Thursday, September 04, 2008
Paying for advancement
Blizzard's latest recruit-a-friend program, with it's triple xp and free levels, made a number of people recruit themselves as "friend", and start dual-boxing WoW for faster advancement. WoWInsider reports how to get from level 1 to level 60 in 20 minutes. But of course you need to pay for a second account to get all the benefits. So if you look closer, you are actually paying real money for faster advancement.
In Wizard101, which I just subscribed to, you can buy a second currency called "crowns" on the website. In game you can then exchange the crowns for gold, or buy special sets of epics for level 5+, level 10+, level 15+, level 20+ etc., which are much better than the gear you can get from questing and adventuring. The crown-bought gear increases your health, your mana, your spell damage, and reduces your chance to fizzle and the damage you take. Plus you get some extra spells. Again you pay real money for in-game stuff that makes you advance faster.
In the case of WoW and Wizard101 that is double-dipping, first they charge you a monthly fee, then they charge you a second time if you want to advance faster. More classic are the huge number of free-to-play games with microtransactions. In many cases you can pay for scrolls or items that grant temporary double xp or gold, thus making you advance faster.
If you consider a MMO like any other game, paying to advance faster seems wrong, a form of cheating. You couldn't imagine paying for an extra queen in chess to win games. But then MMOs aren't really like other games: Skill and luck only play a limited role in how fast you advance. The most important factor in nearly all MMORPGs is how much time you have to play. People playing twice as many hours advance twice as fast. Nobody remotely believes that the players who will get the new "first to reach level 80" titles in Wrath of the Lich King are those who are the most skilled. It will be those who either catass, that is play day and night with just minimum interruption for life's most basic necessities, or those who share accounts and play a character 24/7 in shifts.
So if you can advance faster by spending more hours, then why not allow similar advancement for money? After all, time is money, and people with jobs and family could well be willing to rather spend dollars than endless hours in front of the computer. The flaw in that argument is the premise that advancing faster is better. Do you watch DVDs on fast-forward so you can watch the same movie in half the time? Certainly not! The movie director timed the movie in a way that it is entertaining at its normal speed, and in fast-forward you'd miss most of what's going on. And the same is true for MMORPGs: The original leveling speed in World of Warcraft isn't so bad, at least not for your first character. If somebody actually used the Recruit-a-friend program to recruit a friend who never played WoW before, I'm not sure he's doing him a favor to speed him through the game at triple speed. The moral hazard for game companies is that by selling ways to advance faster, they are tempted to design the game in a way that the most fun speed is the one you have to pay extra for, while the no-pay default speed is feeling slow and grindy. If a game is designed so that players are tempted to pay to skip parts of it, there is obviously something wrong with that game.
If the different speed of advancement of the catasses and the casual players becomes too much of a problem, I'd prefer a Chinese solution: A character can only earn full xp for 3 hours a day, and gets no xp and loot at all after playing 5 hours. People who want to play more, need to play several alts. But at least the difference between the fastest character to level to the cap and the average isn't as huge any more. Better restrict the unhealthy behavior than encouraging it with extra titles.