game development company? Surely there are better opportunities for criminality working for a bank or financial institution, or an online gambling company, or hacking the aforementioned? The idea that a corrupt dev would choose an MMO game to work on is far-fetched. The vast majority of developers working for such companies are not corrupt. If there are ANY corrupt developers working on an MMO game, we can safely say they are stupid corrupt developers for not choosing a better opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Maybe goldselling is a way for game companies to sell ingame currency at different prices to rich and poor. Usually the price of ingame currency is much higher if you buy it via official means than if you buy it from a goldseller.

Game companies get a cut from goldsellers income. If they ban a suitable amount of goldbuyers they discourage rich whales from dealing with goldsellers while at the same time let poorer whales to use their services.

Gevlon said...

@Dàchéng: indeed there are better opportunities for CRIMINALS
But they aren't criminals and don't want to be. You know, stealing a magic sword is not a crime, even if you can sell it for $10000 on the black market (not paying tax for the $10K might be a crime). Please note that even botseller companies are just getting sued and maybe forced to stop operating, but no one goes to jail, because it's a business dispute and not a criminal investigation.

These guys simply realized that it's a zero risk activity that gets them fired at worst, but they can get hired to the next game dev company.

Please explain why EVE devs celebrated and supported RMT-ers (first Somer, then IWI) if not for corruption?

Smokeman said...


Another angle on that argument is professional sports betting. Athletes aren't criminals, but sometimes take the money when given the opportunity to "fix the spread", I.E. win, but will by less points than the betting spread. If you couch it as "Hey, you're not hurting the company, what's a little harmless speculation?" you could turn some devs, or anyone in position to allow a profit.

Just close that door before it can even be opened.

Anonymous said...

Also you don't decide to become a crook, you just seize an opportunity. Virtual currency / digitals items can be stolen and you will have the usual reply "Stop crying, its only pixels"

Adam said...

It's not often that something that I read causes me to sit there with my mouth hanging open, but this is one of those times. It's so obvious but none of us spotted it. Human nature will always be human nature.

maxim said...

A principle is a principle. You become a crook the instant you break it for any reason whatsoever.
If that leads into a situation where everyone is a crook then, chances are, your principle is dead (with all the consequences for the society that depended on it).

Gevlon said...

@maxim: I have 4 "do not play" pages. That's far from "everyone is crook", more like "there are a few crooks"

maxim said...

@Gevlon this was more in reply to the other commenters :)
My argument with you is that i really don't see any studio at all ever being up to your standarts. But hey, that's a hypothesis that just might be proven wrong :D

Gevlon said...

@Maxim: an unrigged version of all 4 games were acceptable and I played until I found that they are doing something very different from what they claim to.