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GDC 2014: The Drowning's Ben Cousins blames the snobbish 'Establishment' for unethical stigma surrounding free-to-play

Discusses the ethics of 7 game business models
GDC 2014: The Drowning's Ben Cousins blames the snobbish 'Establishment' for unethical stigma surrounding free-to-play

Ben Cousins opened his talk at GDC 2014 on the moral maze of the 'new games business' with the unlikely example of pinball.

Citing former New York City mayor Fiorello Laguardia's condemnation of pinball as an exploitive practice that "robbed school children of their hard earned nickels and dimes", Cousins pointed out that pinball - viewed as unethical - was illegal in New York until 1976.

Tying this in to the recent debate around the 'evils' of free-to-play, Cousins set out to examine whether the free-to-play business model is any less - or more - ethical than other, accepted models in the gaming industry and, further, was curious where the controversy surrounding it came from.

This is, after all, the first time that "the games industry is making ethical criticisms of a business model," Cousins noted.

Card battle

With objectivity in mind, Cousins unveiled a unified score card that he'd use to assess the ethicality of seven business models from the games industry: coin-operated arcade games, product (traditional packaged games), subscription-based, free-to-play, free with ads, early access, and crowdfunded.

Each model was then asked a set of eight questions, with simple yes-or-no answers. If a game responded ethically to a question, it earned a point. Conversely, responding unethically lost it a point.

The questions laid out by Cousins were as follows:

  1. Are purchase decisions aimed at under-18s? (yes -1, no +1)
  2. Is it easy for an under-18 to spend without parental approval (yes -1, no +1)
  3. Can the consumer play the game before spending? (yes +1, no -1)
  4. Are independent reviews available before spending? (yes +1, no -1)
  5. Are there time-limited offers? Random chance? Emotional appeals? (yes -1, no +1)
  6. Is the minimum purchase size under $20 (yes +1, no -1)
  7. Can the consumer spend more than $240 on one game (yes -1, no +1)
  8. Can customers get refunds easily? (yes +1, no -1)

After assessing each model, Cousins chose examples for each business model and allocated the following scores:

  • Coin-operated arcade game, PacMan , -4 (y,y,n,y,y,n,y,n)
  • Product, Mario64, 0 (y,n,n,y,n,n,n,n)
  • Subscription-based, World of Warcraft, -4 (y,n,n,y,n,n,y,n)
  • Free-to-play, Candy Crush Saga, 0 (y,y,y,y,y,n,y,y)
  • Free with ads, Flappy Bird, 6 (y,n,y,y,n,y,n,y)
  • Early access, Divinity: Original Sin, 0 (n,n,n,n,n,n,n,n)
  • Crowdfunding, Strike Suit Zero, -2 (n,n,n,n,y,y,y,n)

In sum, the free with ads model was the most ethical while traditional games and free-to-play were tied at a neutral 0 along with early access.

Crowdfunding was viewed as unethical with a -2, while coin-op games and subscription-based MMOs were the most unethical at -4.


With his scorecards complete, Cousins was confident that he proved free-to-play games were the ethical equal of traditional, packaged games and so he turned his attention to examining where the stigma against free-to-play originated.

Without hesitation - or specific evidence - he placed the blame for the negative view of F2P games squarely at the feet of The Establishment: a group comprised of game developers, fans, and journalists from the traditional (pre-2007) gaming business.

Cousins fingered this old guard as the perpetuators of the anti-F2P criticism because they can remember a time without free-to-play games and, arguably, have the most to lose if free-to-play completely replaces traditional packaged game sales in the years ahead.

"There's definitely an element of snobbery here that gives people the opportunity to criticize something if it's not for them", Cousins began before assailing The Establishment for their view of games as art rather than business.

"Juxtaposing commerce and design [which is the core of free-to-play] is sacrilegious to them - it'd be like putting a hot dog cart in the middle of the Sistine Chapel."

After excoriating The Establishment, Cousins outlined a constructive approach which he felt would help free-to-play developers and members of The Establishment get along with one another.

"Be grown-ups. Be objective and constructive, put emotion aside. Learn more, meet people - your prejudices might not be true. Do real research. We need to prove, not just argue our ethical positions. Review responsibility, they [reviews] are consumer recommendations."

Finally, Cousins offered the establishment an olive branch.

"Come together as an industry and stop infighting."