There’s a special alchemy necessary to profit off of a free-to-play video game. Because they have an initial price tag of zero, these games devise other ways to profit off of their users by creating artificial scarcity inside the game itself. For instance, one could play Candy Crush, the simple match-three tile game, and spend nothing. But this is a frustrating experience because the game artificially limits how long you can play for free. Use up all of your lives and the game makes you wait for the cache to refill. The other option, obviously, is buying lives. That’s how Candy Crush has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars.
These free-to-play trappings are everywhere. You can see them in more complex games like the ever-popular Fortnite, where you can pay for fancy avatars or an add-on that allows you to earn in-game rewards faster. You can also see these tactics on dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, that limit the number of swipes you can make for free, or let you pay to be featured more frequently in other users’ pile of options. Game designers have to strike a balance between the simple core loop engagement, and the complex economy that surrounds it. In many ways this is annoying. But sometimes, it also results in delightfully novel games like Split or Steal.
Split or Steal, made by Eoghan “Rootpew” Hayes, is a game based on the prisoner’s dilemma, the classic game theory thought experiment. The game matches the player with other real players, and in each round, the players decide to split the pot of money in front of them, or steal from the other player. If both say split, they each get money. If both of them steal, neither of them gets money. If only one player steals, the thief gets all of the money and the victim loses theirs. Then the player matches with another real player, and the process starts over. If a player splits or pulls off a successful steal, they move up a tier. For each round, players are given info about their opponent.
In the classic version of prisoner’s dilemma, when players just play once, the strictly “rational” thing to do is be selfish every time. But Split or Steal adds more additional layers of complexity on top of this basic concept, some mechanical, some not. Players that steal lose karma (a quantified metric), so a player who encounters another that has low karma should exercise caution. If a player has stolen recently, the game will let other players know. In the top three tiers, this data about (maybe-)opponents is hidden from players.
Each round is a minute and a half long, and before you lock in your choice, you have the option of chatting with your opponent in a simple instant-message menu. This adds a vital social-engineering layer to the proceedings. It also opens up avenues for roleplay, such as when a player with a pirate avatar would only respond to my messages with “Arrrrrr!”
There are far more variables to consider than just, “Can I trust this person?” Generally speaking, players in the early tiers are eager to split their way up to the high tiers, and that’s when the treachery starts. And if you get betrayed, there’s a global chatroom in the main room where you can call someone out. I got stolen from on tier two — two! — and I immediately notified everyone in the global chat about this unforgivable betrayal.
When players do cash out their winnings, they can use them to build structures on a Sim City-like that boost their accrual rate even more. In this way it resembles popular idle games like Cookie Clicker, where the player is tasked with finding ways to boost how quickly they can make numbers on a screen go up.
It seems like a lot when I write it all out, and explaining it to people has been part of the novelty. Split or Steal is an absurd alchemy that combines social engineering, free-to-play incentives, and idle-game satisfaction that scratches some itch at the back of your brain.
In a phone call, Rootpew said that the game’s initial design was literally a prisoner’s dilemma, with players trying to get their sentences reduced to 0. But he found that providing a definitive ending was underwhelming, and that it gave players little incentive to keep playing. “The problem I found with that is that it had a such a quick end: you get it to zero, the game is over,” he said.
To fix that problem, he took the basic structure of the game and changed the stakes to be about accumulating money instead of avoiding jail time. Changing the formula so that it players could never truly finish the game added a perpetual social dynamic to it. “If you steal from somebody, your name will be remembered for it,” Rootpew noted. “You don’t have an exit. You’re stuck with that name, everybody knows who you are.”
The kitchen-sink feature set of Split or Steal has proved endearing and popular. When he first launched the game on the website Kongregate, Rootpew estimated that a few hundred people would play it. Instead, he says, 30,000 people played it in the first month. It is now available on the PC gaming platform Steam as well.
Like popular games such as Fortnite, Split or Steal’s in-game money can be used to buy outfits and cosmetic items. Players quickly gravitated toward a hot dog mascot outfit. “The hot dog guy, everybody started role-playing as him,” he recalled. “They started a hot dog religion, or a cult around that.
None of this was planned, but the ad-hoc community that formed around hot dog roleplaying led him to add more features. Players could form “organizations” (known in general gaming terms as a “clan”). In order to give the organizations a purpose, he added the idle-game features and HQ functionality.
The most surprising thing he found was that — for a game whose central mechanic is about betrayal — people were surprisingly nice. “It immediately went into a meta [short for “metagame,” in which preferred strategies around the game change] where most people wanted to split every time to increase their progress,” he said, “and they were happy not to stumble somebody else’s progress for a quick boost on their end. They were enjoying the community aspect and they knew that if they were known as a thief, they wouldn’t be accepted fully into that community.” The only time the number of steal attempts really pick up is when popular streamers play the game, and players try to stream-snipe, using the video feed as a way to know what their opponent is doing.
Rootpew was kind enough to pull some stats for me. Out of 1.4 million games, players ended up splitting the pot 81 percent of the time, a heartening figure given how easy it would be to not do that. Sixteen percent of remaining steal attempts were successful, while 3 percent failed. In a world in which the internet is being regarded with increased wariness and skepticism as a place full of self-interested, malevolent actors, the denizens of this game are choosing to split far more often than not.
At this specific moment in time where people are social-distancing themselves to minimize the spread of coronavirus, the games adds a simple way of offering slight communication for people trapped in their apartments alone. The contemporary relevance of a game in which people must trust each other in mutual sacrifice for the common good is left as an exercise for the reader.
Some other weird stats from the game: Players who used the hot dog skin voted to split 96 percent of the time. Forty-nine out of the roughly 125,000 players have a rating of zero karma. The game starts players with 31,000 so getting it all the way down to zero is certainly a lifestyle choice.
Because the central game of Split or Steal is so simplistic, Rootpew has found that there is no way for him to substantially change the balance of the game, incentivizing certain play styles over others to keep it dynamic. While other games can patch out overpowered guns or magic spells, or change the layout of virtual environments, it’s difficult to rebalance a game where players can only make a binary choice.
“Most people play the way they want to play. They don’t really care about what’s going to get them the most in-game cash at the end of the day or what cosmetics they’re going to wear,” Rootpew noted. “They have a style that they are going to play regardless of what I do. I think that’s one of the things I really appreciate about it, that I actually have very little control over what happens inside the game.”
We’re committed to keeping our readers informed.
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.