You both make fair points. I was under the impression that many people spend large amounts of money on F2P games - if that is not the reality, then it might not be a pressing issue. It's a shame I don't have a detailed breakdown of the numbers, as I'd love to see what exactly is going on.
My gripe is mainly with the marketing strategy.
I studied Psychology and am now finishing a Ph.D. in Psychological Research - basically learning how best get accurate data from people. There is a detailed ethical approval behind every data collection I do. I have to submit a 4-page document for each small study I do. A series of people have to assess it, try to point out possible flaws and ultimately approve it. For something bigger, I'd have to meet in person and be interviewed about the design. This is because people are very easily influenced - it's fairly easy to "trick" people into doing/feeling something, even unknowingly by poor design. The large majority of studies in the University settings won't try to exploit people, so all of this happens due to a concern that I might be unethical on accident.
Now imagine how critical this is in settings where people are exploited on purpose. What scares me, is the fact that there are no ethics frameworks when it comes to F2P games - why would there be, it's not in the best interest of the company. I know many of the games are designed with maximising spending in mind. The developer has access to fine-grained data on human behavior, knowing when and how people spend, in what contexts, in what social settings, how they respond to different kinds of artworks, game systems, etc. They use this to design an experience where people are mathematically most likely to spend the most money.
I often hear the notion that people are not "forced" to spend, and that any payment is optional. If someone wrecks their paycheck on a F2P game, it's their stupidity and their fault. I don't think that's true. If the system is designed in a certain way, people will play along. For example, in countries where organ donation after death is opt-out (it happens by default), the large majority of people do it and are happy with it. If it is opt-in (it doesn't happen by default), almost no one agrees to it. This opt-out tactic has been proven to work in many different environments - it's just a simple way of phrasing something differently and suddenly you make the majority of people behave the opposite.
In F2P games, they use many tactics like these at once. And they tailor everything based on specific data. I think a person is not really a master of their own fate anymore.
I don't have a good solution to it - and I'm not sure it's a legal problem. It's just something that's been on my mind lately, and I'm not too comfortable with the idea of it. If you download my free game and I then use maths to tell the game to treat you in a specific way, making you spend with a high probability, is that ethical?
Games and movies always had age categories on them. That never stopped me, or any of my friends, from playing and watching 18+ games/movies when we were in our early teens.
Lootboxes and forced micro-transactions are probably the most dangerous form of gambling. If you have to walk over to a casino to spend your paycheck, there is a fairly tangible and visible commitment you have to make. Playing online casino games from your computer is a lot more accessible. Games are one tier higher, as the whole process of gambling is masked and wrapped inside of an innocent looking game.
In fact, with mobile games, you don't even have to leave your bed.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against tiered financial contributions to a game. Especially small indie games can benefit from big donators a lot - if someone genuinely wants to give you $1000 to make a game better (and it doesn't mess up the balance completely), then why not. But coercing a 12 year old kid, or a stay-at-home mum to spend $1000 on lootboxes is unethical in my opinion.
F2P is a very uneven model. People are playing for free, which means the ones that do pay need to pay a lot more than usual. This is done by removing any payment ceiling - the items are expensive enough to allow people spend $1000+ a month (and people do).
It is a conversion based model. You are consciously trying to turn non-paying customers into paying customers. I personally think there are situations where this is immoral (much like a casino), where you are knowingly pushing people to spend more than they can afford.
A tiered model (where some pay more than others) can be beneficial in PvE/social games in some cases. I think it makes sense that the most active members of the community are more involved (both through gameplay and financially). This encourages the paying members to try and nurture the community, which can be a good thing. The model needs to make sure that payment tiers go in line with activity. If you allow uninvolved players to spend a lot, you will have a conflict of interests.
It is problematic in competitive games. From what I've read, purely cosmetic items don't sell very well. Items that give you gameplay advantages sell a lot better. I don't see a good way of retaining an even, competitive playing field in a free-to-play PvP game. MOBA games do this relatively well, but that is possible due to the gameplay design - you can allow players unlock additional heroes. Because MOBAs don't have any real interaction across games, it's not an issue if you only own 5% of the heroes as a non-paying member. In MMORPGs, having access to 5% of the professions would be severely restrictive.