The Null Device
Imagine, for a moment, that you have published an online multiplayer strategy game. How do you get players to play your game (and, more importantly, spend money on the numerous playability enhancements, from premium-priced instant messages to power-ups) rather than any of the numerous other games out there? Well, you could concentrate on making a particularly playable game, give away accounts and wait for word of mouth to do its work. Or, if you're the publisher of Evony (formerly known as Civony), a game heavily inspired (to phrase it somewhat generously) by Sid Meier's Civilization games only much more heavily monetised, you could bet on the assumption that sex sells and plaster the web with increasingly lascivious ads, in which the traditional cod-Tolkienist clichés gradually give way to gratuitous female nudity, culminating in the apotheosis: a close-up of a lingerie-clad bosom, with nothing about the actual game whatsoever. It's Idiocracy marketing taken a few steps beyond the typical Facebook ads with pictures of hot chicks promoting completely unrelated products, assuming that your target market is comprised entirely of idiots who, when shown pictures of BOOBIES!!!1!, begin drooling like Pavlov's Dog and reflexively get their credit cards out.
And here is a Grauniad piece about Evony. It seems that their dodginess goes well beyond patronisingly pornographic ad campaigns, and extends its slimy tentacles into everything from spamming blog comments to gold-farming and gouging their clientele (the "suckers", as I believe the technical term is) to lifting text and graphics from existing games. These people, it seems, have more contempt for their user base than MySpace.
And as if bad advertising and tenuous intellectual property were not enough, the game is also under fire for its business model – a system that seems intent on getting players to spend as much money as possible. Players are encouraged to buy in-game extras to speed their progress – but the confusing way the game prices its add-ons means that many users may not realise that a simple action, such as sending a message to another player, can cost 15p a time.
It turns out that the site's backers are equally unpopular. Evony is the product of Universal Multiplayer Game Entertainment (UMGE), a developer linked to a Chinese gold-farming operation called WoWMine. That site has also come in for regular criticism, but the real kicker comes with the news that the company's owners are being sued by Microsoft over allegations of click fraud.