Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The ethics of money

Raph Koster recently doubted that World of Warcraft was the most successful MMO. By either restricting the geographical location, or by throwing doubts on WoW's definition of subscribers without looking too hard on the definition of other games, you can "prove" that for example Hotel Habbo has more users. Such consideration tend to forget one important aspect: Money. Hotel Habbo or Club Penguin and similar web based browser games are free, with the possibility to pay something for advanced features. World of Warcraft costs about $200 per year, just counting buying the game, expansions, and the monthly fee. If Hotel Habbo can't get quite as many users for a free game than are willing to pay $200 a year for WoW, who is the more successful game?

That isn't to say that Habbo Hotel and the likes aren't profitable. They obviously have much lower development cost and server hardware requirements. If just 10% of the 7.5 million "active users" spend a part of their pocket money on some virtual furniture or access to extra games, that already adds up to quite a stack of money. Many people in the industry assume that alternative payment methods to monthly fees will one day rule, just up to now nobody got that right. There hasn't been the equivalent of a Magic the Gathering for MMORPGs, which would be played by millions, each of them spending an average of $1,000 a year. (I spent that much on MtG in the 90's)

Part of the reason is some sort of "olympic spirit" that players in the western world feel towards all sorts of games: Money shouldn't affect the outcome. Of course that is just an illusion. Top athletes cost a fortune not only in salary, but also to maintain, train, and keep fit. And that is before considering doping or other illegal performance enhancers.

I never understood why many people consider monthly fees to be "fair". They obviously aren't, because not everybody is paying the same amount of money for the same service. People whose real life allows them to play a lot end up paying a lot less per hour than other players with a job and family. The only place in the world where WoW is paid for in a fair way is China, where you are charged the equivalent of 5 US cents per hour played.

But why should MMORPGs be fair, when the rest of the world isn't? I'm not going into a Marxist rage every time I see somebody driving a much nicer car than mine. So why should I mind if somebody bought himself the equivalent of an epic mount in cash in some game where that is legal? Spending lots of money on Magic the Gathering certainly allowed me to build better decks. And in Shot Online I just received the items I paid for, and now play the equivalent of about 4 levels better. On the one side you could consider that "cheating", me now getting more xp and money per hole played, and being a bit more likely to play better. On the other side the benefits I paid for include reduced green fees for the people I play with, plus as long as me and them are below level 21, whenever I play par or better, they get half of the xp I get, so my double xp benefit them directly too.

World of Warcraft is *not* an inherently fair game. If you make your first character and at level 19 visit your first battleground, you're going to be crushed by twinks. In PvE that isn't so visible, but obviously a twink is also having an easier time to level up than somebody playing without help from friends or previous characters. Provided that the game company would allow it, would the ability to buy yourself that sort of advantages be so much worse? And if the game company itself was selling gold or in-game items, wouldn't that be actually better than the bots and spam messages from the gold farmers?

How many people more would play World of Warcraft if it hadn't a monthly fee? Having experienced first hand with Magic the Gathering how easy you can be suckered into paying more for a game voluntarily than you would have been willing to spend on a monthly fee, I still believe in my idea of a trading card MMORPG. Selling things in random "boosters" helps disguising the fact that you can buy your way to success. But you have to get it right, and make the game in a way that people with lots of skill and time, but no money, can still succeed at least as well as people with deep pockets.

Besides having people pay for things that advance them faster in the game, there is also a huge potential market for useless stuff. What if all armor in World of Warcraft was brown, and you could pay real money for dyes, decorations, and special effects to make them look better, without improving their stats?

In summary, I don't think that money is a dirty word in MMO games. There is still a lot of potential where alternative payment methods could be beneficial for both game companies and players. What do you think?
The problem as I see it is that the amount of money you have to invest in a game like M:tG is affected by the other players of the game you interact with. If you play only with some friends, and they only buy a few booster packs a month, then you need to buy only a few booster packs a month to remain competitive and have a good time. But the moment someone starts spending big money to get a competitive advantage, everyone has to do that or the game becomes far less fun for all involved, except the person spending the money. You either try to remain competitive, by spending more than you want to on the game; lose all the time to certain opponents; or stop playing against some people. None of those options is particularly beneficial to the individual.

The situation becomes worse the more people that are added to the mix. The more people there are involved, the more chance there is of finding someone competitive or willing enough to spend more money than others to get that advantage. And the more people involved, there is also going to be a larger differential in disposable income, allowing for larger differences in bought ability.

Expanding this to an MMO world, the difference between available disposable income and willingness to pay for the advantage becomes greater and greater. As you say, in a PvE world this may not be too much of a concern, but a PvP environment would be rife with this bought competitiveness, and a person would have to spend money to stay on even terms. This, again, I don't see as being beneficial except to the company selling the product.

And if the current trend of designing more and more content for high-end raiders, a low percentage of players it is often noted, this content will become premium priced. Anyone wanting to participate in raids may well have to spend a lot of money to get to the required level, or an inordinate amount of time to get an equivalent level without the monetary spend. It will just segregate players more between hardcore and casual. And if paying for high-end content is successful, who is to say what will happen with the casual content, which is making much less money for the company?

Paying for additional content may work in limited environments, where an individual can make reasoned decisions about what he is willing and able to spend. Moving this in to a massive world, with a highly varied population in terms of disposable income, would likely push too many people away from the content for the sake of profit. After all, available time is the equivalent to money in WoW, and it has been those people with the most free time who have ended up at the top of the heap. Changing that focus to money will introduce similar issues and problems, and maybe even some worse ones.
I prefer to look at mmo's as a hobby, or commonly know as a luxury gadget. If i want to blow money on it, so be it, if i don't i don't.

I pay a fee to play rugby, i play a fee to play soccer, i play a fee to get a newspaper, altho on all 3 accounts i can do without it. I can read papers that are free if i want to. I can read papers that are more expensive, i can shit on papers if i want to. I can play soccer in the street without paying a dime.

At sports, people who are better get in better teams, play more often and have "better value for money", so no big difference there ;)

it's all about yourself, what do you want for you money. Are you happy with the value-for-money.

I see people blowing money on some serious hi-fi stuff, where JVC, Sony is a bad name. I see people blowing money on boats to float around when the summer arrives.
Do i find them idiotic? no why, they have their fun.
In summary, I don't think that money is a dirty word in MMO games. There is still a lot of potential where alternative payment methods could be beneficial for both game companies and players. What do you think?

What SOE is planning right now with its free to play RMT based MMO, hopefully will fail in the western world. Eastern based MMO concepts will not work here. Western players will not compete with real money in games, like the asian market seems to accept. We have different kinds of showing off our wealth other than crappy video games. When you have television broadcasting prime time videogame matches, and teenagers cheering for skinny pale players, that reached national stardom, than you can built on a gaming community, wich is ready for RMT based payment models. Thing is, the western world works different and some companies will learn that the hard way, i hope.

That does not mean that different payment models will not work here, it just means that you can not force players to compete via real money in games. The mass market will not pay for virtual uberness. The mindset for such a model to work is still not here.

The asian market offers a way more similar player type community. I'm not saying that everyone is hardcore or casual there, but it's less differentiated than what we have. To give you some kind of analogy. Look at how many people bitch right now about BC only offering content for the hardcores. The option for every player to just spend more time to achieve the same goals is here, but no one is using it, only the Nihilums do. Same will happen with RMT based progression. You may be able to buy your boss kill, but even if you keep the costs low, very few players will do this. Think about how many of todays WoW players buy gold to get their 5k epic mount. It's a very low number.

You really have to split RMT MMOs from the MMORPGs we have today. Those RMT will be a different kind of game. Think microtransaction via Xbox live, buying new colored cloth for your avatar and such crap. No actual content, but still things people pay for. What RMT will not mean is a WoW clones where you can buy your instance keys, or your gear or compelete zones.

That SOE right now is focusing on this kind of paymend model is not really suprising, cause this kind of thing fits just perfect for their pacing of content production. They do not have a single product that is close to the mass market but they still can crank out huge amounts of content for their games, a requirement to move to RMT based games.

RMT only works when you have a community of very similar player types. Than you can fit your actual content for those players without sacrificing anyone. There is this example Smedley gave in an interview about this. The asian Mario Kart MMO clone, where players can buy PowerUps. This will work. It's a very simple core game (kart racing), very many people can play and enjoy without any pressure. It gets different though when we talk about really deep and complex progression based game systems (WoW).

RMT will work here if you built it around a very simple core of gameplay, gameplay a current WoW player will not touch. Those things will be MMOs but they won't be MMORPGs.
In a game like WoW I believe skill should be the most important thing, spending real money should not give an advantage over someone who hasn't spent. However I don't mind things like extra storage, different looking armour/weapons, additional characters, etc.
Look at Second Life, for example. Almost anything you do in the game requires spending real money, and lots of it. The game is littered with brands, the game is one big advertisement for multi-national corporations.
Want to see big adverts for real life consumer products in WoW or LotR? I certainly don't.

I've nothing against people spending money for cosmetic gains in the game; it already happened in WoW with the Limited Editions - special pets that aren't available to normal users, for example. I wouldn't object to people paying for rare mounts, fancy hats, and stuff like that.
People paying for gear that doubles dps or gives you other 'imba' bonuses would really put me off, and I think it would make character balance almost impossible for PvP.

As for the subscription fee, I think it's incredibly cheap, compared to so many other leisure activities. If the monthly subscription doubled overnight, I would still pay it.
Paying for in game items... heck paying at all for the right to play a game I've already paid has always bugged me... for me once I buy the box I shouldn't have to pay over and over again. I do realize running a mmo does have higher costs associated with it but again, it's not costing 15$ a month to maintain those servers.

Mmo are already designed to keep you playing longer and longer. For example TBC attunement process looks like you will need a year to complete. It's not fun, it's not entertaining but it keeps you paying. If you introduce RMT in there you can be sure that the game will be engineered so that you "need" to pay those extra costs. Sure you can avoid them but the game will be a lot less fun to play, if not totally unplayable.

Want an example? Just take the Mmo Navy field. Sure you can play for free but you can also pay to get better sailors wich improves faster and get better stats. Sounds like you have a choice but if your really set on reaching the end of this game you will have to pay for those improved sailors because those little differences in stats makes all the difference on who wins or lose.

If you change the game model you can be certain that how enjoyable and how far you get in the game will be directly related on how much money you spend on it.
Aha! The rub lies with addiction. MMOs are very addictive to very many people. Real money transfers coupled with the "stickiness" factor of an MMO would lead to a lot of stories about broke - and broken - people.
Tobold, your shot online entries opened my eyes, and in digging around I also came across a game called albatross18 that is another mmorpg golf game. Have you tried it? Do you have any idea how the two compare? The graphics seem prettier, but it's a 'simpler' game. I expect I'll try both in the coming weeks.
From the sounds of that golf game you can spend money to advance faster?

I like the idea of that in any MMO.

The buyers can play in the top ranks without the initial time sink.

And the thrify folks can always say "At least I didnt spend 500 dollars to get here"
MMO's should not allow you to purchase items, gold, keys, levels, etc....What exactly are we paying for? Lets just take gold for example. A farmer farms the gold for an hour and sells it to me for $5. SOE creates gold and sells it to me for $3. Who is profitting the most here? SOE did almost nothing and got $3. What am I paying for? If I buy the gold from the farmer, I'm atleast paying for his time. I'm not endorsing buying gold, but I can atleast justify the money I spent on it. I guess if the game is free and is kept running by people buying items it makes a little sence, but I still feel a little off about it.

I'm assuming this can get worse as well, with the competitive nature of MMO's I'm sure some people are going to go over board. Most people will spend a few dollars a month. Some people will take it to the extreme, spending more then they can afford. People spend way to much time on MMO's, so money isn't something people would limit them selfs too.

If blizzard let you spend $10 to fly a 400% speed onyxia, I would be tempted to buy it. Everyone with the new onyxia mount wouldn't feel accomplished for having one, everyone without an onyxia mount would think those with an onyxia mount are just some jerk who wasted $10. It ruins the spirit of the game.
Time is money friend.
The way I see it spending RL money is just as "evil' as spending RL time. No matter what, someone is going to have a competitive advantage. I am more jealous (in an unhealthy way) of the "noob" in his basement that has 14 hours a day to play the game than I would be of somone who has an extra couple hundred dollars to spend on the game. Why? you may ask.... simple answer: I can always save up money to spend on a game if I choose to. I can NOT however buy time.
I don't believe Raph made any statement on success, income, or profit of WoW compared to other MMO. His ranking of WoW being number 4 or 5 in NA and Europe is based only on population.

Who is profitting the most here? SOE did almost nothing and got $3. What am I paying for? If I buy the gold from the farmer, I'm atleast paying for his time.

So did you also pay for the in-game spam as well? Personally I'd prefer the game creators to sell gold, at least they won't spam me to death trying to get me to buy it.
People still listen to what that guy says?

He blew his wad on SWG, and people finally realized his feet were made of clay. The guy is so out of touch with this genre, it's pathetic.

Only Brad is a bigger laughing stock.

Neither one of them will ever be able to repeat their previous success, primarily because they never understood why their first projects were popular in the first place.
As long as there is a distinction, like a separate "Pv$ server", then my initial reaction is that I don't have a big problem with it. It might be kind of like paid cheat-codes.

To take the idea a step further, if a MMO had a "You Can Buy Gold Cheap!" server, that might actually be a way to put the buyers on their own server and shut down the gold-sellers all in one swoop!
I'm with the poster above. I think someone like Blizzard should try out an experimental RMT server - that way at least the playing field would be a little more even and those who felt buying gold made the game unfair would feel less hard done by.

Times are changing for MMOGs and I think it makes sense to try out the different options available.

The problem with a pay per hour model in the west is that if an etablished game like WoW suddenly adopted it many people would probably stop playing because they would start thinking about their playing habits differently - no-one likes change when it happens to something familiar.

If a new MMOG tried it maybe it would work though.
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