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Give me your boots, your clothes and your microtransactions

As mobile gaming becomes the dominant force in the entertainment industry, one company’s aggressive endorsement campaign has established them as king of the hill. But they are in increasingly strange ethical territory, writes Don Rowe. 

What do Kate Upton, Mariah Carey and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have in common? Successful entertainment careers aside, the answer is seven-figure stacks of cash courtesy of Machine Zone Games, makers of Game of War and Mobile Strike. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Game of War is a free-to-play, massively-multiplayer online strategy game available on Android and iOS. Players build an empire, manage resources, recruit units and wage war, much like any other strategy game. Mobile Strike is its modern reskin, where swordsmen are replaced by Navy SEALs and archers by assault rifles. At its core, the gameplay is fundamentally almost identical. Somehow, the games sit at the top of the nearly $30 billion mobile gaming industry.

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When one downloads Game of War, it’s immediately clear that this titanic success can’t be a product of the quality of the game itself, because it’s bloody atrocious. Fiddling about on Game of War is like playing a slot machine crossed with a bad Age of Empires knockoff on a computer infected with every virus on the internet. The game is nothing like the ads. That it props up a multimillion dollar company is at first astounding. On closer inspection, it’s disturbing.

Machine Zone Games chase ‘whales’ with a fury that would make Captain Ahab proud. Sailing through dark and murky ethical waters, they target the financially flush and mentally deficient before clinging to their briny sides like a vampiric barnacle, sucking out a revenue stream of more than $1.5 million USD every day.

There are more buttons to buy in-game power-ups, speed boosts and all that shit than there are to actually play the game. Leave your kid alone with Game of War and you’ll watch your credit card curl and blacken like it’s been set on fire.

Of course, the more you play, the more essential these power-ups become. When opponents can reduce your empire to smoldering ashes if they have even the slightest advantage, the game is actively punishing you for not continuing to fork out. This isn’t conjecture – Kate Upton literally says it in a commercial played at last year’s Superbowl:

“The thing about empires: the bigger you build them, the more your enemies want to knock them down.”

The sunken cost fallacy is no joke; millions of people have died miserable after dragging around a dead and decaying marriage for thirty years. Hell, Machine Zone Games have basically built their business model around a certainty their players will continue to invest long into the future. But the cost of user acquisition in mobile gaming is notoriously high, and to bring in the whales you’ve gotta chum the waters.

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Whale bait.

Game of War reportedly spent more than $40 million in 2014 alone, signing the buxom Kate Upton to star as their hyper-sexualised Athena. Ads featuring her bathing in milk, fighting dragons, fleeing from Minotaurs and just generally cruising about with her cleavage emphasized apparently screened over 9000 times on television, a shift away from traditional video game marketing techniques.

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In game, she’s more of a microtransaction monger, popping up from time to time to encourage players to part with a little more cash every day. To be fair, Upton is a supermodel, and using her likeness to promote a product is her profession. It’s safe to assume she’s comfortable with the notion that sex sells, even if it’s an ethically questionable transaction.

But what about Mariah Carey?

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Carey, as she appears on a Game of War advertisement.

Reportedly worth around $500 million, Carey rose to fame as a singer-songwriter, basically setting the stage for your Beyoncés and Rihannas in the late 90’s. With more than 200 million records sold, she’s one of the highest selling artists ever. Does she really need Machine Zone’s cheddah? And why did Machine Zone digitally alter their seven-figure talent, stretching Mariah like an old bit of rubber?

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Comedian Bill Burr once said that Arnold Schwarzengger has been in the zone for four decades. Moving to America with barely a word of English and only his physique to show for himself, the guy became the greatest bodybuilder of all time, a Hollywood movie star and the governor of California despite growing up in a house without running water.

With a net worth in the neighbourhood of $300 million, you’d think he too could afford to pass up on endorsing terrible, parasitic games. But maybe everyone has their price.

Unfortunately for smaller developers, giant companies like Machine Zone Games are increasingly the only ones with the financial means to secure endorsements from celebrities on the level of Upton, Schwarzenegger and Carey, and then saturate the mainstream media with their images. And because of the way that games are ranked on the app store, only the most popular remain visible for any significant amount of time. Consistent visibility ensures continued visibility, creating a cycle that means the people most vulnerable to becoming whales are all but guaranteed to be exposed to campaigns, putting Schwarzenegger and co. in strange ethical territory.

But hell, they aren’t the only ones doing weird shit for cash.

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