A Fool and His Money

Homer's picture

KascamI'm not really one for playing video games. I'm far too old and too busy to waste much time on such childish and trivial things. Frankly even when I was young I was more interested in learning about how computers worked than playing games on them. These days my interests are even further removed from such trivial pursuits. I view computers as little more than sophisticated typewriters with which to express my concerns and opinions.

And so it is that I find myself writing about video games, or rather a fairly recent phenomenon in the video games industry: in-app purchasing.

The premise is a simple one: provide a game ostensibly for free, like a free spin of the wheel in a casino, but then pressure the players into spending money within the game itself, turning them into something roughly comparable to gambling addicts, only without the possibility of them ever actually winning anything, because there are no real prizes, only valueless "virtual" items of one sort or another.

I first encountered this strange phenomenon on a friend's PlayStation 3, in the form of something called PlayStation Home, a "virtual world" in which you spend 'till you drop but gain nothing of any substance. I thought it was a fad unique to Sony, and expected it to quickly fade into obscurity, but sadly I was wrong. In fact I'd venture to guess that this phenomenon has now reached the level of epidemic.

I'm unhappy to report that I'm one of its victims.

I was recently invited to join Google Plus, for reasons that have nothing to do with games, but subsequently discovered it had a games section, and investigated it out of curiosity. The "games" weren't really what I expected them to be, in fact I'd classify them more as interactive Flash animations, and most of them seem to be oriented toward very young children (which raises the issue of addicting children to spending vast amounts of their parents money on something that really amounts to a sort of gambling), but one of them piqued my interest, and it was "free" after all, so I gave it a spin.

The game is called "The Godfather: Five Families", developed by a company called Kabam, and it's primarily a "building" game, a bit like Sim City, but with the addition of "troops" you can use to attack other players. It was amusing enough to keep me interested, but it quickly became clear that progress would be excruciatingly slow unless I used "speed ups", which naturally have to be purchased in the "in-game store". I resisted as long as I could bear, but eventually my impatience got the better of me and I capitulated. Before long I realised that I'd spent quite a lot of money, at which point I felt committed to continue, or else lose my "investment".

It's a very effective form of exploitation.

Eventually I progressed to the point where I didn't really need to spend any more money, and just relaxed and enjoyed the game, until one day I found myself unable to log in. The game's opening screen just sat there displaying a spinning "progress wheel" for hours. I contacted support and got the usual ridiculous scripted responses, but no matter which of the feeble suggestions I tried nothing resolved the problem.

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

It turns out that the cause of my problem was not technical, but disciplinary. My account had been suspended for alleged "clear violations of our Terms of Service", although it wasn't especially "clear" to me, since I'd done nothing to warrant such action, that I was aware of. When I asked for an explanation I was bluntly ignored. Apparently I have no recourse to contest these unsubstantiated "violations", and must wait in the "penalty box" for four days - this time. Next time I do whatever it is I'm supposed to have done, I'll be permanently banned. And of course I have no way to avoid repeating this "violation", since I have absolutely no idea what I'm supposed to have "violated", so I'm very likely to do it again, and therefore I'll almost certainly be banned.

Were this game genuinely free, I wouldn't really care. I'd be annoyed, but at least I wouldn't have lost anything. But I stand to lose a great deal when I am banned, and I say "when" because it's clearly inevitable and completely beyond my control. If, as is likely, Kabam does eventually ban me for some mysterious and unsubstantiated "violation", as far as I'm concerned they will have stolen my money.

Given the developer's secretiveness and lack of responsiveness, combined with the highly exploitative nature of this "game" in the first place, I'm inclined to call foul and declare it to be nothing more than a scam.

But then you already knew that, and so did I, long before I ever even started playing it. I arrogantly believed myself invulnerable (or at least highly resistant) to this sort of deceptive exploitation, but I was wrong. I was a fool, and as the saying goes; a fool and his money are soon parted.