Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell

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.

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.

Examples Of Scams:

A typical scam: users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey. Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription. Tatto Media is the company at the very end of the line on most mobile scams, and they flow it up through Offerpal, SuperRewards and others to the game developers.

As you can see in the image below, nothing in the offer says that the user will be billed $10/month forever for a useless service.

Another scam: Video Professor. Users are offered in game currency if they sign up to receive a free learning CD from Video Professor. The user is told they pay nothing except a $10 shipping charge. But the fine print, on a different page from checkout, tells them they are really getting a whole set of CDs and will be billed $189.95 unless they return them. Most users never return them because they don’t know about the extra charge. Woot. Again, sites like Offerpal and SuperRewards flow these offers through to game developers. See here for more on the Video Professor scam.

Of course, there’s no mention of any of these payments in the offer itself:

An Industry In Denial

Yesterday I attended the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco. In the Q&A session of one panel I asked Offerpal CEO Anu Shukla to explain the ethics of her business, and outlined my ecosystem of hell argument above. Shukla went on a tirade, calling my points “shit, doubleshit, and bullshit” (yes, really), but never really addressed the points. A video of the exchange is below, care of Alexa Lee.

Offerpal now has a blog post up on the exchange, but they still don’t address the issues. They offer misdirection, denials and a shield of rules that are never actually enforced.

Sadly, most of the audience of game developers was on Offerpal’s side. Many of these developers see quick dollars with lead gen scams and they don’t really care about how users are affected.

In one session earlier in the day, IGG Cofounder Kevin Xu recommended that game developers “get users in the door to play free, then monetize the hell out of them once they’re hooked.” Sadly, it’s simply human nature to push the rules until they break. It’s time for Facebook and MySpace to protect their users from this stuff and make sure it stops.

p.s. – An interesting development. Offerpal defended their mobile survey scams on stage and in the blog post referenced above, saying there was no scam involved. But today those offers have quietly been pulled down from all the games I’ve checked. If there’s no scam, why remove them? At least some good is coming from my ongoing rants.

Update: Two Companies That Said No To Social Media Scams

Update 2: How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro: An Insider’s Confession

Update 3: Scamville: Zynga Says 1/3 Of Revenue Comes From Lead Gen And Other Offers

Update 4: Zynga Takes Steps To Remove Scams From Games

Update 5: RockYou Joins The No Scams Parade. But What’s Facebook Up To?

Update 6: MySpace Says Zero Tolerance For App Scams, Changes Terms Of Use

Update 7: Tragedy Of The Social Gaming Commons: A Blueprint For Change

Update 8: Offerpal Tries Out A New CEO. Shukla, Queen Of Scams, Is Out.

Update 9: Facebook To Increase Enforcement Of Anti-Scam Rule

Update 10: ScamVille: New Offerpal CEO Admits Mistakes, Makes Bold Promises

Update 11: Zynga CEO Mark Pincus: “I Did Every Horrible Thing In The Book Just To Get Revenues”
Pincus’ response: to zwink or not?

Update 12: Time Magazine: Are You Getting Scammed by Facebook Games?

Update 13: Is Facebook a Paradise for Scammers?

Update 14: “Horrible Things” Slink Back Into Zynga

Update 15: Zynga’s FishVille Sleeps With The Fishes For Ad Violations

Update 16: Zynga To Remove All In Game Offers

Update 17: Zynga’s FishVille Gets Out Of The Penalty Box At Midnight

Update 18: The ScamVille Lawsuit: Facebook, MySpace, Zynga And More Face Possible Class Action Suit

Update 19: Scamville Shakeout: Was Gambit The Right Fall Guy?

Update 20: Video Professor Tries To Bully Washington Post, Fails

Update 21: Zynga Investor Calls Scamville Debate Irrelevant And Unfair

Update 22: Free Posters! AKA Scamville, It’s Back.