I also received messages from people who claimed to be ex-employees at free-to-play companies, and who told me that their respective employers would often build games purposely to entrap these "whales."
One such response in particular (for which I was able to verify the respondent as having worked at the company he named) gave a stark picture of what's going on behind the scenes. I've chosen to blank out the name of the company as I see this as being able to apply to multiple game studios, rather than just the one discussed.
"I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career," the person told me. "But I recognize that [company]'s games cause great harm to people's lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players' investments of time and money. [company]'s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It's not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.
This employee chose to leave the company as a direct result of feeling dishonest due to the work being done — feeling like they were making the lives of a select few players worse.
"But game journalists and reviewers could play a valuable role — in reporting how 'exploitive' specific titles are or are not," he says. "I don't think a game critic's rating of 'Graphics Quality' or 'Audio Quality' is all that important anymore — now that so many games are free-to-play, people can try for themselves. And even with buy-to-play, potential buyers can see graphics and gameplay on YouTube or via live streaming."
"But 'exploitive mechanics' could be harder to detect in a single 'Let's Play' video, so game critics could help a lot in that area," he adds.
"On first look, games like FarmVille may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology behind such activities is very similar," he argues. "Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Companies like Zynga have been accused of leveraging the mechanics of gambling to build their empire."
One element that Griffiths has found to be particularly key in encouraging gambling-like behavior in free-to-play games is the act of random reinforcement — that is, the unpredictability of winning or getting other types of intermittent rewards.
"Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged and repetitive behavior," he says. "In a minority of cases, this may lead to addiction."