Friday, December 16, 2011

Equilibrium - 12/16/11

So on Friday's, I'm going to start doing things a little differently around here.  Instead of posting ideas about character builds, reviewing games/gadgets, or ridiculing legislation, I'm going to throw up my thought of the week.  This won't be a typical post, it's not going to follow a format, and it really isn't meant for anything other then providing the readers here with some insight on a topic that I feel particularly passionate about.

So, since I don't have my 'about me' section posted yet, I'll start off at the beginning.  My first exposure to online gaming was through MUD's (Multi-User Dimensions), these were all text based, scrolling games that are really a key predecessor to the games we all know and enjoy now.  Aside from assisting me learn to read insanely fast, and destroy people in speed typing contests throughout grade school, these MUD's really provided their players with a unique chance to develop a character in real-time with others.  You could compete head to head, or work together to achieve goals - and your friends from around the world would all be there right on your monitor.  At the time, that was revolutionary.  It's not hard to see how those ideas made their way into the current MMORPG experiences that we all know and love today.

My most prominent memory when playing my first MUD, Forbidden Lands, was when a very popular player decided he was going to quit the game, and was auctioning off his character for real money.  People were outraged, to say the least.  Many complaints centered around not letting someone else pay for your hard work, or making a new player learn the game instead of buying an already-built character flew around.  I don't know where that story ended, if the character was sold or if the player simply left the game, as I also left shortly after.  But reflecting back on now, with all the real money trading that goes on throughout various games on the internet, I don't see what the big deal was.

Fast forward two years, I stumbled across a forum where they were discussing a new MUD, with graphics and a real user interface.  It was called Everquest, and you're hard pressed to find gamers anywhere that haven't heard of it.  Reigning as the king MMORPG for the better part of a decade, Everquest was the first time I participated in real money trading.  Instead of spending countless hours farming for platinum, the in-game currency, I decided it was simply easier to work a few extra shifts and convert the $25 in my pocket into 2500 platinum in the game.  In a cost-benefit analysis, there's no denying that while morally objectionable (at the time), I saved myself a 25+ hours of game time, by simply taking a three hour shift on the weekend.  A good trade.

I did this through one of many websites sprouting up that would trade in-game items or currency for real-world money.  These sites would become more prominent as time went on, and development companies began to take notice, a lot of notice.  These guys were cutting in their profits, and they weren't too happy about it.

Many will say these kind of transactions destroy the economy of a game, that it tilts the balance in favor of those more well-off in real life.  They aren't wrong - I was able to gain advantages over some of my comrades over night, without putting in the time needed in-game to acquire them.  However, I don't see how that ruins the game for them, despite possibly giving them a bit of a remorseful feeling that I 'cheated'.

Fast forward a few more years, its now 2006, and there's talk of a lot of games coming out with a new model called 'pay to play'.  Most games prior to this era were on a subscription method of payment, you gave them your ~$13 a month, and you got unlimited access to that game.  Paying to play would involve purchasing time when you wanted to play, not very different.  But this was just the flake that started the snowball.

'Pay to play' would eventually evolve into 'free to play', and a micro-transaction store would be introduced.  Soon after, 'pay to play' would turn into 'play to win'.  What happened was the developers of MMORPG's realized the subscription method left out a key dynamic - players that had a lot of money in real life didn't have a way to spend their excess on the game.  And after some market research, they started to find out that players (especially the addicted ones) would spend a whole lot more then their subscription fees on their game of choice - if only given the opportunity.

'Play to win' came about when these companies figured out that players would pay substantially more for items in-game if they helped them achieve their goals quickly.  Those players fortunate enough to have some extra cash would eventually be able to achieve any goal they wanted, whenever they wanted, as long as they would pony up the dough.  Inevitably this caused a rift in the inhabitants of these games.  The ones that couldn't afford to keep up with the fortunate players would get left behind in any number of ways, and would either struggle fruitlessly to catch up, or would outright quit the game.  The ones that spent an excess in the game would compete against other players that were also spending in excess - and thus they would both spend more.  Developers loved this, as it proved far more profitable then the subscription method business model for all but the most heavily-populated games.

And the cycle continued, but with a twist.  Development companies started pumping out these free to play games, complete with micro-transaction stores, and players would flock to them, get their fill, and quickly move on.  Nobody seemed to care much, as the developers would easily make their initial investment back, and the migration of players would get their fill of domination and move on to the next game.  Most of the aforementioned games were garbage - designed solely to make players that would spend their hard earned money in-game be able to achieve things quickly and leave other players lagging far behind as long as they kept spending.  A lot of people made a killing off this.  Many still do.

A few companies got it right though, they either merged their subscription models with in-game stores offering aesthetic items only, or they offered minor perks and advantages that were otherwise achievable by non-cash-spending players - things that in the long run never really mattered, and never gave someone a direct advantage off someone else.

Blizzard's World of Warcraft is one example, players can buy 'vanity pets' which do nothing but follow you around in the game.  Blizzard has supplemented their subscription-model's income nicely by doing so.

CCP's Eve-Online offers it's own take on real money trading.  They allow players to buy PLEX, or pilots license extensions, which offer 30 days of game time for a fixed $ price.  You can also buy PLEX off the market in game, for in-game currency.  Meaning that some players play Eve-Online completely for free, while others buy PLEX with real $, and convert it to in-game currency via the market.  An interesting dynamic that seems to work exceptionally well for CCP, and the denizens of Eve-Online.

Riot's League of Legends probably did it the best, though.  Their in-game store has almost no tie to actual game play at all, except for a change in appearance.  What they did was discover players are willing to spend their cash to be seen differently and/or 'better' then other players because they have a different appearance.

Their entire company is sustained off that business model - League of Legends is entirely free to play - you can be the best player in the world and not ever spend a dime.  The only connection that the store has to the in-game performance of your individual character is through 'boosts' you can buy to 'IP', which is the in-game currency you use to purchase 'runes', which provide benefits to your character in game.

Runes themselves can provide an advantage over other players, however you can only equip a certain amount of them per game, and the boost only helps you gain IP faster.  Anyone can buy any runes they want, so the advantage quickly disappears after you've played a few games - IP is awarded every game, winning a game gives your more IP then losing, and so on.  Anyone who plays can eventually get anything anyone else gets.  And the margin for acquiring enough IP to do so is slim at best, the boost is really just a way to spend real money quickly.

As a result of all this, and as much as I'd hate to say it, the subscription model is probably something that's going to get phased out in the next few years, and/or combined with some type of in-game store. Some companies will do it right, and some will do it horribly wrong.  But there's no denying the profitability of such models, hence the flood of garbage-games we've had over the past five years or so.

So where do you stand on all this?  Which model works best for you?  Have you been outraged by a game that went into a micro-transaction model and left you in the dust?  Or are you eagerly looking forward to not paying a monthly fee, and just paying for what you want?


  1. Quake Live. Yearly subscription fee for premium maps and no Ads. Couldn't be happier. Well... that's not true. I'd be happier if they brought back blood. Can someone make that happen for me? Thanks.


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