Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's Not Personal, It's Business...Part II

One of the world's leaders in economics and business once said:

"...businesses have a right to make money. How they make it, though becomes a discussion of ethics, something sorely lacking in many megacorps nowadays."

Actually, Stubborn pointed that out in the comments from Part I, I thought I'd start with that because this is precisely what I wanted to discuss in Part II, the "HOW" part of the money making equation.

I hate politics. Per MY definition, politics is a series of lies, perpetuated by people with enough money to make a sign or poster with their face on it, and spread by the mindless mass slaves of irrational thought called "you and me", for the purpose of granting more power and influence to those who probably shouldn't have a driver's license to begin with.

Politics play into MMORPG's, really they do. Not only those elected officials that set some of the ground rules for doing business in this or any other country, but the politics that occur within a business. In my personal life, I've worked very hard to distance myself from office politics. It never, I repeat, it never ends up how you want it to and almost always puts you in a position where you must make a decision that either goes against your personal values or potentially loss of employment. The reason is simple, I hate politics. It's the grandstanding, it's the deception, it's the power grabs, it's the complete disregard for others and the epitome of self-gratification. Some like it, some are really good at it, I am not one of those. Sure, I am selfish, but aren't we all, so let's move on.

For a moment let's pretend that we are.../gasp...mature. People start and run business, and while the business entity is not of itself evil or immoral or unethical, people who control them can be sometimes. Office and business politics places people in positions where they choose an ethical path or not. In my comments in Part I, I described a situation that actually happened at a place I used to work. If the idea of deferred commission is new to you, it's basically where an employer will hold back a part of a commission (gross salary) due to someone on their staff, usually an independent contractor working for the employer, and use those funds to pay for things like golf club membership fees and many types of other, expensive and fun things. Why? So that the independent contractor effectively has a lower gross income, thereby lessening their tax liability.

This is unethical, but creative methods are often used to cover up accounts such as these. Politics came into play the moment the independent contractor requested this arrangement. In my situation, this employee brought a lot of business into the company, and they felt it acceptable to give the ultimatum to the owner: "Set up this deferred commission account for me or I'll find somewhere else that will". Leverage, that's what they used to get their way, but the question is, should a company give in to their top salespeople and committ either unethical or illegal actions in order to maintain a desired revenue stream and resulting profits?


It may seem that the ethical choice is the easy one, but my experience and observations prove otherwise. In fact, most owners/managers of business often will make many, many unethical (yet legal) choices in order to get or keep business and revenues. It's so rampant in business, in fact, that it seems to have become the norm. The problem with ethics is that unlike laws, they are not written down. Not only that, due to people's various upbringings in different cultures, religions, etc there is not one set of unwritten "right vs wrong" rules to be followed. To be perfectly honest, I find it difficult to make too many judgements on businesses whose practices may be unethical, because there truly is a posibility that my values are not their values, and in their eyes they are doing nothing wrong.

There are some consistencies, however. Most everyone believes it's unethical to lie in business. Also it's not ethical to spy on other businesses, in fact there are laws governing corporate spying, so maybe that's not a good example. But something like greed is difficult to measure. Is greed unethical? Is is illegal? I don't think it is, but it's what greed leads people to do, such as lie, that most have a problem with.

Politics in business are always messy. One person putting another in a compromising situation, forcing them to make a choice that may or may not be ethical and may even be illegal. But when it comes down to it, somebody in a position of power needs to do make a decision and then live with the consequences.

Choices in Management
I do wonder what the discussions were like when Blizzard was pondering the release of the Sparkle Pony. I wasn't there but I guarantee you that a financial analysis was done, as well as a marketing one as well that provided the research and evidence that if offered to the players there would be enough to buy it that the venture would be profitable. Consequently, many other companies who engage in the new trend of micro-transactions, didn't decide to offer them on a whim, but because research and analysis showed that it would be a profitable venture.

It's the same reason there have been many WoW immitations, because research and analysis showed that if they adhered to certain guidelines, they too could potentially be profitable. But why does a manager/owner make the decisions he/she does?

It's profit based, guaranteed.

Everyone thinks they know how to run a business. More than that, everyone thinks they know more than the next guy about business in general. Every MMORPG developer, their managers and owners have this one thing in common...EGO. I love to draw mazes, and I think that I am really, really good at it. So good, in fact, that I have bragged about it many times to many different people, like I am now. Now I know that I am not the best in the world, but I know that if I really wanted to, I could make a book of mazes and sell it, and hope to make a profit from it.

Like me, these CEO's and CFO have huge egos. They all think that they are so good that their choices are always the best. They think they are so ingenious that even though an idea here or there may fail, if they keep at it their genious will shine through and they will have the profitable financial statements to prove it. I'm sure there have been many CEO's of gaming companies who have produced failures, but who believed during development that the game would be a success. Why would they publish a game if they believed it sucked? They wouldn't, and it's because they all believe in their skills to produce products that will sell.

There are no rational developers, no rational managers, no rational business owners. They all think they are good at what they do, if they didn't they probably wouldn't have their job. Ego, however, tends to leads people to make certain choices, and often it comes across as a "greedy" choice. Over time I'm beginning to think that all business is greed. People want to make money, so they become part of a business. If you don't want to make money, join the peace corps or something. I'm trying to say that's it's difficult to define greed when ALL business is about making money.

Is there a specific amount of money that one can make before it becomes wrong? How much is too much? Seriously, what is the cut off point? One million profit? Ten million? One billion? There must be some reason why we call businessmen greedy, and I wonder how that's defined. Money, profits, greed, all these things are accepted in the business world. Hurting people is generally frowned upon, and there are many legal remedies for various types of harm one inflicts on another. But I've been around in the business world enough to know that greed is not viewed as unethical within the business circles. It's a label of negativity only directed by outsiders.

I would bet all I have (which isn't much right now) that Blizzard's belief internally is not one of "how can we screw the player", rather "how can we create a game that is good and profitable". Unfortunately the consumer takes his gaming personally; he/she is, after all, giving of their personal funds and time to a game and expect gratification in return. When the player, however, realizes that he's viewed as a means to an end [i.e. "profit"], of course the player will take it personally. The usual response is to call a company like Blizzard greedy, interested only in appeasing their investor base. The player feels used.

No wonder there is a growing animosity in the community, people feel used and not gratified to their standards. And yet, isn't that a bit greedy on the part of the player? Who says you have the right to play the perfect game? Who says you have the right to be viewed as anything but a paying customer? I'm not advocating the thought, I'm simply offering a counter argument.

Where I try to make sense but fail
Politics put people in positions of compromise (personal compromise or legal compromise). Choices are made from management's ego, not necessarily the greed center of their brain. I want to say somthing that I believe personally, because sometimes I may write something I don't believe but I feel both sides deserve a defense:

I believe in greed, and I believe it's wrong. I do not put a dollar amount on it, however, and I don't believe that 5 billion in profits is greedy. I believe what the CEO/CFO/COO does with their annual 100 Million bonus measures their level of greed. I also believe that any time a business attempts illegal and/or untehical accounting practices, that is borne of ego AND greed, and should be brought to light and the individual replaced by someone who won't be easily pushed around, someone who wants to make money by following the laws and not by offering "deferred commissions" to their employees.

I do not believe, however, that offering a Sparkle Pony is greedy, I think it's manipulative. Why? Because if research shows that people are dumb enough to pay stupid amounts of money for a "vanity item", it's a business simply taking advantage of the tendencies of the person. Psychology is important in business research, and is used extensively in MMO's to get people to play and to STAY.

I live in Las Vegas, where Casinos all over bring you in to darkened rooms with no clocks, with lots of noises and bells going off to make people believe there are other people winning all the time. I see how businesses manipulate people because of psychological research, and use it to profit from it. I believe this is wrong. The problem we face is, not only with MMORPG developers, but with all business, that if you use knowledge to gain an advantage and profit from it you, as a business are doing nothing wrong. Therefore, by extension, Blizzard and other developers don't believe they are doing anything wrong by using addictive behavior to keep people playing, they do nothing different than Vegas casinos in that respect.

The kicker is, businesses are run by people, which means that more and more people don't view it as unethical to manipulate others to keep using a substandard product, as long as everyone makes money, nobody is doing anything wrong. So, what the heck are we doing compaining about it when chances are some day we will be sucked into the business world in order to support our families, then support our addictions, then just to support our greed? Seriously, why bother fighting for a system, for games that we really, really would love to play, if sooner or later we'll be managing a business and make choices for the sake of profit?

Because if you have read this far in this post there is a part of you that believes that we, as people, can be better. We can choose to NOT manipulate others into buying our product, that there is a way to do business in an honest manner and provide a product that people love. I'm a cynic sometimes, but I pull myself out by being an idealist at other times. I believe you CAN do business honestly and ethically. I believe that you can AND SHOULD BE ABLE TO make a lot of money in the process. And I believe that it's that kind of person who will take their annual bonus and use it to help people, or to invent and innovate to create something that will be good, clean, worthwhile fun to people.

I think we should slow down on labeling people as greedy, it may just be that they are so egotistical, that greed doesn't enter the equation, they actually believe they are better at what they do than everyone else, even if they're not.

And despite what I said about politics, go vote anyway. Sooner or later there's got to be somebody not totally corrupt. Someday...maybe.

And oh, keep speaking up and demanding a better product. It will happen!!

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