Raph Koster calls potential manipulative MMO microtransaction AI ‘horrendous’


Here is some nightmare fuel for gamers imagining the future of the industry. How about an artificial intelligence that deliberately manipulates and messes with players in games to drive revenue growth?

Back in January, a leaked and unconfirmed (and possibly fake) slide show from Data Broker LLC outlined a draft of something called “online game revenue models with AI.” In it, an AI was described that manipulated players’ gameplay experience to drive them toward more microtransactions. Even worse, it uses real-world information about you to drive this process.

“We have proven that allowing the AI to alter a player’s game as a whole (social engineering),” the slide show appears to say, “and alter the player’s individual gameplay experience (psychological manipulation tactics) causes a consistent and dramatic increase recurrent revenue streams.”

While acknowledging that the whole thing might be fake and maybe not even feasible for what it proposes, MMO game designer Raph Koster (Crowfall, Star Wars Galaxies) publicly pushed back hard against this concept. “This is horrendous,” Koster tweeted. “For what it’s worth, I have *NEVER* heard of a game doing anything even remotely like this. Let’s keep it that way.” Even so, as Koster says, the fact that people believe it’s possible should make us “[ponder] the level of unhappiness out there among players.”


No posts to display

newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Kickstarter Donor

I feel validated! I’ve been talking down this piece for a while whenever it pops up, so it’s good to be able to point to Raph Koster as being in my corner on this : D

I know some of the underlying tech behind some of those ideas exists and is already used (face tracking from adverts etc.), but taken as a whole so much of the tech behind the ideas is completely ludicrous. There’s plenty in there that makes it believable enough, including links to actual studies, but they seem to be there to provide cover for the more outrageous bits that are more the cause of the outrage. Though that doesn’t answer WHY someone would make a seemingly legit deck like this either, which continues to confuse the hell out of me.

But it surfaced right at the peak of all the lockbox/monetization outrage/furor and I’ve seen a LOT of people treating it either like it’s completely 100% reasonable (3D mapping homes based off of 2D data points for custom ad delivery? Cmoooonnnnnnnn) or worse, as if it’s already implemented.

And what’s worse is legions of Youtubers with shitty, outrage/clickbait channels that are just stirring up the pot and whipping folks into a greater frenzy. Folks are pissed, but folks also WANT to be pissed. It’s a broader trend, it’s why “outrage” is pretty much the single best seller of well…anything. Outrage gets attention, outrage makes people feel good in one way or another. And a lot of companies and individuals are exploiting that.

Dread Quixadhal

The tech certainly is feasable, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t in use for quite a few online games, especially those with heavy microtransaction presence *cough*EA*cough*.

Consider, the game serves all access databases for details about everything the game is doing, be it your character data, the current world settings, loot tables to roll against. It’s pretty trivial to put real-world marketing data into the very same database and letting the code factor some of that into things.

“Hmmm, player at keyboard rented a kung fu movie from Blockbuster 20 years ago. Add extra martial arts style loot to the loot drops, with lockboxes mixed in.”


You had me at “Our main revenue creation tactic [is] bait and switch.”

Josh Stickney

I am completely distracted by the screenshot of SWG at the top. Nostalgia setting in

TotalCowage .

Most of us are carrying around the proof of this concept in our wallets already; they’re called Loyalty Cards.

You go to the supermarket. You do your weekly shopping, and during the transaction, you scan in your Loyalty Card. This then links everything in your shopping cart to a profile tied to the card.

Somewhere within the data storage chain, is a computer that analyses your purchases. As well as amounts spent, frequency of shopping etc. The reason they run these schemes is because that data about you is valuable to them, more so than any rewards they may give you, because they can use it to sell to you even more efficiently.

And it has a feedback mechanism for your behavior too. The next time you go shopping, you might get a Voucher pop out with your receipt. It might be based on something they know you often buy, but didn’t this time. And perhaps you should? How about if it was cheaper?

And sometimes it’s an item you might not have ever bought, but is close to something you once did. How about this product as well, eh? Got a partner that might want that?

Which often works. If nothing else, it makes us want to come back and spend that voucher, because we now automatically think everywhere else will cost us more. After all, we’ve got a voucher!

So why couldn’t it work in an MMO? You already have targeted advertising laid on top of many games due to tracking cookies across sessions. The problem with integrating it directly into a game isn’t that it can’t be done; it’s getting access to that personal data directly, and in enough scale to make it profitable for them.

But I absolutely could design you a game off the top of my head that integrates that kind of behavior modification easily, cheaply, without knowing anything about people and utterly without any sense of shame and morality.

Is Player Male? Yes.
Is Player Single? Yes.
Is Player Online 8 Hours A Day? Yes.
Then > Matchmake with Female Characters, Prey On Loneliness
Is Valentine’s Day Coming Up? Yes
Then > Sell Flowers To Males, Pepper Spray To Females, Call It An In Game Event

Does that sound cynical? Ok, but how many Valentine’s Day events are coming up in MMOs that you know of…? They aren’t held purely for their entertainment value now, are they?

So far, we’re only hoping games companies aren’t quite that cynical. We don’t want to think too much about how easy and how immoral they might actually be…

Bryan Turner

What’s to stop gamers from doing what women do with Bath and Body Works Coupons? My wife is part of half a dozen Bath and Body Works Face Books groups that track every single sale and has a virtual library of shared Coupon Codes that are valid any where, so if Bath and Body had initially tried sending different customers different coupons trust me that shit back fired big time since my wife consistently pays at least %50 off each time she walks through that door sometimes more.

All gamers have to do is set up these community pages where they share these coupon codes and before you know it every one is getting one over on the man. Even if these coupons are tied to accounts directly we could keep these companies honest by sharing pictures of these coupon codes to others.

You’ve got me thinking though, I wonder if Zenimax had this in mind during their recent Crown Crate give away because I as an active new player got showered with loot by RNGesus like R Kelley on a groupie.

At this point though if ANet wants me to spend differently to tailor my game playing t spend more than all of sudden my Power Reaper better become META, and I better get Raid Invites falling from the sky like confetti begging me to tank as a Reaper with reworked Death Magic Traits that would turn me into an Optimal Raid tank; because that is what it’s going to take now.

TotalCowage .

I see you spotted the discount system as I was typing about it.

How many people are as informed as your wife is about Bath and Body Works in anything though? It’s perfectly fine to lose individual battles, for one person to come out ahead of the system; Indeed, if one person does win, it’ll encourage others to think they can too, and perhaps engage.

And those are the people you claw back all the profits from…

Meanwhile, you’re missing the more subtle ways of manipulation. So your wife pays 50% off; does that mean the company is making a loss on those products? Or do they still come out ahead? What about on the other products that aren’t on a voucher, but may be impulse buys whilst you’re there? How much do they gain from generating “good will” by sounding like they always have discounts? How many people walk in without vouchers because they heard someone else got a bargain?

You’re worth a lot more to companies than just the money you spend at any one time.

because I as an active new player got showered with loot by RNGesus like R Kelley on a groupie.

It’s long been suspected many of these games stack the rewards for the initial gamble so as to encourage future optimism. I know that a brief dip into Uncharted Waters Online (before they reset everything) the very first lootbox I opened contained one of the best Explorer ships for low levels in game. And coincidentally, I was an explorer!

5-6 more tries after that and I got complete rubbish I could barely even sell.

But how do you ever prove it? Well we’ve got all the endless evidence about pyschological manipulation for the Casino industry. And the history of scams and card sharks and… so what’s stopping the gaming industry using any of that?

What indeed?

Bryan Turner

All good points, the system is in place to make profits regardless of the small minority that chooses to become informed consumers. As for me with ESO it worked as I bought more crates although my luck was still decent (how ever at that point my common sense kicked and I thought to my self I have one Apex Mount, 2 rare mounts, 4 Costumes, and 2 mini pets it’s safe to say it’s time to cash out and leave the casino).

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

What did I learn today? That I’m a Bath and Body Works n00b.


Oh boy, another “officially backed 100% source verified, legit guaranteed is happening in every game company developer ever” article/blog/research paper/presentation people can link to me to while I attempt to dispassionately explain companies are just about making money and not attempting to exclusively prey upon people.

I swear there’s going to be an aluminum shortage at this rate…

Sally Bowls

(with the usual proviso that my free suggestions are frequently overpriced, I have a poll/WC suggestion.)

Would you rather “pay” $60 for a game that everyone else paid $60 for, or $50 for a game that some paid $40?

The mechanism of how to “pay” is a different religious debate.

For the PvPers, I would point out that 50 is less than 60. :-) The point is to get at how you value equality. Say the alternative was $60 or you paying $2 vs some $1.

The $60 people think things should be fair (and may frequently be disappointed in this life.) I get that. OTOH, they are willing to pay an extra $10 just to prevent others from getting a better deal than them. Which is kinda a dick move and also is having their ego cost themselves $10.

Mark Jacobs

I’m of two minds on this:

If true (which I doubt) – FYAD

If not true – Nice troll!


Sally Bowls

I understand the dislike, but I don’t understand the level of outrage here.

Unless I am missing something, it seems like about every game does this, just not in real time and with mere humans involved in the decisions?. E.g., GW2 does its horese thing, they see the revenue. They use the sales (IMO behavior not rhetoric btw) to decide on the next RNG-loot sales price/method. Whether you regard this as a company trying to please its customers or abuse of the proletariat is more about your economic beliefs than gaming beliefs.

For those of you whose grandparents have told them about snail mail, direct mail campaigns used to be so effective because they would send many different campaigns and price points out to small groups and then use that to decide the material and price for the large campaign.

Someone who lives in an affluent First World area with cookies from having visited multiple gaming sites might see an ad/link on this or other internet websites that offer a far smaller discount/promotion for the game than someone whose browser is new to gaming websites accesses it from Bulgaria. (IIRC, EU just outlawed the ongoing practice of charging different hotel rates depending upon the EU member country you accessed the website from.)

Look at Steam and Steam sales: it is all about using sophisticated analytics to ensure your most devoted customers are charged more. The most passionate fan of a $60 game paid 1200% of the price of the $5 buyer who was not that interested in the game.

So OOG, sophisticated analytics determine the price/promotion that people pay for products, including games. The person beside you, in-game or IRL, may have paid 5% or 10% of what you did to buy the game; if you are not upset about that, why are you so upset if they get a discount on their loot/mount-box? Upset I get; moral outrage I do not.

Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Ashfyn Ninegold

Manipulative psychology is as old as the pyramids. If we aren’t outraged by car, perfume, clothes and beer commercials, then it’s too late to be outraged about this. Every single ad we hear or see is calculated to push our buttons. And for the most part, people buy right in to it. I don’t know how to wise people up about how insidious and calculated so much of what passes for “culture” really is. Watch re-runs of Mad Men?

Anyway, nice post.

As for the troll attempt, c’mon, guys. (social engineering) and (psychological manipulation tactics) are clearly inserted to be picked up as a trigger. Whoever did this intended it be a point of outrage. Remove those terms from the last paragraph and read it again.

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

Funny thing is this will be implemented in brick and mortar retail as well if Amazon has their way.


I wonder if this will foster more or less human-to-human contact? As in, “Hey pal, how much is your watermelon? Mine is 7 bucks!”