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.