Microtransactions

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).

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10 thoughts on “Microtransactions

  1. Ang

    Free-to-play is also known as the Korean MMO Model, by the way. It’s a system most common in Korean MMOs that are actually free, starting with the fact that you don’t pay for the client, but are based on enormous loot tables, random chance, and low droprates, as well as common winner-takes-all PvP.

    It’s shitty, yeah. But you gotta keep in mind that it was originally developed for Koreans and that’s a seriously screwed up nation when it comes to gaming. The fact that dying western MMOs pick up the trend is an altogether different thing that is unfortunately retarded in more ways than Dragon Age trailers.

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  2. cc

    I can both agree and disagree with your opinions.

    In a microtransaction-based game, richer players would be more successful because they would have more money to spend on stuff, regardless of their skill or ability to play the game. In such an environment a player’s social-economic status translates directly to social-econimic status within the game. This is not the case in WoW, where everyone pays the same entry fee (box and subscription), but nothing gives any one player more potential to succeed in the game. The real world is left at the login screen, never crossing into the virtual world.

    On top of that, microtransactions fool the prospective customer into thinking the game can be played for free, while the game charges for just about everything. You can’t really play without paying. However, this could provide the developer with incentive to create more original content that the users would actually pay for. People would buy copypasted crap only so many times. The ability to keep the servers running and turn a profit is linked directly to the ability to constantly create content that people would buy. That said though, I prefer the model of paying the subscription fee and receiving new content as regular updates instead (the current trend in WoW is to charge me for both the regular entry to the game world AND new content, which sucks. This is not the model they use in China, by the way)

    Either way, I suspect the MMO hobby would cost about the same. And that really isn’t much. My hobby has withstood comparisons to everything from music to athletics when I pointed out that even if I played two MMOs every month, most hobbies still demand a larger investment (music specifically can get pretty expensive. The cost of a decent guitar can pay for quite a number of WoW months, not taking into account the cost of a decent computer, which most gamers buy even if they don’t play MMOs).

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  3. Anonymous

    *coughs* Ahem, rather cleverly, outside the game itself there’s the whole WoW trading card game. Some of these packs contain rare scratch cards with codes for rare loot (mostly cosmetic)and UDE points…..

    Cygnet

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  4. Ang

    There’s also Blizz events that grant similar things to participants. Not like they are actually selling actual gear.

    The card game has merit of its own as well, being one of the numerous MtG clones – people buy MtG decks and boosters and cards for the same price without any sort of in-game bonuses as there’s no “in-game” to begin with.

    …Aaaaand, if people are willing to buy those things on Ebay for a ton of real money, what does it really matter?

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  5. Rem

    Eek, how did we arrive at MtG? Anyway, not that bad an example. Sure there is an “in-game”. It just happens to be a card game. And in that card game, while strategic thinking and also some element of luck are beneficial for success, ultimately, the quality of your deck, purchased for real money, would determine the ceiling of your playing experience. And, of course, you need to go out and get new decks when they are released to keep up…!

    Ebay. Ebay is not the same, because what you purchase does not place you in an advantageous situation. Arguably, it places you in a disadvantageous one. Sure, purchasing a level 80 character is, probably, possible. But that’s not some unique perk, neither something that can’t be reached by other means. Everyone else is level 80 as well, or will be, easily. Plus, they’ll have a clue about the game, while the Ebayer will not. He didn’t open up some secret level, he didn’t obtain any exclusive item. He just paid money (real money) for the privilege not to play. That might be bad for Blizzard, but pretty much irrelevant for the other players. He doesn’t possess anything they want – more likely they’ll just avoid him, because he’s terribad.

    WoW trading card game. I don’t even know what can be acquired from that, but, whatever it is, the game, and that’s my point, does not create any significant incentive for you to do it. You don’t see gear recommendations mention the trading card game. Cosmetic items/mounts won’t really stand out, since the game itself has a plethora of pretty/fancy/funny/all-you-want available through gameplay. Inny’s zebra (from refer-a-friend) no doubt is nice, but it’s in no way “better”, neither in look nor function, than my (the referred friend’s) tiger. It’s just different. The items from the trading card game, conventions, special collectors editions and what not are just the highly optional cherry on top, for the die hard fans.

    And that’s the very point I was trying to get to in my entire ramblings: Blizzard doesn’t earn their money through selling goodies, thus the goodies are not designed for any significant advantage. It’s the difference between “pay to play” and “pay not to play”. Economical reality says, that the main development focus needs to be on the paid part of the product. That’s a fact, not an opinion – the company isn’t there to entertain us, but to make profit. Since I want to play, I prefer the game where I pay for the right to play over the game where I’m supposed to pay to avoid playing (because, again, that would mean, that the game itself needs to be designed to make me want to avoid playing it).

    I would be hesitant to equate the Korean MMO model with Free2Play. I am, admittedly, not an expert, but quick research shows, that Lineage and Lineage II, the traditional top dogs of Korean gaming, are subscription games. Aion is a subscription game. Giuld Wars has no subscription fee, but is not F2P either – you still have to buy it, and pretty much the only update you’ll receive will be through buying the next “version” of the game. Granted, I named four NCSoft titles now, but they’re sort of the Asian Blizzard, thus, kind of relevant. I also couldn’t think of any other (noteworthy) Korean game off the top of my head – like I said, not an expert.

    @CC: I don’t see you disagreeing with anything I said, to be honest. The need for innovation is not limited to F2P providers, it’s just as true for subscription games. When people get bored, they can unsubscribe. I unsubscribed from LotRO. A lot of people unsubscribed from WAR and AoC. And from WoW, for that matter.

    I’m also not saying that F2P will end up costing more. It will, on average, as you said, cost the same. Because that’s how much profitably running an MMO costs. The question is, once again, what is it that’s supposed to make me pay? Am I offered nice things to do, or nice things to buy? I choose the former.

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  6. Ang

    L2/L1 isn’t only ran by the official servers, and even then, despite having sub, there are micros.

    And F2P is called the Korean Model. It’s just how it’s called. The first article you’ve linked in the original post, the ixobelle one, is completely uninformed and essentially rubbish. The second one is worth reading, but the first one is bullshit. The writer wants to use terms but has no idea how to use them. KM = F2P. Free Server = Free Server. EVE Model = EVE Model. No need to lump them all together.

    It’s not me calling KM F2P, it’s a rather widely accepted thing.

    Why the interest in shit models anyway?

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  7. Anonymous

    I agree entirely that what Blizzard doesn’t do is affect the balance of the game by making you pay extra for this and that while playing, you get what you pay for.

    But…please do not underestimate the pull of the rare cosmetic. Some people do froth over the rare, the pretty – even if it’s not got any benefit over things you don’t have to pay for. I mean, any old Tom, Dick or Harry can go out and grind for something in game…but if you’re riding that new and improved Supergnomeinatrix Bondage Chicken 3000 (only available through lewt cards), hey, you can feel REALLY cool and groovy and…..unique! And human nature being human nature, there are certainly some people out there who HAVE TO HAVE IT.

    And just a thought for contemplation here…I wonder if they might be a little hotter on their WoW forum/website links security if they weren’t selling an account authenticator on their online store…..

    Cygnet

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  8. Rem

    Heh, okay. My Google skills failed me on the Korean Model a little, so, admittedly, I went out on a limp trying to see what “typical Korean games” would work like. Wikipedia says the private L2/L1 servers are leaked and illegal, btw.

    Ixobelle is just a guy who’s ranting about stuff he comes across. Good read, passionate about things, but not always the most reliable information source. I linked him basically just for the “pissed about developers wanting to be paid” quote. Because, for me, it’s exactly the opposite.

    Anyway, like you said, Korean gamer mentality is a little different. They will bash each other’s faces in 200-vs-200 mass-PvP next to the same faceless rock for months and years once they grinded/micro’d to max level (or whatever) without asking for dessert. We’re usually looking for “a little more”. Like, erm, PvE content.

    Why the interest, well, there’s been a lot of talk about micros recently, especially with Aion (some sort of micros? Or maybe not? Very limited? To what? A little unclear yet, it seems) and Champions Online (tailored for micros, and blowing lots of smoke when it comes to payment models) being released. And because I read a few people say that “micros are the future of MMOs, subscription models will die”, which I found stupid, to say the least.

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  9. Rem

    But…please do not underestimate the pull of the rare cosmetic. […] And human nature being human nature, there are certainly some people out there who HAVE TO HAVE IT.

    I fully understand. But this is the big difference between the internal and the external impulse. The internally originated “I want to have it” and the externally induced “I need to have it”. And the difference is in .. the difference between the options. And there is no difference in visual quality between the, say, standard mount and the hypothetical Supergnomeinatrix Bondage Chicken 3000. It’s not like only the latter one is drawn in 3D, while the former is just a badly animated GIF.

    I fully understand, that there will be people who will, at all cost, want to have a Supergnomeinatrix Bondage Chicken 3000. And they will feel extremely special for possessing it. The thing is, others won’t perceive them as that special, because they’re riding mounts of essentially the same (functional AND visual) quality. Granted, the Supergnomeinatrix Bondage Chicken 3000 gives you that last 1% of awesomeness, if you are into that sort of thing. But it’s just 1%. That’s vastly different from when you give out only, say 30% via in-game means and leave 70% to micros. Arbitrary numbers.

    And just a thought for contemplation here…I wonder if they might be a little hotter on their WoW forum/website links security if they weren’t selling an account authenticator on their online store…..

    Very much doubt it. The price for the authenticator really just covers shipment (and production) cost. They want you to have it. They offer the functionality as a free download for the iPhone (although there was word recently about issues with the app). Am considering to get an authenticator myself.

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  10. Anonymous

    If they wanted us to have authenticators THAT badly, I’m sure they’d have included them in with the games packages in the first place. We have a bank account that supplies free ones to their account holders. They’re plain black, with no fancy licensed designs/packaging etc…..

    Yeah, overall I know the arguments. Don’t get me wrong, I like Blizzard’s approach. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.

    Cygnet

    Reply

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