Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 08, 2018
Masters and Servants

If you watch a film or TV series like Downton Abbey, you can learn about how the class structure of society worked a century ago. Many of those concepts of hereditary masters and servants are now completely outdated. But while class borders have become a lot more flexible today, classes still do exist. In today's economy there are still masters, who are the customers paying for a service, and servants, who then get money for providing those services. Of course the guy who is a servant all day, for example an Uber driver, can come home and become the master by ordering a pizza delivered. But the rich are more likely to receive services, and the poor are more likely to provide those services; we aren't really much more equal than back in the days of Downton Abbey.

This class divide has also reached games. If you can afford to buy $60 games or spend money in Free2Play games, you get services provided to you. If you play those Free2Play games for free, you end up being the content for other players. It is as if you were paid for providing a service as opponent for another player, only that you don't get paid in cash but in access to the game.

I don't like being a servant to a game company. Game companies, like most other companies, treat their customers like royalty, and their employees like garbage. So I don't want to work for the game company, be the content, provide a service as a cheap replacement of an artificial intelligence. In particular I hate games where even if you pay money, you never can escape from that role as servant, because you always are content for other players.

I just can't play the new Magic Arena, because it only has a PvP mode. Not only don't I like serving as content for other players. I also don't like the content that other players provide to me: Playing against random humans means total unpredictability, you can end up against a complete pushover or the guy who spent hundreds of dollars and hours on the game and is a complete pro. On the one side I feel bad if I play against a human and have to quit early because real life intervenes (which makes the game rather unsuitable for mobile platforms), but on the other side I hate it when my opponent quits early. I much prefer playing against an AI, where there is no social contract, and my opponent plays in a more predictable manner. Previous electronic versions of Magic the Gathering have proven that an AI can be created that plays the game reasonably well. So making a version of Magic without AI to me feels like simple exploitation of players as content, and I'm not willing to be exploited like that.

Well, the problem with the F2P approach and "players as content" is that it works.... it would seem that people prefer to be content than to pay. Which is probably understandable if you only play the game a little and without caring much about it.

BTW I have the same problem when it comes to mobile gaming. In my head "tablet game = I can close it up and return later at any moment", and this is not really compatible with playing against other people, unless the matches are extremely short (think Clash Royale), which means that the chances of interruption are minimal. Some games solve this with "fake PvP", where enemies play against an AI using a deck you designed. Of course the AI will play badly, but it provides the advantage of AI play (= you can pause) together with the variability of humans.

(side note: the captcha for posting messages is getting REALLY annoying)
As a non-paying player, whether a F2P MMO is your servant or your master is entirely in your own control. I see the advent and continued success of F2P as the greatest of liberations. I like to try out MMOs, I prefer lower-level content and I like to play in sporadic, discontinuous sessions.

When developers routinely required a monthly fee to play their games it was impractical - even profligate - for me to play all the games in the way I liked to play them. There were workarounds in the form of various, often very limited, free trials or I could, and did, apply to beta-test new MMOs, but in general my options were much more constrained and confined.

The F2P revolution blew the gates off the compound. It has been an unalloyed success for me. Long may it continue. The developers are now very much my servants, providing me with a seemingly infinite flood of excellent new content at no cost to me whatsoever. Almost all of the things they ask to be paid for are things I wouldn't use even if they were free.

This leaves me in the happy position of being able to pay for the one or two games I play regularly and frequently, or in concentrated bursts, if and when paymnent is required to access a specific piece of content or service I want to use. Other than that I can wander around at will having the time of my life.

If you want an analogy with Downton Abbey and the class structure it purports to portray, it's the collapse of the fortunes of the aristocracy following the first and particularly second world wars, when most of the stately homes like Downton had either to be sold to non-aristocratic buyers, fell into ruin and disuse or were opened top the public as businesses to pay for their maintenance and upkeep.

In the publicly opened stately homes of England in the 21st Century, as a visitor you always have the choice of exploring and enjoying the grounds and most of the exterior for free. Youonly need to pay to go inside the buildings. In fifty years of visiting them I've rarely felt any need or desire to go inside and look at the furniture. The pleasure and joy is all outside, in the freely available landscaped gardens. A non-paying visitor to those stately homes doesn't provide any content for the paying visitors. If anything they add an element of nuisance in that they clutter up the view and add to the queues for the toilets. There's no sense in which those non-paying visitors are acting as "employees" or "servants". They are consumers who aren't paying for the content they consume. F2P MMOs work in exactly the same way.

As for MTG Arena, you just don't like face-to-face PvP and never have. You've told us that often enough. That's just what the game is. Maybe they could make another game that isn't PvP but they haven't, yet, so this one simply is a game for other people who aren't Tobold.
Thank you for bringing the Captcha issue to my attention. In my settings that verification is turned off, but it appears that there is a known bug where Blogger simply ignores that setting. I tried a workaround by using embedded comments, but then I couldn't comment at all any more! Also there appears to be a bug with the reCAPTCHA program, that forces you to do it repeatedly before it works. I don't know what to do right now.
I don't really see it that way. When I play for free, as I have been doing with Elder Scrolls: Legends, I don't aim to get to the top of the rankings. I find my own level every month where I am losing most games, but honestly I feel I am being beaten more by better-designed decks and better play rather than expensive decks. People have hit top rankings with very cheap decks. There's also draft play, where your cards don't count.

If I find a game that does punish the FtP players too hard, I'm out - if it's against the AI I might embrace the challenge, but against humans it's no fun. I've started playing Marvel Puzzle Quest this week and it's fun so far playing the prologue, but I suspect it will be a fairly temporary thing. (By contrast, Gems of War is also a Match-3 / CCG crossover, and you don't ever have to spend a penny.)

Not so sure about MMORPGs. Subscriptions can encourage a healthier game design, but they still develop some of the same bad habits as FtP because they need to dole out limited content at a slow rate. And the audience have got more sophisticated now. I think FtP MMOs are in a better place than they used to be. A while ago I played Elder Scrolls Online for a bit and it was pretty enjoyable.

On the plus side, we live in a paradise of cheap single-player PC games, some new, some ancient!
(Then again, ESO isn't strictly FtP - you have to pay for the game and major expansions. After that subscriptions are optional. But Tamriel Unlimited goes on sale for $10 periodically, so it's cheap to get.)
I'm a f2p player for the most part, except with few "full games" from the past years such as Diablo3, Borderlands2 and a couple of others. I enjoy installing a random "free" game from time to time because I can consume it as much as I want and then abandon it as soon as I get bored (which happens very often and very fast, I'm growing too old for videogames I guess).

I've never felt as being part of the product. Instead, I feel sorry for those who spend hundreds of dollars/euros (the so-called whales) and feel they've accomplished/obtained something.

I play the free part of these games because 9 times out of 10 that free content is more than enough to entertain me. At the end of the day I may install 20, 30, 100 games in a year and spend 0 cents. Still having plenty of fun.

That logic applies to my kids too, who are 8 and 11: they've quickly learnt the meaning of pay to win, lootboxes and f2p. They don't care at all and they never asked me to buy premium currency (gems, energy, crates, boxes, ...). The stop playing Clash of Clans as soon as it gets boring/slow and move to Clash of Titans. Then again... to the next one. All of this with the convenience of playing on a cheap tablet (also emulated on a PC) and/or casted on our livingroom TV.

Honestly... I feel bad for the devs, sometimes. Because with no whales they'd be dead. Those whale players ARE the servants, not us :-)
This comparison fails for me on two levels:

1. Playing F2P is a choice, and easy to make. No one does this because they must (sure, you may not have cash, but the sheer number of decent games you can play for free pretty much means you have a lot of choice; and you can always just ignore everything). A century ago a servant of nobility did not really have a choice in that role.

2. I can't see how the description of the online Magic experience is any different than actually playing the game with live people (other than having a smaller pool of live players to play with on any given night). Since the online game experience appears to be faithfully emulating the actual game experience, I'm not sure that the analogy fails unless you are also willing to extend it in to meatspace.
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