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Virtual items are big business. Some people laugh at the idea of spending money for a bunch of numbers with no intrinsic value, which is weird, because money is a bunch of numbers with no intrinsic value. It's just that in the real world we need a medium to convert doing data entry into eating ramen, and in the virtual world we need to kill lich kings with flaming swords to forget about the first half of this sentence.

This guy got more hours out of more people than every other supervisor in existence.

You can't claim that physical existence confers real value in a world with The Big Bang Theory bobbleheads. The resulting virtual item sales are pure profit for the video game developers. When your manufacturing process is copy-paste, it's even easier than printing money, because the latter involves spending on raw materials like paper. The problem is in how hard developers chase this money. It's the easiest way to make money while ruining something enjoyable since King Midas tried eating chocolate coins. And some developers have found amazing ways to screw over their players.

Dark Orbit -- Every Auction Bid Is Deducted

Dark Orbit is a 2D space combat game where you click on enemies, and that's the only gameplay element there is. Your only tactical consideration is whether you want to explode your enemies or not, and if you don't, you stop playing. Bowling has more tactical depth. Hell, bowling video games have more tactical depth, because at least they have options other than "click on pin to knock it down."

Bigpoint Games
It's exactly as exciting as this looks, as long as you remember that this is a frozen image that will never move.

Like all "free-to-play" games, you can swap real money for pretend money, which makes building a Trojan horse parking space look like a good investment. You really, really don't "need" this money to buy more equipment to blow up bigger enemies -- we've already seen how they directly sold the ability to win for $1,300 -- and until recently the game's auction system was the ultimate scam. Say you bid 2 million credits on a sweet Vengeance starship. You don't get it. You bid 5 million and get the high bid, but then someone outbids you. You can't see how much they bid so you try 10 million, but that's not enough, so you give up and just lost 17 million credits.

Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
A better investment, and actually less expensive. Really.

Every bid in the auction house was immediately removed from your credit balance, even if you didn't get the item. Even if you didn't get the high bid. The system made it possible to spend 100 million credits on nothing, or on an auction where you're the only bidder. You're alone in the dark throwing your time and money into an infinite void in the hope of beating other people you'll never know, making the shop a terribly accurate metaphor for the rest of the game.

Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty
Another accurate metaphor.

This system was recently removed, triggering a backlash from the players (which is proof that online gamers will complain about any change). If a video game developer removed tumors from players, they'd whine about nerfing their loss in weight and access to radiation powers.

RuneScape -- Roulette Beats Playing

RuneScape is the world's largest free-to-play MMORPG, where "free to play" means "choosing between spending $5 or five hours on simulated chores." RuneScape is a better psychological control system than the Matrix and has worse physical effects on the users. Last year they introduced a new level of mind control in the Squeal of Fortune.

Jagex Games Studio
When you can use a name that terrible without being slapped, you have established total dominance over your subjects.

If your game can be improved by roulette, your game sucks. Roulette is less excitement than setting money on fire, and you get less value for your money because warmth is useful. It's how people say "I want to spend money without being involved in the outcome." All roulette should be Russian so we improve the species faster.

Barry Austin/Photodisc/Getty Images
"I would rather directly hand money to someone richer than myself than gain any experience from it."

Players get a free spin every day, but spins can't be saved -- the player has to log in daily. It's a more obvious behavior control mechanism than fitting someone with a bit and harness, and it's less fun for everyone involved. They get more spins for becoming a paid player, more again with a gold membership package, and more again for taking part in chosen game activities each week. When you have to bribe players into trying new game modes with gambling, they're not game modes, they're errands. The wheel is more levels of insane mind control than obeying the voice of a talking rat with electrodes in its skull.

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images
"At least I'm not paying a subscription to be here."

Monsters in the real game drop spin tickets when defeated. So even if you're actually playing, slaughtering revenant orcs with a Promethium maul, they'll drop gambling tickets to remind you that even the developers think a slot machine is more fun. Players can directly buy tickets for the squeal, actively gambling real money on maybe getting pretend items for a game they'd apparently rather spend money on than play. It not only works, it works so well that Jagex had to institute limits on how many tickets anyone could buy during the week. Obviously they don't want anyone going crazy with it, which is why players are limited to a sensible $500 a week on goblin raffles.

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Star Trek Online -- Lock Box Keys

The lock box is a master-crafted psychological landmine. The game rewards you with a mysterious locked box, but you need to buy a key to get what's inside ... which means you're really buying the item, with a side order of "duh" and the added advantage of not knowing what you're paying for. It's the Jedi mind trick in icon form, a little graphic saying "You have already bought this incredible item. Now go to the shop and pay for it." The most recent offender was Star Trek Online.

Cryptic Studios
We all remember how the Federation was founded on greed and capitalism, right?

Most key buyers unlock one copy of an item they already have seven times, learn their lesson, and get on with the game. Lock boxes are the scratch cards of virtual warfare. Most players hate lock boxes, but hating is free, while the few people who like them spend lots of money, so screw everyone else while the system caters to the rich. And welcome to capitalism! A Starfleet officer asking for your credit card information is how you ruin immersion and a bold future utopia simultaneously.

Cryptic Studios
"Captain, shields are down, main power is offline, and our credit limit has been reached!"

They're unregulated gambling, simulated slot machines that aren't required to tell you the odds or ever pay out. Worse, the appeal of the lock box is a small chance of getting a rare and powerful item without earning it. Which means the best case scenario of this money sink is breaking the game.

3D SexVilla 2 -- Everything Is DLC

I'm almost jealous of the makers of 3D SexVilla 2. I have never been so clear in my purpose, in my mission, as someone who calls their work "3D SexVilla 2." It's an inarguable statement of intent, and unfortunately a failure on more horrible levels than Dante getting lost in an Escher painting.

M.C. Escher
And features even more horny guys.

In theory, a virtual sex simulator is a good idea. Current computer limitations mean that they can't really render emotions, skin imperfections, or smell, but those are only downsides in most amateur Internet porn. It lets users control every move of every body, which sounds good, but anyone prepared to learn an entire computer animation modeling system to generate porn could probably save time by convincing real people. Hell, they'd probably be faster inventing lifelike androids. When someone's hard or wet, even a video buffering symbol is too much frustration. Few people want to spend days manipulating animation stick-and-ball models when they can manipulate their stick and balls directly.

How pick-up artists see women.

Where it breaks down is when you try to do anything. Every single prop, control, and slide bar in the game costs real money. You even have to pay to adjust the breast size, aka "the first thing anyone would do," and when your explicit sex game offers less free sexy character customization than most fighting games, you're in trouble.

Namco Bandai
Not a porn game. Apparently.

Unlocking every option would add up to over $750. I don't care what you're into, you'll find real people prepared to do it for, with, or to you for that much money. I understand where Thrixxx is going with this -- anyone at home buying upgrades for their 3D SexVilla is a captive market imprisoned by psychological bars stronger than any steel -- but the Internet is already infinite pornography for free. And even when you create your own disturbing mating-mannequin masterpiece, the user agreement indicates that all resulting custom-made hardcore porn still belongs to Thrixxx, which is the most I've ever seen an End User License Agreement screw anything.

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EVE Online -- Manual Autopilot

EVE Online is the most exciting and vibrant video game universe ever created, as long as you only ever read about it from the outside once a year. (Why not read about the $17,000 assassination, exploding a thousand dollars for free, or the Ultimate Video Game Dick Move right now?) Actually playing it is like being one of the attackers in the Battle of Helm's Deep: Something awesome is happening, but most of your life has been boring drudgery and now you're going to be killed by characters who've been here longer.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Level 90 takes a heavy toll.

EVE Online tries to replace the player's real life, mainly by preventing him from having one to compare it against. In EVE, time is literally money: You buy PLEX for playing time, and these PLEX can be used as currency. Every player shares the same gigantic persistent universe, which sounds impressive but means that the main gameplay mechanic is "commuting." Ships hopscotch across the universe from stargate to stargate. This can take hours, which is why you have an autopilot, and that autopilot might as well be a self-destruct system. It dumps your ship out of warp 15 km from the next gate, tootling along at sublight in places where only autopiloted craft ever go, in a universe where every other player is a piranha with a warp drive. You might as well set your ship to transmit "FREE KILL HERE!" and replace the autopilot with a starmoth attracted by enemy laser fire.

The thing is, your ship can totally warp directly to the next gate. There's no imaginary physics or warp bubble stopping it. Your autopilot just refuses to do it. So the fastest way to get from place to place is to run the autopilot, turn it off when you're warping, manually arrive at the next gate, then manually turn the autopilot back on to launch the next jump. When you're remaining at your keyboard to save your autopilot the bother of doing its job, you don't know what "autopilot" means. You also don't know what "games" and "fun" mean, because you're staring at a flying stars screensaver for most of your play time. It's an antimeditation system: forcing you to contemplate endless nothingness but stay focused only on the most trivial material aspects of our world.

Making the multimillion-dollar EVE Online game functionally identical to a Windows 3.1 screensaver.

It's an efficient way to dilute half an hour of gameplay over an entire day, which is EVE's entire design strategy. The gate frequency is perfectly timed to disrupt your thought processes at regular intervals, preventing you from escaping or thinking of anything else happier or better. It's Chinese water torture applied to game design.

Thousands of players worked out how to get the autopilot to do its actual job and were banned from the game. Bots and scripts are normally evil, but when the game is specifically designed to trap you in a prison of minimalist data entry where you press three keys a minute, that's not cheating, that's psychological self-defense. Altering the autopilot code was less a hack than a basic intelligence test.

Gun Bros -- Consumer Behavioral Optimization

Gun Bros asks the important question "Why hasn't anyone remade Smash TV properly yet?" But while Smash TV satirized capitalism and violent entertainment, Gun Bros combines them. You can spend real money on extra weapons. One of them costs 500 real dollars. The "Kraken" fires a barrage of enemy-obliterating homing missiles, and that's just while it's charging up its main gun, a handheld satellite laser cannon. It costs almost as much as the iPad you're playing the game on, and its only function is saving you the bother of actually playing the game by constantly killing everything on the screen.

Glu Mobile
Note how the gun blocks out even the picture of the player appearing in the game, never mind actually playing.

These weapons are bought with WarBucks, which can be bought with real money. But what's even scarier is that players can also "earn" WarBucks by watching advertisements. You earn money for weapons that save you the work of playing by watching advertisements for things you don't want. That is the exact opposite of the function of every word in that sentence. The problem is that ads operate on your mind even when you hate them. And these iPad games are mainly used as chains and gags for children that won't get Child Services involved. So we're granting advertisers unfettered access to our children's psychology through a brain reprogammer that makes A Clockwork Orange look like a doting babysitter. And they're teaching kids that watching ads counts as work.

Luke also investigates the Worst Nerd Comment Ever, tumbles, and responds to every single tweet.

Luke improves more video games with 4 Ways to Make Open World Video Games Better and takes on more idiots with The 4 Worst T-Shirts Ever Made by Man.

More money is flushed away with The 5 Most Absurdly Expensive Items in Online Gaming and The 10 Most Insulting Things Video Games Charged Money For.

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