Free To Play: Gateway drug to a full-blown gambling addiction

If you’ve never known anyone with a gambling addiction you probably don’t think it’s anything serious, but it is. People get so addicted to gambling that they destroy their own lives. It’s a serious issue for people with compulsive personalities.

So what does that have to do with video games? I’m concerned with the increasing use of gambling mechanics in these games. I’m going to use Firefall as an example but many games have similar mechanics which boil down to spending actual money on a chance to get a good prize.

In a blog post Firefall devs teased this cool glider.


How do you get it? It is an “Epic Reward” that comes from a Red Bean Reward Token. These are tokens you get when you purchase Red Beans in an amount above $20. Of course, just because you have a Red Bean Token doesn’t mean you’ll get that glider. You have a CHANCE to get it. How much of a chance? Since Firefall’s gambling system isn’t regulated they don’t have to tell us. Maybe it’s a 1 in 10 chance. Maybe its 1 in a million.

The bright side is that you DO get the Red Beans you purchase, so in this case the Token is like throwing your business card into a fishbowl at the local deli in order to get a chance at winning a free lunch.

Then there’re these wings:

So how do you get these? From Gold Tokens. Gold Tokens are purchased with Red Beans, which in turn are purchased with hard real-life currency. How much do they cost? Well that’s hard to say since Firefall devs try to obfuscate the cost of Red Beans as much as possible. For one example, $20 gets you 168 beans (technically 160 plus 8 bonus beans) which means a bean is 11.9 cents (the more you buy at once, the cheaper they are by a slight amount. Spend $100 and the’re 10.4 cents). A Gold Token costs 30 beans which works out to $3.57.

So you pay your $3.57, pull the arm of the slot machine and get… something crappy. OK spend another $3.57 and try again. Nope, not that time either. What are your chances of getting these wings? Once again, no one but Red5 knows. They don’t have to tell you. I’m going to assume it’s 1 in 4,000,000,000.

Oh, and just to add to the pressure, both of these items are only available for a limited time, so if you really want one, maybe skip making your car payment this month and buy more beans. You can always catch up next month, right? As long as no cool new items are introduced.

samurai_hatOf course you do get something. Unlike ‘traditional’ gambling, everyone is a winner. Of virtual goods that don’t cost the company anything to give you. And much of what you win is the same stuff you could earn by playing the game for 10 minutes. I won this cool (?) samurai helm that I can’t really even see. In my case I bought $20 worth of beans that got me a token which gave me a chance to win the first item above. Instead what I won was 2 Gold Tokens, both of which gave me a chance to win the second item above. It wasn’t my lucky day, though. I got the helm and some other stuff that made such an impression that I’ve already forgotten what it was.

If you DO get what you want, that’s awesome! That’s teaching you a valuable lesson: that gambling is the road to success! This is an especially useful lesson for younger players.

Of course, defenders of gaming will point out that many states have a lottery that is no better. I agree and I don’t think state lotteries are a positive thing. But a)they are at least regulated so you know what your chances are and b)at least part of the money you piss away on them goes to improving conditions for others: school improvements, better highways, or whatever. I think usually that money goes towards public schools.

The odds in these free-to-play gambling systems (and again, Firefall is just one example) all favor the house, and in an MMO the house is the publisher. I’d really like to see these systems go away and have less suspect systems replace them. Just sell items at a fair price and make your money the honest way. Inserting gambling systems into your game just makes you look shifty.