Back in the days of yore in November, 2015, a small indie developer, Exordium Games, came up with a brilliant idea to advertise their newest game: a cash prize.
With a reward of $10,000 who could beat the game first, naturally many people would flock to it. From a business point of view, it's not such a bad move to make. What better way to get word out on your new game? You're a small developer and you need all the help you can get. Unfortunately, there are some serious ethics at play here; is it really alright to basically bribe someone to play your game?
To discuss the ethics of Zero Reflex requires talking about the game itself. The Steam store page describes it as, "a little game project with minimalistic and clear design but with very addictive and frustrating gameplay." Zero Reflex requires the player to dodge obstacles at a fast pace while also being mindful of their surroundings. It's truly challenging, but rewarding. Later stages get incredibly frustrating so there's some logic in offering a monetary reward. After all, the average player will stop playing early on due to the difficulty, but some incentive will keep them playing and thinking about the game.
Offering a reward toes a grey line. It's not wholly unethical, but it's not very ethical either. It certainly doesn't paint Exordium Games in the best light and it demonstrates a severe lack of confidence in their own product, but It's not criminal. What IS criminal, however, is the way they chose not to honor their deal, at least initially.
When the first batch of winners came in, Exordium Games released this statement, "We are doing our best to stay transparent with the Contest. That is why we have decided to show our effort to resolve all situations which might be unclear or vague. A couple of the community members displayed their concern with the legitimate usage of the Pause button. To try to bring more clarity to the issue and prevent possible Pause button usage controversy in regards to a possible Contest winner we have made some changes."
The statement continues to a list of the changes being made (the Pause button being usable only once per level now,) but the problem here is that players who beat the game did beat it legitimately. Exploiting a mechanic that the developers didn't have the foresight to predict being used against them doesn't make their wins any less legitimate. Pausing the game to slow things down and plan out a next course is a legitimate strategy. What Exordium Games should have done was honor their deal. They made the mistake, not anybody else.
It was embarrassing enough that Exordium Games offered a prize for anyone to beat their game, then it was even more embarrassing when they backpedalled and changed the rules, but the most embarrassing thing is how quickly the game died. Just as soon as the winner was announced, all talk and hype for Zero Reflex disappeared. It faded away just as swiftly as it faded in, and exists now only as a bad precedent of grey ethics in the indie scene.