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Playmobil Pirates Takes Its Name Very Literally

By on January 23, 2013
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Kids are natural whales. If you know any kids then you know this is true. When kids love something, by the power of Greyskull, do they love something. There is no fact about ponies/dinosaurs/Michael Jackson/guns/Taylor Swift/Smurfs/Moshi Monsters that a relevant child will not be itching to regale you with. There is no item of related tat they won’t want to own with every fibre of their tiny, humorously proportioned bodies. No episode of a favourite TV show or movie that they won’t want to watch on an endlessly repeating loop until the earth is finally consumed by our dying sun.

Kids are complete idiots. Due to the way the human has evolved, we give birth to young of staggering uselessness. A foal can stand up almost immediately after birth. Sand Tiger Sharks kill and eat their siblings while still in the womb. A human child is, by comparison, literally a useless sack of shit. This complete uselessness at birth is all part of our exceptional mental and social ability in adulthood, but the point remains – children are idiots. This is why they cannot buy guns, have credit cards, drive cars or get married.

Freemium games are designed to attract whales. Sometimes it’s money whales, as in Zynga, sometimes it’s time whales, as in League of Legends, but always there is a business requirement for obsessive fans. As readers of this site well know, it’s the obsessive fans that spend the money that funds the free experience for the vast majority of free users that spread the game to find the whales that spend the money that fund the game that I can’t work out how to end this sentence. If you’re making a freemium game, however, you get them, you need whales.

Freemium games use behavioural economics to ensnare users. They are by no means unique in doing this, and indeed could learn a thing or two from supermarkets, advertisers and gambling companies. But the techniques are still there. First create and then serve need. Create irrational perceptions of value. Make people want things. Balancing this trickery against the obvious need for games to be, you know, fun, is where much of the magic in F2P game design lives.

Children represent the absolute ideal target for a fremium game – they are obsessive, easily manipulated idiots. But wait, we’re ethically ok because they don’t have any money! But their parents have money. The UK toy market alone is worth about £3 billion. The question is basically – what are kids pestering their parents to buy for them? Is it your game? Is it?

Playmobil is best thought of as a kind of fascistic Lego by Apple. Beautifully made, rugged and attractive, but you can’t make your own things, you just consume the existing stuff. Like an iPad. You (presuming you are between 4 and 12 years old) can now play a Playmobil Pirates game on the iPad. It is a brutally money-grubbing thug of a game, mean-spirited, manipulative and irresponsible. Like Smurfs Villiage before it, there is a bundle of the in game premium currency that costs £69.99 of actual real money and can be spent in-game on some boats or doing things faster (kids never want things to happen quicker and have enormous patience, let’s remember), or to have a go at a guessing (read gambling) game.

It is absolutely unethical and bad and wrong, damaging to the Playmobil brand, the F2P industry and hence all of our livelihoods. If it were aimed at adults, it would be just quite bad. It is not aimed at adults. Playmobil toys are aimed squarely and unambiguously at children aged 4 to 12. So, logically and honestly, is this app.

Here is a real-life Playmobil pirate ship. It costs £59.99, less than the largest bundle of in-game premium currency in the Playmobil Pirates game. Every damn penny of that is going into fun. Every penny is going on letting your child have pirate adventures of their own invention in their own head on the living room floor, right down to the tiny plastic parrot that will jam itself into the soft flesh of your foot at precisely the worst moment.

It is a clear value proposition. This money, this toy, this potential for adventure. None of it is consumable, none of it is gambled away, none of it is spent on anything other than the most wholesome kind of imaginative play. If it were aimed at adults, it would be just quite bad. It is not aimed at adults. Playmobil toys are aimed squarely and unambiguously at children aged 4 to 12. Therefore it is brilliant!

The really frustrating thing here is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with making F2P games for children. The moral argument isn’t that F2P games for kids are wrong. The argument is that making fremium games for children is a delicate exercise, one that requires respect, restraint and a focus on value for money, trust from parents and never, ever taking advantage of kids’ natural tendency to be obsessive idiots.

Playmobil Pirates does none of these things. It is the most uncompromisingly cynical and exploitative kind of F2P game design imaginable and here, it is aimed clearly and obviously at a segment of the population whose clear and obvious vulnerabilities are already protected by tradition, custom and law. That a brand as otherwise trusted as Playmobil would allow something this insidious to bear its name shocks and appalls me on a personal level and frankly scares me on a professional level.

The ethics of F2P games are going to come under the spotlight with greater and greater regularity and focus as time goes by. It is of the utmost importance that we get our house in order if we’re to avoid legislation’s hammer cracking our nut. With freedom comes responsibility. So we must act responsibly, or we will lose our freedom.

About Mark Sorrell

Mark Sorrell is a consultant and advisor on freemium game design, behavioural change, value perception and strategy. With over a decade of experience in making games do new things, in new places, for new audiences, for companies across gaming, broadcasting, advertising and finance, if you want to know how games can help your business, start by asking Mark.
  • Sik

    “Whales spend money that funds the game for the free users that spread the game to find the whales that spend money”

    Well, I tried, but probably the flavor got lost. 114 characters, should be safe to retweet.

  • Ian Schreiber

    As a father of a 2yo that downloaded this game to see what she’d make of it, I admit I was less concerned about in-app purchases (I have those turned off anyway) than about whether she’d actually enjoy the game. She likes pirates. Playmobil is a kids’ brand. And hey, it’s free, so worth a try, right?

    The thing that really struck me is that it felt totally mismatched to the young kids audience. Sure, she loves the bright colorful graphics and pirate theme. But the game has a ton of small text to read (with vocabulary that I’d think would be a bit advanced for your average 4-6yo, even). It’s hard for me (with my well-honed gamer adult hands) to tell the characters exactly where to go, let alone a young kid who has to precision-target a particular rock or tree to clear it. The core mechanics that combine the clearing and building of FrontierVille along with a fast-paced click-to-shoot minigame and a tower defense game are easy enough to pick up if you’re an experienced social/casual gamer, but as Child’s First iPad App it strikes me as being overcomplicated. And the fact that every time you do anything remotely interesting, it asks you to make a Facebook post about it (how many young kids even HAVE a Facebook account? How many of those kids have parents who’d let them link their games to said account? How many of THOSE kids have a wide enough friends network that a Facebook post of a game would even have a chance of virally prompting anyone else to download and play the thing?).

    Oh, and the initial download took like forever, the first time starting it up had a loading time so long that even we adults were convinced the thing had frozen and was buggy, and even in the best cases has loading times that are long enough to outlive a younger kid’s attention span.

    Overall, exploitation aside, I felt like if you took the core gameplay, removed the Playmobil license and slapped it on Facebook instead of iPad, it would be a fairly conventional *Ville-style social game, and with enough non-core minigames tacked on to make it feel like a valid iteration. But there’s a horrid mismatch between the core gameplay (which, lest we forget, is genetically engineered for the 43-year-old housewife audience) and the IP (which, as the article points out, is for young kids). Not knowing the developers, it felt to me like they probably know how to make exactly one kind of game, they have an engine to make that kind of game, they somehow got the Playmobil IP handed to them, and went through the whole when-you’re-a-hammer-everything’s-a-nail thing, and this is what we got. Playing the game, that’s how I felt.

    But then, I’ve got a kid that’s too young to read, just barely old enough to start understanding the concept of money (but not enough to understand more abstract concepts like virtual goods or in-app purchasing), and doesn’t do social media yet. So I’m probably the wrong person to ask.

  • I think this whole ‘kids are idiots’ and ‘F2P is exploits their ignorance’ is doing kids a massive disservice. My boys (both aged 7) have grown up with F2P gaming and not only understand how to grind games for free, but also that IAP’s relate to real money. Admittedly, I needed to explain how hard and soft currencies work as these are designed to confuse players, but they rarely bother asking for IAP’s unless it’s to buy customisables that can’t be earned.

    The reason F2P works for them is that they have the time (even with a highly restricted amount of digital playtime) to grind through energy mechanics, and as they’re typically rotating 6 – 10 titles in one play session will skip to the next game as soon as the monitization friction kicks in.

    I also think it’s problematic complaining about the £69.99 IAP for hard currency in these titles without having a pop at TOPPS or Moshi Monsters for selling trading cards to exclusively to kids which is fundamentally encouraging them to engage in gambling.

    Kids always find ways to do stuff for free. We used to share pages of code from Crash magazine so we could play games on our Spectrums, but on the other hand I’ve still got my Football 78 Panini sticker book which still isn’t worth as much as I spent on it.

  • Although I really don’t know why you need to say “kids are idiots and useless sacks of shit” (that just sounds aggressive and mean and hostile), I agree with you that children shouldn’t be opposed to or tempted to such things. Like 70 pounds for bits and bytes.

    Since children playing F2P games ALWAYS have to ask mommy and daddy “Can you buy me that?”, I actually don’t see a point in F2P games for children anyway (from a developer’s point of view). The barrier for purchases is much too high that way: a purchase is delayed and influenced by another person’s decision.

    …unless parents give their children too much pocket money and don’t pay attention what their children do with it. But that would be the parents’ fault either way.

  • Playmobil used to have really free games on its site, and pretty good ones. These games worked extremely well in fuelling My Child’s ambition to marshal a complete collection of Playmobil Knights. One side effect of this obsession was that he spent days and days studying the paper product catalogue, until it self-destructed, and in the process taught himself to read. A rather strange ecosystem but it worked well. They should have left it alone!

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  • Single best quote ever: “As readers of this site well know, it’s the obsessive fans that spend the money that funds the free experience for the vast majority of free
    users that spread the game to find the whales that spend the money that
    fund the game that I can’t work out how to end this sentence.”

    I just wish it was tweetable… 😀