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Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell

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Michael Arrington
TechCrunch.com
Saturday, October 31, 2009; 8:10 PM

Last weekend I wrote about how the big social gaming companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue on Facebook and MySpace through games like Farmville and Mobsters. Major media can't stop applauding the companies long enough to understand what's really going on with these games. The real story isn't the business success of these startups. It's the completely unethical way that they are going about achieving that success.

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In short, these games try to get people to pay cash for in game currency so they can level up faster and have a better overall experience. Which is fine. But for users who won't pay cash, a wide variety of "offers" are available where they can get in-game currency in exchange for lead gen-type offers. Most of these offers are bad for consumers because it confusingly gets them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers). And it's also bad for legitimate advertisers.

The reason why I call this an ecosystem is that it's a self-reinforcing downward cycle. Users are tricked into these lead gen scams. The games get paid, and they plow that money back into Facebook and MySpace in advertising, getting more users. Who are then monetized via lead gen scams. That money is then plowed back into Facebook and MySpace in advertising to get more users¿

Here's the really insidious part: game developers who monetize the best (and that's Zynga) make the most money and can spend the most on advertising. Those that won't touch this stuff (Slide and others) fall further and further behind. Other game developers have to either get in on the monetization or fall behind as well. Companies like Playdom and Playfish seem to be struggling with their conscience and are constantly shifting their policies on lead gen.

The games that scam the most, win.

And some users aren't dumb, either. For every user who gets tricked into some fake mobile subscription, there's another who can beat the system. That's where the legitimate advertisers, like Netflix and Blockbuster, get hit. Users sign up for a free trial with a credit card, get their game currency, then cancel the membership and start over. Netflix has a policy of only paying for a user once. But game developers use a complex set of partner chains to launder these leads and try to get them through for payment. Netflix sees an overall lowering of quality and pays less for leads. Game developers, desperate to monetize, then search for ever more questionable offers to make up the difference. In the end, the decent advertisers are out, and only the worst of the worst remain.

Left alone, the system really will slide into a full blown disaster. The platforms (Facebook and MySpace) are in a position to regulate this, and even have rules prohibiting some scams. But those rules are routinely ignored by developers, and are rarely enforced by Facebook and MySpace.

There can be only one reason Facebook and MySpace turn a blind eye to user protection ¿ they're getting such a huge cut of revenue back from these developers in advertising. If they turn off the spigot, they hurt themselves.

Zynga may be spending $50 million a year on Facebook advertising alone, fueled partially by lead gen scams. Wonder how Facebook got to profitability way ahead of schedule? It was a surge in this kind of advertising. The money looks clean ¿ it's from Zynga, Playfish, Playdom and others. But a large portion of it is coming from users who've been tricked into one scam or another.

And recent moves by Facebook to shut down application spam only make the problem worse in some way ¿ game developers have to spend more money on advertisers to get users now that the viral channels are shut down. That means the games have to monetize even better. Which means more scams.

It's time for this to stop. Facebook and MySpace need to create and enforce rules against it so that game developers aren't tempted to get a competitive edge by scamming users. And if Facebook/MySpace won't protect users, then the government will have to step in.

There's an easy way to determine if something is a scam or not. For any particular offer, ask yourself if anyone would buy the product or service if the terms were clearly spelled out for them, and they weren't being bribed with in-game currency. The answer for many of these is a resounding "no." A few examples are below.


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