The Burly Troll
It's not always as obvious as a burly troll guarding the bridge, however. In the space-trading MMO EVE Online, character skills are simply timers that tick down, slowly unlocking the ability to use better and more varied equipment and spaceships. These timers are tuned such that it can take months of "levelling" to become competent in a new gameplay area that in any other game - a game that the player had bought outright - could just be strolled into. A design that improves profitability has acted directly against the players' interests.
The subscription model only ever proved successful for a handful of big MMOs, however. Most have now switched to giving the game away for free, and selling virtual items to earn their keep. These "microtransactions" are in some cases even more lucrative than subscription fees, but they pose a new challenge: the profit-seeking developer must somehow make the virtual goods he is hawking desirable to his players.
The most obvious approach is to make the virtual items very powerful: more powerful than the tools players can get for free. Still better, make those items wear out, so that players are merely renting their utility, and are obliged to purchase again and again to remain on equal footing.
Such games offend our sense of fair play. They are often derided as being "pay to win", a label that most players avoid like the plague. To mitigate that impression, developers often make the better equipment ostensibly available to everyone for free. But they still need to create the impression of value in their microtransactions, so they erect an artificial barrier between players and truly competitive play using their old friend: grind.
Again, this grind - repetitive activity required to unlock greater gameplay variation - wouldn't be in the game in the first place were it not for the revenue model requiring that we bestow virtual products with real value.
Tyranny Of The Majority
The old way of doing business has its flaws, too. Designing games that must sell solely on their appeal to a core demographic is subject to a sort of tyranny of the majority. Studios tend to play it safe, making sequels and aping the successful designs of others. Then, faced with a homogeneous marketplace, they seek to distort gamers' preferences with increasingly eye-watering marketing spends.
That makes this an exciting time for the games industry, as digital distribution tears down barriers to entry and indies can find funding for their dream project. But the old mode of selling games is the only method conducive to complete, self-contained experiences.
Raph Koster makes this point eloquently when he argues that the future holds an end to immersion as designers construct 'a toll booth on the way to the Dragon's Peak'
. A developer worrying about how best to monetise their game is a developer willing to compromise on the quality of the game experience they're trying to create for their players.
In the years following the failed French attempt to cull the rat population, Hanoi suffered outbreaks of the bubonic plague that killed off hundreds, primarily among the native Vietnamese, who had so gleefully exploited their colonial rulers' bounties. As free-to-play developers today go about cheerfully constructing their rat-farms, they may want to consider the future they're creating.