Posts Tagged ‘microtransaction’

Dear Kings Isle,

Thank you.

It’s nice to think that someone listened, even if it was just a coincidence.

You’ve also earned some money from at least one fan, and maybe another.  *waves at the good Cap’n*  This is effectively a lifetime sub for all current content, almost a Guild Wars sort of purchase.  I love that business model, and I really like Wizard 101.



(Scot Silverblade, Balance/Death Wizard, still enamored with Marleybone but now chasing elephant demons in MooShu)


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Rog started this line of thought a while ago, and I’m just following up on it a bit.

Much fuss is made over microtransaction and item shop games “nickel and diming” consumers to financial ruin.  What about those little chunks of time that games eat up?  Do we value our time enough to worry about five minutes here, ten minutes there lost to time sinks?  How much do they actually cost when we’re paying for time, not content?

Richard Aihoshi mentions health regeneration (recovery downtime) in passing (the rest of the article is good, too).

Syp notes that the lack of respecs tends to force altitis, which is a significant time sink.

Nels reminds devs of the command:  Respect Thy Player

When time is money, say, under a subscription model, how much do these (sometimes) little inconveniences and time sinks cost?  Because there is no monetary fee assigned to them up front, do we ignore them?  How much does each griffon ride cost in WoW, in real money?  How much does it cost to die (repairs, corpse runs, etc.)?  How much does it cost to get Exalted reputation with a given faction?

Of course, the cost changes depending on playstyle.  Players who play more will wind up paying less for each death or ride, which is one advantage of the subscription model.  Even so, there is a cost.  I don’t have good numbers to run with, but just ballparking it, let’s say that an average WoW player plays an insane 20 hours a week.  (A lot of time gaming, clearly indicating some level of addictive behavior, but I digress.)  How many times do they ride a griffon, zeppelin or boat, or how much time is spent in corpse runs?  I’m going to guesstimate that maybe 1 hour of those 20 are stuck in such pure time sinks.  So, 5% of the player’s time by one unscientific guesstimate.  5% of their monthly $15 is a mere 75 cents.  Five nickles and five dimes.

It adds up.

Of course, with something like Allods Online’s knuckleheaded perfume mechanic, time again costs money.  We’re just changing the numbers around a little, and charging in bits and pieces rather than in a lump sum.  When you see up front how much it can cost, though, suddenly the little gamer white blood cells get all riled up, causing an allergic reaction to the business model.  It seems to me that if either business model can be accused of slipping charges under the radar, the sub model is more pernicious about it by simply making the coin of the realm time, one logical step removed from charging money… a logical step that many players don’t make.  We’re already paying the $15, so it’s free, right?

Neither model really makes me happy.  I don’t like paying for time.  The item shop model is ideal for players with little time to play per month, and subscriptions are ideal for those who play a LOT per month.  I firmly fall into the former category, but even there, I don’t like paying for time.  Any time that devs are monetizing time spent in-game, the game design will incorporate stupid time sinks to try to cash in.

I’m perfectly happy to pay for content, though.  That’s why Guild Wars, Wizard 101 and DDO work for me.  To each their own, to be sure, but don’t forget to look at all the costs when you’re doing your value calculations.  When making accusations about business models that weren’t made for you, remember that your model doesn’t work for someone else, and it might just be because there are some nickles and dimes tucked away in the dark corners, and the coin of the realm may not be minted in metal.

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Torchlight has a fantastic game mechanic that it borrows from its ancestor, Fate.  Players have a pet that not only serves as a combat companion, but also a handy remote access to shops.  Specifically, you can load the critter down with vendor trash, and send it on its way to go sell the junk.  It will bring back cash and empty pockets to start the cycle again.  You need never leave the dungeon whilst adventuring to take care of the “inventory management” vendor dump timesink minigame.

I want a pet like that in these MMO things that I play.  In fact, I think they would be a perfect Item Shop sale.  It’s an anti-timesink mechanic, so subscription games won’t likely bother (WoW’s vendor mounts and Jeeves being the obvious exception, though notably only present now that the game is older), but for nonsub games that monetize via convenience and vanity items, it strikes me that these convenience/combat pets would be a hot seller.  Games like DDO already sell bigger backpacks, so the philosophy of monetizing the inventory management minigame is there.

So, icanhazpet?

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No, it’s not the Cataclysm, it’s the latest nerdragestorm about Blizzard’s cash cow.  For reference:

Blizzard Introduces Microtransactions (via Tobold)


Subscription Game Item Shops are the Third Trammel (via Green Armadillo at PvD)

So now Blizzard is TEH EBIL for taking another step into a larger MMO market, one where not everyone pays their $15 door fee and competes for epics and ego via state-sanctioned grinds.  This is the proverbial “straw” to break some camels’ backs.  (Never mind that the Refer-A-Friend program had a more significant impact on the wallet *and* gameplay.)  Yeah, democracy and the free market certainly suck.  (Must be why Bush and Obama tried to strangle them.  *rimshot*)

As Green Armadillo notes, markets change.  I’d say they mature, but too many gamers think that means boobs and blood.

What gets lost in the hyperbole is that in a mature market, savvy salescritters find ways to cater to all sorts of different customers.  Trammel didn’t destroy the “old school” servers where you had to walk to town uphill both ways with gankers stabbing your squishy bits and stealing your shinies every two steps.  The players voted with their feet and went elsewhere, yes, but those nasty, tricksy old servers were there for those who wanted them.  (Of course, with fewer “sheep” to prey on, wolves started on each other, and it’s never fun for a serial ganker to be on the receiving end.  Boo.  Hoo.)  The choice is still there, but now the market has a better way to get feedback from the players who are paying the bills.  That’s a Good Thing.  (Just like the increased granularity of the microtransaction model is a Good Thing for player-dev feedback design cycles and tight feedback loops.)

In the new, mature MMO market, there will still be subscription-only games.  There will be microtransaction-only games.  There will be hybrids.  There will be companies that offer different models on different servers, while offering the same game.  There will be companies who do a great job and companies who pull jerk moves.  Thing is, you can’t map “microtransaction” to Jerk and “subscription” to “Great” (or vice versa) any more than you can map people by their skin color or political affiliation (it doesn’t stop people from trying, of course).  No, there’s a whole range of business going on out there, and all sorts of Good and Bad game design that may or may not be directly related.

The democratization of the market (maturation, remember) should be embraced.  It fosters an open meritocracy where games can be judged by the content offered their characters, not by the color of their business model.  Customers can make decisions based on what they want to play and what they want to pay, and will have to look past whether a game is on “your team”, whether you’re with the “Hardcore Subbers”, “Casual Carebears”, “Mercenary Micros” or “RMT Raiders”.  Of course, that also asks something of the players.

It means players have to grow up, too.

If you like a game, play it.  If you like it enough, pay the devs for it.  If you don’t like it, leave it alone or vent about it to the world.  Whatever the case, stop letting the Joneses dictate whether or not you’re having fun.

To be sure, I can understand the hurt feelings that come when a game changes direction and goes where you don’t feel welcome any more.  I do have to wonder, though… if we’re constantly paying for these MMO things, always expecting them to use our money to work on the game, can we really expect it to always be the same as it was in the Old Days?

Games change.  People change.  It’s inevitable that some of those changes will not be in harmony.  When those moments of discord come, it’s actually OK to move on… and sometimes, it’s better to do so before you spend more money and emotional investment.  That way lies bitterness and continued resentment, which ultimately does absolutely nothing to the party who is the subject of ire.  Bearing a grudge is a burden on the bearer, not the target.

Witness the occasional blogger who just can’t seem to ignore reasons to hate a game they once loved, or who can’t leave a company alone, always waiting for them to make an error so they can pounce on it.  This is true in all things; the divorcee who gets lost in bashing their former soulmate, the apostate who denounces their former church, the spiteful ex-employee who burns bridges.

Life is change, as Remy of Ratatouille might note, and those who can’t learn to adapt and move with the changes are hurting themselves.  If the wave you’re on doesn’t suit you, find another one.  The ocean doesn’t care.  Life moves on.  Don’t get left behind, crying over changes that you had no control over.  Rather, take control of yourself, and do something else.

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…in the which Tesh realizes that there actually is a price point on the demand curve where he would only very slightly grudgingly buy into the subscription model.  (Hint:  it’s an unholy intersection of microtransactions and subscriptions.  Also, I’ll always prefer the idea of buying content over buying time, so this isn’t a radical shift in my mindset, just a way to find middle ground.)


The discussion over at the Elder Game blog has gotten a bit long and winded, and a bit off topic, but it’s my experience that the best discussions often wind up running such tangents.  It might be best to wander over there for reference, despite Eric (the original post’s author) having somewhat disavowed the discussion at this point.

To set the stage for those coming to this blog late (this is a review for veteran readers), I have a handful of problems with the sub model.

First and foremost, the flat $15/month rate doesn’t offer enough value to me, since I have a life, a job and a family, meaning severely constrained gaming time.  I’ve always recognized that there are those who play 40 hours a week or more to whom the $15 is a pittance for the value derived, but my max 8 hrs./month doesn’t offer nearly the same cost/benefit yield.  This is purely a number analysis, and this is the core of where I’m willing to compromise.

Second, I don’t like buffet style monetization when MMOs offer such a wide variety of play options.  A well designed MMO will allow for players to play in completely different ways, so to my mind, it makes sense to offer more granular and customizable monetization.  There’s definitely an argument to be made for the “club” mentality where everyone just pays the same and it’s up to them what they do (it’s easier bookkeeping, for one), but I do think that going forward, smart shoppers will want more control over what they are spending their money on.  If I never raid, for instance, I don’t want to pay for that content.  Likewise, a raider may not want to pay for the crafting suite because they never touch it.

Third, this is all assuming that the “service” sales is the way to go.  I’m not convinced of that.  Far more honest to me is the company that sells content, and who tries to maintain a good player/dev relationship by continually providing top notch content, not selling access to existing content.  Then again, I’m the sort that buys a stationary bike rather than a gym membership, because I like actually having something as a result of spending money, rather than just having had access to something.  Thing is, there are different customer mentalities, so there should be different monetization options.  MMO games don’t provide me with a useful service like phone service providers, so I’m not inclined to pay for access each month.  I can buy games that I have perpetual access to for the same money.

Fourth, I’m convinced that the subscription model has deleterious effects on game design.  The monetization model will inevitably have an effect on any product, and subs are designed to hook people and keep them playing.  This leads directly to grind in modern DIKU MMO design.  To be fair, I’m a fan of the Final Fantasy games, where grind is also overemployed, but the difference there is that I can grind on my own time, since there is no charge per unit of time that I play the game.  I have paid for the content, and I can play through it at my leisure.  That’s a critical distinction.  Subs don’t necessarily “cause” grind (Atlantica Online has it too; grindy DIKU design is just in some devs’ DNA, apparently), but they certainly have a terribly self-reinforcing relationship with it, and it has and will continue to warp expectations and design for the MMO genre.

As much as I dislike the sub-grind reinforcement death spiral, I can admit that I do like some Zen mindless grinding now and then.  That’s why I can tolerate stretches in any FF game where I need to grind to take care of a particularly nasty boss.  (And I like the option to do so, honestly.  I loved the intelligent pacing in Chrono Cross that eliminated such a metagaming impulse, but most RPG games aren’t designed nearly so well-balanced, so grind becomes a great fudge factor when the devs can’t or won’t balance the challenge and pacing well.)  It’s why I love Final Fantasy Tactics, Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean games.  They are just fun to play, even if it might be considered “grinding”.

It’s that admission that I can tolerate grind (cleverly disguised as fun gameplay), combined with the idea that came up in the Elder Game thread that gave the maligned subscription model an inroad to my wallet.  It’s still a very constrained chink in the armor, but it’s there.  In a more demanding economy, with Blizzard squashing the genre, it’s a chink that a savvy company could take advantage of, much in the same spirit that Chris over on ihaspc has admitted that private server rental might be a way for Blizzard into his wallet.

And that’s ultimately the point.  A wider potential customer base will inevitably mean that the flat $15 isn’t good enough to satisfy all of the demand that’s out there.  That’s the heart of market segmentation; different people have different needs and wants, and a company that tries to shoehorn everyone into the same “one size fits all” sales will inevitably be leaving money on the table.

So, with that lengthy prelude, what’s the magic key to my wallet for the sub model?


Give me the ability to tailor my subscription.  Let me reduce the price by voluntarily reducing options.  This is already the case in the “free trial” that most companies offer.  They let players play for a short amount of time, with a constrained feature set.  Microsubs are somewhere between a free trial and a full subscription, and most of all, they are customizable.  Again, that’s the heart of market segmentation; let the customer determine the price point by tailoring their experience, and they are a LOT more willing to pony up the cash.

We see it all the time in other service industries.  Cell phone plans offer a wide variety of usage options, and the mix and match plans are even better.  Cable TV is packaged in bundles with optional riders.  Car leases can even offer options sometimes.

Bottom line, when the customer feels that they are in control, the provider/customer relationship is much stronger, and that wallet opens up a lot easier.  The provider still sets the price for the services, but doing so in a granular fashion allows not only for greater customer control, but better feedback for what options are well-received and more valuable.  (This means better focus for further development.)

These are much the same arguements for a microtransaction model, honestly, just framed in a slightly different light.  The Puzzle Pirates MT model sells access to certain elements of the game.  Some are based on calendar time, some are based on usage time.  (Like the difference between buying a “month” of cell phone service or buying a “1000 minutes card”.)  Those are still time based, and the granularity in PP is based on “days”, not minutes, but again, they give a lot more control to the player.

Specifically with a World of Warcraft model, a “microsub suite” of options would go a long way to prying open my wallet.  To wit:

Flatline $15/month:  Everything and everything unlocked, experience is solely based on player’s time commitment per month.

$5/month:  You may play any class (or any race), but only that class (or race).  (Either Hunters only or Tauren Only, for example.)  $10/month would mean access to two classes (or races), in other words.  (And $15/month for three would be the same cost as access to all, so you may as well do a full sub at that point.)

$5/month:  Full and complete access to all content, classes and races contained only in Vanilla WoW. (No expansions.)

Do you see what I’m getting at there?  Gradate the access, gradate the price.  It’s a little blurry around the edges when expansions come into play, since expansion-based things like Inscription get pushed through the whole game.  A new game trying to take advantage of this sort of granularity would need to decide what things get pushed into live use throughout the whole game, and which things get isolated in expansions, but if it’s known ahead of time, it should be easy enough to compartmentalize.  Those aspects can even be introduced as teasers to upsell players on the bigger service package.

You can also add riders, like remote browser-based access to the Auction House, or remote access to the chat system (apparently EQ did something like this with an instant messenging service, so the tech is there, but it could be monetized as a rider).  Some of these could even be standalone modules, say for a businessman who loves the AH, but doesn’t have time to play the full browser.  He could buy the AH module and wheel and deal from his Blackberry, and then jump back into the game at a later date if he felt like raiding with friends.

Speaking of raiding, if I never wanted to raid, perhaps I’d not have to pay for that content.  That’s another level of granularity that could be shuffled into the options package.

This, of course, could also allow for prepaid minutes or days, like the Puzzle Pirates model.  A 30-day “license” for WoW could be sold that could still monetize time, but at a much more user-friendly pace.  A savvy customer could only play on Saturdays, for example, and stretch a 30-day license for 7 months or so.  They aren’t using the system during the week, so why pay for it?  This is exactly what I’ve done in Puzzle Pirates, as my Captain’s Badge only lasts for 30 days, but I’ve stretched it over more than a year by only playing when I have time to make it worth the investment.  Three Rings got the same amount of money from me as from a player who uses their Captain’s Badge over thirty consecutive days.  Yes, it’s spread out and makes their bookkeeping a bit more to keep track of, but ultimately, they at least got money from me, where Blizzard still hasn’t.

This model won’t be the best for some players, no.  Of course not.  The flat rate isn’t best for me.  That’s the whole point; different service monetization for different demand.

Put in clear terms, I’d happily pay for a perpetual license to play WoW offline.  I’d pay $5/month for access to Vanilla WoW alone, or access to all expansions with a Druid only limitation.  I might even pay $1/month as a rider for remote access AH access, or $2/month for that module alone.

Argue the price points a little if you feel so inclined, but the heart of this microsub idea is that giving the customer choices, even if you’re going to stay completely subscription (or time-based, going with the “minute card/PP badge” model) geared, giving the customer options will break up that price curve and segment your market.  Do that carefully, and you can be making MORE money than with a flat $15 sub price.  You’ll also be making players happier since they have one more way that they are in charge, and the greater number of (happy) players will make for a stronger community.  And again, the feedback that comes from players voting with their wallets can also be valuable for future development and budget planning.

The economy is busted, and the market is maturing.  It’s time for MMO publishers and devs to get their act together and keep pace.

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The Elder Game guys have an interesting new article up that I couldn’t help but sound off on.  It’s probably better to follow the link over there to see, since it’s their conversation, but I welcome commentary here as well.

Don’t Throw Out the Subscription Model

My answer is fairly predictable to any regular reader around here, distilling much of what we’ve hammered out in previous discussions.

Beyond that, though, perhaps the most pernicious thing about the sub model is that it drags game design around, bending it to the aim of hooking customers rather than getting attention through great gaming.  To my mind, games that sell content, and who don’t monetize playtime, are far more honest about providing great games, rather than great ROI.  They have to, or they don’t sell.  Subscription games can scrape by with cheap design that scratches the addictive itches, and they bank on the treadmill inertia effect, rather than providing solid content.

That’s why we see innovation in Guild Wars, rather than in WoW wannabes.  The business model dictates the game design.  That’s fairly obvious, and MT models will affect game design too, but if the MMO genre is to get out of the DIKU rut, the subscription model must be seen for the millstone that it is, dragging us back into the mire.

This even touches on some of the “End of MMOs” rant from yesterday.  Games that are built to keep people subbing will almost inevitably overstay their welcome, and compromise their game design.  Games that are built on solid game design first and foremost may indeed have endings, but will be better games in the meantime because they have a focus other than keeping people subscribed.  Call me a purist, but I think that solid product design is key to good business/customer relationships.  Yes, the  “Greedy Goblin” mantra driven by ROI and number monkeys makes money, but it does so in complete ignorance of the value of emotional equity.  That’s what Ed Catmull was driving at; building a business out of goodwill (good products, not addictive marketing) may grow slower or post smaller percentages for investors (the cancer in any economy), but it will be healthier in the long run, and will ultimately make better products because that’s how they maintain profitability.

MMOs in particular, built on the back of people playing together, should understand those “soft” people skills and their vital importance.

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I like Shamus Young. He’s snarky without being bitter, and unabashedly happy to skewer sacred cows. His latest article up in the Escapist magazine is a great little piece of wordsmithing where he rightfully skewers the false priesthood of the elite gamer clique.

Wii Are The Champions

It’s console specific, but the principles of looking at market growth and sociology are spot-on for the industry as a whole.

I do have to wonder, though.  Speaking of the PC game landscape, where is our Wii?  Is it Kongregate?  Is it Raph Koster’s MetaPlace or Three Rings’ Whirled?  Is it the PC branch of the XNA club?  Is it Armor Games?  On top of that, “Casual” gaming isn’t just Bejeweled, it’s being able to play a game in small bites, remembering that family and real life are a priority over gaming.  We can’t all be WoW addicts living in Mommy’s basement forever.

Speaking of MMOs, where is the WiiMMO?  Is it Free Realms?  Is it Wizard101?  Is it Puzzle Pirates?  When will MMO devs realize that they don’t have sole claim on our money or our timeGhostcrawler seems to at least pay the idea lip service, but savvy consumers are learning (again) to pay attention to deeds, not words.  Call it the fallout of the Obama election, what with more Keynesian bailouts and Tax Cheat Timothy Geitner enforcing the idea that it’s the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and the foxes are brain dead.  Wrath of the Lich King is more casual friendly, but Blizard still has an unhealthy amount of grind and won’t leave the sub model.

The subscription model will always be fine for some people, and will no more need to be shelved than single player games will die out.  It does, however, need to be shown as the false god that it is, and devs and money monkeys alike need to find ways to offer greater value and actually earn their keep.

Will the WoW/WAR/AoC fanboys finally grow a brain and realize that RMT and microtransactions aren’t the end of the world?  It’s called market maturation.  I know, there’s a whole generation of idiots that thinks “mature” means “boobs and blood”, but the industry needs to grow up, as do the gamers.

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It’s heartening to see others writing the same sort of arguments that I’d make.  Maybe it’s a shared delusion, but I really do think that the MMO market is poised for some interesting tectonic shifts in the relatively near future.  It’s the simple maturation of a market, despite the old generation doing all they can to maintain the status quo.

Spouse Aggro: F2P

Spouse Aggro: Mabinogi

Viva la revolution indeed.  At least this one just has digital blood in the imaginary streets.  I’m not looking forward to the pain involved in the awakening of the real world… but that’s another article.

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World of Warcraft has been compared to a theme park before.  The static world, colorful presentation and “gaming on rails” all lead to easy comparisons.  I won’t belabor those elements, since it’s enough for the sake of this article to frame the game in a theme park comparison.

No, what’s important to me at this point is the cost to the patron, and how the analogy can be used to illustrate the concept of microtransactions. (more…)

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Edit: Update!  My “final” word on Atlantica Online is here:

Atlantica Online: Review and Summary


I’ve written about Atlantica Online a fair bit recently.  I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for the last two and a half years, and written about it in various places.  Both are a breed of MMO that eschews the subscription business model, and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly.  They are good examples of two alternates to subscriptions, and I think both will be successful… but I do think that Puzzle Pirates has a clear edge.

I’ve written before about the natural balance of demand and supply as it applies to MMOs.  Item Shops and Dual Currency systems (IS and DC henceforth) provide ways for real world cash to balance the time investment of other players, and for the company to monetize demand and support their game without subscription fees. (more…)

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