Or: “Microtransacting your World of Warcraft”
Tobold made mention of this little gem, and since he called it to my attention, I’ve seen it in other places. I’ve always loathed the subscription model. I offer no pretense on that subject. To me, a casual player, it just doesn’t offer a good enough value for the cost. Other players (who usually have more time than money) love the sub model. So… what is Blizzard thinking? Is this potentially the best of both worlds, and if so… is it so for the player or the company?
***warning, this is a fairly long one***
First, what exactly would Blizzard be doing with this? I suspect that any microtransactions that Blizzard layers on top of the core of WoW would be cosmetic. They have taken strong stands against the “buying power” argument, and to recant that now would run contrary to their stated design ethos. (Of course, if there’s enough money in said recanting, what value ethics?) This reveals an ugly prejudice that crops up all too often in the MMO conversation: “microtransactions mean buying power” and the accompanying bigotry that hardcore players often have simmering against casual players.
This is a fallacious stand for a couple of reasons.
First, it ignores the essence of any economy based on a monetary unit of exchange. At heart, most economies are built on trading time, skill and goods. That’s the essence of a barter economy; a farmer trades his eggs for another farmer’s apples, or gives a farmhand a basket of apples for a day’s worth of work. Perhaps the farmer plows his neighbor’s field and his own, using his own horse team but his neighbor’s plow. Cooperation between the “haves” and “have nots” can be a great, interlinking web of dependencies. That’s why it’s important to have various people with different skills in a community. (And a game crafting system, but that’s a post for another time.)
Money is often introduced as an intermediary for transactions. If Joe the farmer needs a new plow, but Jim the blacksmith doesn’t take apples for payment, there needs to be something that both agree has intrinsic value that can serve as a medium of storage for time, skill or goods. Potter the banker has minted coins that both Joe and Jim agree have value, mostly because they can trade them to yet other parties to acquire goods, time or skills that they need. (Say, both need bread from Mabel the cook, but she takes neither apples nor metalworking in trade.) Joe sells his apples to someone who wants them, gets coins in return, then takes those coins to Jim to buy a plow. Coins act as a medium of exchange, then, and a storage of value for goods. They can act as a storage of labor as well, as Joe pays his farmhand five coins per hour or so. Not only are they temporary means of storing value (say, while Joe carries them to Mabel’s place), but as a long-term storage of value. Apples rot, coins do not.
This is all pretty basic stuff. It’s also why money in and of itself isn’t evil. It’s very useful stuff, and can make communities work when a straight barter economy might suffer due to seasonal variation, lack of trade options, or any of a number of other variables.
So what of our WoW players? Some have more time than money. They play WoW for forty or more hours per week. They grind gold and reputation, farm materials, and spam the auction interface, hoping to attach some value to their time. Do you see the other side of this? There will inevitably be other players who value their time more than their money. It’s true if you look completely in-game. Players do their daily gold quests, and then go buy farmed herbs on the auction block. They are trading their time doing the daily quest for the time someone else spent farming. It’s likely not an equivalent amount of time, and the in-game currency acts as money to facilitate the exchange.
It’s not a huge step to go out of the game and see players who have real world money and value their real world time more than that money. That’s where the demand for “RMT” comes from. Some players have money, some players have time. The demand that comes from wanting to trade one for the other is at the heart of any economy. Denying this basic function of a currency-based economy is demonstrating a fundamental lack of comprehension. MMOs have, as a key element, players. That’s part of the draw of the games; there are other people. As such, those competing demands between time and money will inevitably come up. Skewing the balance to those with time over those who have money is unstable, just as certainly as skewing the balance to those with money is unstable.
Some might argue that virtual worlds don’t have intrinsic value. Even so, the time that players spend certainly does have value. Some argue for a divorce of the “virtual world” and the “real world”, but that denies the whole point of playing with other people. If the world was entirely populated by bots (a single player game), this sort of market action would be irrelevant. Bots don’t care if you farmed rep with the Scarlet Crusade to get that shiny Cape of Doom. (That other players do is still a mystery to me, but that’s the draw for some people.)
Bottom line, as long as there are other players involved with varied interests and personal balances between time and money, the game design should take that into account if it wants to find a varied user base.
WoW (or more accurately, the subscription model) is largely built around those with vast swaths of free time to grind through the content. There is no balance to incorporate those potential customers who have more money than time. (Say, a huge swath of “casual” gamers with careers and families, for example.) This inevitably shifts the core demographics of the game to the stereotypical asocial “more time than money (or sense?)” hardcore gamers. The much vilified WoW forums are a fine demonstration of this. Those are your core users, Blizzard. Is it any surprise that Blizzard doesn’t police the forums as well as civilized folk might prefer?
Speaking of the sub model, this is another place where the most vocal players just don’t bother with comprehension. I’m not sure who originally thought up the “$15 is cheaper than a movie” argument, but it’s disengenuous and/or ignorant at best. First, for a valid comparison, MMORPGs should be compared to their nearest equivalents. On the one hand, there’s the offline RPG (the closest gameplay equivalent). Sub model games lose big time to the “Return On Investment” calculation there, as offline games can be played indefinitely, bringing the cost per hour theoretically to almost nothing. A sub game’s ROI goes down as the player grinds through content but keeps paying the same price each month no matter what, as the total cost goes up. There’s even a baseline value given by hours in the day, since the cost is per unit of time, rather than per unit of content.
On the other hand for comparison, there’s the game club. This is more of the “buffet” model, where an entry fee pays for unlimited access. The trouble with this is that if your fees are based on a monthly fee, in order for the consumer to maximize their ROI, they are compelled to play for as long as they can, as often as they can while the sub lasts. It’s very much like an all you can eat buffet that only lasts for two hours. If you can’t be there at the restaurant the whole time, you’re likely going to be spending too much money for the product. You could have gotten a better deal (and ROI) if the food were sold by content, rather than by access. Sure, there will inevitably be those who can eat a lot and stay the full two hours, but those are the hardcore eaters. That’s not the mass market, but thanks to savvy “marketing”, it’s seen as better value for the dollar.
When the consumer sees “unlimited” or “all you can eat” their brain often turns off and they think it’s a good deal. Time and its comparison to value must be taken into the equation. It’s that time vs. money balance again.
There will inevitably be those who will get the most out of a membership or subscription model. I can’t deny that it’s a possibility. It is absolutely not always the right model for every potential consumer. Arguing that the WoW subscription model is “the only way” is just as fallacious as thinking that all game players are hardcore. As game players age and the demographics shift around, monetary circumstances shift as well. Companies who rely on a single business model, like Blizzard, can certainly find success. There’s nothing saying they can’t.
But what of an MMO? At least part of the potential for the genre is getting a variety of people playing. Shoehorning them into a “one size fits all” business model doesn’t insure a level playing field in-game, it heavily skews the game to those who have more time. It’s bad for world building, bad for game balance, and bad for a community.
So again, what of microtransactions? Puzzle Pirates has a brilliant dual currency economy that allows players to trade time for money with the company profiting from the transaction. They embrace people with varying time and money levels, and the blind currency exchange allows supply and demand to work unfettered by prejudice and hype. That’s huge, as it allows for the balance of time vs. money to find a natural equilibrium in their economy.
PP has a core game design that is amenable to such a system, though. Their game play is almost entirely based on skill, and items that are purchased in the game either unlock certain elements of play or are purely cosmetic. In a PvP scenario, the prime indicator of success is player skill, not player pocketbook. You cannot buy power, by design. There are a couple of puzzles (Swordfighting, Rumble and Drinking) that are primarily PvP that do have purchasable tools that can alter the game somewhat, but skill will always be the key to triumph. (Notably, there was a Rumble tool that was imbalanced, and after much complaining, the PP devs, Three Rings, changed it to balance the field. Balance is the key.)
PvP is important in these MMO games. A level playing field is important for this, so that people don’t feel cheated. The argument against the ability to “buy power” often hinges on this concept. I think it’s a fair complaint. That said, I do think that a well-designed game should allow players to reach a fair plateau of competition via either the time route or by buying their way there. Purchasable items should be available to acquire via time spent, and vice versa. That’s part of why the PP model of a currency exchange and open auction is such a brilliant setup; the players naturally find a balance between the time vs. money positions. Demand and supply balance out, creating relatively fair prices for goods, so why not services?
To be fair, such would require a retooling of the core design of WoW. It’s primarily a level/loot treadmill. PvE solo players shouldn’t really care about what other players have, but when there’s an interaction between players (either PvE group raiding or PvP), fairness will inevitably come to the fore. Even so, if itemization were keyed fairly strictly to levels, it would keep the power band focused, and players within a level or two of each other wouldn’t be able to even have huge advantages in the first place, whether or not they were purchased with time or money. Of course, if the power band were narrowed even further, like Guild Wars’ instant max level PvP, it really wouldn’t matter how players got there since the playing field would be largely even, and success would be dependent on player skill.
So making microtransaction play “fair” with subscription play would require tight power controls. It’s possible, but it would require attention. Even so, it’s not impossible. Also, that’s just looking at it from a competition standpoint. What if the monetization of the game is driven by cosmetic purchases?
This is pretty much where PP shines. Almost everything that can be purchased in the game is cosmetic. This brilliantly keeps money from destroying the PvP concerns by removing the ability of money to have an effect on the gameplay. Even so, people still spend money. MMOs in particular bank on players getting involved with their avatars. They are often seen as an extension of one’s self, and can provide real senses of worth to players. Now, sidestepping some of the psychological implications of that somewhat, it’s pretty fair to say that people can actually care about their in-game characters. Perfect World has a crazily detailed character creator, and players can spend hours getting just the right look. Guild Wars offers dye to customize armor and such. NONE of that changes the core game play, but people still pay, in time and in-game money, to have those options. It’s not a far stretch to think that people will pay real money for those purely cosmetic options.
So is this where Blizzard is going? Offering purely cosmetic changes for real money? If that’s the case, it’s smart business. Puzzle Pirates makes decent money from the same sort of options. Of course, they don’t also charge a subscription fee. They do have different servers, some subscription and some microtransaction, but they don’t layer the two and double charge their customers.
In some of the threads about this possible move by Blizzard, some are complaining that they should be able to buy such cosmetic changes with in-game money. Tellingly, this is the exact same argument (just reversed) for making everything in-game purchasable with real money. Either the “RMT” items are kept separate from the in-game earnings, or they are mixed, but if they are available to both those who spend time and those who send money, it has to work both ways.
That’s the heart of this discussion. There are those who are willing to pay for product, in this case, a game. Being able to pay with time or with money should be an option if the goal is to reach many and diverse customers, and often, a smart microtransaction system will allow that, while a subscription model will not.