Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Why good companies can do evil things. (even in gaming)

Here is a pet theory.

lets say there are two logging companies. Treehugger Corp only cuts down trees in sustainable plantations, and its price per kilo to customers is $20. Bastard Corp cuts down trees where the hell it likes, and it’s price per kilo to customers is $20 too. Customers are happy with the $20 price point. $2/kilo is the ‘normal profit’ that makes the industry a worthwhile endeavour.


profit / kilo for treehugger is $2. for bastard corp, it’s $4. So what does bastard corp do? It obviously lowers it’s price to $18. It still makes a decent profit margin, but suddenly treehugger corp costs more. 95% of customers don’t look past the PR spin to see which company is really the ‘nice’ company, and thus treehugger desperately loses market share. With falling market share and revenue, it cannot afford to fight back. Soon Bastard corp has the market to itself. cackle cackle, twirl moustache. They probably even raise their prices to $22 later.

Here is where my theory kicks in…

Lets say there is a third company ‘CleverCorp‘. Clevercorp would like to be like treehugger corp, but once-bitten twice shy. They aren’t going to go-down like TreeHugger corp, but they have the same ‘nice’ goals. When BastardCorp lowers it’s price, CC does the same, and begins to sell unsustainable wood too. At the same time it complains to the government and the press, that this is all wrong, and that the industry needs regulation, pointing to BastardCorp. The problem is, to the cynical public, govt and media, Clever Corp is as bad as Bastard Corp. They are involved in the same shady practices too, and their bleeding-heart PR is just a smokescreen. How can we have any sympathy for Clever Corp?

I’m reminded of this phenomena (game theory probably has a nice name for it, if it’s not just a moral race-to-the-bottom?) when I see ‘bullshots’ (mocked-up screenshots) and sexist ads for games. I’ll never release screenshots that were mocked up in photoshop, nor will I stick a semi-naked buxom elf in my games, or my ads. I do, however, realise this puts me at a commercial disadvantage.

This is why it’s really good for customers and industry pundits to rail against stuff that is bad, like the aforementioned PR lies and sexism. note also Duke Nukems PR threats to journalists for higher scores, flying journos to the bahamas to review a game, and the old story of how people in gaming are worked to death for shit wages.

When that sort of stuff is made unacceptable, it’s not only a welcome kick to the bastard corps, it’s also a change that enables the ‘nice’ corps to stay idealistic, and not go down the understandable-but-still-evil middle route.

This coming week is solar week. By friday, it might become OMFGLOOKITSIMAGESOFANEWGAME week.

7 thoughts on Why good companies can do evil things. (even in gaming)

  1. This is why I buy from nice indie devs like Positech and others like them, and why I make an effort to avoid products from certain companies. I can hate certain practices and love other approaches, but unless my purchases reflect those preferences, the companies who do the stuff I don’t like aren’t going to care; they make money still. Equally, what does an indie dev care about how much I like their attitude and ideas if they go out of business because they don’t sell enough.

  2. Cliff, I certainly agree with you in objecting to bullshots and buxum-elf-advertising, but humor me in this thought experiment:

    Say you’re on a short flight and while chatting to the guy in the next seat you find that he’s one of the advertising-executive chaps for Evony (or whatever evil-advertisement-example best suits). Do you:

    1) Try to persuade him that advertising with scantily clad women and provocative phrasing is something he shouldn’t be doing. What standard common to both of you would you appeal to?
    2) Ignore it or change the subject and just focus on changing the minds of customers so that the activity ceases to be profitable. What standard common between you and those customers would you appeal to?
    3) Physically attack the individual in hopes that “might makes right” sometimes works.

  3. I don’t think the problem *can* be solved by persuasion. it has to be financial pressure. For example, if games sites refused to print any bullshots, or sexist ads, then they would dissapear very quickly.

  4. That would seem to simply shift the problem to persuading the people behind those gaming sites to co-operate in such an effort, right? By what standard?

    I’m very interested in seeing that happen, but I don’t see how.

  5. Hi Cliff
    I just picked up GSB a couple of days ago, and came to your blog by way of getting more info about game mechanics.

    I read this article, and it really struck a chord with me. I support your point of view entirely. However, that (unfortunately) had nothing to do with me buying your game. It probably would have, had I read this blog at any point, but at the time the purchasing decision rested purely on whether I thought I would enjoy this game.

    The interesting thing is that I have seen this game a few times over the past few months but thought it wouldn’t appeal to me (I actually thought it was some kind of asteroids clone for some reason).

    Anyway, I’m digressing. The point I’m trying to make is this: Good ethics alone will not make sales. But I honestly believe that merely having an ethical approach will influence a multitude of decisions down the line for the better, and that people will respond to that inadvertently, when each of those decisions cumulatively manifest in a product that people enjoy.

    The use of logging companies in your analogy somewhat simplifies this matter, as I would presume that for the majority of its customers, there aren’t an awful lot of variables to consider when buying. Games development however is a creative endeavour and as such, it can succeed or fail in spite of itself. So you take an ethical approach, love what you do, and produce a great game. Maybe it will be hugely successful, maybe not. Did anyone really think Angry Birds would make people into millionaires? I don’t think this is about being cynical and making decisions on what will be the strongest financial move (look at the Eve debacle last week for example).

    I see your previous post has a related theme, regarding Zynga. Farmville et al. target a certain demographic. I really don’t think that you need to think of GSB as somehow competing with Farmville. I would not be surprised to learn that Farmville is only successful because many companies haven’t blocked Facebook for their employees.

    But more importantly, Farmville is new, and as you point out, built on a foundation of shady ethics. So what will happen in the long-term? Other companies will do the same thing (as with smurfs on the iphone), and be even shadier about it, finding new ways to entice players in the short-term. Eventually that market will become saturated by similar styles of games, and the playerbase will be ripe for moving on to something else, exhausted by all the nonsense (mark my words, the same thing will happen to Facebook too).

    Sometimes, all you can do is the right thing, and be damned the consequences.

  6. Adverse Selection may be the word(s) you’re looking for.

    Morality has been selected for because it has been advantageous to those who practice it. That said, the western world is past the demographic transition, and I suspect beauty/social skills are being selective for over productive ability at this point. I think you will have a hard time wrt preventing sexist ads.

    Take a look at a Spatial Prisoner’s Dilemma applet. You can watch as either cooperation or defection spread based on the varying payoffs. I think today’s payoffs are no longer favoring yesterdays morals.

Comments are currently closed.