Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 29, 2009
You can't cheat at Lego!

This week my review of the microtransaction business model, with its good and bad incarnations, advantages and disadvantages, evoked several responses calling microtransactions "cheating". Now I would agree with that in the context of a competitive game, for example a PvP game. Microtransactions have no place in a good PvP game (but then, neither has time-based advancement). But most of the games I was talking about, like Free Realms or Luminary, are not PvP games, they are PvE games. A PvE game is not by nature competitive, and ideally is even cooperative. In a PvE game you "win" by setting yourself goals and achieving them. That isn't unlike setting yourself the goal to build Booty Bay out of Lego (thanks for the link goes to the MMO blogosphere's expert on Lego and parenting, Ancient Gaming Noob Wilhelm2451) and "winning" by achieving that goal. You can't cheat at Lego!

Note that Lego is a microtransaction game too. The more Lego stones you buy, the more ambitious projects you can build. You might set yourself a goal in Lego with a competitive purpose, trying to build something larger and more impressive than your brother for example, or to impress your school mates. But that doesn't mean Lego is a competitive game. And the same is true of PvE-centric MMORPGs, whether they have a microtransaction business model or a flat fee subscription. World of Warcraft is not a competitive game. It is just like Lego, in that you can perfectly well be content of just setting your own goals and achieving them. The fact that some players are very competitive about their WoW achievements doesn't change that.

World of Warcraft and other PvE MMORPGs can't possibly be competitive games, because being a competitive game necessitates that the game is fair to start with. That is not the case with MMORPGs. Advancement in World of Warcraft to a large extent depends on how much time you spent in that game. A new player starting WoW today and being able to only play 10 hours per week will never ever "catch up" with a veteran player who plays WoW for years and spends 100 hours per week in the game. Even if for some reason the new players was more skilled than the veteran.

So just like in Lego, in World of Warcraft you set yourself personal goals, whether that is reaching the next level or killing the next raid boss or hitting the gold cap, and you get a positive feeling of "winning" or "achievement" from reaching that goal. Unlike competitive games, other players achieving their goals in no way affects you achieving yours. There is no competition between the casual player trying to reach level 20 this weekend and Ensidia. There are other players around you, and you sure see their achievements as well, but you automatically disregard them if they are too far from your own goals, and not achievable by you. It might come to a shock to some raiders, but there are millions of non-raiding WoW players who don't envy the raiders at all. When you read stories of exceptional "achievements" in WoW, like the people who reached level 70 in TBC after 28 hours, or level 80 in WotLK even faster, you're more likely to consider them no-life losers than role models. Again it's like Lego, if one kid has rich parents who buy him the expensive pirate ship set, the other kids are perfectly capable to see how exactly he managed to build that fancy pirate ship, and he'll ultimately fail to impress them with his leet Lego building skillz.

And that is why microtransactions work. If that mount or glowing sword is only available for cash, parading it in front of other players only demonstrates you have cash. Of course other players might wish they had more cash, but they'll never admire you for your leet microtransaction skillz. The more clever ones even realize that your glowing sword is subsidizing their Free2Play game, thus there is little bad blood. It takes a particular mean and envious mindset to consider everyone who drives past you in a Mercedes as a "cheater", and the same is true in microtransaction games. You know where that mount or glowing sword came from, and that is it. As long as that other player isn't beating you in PvP with that glowing sword, you're not really affected by it. You can't cheat in a PvE game any more than you can cheat at Lego.
You sound very sure that PvE isn't competitive. I don't believe that to be the case. I'll give some examples:

1. Playing the economy. It's PvE, but definitely competitive. And if RMT itens could let someone claim a crafting monopoly on some item then it has definitely affected the PvE game.

2. Raiding. Raid groups can and do compete for recruits, server firsts, and boasting rights.

3. Guilds. Guilds compete for members. This is more true in some games than others but if you look at a game where lower level members can actively help the guild then there is competition involved.

I honestly think that any time you get any multiplayer game, whether it involves cooperative or competitive play, there will be competition.
Players creating their own competitions is not the same as the game being competitive. If you play a real competitive game like chess, the victory condition is part of the rules. You can't declare yourself the winner because you managed to transform a pawn into a queen, because that is not the victory condition of chess.

In WoW everybody creates his own victory conditions. Groups of people might even use the same set of victory condition, like the boasting rights on server firsts you mentioned. But that doesn't make a server first a recognized victory condition for every single player. Many people will simply reject your definition of a victory condition, and declare it invalid.

Just look at people who play with different sets of victory conditions, for example greedy goblin Gevlon. He certainly "won" WoW in his defined set of victory conditions. But somebody whose victory conditions don't include reaching the gold cap, but are about boss kills, Gevlon buying himself into a raiding guild will not be appreciated.

You can compete in everything, even in building sandcastles (check out Ixobelle's blog on that). That doesn't mean that a sandbox is a competitive game.
Well, RMT, SUB and Time.
It's not really a matter of not having time, it's rather an unwillingness to commit some time to it.

People want fun. Some have fun by being challenged, others by being entertained. We just have to look at all the other media (cinema, music, literature, etc.) to see which one is more profitable.

So the same applies to MMO's. Like you said so many times profit drives companies so the most profitable model will be the mainstream standard. The rest is peanuts.

RMT will probably become more and more prevalent because people want their cookies and they want them now. And it's alright. Technology is advancing and I believe that, similar to cable, it will be more and more affordable to create good niche games.

In the mainstream games will probably follow the standard that Free Realms is setting because you can only go so far in selling just vanity items to people. RMT'ers prefer to spend money to be able to do whatever they like with less invested time. The SUB'ers prefer to work with the time they have to reach the objective. I don't think it will be possible to have both of them in the same game because that would make the raiding dramah pale in comparison.

So RMT is the future. People log in to a game, and they will pay for things that will maximize their entertainment value. Of course we will probably have RMT in competitive games as well (i'm thinking about WoW's Arena Servers character buying).

In the end the RMT model will prevail and SUB model will go niche. That is one of the reasons Darkfall NEEDS to have some degree of success. WIth all it's problems, it proves that a small indie company can make a fun game that caters to a niche taste. I just pray that it's profitable for although I enjoy, for instance, Wizard101, I need a bit more than that to satisfy my gaming needs.
WoW is PvE... except for the PvP parts. True, the bulk of the game is PvE, however, Blizzard decided to also include PvP servers, PvP flagging on the PvE servers, and Battlegrounds.
While I do agree that microtransactions are a more bitter pill to swallow in a PVP based rather than PVE based game, there is precedence of a good PVP game with microtransactions.

Magic: The Gathering.
And that is why microtransactions work. If that mount or glowing sword is only available for cash, parading it in front of other players only demonstrates you have cash.I'm an achiever according to the Bartle Test:

One of the appeals of online gaming to the Achiever is that he or she has the opportunity to show off their skill and hold elite status to others.And that's why microtransactions don't work, at least for me. If I show of of my imba sword I don't want it to be a "yeah yeah, you got cash". But a "wow, you killed that imba boss, grats". It diminishes those achievements.
"Advancement in World of Warcraft to a large extent depends on how much time you spent in that game. A new player starting WoW today and being able to only play 10 hours per week will never ever "catch up" with a veteran player who plays WoW for years and spends 100 hours per week in the game. Even if for some reason the new players was more skilled than the veteran."

That is patently untrue by your own logic, Tobold. If WoW is not competitive because players make their own goals, then it is relatively simple to see how a new player with less playtime could "catch up" with that vet playing until his fingers bleed.

For example: Perhaps the vet is a h/c raider and the noob is an achievement whore. The noob could easily outpace the vet's achievements with weeks of focused playing.

Or maybe the reverse is true: the noob joins a hardcore raiding guild and quickly blows by the level of progression that the veteran had achieved.

Progress is relative to individual goals by your own admission.
@Tobold: what you wrote is completely true.

However "completely true" only affect intellectual beings. Most people are rather irrational-emotional. In poorer countries the average people DO consider every Mercedes-owner a cheater. They believe that "BMW" means "break my windows" and the number after the "A" in the Audi models mean the years in prison the owner deserves.

Most people are irrationally competitive. You can see how many people got "explorer" title. This is an extremely boring thing to get but after the achievement was introduced, the guild chats were filled "X explored Feralas".

The reason why they buy the flaming sword is to get ahead of their (maybe only imaginary) peers.

EVERYTHING what involves more than 1 people (who are not forced to cooperate) is automatically competitive.
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Have you seen the price of Legos? They are more like macrotransaction! =)
Tobold, you're understating the relevance of player-created victory conditions by considering them "lesser" than the "core" ruleset.

In a PvP game, a player-created victory condition may not be maximum player kills - it may simply be outlasting the competition, maximizing healing done, or even only maximizing player kills for a subset of the opposition (say, being able to kill anyone from a given class, or race).

In other words, the only clear difference between PvP games and PvE games regarding RMT per your suggestion is that PvP games have a proposed goal of killing as many enemies as possible. This may be the only stated victory condition in the "core" ruleset, but it remains just as subjective a goal as completing the "final" boss in PvE (i.e. some gamers don't care about hardcore raiding, and some don't care about maximizing their kills).

MMOGs are intrinsically about player-created victory conditions, and if RMT can influence a large enough set of these conditions, then it's arguably bad for a given game, regardless of the game's "core" ruleset.

Fortunately, many developers are still looking at RMT as an aesthetic aspect, like in WoW. That is to say, RMT isn't being used to supply buyers with items of any substantial benefit, so RMT's influence is therefore limited.
Good Post Tobold, I unwillingly acknowledge the truth in your statements.

I don't want them to be true but they are.

I set different goals for myself all the time, to enjoy gameplay, but if someone uses money instead of effort, I always feel cheated out of my own victory. That will never change however true your statements are.

I mostly agree with your views on RMT. However, as the Winged Nazgul said, Magic is a PvP game and you can (must) buy your way to success. Up to a point of course, but an average player with a great deck will beat a great player with a bad deck most of the time. The point is, PvP games with RMT will be viable, if most of the player base accepts and participates in the micro-transactions. In other words, I’m not getting an advantage over the player base by spending cash; I’m just catching up!

Another point, you can spend as much cash as you want, in any game with a skill component (that includes most MMO’s), you still need to spend time in the game to improve. So there is a bit of a difference in spending money or spending time to get the shiny gear. The one player will be better at playing the game.
Hello Tobold,

I have to disagree with you on this one (again). Because I do not seem to be able to put the needed subtelty in my words with my poor English here is the discaimer :

This is not a hate post, it's just for the sake of discussion.

I would fully agree with the analogy between a kid playing Lego and a single player game.

But let's make another comparison.

Imagine a few kids in the same class room (read server), all playing with lego. Yet the rich one has acces so loads of bricks while the poor boy next to him does not.

Even if Lego is not a competitive game, do you think this would be ok? Even if you give the poor boy twice the time to play whith the bricks?

As a teacher, I can tell you what felling of competition and frustration it would cause.

But you have a point. In an RMT MMO the paying customer is sponsoring the free gaming time. And this can be ideal for both wealthy and less wealthy players.

RMT has definitly its place on the market, and will maybe entertain more people in the long run than monthly subscriptions.

But, even if I could pay for microtransactions whithout any trouble, I guess this is not my choice.

You can cheat at Lego, its called gluing the blocks together. RMT in which character power is for direct sale is the equivalent of selling pre built lego's.

If both players want to build a castle, and player A buys the lego's and starts building it, and player b buys the lego's and then pays an extra $10 for them to come pre-constructed. Then player B has basically cheated, he has diminished the value of player A's accomplishments by nature of his own lack of accomplishment. The end result is that either the player A's get discouraged and stop playing or we enter into some kind of RMT armsrace where he with the most disposable income wins.

You can say what you will, but even a PvE game is competitive, aside from player made competitiveness there is competitiveness instilled in the game itself.

You have 10 people in a raid, a boss drops 2 items, thus said players although working together are now competing over said loot.

Its like golf, technically the players are playing against the golf-course. But at the end of the day who fared better is all that anyone cares about.

Even blizzard rewards competitiveness in PvE. There are achievements for server firsts.

I don't think all RMT is bad, I think anything that has a physical impact on the game however is. Its like you illustrated in Freerealms, if the payed class the warrior is better then the brawler, then the brawler may as well not exist. If the sword you payed $5 is better then the best thing a blacksmith can make, then blacksmiths may as well not exist. Time and time again MMO's have illustrated that anything that isn't the best is regarded as inferior and worthless regardless of any redeeming qualities it may have. If class A was amazingly fun to play, and innovative and provided super group utility and class B had 1 button that did 10times the damage of the best ability class A had, you'd see at least 80% of the players running around as class B, and the fourms would be completely filled with threads about how class a is gimp and nerf class B and so on.
PvE is indeed competitive not only because players compare each other by those achievements, but because Blizzard actually tunes the encounters according to the success rate.
If we're going to use MTG as an example, there's a considerable difference between the "PVP" of Draft vs. Tournament play. Drafting requires a different skillset from Tourney play, and players start more or less on similar ground. (Luck in opening bombs can be significant, but a well-designed draft set evens things out.)

Draft-style PvP works just fine with RMT/microtransactions because, as in any good PvP design, skill is the key to success. It's the Tourney-style PvP (either the time-rich DIKU or the money rich poorly implemented RMT) that often winds up grossly imbalanced.

Speaking of PvE, though, I'll reiterate what I wrote a few posts back. Defining your success by comparing yourself to others is *always* a bad idea.

It's true in life as much as it is in games. People do it because it's easy, but it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed at some point, and ultimately, never satisfied. Be happy with what you have, find the joy in the journey, live within your means, and *choose* to be happy. Choosing to let the success of *others* dictate your level of happiness is voluntarily choosing disappointment.
While the play differences between draft and constructed formats are marked, the economics are still the same at the end of the day.

WoTC is still going to make money from booster boxes used for draft or constructed decks. By having multiple formats, they just ensure more potential income.
I think we're dealing with a state of mind here more than a reality.

There are comments on this thread that, if taken to logical ends, lead to a very sad existence indeed. The concept that if somebody did less work than I did to achieve something somehow diminishes the value of my accomplishment is simply a path to bitter resentment.

When I was 16 I bought a car with money I had earned over the previous three years. But the parents of some people I knew just bought them cars when they turned 16. Should I have felt bad that my buying a car was somehow diminished? In reality my car probably meant more to me because I paid for it myself.

Competitiveness in a PvE game like WoW is mostly an opt-in phenomena in my opinion. Somebody getting 'leet raid gear, or a server first or the like does not affect me and my enjoyment or diminish the sense of accomplishment when my little group of friends does something like finish an instance that some raider could probably solo. If I let what other people were accomplishing in the game worry me I'd probably stop having fun. So I don't. If you worry about it, well, that is you, not the game.

And, to poke Tobold for something he said in a past post, in EVE Online where you can effectively buy ISK, I don't let that bother me either. Our little corp is planning to build a space station with skills and parts all paid for through money we earned in game. That somebody else could have bought the ISK won't diminish our sense of accomplishment in our little corner of the sandbox. We're just having fun.

As for parenting expertise mentioned in the post, I deny it all. Parenting has been purely on the job training, trial and error, and trying to not do the things my parents did that just made things worse when I was a kid.
In WoW everybody creates his own victory conditions.

But that's just the point Tobold. Just because you don't define pve as competitive and you do define pvp as competitive does not mean everyone feels the same way.

I'm sure anyone who can't get a raid spot because their damage is low by comparison to other people in their guild sees pve as intensely competitive.

Equally I'm sure the afk AV leechers of last year didn't consider pvp competitive.
The thing is Stabs, that is you (or whoever) imposing your own competitive view on the game, not the game imposing competition on you.

You can turn anything into a competition if you try, that does not make it necessarily competitive by nature.
Okay, I also feel the need to talk about the competitiveness in PvE MMORPGs. Sure that theoretically those games aren't competitive at first glance. Players don't fight each other or compete explicitly all of the time, that's true, but the whole achievement-oriented gameplay already makes the game naturally competitive to some extent.

This is not a case in which players are the ones to blame. It is how the game is designed that guides them through the path of competition. People feel that they have to compete somehow, somewhere, I would disagree with Gevlon and affirm that it is actually a very rational thing to do in such games, it is how they get the sense of accomplishment.

The feeling of superiority in most PvE MMORPGs is actually what they are all about. Grinding is not fun, but people do it so that they can get "superior" to others. There would be no point in getting stronger if they had no one to compare themselves to. So in my opinion, most PvE-centered games out there, with few exceptions, are competitive in nature, because their mechanics are designed in a way that will guide the individuals to have conflictant interests. It's all about showing off that you are more capable of achieving a higher level, gaining shiny equipment or being successful in the game.

And again, the sense of pleasure comes from beholding your "superiority" in relation to others. When people just start comparing themselves to other players too much, they will get pissed, they will see flaws, and then they will have more disposition to spend hours grinding. The truth is that most PvE games are actually a race to the top, and a race is competitive, of course. The whole motivation for grinding comes from comparing yourself to others, very few people ignore the massive aspect of MMORPGs when taking this into consideration. This is why grinding certainly works for MMORPGs, but not for single-player RPGs.

There are a few PvE-oriented games that don't match this definition, of course, but it is not incorrect to say that most of them fit into this category. We can see today how most MMORPGs have horrible communities and competitive atmospheres, even when they aren't officially competitive games.

We could certainly use the logic of "victory conditions" if such games were single-player games, which is not the case. People feel directly affected by the fact that they aren't alone in that virtual world, and they constantly need to gain some sense of recognition. Microtransactions actually fit perfectly in this point, because they offer people the opportunity to attain the recognition with less (or even no) efforts. The truth is that players create their own competitions in microtransaction PvE games as often as it is done in PvP games.

I am not exactly expecting Lego to be a competitive game like the ones I previously mentioned though. There are several variables involved, in my opinion, to determine if the game has a tendency to competition or cooperation, that is why I wouldn't oversimplify them as "PvP games are competitive and PvE games are not".

I would say that WoW is competitive to some extent, along with most PvE-centered MMORPGs, one single exception that comes to my mind right now is CoH. After playing both of these games it is not hard to notice how different they are on this aspect. And it is not just a coincidence that CoH's players are more cooperative than WoW's, it's clearly on the mechanics. Some players adapt to change, others move to games that suit them best, WoW just happens to lure the more egoistical player, and that is explained by its mechanics.
Even if you can compete in a game that has no set victory conditions, the fact that you set the victory condition yourself also means that you set many of the rules yourself. The post is talking about cheating, and in WoW one man's cheat is another man's victory condition. Gevlon buying himself a raid spot is a perfect example, some would say well done, others consider it cheating.
Imagine if lego offered a pre-built lego set of booty bay for 299.99. Those people who recreated it would be chumps, spending a ridiculous amount of time to make something which was already made and offered.

Microtransactions make chumps of people who spend real time doing things, because almost always the money spent is better than the time. The whole reason microtransactions are worth it is because they save a lot of time doing things that there's no real reason to do otherwise-they are just more inefficient.

The problem though is that there are very few flexible goals in MMO's. Want to be the best at the arena? Chances are microtransaction people will have the edge because of gear they only can buy.

Want to get all the games achievements? Its a lot easier when you can pop bought potions or use rmt to speed up the process.

Its not just achieving a goal, its how that goal is achevied in context. You might be all proud you got one character to cap, but then you hear about people who PL alts to cap in weeks, and you start to wonder why you slogged through six months or more yourself.
@TAGN: "You can turn anything into a competition if you try, that does not make it necessarily competitive by nature."

Necessarily no, but we are competitive by nature. We often have to try quite hard to not engage in competitive behaviour, it's pretty much automatic.

I'm remind of the "You are not your avatar" discussion. :)
Tobold, I agree that if that item in your example were RMT only, then nobody would really care.

However if the sword can also be obtained via other means (whether a time sink or something more "skill" based), that's where more people start to feel that good old e-peen envy.

It all comes down to drawing the line between what things should be available only through the game, and what things can be bought via RMT. Personally, I think the line should be drawn at power-altering items.

This would mean the stats on the sword should be achievable by anyone for not too much effort and hence would not be available via RMT. But the skin on the sword should be available via RMT or via the standard grinding it out method.

This means that people who play casually can still compete without paying extra... but if they want to look good while doing it, they will have to pay for it.
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