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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.