Vague Patch Notes: Money makes the MMO world go round

Unfortunately

    
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It costs.

I had some thoughts after the most recent bit of news we got from Star Trek Online about how, you know… the game costs money and making it is expensive. On one level, it was filled to the brim with “no duh” moments. Oh, the developers are selling us ships because the game costs money? No duh, we all knew that, no one was upset about that!

Except… well, people kind of were. Usually those comments were followed by assertions that the ratio of content-to-ships was skewed in the wrong way, or lockboxes weren’t popular, or something along those lines. And that stuck in my head because I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that if that ratio could be stacked differently, it already would be.

That, of course, led me down the same rabbit hole that ultimately led to my tongue-in-cheek column about the idea of pay-to-win the other day, and that in turn led to some thoughts about the side of this business none of us really like to think about. Yes, I’m talking about money, and yes, it makes the world go round. But that works beyond what you might be thinking as a “no duh” element of the whole thing.

See, the reason I ultimately wrote that pay-to-win column was because I was having a bit of snarky fun about the people who were very, very upset at the idea that New World might sell boosts to players for a few dollars. This, obviously, was pay-to-win in a game that was otherwise buy-to-play because there is nothing worse than the idea that someone somewhere might get to level a bit faster than you do because they were willing to drop a few bucks during the process. All right. But then we had Ashes of Creation’s Steven Sharif drop in to sound off on his own thoughts on this, and…

Well, Ashes is selling access to alpha for a lot of money. I don’t think it’s necessarily a disingenuous stance to take, but it is not, as the kids say, a good look. One might even go so far as to call it a bad take. It creates this bizarre scenario where charging money for a slight increase in leveling speed in a released game is way worse than, again, selling access to an early test version for a whole lot more money.

The thing is? Neither of these things bothers me overmuch. I don’t actually care at all if someone else levels faster than me because of dropping some money; I don’t actually care if someone levels faster than me, period. If I’m liking the game, history has shown I’ll go plenty fast by itself. Similarly, I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with selling access to a test phase for money. If people are willing to pay it, hey, your money, your bliss. I won’t pay it myself, but other people’s money is theirs to spend.

Where this gets messy is an issue of perception, value, and worthiness. More accurately, it comes back to the problem of what the objection over “pay-to-win” is actually supposed to be in the first place.

Don Jeon

I’ve said before that we kind of need to retire the term pay-to-win because it ultimately doesn’t have an actual accepted objective definition any longer. This was, obviously, the whole root of the tongue-in-cheek nature of that piece before. After all, if everything is pay-to-win, nothing is, right? But beyond even that, it’s focusing on the wrong thing.

The whole point of an MMO, at least to me, is supposed to be that you don’t win.

I have been playing Final Fantasy XIV since launch. I have been playing World of Warcraft since launch. I have been playing both of these games a lot since launch. I definitely have not won at either of them. I have not accomplished everything I want to in either game. And while I’m going to be waiting a while for the next content update for both of those games (longer for the former than the latter), in both cases there is more stuff coming to accomplish. More stuff to do.

This is, at least to me, one of the advantages of these games. I want a game I can pick up and just keep playing, a place where I can build out my character and my outfits and my fun for a nearly endless expansion of same. If I want to win, I play a single-player game. I have a finite amount of stuff to do and the world is placated. There. Simple. Fun, done, finished.

The problem with pay-to-win as a term is that it’s focusing on the wrong part of these games from an actual design perspective. It’s treating the persistence as a side-effect rather than part of the purpose. Why do I care if someone levels up faster? That’s not winning; that’s getting through the leveling portion of the game a little bit faster. What I’m here for is the persistence. It’s like skipping the commercials on a broadcast.

What strikes me as far more detrimental is when the persistent and fun part of the game is locked behind a cost. When you have to pay through the nose to even get access to a game in the first place. When you’re being charged for concept art that isn’t yet usable. When you’re asked to drop real money just to get a house (one of the peak examples of persistence).

turt

Therein lies the problem. We’ll complain about, say, the fact that STO puts out more ships for players to drop real money on than than it puts out new content, and you know? That’s fair. I completely get being annoyed about it. But the real problem there is the fact that the game is balanced around spending money on these ships. They’re not cosmetic options; they’re core gameplay. And while there are gameplay options, they’re extremely limited, and even subscribers are going to be stuck waiting for a long while before they can start flying a Tier 6 ship properly.

By complaining about pay-to-win, we easily focus on the least important and least relevant part of when business practices get shady and untoward in MMOs. There is much, much worse stuff out there than just a leveling boost. Plenty of games sell boosts while still being compelling. Boosts are, in every way, one of the most innocuous options for microtransactions. It just makes you level a little bit faster. You’re trading money for time, not money for things you can’t get without money.

Moreover, it creates a warped design incentive set where are focus is on whether or not something is sufficiently differentiated from the dreaded pay-to-win… but not whether a game should be charging money in this state, or whether or not the business practices are fair, or what should be considered valid grounds for charging money.

By focusing on the pay-to-win bugbear, we wind up deferring all of the actual discussions we could and should be having about business practices into an argument over definitions and nonsense. And not only is that counterproductive but it allows studios to keep on draining our wallets while we quibble over “fair.” Not where we probably want to be.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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James Hicks

One thing I’ve learned in this business is that completely regardless of HOW you charge for your product, people are going to complain about it. Loudly. Obnoxiously. Often. Everywhere.

Usually these aren’t actually customers, they’re just a weird subset of “gamers” who feel developers should work for free and pay for their own server infrastructure on top. Not sure how that’s supposed to work…

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Schmidt.Capela

My issue is that often the things I can spend money on are things I will never pay for:

– Lootboxes are something I only purchase if you can convince me that even the most dismal result I could get from them would still make me feel like it was fully worth what I’ve spent. Which is about as likely as raining frogs.

– I will never, ever, spend real money on in-game consumables or temporary items, including temporary progression boosts and anything that can be permanently lost/discarded/deleted/used up.

– I will never, ever, purchase anything that would need to be purchased per character; if it’s not an account-wide unlock then I’m not getting it.

– I will never, ever, pay any money to directly improve my character’s stats or performance. This includes paying for items that aren’t purely cosmetic.

– I will never, ever, spend money on certain “character services” like respecs, recustomization, server transfers, etc. If I ever feel like I need one of those, and the game charges me for it, I will leave the game instead.

– I do accept paying for a subscription, but it would have to include everything in game to the extent I never, ever, feel tempted to spend any money apart from the subscription. Meaning I’m very unlikely to pay a subscription if the game has a cash store or otherwise has any revenue source other than the subscription.

It’s not unusual for me to see a game with lots of things on its cash store, none of it I would ever be willing to pay for; in this situation, even if I desperately wanted to send some money the dev/publisher’s way I would be unable to do so.

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texyFX

relativism invites ignorance.

the definition of pay-to-win is: paying for any advantage over non-paying players.

the inherent design issue is: to install artificial barriers, most common practice is time-gating, to “incentivize” (/extort) further money spending (to unblock those barriers). pay-to-win games r designed to monetize the fun out of the game – until the customers pays to play the game it is designed to be played…

the overall issue for gaming culture is the trend of ADDITIONAL, if not predatory monetisation and how it compromises game-design.

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NeoWolf

MMO’s are entertainment for us, but Business to the Developing studios so of course Money is the point.

BUT, that said there are ways of getting money from us that are inoffensive and ways that are absolutely offensive and make you feel like you are being taken advantage of. There are no end of ways to incentivize buying things in a game, without lottery type BS. For one thing add decent/desirable stuff to your store, reasonably price it. Give people reason to want to spend money in this way and they will. Nickel and Dime them with false hopes of something and provide only crap and useless stuff instead and sooner or later they will get tired of your nonsense and stop spending at all.

Frankly they would have been better off going the legendary ship pack route in STo than lockboxes from day one it went F2P as it is a far less offensive approach and it guarantees you get something you want.

As such no one will ever convince me lockboxes are a necessary evil. Put the stuff in your store and let people buy it directly and I’ll give your game money, put it in lockboxes where I o have 0.003% chance of getting the good thing and you can kiss my hiney for ANY money.

To Craptic, with love.

P.S stop making excuses for companies that use lockboxes Eliot :P

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Peregrine Falcon

Agreed!

Remember when people, like the folks at the YouTube channel Extra Credits, used to defend the game companies and their prices?

Then we started getting news articles about EA executives being ridiculously overpaid compared to executives in other industries, Bobby Kotick getting a $200 million bonus, etc.

Please understand that when you defend lockboxes you’re defending companies firing 200 employees while giving their CEO a $200 million bonus. And if you purchase lockboxes you’re enabling this kind of behavior .

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Dean Greenhoe

I am amazed how much my wife dumps into her tablet games just to keep up with the in crowd. But when we played PC based mmo’s spending anything was taboo.

We have to figure this out. PC mmo players have to face the music. Either start paying more for this service or the end result will be no more pc mmo’s.

As to play to win, I only oppose pvp based play to win. Anything other than pvp enhancements is fair game to raise capital.

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Bruno Brito

I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that if that ratio could be stacked differently, it already would be.

I don’t know if i agree with this. We have decades of history showing that if companies can stack the ratio in their favor, they will. It’s exactly the opposite, imo.

Do i think a lot of the complaints are overblown? For sure. But i don’t, for a second, believe that ALL companies and developers are hamstrung and “would if they could”.

I have a simple philosophy: “If you can’t create a business that keep your employees well-taken care off, and doesn’t predate upon your clients, then don’t create a business.”

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Harbinger_Kyleran

Err, you just dismissed about 90% of the service industry yes?

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styopa

They’re entitled to do what they think is reasonable to raise cash.

If cost>value to me, I’m entitled to disagree with them and not buy their game.
You, as a human, are entitled to make that same calculus yourself, and either buy or not-buy their stuff based on your own preferences and opportunity costs.
And, on forums like this we are free to have our own opinions and engage with each other in pointless arguments over prioritization, of course.

If they’ve correctly gauged the market place, there will be more people who think it’s worth supporting than not.
If they have not, well, Starbucks always needs new baristas.

That’s about it. Adam Smith doesn’t spend a lot of time on what “should” or “shouldn’t” be. It’s pretty clear that the collective choices of consumers make that decision.*


*unless, of course, you can convince government that you’re ‘too big to fail’ or ‘strategically critical’ in which case they’ll intervene with subsidies paid for with $ taken from the people by force of law and threat of imprisonment. But that’s another context.

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Java Jawa

Continuing the STO analysis here, I think it’s bonkers.

You have this iconic franchise, you have this player base of actual fans, then you lock the most iconic ships, really the stuff everyone absolutely wants to fly because we’ve seen it on screen for the past 50 years— then the company proceeds to put it behind a literal slot machine.

How is that okay? It’s not. If we really want to be honest here with this kind of bullshit, there should be a sticker like when you look at a nutritional label and state:

“You have a 0.0015% rate of attaining XYZ ship”

That would put things into black and white perspective for us the gamer, us the consumer. The reality of the situation on top of the want for such iconic ships is that they ARE statistically superior in every way due to the configuration of slots.

I’m sure other people can make an analogy for other games.

In short it’s bullshit, find a business model that works, don’t hide behind a psychological game of preying on fan dome. It’s nasty, disingenuous business.

This Jawa’s 2 Credits . . .

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Eliandal

After watching this for the past 20 or so years, it really CAN be broken down too.. the people with more time than money being upset that the people with more money than time can buy their way to parity (and sometimes even beyond)
So what? Who cares? I sure don’t
(Very VERY simplistic breakdown – don’t bother coming after me for it – again – I don’t care ;P)

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angrakhan

Well I care because I’m in the “more money than time” bracket. I work a full time job, started my own business (martial arts academy), have kids, a wife, and friends that like to see me on occasion. Time is not something I have an abundance of. To be clear I don’t regret any of that and love all of it. Wouldn’t change a thing.

However, what bothers me is the games that offer a path to pay to win don’t expect you to pay a little to win. Oh no, it’s like pay 10x, 20x, 50x what you would spend on a normal boxed game. Take warframe for example. You can absolutely open you’re wallet and get ahead, but by the time you buy enough frames, weapons, and companions to get yourself leveled up to end-game to even start farming for those rare cards that require high mastery rank you’re hundreds of dollars in the hole maybe thousands. Go do the math on how many frames and whatnot you’d have to buy to get to max mastery rank and how much platinum that’s all going to cost you. It’s not insignificant.

For me, personally, I just feel left out this genre of games these days (MMOs). They either expect you to dedicate your life to grinding or they expect a crap ton of cash that while I could spend, I just don’t because I have a hard time spending thousands on something that will go up in smoke when I could spend thousands on investments that will in turn make me money directly or make my life easier in some way. It’s too bad because I have a lot of fond memories of my time in MMO’s, but I just seem to be out of the target demographic.

Oh well, life’s full of choices. Can’t do everything.

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Peregrine Falcon

I like how people will claim that tents in BDO, which don’t really do anything, are pay-to-win, while conveniently not noticing that the Tier 6 ships in STO are obviously pay-to-win.

The Tier 6 ships provide a travel speed and a combat advantage that you cannot get, except in the store.

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Hikari Kenzaki

BDO gives away a lot of the so-called p2w items throughout the year, but then again, so does STO. They give away several T6 ships for free each year if you put in the work in-game. I’ve actually gotten to the point when they announce a new free ship, I say “eh, I already have all the ships I need. Does it look cool?”

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Hikari Kenzaki

Heck, you don’t even need to put in much work sometimes. Every KDF recruit during that event got a free T6 ship (account-wide unlock) for reaching level 10.

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Schmidt.Capela

For me, at least, this kind of time-limited offer might as well not exist. The way I hate non-permanent content in a game, not only I tend to avoid even logging into the game while any such event is running, if later I become aware of any reward that isn’t obtainable anymore that I really want it can make me stop playing altogether.