Recently, Adam Saltsman made a two part post (Part One) (Part Two) critiquing aspects of social games and “freemium” business models. I share the distaste for the tactics, but we need to carefully consider what our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses are. Otherwise all we’re doing is talking for the sake of talk.
Ethics: Not very effective

First of all, it’s not going to work. At best you can stop indie developers from copy-catting the big players in the industry by talking ethics. You’re not going to have any effect on the massive tide of dollars Zynga is riding by imploring their developers to reconsider doing what Zynga is asking them to do.

Furthermore, when we use ethics to attack the techniques used by abusive freemium titles, we are implying that these techniques are too effective and that there is no recourse available to us but to abstain from their use. As if they were some kind of super weapon. Which is ridiculous, because every one of the problematic techniques relies on flat-out bad game design. Really, the recipe for a lucrative freemium game is to take a solid game design and strategically break it in several places. Then you charge the player to get past the things you broke.

We should be looking back at arcades and asking ourselves what killed them and the equally exploitative design choices that they encouraged. It wasn’t a sudden epidemic of ethics on the part of developers and publishers that killed arcades. Better games killed arcades. Games that didn’t lure you in with one relatively easy level and then beat you up for your lunch money. I think that our current situation is exactly the same, minus the better games. It’s about time for history to repeat itself.

So, my question is, why are we fighting inferior game design with ethics, rather than with superior game design?