Friday, February 19, 2010

Microtransactions: Not only unfair, but foolish

I wrote an entry a few weeks back about defining the label Hardcore. The purpose was to discuss the nature of how we use the term to describe what can be very different expectations in an MMO. But perhaps more important is this insight into how we view effort for our reward systems:
All MMOs (perhaps all games) reward us based on our success in the two areas. Either we are dedicated enough to finish, or we are skilled enough to survive the intensity. And most likely, it's some combination of both.

Players expect to 'work' for rewards in either of these two ways. They either expect a long ardous journey until completion, or they expect an extremely difficult challenge to overcome. One is a function of Time, the other the function of Challenge.

I think that's what people don't like about RMT and Microtransactions. RMT takes neither Time nor Challenge. You don't need to be dedicated or skilled to purchase something with RMT. It literally runs counter-clockwise to everything we have come to expect about earning rewards. It strikes anyone willing to invest the time or willing to take up the challenge as wrong.
Why do we play?
As I wrote above, rewards take on meaning when they take dedication and skill. Ultimately, we play games because not only are they fun, but because they provide a sense of accomplishment for that dedication and skill.

It’s easy to argue that RMT only impacts the player buying the RMT, but MMOs are not isolated worlds. We play MMOs because of other people, even if those people just provide the backdrop to our own MMO existence.

For many people, the value of the individual effort can only be measured against the achievements of other people in the game.  And what is meaningful about an accomplishment that can be invalidated by someone else willing to pay more?

This strikes at the heart of what we believe is fair in games. Traditionally, we only reward and respect the dedicated or skilled. RMT rewards neither.

Micro transaction by Design
RMT and Micro transactions work because they allow players to overcome an obstacle. The popular model that people seemingly support is the one where the “obstacle” for the players is purposefully placed by the developer as a roadblock. Extra bag space, a mount, XP potions, and so forth are all still just things that assist the player in overcoming specific game obstacles.

I really like Syncaine’s recent arguments against this type of model:
The problem I have with the model is that spending more does not get me more; it simply allows me to continue playing like I have before. Spending $50 at the cash shop does not upgrade the graphics, sound, or gameplay, it simply buys me potions/books/perfume to sustain the level of progress/power that was available earlier for ‘free’. The further you get from level 1, the more you need to spend just to maintain the SAME level of progress.
And as he alludes to in a follow-up post today, if people DON’T buy these things, all they are left with is an incomplete MMO.

Cash Rich, Time Poor
This model favors the cash rich casual player much more than it does the poor player with plenty of free time. A player with lots of time and little cash will progress much faster in a traditional $15/month MMO because they won’t have to overcome the artificial obstacles with real cash.

This is very ironic when you consider that they are marketed as “Free 2 Play” games.

The model is most appealing to player who has plenty of real life cash but a limited amount of gaming time. They can simply short-circuit the challenge by spending real life money.

I can’t help but think that this type of instant gratification is self-defeating.
  • Why pay money to NOT play the game?
  • Why pay money to have a developer build in ridiculous time sinks for which your only option is to pay more?
  • Why the hell would you want to reward the developer for making it too hard to do without paying them more?
Aren’t you just better off playing something that requires less of your real life time?


Anonymous said...

The other often over-looked aspect of the whole "fairness" thing is that the true powergamers in a F2P are people with a ton of time AND money. At least in a sub game it's just the people with lots of time, and if the game is designed decently you can eventually catch up, but in a F2P? No chance, not when they can always outspend you (money is unlimited, at least time is capped at 24hrs in a day).

Scott said...

One thing I constantly ask, and is never answered, is: why does it matter?

Taking the F2P vs. Sub out of the equation, why would it matter if someone with more cash than time paid for say, a set of Tier armor/weapons? (Granted, the majority of F2P don't actually sell armor/weapons but let's pretend they do.)

The ONLY time it matters is in PvP, where the person who bought the best/most healing potions WILL win over the person who did not.

In PvE though? Seriously, who gives a rat's ass? Does it affect YOUR game *in the least* if you "worked" for your stuff while I simply bought it? As you say, I'm just a backdrop in your little bubble in the MMO world. Unless I came out and said so (or if purchased gear has a unique appearance) you'd never know one way or the other, and it wouldn't matter in the slightest.

People spend WAY too much time worrying about what other people are doing...

SynCaine does raise a valid point about how most/all F2P games gradually lower the incline of XP/advancement/whatever so that you are, in effect, simply purchasing XP & health potions in order to continue at the rate of advancement seen for "free" in the early game.

Then there is the end-game to consider and what it could potentially cost. Do a websearch for Runes of Magic, for example. Prior to the first expansion that raised the level cap, it was quite expensive to buy all the materials to craft the top-tier raid gear. And all that was going down the drain once the level cap increased and they had to buy all-new materials to craft the all-new gear... Been awhile but I think it was nearly $400 USD to make that original set, which is more than a year in a subscription MMORPG, plus spending more than $15/month in consumables to be able to survive the raids. F2P isn't cheap...

I think DDO is doing it right, but they're coming at it from a Western way of thinking, and I'm more inclined to call them Freemium than F2P, just because of the negative connotations associated with the Eastern F2P way of doing things.

Jesse said...

This is a bit of a side track, but what about the pay-by-hour subscription option? It isn't available in most countries, but it seems like the ideal to me. No gimmicks to buy from RMT, and on the months you play less you pay less. Everyones game time varies with how busy work is, other game releases, or any other variety of reasons and this way you don't pay the full price when you aren't playing the full month.

sid67 said...

@Scott: It matters two ways. I'll tackle the first because it's the one that hits others in the wallet.

In a Microtransaction model, the more YOU spend, the more likely the DEV is going to throw-up roadblocks and other challenges that impact EVERYONE.

That's because making that Microtransaction purchase validates the model that people will pay to avoid the obstacles. The best "mixture" from the DEV standpoint is the one in which you will pay as much as they can get you to pay without upsetting you.

If you, and lots of people like you, have a high threshold -- that's very bad for me.

And it's bad for you too. Because you are just encouraging the Dev to keep hitting you in the face with crap you will pay to avoid.

Supporting a model like that with more money is foolish even if you CAN afford it.

Secondly, these are MMOs. What YOU do or have done is important to me. If it wasn't, I'd just play a single player RPG. So, backdrop or not, other people are important.

@Jesse: The pay-per-use or by hour model is interesting. Culturally, I don't think it's something US players want or would accept. I believe the European and Asian markets are more open to the idea.

Scott said...

Secondly, these are MMOs. What YOU do or have done is important to me. If it wasn't, I'd just play a single player RPG.

Uh... you'll need to explain that one. Unless we're talking a sandboxy MMO, everyone is doing the same content as everyone else, therefore nothing anyone else has done is "important" unless we're talking the kids who still pursue "server firsts" and garbage like that. In the old days, it was the same content-wise but MMO's were new and those high-level characters were to be taken seriously and their gear to be admired. Now? Anyone can get gear and anyone who has an hour or two to play can raid too. It's not the old days where level caps were huge journeys and raids took 7 hours or more.

@Jesse: Paying by the hour was how we did things before EQ and it sucked big-time. Stuff like Air Warrior and Island of Kesmai were awesome for their time but very time-consuming, just like MMO's are today. I'm thinking it was... $5 or $6 per hour, which on the surface sounds cheap enough until you figure in how much time it takes organizing a WWII campaign simulation and actually flying and driving the battles. Or in my case, until the bill arrives. There were a few months that went over $300 and every single month was over $50.

@sid: not sure about the "paying customers = more premium content gates" because that ends up hurting the developers and the game shuts down. It's late and I don't feel like Googling but I seem to recall one of the F2P companies releasing stats and the ol' 80/20 assumption was way off in their case and most players -- no matter what the game held -- spent no more than $20 over their entire time in the game. If devs keep making it harder to do anything without spending more, even the big spenders will move on. Addictive or not, at the end of the day, it's just a game and I'll go out on a limb and guess that the majority of even the big spenders do so because they're able to but have their limits and are not the mentally unbalanced people who spend $30K on virtual items we occasionally read about.

sid67 said...

Uh... you'll need to explain that one. Unless we're talking a sandboxy MMO, everyone is doing the same content as everyone else

Admittedly, this one is harder to explain because it's very cerebral.

If there were no other people, MMOs would make for very lackluster and boring games. The question you are asking is WHY do they matter?

And they DO matter, otherwise we would solo play some other game.

There isn't a simple answer because online communities are really a study in social science. There are complexities like dramaturgical acts and mass actions that influence our social perceptions dramatically.

Better to ask why lots of things matter in real life?

Why do people care about Tiger Woods' marital problems?

Why do people care when a little girl of no relation to you is abducted?

Why do people care if other people smoke weed?

But at the end of the day, what really bothers me about what YOU do is that your financial actions are supporting the model. Which means more obstacles and more devs adopting it.

Because more than anything else you do, your financial support is going to impact how I play MMOs and the options available to me.

Scott said...

Sure, other people are absolutely important in MMOG's. They're the only real reason we play because the current rut MMOG's are in absolutely make for boring and lackluster games on their own merit; it's the other players who make (or break?) the games.

We seem to be talking on opposite sides on the page though. I've been thinking you're saying that what other people do *in game* is somehow important which I've been debating the opposite side of, but re-reading your comments it seems you're referring that what people do out of the game is what's important? I'm not entirely convinced that's true either. I think the only real "importance" of other players is the fact that they're there at all. We see someone else running or riding or fighting and we know it's another player and there's still that "oh neat!" feeling even after all these years. We can make friends, we can join guilds, and most importantly, we have chat channels to communicate with other players. Without that to keep us company we'd have nothing but the shallow and lackluster game mechanics staring us in the face and boring us to death.

But, taking your last comment, if I actually was a big spender in F2P games (I'm not, I spent $15 several years ago and regretted it immediately) I doubt *I* would affect *your* game at all because you're already biased against microtransactions, therefore you'd never choose a F2P game to be your primary game and spend money on it anyway. I'm not opposed to the idea of microtransactions but I'm not keen on the way most have been done so far; ie. the Eastern version of microtransactions, especially when it comes in an extremely low-budget sub-par Eastern game. Best microtransactions (or simply transactions, depending on your numeric cut-off point for "micro") I've ever seen is Guild Wars. DDO comes next which makes a sort of in-between compromise between Eastern and Western, though leaning heavily on the Western side for obvious reasons in the way they've designed their item shop and it's paid off well for Turbine.

sid67 said...

I’m talking about two different things. One is the perception of fairness in-game. The other is validating the model by voting with your wallet.

To the first point of fairness, my achievement is tarnished when others can shortcut the road to success. To make a baseball analogy, if you use steroids to achieve the same level of success that I have without steroids then it hurts my public image because my achievement is not more remarkable than yours. Particularly if no one can distinguish if you used steroids to reach that achievement. And that’s even setting aside the implications of unfairness in the actual competition of the sport and just looking at the public prestige and respect given to both of us as top athletes.

But even if we can ignore the fairness issue, there is still the impact your financial support plays on the MMO genre. If Microtransactions are successful, we’ll see more of it and we’ll see it (to perhaps a limited degree) in all MMOs. Point being, I might be able to avoid it now – but perhaps not in two or three years.

The other thing to consider is that from the Dev standpoint, there is a magic point that will maximize Microtransactions profits. That threshold is the point at which players will pay the most they possibly can spend without quitting in frustration. The more accepted the model is and the more willing people are to pay, the higher that point is within a game. Or in other words, by simply spending money, you are validating the model.

Scott said...

I'll give you a point for the baseball analogy but I'll make the counter-point that sports require skill and reflexes on the part of the player (which steroids can enhance) but MMO's only require time, so again I'll say that *in the present* (ie. not 1999-2004 when MMO's were still new and level-caps were a big deal) no one's "achievements" are really that big a deal to anyone else, because we're all eligible to do those same achievements if we choose to.

To further analogy, microtransactions alleviate the time required to level, which decreases exponentially where in your typical subscription MMO even though there is an increasing XP curve, your XP earned increases to match where in Eastern F2P it decreases and the grind increases to make those +XP potion sales more enticing.

Moving back to the "buying gear" side of things, which again only exists in a handful of titles I've seen, everyone likes to throw around this idea that people are "buying success." But are they? At best, they're buying a shortcut of time so they can jump into the immediate action of the current content (and its challenge) and skip the old stuff.

In my typical subscription MMO mindset, I make my main do things the hard way. Earn every bit of gear, every piece of gold, etc. I'm even a bit of a tightwad when it comes to sharing gold to low-level alts; I make them earn their own keep rather than funding them with the high-level main. But I'm also no longer a huge altoholic so I tend to not focus much on the alts anyway. BUT if I were to decide, along with my guild, that I/we wanted an alt primed for an extra raid slot, the last thing in the world I would want to do is have to grind out all that crap again. I've already been through that journey, doing it again is much less enjoyable, especially when I'm only doing it for a specific reason. If I could pay a few dollars to get that character setup without the pre-grinding, I'd be all for it. I don't consider that "buying success" because I'm only setup to be eligible for the current raid content available; I still have to put in the time and effort to help the guild and get the next set of gear that raid contains, plus I'm now doing it with two characters.

I'm quite certain some might disagree with that attitude, but I'll still submit that -- it's PvE. Whether I "work" for it or buy it doesn't affect anyone else, and unless I go around spamming "I bought mah stuffs yo" in chats, no one would have the slightest clue. If they suddenly become offended at that, I'd say that's more a personal issue they need to look at within themselves rather than point the finger at someone else. But then, this is the 00's, we don't look in mirrors and it's always someone else's fault.