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?