Massively Overthinking: Are MMOs suffering from shrinkflation?


So last week we bought some Girl Scout cookies from a neighbor kid, and I was surprised to find out they were only $5 – they’ve barely gone up in price since I was a kid myself, and now I’ve got my own kids. But my husband reminded me that keeping to the $5 mark is key for driving impulse sales, so the Scouts are just deploying shrinkflation instead – i.e., the cookies and packages aren’t as big as they used to be. Being the giant nerd that I am who sees an MMO story in everything, I remarked that most core MMOs haven’t raised their sub fees in 25 years either and they’re not suffering shrinkflation!

And then I stopped dead because… maybe they are?

We’re going to talk about it in this week’s Massively Overthinking because that’s just what we do here. Are MMOs suffering from shrinkflation? Are we being asked to pay the same amount for much less in the end?

Andy McAdams: I don’t think it’s actually possible to answer this question because there are too many different factors at play here, the most important factor being “what would we be getting less of?” How can we even quantify more or less game?

Size of the world? How big the world is doesn’t matter if its just an empty space. Amount of content? Not everyone plays games for the same content. A structured PvP might only need a handful of different arenas to feel like a game is providing enough value for price paid, while a raider might only need a new raid every three to six months. But someone who likes to experience the open world needs more to feel like its all worth it.

The game can simultaneously suffer from shrinkflation for some players while providing the same amount of value it always has for others.

Overall, I don’t think game are suffering from shrinkflation. But I do think that game developers are focusing on giving the absolute least amount of content players will accept any given time and monetizing the rest out the wazoo. But I also think for most players, particularly MMOs – the “absolute minimum amount we will accept” is actually pretty substantial in the grand scheme.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Well, I asked the question, and it wasn’t a trick; I definitely think we are looking at clear shrinkflation. Examining the amount and quality of systems and gameloops we got 20 years ago in MMOs versus now makes it really obvious: We’re paying the same amount for less breadth of content and mechanics, even factoring in the fact that the purchasing power of $15 is less now (and we’re usually paying more than $15, anyway, because of microtransactions and season passes and on and on).

That’s not to say we have fewer MMOs because in fact we have more than ever, even with so many sunsets and closures, corpses stacked up in piles behind us. But the thing that is most problematic about shrinkflation is that it allows corporations and industries to hide what’s really happening in a market; when they must count only total units sold, they can gloss over the reality that each unit was made smaller than before to maintain profit margins, which is unsustainable long-term anyway. Counting the total number of MMOs without considering their deficiencies plays into that problem – and serves the corporations rather than the genre or its players.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I don’t know that we’re suffering from shrinkflation quite so much as we’re being asked to pay out of the nozzle through increasingly more prevalent live service shenaniganry – i.e., battle passes and FOMO-powered seasonal things.

I suppose the argument could be made that some shrinkflation is happening in the form of less-frequent major updates, but I kind of chalk that up mostly to MMORPG development having to find a good content cadence balance more than trying to make us pay more for less. At least in most cases; we’ll not talk about AAAA Bruno.

But then I do wonder if this is just me, a frog, not noticing that the pond of water I’m in is boiling. It is nice and warm in here though…

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): It’s a possibility for sure. While I am behind, and constantly falling further, on the Guild Wars 2 expansions and events, I might see them as smaller than they used to be. Of course, I’ve not played the recent expac, so I’m mostly talking from how I felt about Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire and the Icebrood Saga. I loved PoF far more than HoT, but I feel like the amount of content to play through was less – and less than the original game. Yet the price was similar. At least that’s what I remember.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think it’s pretty hard to make an argument for “shrinkflation” in a genre where different playstyles may consume content at different rates, and quality (which is somewhat subjective) is as relevant as quantity of content.

I can say I don’t feel I’m paying more for games than I was, say, ten years ago. I did some napkin math recently comparing what I’d spent on New World since launch compared to what I would have spent subscribing to WoW for the same length of time, and it was about even or less, and I very much could have spent even less if I’d wanted to, since almost all of that was on optional micro-transactions.

And then you compare that to what I’d spend for an equivalent amount of hours from pretty much any other hobby or source of entertainment, and it becomes clear that video games remain one of the cheapest forms of entertainment under the sun (hardware to play them on notwithstanding).

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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