It’s not about microtransactions, it’s about the AI that reads your addiction

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Last week, Kotaku broke a story that earned quite a few gasps from around the Internet, due to how almost comically absurd it was. The story detailed how a fan of the mobile game Transformers: Earth War had spent approximately $150,000 on in-game purchases, which to us at the bottom of the world equates to around R2 215 855,50. Can’t forget the cents, those things add up after a while.

Just looking at that number, it’s insane to imagine spending so much on microtransactions. Most people are hesitant at dropping R20 for a full mobile game that doesn’t come flooded with added monetisation, let alone spending the equivalent of a really nice house in the suburbs of whatever predominantly middle-class neighbourhood you can think. Yet that’s exactly what developers of mobile games want; they aren’t targeting the masses with this kind of monetisation, they’re looking at catching themselves a whale.

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Now let me say this upfront, I have no qualms with microtransactions in free games. I actually think it’s a fairly decent business if the monetisation is fair and money isn’t baked into the core progression of the game. Games are expensive to make and adverts are both frustrating and probably don’t bring in what’s needed to feed a whole development team.

Microtransactions make sense in free games because they count on players either feeling generous and providing the developers with some cash for fun cosmetics to show their support and thanks for a quality past time they can play for free or people choosing to rather bypass the time investment for actual investment.

Thing is, neither of these groups are who developers are hoping to really appeal to: They want to catch that incredibly small group of people who’re so committed, so enamoured with a game that they spend hundreds of dollars to just keep playing it. The industry describes those people as “whales”, a term I haven’t yet decided whether or not it’s insulting or not (although I’m sure you know which angle I’m leaning towards) and according to the Kotaku article it’s coming increasingly easy to spear these players like a salty sea captain with vendetta on his mind.

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At the Game Connect Asia-Pacific conference held just before PAX Australia, game developers come together to discuss the industry, delivering speeches on how best to approach game development in a marketplace that constantly feels like it’s shifting. Henry Fong, CEO of mobile developer and publisher spoke on how mobile developers ought to factor in monetisation at the ground level of design instead of slotting it in as an afterthought. Fong’s studio Yodo1 is responsible for creating Transformers: Earth War, the game that was apparently so good it roped in over R2 million from one person. Yet when you look at how this process actually took place, the story turns from outrageous to sinister very quickly.

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In conversation with Kotaku Australia, Fong revealed that many automated tools were being implemented in mobile games; specialised AI’s that boosted the efficiency of monetisation by identifying potential whales based on their playstyles and spending habits. Which is a sentence one could easily see Charlie Booker screaming at the exhausted writers of TV’s most cynical sci-fi show Black Mirror, but it’s actually being used, as we speak. Certain AI’s can identify potential “whales” with around 87% accuracy, better than any of my marks in high school. Fong went on to say that the system was still in its infancy and could probably be honed to offer unique monetary packages based on the kind of player it identifies the user as. Despite how insistent Fong is that proper regulations needed to be put in place to ensure that systems such as these don’t get abused, I have to question if it’s not already at that point.

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We all know the controversy surrounding loot boxes at this point. The system of “surprise mechanics” taps into some aspect of your brain that loves the dopamine rush of good luck, akin to a gambler rolling lucky in a game of roulette. It’s an obviously sinister practice that preys on those more drawn towards gambling, but the ability to identify and tailor gambling experiences to players is cyberpunk dystopian to a startling extent. What sets this sort of AI apart from loot boxes to me is that, in a way, it’s designed to make you an addict. Many people can overlook loot boxes, they’re targeted at people who already have a disposition towards gambling. Yet an AI that can read you and judge how to best get you to pay money to keep playing a game? That’s a gateway to something far, far more unethical.

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Look, I get that this comes across as some sort of fear-mongering and I suppose in some ways it does serve that purpose. At the same time though, mobile gaming is increasing in its popularity and scope with free-to-play models arguably one of the most popular ways to ship a game in 2019, if not the most profitable. These AI’s are being developed by small, mobile studios but can you imagine what happens if it gets slotted into the AAA industry?

The ability to instil a sense of customisable addiction into a player base is enough to make Phillip K. Dick roll in his grave. Those poor therapists helping those already struggling with the newly classified gaming addiction will probably see a massive boom in business if this sort of technology becomes any more advanced.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: October 21, 2019

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