“It Feels Wrong”: Why a Popular Clicker Game Sequel's Ditching Free-to-Play
The designer behind 'Clicker Heroes' couldn't stop worrying if they were feeding the addictions of its players.
Image courtesy of Playasaurus
The RPG-influenced Clicker Heroes is one of the most popular games in the “clicker” genre, where players are given simple tasks, such as clicking, and many things happen around this gesture. These games tend to make their money through microtransactions. Given how well Clicker Heroes did, it’s no surprise developer Playsaurus would make a sequel, but they’ve made some genuinely shocking choices with Clicker Heroes 2. Most importantly, the game won’t be free, a choice informed by, among other reasons, to ”not feed an addiction.”
“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T PLAY THIS!” reads one of the top “negative” reviews for Clicker Heroes on Steam. “It gets addictive really fast. You will start out innocently enough, but it quickly becomes an obsession. All you can think about.”
We use “addictive” as a compliment for a game, but given how “addiction” is viewed in most other contexts, it’s become an increasingly odd way to view “fun."
“Games are inherently addictive,” said Clicker Heroes designer Fragsworth, in a statement about the sequel. “That alone is not a bad thing, until it gets abused.”
Fragsworth doesn’t believe Clicker Heroes was abusive to players, arguing players didn't have to purchase its premium currency, rubies, to progress. Though the game was designed this way, some still spent a lot of money, “many thousands of dollars.” Fragsworth hoped these people had enough money to spend so frivolously, but there was no way for him to know. They could have been pissing away their life savings.
Like many free-to-play games, Clicker Heroes made money from “whales,” players who spent disproportionately more. Most players spend nothing. What bothered Fragsworth was knowing some players might have a problem, and if they did have a problem, would they even be willing to admit that to a developer, and ask for a refund?
“We really don't like making money off players who are in denial of their addiction,” said Fragsworth. “And that's what a large part of free-to-play gaming is all about. Everyone in the industry seems to rationalize it by shifting the blame, assuming way too much cognizance on the part of their victims. People can make their own decisions, right? But it just doesn't sit well with me. Despite very few of our players having complained, it felt wrong when we started doing it and it still feels wrong now.”
You don’t hear many developers talking about the ethics of monetization, but as the conversation around loot boxes evolves, as calls for investigations into whether loot boxes count as gambling increases, more developers may be called to speak frankly.
Nothing is changing with the original Clicker Heroes, a game Fragsworth said has received very few complaints about the way it's monetized, despite the current uproar in gaming. This is about Clicker Heroes 2, and the way this shaped the game’s design.
“We really don't like making money off players who are in denial of their addiction. And that's what a large part of free-to-play gaming is all about. Everyone in the industry seems to rationalize it by shifting the blame, assuming way too much cognizance on the part of their victims."
“We want the experience to be good,” said Fragsworth. “The mere existence of real-money purchases puts an ugly cloud over the player's experience, with the persistent nagging feeling of ‘My game could be so much better if I just spent a few dollars.’ That alone feels terrible.”
This is part of what I’ve argued in the past. Regardless of what you think about the latest trend in developing new revenue streams for games—I think big-budget publishers have embraced the trend without thinking through what it means, ruining it for everyone in the process—their inclusion will, in the minds of many players, convince them the game has been deliberately tinkered to push them into paying money. Even if the game hasn’t been made that way, the revenue shadow lingers. It's natural.
Despite how much people embraced Clicker Heroes, being free-to-play put the developers in a box when it came to balancing. Every value tinkered with could ripple in multiple directions, pissing off the group that paid or the group that didn’t pay. Everyone—the developers, the players, the whales, the people who paid nothing—lost.
“As a result, Clicker Heroes 1 is kind of a frankenstein of a game, our hands always having been tied by the fact that we couldn't easily change things that people paid for,” said Fragsworth.
Clicker Heroes 2 will have plenty of updates in the months and years to come, but if you’re unhappy with how the game changes, the developers are building in a system that will allow you to stick with the version of the game you’re currently enjoying. You can even refund the game for a full year, long past the amount of time services like Steam generally allow for. The lack of free-to-play monetization also means the developers can fully embrace modding, letting players do what they want.
Clicker Heroes 2 will arrive “sometime in 2018," but in the meantime, I wonder if Fragsworth's comments will put pressure on other developers to rethink their choices.
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