Massively Overthinking: MMO monetization run amok
Over the last couple of weeks, the monetization of unreleased games has become a pervasive and uncomfortable theme for the MMO genre. Just in brief:
- Shroud of the Avatar announced an equity crowdfunding campaign during its latest seasonal fundraising stream.
- Chronicles of Elyria players have been grumbling over what backers call egregiously pay-to-win buyables in the pre-launch cash shop.
- We got a letter from a reader asking us to investigate Crowfall, which long before launch is already selling items (a palace, actually) as expensive as $7000.
- Star Citizen is Star Citizen. Most recently, it debuted another concept ship design for sale, sight-unseen, and raised almost half a million dollars from its hardcore backers before it opened to the plebes, helping it break the $150M crowdfund mark.
- And we can’t forget Ashes of Creation, which raised over $3M on Kickstarter, promised additional fundraising in June, and weathered criticism over its pay-to-recruit affiliate system.
The frustrating bit is I could go on, and this is just for games that aren’t even formally launched yet. So for this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to take the temperature of alarm regarding these types of business models for unlaunched games. Is this all par for the course, in line with what we expect from the new MMO market? Have they gone too far yet? If not, what’s too far? How do we feel about this type of pre-launch monetization run amok?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): For me, it’s gone too far. As various forms of entertainment are vying for our attention, I understand that things must change, including monetization. However, I don’t think sinking money into your hobby, especially when it’s still being created, should give you direct advantages, even if they can be destroyed/taken by other players.
King Mannus of Darkfall fame is a good example of how things can (and should) fairly play out: Mannus was a charismatic leader that knew his audience and won people over to support him. He actually didn’t play that much, but his cult of personality really left a mark on the game. He and his crew seemed to have fun, as did the rest of ‘the server. In fact, I actually bought into Darkfall because of players like Mannus. A good community sells your game as well as good will. I’m still disappointed that Darkfall didn’t succeed, but the multiple reboots have shown that it grew its community, just maybe didn’t monetize it well.
I thought SOE/Daybreak would be in better shape. For example, PlanetSide 2 and Landmark did sell boosts, and some abilities did give you quite an advantage, but I remember the skins a lot, especially the custom ones. As someone who’s paid for customization (so many League of Legends skins, so little time played!), I know there’s a strong lure there, but maybe outsourcing it to players didn’t work out. I’d like to see the numbers though.
That’s where flat play and customization lockboxes come into play. Maybe we don’t have time or patience to farm 10,000 ore like we did a few years ago. Maybe it’s why territory PvP games and survival seem to work better in older, more organized communities. But looking outside of traditional MMOs, I feel like we’ve seen that fronting “endgame” while focusing on customization as “progress” is valid, at least if your name is Blizzard or Nintendo. Even Grinding Gear Games (from an admitted outside perspective) seems to get this. We players love stuff.
I’m at the point where I barely look at MMO Kickstarters in my free time, not just because they may not make it to launch but because I’m tired of fighting the urge to throw money to skip boring content or get power. MMOs are huge time investments, so pay-to-win kills my motivation to even start the game, let alone want to see it succeed. Make MMOs more socially accessible, like The Elder Scrolls Online. Make them connect with potential real world goals, like Pokemon Go and getting outside the house. If you really can’t innovate, get some great artists and do customization lockboxes like Overwatch. Just stop enforcing the “time is money” idea and lure players in with thoughts of fun times.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): It’s been bizarre watching this happen to the MMO genre, that’s for sure. I remember when Bethsoft held back Oblivion horse armor for DLC and the positively massive backlash over that type of monetization. Some people bear grudges over that single event even today; it’s a permanent running joke when you want to talk about terrible, overt, no-shame-at-all monetization. But far worse examples have piled up and piled up and inured us to the ongoing damage over the last decade, whether we’re talking about early access single-player games or full-fledged eternal-development MMORPGs.
I understand that video games need funding and then need to make money. As always, I don’t begrudge them this. The problem isn’t any one model, either. There are good sub, B2P, and F2P models along with the bad; there are sustainable and reasonable models along with the odious. And you won’t find me bashing the concept of Kickstarter, as this website wouldn’t exist without it.
But we’ve reached the point that I’d rather have a smaller, poorer genre than continue to watch the monetization for unreleased games spiral out of control. Yes, I can refuse to participate in the $7000 castles and viral marketing and all the rest. But it’s distasteful. It’s tainted the genre. It’s gone too far. They think we’re suckers. Stop being suckers.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): On some level, I kind of respect the fact that several companies have realized that there’s a certain portion of the MMO audience who will now pay a lot of money for an idea. Because that’s what you’re paying for in all of these cases; if you’re dropping money on a ship that isn’t playable in any form or a palace you can’t use or anything else which is not actually a playable facet of the game, what you’re buying is an idea. You are paying money for an idea and a certain amount of hope. That strikes me as kind of a bad use of money, but then, it’s not my money, so any number of old P. T. Barnum sayings would seem to apply, right?
Except that in this case, these aren’t games really selling people on the concept of “pay for this idea/hope now and get it when we launch it, probably;” it’s presented as if it’s a sure thing. And this is kind of the problem that I have with crowdfunding and the like writ large, wherein crowdfunding becomes a mechanism for separating people from money without any actual assurances of producing anything at all.
I understand disliking aspects of the modern MMO business model, but this is something altogether different. You may dislike buying random items in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I get that… but you’re buying an actual thing. This is buying nothing and hopefully, at some undisclosed point in the future, getting something. And while it’s not a scam – Shroud of the Avatar, for example, has quite obviously produced a playable game – it’s the sort of behavior that speaks to why publishers exist in the first place rather than making this look like a positive alternative.
As long as it keeps being seen as acceptable, it’s going to keep happening. As long as people act like Star Citizen is passing boundaries rather than milking money from its audience without finishing the core game, the studio is going to keep selling people ships that don’t exist beyond concept art. And it baffles me how many people will state their vitriolic distaste for random item packs as a concept while happily ignoring how much is being asked to fund something that isn’t even in a playable state.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Honestly? This is making me start to really miss the old days. Initially I was very much on board for MMOs being developed and funding out from under the thumb of a producer. Freedom! No meddling! But the neverending process of crowdfunding to push these games through development is wearing and has turned me off to many of these titles well before they’re ever launched.
What’s at stake here is reputation and perception. When an MMO isn’t even out yet and it is building a reputation not for what gameplay content it will have but for all sorts of money-grubbing techniques, that’s going to hurt it in the long run. Sure, you might get your castle money now, but if people aren’t going to play your game in a year because you’ve established yourself as a title that is more concerned with a player’s wallet than their interest and imagination, what’s the point? You’re giving people a real reason to shy away from ever trying your game.
And while many of these games are of personal interest to me, I feel that interest ebbing away the more I hear about how other players are positioning themselves to have huge advantages prior to launch by using their money alone. It creates a haves and have-nots tiered community prior to launch, with the latter feeling behind and possibly disenfranchised. Do I want to play Elyria, knowing that players have spent money to obtain land and titles before launch? Or to venture into the lands of Shroud of the Avatar only to see that the crowdfunding community has moved in and taken up all of the prime real estate? Probably not.
I know devs need money to make these games. The lesson that I think some of these titles are going to learn, painfully, is that just because they can make bank in some areas doesn’t mean that they always should. There are drawbacks to being too aggressive and too shady, and caution and prudence are needed.
As long as people are going to keep paying and supporting this method of development, it is going to continue happening. Should it? That is a whole different ballgame. I love the idea that more games can be developed — games that might push the envelope a bit more, or do something more risky than investors would tend to want. But I don’t like when folks become seriously disadvantaged because they can’t or won’t fork over oodles and oodles of real cash. Some of us can’t, and that doesn’t make us any less of a player or community member.
Now I am not advocating for the “everything should be free” camp. On the contrary. I’m happy to pay a sub for a game I am deeply invested in, and I am happy to buy a game. I prefer these methods really. I just really don’t like that the fact that I am not wealthy means I will be missing out on some favorite parts of games because I can’t toss in fistfuls of money during crowdfunding. Parts of the games that would be my whole reason for playing, like housing. As much as I love many of the ideas and plans in Shroud of the Avatar, I know there is no way I can earn my way up to doing what I really want to because it involves needing specific housing in a specific kind of area — stuff you only get for some hefty pledges. I have no qualms about working hard in game to work up to that point, but not only might it be impossible in game mechanic terms but others will be set from the get go because they happen to have deeper pockets, making my efforts too late to matter.
Honestly, if crowdfunding was a single equal fee that everyone is in on (like Steam Early Access), I am much better with it. (And that’s even counting the games-never-seem-to-launch problem.) But giving severe advantages to folks in game because they can spend more — whether they are richer or just less responsible with their money — is not OK. In the virtual worlds of pixels your standing should be determined by your efforts, not by your real-world wallet. Life has enough of that.