Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Time, money, games

There has been some renewed discussions on the "evils of Free2Play" following the news that Rift is changing its business model and like so many others will abandon subscriptions. In the context of people recently pointing fingers at World of Warcraft for being down to 8 million subscribers it is worth remarking that WoW is one of the few games that actually still *has* subscribers. There is a wide range of different other models now, so that even games that on paper still have "subscriptions" now often can be "paid" in in-game currency. Are you a "subscriber" of a game if you don't actually pay the game company any money?

And if subscription numbers can be weird, Free2Play games can be a hundred times weirder. Some people have very incoherent attitudes towards the various business model, especially what to consider "Pay2Win". Can you Pay2Win in a PvE game that has no win condition? Is buying something you could also get from grinding Pay2Win? Some people even claim that whether buying an advantage for real currency in a game is Pay2Win depends on whether you buy that advantage from the game company or from another player, which seems not very logical to me.

What is behind all this can be easily explained by behavioral economics. Fact is that no system is 100% perfect and fair, there are always winners and losers. And people will always end up arguing for the system in which their preferred play-style is the one that is favored by the business model. Take for example two people, one playing only 1 hour per month, the other playing 100 hours per month. In a subscription model the guy playing 100 hours pays a hundred times less per hour played than the one playing only 1 hour. In a Free2Play model the guy playing only 1 hour could easily find himself in the situation of not having to pay anything, because the content available for free is sufficient for him, while the guy playing 100 hours is quickly hitting some paywall. It is obvious that these two people will have very different appreciations of the relative merits of subscription models vs. Free2Play models.

Fact is that Trion changes Rift to a Free2Play model because they hope to make more money that way. And they aren't making more money because of the people who will now be able to play the game for free. They will make more money on the one side from people who previously didn't play, and now pay at least a little for various items from the shop. And more importantly they will make more money from people who will now spend much more than the monthly subscription rate on Rift. A Free2Play model is profitable because it removes the cap on how much a player can spend on a game each month.

And let's be very clear about that: People don't spend that sort of money just on hats. Stuff that sells really well is always of *some* use to the player, even if it is something that can also be acquired by time spent in the game. Calling that Pay2Win is a misconception based on the very wrong idea that everybody plays games to win. You would have thought that after over eight years of World of Warcraft people would have noticed that nobody has won yet. And never will.

Again the rants against "Pay2Win" can be explained by behavioral economics. MMORPGs have been rather good at creating the illusion in some people that they had achieved a lot, because progress is more based on time spent than on skill acquired. So unlike skill-based games, where progress naturally slows down due to diminishing returns of learning the game, MMORPGs have been able to offer almost permanent progress and great ePeen to people who played a lot. If the person playing the most suddenly isn't top dog any more, because somebody next to him is wearing the same epic armor won in a locked chest lottery, that illusion of superiority shatters. And as much as I hate the locked chest lotteries that pop up in more and more games, I must say that people paying money for epics are not the problem; people believing that epics have meaning are.

The reason why I welcome Free2Play games is that I don't play to win. I play for fun, for the experience of playing, of learning the game, and succeeding challenges by skill. A challenge that consists of hundreds of hours of grind seems as stupid to me as a challenge you can succeed by paying hundreds of dollars. Because neither spending time nor spending money is ultimately an achievement at all. It is the money spent to access content and the time spent to learn the game that gives a meaningful "return on investment" in the form of fun and entertainment. It is incomprehensible to me how some people strive to turn games into work. I already have a job, and it pays well enough for me to be able to afford convenience items from Free2Play shops. Pay2Win is if you pay money with the intent of winning the game. These games get a lot cheaper once you realize that winning isn't actually possible at all.

Great post.

I find it difficult to understand why people still think a subscription model is much different than Pay2Win.

Everyone seemed concerned about SWTOR becoming Pay2Win with the free-to-play conversion, but they seemed to forget that a subscription model is paying to win. If you don't pay, you don't play and if you don't play, you can't "win."

I don't mind the idea of players being able to pay for an epic item instead of spending the time grinding, but I wouldn't want to see a game company offer superior items for sale that can be obtained in game.

There is just one scenario where I honestly hate the F2P model: when the game lets you play at your own peace to get you hooked... and then starts slowing down everything, up to a point where you really have no convenience in wasting hours for a miserable return.

Drakensang Online (a free Diablo clone) is a sad example of this horrible attitude.
I agree with this in general but some models are pretty poisonous from a corporate (or human) responsibility perspective (*cof* Nexxon).

You can buy almost everything in GW2 for money. Nobody cares. And it's B2P not even F2P. Everyone should look at what those crafty devils at ANet are doing.
I've really started to get annoyed whenever I hear complaints of Pay2Win. The sentiment, I can almost agree with, but people take what I consider to be reasonable payment models and label them as Pay2Win purely because something allows a player to bypass grind, and THAT I don't agree with.

I've started coming to understand that my ideal version of a F2P model is one where the difference between time-poor and money-poor is acknowledged, and that both are able to spend whichever they have most of/value less to get to the same place, even if they take different routes to get there.

Ideally? No items or content behind a paywall couldn't be grinded for, and there would be no items or content available through grind that you couldn't also buy.

That's usually when the pitchforks come out, because for some reason grinding is morally superior to paying - spending time is morally superior to spending money. And most importantly, people think that grind = skill.

No. The content/items you purchase through time or money should be there to enable you to attempt/increase your odds of success at the activities which require skill.

The problem is that some people think their grind = skill. It doesn't. It's just a surplus resource of no virtue whatsoever.
As far as why people turn games into work: status. It's a realm where their desire for achievement and status can be fulfilled when in real life they are successful.

As far as when guys like Keen hate F2P so much, it's really a class thing.

Their class has been freeloading on the backs of casuals with the sub model. F2P would make them pay an amount related to their consumption of the game, or suffer the consequences. That's really what the problem is on an economic level, and it also threatens the whole point for many of these players, because it turns the game world into a world where once again they are low status because of their lack of success in the real world. Basically they're used to being aristocrats, and F2P is the French revolution.

As I've said plenty of times here, MMO players have a career, and once they start expecting to get things like fun and entertainment from their MMO they will be quitting soon.

The genre will deflate back to it's pre-WoW status as a niche genre for ubernerds and that will be that.

when in real life they AREN'T successful.
I think your point about shattering illusions is the important one. A different illusion that free2play/"pay to win" shatters:

In life, time spent on something has a very strong correlation to mastering it. As you do your job, you (often) get very good at it, hence why "pro" is such a positive word. Top athletes or other performers have all spent tons and tons of time mastering their craft. 10,000 hours of practice makes an expert, some say.

The illusion of subscription games is that as you spend more time your character gets better, which "feels" right as that's what happens in RL. But if stuff can get bought, and somebody who just started can instead pay his way, the illusion shatters. It's not like practicing and mastering something after all - you spend time and effort, but you only get something back because the game gave it to you, not because you actually got better at it.

The odd thing is that the player can still get better and better with practice. Blizzard often comments that today's hardcore raiders are lightyears beyond the skill of the early WoW raiders, in part because they've spent thousands and thousands of hours raiding.
You can only do this in a pure PvE game (or a game where PvP is in a closed ghetto like WoW, if you don't queue up battlegrounds, you won't get into PvP).

In a PvP game epic armor has a meaning: he can smash you into the ground.

Also let me explain why buying something from the dev is pay-to-win, while buying the same thing from another player is not.

In the first case Adam who was weaker than you bought the Sword of Uberness from the dev and smashes you. Before the sale no one could smash you, now Adam can.

In the second case Adam buys the same sword from Betty. It is true that Adam can now smash you. But Betty can no longer smash you,so the number of people who can smash you is the same.
IMO, game site commenters say that games they like are not P2W and games they don't are. E.g. all the players tell you why EVE is not P2W even though you can buy a pilot with 5 years of skill training and if you keep your clone up to date that will never be lost.

Two F2P anecdotes: a WoW friend (since vanilla, 150 mounts, 450 pets, cleared weekly DS on 3 toons ) would not try Defiance or GW2 since it was $60 up front. After having to tell her more than once that SWTOR was completely free, she downloaded it. 2 days later preferred, within a week had subbed and unsubbed WoW. within a month had spent cartel coins. F2P as demo/trial can work, especially in a world where there are so many opportunities.

My epiphany was how if F2P is how to avoid selling progression they sell convenience. And I like conveniences: quick travel, bag space, etc.

I think the resistance to F2P is for many reasons: some f2p models are horrible and high volume players like that there 60 hr/week gaming is subsidized by casuals. And F2P is a "disruptive technology" and some people still remember when "real" games were sub and only "low end" games were F2P.

But I think that some resistance is the high-volume gamers realizing, perhaps only subconsciously, how bad democracy is for them. The same way ad agencies dislike online ads since the results are quite quantifiable relative to a TV spot. What if a game company looks at what the customers buy rather than what the 1% post on forums and gaming sites? The overwhelming volume in forums/sites is from a small group of players. In spite of the rhetoric, what if while 95% of the forum rhetoric remains for harder, faster-paced raids but 80% of the revenue is from pets & mounts? What if a game customer decided to give their customers what they wanted? Cash shops sales give very clear, numerical feedback for customer satisfaction. Which is horrible for the forum posters telling gamers and gaming companies what they "should" be doing.

In the second case Adam buys the same sword from Betty. It is true that Adam can now smash you. But Betty can no longer smash you,so the number of people who can smash you is the same.

Bad argument. Betty obviously sold only her second-best sword to Adam. Betty still can smash you, and now so can Adam.
Why do you keep insisting that people won't pay enough for "hats" to support a game when League of Legends has that business model and is the biggest F2P game? When the base game is good enough selling "hats" is more than sufficient.
Well, if they are hats they disguise it pretty well.

I've played League of Legends, and I wouldn't describe the different characters as just hats.
It is incomprehensible to me how some people strive to turn games into work.

Is it? You basically described every hobby in existence. Why have a garden when you can go to the grocery store? It certainly isn't more convenient having to weed, water, and fertilize the plants. And yet people willingly sweat outside in the hot sun so they can eat a carrot or crush some herbs on their spaghetti six months from now. And, bafflingly, they will imbue said carrot/herbs with greater value than the others in their refrigerator!

Whether it is completely rational or not, people believe that time spent gives things inherent value. The hand-carved wooden figure is more valuable than the machine-carved one. You trust a doctor with 10 years experience over one right out of Med school. Even entry-level jobs increasingly require 2-4 years experience. I believe that people view the subscription model as "fair" because there is a notion that someone who spends more time on an activity should be better at it. Time-rich feels different than Money-rich despite time = money; only the former is "fair," because everyone has the same 24 hours in their day. Being able to skip to the top, even due to pure skill, feels like an usurpation of the concept of investment. If seniority or loyalty counts for nothing, why bother staying anywhere?

A Free2Play model is profitable because it removes the cap on how much a player can spend on a game each month.

The above is my fundamental problem with F2P models: it is an erosion of my consumer surplus. Whereas I might have been getting 100 hours of entertainment for $15, now I am paying more. Where is the benefit to me? More transient players in the world? Sometimes that is enough, like it is in PlanetSide 2. In most other MMOs though, other players just get in the way or simply serve as an audience to show off in front of. That is not enough of a incentive to potentially subject myself to unlimited price pressures.
Well, Azuriel, that's a bit of a false analogy. They aren't gardening because they want a carrot, they are gardening because they want to garden. The fruit and veg is of course a big deal, but it's about being outdoors, taking care of things, helping them grow.

Gardening is REAL crafting, basically. And at the end you have a discernible reward. Might not be permanent, but it tastes good.

While I take it that guys like Bhagpuss derive the same joy from the process of MMOs that a gardener takes from his hobby, most of us don't. MMOs attract players through the promise of a carrot that never grows. They keep players by tricking them into thinking what they are doing is the equivalent of growing food in a garden.

As far as your second paragraph, it's a game. Who cares what other people are up to? Why is how someone else is having their fun relevant to you? You don't see gardeners complaining that the other guy bought the extra good fertilizer. Their garden doesn't impact yours. And yet the majority of players are very concerned about other players. And that reveals the truth about MMOs--- it's all about status. You take away the ability of people to feel superior to lesser players, and suddenly the bottom drops out of the entire motivation to play. All you're left with is a big ball of boring repetitive tasks with a few sprinkles on top.

As far as the benefit to you--- it's not supposed to benefit you. You are of course free to continue to subscribe to whatever MMO you think gives you the best entertainment/$ ratio. It's just that apparently that model is only successful for WoW, and the other games are looking to pick up the players who get a better fun/$ ratio from F2P.

@Tobold: Pay2win is called pay to WIN for a reason, it gives you the ability to win by paying.

If you are being smashed by Betty's second best sword then half server is smashing you without paying to anybody. You never had a chance to win at the first place, you did not matter in the question of winning.

The ones that matter are those who have a chance to win. In the case of the item store, Adam can buy a sword that makes him competitive with the best players. In the second case he either buys the old sword of Betty which won't make him competitive, or he buys the best sword, which makes Betty uncompetitive.
In the case of the item store, Adam can buy a sword that makes him competitive with the best players.

I do not know any item shops that work that way. There are probably some Asian browser MMOs where you can buy the BiS sword in the item shop, but in the kind of games I am discussing on this blog (e.g. SWTOR, Rift, etc.) you cannot buy the best-in-slot weapon in the item shop.

Would you say EVE Online is Pay2Win? You can legally buy the best ship as well as a pilot able to fly it for real money. And you buying enough ISK to build a Titan doesn't diminish the number of Titan's other players have.
At the end of the day, no one cares about who you are, how you look and what you do ingame. People get excited about cosmetic and fancy stuff but when the game features hundreds (or thousands) of players showcasing the same stuff... where's the "whoaaah!" factor?

Think about WoW: back in time (vanilla) there were few "uber" players who were able to shocase amazing weaposn, armors or mounts. Nowadays the game is like a circus, where there are a infinite things to see and you really stop caring about them.

This is why I don't care if the game is P2Win or not, I mean... "so what?". Unless it's an official competition with a final price, I don't give a s*it.
I notice, Tobold, that you consistently misunderstand the nature of the game that people are concerned about in Pay2Win scenarios. A virtual world is a toy, with which you can play several games. When you claim that Rift or WoW is a game that can't be won, so how could they be Pay2Win, you are confusing the toy with the game.
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