Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Compensation gone wrong

The Nosy Gamer reports a 25% drop in Planetside 2 player numbers following the Cert-Gate affair. So what happened? Basically an accident of the Free2Play business model: SOE made changes to their Free2Play model which were well meant and positive for the players; items which were previously sold per character were now unlocked account-wide, thus in future you get more use out of the same purchase. And SOE even looked ahead, and predicted that people who due to these changes would end up having bought the same item twice should be compensated. They set up a generous rate of compensation, 2 certificates for each 1 Station Cash spent.

And that is where things went wrong: The system that calculated the compensation had a very wide definition of what a “Station Cash spent” was. If you bought a bundle of items, it considered it as if you had bought each item individually at full price, although the price of the bundle was heavily discounted. There might or might not have been bugs in the calculation that added even more compensation. And so some players ended up with a huge amount of certificates, which is an in-game currency that can normally only be acquired by playing. People who hadn't played much ended up on top of leaderboards, and then spent those certificates to get gear others had played a long time to acquire.

Now generally we shouldn't complain about generous compensation. It is clear that the changes to the Free2Play model would hurt people who had spent real money on the game, and that is not the part of your customer base that you want to anger. But the fundamental error was to not refund them in Station Cash, but to give them compensation in a currency which normally cannot be bought. This turned the compensation into a kind of Pay2Win scheme. People who paid money ended up having both the benefits of the real money purchases and the benefits of the certificates as if they had “grinded” lots of hours.

Ultimately the whole story is very revealing about the illusion of progress on which modern games are built. In the past you got better at a game because you were learning things while playing. It takes many hours to master chess, but the reason why you are a better chess player at the end is an increase in your personal skill. If somebody designed “Chess Online” today, you would start with only pawns and the king, and acquire the other pieces by playing lots of games, or have the option to get the pieces faster by paying for them. Thus even if you didn't learn much from playing, you would get better with time, or with money.

Getting better at a complicated game by learning through playing is a slow process. Getting better at a not-so-complicated game is fast, but can’t go on very long, because you quickly learn everything there is to learn. Getting better at a game because your stats increase through playing or paying is a process which is more easily controlled by the developers, and can give an illusion of permanent progress. Players end up with nearly the same positive feeling of success that they would have from learning to play better, without the game having actually to have an extended learning curve. When Raph Koster wrote in his Theory of Fun that fun comes from learning how to play a game, he didn't mention that you could substitute that learning curve fun by a “getting better at playing” curve fun that is based on other principles than learning.

Of course in the end all that is just smoke and mirrors, and the Planetside 2 compensation scheme blew away some of that smoke. People realized that suddenly the “best players” were those who had spent most on the game. No wonder many of them ended quitting the game: The compensation scheme shattered the illusion of getting better by playing. But it isn't clear that this will actually hurt SOE, because those who left are most likely the games “worst customers”, those who didn't pay anything. The people who spent money on the game are presumably quite happy right now, and those who spent only a little might even be wishing now that they had spent more. What more can a game company wish for?

Selling game objectives is a sin.

Needs to be added to some kind of a list for game design.
"But it isn't clear that this will actually hurt SOE, because those who left are most likely the games “worst customers”"

Not sure if you're being tongue in cheek here.

If not then I suspect the answer isn't quite so simple.

The reason people pay is to achieve a level that they would not normally be able to reach by playing in the time available to them. If we compare item buying in Diablo 2 (where it was illegal and the top items were rare) with item buying in Diablo 3 (where it was legal and the top items were common) it was much more worthwhile spending real money because you got better than everyone else.

That had profound implications for how enjoyable the game was. Diablo went from a game where you could aspire to be elite to a communistic game where everyone is elite and therefore no one is. PS2 may have gone from a game where you could aspire to be good to a game where you get farmed by rich dudes unless you open your wallet.

It's all about perception. I've always thought PS2 sounded like a great game but after reading your piece today I'm much less inclined to play it.
False conclusion. The items gained can be gained simply by playing for a long, long time.

Anyone who got to the top of a leaderboard with those items would have done so eventually anyway, since they already had the player skill to use those items. They just got there early. There is no pay to win (anyone can get these items - given enough time) - only pay to save time.

The corporations should figure out how they can make money from people exploding in indignant rage at the least evidence - it'd make quite a bundle, I should think.
It's a bit more complicated - I think that people spend very little in F2P models thinking how to give real value to the customer.

WoW showed that there are a lot of people willing to pay 15$ a month for a long long time. You should ask people for money but not extort them.

I think that F2P analogy should be with waiters in a restaurant. Your bill is between you and the owner, but the tip is on your discretion (cultural and geographical differences may apply). They should not hold hostage your meal in hopes of a better tip.

So they have to figure out how to make you give them more without screwing everybody else.

Things I can think of - big donations for the ability to shape in game real estate - Carnegie Hall hall don't offend any guy that cannot afford to sponsor one, but all can enjoy the benefits of the music and arts it gives.

Guild and social management tools can also be purchased. If you and your friends enjoy the game, 5USD will be more than easy to come by to be able to have the ability to organize and chat in private etc ...

I think that they should sell things that benefit more people than strictly the purchaser.

The official thread for the "certgate" now says that no certificates were dished out incorrectly. Those characters getting catapulted to the top of the leaderboards were alts of the 0.03% that got more than 2000 certs out of the compensation, and Sony has plans to amend the leaderboards to ignore granted certifications.

That said, I had initially speculated on Twitter that this was good intentions implemented incorrectly, but apparently the update did exactly what it was programmed to do. They just didn't think of the combined impact of bundle discounts and large numbers of alts. I'm not sure why one would want more than a three or four alts anyway. It's not like you can't just change your class at the respawn screen whenever you want.

BTW, are XFire stats now "representative of the general gaming population"?
In MMORPGs in general, it isn't the player who gets better, but the character. That's the whole point of these games. Your character experiences a virtual world and improves through these experiences. Same as in your D&D game. Your players aren't getting better, yet their characters have improved their abilities immensely. The fun (at least while levelling) isn't in killing things, it's in exploring the virtual world, experiencing the stories, playing your part in them, and influencing them (where the game will let you).

Planetside 2 is a game, like world of Tanks, that tries to incorporate some of the character-building ideas from MMORPGs into a FPS game. This hybrid leads to some people complaining that their player skills are nullified by other players having very experienced (and hence well equipped) characters. In the end, the virtual world experience of these hybrid games is minimal, so I can see their point.

What's worse than engaging in sneaky money-grabbing practices and seeing your customers desert you? Doing the generous and honest thing by your customers and seeing them desert you!
BTW, are XFire stats now "representative of the general gaming population"?

Representative? No!
Is there a correlation between XFire numbers and "real" numbers? Yes!

Like the shadows in Plato's Cave, what we see isn't reality, but a projection of it. In the case of XFire or Raptr numbers, this is the best projection available for Free2Play games.

It is very easy to criticize a method, but a lot harder to propose something better. If you have any idea how to better measure trends in popularity of games, feel free to tell them to us.
How about different possible conclusion?

Those 25% are much more likely to be paying customers that suddenly got their "reward for playing" (certs) in amounts wildly higher then anything they could get through normal play. They got everything they might have ever really wanted from certs... and then their desire to play immediately diminished. There was no other carrot to chase then "simply playing".

Much more likely then 25% non-paying customers ragequitting over leaderboards.
It is very easy to criticize a method, but a lot harder to propose something better. If you have any idea how to better measure trends in popularity of games, feel free to tell them to us.
One could always use the official API.

Even if Sony had refunded the Station Cash, there would still have been complaints about people spending it on other items or even other games. At least with certification points the effect was contained within a single game.
I've never understood why people get so angry about purchasing power with money when so much can be purchased via Time (a currency in itself).

I find that MMORPG's only offer an illusion of depth and skill.

Look at 95% of WoW players. You would find it hard to differentiate them in terms of skill based purely on their power (gear). You have superb players scuffing around in Raid Finder because they cannot sign up to guild schedules whilst there are in comparison mediocre sub par players in guilds that perhaps manage to clear Normal mode and the easiest one or two heroic bosses just before the tier ends. The latter being less skilful than the former but thanks to their abundance of spare time they have far more power.

It seems that outside of what the top 3% of players are doing, pretty much everything else can be achieved by simply spending enough time on it.

That is what demotivates me. Differentiation largely comes from Time and not player Skill.

Even if you want to play in the top 3% where skill matters, you still need to be Time rich. Many of the guys in WoW progression races don't even have jobs given the hours they play for.

I cannot get my head around players complaining that someone acquired item X with real money when "I had to grind for 8 hours a day for that item". What is the problem? Their currency is dollars and you currency is time?

Time is money. But that is the inconvenient truth of these games. It isn't really about skill, it is more about time. If you want to be in the tiny niche where skill matters you still need to pay lots of Time. If you were interested in skill you would be playing a game that offered gear normalised PVP.

Sure you need to pay Time to acquire Skill but in MMORPG's and these modern shooters you can reach skill cap long before you have gained all the power. In fact you don't even need to reach the skill cap at all.
Woody: I'm pretty sure that if we take, say, soccer, only the top 3% players do it competitively, with a huge time commitment and all the rest do it for fun (just like MMORPGs!)

Truth be told, pure skill-based games require just as huge time commitment as grind based ones. You won't become a competitive soccer (or chess, or StarCraft...) player without playing a lot, far more than any gear grind would take.
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