Tobold's Blog
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Digital expropriation

Seems that I chose a good time earlier this year to leave Facebook. Some of the biggest makers of Facebook games, including Zynga and EA, this year abandoned quite a number of previously successful games. That quite annoyed those who were still playing games like The Sims Social or SimCity Social, even if user numbers had shrunk from 65 million to 5 million.

But what I find most interesting is that everybody who bought virtual property in these games basically lost everything. Zynga and EA gave a handful of freebies in other games to people who lost their virtual property in the games that closed down. But there were no refunds, nor was the compensation is any way measuring up to the large amounts of money some of the "whales" spent.

People who hate Free2Play games anyway and consider anybody spending money on them to be stupid will just laugh, or point out that virtual property doesn't legally exist in most Western jurisdictions. But just as people believe they own the games they bought on a disc (which they don't), they also believe they own the golden cow or palace or whatever they bought in a virtual world.

The obvious risk for the game companies is that the whales are going to wisen up. If the company you gave a lot of money to for your virtual property can expropriate you at any time with no legal recourse, a lot of those purchases suddenly look a lot less attractive. Especially if they don't give an immediate benefit but were purchased more as a long-term status symbol. When the game shuts down, those status symbol at best survive only as a personal screenshot nobody cares about. If that happens to you once, you're not going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the next game.

While the sting of something like this might be more easily visible with F2P because of the cash involved it's true in all multiplayer games where the users can't run their own servers. For instance I had a lot of guildies that were outraged and no doubt felt the same way when BC was released for WoW making all of their hard work beating vanilla's raid content seemingly for naught. It's all a matter of perspective and sadly people often times have a very narrow and unrealistic view of things.
This is a common problem with any videogame where you can earn or win virtual stuff. Even if you play on your own server, you never know if you will be able to play the game 20 years later. Just like playing a VHS or Betamax today wouldn't be super easy.

I think spending money for virtual items is absolutely fine. They last longer than a coffee, a cigarette, a movie in a cinema... And can provide more fun and happiness at a lower cost. So... Why not?
What Rutgus said. Nothing lasts forever.
Sic transit gloria mundi

It is disappointing, but alas I am getting reconciled with it. Software you purchased doesn't work on newer systems. Media doesn't work. The DRM provider dies or doesn't upgrade.

OTOH, a facebook "purchase" lasted a lot longer than your 30-day EVE or cable subscription purchase or your 90-minute movie.

And the thousands of hours "spent" in your MMO will be lost forever when the MMO shuts down.

SaS changes this a bit: the Microsoft Office you bought a while ago no longer working is more frustrating than the one year subscription you bought to Office no longer working when the sub is up.
I am pretty sure the "whales" in the F2P community either A) are too rich to care about loss of digital property, B) figure they got their money's worth, or C) are too addicted to care. Maybe a combination of all three.

Plus, there are completely new potential players entering the market every day. Will any of them do historical research on how they could get burned before dropping $1,000 on a Flash game? Doubtful.
I always come back to my main point: If a seller ask a consumer to "buy" something without providing and end date, he should be legally obliged to provide the necessary framework for it to work indefinitely.

Quite simple and fair: The sellers just need to announce (not in their TOS but on the product) for how many months minimum the consumer will be able to use the product.

I f the seller fais to meet this date: refund. If he meets it: Everything okay.

This whole mess is about transparency. Right now there is none and so the consumers are at the sellers' mercy.
I'm taking a comment that Tobold made in his previous post, coupling it one he made here, and addressing the F2P topic as a whole:

Zynga is having huge layoffs in spite of still having millions of players, but with an ever dropping conversion rate.

But there were no refunds, nor was the compensation is any way measuring up to the large amounts of money some of the "whales" spent.

While my own experience is anecdotal, I will say that of the hundreds of friends in my circles on Facebook, very few of them play the Zynga games anymore. The nature of the F2P model relies on the "Whale" or "3 to 5 percenters" to fund the games built around this revenue generation mechanism, and I think that gamers are becoming better educated through word of mouth. The very same social mechanism that helped build Zynga is now seeing to its demise.

Personally, I will steer VERY clear of any F2P game. I've seen too many developers say in recent interviews that the metrics available to them makes players activity habits data, and spending habits data available on a level never before seen, and they use this data so they can "fine tune" the psychological(read: addictive) elements of a game to generate more revenue.

Seriously, if this is the path/direction that online games stay on to fund their games, then consider me out. I'll stick to single player games that provide me with an experience that I can readily judge based on a one time payment.

I saw an interesting counterpoint in response to the proponents of the F2P model on another forum I visit. It basically asked the simple question of: If all of this stuff that people pay for in F2P games is not psychologically linked to surreptitious elements of the games design, then try this simple thought experiment: How well does one think that all of this stuff would sell as a simple add-on pack, where every purchasable item/effect/bonus in the game was available as a stand alone, one time purchase, and sold at a cumulative price point reflective of each items individual cost?

How much would it cost, and how many players would be put off by its cost when having the foreknowledge that it WILL ALL disappear one day with nothing to ever show for it?
WHO you're buying the goods from in the digital age is important. Zynga and EA don't have good reputations as companies. Their bad reputations come from actions like shutting servers down quickly and not offering refunds. :)
I used to thing that F2P was the future, but now I think it is one possible business model for games. Not every game is suited to F2P. Developers will have to learn when it should be used and when P2P or one-time payment is better. I generally believe that a one-time payment will work better for most casual games. Part of the problem now is competition on the app store. It drives down the prices so much that F2P is the only way to get your game seen by anyone. Hopefully, Steam doesn't go down that path.
I do own the game I bought on disc.

It's a legal fiction that I don't. In every practical respect, I do own it. The EULA doesn't change that.

But anyways, it sucks for those guys, but when you spend money on F2P games you have to be realistic. If you're spending more than the fun you are having now justifies, you're going too far. These companies are not guaranteeing the servers will be up until the sun goes supernova. Especially with Zynga games, but true of all F2P. I don't know what expectation they had as to the longevity of their purchases, but I just don't know how you can realistically be more than a bit peeved about it.
Kind of off topic but...
When it comes to justifying spending money on a free Facebook game here's what I have:
My mom spends a lot of time playing Facebook games and has probably over time spent $30 total. That's not a lot but I was still annoyed at the fact that she would spend any money at all on Farmville, Candy Crush, etc. The way she justified it to me is that when she was a teenager she would have to spend at least a quarter every time she went to play a game at an arcade. The amount of money she spends online with games is about equal to that (a dollar every once in a while) so it's not really that bad if you look at it that way.

Back on subject...
I really do think that it sucks for the people who invest a lot of time in these games regardless of whether or not they spent anything on them. They may not be the most compelling games but they are an ok hobby for some and it would be upsetting to lose all your hard work.
Again, I don't see why people still question about spending money for virtual goods.

Spending money for smoke and/or smoking near others? No problem, smoking is so cool.

Getting drunk when you was a teen, until you puked yourself to death? Woaahhh good times, beer and Vodka are great!

Eating hamburgers, which are considered one of the worst possible forms of nutrition? Well but... I like them!

All of the above is just fine. But when you tell someone that you "invested" 30 cents, I mean THIRTY cents, to unlock a Candy Crush level on Facebook? You're considered an idiot, a "no lifer", a "loser".

Let me live my healthy life (I don't smoke, drink or eath crappy food) and enjoy few dollars here and there on virtual goods. I LOVE them. And they don't kill me (or others).
Want a hobby where you get something in the end? Take up quilting or woodworking. Virtual games/experiences will only ever provide memories. It's entertainment, not "all my hard work".

This attitude that you're building or creating something you could own within a video game is like going to the beach and expecting to take your sandcastle home, or getting some kind of reward for all that hard beach work.

Yep, I'm old. Off my lawn.
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