I sell gems online

August 29, 2021 - 7 min read

It all has started with a weird and sudden question:

"Imagine Joe from the middle of nowhere who, instead of buying a meal as his mom told him, spends all his pocket money to buy gems in our game. Will your conscience torture you?"

The question seemed like a bad joke comparing it to all previous, and, must be mentioned, successful (ha-ha), interviewer's attempts to pull my knowledge of statistics and programming from me.

"My conscience won't bear it. What you do here is a crime aganist human psyche. And perhaps – against humanity as a whole. It's cruel, morally inappropriate. I'm above it all. Don't call me back. Bye!"

That's what I could say but my answer was different:

"Why would it torture me?"

The answer seemed self-evident. I needed that job – a dream job, ‘the sexiest job of the 21st century’, as many called it. And, moreover, why would my conscience care about some random Joe from nowhere and how he spends his pocket money? Joe has a right to decide on how to dispose of it. Financial literacy must be inculcated from an early age and the fact that Joe's financial decisions are totally and undoubtfully his own is much more important than the outcome. Gems aren't cigarettes after all.

Right?

After a month – first working day. I write an SQL query to check how much money people spend on gems.

The answer – a lot. A lot even considering that 95 percent of them buy nothing (they still might watch ads to make us money, though). One person spent ten thousand dollars on gems. My poor villager's mind cannot digest this, not the amount of money spent, not the fact they were spent on virtual candy wrappers. Ten thousand dollars. Shit. On gems in a mobile game? What drove this person? Gambling? Madness? Booze?

"We call them Whales."

"Why Whales?"

"They spend a lot. Whales are big. "

Makes sense, I thought.

As I found out later, lingo also included dolphins, minnows, plankton, and other sea creatures of different sizes and forms. They spend respectively to their physical entity. Why sea-themed? We could call them elephants and ants, lions and naked mole-rats, or just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ users. Why don't we like calling things by their own names?

After several years in the industry, seeing thousands of dollars wasted on virtual candy wrappers stops being surprising. They are, like anything else, just numbers, a few among petabytes of other numbers stored on hard drives of well-cooled data centres, sometimes useful as a whole but almost always useless one by one. There are no personalities behind them, no story. They are just a noise from which you want to derive a signal. "Death of one is a tragedy. Death of millions – statistics"? Whales, or dolphins, or bums – doesn't matter. Just numbers.

"Our mission is making our users happy." Like for everyone else, selling gems is not a goal per se. The most important thing – happy users. But what about gems? Gems are just a tool, a material from which happiness can be produced, forged, moulded.

Users buy gems for a reason. They, like pounds, or dollars, or euro, could be exchanged for whatever a user wants – houses, items, clothes, mythical creatures, gladiators, lands, new skills and abilities. They follow their own virtual economy. Users buy them to make their lives easier, save time, or just for enjoyment if the soul demands such a thing. Understandable.

And useful.

That's the end goal of my work – use data to make users buy more gems, and, thinking of grandiose, make them happy (at least from a producer’s perspective).

Happiness – a very subtle and uncontrollable term, especially its long-term nature. But its distinct and mechanical moments – bursts of joy, pleasure, emotions that arise when you get something needful, the discovery of something new and unknown – can be controlled and abused.

In real life, rules have been set for ages and, despite their details change from time to time, fundamentals stay fundamentals. It's a comprehensive system that developed its own social, economic and other laws, appearing fragile and unfair, but, for some reason, stable and (one can only hope) working. Mass paradigm shift by one person's fingers snap is an impossible event, almost. Designers, developers, producers, demiurges of our world, have already gone on unlimited vacation and left their product in the hand of its users, every one of those knows what their need for happiness is, although often fooling themselves.

But things are different in virtual worlds.

We are the ones who create and control them. We can change how they look and behave. We can test and optimise them, looking for a solution that would maximize the number of gems users buy and the amount of money we get. All of it is studied, experiments are documented, loopholes, weaknesses, blind spots are found and abused – all supported by scientific knowledge, or at least verified by a scientific method. Or pseudo-scientific at least.

Inside the game, we can create an artificial scarcity, change a level design, increase the time required to get the reward. We are the central entity that controls it. An artificial and self-sustainable monopoly. We can make the virtual life easier for whom it is too hard, and harder for whom it is too easy. Everyone must be in comfort and never in boredom. With one goal – to make users happy.

It is not even like running a casino or slot machines. These things are fairer. Yes, you know the casino always wins. But you know you risk money, even often not considering it enough. People play it because they are excited, they gamble to win something, because of addiction, to have fun, or for other reasons. But in games, we put a person into a Matrix and make them waste their time abiding by our rules, unfair rules, rules that force them to buy more gems, rules that suck their money. It's escapism in its unfair form. A person wants to escape the real world, enjoy the time somewhere else but gets us there. And what do we want from that person? Not to provide a unique experience, not to tell an exciting story, not to show something that they have not seen before.

We want to focus all their attention on a world that is optimised for them to spend more money.

A huge part of the gaming industry exists now only because of that monetisation model. It turns games from an object of Art and a powerful storytelling tool into a milking machine. The model that has always seemed wrong to me – microtransactions, pay2win, loot boxes and other things. And the saddest thing is these “techniques” are gradually spreading beyond games into other areas of our increasingly gamified life.

Instead of changing the world, even with such not serious and amusing things like games, people waste their talent on sucking money from other people. The smartest minds on Earth work their 9-5 to find the optimal colour for a “purchase” button.

"Don't get high on your own supply", remember? I love games, but not mobile games I work with. I rarely play them for joy and consider them merely as services. Perhaps, like many other people in the industry. Even when we play, the main goal is to find methods and techniques to boost the milking machine.

Maybe I am too much of an idealist and thinks about these things in vain. Maybe I don’t understand it is just a business, a part of the economy, a part of our culture – one people spend money on shit other people come up with. Maybe things are the way they're supposed to be. Maybe I am not grateful enough for what I have in my life. Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybe,aybemaybemaybemaybemaybemaybe maybemaybemaybemaybe aybemaybe maybe mahanbasd amaybemaybemaybemaybeyameymaybe,aybe,amebasmjaaddsdahku asda.,………………………………………………. .   . . . .   .   .     .   .

Maybe I am just wracking my brains for nothing. I still like my job but now the answer to the question that started it all is no longer self-evident.

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