Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Are you invested?

Virtual property is an interesting subject, because it causes problems that real property doesn't have. One of these problems is the perennity of virtual items you buy. If you buy a sparkly pony in World of Warcraft from Blizzard, you expect that mount to be around for a while. At least as long as you still want to play that game. But what happens if Blizzard decides that they want to shut down WoW? If you only pay subscriptions, you can't really complain if a game company says that they'll stop accepting subscription payments and will close down a game in 6 months (like SOE did with Star Wars Galaxies). But if the business model is Free2Play with an item shop, a game closing down effectively makes the items you bought in that shop disappear, which obviously leads to upset customers.

This is exactly the problem Google has at the moment. They bought a social apps company named Slide a year ago for $200 million, and now decided to shut it down, probably because they started their own social network Google+ now. But Slide had a Free2Play casual game called SuperPoke! Pets, and according to the Washington Post the players are threatening law suits because of the money they "invested" in that game. In some cases thousands of dollars.

Now players in general tend to get rather upset if they can't access their online games. I recently started playing The Sims Social, which is a nice version of The Sims for Facebook. And although I didn't invest any money in it, I'm annoyed that I can't access that game due to a bug which affects many players and which gets you stuck on the loading screen at 65%. But in that situation I obviously have no legal case, and anyway it probably is just a temporary inconvenience. In the case of Star Wars Galaxies I did pay money for a subscription a long time ago, but as I haven't played for years I'm not really bothered, and I don't consider the time and money spent as an "investment".

A game I am currently playing, and where I bought something from the item shop, is World of Tanks. Now WoT is doing great, and I don't expect them to shut down anytime soon. But I do admit that I never read the legalese text that undoubtedly exists somewhere telling me what exactly my property rights are on the Löwe tank I paid real money for. Presumably I clicked through a legal agreement telling me that I don't have any rights at all. And so did the players of SuperPoke! Pets. But the legality of click-through agreements is not yet universally accepted, although US courts tend to consider them legal. And in the case of virtual property it isn't quite clear whether certain laws about property rights or consumer protection don't override the license terms. So unless the SuperPoke! Pets players really sue Google and thus establish some precedence, it is very hard to say what your virtual property rights are. In China there have been several cases where courts considered that the buyers had some fundamental rights even with virtual property they bought.

I'd like to hear from you whether there are games in which you feel invested to a point where you would consider a law suit if the game and your virtual property was taken away from you. Do you accept that you have absolutely no rights at all? Or do you consider that the time and money you spent on an online game under certain conditions gives you certain rights, even if you clicked accept on some terms of service you never read?
This is why I rarely ever invest any money in Free2Play games. I see this money as already wasted. As in I got basically nothing out of it other then some very immidiate benefit and the knowledge that I supported the developer. I don't consider buying any longterm benefits in F2P games at all.
Short answer: no.

Maybe it's me being pessimist, but I actually read one EULA once in the distant past, and having realized that it basically says that has any possible right including and not excluding sacrificing my firstborn son for blood (good luck on that :), I always assume that whatever game I play online can (and maybe will) disappear tomorrow.

So I classify money spent on those games the way I treat money spent on movies or restaurants. If I have a great dinner and the next day the restaurant burns up, well... too bad for them. I already got what I paid for.

Even in the case of virtual property the result is that I don't consider it property, but I align it more on the "subscription to access a service", just like paying for a dinner gives you access to a dinner.

But I can understand that it can (and will) cause endless problems. I'm quite sure that Stallman addressed it somewhere in the past :)
I still approach f2p games as if they have a monthly fee.

I have a monthly gaming budget. I either use this to subscribe to a game. Or, if its non-subscription like Guild Wars, or f2p, I'll make a bigger purchase that will use up future months' budgets.

I guess this is personal self-control though. Most f2p games are obviously set up to funnel you into paying more money than you might otherwise.

That's the "skinner box" mechanic. Though I suppose it is probably similar to sales techniques in other fields. However, the underlying idea is still renting (subscribing) and that conflicts with the idea of owning property f2p companies pitch to you. This is the tension that needs to be resolved.

Some games, like Nexxon's Combat Arms, are actually mostly rented items (weapons etc.). I don't know if they have any permanent weapons. If they do, they are very rare.

Are there analogies with similar real-world property situations?

The only thing I could think of were buying seasons tickets, and the club goes out of buiness. Or buying a leasehold condo and the land is expropriated or condemned. But they don't seem to be exact.
In some ways it's not a question of whether I ethically have rights (I don't think I do). It's a question of whether I legally have rights. If a class action popped up and it was very likely to win I might sign up just to collect some free money.

Well actually I wouldn't because I'm weird and want the online gaming industry to not shut down more than I want £50 but I'm sure my first paragraph represents the majority position.

So if it does come to court and the plaintiffs win we'll see the end of cash shops, online rpgs and online economies as features of games. We'll basically have Tetris with a chat window to look forward to.
When it comes to MMOs and similar subscription based games, I don't expect any rights at all, other that the basic one that they have to provide service during the period I paid for or refund the money.

Only for a game I purchased as a stand-alone game do I feel I have the right to continued usage. If Valve were to suddenly block anyone from playing Portal 1, I'd be eager to join a lawsuit because that was a game I bought and expect to keep the rights to continue playing.

Interestingly, if you read the things you have to agree to when you try to purchase the new Bioware Star Wars online, it spells out that (1) anything you prepay is not refundable and (2) they can shut down the servers with a set amount of notice. (I think it was 90 days, might have been 60.) This means that if you pay for six months or a year in advance, which are not out of the question for MMOs, if they shut down the game, they don't actually have to refund your money for the unusable time.

Now, they may not be willing to face the negative publicity of not giving refunds, but short of a lawsuit, they could do it.
For a while the whole issue of virtual goods has been very niche, after all, just look at Second Life.

Now with it becoming much more obvious in casual games it is becoming far more mainstream, and as a result, we'll just see more of this turn up.

Personally, I tend to not spend money on games in this way, but that is more because of my own gaming habits. I favour single player games more, and with online games I am certainly in the casual end of the spectrum, even if I do play MMORPGs (Guild Wars, EVE and Conan being the ones where I spent the most time recently).

It will be interesting to see what happens with this topic as the generally non-gaming public start to encounter it more often.
(repost) I think Larisa said it best, when she called her time in WoW as building sandcastles. That statement has stuck with me, and allowed me to shift my perception of online games and virtual property.

Part of the issue is that people are purchasing something with their real money, which makes them think of it as real property. The issue comes in when what you are dealing with is actually paying for access. You are renting a tuxedo, not buying it. You pay $99 but you still have to return it when time is up.

You pay to get access to a club, that doesn't mean it will be around tomorrow, and it doesn't mean that you don't have to pay tomorrow to get in if its still around. Same with subscription MMOs. You pay to get in, with no guarantee that when you leave it will still be there.

In the end, since people are "buying" an item for the lifetime of their character, they think its really theirs, but what they are doing is a long term rent of the item for a single payment (+monthly upkeep depending on the game).
I don't see myself owning anything, and accept that the WoW servers will eventually shut down one day.

The only thing that would bother me about that was if they did it the day after I paid my 6 monthly renewal subscription
For more reading on this interesting subject see:

Bottom line, the verdict is still out.

Personally? I think that if the company states that you only pay for the right to *use* the virtual item inside the game, rather than *for the item itself*, you would be rightfully thrown out of court if you tried to sue the company for the loss of that right. Especially if the legal language was clear enough when stating the limits of said usage (e.g. "only as long as the game lasts").

This isn't very different from the fact that these days, at least according to the game companies, we don't legally own most games we play but rather are only "leasing" the right to play them. If this is true for the game I don't see how it could be different for a virtual item inside the game even if it were bought separately.
I've already had an excellent return on investment with the games I've played up to date. Lucky me :-) was quite amusing to watch. This goes along with the click-through agreement that was not read but agreed to in the end. The episode is rated Mature fyi.

The majority of the episode however was a spoof on the long legal agreement you must accept in order to use iTunes. The spoof was that the terms contain all kinds of ridiculous stuff you agree to and Kyle was one of only a few people that didn’t read it before clicking on “accept”.

Games come and go, and so does my interest in a particular game. What I expect from RMT is a reasonable degree of permanence within the existing game world once I have purchased an item. If I buy a $20 +4 Greataxe of Uberness and the MMO subsequently nerfs it to +3 and refuses to refund my money, that's the end of me spending cash in that game. I do understand that with changes to the game world my +4 axe may eventually decrease in relative power. If I learn that RMT items decrease quickly in relative power, I lose interest in purchasing them.

I also figure I'm paying for short-term fun. If my RMT items last a few years it's really nice, but if I pwn people with my $20 +4 Greataxe of Uberness for a couple months and then the game shuts down I'll figure I got my money's worth.

I will generally spend $10-$20 on a good F2P game in payment for the game. I figure if I never pay for good F2P games people will stop making them. That would be sad.
They won't succeed if they actually sue. Of course it's really just internet forum rage, but anyways. I very much doubt there is anyone dumb enough to get in a legal fight with Google over a few thousand bucks. Or a lawyer dumb enough to take the case without loads of cash up front.

The problem with their position is that it would lock game companies into running a game in perpetuity, since they could never close it down. This is a nonsensical result that won't stand, since no one would ever start a game that they would be obligated to run forever, or presumably take any action that would damage that property, like not advertising or updating the game.

Even if you considered it an investment in real property, unless the contract said "Game Co. will run this game diligently forever and ever, amen" then you're just running the risk that the property will become valueless, which is a risk that anyone buying property without a warranty takes. So you could claim to have a bunch of virtual pets; it's just that you can't do anything with those pets or even look at them anymore. Ask people with Enron stock about that.
Most would agree that EULAs give all rights and ownership to the game company. In fact, I would wager that even the plaintiffs in the google law suit understand that. However, the real world is not rational.

Threatening companies with lawsuits affects their image and imposes additional costs, both of which affect profits. The threat of legal action alone is often enough to cause a company to capitulate.
I don't really see why it makes a difference between F2P where you explicitly buy a specific item (like your Löwe tank), or a subscription model where you spend hours and hours (equals money as well) on some quest for a specific item (like a unicorn in Vanguard).

I really don't understand why you think someone can complain about money spend in a F2P, but not in a subscription model. Are items worth less in one compared to the other?

I would just feel sad if my virtual world would disappear. I would care less about the actual items in it. They have no value (virtual or otherwise) without the world they existed in.
Tobold, did you say you bought a Löwe? I considered buying one but $50 seems a bit high. Is it worth it for you?
I bought my Löwe when it was still 7,500 gold. Later they raised the price to 12,500 because it turned out to be too good and too popular. At 7,500 I considered it a good deal.
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