Changing Course in a Broken System.

Sometimes I see something happening in the real world and compare it to how things generally work in religion. That happened this week as I watched a drama unfold around a gaming company’s big new update to their flagship game. Religion doesn’t often come out looking very good in these comparisons.

Why yes, yes, I think I might. (brownpau, CC.)
Why yes, yes, I think I might. (brownpau, CC.)

It’s no secret that religious conservatives generally tend to be set in their ways. That’s why we call them “conservatives.” We’ve been learning over the years that conservatives are fundamentally different from liberals–and we’re starting to suss out those differences . Conservatives not only don’t like change, they also tend to have exaggerated reactions to disgusting or scary stuff and startle more easily than liberals do. And they really don’t like being wrong, what with all its inherent and implied obligations to change to correct the errors in question, and of course all that stress of having a onetime certainty turn out to be erroneous.

Conservatives often develop a tried-and-true strategy that they think fixes a given set of problems. That strategy becomes an automatic response that they can reach for without even thinking about it. That response then gets set in stone–becoming, in effect, a solution-set far more binding than anything written in a silly old book that very few Christians even really read or think about. And once that happens, that solution-set can’t be questioned without that unlucky and unwise Christian getting dogpiled by his or her peers for being rebellious.

So when a really nerve-wracking failure looms ahead for a group of conservatives, they have very few options available to them to fix the problem. If the solution-set they have doesn’t actually fix the problem they think it’ll fix, that’s only the beginning of their troubles.

But religious groups aren’t the only ones who face this predicament.

Let me show you what I mean.

It is the Very Model of a Modern Major Industry.

A freemium game we’ll call Savin’ Bacon recently instituted some big, major changes in both its aesthetics and in how it’s played.* These changes sure seemed like what some folks would call solutions in search of problems–meaning that they were sweeping changes that addressed aspects of the game that a lot of folks wouldn’t have agreed were problematic, much less needed the particular solution that the game’s owners implemented.

A miniscule number of players seemed pleased by the changes. But many, many other players were absolutely aghast. The changes, they felt, fundamentally altered how the game felt to play and didn’t even make sense within the game’s own parameters. They’d been hearing for months about the upcoming changes, but hadn’t even suspected that what the game’s owners had in mind would look like what they got.

Of course, this is hardly the first game to make such a mistake in judgment,** and it sure won’t be the last. I can remember a few games that have even faced lawsuits from players who became angry when a developer’s promise didn’t materialize or when an update or patch fundamentally altered the nature of the game. Gamers take their favorite games very seriously!

When this situation occurs on a free game, like a MUD (or even some tabletop game), players may grouse quite a bit, but ultimately most of them understand that they’re playing the game for free and that their status is more “guest” than “customer.” At that point, if they stay they will very likely form a very vocal and disgruntled old-guard coalition of players who will never really be totally happy with the new game. I made the mistake once of underestimating just how long such players could nurse such nuclear-grade hostility, and it’s one mistake I’ll never make again.

But the situation shifts dramatically when people pay money to play a game. Folks who do that feel a certain sense of ownership over the game and a sense of investment in it, and one could easily argue that they have a point there. Game-owners who ask for money, either through direct sales of their game or freemium micro-transactions, are cultivating much more of a business relationship with players than those who are running their own game without help from anybody.

The business model of freemium games is still so new that we’re still working out whether or not it’s exploitative or unethical somehow. We do know that the vast majority of the players of these games will never actually drop any money on them. In fact, only 1.5% of those players, on average, ever will. And of that 1.5%, only 10% will actually spend a lot of money. That link describes a study that discovered that the average total expenditure made by those 1.5% of gamers was about USD$6, while 9% of the game’s total revenue came from purchases over $50 (from that elite 10%-of-1.5% group — which the gaming industry calls “whales”). Freemium games absolutely depend upon these big spenders, who basically carry the rest of the playerbase so the game’s owners can stay in business.

lot of people need to install a game so that 1.5% can start to accumulate. There’s a whole bunch of math involved here, of course, to work out exactly how much it costs to get users to download and install the game, as well as what each user’s lifetime value is to the developer and how long it’ll take to start turning a profit on the average player.

In the end, the freemium model is not an awesome business model, but it’s where we are. And nobody’d deny that it’s been fairly successful. Game owners try to play up what they say are positive features of the system, including that it’s harder to pirate freemium games, even while they try to hide that some of them deliberately design their games to entrap people who have addiction-prone personalities to get them sucked into becoming part of that 10% of 1.5% big spenders that the games all need.

(I hope this is sounding as eerily familiar to you as it always has to me.)

There are some serious red flags that players can learn to recognize so they can avoid the unethical games, and Savin’ Bacon seemed on the level there. Not perfect, but certainly not terrible. It gathered a large community of players over several years and seemed like it was puttering along pretty nicely–until it passed to a new owner a few months ago.

The Crucial Risk.

Savin’ Bacon’s new owner wanted to implement some new ideas to make the game more profitable. It’s always a risk to make any big stylistic change, and this one was big enough that nobody wanted to just rush into it. The game designers researched and worked behind the scenes for months before unveiling the new and updated game–

–at which point all hell broke loose.

Though that aforementioned small and vocal minority of players liked the changes, the rest of the playerbase went absolutely apeshit.

Vocal and vehement objections were immediately raised. Players were very clear about rejecting what the game’s developers had done–and the game owners and developers were caught totally flat-footed by the pushback. In fact, just kinda looking at the game’s forums, it looks like about 95% of their players are ready to bolt; the only reason they haven’t yet is that the game’s owners are still allowing people to play the old version while they work out what the hell they’re going to do next.

Almost all of those players indicate that they have paid some amount of money to the game, so these are the 1.5% (and probably a not-inconsiderable number of the 10% of 1.5%) that Savin’ Bacon desperately needs to survive.

Now, obviously the game’s owners don’t want to about-face too much on the change. They spent a shitload of money on it, I’ve no doubt, and they don’t just want to throw their hands in the air and go “Well, I guess that didn’t work!” Instead they’ll try to salvage what they can out of all that work, and hope against all hope that the newly-alienated players will reconsider their decisions to leave–but that the players who liked the changes won’t get too angry at seeing those changes soften.

We see the same sorts of things happening in Christianity lately–and in particular in the extreme flavors of it. Leaders in the religion see something going wrong, so they want to correct it. But the correction has to be very carefully managed or else they’ll lose even more people than if they’d never made the effort at all.

Is fixing their mistake going to cost them more people? Should they keep pushing ahead or drop the whole thing or merge the two versions of the system to make both groups semi-happy (if that’s even possible)?

What a pickle!

But out here in reality-land, we have a serious advantage over Christianity.

They Can’t Handle the Truth.

The metrics for evaluating a game’s success are usually pretty straightforward–especially if it’s a freemium game. How many people are installing the game every day? How many of those installs are turning into money, and how much money are we talking about? What do its reviews look like and how highly is it ranked in the various aggregate sites? By contrast, most religious groups are very coy about revealing exactly how many members they have and how much time, money, and other resources those members are devoting to the religion, and it’s the rare church that welcomes reviews or even feedback about their antics.

The few concrete numbers one sees in Christianity tend to be completely irrelevant (such as the number of cringe-inducing “decision cards” signed and returned after a huge concert) or even made-up (their self-reported church attendance figures are notoriously inaccurate). Anything really damaging is simply ignored or hand-waved away in a variety of ways. When one has a real live god monkeying around with the laws of physics, cause and effect don’t even really apply anymore.

That inability to gather accurate information and reliable, pertinent, relevant, actionable facts leads to serious problems. Where a game owner gets fairly swift feedback and solid numbers, Christians might not get anything like that. Instead they have to rely on their perception of how many people feel a particular way versus how many feel another way, and how sure they are that either group will stay or leave, grow or shrink if a course of action is pursued or avoided. All of it’s filtered through their Christian filters to fit in with their indoctrination–and often rejected out of hand if it doesn’t confirm the Christian’s faith.

The people who run non-religious businesses certainly can form the same perceptions, but those perceptions are (ideally) shaped and guided by actual concrete numbers–and presumably will change if the numbers indicate that a change is needed. It’s a very foolish business owner who relies solely on subjective perceptions to make decisions! And it’s an even more foolish one who deludes him- or herself into believing something that is contradicted by facts. (It seems to me sometimes that business school itself is all about teaching would-be executives and entrepreneurs how to engage with reality and take advantage of all the knowledge we’ve gained about how to run successful businesses, when many people’s natural instincts would be to run away from all that stuff and try to fly by the seat of our pants.)

Survey SAYS!

So what’d the facts say about this big update to Savin’ Bacon?

Not great things.

Right after the update, the game’s number of installs and daily average income both tumbled, according to an industry website. The company that’d bought the game posted some really dismal fourth-quarter results, and business experts are recommending against even investing in them. The game that was once its owner’s big dog is now struggling just to stay on the Top 200 list of freemium games.

It’s possible that what’s happening is a blip–an aberration.

It’s possible that users will reconcile themselves to the game as it stands, or that its owners will figure out some way to make everyone at least a little happy so the versions can be merged again and they can move forward.

It’s even possible that the people who like the new look and feel of the updated game will outnumber the people who hate it. The update might bring in millions more players than would be leaving, and those players might be the big spenders that the company needs to replace the ones who would be leaving (remember, it does no good at all to attract slews of new players if they’re not getting translated into fast, high-dollar micro-transactions). And, too, it’s possible that many of the people threatening to quit playing the game won’t actually go through with it–becoming that disgruntled coalition I mentioned, never totally happy with the game but never finding the gumption to play elsewhere, which baffles me because I’m a firm believer in the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games Theory of Gaming.

One thing you can count on in business as in religion: when the bottom line is threatened enough, people usually do the sensible thing. The problem is, in religion the bottom line is often obscured by a total lack of concrete data and adherents’ desire to live in a fantasy land–so they don’t often see that the bottom line is being threatened in time to address the situation. When they do detect a problem, they might not accurately identify what the problem is or where it’s coming from. And if they do manage to identify both the problem and its source, they might not have any way to fix it.

Looking at the two situations–a real-world game company and a major world religion faced with two different but equally serious miscalculations–and as a result, the sudden prospect of serious losses–one can see the differences in their respective situations. The people who now own Savin’ Bacon are not overly-religious people, AFAIK, and they’ve been a very successful operation for a very long time. The funny thing is, I’m sure they’ll figure something out. The business world has devised a great many systems to help business owners see clearly what’s going on and take action if they’re so inclined. But when I look at the total clusterfuck that is Christianity, I’m really not sure at all that its leaders will resolve its problems in time to rescue the religion. Their system isn’t designed to care about real numbers or cause-and-effect. It isn’t designed to concede failure, or to change easily.

So… hooray?

Playing games is just part of who we are. (Marion Doss, CC-SA.)
Playing games is just part of who we are. (Marion Doss, CC-SA.)

Next up: I ran across this hilarious post on a Christian site while reading up about this story and seriously, you haven’t had a laugh this good in ages. We’ll be talking soon about why a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ thinks his tribemates don’t read their Bibles often enough for his liking. See you next time!


* For this post’s purposes, you don’t need to know anything about how the game specifically works and it’d be somewhat complex to explain anyway. Also, I play the game and have a somewhat-leadershippy role within it, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m promoting it or whatever. It seems like the most ethical thing to do is just avoid giving a lot of details about it.

** Favorite quote of the day was found at that link: “Wow, this place went from ‘We love Pokémon Go’ to ‘Fuck Niantic’ overnight.”

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