Ethical reasons I deleted We Rule for iPhone

By Mike Berg / March 1st, 2010 / Blog / 20 Comments

I’ve been playing ngmoco’s We Rule for iPhone the last few days. While I enjoyed collecting, upgrading and customizing (who doesn’t?), I began to get a feeling that this isn’t the kind of “game” I want to play. This post attempts to articulate the root of that feeling.

Update: I’m aware that We Rule is not the first game of this type, it’s just the first one that I’ve played. This post is more about the development philosophy behind We Rule, rather than about We Rule itself.

Updated Update: Here’s an excellent article on addiction in games. It gives a great picture of things to come. And by great I mean ugly.

I put game in quotes because We Rule more of a toy, a tamagotchi, than a game. If you already know what We Rule is about, you can skip down to here.

What is We Rule?

The idea of the game is that you are the ruler of a castle and its surrounding land. You harvest crops for money, which can be used to buy homes for citizens and various buildings such as tailors, schools, mines, etc, all of which provide more money or various upgrades. This pattern cycles up as you level up; crops become more valuable, buildings become more expensive, and so on.

An important distinction is that in We Rule, all events occur in continuous real time. A crop that takes 12 hours to be ready for harvest takes 12 literal hours. Every element in the game takes a different amount of time to complete; some minutes, some days.

My reasons for removing the game from my iPhone

First and foremost is the feeling of intentionally breeding addiction. I’m not sure when the term “addictive” became a positive thing, but this type of game seems to take it to another level. I’m not talking about it being “compelling” in the way a game like Doodle Jump is. I’m talking about an addiction that pervades your normal life and thoughts throughout your day.

I found myself constantly wondering about my little kingdom, whether I was spending time with my newborn son, playing with my 3-year-old boy, trying to get some work done, or even trying to get some much-needed sleep!

What unsettles me is that I believe there are many aspects of this game that have been deliberately designed by ngmoco to make this the desired outcome.

Free to play

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with free-to-play games, but this adds to that “first time’s free” bait & switch feeling.

Paying for Mojo

Every game needs to have a way to make money, We Rule offers ‘cases’ of Mojo for sale via in-app-purchase. Mojo can be used to eliminate wait times. I don’t really have a problem with this, just thought it was worth mentioning their sole source of income for the game, which takes advantage of basic human impatience. At best, it’s clever; at worst, diabolical. There’s no upward limit on how much you can spend; an addicted player could max out their credit card on this game.

Getting your friends online is required

Part of the getting started tutorial actually requires you to connect with a friend in-game on the Plus+ network. Of course every game developer wants their game to spread by word of mouth, but the amount of emphasis on getting your friends into this game just tips the scale a little more.

Being punished for absence

If you do not harvest your crops within a certain amount of time after they are ready, the crops will spoil. This kind of negative reinforcement for not logging in regularly is one of the biggest indicators for me that once they have you, they do not want to let you go, no matter your schedule or lifestyle. This game mechanic is what keeps the game on your mind throughout your day.

Always on

This is a game that you can walk away from, but you can’t turn it off. Because everything happens in real time, I found myself constantly wondering what was happening in my kingdom – if there were taxes to be collected, crops to be harvested, if things were progressing as efficiently as possible.

Final thoughts

All of these aspects gave me a bit of a “dirty” feeling about the game, once I fully articulated them in my mind. Sure, the game is kind of fun, the art is nice, and so on. But this is not the kind of game I want to play, and it also has made me realize what I want to stay away from in the games that I make. We Rule was carefully crafted out of a strategy of sucking money from as many users (never has that term seemed more appropriate) as possible.

I prefer to make games that I think are fun. Hopefully some of you will think they are fun too, and want to buy them.

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20 Responses

  • This is interesting to me. I recently published an article that suggests ways for developers to do exactly what We Rule does: How to work your social game into your players' morning routine: http://fbindie.posterous.com/how-to-work-your-s

    I don't think it's bad for any developer to have these techniques at their disposal. And being “compulsive” is part of the mix that games can tap into. But clearly, you can push too far and end up having a destructive influence. I'm glad you left this game before it hooked you!

    How can developers act ethically without handicapping themselves?

    • It's definitely a fine line, and a relatively new area of game dev to explore. To me, it seemed that the number of elements in the game that pointed toward breeding addiction made it seem like *that* was the focus, and creating a fun game was almost a side effect, or was required to maintain its appeal.

      My whole experience with the game quite simply made me realize that this is at the very least a topic worth discussing, and – as game devs – considering during our design process.

      • The problem with exploring this area of game design is that there are so many grey areas. It's a grey area whether or not the term “addiction” can apply to a game like We Rule or Farmville. (Traditionally it doesn't. I believe it should.) It's ANOTHER grey area when it comes to whether or not game studios using these mechanics is a question of ethics. (I believe it is.) And it's a THIRD grey area when it comes to WHOSE responsibility it is to prevent the player getting sucked into that infinite loop of compulsive game mechanics.

        I believe there is both personal responsibility on the part of the player (“It's just a game, I can quit anytime” and “I can play this game without paying a cent.” I did, and I have) AND on the part of the game designer. If you manufacture cigarettes, sure, anyone with enough personal responsibility can prevent themselves from getting hooked. Or, you can simply choose to NOT put nicotine into your cigarettes in the first place, and preemptively prevent it altogether for everyone.

  • If you like playing games, make sure you're playing a game, and not a slot machine. You can put a cartoon camel on a pack of cigarettes, but it's still going to kill you.

    i walked away from Animal Crossing after declining invitations to three real-life Hallowe'en parties so that i could stay home and collect the spooky furniture set in the game. i stopped playing the Pokémon games after silver, when the pursuit of the three legendary dogs turned the pasttime into more of a chore than a time for leisure.

    Games should be fun. If you're still having fun, keep playing. If not, there are so many worthy games out there that will tickle your fancy. Don't waste your time on one that doesn't do that for you.

  • This is ridiculous. By the same argument the iPhone itself is “diabolical”, since there's also no upward limit on how much one can spend at the AppStore.

    In fact the same could be said about anything that involves a monetary transaction.

    Bottom line is, you can play the game all you want without spending a cent. If you do, that's entirely your choice.

    • Please note that the title of this post is not “Why I think you should
      delete We Rule from your iPhone.” My experience playing the game led
      me to ask questions about ethical game development in general. Are
      devs responsible for considering their users when designing a game? Or
      are any and all tactics ok, and it's fully the user's responsibility
      to stay away from games that might be bad for them? In my mind it's a bit of a grey area worth exploring, but I'm not ready to abdicate all responsibility as a developer.

      As for the pricing model, I wasn't comparing it to the App Store, I
      was comparing it to other individual games. Personally I'm used to paying one
      price for the experience of playing a game, and will occasionally pay
      more for an add-on or significant upgrade. My discomfort is with a
      profit model for a single game that theoretically has no limit, which
      is a drastically different way to make money from a game. Of *course*
      players are responsible for their own wallets, but don't think that
      ngmoco isn't laughing all the way to the bank when someone *does* get
      hooked.

      I should also note that push notifications never worked for me, so I
      must admit that my perspective is a bit skewed in that one regard.
      Someone on twitter mentioned this to me too. But it seemed that the
      duration of the different types of actions was sufficiently staggered
      that your life would quite frequently be interrupted by notifications
      pulling you back into the game.

      Do I have an addictive personality? Maybe I do. That's why this post
      resonates even more strongly with me; that a game like this is very
      specifically designed with someone like me in mind. That's precisely
      why I felt I needed to write it.

      • I guess the issue Izzy has is that you call it an “ethical reason” rather than a “personal reason”. That does imply you think NGMOCO are doing something WRONG.

        But you know, I think you're probably right. Businesses will always try to make money, and there will always be businesses that are as exploitative and heartless as the law allows. In a capitalist society we have to expect that as a cost of living the way we do.

        If you see a business making money in a way that you think is wrong or destructive, even if it's legal, then it's a great thing to come out and advise people against buying from them. That's how us as consumers can make informed choices about who to do business with.

        Izzy's notion that “it's personal choice so you shouldn't criticise the company” is totally wrong headed (in my humblest of opinions) because companies have a legal right to encourage people into self-destructive behaviour in some circumstances — and we as consumers have a legal right and moral obligation to DISCOURAGE people from going down that path.

        Having said that if he enjoys the game and it doesn't get out of hand, then he's absolutely right to praise it and play it! I just don't like the idea that any legal actions of a business are above criticism because “it's people's personal choice”. Yes of course it's people's personal choice — but I LIKE people and want to help them make the right ones.

        • Let's put it this way – casinos.

          Do you believe casinos are inherently evil, unethical, and should be closed down?

          I'd disagree 110%. I've been to the casino a few times with my buddies and had a great time. Once I won 60 bucks, another time I lost all the money I took, which was only 50 bucks. I'm don't have an addiction problem so for me, it's just about having a fun night out. A lot of people enjoy casinos in the same level that I do.

          Of course, it isn't the same for everyone. A lot of people have a real gambling problem. But the question we should ask is – is it the gambler's fault, or the casino's fault? Should we outlaw casinos then?

          If we shut down everything that could be misused by individuals with self control issues, the world would be a pretty different place. No fast food, no alcohol, no parties, no videogames, no sports, the list goes on and on. Really, anything can be used obsessively or taken more seriously than it should, causing problems for the user.

          Personal responsibility seems hard to come by these days. Everyone is ready to blame everything else for their shortcomings, except themselves. Honestly, and I mean no disrespect, if a mobile cellphone game permeates your thoughts as you play with your child or try to get sleep, you have a bigger problem than WeRule's freemium model.

          I wouldn't go as far as to suggest you need professional help, after all, I can't pretend to know you. But I gotta tell you, I'm a huge gaming nerd, I have every single console currently available on the market, and I write columns for 3 gaming websites, and even I don't think that much about games – or, at least, not while I'm engaged in other activities. But that's just me – I'm also the guy who only spent 5 bucks buying mojo, so your mileage may vary 😉

          Bottom line, I'm for freemium because it allows people to put in exactly how much money they want to put in. Like I said, I spent 5 bucks early on, and that's all I felt the need to spend on the game. You can play the game, have access to all its features, and never give the developers a cent. Or, you could have no self control whatsoever and spend 100 bucks on mojo on your first day.

          A better argument against freemium could be made in the sense that it disrupts gameplay balance in more competitive games. But this “ethical” issue, in my opinion, is non-existent.

          • My feeling was that it was specifically designed for addiction, rather than designed to be fun. Something that's “addictive” (compelling) *because* it's fun is different from something designed from the ground up to be addictive. It didn't sit right with me as a developer, so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

  • And I'd just like to add that I've been playing WeRule for about 4 days or so. I always liked Settlers/SimCity-like games and the social interactions (while limited) give the game more longevity.

    I login, play for about 5-6 minutes (that's how long it takes for me to do everything I need), log out, and don't even give it a second thought until the push notification lets me know my crops are ready or that a certain order has been completed. I spent about 5 bucks with mojo, but that's just because I'm impatient and I wanted a decent looking castle already. I've decided I don't need to spend any more with the game.

    By the tone of your article it appears to me you have an addiction problem that existed before WeRule came around. I mean, if you're thinking about this game as you're playing with your son, I'm not sure the GAME is to blame here.

  • I got a bit carried away thinking about this. Sorry if the following is pompous! …

    There are two points of discussion here, and they can be considered independently: the addictiveness of a game, and the system of payment for a game. Clearly, if we agree that certain games might exist that are addictive, this has considerable baring on consideration of payment models for that game.

    First then, addiction:

    To make clear my position, I believe in a balance of personal and societal responsibility. I suggest that most people will tend to have a similar outlook, and some people will polarise to one end of this continuum.

    Society currently legislates in many areas where there are dangers of addiction. You may or may not agree with that; personally, I think there could be a case for increasing personal responsibility with drugs, for example. It is the case that society deems many things to be too compulsive for people, and so imposes regulation on those things. Given this, it seems entirely reasonable to at least think about whether games might be too addictive, or addictive in the wrong way. If nothing else, thinking about it ought to help us build more addictive games 😉

    It seems to me that if “We Rule” provided a way to freeze your game, and drop out of real time, then it would essentially loose the addictive hook that W.H.G. has raised? This could be an explicit action, rather than the default suspend behaviour.

    For the ongoing discussion, I think it's reasonable to assume that there exist people who may become addicted to a game. As an individual, you may or may not agree with providing support for such people, and you may have many ideas about the form any such support should take. It's worth considering that in general, society provides various forms of protection against addictions, thus there is a prior standard we could be guided by. For balance, note that some well established addictions are not protected against however.

    Now to look at payment:

    Many games charge in some way for playing the game, or for enhancing the game. I also think there is a strong case for looking at this a little more closely; people have valid concerns here.

    I would begin by thinking about these factors:

    * Is there an absolute upper limit on what can be spent on the game (or indeed, application in general), or is this spending unbounded? This is probably down to whether the game only includes payments for durable and permanent items / extensions; or whether it also includes payments for ephemeral / transitory / items, like a shield recharge, or speeding up how quickly a game event happens, credits to play a game, etc.

    * If there is no upper limit given unbounded time, is there an upper limit within a bounded time frame? For example, in a game, I might pay to speed up time, but I could be restricted in how many times I can do this each month, so the payment is bounded. Or perhaps, if I buy 5 speed ups in a month, then I get the ability (for that month) to speed up time as many times as I like. This is similar to the model used by the integrated transport in London. If you spend more than about £5 in one day, you are automatically given a travel card, and all travel from then on in the day is free.

    Given this, you can then tell people as they choose the original game (or application, or indeed arbitrary service, such as: messaging, where there are parallels to be drawn to mobile phone tariffs; or transport in a city), what further associated expenditure they might make:

    A) no possibility to spend further,
    B) a fixed upper limit for further spending,
    C) a fixed upper limit on spending per period (hour, day, week, month, etc),
    D) arbitrary spending possibilities.

    I think these are in order of the danger they present to someone who has become hooked (regardless of who's fault it is that they are hooked). Class D clearly has the danger of being much worse than the others, being the only one allowing unlimited spending in any time frame.

    I think what I've said up to here is mostly factual, and not just my feelings on the matter. The rest of this is very much my personal feelings.

    Believing as I do that games might be addictive to at least some people, I would be happy to see class D payment strongly discouraged in all cases where no real-world resources are being bought.

    It's reasonable to charge for petrol by the litre: real-world resources are being consumed when you use petrol, or eat cheese, or take a cab. But in a game, where it's unlikely real-world resources are consumed if you speed up time, for example (this might not be the case – perhaps they need to run simulations on a server farm for time dilation, but that's not the case here), it seems highly opportunistic to charge people in an unlimited way for such a service.

    The obvious counter to my thought is that game development and ongoing enhancements require real-wold resources in the form of the game studio's employee's time, and perhaps how that gets paid for is a personal choice (or the studio's choice, and your choice as a player or not). I guess I just don't like it though.

    [Quick note – providing a subscription per month doesn't stop you being in class D if you still allow unlimited pay-as-you-go spending. You must be _automatically_ prevented unlimited spending, ideally by automatically rolling over from pay as you go to having the service during that time period. An example of this is pay-as-you-go phones where you can end up consistently paying far more than you would on a monthly tariff.]

    By benjohnbarnes / 5th March 2010 at 1:32 pm Reply
  • The premise of the blog entry is silly. He claims that the game is forcing you to be addicted to it. An addiction is a behavior; you have to choose to be addicted. Don’t play the game. I knowingly choose to play this game & spend time necessary to make it successful. I am sure at one point; I will get bored or the newness will where off. At that point, I will remove the game from my phone.

    The author obviously has a weak constitution. Be a grownup & realize it is a game & not some sort of malicious plot to ruin your life.

    Anyway, I am off to sell my 1st born so I can buy some more mojo!

    By We Rule is My Life! / 26th March 2010 at 3:22 pm Reply
    • I don't claim that ngmoco is “forcing” you to be addicted to their game; I'm not sure how that would even be possible. Nor do I believe they actually want to ruin anyone's life. But I do believe that every aspect of the game was intentionally designed to be addictive. Read this article: http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-w… and see if you don't agree that many game companies are doing everything they can to get their players addicted.

  • This is super compelling, I'm interested to read more on “We Rule…”

    Also, much praise for being ethical in gaming! A game could be considered “a series of choices in real-time;” but in this case, the game is engineered to keep you continually checking back, or risk failure…

    Man, there are so many levels to this! Well-written and well-done!

  • A couple points:

    I currently play/manage several “free” games on my iPod that *offer* in-app purchases that make the game faster/allow better upgrades/etc. I have never, and will never spend even a single dollar for the optional stuff. Furthermore, We Rule is the *only* game that has ever given me the item (mojo in this case) FREE with every level up. And they have NOTHING in the game that *requires* mojo to purchase.
    If I can't “attend” to the game for some extended period of time — I just don't… there's no one forcing you to plant crops — the fields can sit there empty. My husband usually only plants things on weekends, not during the work week when he knows he can't deal with harvesting the crops, etc.
    Also, when it came time to “hire a friend”, I just went to the plus+ network and added a friend from the leaderboards. I also figured out that at the ngmoco forums, there were tons of people looking for a friend. Later my hubby saw me playing and dwnld it to his iphone. True you get in-game $$ faster if you do the social part of the game, but after the tutorial is done, you can remove the “friend” and just let the businesses do their thing.

    Personally, I like the real-time aspect of this game. It works for me.

    The fact is that there are people in the world who *allow* themselves to become so engrossed in a game that they are not living their life, taking care of their own or their family's needs or become obsessed with thoughts about the game. There are other people who recognize that a game is taking up to much of their time and stop playing. And then there are people who realize from the get-go that ANY game is just that, a game, and that their life does not revolve around it.
    I fall into the last group, as do a lot of people. It's a choice. ANYTHING you do can intrude in your life if you let it.

    The point is there is absolutely NOTHING in the gameplay of We Rule that has to take over your life. You *can* effectively pause the game by just not planting anything, and then exiting the app. It's easy.

    • “And they have NOTHING in the game that *requires* mojo to purchase.”

      It's worth noting now that in the months since this was written, several items were introduced to the game that can only be bought with mojo.

      “Furthermore, We Rule is the *only* game that has ever given me the item (mojo in this case) FREE with every level up.”

      This is true. It was actually a brilliant move on the part of ngmoco. Drug dealers use a similar tactic to great success. You can't get hooked on something you've never tried at least once.

  • This article kind of makes me laugh. Sure, there are some games that are more “addicting” than others, but it still comes down to the person. If you have an addictive personality, you're going to find something no matter what it is.

    I have a few games that do the real time check up on it thing. We Rule, Zombie Farm, and Godfinger. And yeah, if I don't check back in time, my crops wither or my gold rusts or whatever. So what? It's a game. On my phone. I don't have a job and it's currently the summer so no school, so I'm playing my games pretty regularly on my free days. But I don't feel the need to play them. When I'm out with friends, when I'm spending the night somewhere, when I'm on a trip, whatever, I'm not thinking, OH MY GAWD MY MAGIC CAULIFLOWER IS GONNA WILT. I've spent weeks away from those games because I had better things to do with my time.

    The fact that you said you were constantly worried about your kingdom even when playing with your kids or trying to sleep I think says more about you than it does the game. It's a game.

    In the end, in my personal opinion, it comes down to the person much more so than the game. Almost anything can be misused and abused. You have to make the decision.

  • yeah the game is nice, but i get your point..

  • I don’t think we are that out of control that we’ve come not to play a game because we might get addicted, we are better than that. i’m sure



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