I used to like football (not that it matters, but let’s be clear: I’m talking about the game that is called “soccer” in the USA and some local-language version of “football” everywhere else). Very much, in fact. Used to get all excited about my favourite team’s games, draw line-ups, rant about coaches and what not. Funnily, however, I never ever went to a live game and even (relatively) rarely watched one live on TV. I was not a fan of the local team, and things like football games would have been by and large considered a waste of money in our family anyway.
But, luckily for me, there was a very good football show on Free-TV. They had the rights of first (post game) broadcast for the German Bundesliga and used it for a great format. Back then, the usual schedule was: two games on Friday, six games on Saturday, one game on Sunday. So, they had three shows a week on those days. Friday was an hour in the late night slot, where they covered the two games and sent you goodnight; Sunday had only one game to cover, which they used to fit in additional commentary, studio guests and such; while Saturday was the main show, two, sometimes two and a half hours.
On average, this meant 30 minutes gross air time per game. Throw in 5 minutes ad block, 5 minutes studio talk, and you’d still arrive at a solid 20 minutes raw game coverage. That’s a lot. They used to show you a lot of sequences exemplary of the game flow in the different stages of the game, so you’d really get a feeling of how the teams stood off, and a goal would be replayed, re-replayed, opposite-angle’d, computer-animated, distance-measured, discussed, while, all the time the announcer would play-act as if he’d be broadcasting live, with emotions of surprise, awe, disappointment, anticipation and so on. They did as good a job as possible of just compressing the best of a full game into 20 minutes.
At some point in the late 90s, Germany’s first Pay-TV broadcaster came into being. One of their selling points was, that they purchased the rights for live transmissions of Bundesliga games, and were showing them all in a conference transmission, so one was able to freely switch between games at any time. Fancy and costly. That Pay-TV broadcaster belonged to the same corporation as the Free-TV channel with the football show. And at first, it all didn’t seem to .. well .. matter. If you felt like shaking the money, you’d get the Pay-TV live experience, otherwise you’d just stick to your time shifted fix. Market segmentation. Kind of. Because that second part of the consumers wasn’t actually paying. Not directly, at least, but instead via advertising revenue.
Slowly but surely, the quality of the Free-TV show found itself in a steady decline. The total time was waning, while the ad blocks were growing. They started weaving advertising into everything, from the opening jingle, to line-up screens, to permanent holographic on-field projections (outside the actual field at first, on it later). The actual coverage deteriorated to the point where only the plays leading to goals were shown. You’d often get only one slow-mo, sometimes they’d skip it entirely. The interview part was kept up somewhat, mostly because it naturally contains lots of advertising (background board, jersey, overlay, everything). At some point, you could say that what once was two hours of football finally turned into one hour of ad blocks. It became commonly accepted, that whoever has a real interest in football, was subscribing to the Pay-TV channel. Luckily, at that time (let’s say roughly 2002-2003), I did not have a real interest in football any more.
What does this have to do with the title of this entry? A lot. I dislike the idea of microtransactions, or Free2Play as it’s now seductively called. And I do not dislike it because I am pissy about developers wanting to be paid for their work, but, exactly opposite, because I fully realize, that developers need to be paid for their work.
I dislike it, because I dislike unclear business deals. Or, to do away with the euphemism, I dislike lies. Free to Play is a lie. The game is not free to play. It cannot be. No game produced/distributed by a professional company can be. Because “professional” means, that they are earning their living with it. Someone at some point needs to pay for the game, be it buyers, subscribers, donors, advertisement contractors or micro purchasers. Otherwise the devs will starve and die. And their children, too. Even if you don’t care about the developers and their children, you’re still left with the costs of running the servers. Unless you want to kill off the hosting company and their children as well. You monster. Have I been graphic enough now? Okay. Time to span the bridge to the football ramblings.
See, I’m not criticising Free2Play for its exploitation of impulse control, for circumventing your purchase decision making by splitting the payment in such small amounts, that every time it seems like a negligible cost – even every time out of thousand times. I could, but that base was covered before, and, besides, everyone’s so clever (especially us bloggers) and so much in control of their own impulses, that it’s always some anonymous “they” who are affected by it, and “they” probably deserve it, being lowly M&S or something. I digress.
The point is, again, that someone needs to pay. This means, that the game in question has to offer an incentive, a strong incentive, to pay for it. That incentive can only be in the difference between the paid and the free content. The larger, deeper, higher quality and more professionally ran the game is, the bigger that difference needs to be. Believe anything else, and you’re being fooled. Ixobelle (you followed the link above, right?) explains, that he “could park myself at a tin vein, let my subscription run out, and just fire up FR anytime I wanted to play the mining game; that would never cost me another dime” – and it’s true, but misses the point. He purchased the “mining game in pirate hat” for .. whatever couple of dollars he paid for it, and, yes, if he never wants to move past that, he, indeed, doesn’t need to pay more. He bought one toy, and as long as he’s happy playing with just this one toy, he never needs to pay for another.
But what if he does? The sword that costs real money needs to be significantly better than the one you get from slaying the dragon, otherwise too many people will just settle for slaying the dragon. The “premium only” class needs to be more powerful or more fun to play, or no one will bother to pay for it. That is pretty much what Free Realms (FR in the above quote), according to Tobold, does. It’s a free world to roam in, but you’re gimped in everything you do, unless you send a dollar or two to Sony Online – and get an “I win” button in return.
Admittedly, it does not have to be as blatantly extreme as the officially highly-casual oriented Free Realms. But it shows, that the incentive needs to be there, and what incentive generally looks like. In-game currency on sale? Means your character’s regular expenses need to be too high to satisfy them with in-game means. Only cosmetic items in offer? Means the “normal” outfits need to be butt-ugly to drive you into buying pretties. Whatever it is, that you can acquire for real coin, the game needs to constantly prod you with small sticks into purchasing it, by making its free equivalent’s quality something between undesirable and insufficient. The media company delivering football coverage forces you into taking its Pay-TV offer by reducing the quality of its Free-TV service to the point where it can be still said, that, yes, free information is being offered, but the incentive to take the paid deal is overwhelming for anyone who actually cares about
playing the game following football.
This also moots the “but we already have microtransactions, they are just called premium services” argument. No, we don’t. Changing your character’s name, gender, server, race or faction is not actively encouraged, because the game doesn’t reward you for doing so. It’s just your personal preference, to which game mechanics are neutral. Granted, you might want to change servers to join a particular guild or battlegroup, but that is a situation created by the players, not the developers. Blizzard doesn’t hold events where every week all characters whose name starts with a particular letter receive 5000 gold. They do not make raid instances accessible only from a limited number of servers per time frame**. That would equal those services to microtransactions, because it would create incentive. (As a matter of fact, Turbine could be credited for motivating LotRO players to stay away from the server transfer by screwing it up royally a couple of times)
It’s about development focus. The company developing the subscription game balances it around you spending as much time as possible in it. That’s fine with me, since games are, in the end, just a means of spending time. The company developing a Free2Play(lie) game balances it first and foremost around motivating you to make micro-purchases. The external solution will always be more desirable than the in-game path. I don’t want to play such a game.
**Edit (20.10.09): There is this infamous practice of guilds who fail to grab server-first kills on their server to transfer to another, slower progressing one, and getting their achievement there. Although it’s generally met with disdain by the community, Blizzard is doing nothing to stop it. Neither will they do anything to stop it any time soon. Collecting 25 times $15 for the transfer of a full raid roster, plus maybe some alts that might be required in short term, then getting the same amount a second time when the caravan heads home, is certainly a nice and juicy not-so-micro-transactional bonus they won’t turn their back on for the sake of protecting some vague and officially-irrelevant achievement status. But that’s how it works. There’s incentive, there’s revenue, there’s motivation, and you don’t need a tinfoil hat to see it. Want such mechanics to infiltrate the core of the game? No? Then don’t be too quick to sing praises to Free2Play(still a lie).