Wednesday, June 10, 2009
What you get for your money
In the comments of the previous post some people were asking what I thought of this or that game item one can buy, e.g. in The Sims 3 store, or whether I wanted to transfer real-life success into MMO success. To answer that, lets have a look at what you can get for your money in video games and other games or hobbies.
You can buy a chess set for $9.95, or for $500, or even $500,000. A set of golf clubs can cost anything between $50 and $32,000. Obviously the cost of your chess set has zero influence on your chance of winning at golf, and the influence of high-tech golf clubs on your handicap is minor at best. Nevertheless most people spend more than the absolute minimum on a chess set or set of golf clubs. Why?
Part of the answer is certainly that expensive items are status symbols. But that isn't the whole answer, because ultimately you'll fail to impress if you keep losing in spite of expensive equipment. But another big part of the answer is that people simply enjoy a certain degree of luxury for themselves. Just like that big car is not only there to impress your neighbors, it also is nicer to drive than a second-hand Honda Accord, people like to enjoy the fruits of their real-life success. After all, what good is it to work hard and earn lots of money if you end up not spending it?
As the demographics of video games spread into age groups that have more money to spend, a market for luxury video game items naturally develops. And if the game companies don't supply this market, third parties certainly will, and not always in the best possible way. The whole grey market of RMT, power-leveling services, and selling of accounts with high-level characters on EBay, is the effect of unscrupulous business men seeing that opportunity and going for it, regardless of what their action is doing to the game they sell stuff for. If the demand is there, somebody will always supply. Wouldn't it be better if the supplier was the game developers themselves? Not only could they use the profits to make better games, but they could also make sure that the only things for sale are those that don't destroy the fundamentals of the game.
So, as I said about the example of the Free Realms weapons that are better than every other weapon in the game, badly designed video game items for sale can destroy a game, by making playing that game obsolete. But that doesn't mean that the sometimes rabid opposition against all sales of video game items is justified. There is a legit market for well-designed luxury video game items, just like there is a market for marble chess sets and carbon-fibre golf clubs.
I'm all for the ability to spend money on video game items and services, as long as these items and services are basically for higher comfort, added content, and status symbol purposes. I would have no problem at all if Blizzard offered WoW epic mounts for cash, or opened a premium server with a $50 monthly fee and GM-run events every day. I have no problem with the possibility to buy more furniture or hairstyles in The Sims 3 for real money, even if in that case I'm not personally interested enough in that game to buy those. I am however interested enough in Luminary to want to spend money on lets say a one-month teleport ticket, allowing me to get around faster, or a mount, or added inventory space.
That does mean that people with more real-life success would have a more comfortable life and access to more content than people without money. But just like you don't win every game of golf because you have the more expensive clubs, the luxury items in video games can be designed to not eliminate the need for skill. And if that pricing segmentation is making the game company more money, that is perfectly fine with me. Unlike some people I do believe that game companies making profits is good for everybody: The game developers, because they end up making a good living and being rewarded for good games. And the players, because some of the profits of the game company are going to be invested back into making the next great game. Who would want to live in that alternate universe where Blizzard is losing money on WoW and can't afford to develop Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, and the next MMO?
Not only am I for pricing segmentation, I would also argue that it is an inevitable development. Once video games move from a narrow, homogeneous audience to a larger and more segmented public, egalitarian business models become less and less attractive. Video game companies aren't charities, and they do notice that with flat fee pricing other people end up making all that extra money from their players, be that gold sellers or the people who sell faster computers and high-speed internet connections. The writing is already on the wall, from The Sims 3 store, to downloadable added content for Fallout 3 costing money. With every other consumer item having gone down that way, it would be bizarre if video games didn't. Welcome to the real world!