Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 03, 2013
Diminishing returns and loot rarity

I played Magic the Gathering for a decade and up to now that is the game I spent the most money on, in the order of $10,000 overall, a thousand dollars per year. And I wasn't even playing competitively, my participation in the Pro Tour tournaments was limited to being a judge. But I loved building decks, and the more different cards you had, the more decks you could build. MtG cards come in 15-card boosters, with 11 common cards, 3 uncommon cards, and 1 rare card. But as there are about as many commons as rares in a set, by the time you have one each of the rares, you have 11 each of the commons. And as you can only put 4 of the same card into a deck, you end up with a lot of useless commons.

Card Hunter, the game I am currently playing in closed beta, mixes turn-based tactical gameplay with a trading-card-like system for gear/loot. And like all trading-card systems there are different rarities, going from common, uncommon, and rare all the way up to epic and legendary. Every time you win a battle you get some items, and unsurprisingly most of the time you get commons. Beating an adventure for the first time, or beating it in one of the various quest-modes for the first time, gives you a guaranteed rare, and sometimes even epic item. But overall, just like in Magic the Gathering, you end up with tons of useless commons in the long run. Fortunately there is a shop where you can sell those for a little gold, and another shop where you can buy rares for a lot of gold.

Overall I found that such systems have a strong effect of diminishing returns: At first every item you find is welcome, while later you only look for the rare stuff. Especially in Card Hunter, which right now isn't very well balanced for Free2Play in the lower levels: You can have battles rather early on where beating them requires specific cards like melee weapons with a range of 2, or armor-destroying cards; and it is very possible that when you start the game without spending money you don't have any of those cards you need at all, which makes some of the early battles rather unpleasant.

While Card Hunter is not a Pay2Win game in the long term, you can make your life considerably easier at the start of the game by spending some money, because even a bunch of commons helps a lot if you have nothing. For example you can buy multiplayer pre-built "decks", and as your gear is shared between PvP and PvE, you'll have access to these cards for the single-player campaign. You can buy chests full of gear, and the chests without guaranteed rares and epics are quite cheap. And you can subscribe for a month or more and get an added item every time you get loot, with the added advantage that if a chest contains an item of guaranteed rarity, the extra item will be of that rarity too.

Now of course this somewhat works like Magic the Gathering did: When you start playing Magic, the first pre-built decks and your first boosters give you the most bang for your bucks; once you buy the boosters by the box, you only look at the rares and put the commons on the scrap heap. But this is a business model which is different from the typical Free2Play business model: In Free2Play you typically get everything you need to start for free, and only start paying once you want more from the game. That makes me wonder how well Card Hunter is going to work as a Free2Play game. It is quite possible that some people (and reviewers) will realize how much of an advantage spending some money early in Card Hunter gives them, and start to mumble about Pay2Win. But due to the diminishing returns of getting more and more cards, spending money becomes less necessary over time to the point where you can play the single-player part perfectly well for free.

Of course this is still beta, and maybe Blue Manchu will still change things. But I believe that the diminishing returns of loot with a rarity system is an inherent feature, and thus buying gear early is always having a big effect, while spending money late in the game isn't as efficient. Not so much Pay2Win as rather Pay2Start.

They could consider deliberately making it that way. Sell a good-value starter pack for a reasonably low price, while leaving it more conventionally FtP after that. The totally free trial would be more like a demo.
I don't know that there are hard numbers for this, but more than one F2P MMO operator has said that the first purchase is the biggest barrier. If they get you to pay early and that improves the odds you pay more later, that's a win. Also, if you believe that 90% of players will never pay no matter what, it's not necessarily a bad thing to run them out of the game early, especially if you can do it with a relatively low entry barrier that won't scare off people willing to spend money.
I see that Mojang the creators of Minecraft have just gone into open beta with their new trading card game "Scrolls". This potentially could become a large hit of a small percentage of those Minecraft owners decide to sign up.
One more point - today's Western "free to play" titles may go overboard trying to delay the first payment point in the hopes that people will be too attached to quit when they finally hit the paywall. Possibly lose/lose - devs end up giving away more and more content while players feel that a bait and switch occurs when the developer finally asks for even a small amount of money.
That gear thing works for anything really, in Diablo3/GW2 (obviously not card games) you're happy to be picking up whites at the start and more so when you find blues.

Not long after you only want yellows or better. ;p
If there is one thing I have learned, it is to never bet against gamble boxes.
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