A Designer’s Moral Dilemma

If you have been following the game industry this week, you likely heard the stories coming out of Zynga, the biggest player in social gaming. The CEO, Mark Pincus, has been accused of telling his employees:

I don’t fucking want innovation! You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.

This was also followed up by the revelation that Zynga has a special “Platinum Purchase Program“, where users get bonus points for purchasing in-game credits, but has a minimum purchase of $500. Most of the clientèle for this service are addicted and often people with low income. Essentially, Zynga is being declared as an evil pusher, akin to a drug dealer. Obviously, this has caused a lot of outrage and could quite possibly hurt the company, but is what they are doing immoral?

I can say that I don’t like what it is they are doing, but I cannot say that it is immoral. If it were, then I don’t think I could ever encourage anyone to become a game developer as we are all doing this in some way. It’s just the reality of being in the entertainment industry, but it isn’t all bad.


Let’s start with the first issue, the duplication of a game. The Zynga model is all about taking an existing concept, prototype it up and release it to the customers. Once it is out, you can scrub the servers for all types of data, such as what are people clicking on, how often they purchase items, etc. You can then use that data to make adjustments to the game. The dilemma here is that developers, in general, want to create something unique, not just make some cheap knockoff. At least that’s what they like to say.

The fact is that the vast majority of games are knockoffs of other games, we just like to lie to ourselves. Honestly, I know many a designer who would love to work making Killzone, or Crysis, or Call of Duty, or any of the big FPS titles. Can someone truthfully say, from a design standpoint, that these games aren’t just knockoffs? The same goes for any genre type, RPG’s like Final Fantasy and their multitude of clones. Platformers like Mario and its duplicated progeny. If a game does well and people enjoy it, isn’t it natural to want to emulate it?

Unfortunately, the industry is controlled by these massive corporations that are required to make a profit at all cost. Pretty much anything that is being made by or for a major publisher is likely to be a proven concept. Something that has a track record of being marketable. Since these corporations all have to try and show profit every three months, it is incredibly risky to try and innovate. The only place you really see interesting ideas brewing is in the indie game scene, which as anyone trying to make a living at doing, doesn’t make a lot money.

Users and Abusers

Calling Zynga a drug dealer isn’t really far off the mark, though they are more like a pharmaceutical representative. The scary part of this is that we designers, are also in essence, drug dealers. One of the first rules a designer learns about is to always understand and target your audience. You are not making games for yourself, but for others to enjoy. What kind of experience do they want and how can it be best achieved. How many producers have said that they want people to be constantly playing the game, to focus on replayablity. We like to run focus test and demos to see if the product is good. All of which is what a drug dealer would do.

From very early on, I realized that this was a very slippery slope. I personally find myself occasionally in a moral dilemma about what it is I do. It’s ok when you are only looking at statistics for demographics, but once you start researching areas like psychographics and having access to vast reams of real-time data, it becomes harder to keep that illusion. If, through all of these things, you discover that 1% of users will purchase an item if it is red, then why wouldn’t you make more red objects? Is it wrong to discount bulk purchases, which you know in turn will mean people will play more of the game? Where do we draw the line?

The fact of the matter is that if something can be used, it can be abused. Millions of people play World of Warcraft, but you don’t hear stories about them. You only ever hear about the mother who let her baby die, or the teen who kills because someone stole an in-game item. This is then marketed through the news back to the populace and targeted at people don’t like games. Everything we create has been analyzed and adjusted to fit the targeted audience response. It’s the whole purpose of design.


I think the biggest issue here is the fact that Pincus isn’t masking what it is he is doing. It’s like a magician revealing how he did the trick. Sure it is disappointing at first, but then we grow up to not be fooled by mere slight of hand. As developers, maybe we shouldn’t be constantly searching for innovation, but instead, focus on quality. There are way too many games that are not polished enough and prevent us from reaching that next level. We can’t discover the new concepts until we know exactly how the old ones work the best.

If we as developers are honest with ourselves, we can help prevent the addictive side of things. As long we avoid responsibility, the Zynga’s of the world are going to continue to tarnish our industry. We have a lot of knowledge in how the human brain works, not just in how memes stick in our brain, but in how to unstick it.  If we can pull data to tell us what players are doing, we can likely come up with something encourages players to take a break.

At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own actions. No one makes you have to work at a Zynga.

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