Read this morning an article entitled “Hacker Exploits iOS Flaw for Free In-app Purchases.” First thing that struck me is the language being used to describe what this guy has done. He’s a “hacker” who is “exploiting” something called a “flaw” to get something for “free”. Inadvertently (or not?) the writer has cast this character as someone who has done no wrong, only what’s natural given who he is and the environment he lives in. It’s somehow considered normal that a weakness in the system can and should be exploited for gain and reported in such glowing terms. Think about it for a second – this is like justifying a mugging because the victim didn’t know kung-fu. Or patting a bank robber on the head for finding an ingenious way to circumvent security systems and loot a vault filled with other peoples’ savings. Under other circumstances the headline would be: “Thief Steals From Unsuspecting Victims.â€ Whatâ€™s going on here?
In the article the hacker, named Borodin, is given a chance to explain his motives:
So why did Borodin do this? â€œItâ€™s my hobby,â€ he said. â€œAnd itâ€™s a challenge to CSR Racing.â€ Thatâ€™s an iOS game with a freemium model; though the game is free to download, it offers a slew of in-app purchases to unlock extra in-game options and features. Borodin disapproves. â€œI set this up due to hungry and lazy developers â€¦ I was very angry to see that CSR Racing developer taking money from me every single breath.â€
This makes absolutely no sense – the developer doesn’t force anyone to play the game. They don’t unilaterally extract money from Borodin’s savings account. In fact, it’s Borodin who has himself become a literal thief: downloading a product, circumventing the payment channel and spreading the word on how others might do the same. Not only a thief, a theft enabler.
Hacking doesnâ€™t bother me – white hats (hackers) are known to assist companies in strengthening their security by hacking then sharing gained knowledge with developers and the community. Borodin is given a soapbox that he then uses to justify his actions not because heâ€™s trying to be helpful, but because he was “angry” at “hungry and lazy developers.â€ Letâ€™s examine his motivation for a moment.
I’ve not actually played CSR Racing, but I did take a look at some game-play footage, screenshots and reviews. From what I can tell it’s a high quality offering with a slew of valuable licensed content (BMW, Audi, etc). The app and license content literally scream “hard working developer”. This is not the product of a lazy development team. Hungry? Maybe so. Certainly after Borodin shares with the world how to steal food from their table. Since when does someone being hungry justify stealing from them?
Anyway, I have a point to make here. Or more to the point, a question to ask: Why this anger towards developers? Whatâ€™s happened to create the idea that itâ€™s wrong to be hungry, build something of value then hope to monetize it? This isnâ€™t an isolated event and Iâ€™m not trying to call out Borodin for what heâ€™s done. Heâ€™s a small part of a larger problem. The environment in which we (as developers) live is comprised of players, media and developer/publishers. Players and media are frequently heard categorizing the freemium, F2P, item-based, business models as â€œtaking moneyâ€ AKA stealing. And when actual theft takes place the thief is given space to vent his anger and justify his actions. Itâ€™s backwards and crazy.
Now that Spicy Horse is getting into the F2P space Iâ€™m seeing a fair number of comments related to our product that sound similar:
â€œFree to play? Fuuu you!â€ â€œRental system on items? Fuuu you!â€ â€œI have to earn tickets to purchase stuff? Fuuu you!â€ â€œI have to spend money to get valuable items? Fuuu you!!â€.
You get the point. The entire F2P model is derided from top to bottom. Imagine the same thing being posted in the comments for a grocery store:
â€œFree sausage samples on isle 5? Fuuu you!â€ â€œRental system on carpet cleaning machines? Fuuu you!â€ â€œI have to collect coupons to get discounts? Fuuu you!â€ â€œYou mean I have to pay for the items on the shelves? Fuu!!!!â€
The backlash against F2P games should look and feel as ridiculous as my grocery store analogies. Not the case in the West. Meanwhile, in China, Korea and other countries where F2P games are the norm, railing against in-game stores, weapon rentals and other aspects of the model would seem as pointless and silly as complaining that a grocery store doesnâ€™t take kindly to shoplifting â€“ no matter how elaborate and crafty your method for doing it.
I believe weâ€™re in a transition phase and that people will, eventually, accept F2P as a consumption model for their games. In the meantime the industry as a whole is fighting against perceptions and positioning. My feeling is that developers and the media both have a responsibility to educate players on the virtues of the model while dispelling the myth that virtual item theft is somehow anything other than outright robbery. Call it what it is.
Would love to hear opinions in response to this â€“ on either side of the argument. Maybe Iâ€™m ignoring a critical flaw in the F2P model? Maybe Iâ€™m overreacting to what’s “just” a virtual theft? Let me know! If possible, please refrain from arguing, â€œJust because! Fuuuu you!â€