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Creating a Consumer: The Free-to-Play Business Model's Impact on Game Culture Practices

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Abstract

It is no surprise that the free-to-play (F2P) model has reached its current popularity in the industry, given its appeal to both producers and players (Paavilainen et al. 2016). Providing the core software for free, with perks, currency, or gameplay benefits at an extra cost (microtransactions), the model proves to be both an excellent gateway for casual gamers, as well as the more experienced players hoping to try out a various range of games. Aside from some minor ethical concerns, such as overabundant spending and misuse by minors, developers are also keen on the model (Alha et al. 2014). Nevertheless, one thing F2P can be assumed to do is change both production and gameplay practices. Hoping to note these transformations in game culture, and the impact the model has on the overall gaming environment, this presentation presents findings from an 18-month virtual ethnography of a F2P browser game. The game used in the study is a real-time strategy, browser game developed and published in Germany. The game in this ethnography has been F2P since its inception, winning MMO of the year in 2013 for the browser strategy category. Following Boellstorff et al.’s (2012) recommended approach for ethnography of virtual worlds, the study triangulated data from various sources to analyze cultural practices. Participant observation from both within the game world, and game related online spaces (reddit, official game forums), were supplemented with professional interviews from the game studio, as well as players. To analyze the ethnographic observations the research places the practices within four domains: company, industry, individual and community practices. Through viewing the game in question’s practices within these domains, one can observe a severe commercialization of the game’s specific culture. Practices such as commodifying and incentivizing social interaction (Nieborg, 2015), or a gaming meritocracy (Paul, 2018) that is heavily monetized (aka pay-to-win), teaches players that consumption is an acceptable and normal part, if not altogether type of gaming. On the other hand, certain industry, and company characteristics, such as lacking marketplace, community or microtransaction regulation, as well as a focus on digital merchandizing, liken the community to consumer culture (McAllister, 2003), one that is over preoccupied with purchasing and currency. When taking the game in this ethnography as a typical case (Mayring, 2007), we can generalize some empirical findings to other F2P games. Should games share the same technical and social affordances (genre, multiplayer, platform, etc.) as the game analyzed, then the F2P model would ideally also allow for certain social practices. These practices clearly distinguish the game’s culture from pay-to-play game or “traditional” game culture. Not only are these practices unique due to technical and social infrastructures, but they also shape a different type of community. Therefore, F2P game cultures can be assumed to be less participatory (Jenkins, 2006) and more consumer oriented, impacting not only the players themselves, but also the entire industry. The influence on the industry can already be somewhat noted when games that can be normally purchased still employ certain F2P mechanics, such as microtransactions and seasonal content.
The Free-to-Play Business Model‘s Impact on Game Culture Practices
CREATING A CONSUMER
Ahmed Elmezeny, PhD
Department of Media and Communication
Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich
21.10.2022
RESEARCH INTEREST
How the freemium model is
embedded in game culture
Exploring microtransactions’
relation to specific cultural
practices and manifestations
Typifying free-to-play game
culture
“a business model
using two products or
services, or a
combination of
products and services.
In such combination,
one item is provided at
no charge while a
complementary item is
sold at a positive price,”
(Pujol, 2010)
STATE OF F2P
Popular among developers and academics
Major portion of revenue in games market
generated by microtransactions
- (Puppe, 2018)
Subject to various research but rarely cultural
perspective
Why people spend (Paavilanien et
al., 2016)
In-game regulation (Woodford,
2013)
Opinions of users (Holin & Cheun-
Tsai, 2007) & developers (Alha et al.,
2014) on the model
source: tweaktown.com
THEORETICAL
FRAMEWORK
CIRCUIT
OF
CULTURE
-Du Gay et al., 1997; Hepp, 2011; Wimmer, 2012
EXPLAINING CULTURAL PRACTICES: CONTEXTUAL
THEORIES
(re)production
-Dark Design Patterns
(Zagal et al. 2013)
-Commodification of Social
Play
(Nieborg, 2015)
Identification
-Player identification
(van Looy et al., 2010)
-Video game play and
Identification
(Shaw, 2013)
Appropriation
-Consumption as play
(Lehdonvirta et al., 2009)
-Transfer Model
(Fritz, 2003)
Representation
-Theory of Public Esteem
(Carroll, 2011)
-Cultural Capital
(Bordieu, 1984)
Multiple Contexts:
-Commercialization
(Krotz, 2007)
-A Casual Revolution
(Juul, 2012)
-The Magic Circle
(Huizinga,1955)
METHODS
MULTI-SITED VIRTUAL ETHNOGRAPHY
OF A VIRTUAL WORLD
Participant
Observation
March 2016
Professional
Interviews
May 2016
Player Interviews
January 2017
Archival Data
Collection
April 2017
18-Month Participant
Observation
Field notes include
screenshots and self
ethnography
Online observation of
implicit and explicit player
practices & opinions within
game world & other game
related online spheres
10 Interviews
5Game Professionals
5Paying Players
Face to Face, chat or Skype
semi-structured in-depth
interviews (1:20 to 2:00
hrs.)
28 Articles & Forum
Threads
Purposive selection dealing
with F2P or Empire/GGS in
general
Contextualizing and filling in
gaps in empirical data
End of Ethnography
October 2017
real-time war strategy game | multiplayer | browser based
FINDINGS
COMMERCIALIZATION
THROUGH GAME
DESIGN &
MAINTENANCE
It’s preferential
treatment. If you put a lot
of money into the game
and you claim that you
lost a lot of troops or
something, yeah of
course you’re going to
get them back, if you
don’t pay then you’re not
going to get them back.
(Weasley, May, 2016)
-Field note entry concerning the architect event: a temporal and monetary dark pattern
COMMERCIALIZATION
THROUGH COMPANY &
COOPERATIVE
PRACTICES
Sometime [sic] ago, the big alliances
got together and they put down a
number of rules, which became
known as the “fairplay rules” … I
thought it was quite interesting,
because you know Goodgame wants
us to fight each other because wars
cost. If we were at war constantly,
then you would spend fortunes on
[premium currency]. So, a few [sic]
from all the over the world came
together and drafted these rules. So,
it was like the United Nations.
(6eyes, January, 2017)
-Field note data concerning player assumptions of discrepancy in user management.
FRAGMENTED
COMMUNITY &
INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY
The alliance descriptions
on some of the
alliances…you can see
that their conditions of
entry are that they’ve got
some quite stringent
rules that would require
you to spend rubies
[premium currency] to be
in there.
(6eyes, January, 2017)
-Field note data concerning player opinions on payment and how this influences gameplay
COMMERCIALIZATION
THROUGH SPENDING &
WORK-LIKE HABITS
If I could see someone
attacking me…I literally
went out and bought
some rubies and then
beefed up my defense or
bought some defense
troops. But on the whole,
I try not to spend more
than that because I just
don’t want to spend the
money.
(6eyes, January, 2017)
-Field note data: group message from an alliance member about quitting due to time constraints.
FALSE MARKETING &
A PERSISTENTLY
COMMERCIAL IMAGE
Even if it was a flag that didn’t
do anything...it was still
described as “with this flag
you will be one of the few
people who has it on the map,
your visibility will improve” so
you’ll be more noticeable and
then you’re more important on
the map. So even though some
[items] don’t have a
functionality, they are still sold
as having the least bit of
functionality.
(Zelda, May, 2016)
-Field note data: screenshot from facebook showing GGS’ negative image during a social
media campaign celebrating 5 years of Empire
Context Summary of Practices
(re)production
Psychological trickery to stimulate antisocial
environment
Community fragmentation through service and content
delivery
Regulation
Community fragmentation through official regulation
Implementation of cooperative community regulation
(fairplay)
Identification
Increased attachment to virtual property
Shame and pride in payment
Weaker group identification (acquaintances with
benefits)
Fragmented community identity
Appropriation
Regulation of spending habits (budgeting)
Game experience like work
Mirroring socioeconomic realities
Representation
False marketing to incentivize spending
Cluttered and commercial in-game design
Persistently negative game and company
image/reputation
Participatory
Practices
Commercialized
Practices
MORE THAN ESTABLISHING NEW PRACTICES
CREATING A
CONSUMER
How Excessive
Commercialization
Distinguishes F2P from
Pay-to-Play Culture
LEVEL OF GAME CULTURE
DEFINITION DESCRIPTION
MICRO
Cultures of a specific game or community
MESO
Cultures of multiple games or communities with a
common, unifying characteristic
MACRO
The overall culture of games, gamers and gameplay
-Elmezeny & Wimmer (2018)
Commodified Social Interaction
-Based on work by Nieborg (2015)
A Fading Magic Circle
-Based on Magic Circle theory (Huizinga, 1955)
Monetized Meritocracies
-Based on toxic meritocracy of game culture concept (Paul, 2018)
Not Functioning as Third Places
-Based on games as third places theory (Steinkühler & Williams, 2006)
Overpreoccupation with Purchasing and Currency Characteristic of
Consumer Culture
-Based on consumer culture theory (McAllister, 2003)
Lack of Participatory Practices
Lack of Marketplace and Microtransaction Regulation
Company
Practices
Community
Practices
Individual
Practices
Industry
Practices
-four domains of commercial practices creating the consumer (own construct)
THANK YOU!
Ahmed Elmezeny, PhD
ahmed.elmezeny@ifkw.lmu.de
21.10.2022
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