Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Game design and business models

Heartless_ correctly points out that there is a confusion with the terms RMT and microtransactions. RMT is a term coined to describe *players* selling virtual items to other players for cash. While the sellers could possibly be professional "gold farmers", they nevertheless have to play the game to get the item they want to sell. Free2Play games have microtransacions, where the seller is the game company itself, and not only do they have infinite supply of whatever they want to sell, they can also sell things that aren't available through playing. How smoothly that works is very much a question of game design.

With Dungeons & Dragons Online switching from a monthly subscription business model to a microtransaction business model, there are expectations of that becoming a standard tactic of game companies for other MMORPGs who failed to attract sufficient subscribers. People ask: What game you currently aren't playing would you play if it went Free2Play? But I have my doubts that the transition will always be easy, because the initial business model will have influenced the initial game design.

Take for example the much-discussed $10 horse in Runes of Magic. It is available at level 1. In fact at level 1 you are provided with a horse that lasts only 1 day, so you can experience the difference, with the game company hoping that this induces you to buy one. In World of Warcraft initially you had to get to level 40 to buy a horse. Why that? Because Blizzard expected the average player to take several months to get to level 40, paying a monthly subscription fee every month after the first. So if, for example, it took you two months to get to level 40, you would have paid $15 to get that horse. In both cases the horse is the lure which makes you give money to the game company, even if of course the monthly fee in the WoW case is a package deal, and you get much more than just the horse for it. But giving out the horse at level 1 wouldn't have made business sense in WoW at the time, nor would it make sense in Runes of Magic now to give out horses only at higher levels. 5 years later the normal horse isn't much of an attraction any more, so Blizzard hands it out ever earlier, promising ever better horses for the higher levels. If WoW ever went Free2Play (extremely unlikely), it would be best to sell all mounts at level 1 for cash. But then you run into the problem that the old world isn't designed for flying mounts.

But monthly subscriptions and microtransactions aren't the only possible business models. In Asia many games are played in internet cafés, and paid for with timecards, effectively paying by hour. You can play Chinese Aion for 208 hours for a $20 game time card (imported, not the Chinese price, which is even lower), so for most people that is actually the better deal. That business model has a completely different influence on game design. For example the personal shops in Aion and other Asian games only remain open when you are online, thus paying the game company money. A western player, paying a monthly fee for the same game, will ask himself why he has to remain online, probably afk, to sell items in a personal shop. By having changed the business model, you take away the reason for a specific feature. For a monthly subscription game the personal shop should remain open even if you log off, because it makes no difference to the revenue of the game company, and is more convenient for the players.

So I'm asking you a more complicated question in two parts: What game you aren't currently playing would you play if it went Free2Play with microtransactions? And how would the design of that game have to change, to make that new business model actually work? I'm sure, you'd prefer if all games went Free2Play and only charged money for fluff, but if not enough players buy enough virtual items, a game would simply disappear. So how do we change game design to sell enough items that are useful, and desirable, but don't make the items that you can get by playing obsolete?
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What game you aren't currently playing would you play if it went Free2Play with microtransactions?

None. These games are always cheap enough to only play the best, no matter the costs.

I'm sure, you'd prefer if all games went Free2Play and only charged money for fluff.

No. The Fluff also destroys the immersiveness of the MMO world. If my sword is 3x times as good as the sword from the guy to my right, why is his sword on fire then ?? If I am 3x as powerful, why does he look much more powerful and a has a house-high dragon as mount, while I ride on a naked horse?
I think the problem here is that the OP is assuming that monetary concerns are the primary reason to play a MMO. I disagree.

I agree completely that the business model influences game design and customer support. But that doesn't mean that it's those features which make people fork over money. Many people play WoW, for example, because their friends do. The $15 fee is the cost of hanging out with their friends. It could just as easily be a micro transaction game.

In many cases people are not buying a game, they are buying hipness, coolness, or a sense of belonging in the same way that some women buy DKNY. To these people the business model is totally meaningless.

"I'm sure, you'd prefer if all games went Free2Play and only charged money for fluff."

This is completely made up nonsense without any basis in fact. I wouldn't and I can't imagine most people care enough one way or the other.
I'd have to enjoy playing the game first to where it's worth my investment of time regardless of if it's free2play or a $15 subscription.

As far as cost goes, I really don't care if a game would cost $10-40/mo in subscription or microtransactions total IF I felt I was getting my moneys worth of entertainment.

With that said, I have yet to find or play a free2play MMO that I felt was even worth playing for free vs those I pay for.


As far as charging for items other than fluff, I'm completely against that when you start assigning real world value to ingame commodity or rare items. There should never be a situation in a online game where players can give a valuation on items in real dollars IMO. I think greed has already negatively impacted the gameplay of many mmo's.

As much as I love playing Eve-Online for example, it's a perfect case in point for me for the secondary effect. How quickly would you help equip a new player joining your corp with say several hundred million isk with that has a definite real world value of around $17 either in buying a GTC and selling it, or being able to buy a Pilot License to add another month to your subscription? Then just telling the new player, tough, you should go spend $17 and buy your own isk?

Compare that to past mmo's with commodity items and carefree help by other friendly players in standard subscription mmo's.
So why did DDO going Free2Play evoke such a strong positive reaction? Suddenly everybody wants to play it!
Well, I don't :)
Perhaps only those who like it post about it. I certainly didn't post that i am not going to play a game I never was going to play ;)
I'd like to add one point to the discussion:

If you want me to start playing your game you need to make me believe that it is good, before I start it.

Problem is that MMOs are quite complicated and take a lot of time getting used to. Especially if there is a distinction between leveling/endgame. I am not going to start a game that didn't manage to convince me that there is a high chane that it is well worth my time. This is much more important for me than 15€, or 100€ for that matter.

Being free-to-play is self-defeating here. I mistrust developers that don't have enough self-confidence to charge a major amount of money. As always in economic theory, prices aren't only incentives or properties of the product, but also serve as information. And as such a low price can be problematic.

It would probably be best to sell a game this way:

- 1€ to buy it in a store, 0€ to download it from the web.
- 40€ per month after the first.

Both prices need to be presented very aggressivle. Thus I KNOW that these people really want to to try it, and they are confident that I will like it enough to pay a multitude of the competitors.
Now the game only has to be fun- but that is always necessary - no matter what the price. I'm only going to play the best MMO out there, no matter how cheap the competition is.
The nice thing about Free 2 Play is that it gives people a free trial.

The ugly thing about Free 2 Play games is that most do not only sell vanity items - hidden or quite open incentives to shell out some money to play with all options or to maximum effect are the norm.

Even though I fear F2P models cost people who play a lot and intense more than subscription models, in the end it is the game that decides if I continue playing, not the price/business model used.
To be honest I can't think of a single game which I'm not playing now, but would play if it was F2P.

Every game that I'm not playing, I'm not playing because I don't think it sufficiently entertaining to get a slice of my leisure TIME. It's not because I don't think it sufficiently entertaining to get a slice of my leisure DOLLAR.
I would absolutely play WAR if it was F2P with microtransactions.

The requirement for me is that it needs to be a game that I enjoy in small doses (which WAR absolutely is, I loved the scenarios and the occasional night of world PvP) but that I'm not interested in playing for several hours a night. And I'd need to know that even playing (very) casually, I'd still be able to hop into PUGs/battlegroups when I did show up.
I have my doubts that the transition will always be easy, because the initial business model will have influenced the initial game design.

I agree. If you're going to use microtransactions, you really ought to design the game with them in mind from the ground up.

DDO is actually a game that could have used a microtransaction model from the get go. All of the content is discrete and instanced, so it would have been easy to charge per unit of content. And it's obviously heavily modeled after Guild Wars, which was free to play.

My problem with the F2P model is that it's not well suited to the types of games I like. I prefer immersive, worldy games, and the microtransaction model tends to wreck immersion for the reasons Nils described. I also like the high production values of subscription games. So as of yet I haven't found a F2P MMO that I enjoy.
It depends on the microtransactions. Fluff is fine, items that make your avatar more powerful and i'll pass.

So to keep your shop open in Aeion, you have to get a small script that moves your mouse or sends a keystroke every minute. Thus increasing the load on their servers as more people are online. Weird decision.
Heartless is incorrect. RMT, as it started being called around various forums and early blogs, was coined to reflect -ANY- type of transaction where -REAL MONEY- was exchanged for ingame items or services, regardless of whether they were being sold by other players, or endorsed by developers such as Sony on its own Station Exchange service.

Microtransaction, as a word, is nothing more than the politically correct variant of RMT, as coined by the industry, and serves no purpose other than to seperate the distinction that a player is still actually paying -REAL MONEY- for virtual goods or services.

Nice try, though.
Let me give an answer to a different question:

Q: What game that I am currently playing would I not play if it went Free2Play with microtransactions.

A: All of them. Once a sizable minority of players buy in-game items with out-of-game money, the role-playing magic starts to leave, and so would I. Even the zebra mounts in WoW bug me.

On the other hand, I´d be very happy to play a game that charges per hour or per second rather than per month.
I'd play WoW if it went Free2Play.

How Blizzard can make that work is better answered by explaining what you get under the F2P plan.

You get Vanilla WoW with a Cap at 60, and access to just a couple of Instances: Deadmines, RFC, and Wailing Caverns.

If you want to do ANY of the other Old World Instances you need to pay to "unlock" them.

If you want to enter Outland and level to 70 you need to pay, but as a bonus you'll get access to the Hellfire Peninsula Instances. You'll need to pay extra to access the rest of the Outland Instances though.

Want to enter Northrend and level to 80? Just like Outland, you'll need to pay.
In both cases the horse is the lure which makes you give money to the game company

The horse *is* the carrot-on-a-stick.
@Cap'n John:

On average a game company needs to make the same amount of money from an RMT model as from a monthly sub. (OR more....)

Therefore my question:
Assuming you ended up paying exactly the amount you payed with a sub: Would the RMT for content feel better ?
Nils, that's what Wizard 101's Access Passes are; Guild Wars-like content sales, just in smaller chunks. It's a smart move, and I've given them more money than Blizzard as a result.

Chris, by that rather liberal definition, any MMO or any game is RMT, unless you got it completely for free, like The Ur-Quan Masters or MechCommander 2. You're still paying a sub for the privilege of playing WoW, right? Are you paying with real money?
Oddly enough, DDO going F2P makes sense for that game because it's so short relative to other MMOs. In that regard, the game was a better value for the player than the company as a sub game, since you could 'finish' it in 1-2 months, rather than the 4-6+ it takes in a game like WoW or WAR. By going RMT, they can now charge 'full price' for all the content, even though overall there is less. That they are still leaving in the sub option is nice.

Nils, that's what Wizard 101's Access Passes are; Guild Wars-like content sales, just in smaller chunks. It's a smart move, and I've given them more money than Blizzard as a result.

I don't doubt that it is 'smart' (for them), because they make more money .. but that is good (for me, the consumer), why .. ?
Nils, it's probably not good for you because you are happy with a sub. It's fantastic for me for the same reason Guild Wars is: I can play with my very fractured schedule, and I don't have to pay to play. I've purchased the content, and can play it when I get the time. Yes, it might work out to cost more if I were to have burned through all of the content in two months of subbing, but considering that it would take me well over a year to get to everything with a sub, it's cheaper to buy the content for me.

That's why W101 is brilliant; they allow for both; those who get more out of a sub can do so, and those who just want to buy content and play at whenever can do so.
Actually it is not the amount of money I fear. I fear that it leads to people who cannot join me in a dungeon, because they haven't bought it, who cannot raid, because they never thought this might be fun, who don't play pvp, because right now, it doesn't seem worth the money ...
People who need to go offline now, because they haven't bought enough minutes .. who need to rush the dungeon, because time is RL money..

I fear it rips the world apart...
RMT not only sells fluff .. it sells the immersion of the MMO world. There it goes. Time are € now...
The thing that I fear about any free to play games is that it will also inevitably attract a lot of children/teenagers who don't have a credit card yet and who can't get their parents to pay. Games like Runescape for example.

So while I wouldnt mind playing my favorite game for free, I do think it would attract the kinds of players I wouldnt want to play with. I have far too much experience with Habbo Hotel to want to get away from that crowd.
Aurel, that is what you'd think might happen, and yet in many of the F2P games I've played it's actually the opposite, in all but one: Wizard101.

In most fantasy-based F2P MMOs I've played (and maybe it was just my experience) the player base is very friendly and helpful. In Runes of Magic it was not uncommon to get bored high level players offering to run low level players through the low level Instances, for free. Offers to kill Elite bosses were also quite common and would occur daily, if not hourly. Want help with a Build, or skills, spells, etc, just ask. And instead of laughter, derision, and cries of Noob! you get discussions from multiple people and it's not just Locks are OP! Hunters are EZ Mode! etc. You actually learn useful information from the other players.

But in Wizard101, the child-friendly, overly protective game, chat-inhibited game you get a lot more grief-type behavior. Perhaps because you have so many kids playing. Players would enter your battle, pull in a second Mob, then Flee leaving you to fight a 2 on 1 encounter.

Players would also follow you around spamming Friend Invites. You'd be selling stuff to a Vendor and a Friend Invite would pop up from the player behind you. Reject it, and they Friend you again, and again, and again. You run out of the store and they follow you, spamming the Friend invite.

And woe to you who accepts their Invite and doesn't remove them as a Friend after they've moved on to another target.

Why do they spam Friend Invites? Because many of them want to skip content and teleport to Friends in higher level zones so they can buy the much cooler Vanity Pets that they cannot get in Wizard City, or they want someone to spam and ask for help with a Boss or a quest.

Worse than that, with W101's Port to a Friend feature, you now run the risk of them Teleporting to you while you're in an Instance, which automatically spawns another Elite Mob. Then true to form your "friend" Flees leaving you to fight two (or more) Elite Mobs. And given that many Instance battles are 2 on 1 encounters to begin with, the extra Mob and Fleeing Friend usually results in a 3 on 1 fight and your defeat.

Despite that, Wizard101 still does a lot of things right and it is a very enjoyable game, and when my Sub runs out in a few months I'll probably go Tesh's route and actually buy the content instead of just renewing my Sub.
I was about to say none until i read the comments. I'm an 80% PvE type person so I wouldn't normally sub to a PvP game.

However i could see myself playing a good, very casual, free to play PvP game for an hour or two occasionally when i was in the PvP mood. (By casual i mean something that didn't require constant solo practise or a well oiled group).

I can't see how that setup could make any money however unless there were paying players as well and the free players added to the fun somehow - making up the numbers for a big battle maybe?

"Why do they spam Friend Invites?"

My six year old nephew does that because he wants to be everyone's friend. Though no doubt there are griefer reasons too.
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