Thursday, March 5, 2009

Companies Should Be - And Apparently Are - Ashamed of Their "Microtransaction" Prices

Elder Game has a great post up proclaiming that the subscription model should not be dead yet. He points out that it's comparatively easier for players to decide to do without optional microtransactions, and that your core business challenge is keeping both payers and non-payers happy.

From my perspective, the latter is the big problem. For example, I used to love to play collectable card games (CCG's), but I just can't justify the amount of money it takes to play a game where your ability to do things depends on how many booster packs you paid for. (The best part is how that $4 booster pack contains only one random "rare" card, which probably is not one that you wanted, AND also is not valuable enough to trade to another player for a card you DID want.) There is an amount of money that I'm willing to pay for a game, and, if the game is not fun for me at that level of spending, I won't play it.

All of which got me thinking - how much do these new-fangled, so-called "Free to Play" games cost anyway? Turns out that this question is a lot harder to answer than you'd think.

Wizard101
Official Site: https://www.wizard101.com/

Wizard 101 is a Harry Potter-esque MMORPG that uses CCG mechanics for combat. It is technically more what I would call "free to try" than "free to play". You get actually free access to 10 areas - I'm not clear on which of these are adventuring zones and which are basic towns etc - and then have the choice of either paying a monthly fee ($10/month, discounts for longer subscriptions, and a unique $7 per person per month "family plan") or going with an a la carte access pass.

The monthly fee gets you access to the entire game, and presumably that access (or maybe even your whole account, once you've opted to go the subscription route?) goes away if you stop paying. The access plan, on the other hand, allows you to permanently unlock specific areas for your no-monthly fee account. Prices appear to scale per level of the content you're unlocking, and range from 715 crowns to 1200 crowns.

Wait, back up, crowns? What's a crown?
Crowns are W101's "microtransaction" currency. At this point, I invite you to go to the site I linked above and try to figure what a crown is actually worth in real world dollars. I spent a pretty long time digging and I wasn't able to figure this out. Actually going to the store to see the prices appears to require that you create an account - apparently they don't WANT you to know what it costs to play the game until after you've tried it.

Fortunately, I have a blogroll. Tipa at West Karana has been playing W101, and comes to the rescue with a post on the game's launch. Apparently the lowest demonination of crowns is 2500 crowns for $5 (that's 5 crowns for 1 cent), while you can get a substantial bulk discount, up to 60,000 crowns for a whopping $80 (that's 7.5 crowns for one cent, and so far beyond the realm of what I'd call a "microtransaction" that I don't know what to say about it). That new area for 1200 crowns costs $2.40 at the worst exchange rate. There are 30 areas at that rate, some smaller number of areas at lower rates (again, the first few levels are free, the second few are cheap, and then they hit you with the large price tags), and they deliberately reserve the right to raise the prices on future content.

I guess the bottom line is that you could get a perpetual subscription to most of the content currently in the game for about what they want for a one year subscription to all of the content (including new stuff that they roll out over time). As tempting as it is to go no-fee, this probably would not be worth your while unless you're literally only playing for a few hours a month (and spending less than $10 monthly on crowns, including zone unlocks, during that time). Note that the discounted $80 for 1 year is significantly less that what you'd pay for a traditional subscription game box plus monthly fee (e.g. $40 for the box and first month and 11x$15 for the rest of the year, for a total of $205). Then again, you may or may not be getting less total game for that smaller price tag.

Anyway, the fun with crowns doesn't stop there. There's an ingame store for gear - experienced players point out that the gear starts at level 5, and paying for it at that level is a terrible deal because you will outlevel it so quickly - and those prices also don't appear to be viewable from out of game. Tipa to the rescue again, with a look at the high end crown items - the most expensive is just shy of 15,000 crowns, which is $20-30 depending on your crown exchange rate. That's IN ADDITION TO either the subscription or the access plan you paid for to get into the zone in the first place, and Tipa describes the high end item as "so amazingly powerful that it would be hard NOT to buy it".

On top of this, the game also apparently includes booster packs. Good luck finding out how much those cost, or what the odds are of getting a spell card that you want out of them - I haven't seen much mention of them amongst the blogs so I'm presuming that these are optional.

Incidentally, W101 is actually a game aimed at children, with pre-generated names, strict parental controls, and a generally kid-friendly atmosphere. The decisons to price these items in an arbitrary currency, rather than at their true dollar value, and to make it very very hard to determine what those prices are before you've agreed to let your kid start an account, is quite clearly deliberate.

Runes of Magic
Official Site: http://www.runesofmagic.com/

Runes of magic is a more WoW-like game (and has been mocked for having an area that looks a lot like WoW's human starting area, Elwynn Forest), with a slight Guild Wars-like twist where characters have two classes and can switch between the two, or mix and max class abilities. The good news is that it appears to ACTUALLY be free to play. However, they have to pay the bills somehow, and the answer is through an item store where your purchases are paid for in "diamonds".

What's a diamond cost, you might ask the official website? Again, good luck with that. Via google and forum fu, it appears that a diamond will run you somewhere between 4-5 cents. Why would you want to spend them? Perhaps you'd like extra bags? Not only do they charge for bagspace, but you can't even BUY bags - you have to RENT the right to have bags at approximately $11 per 30-slot bag per year. A mount (which you actually do get to keep) will run you $20. You can't actually buy weapons and armor directly, but you can buy items that create sockets in your gear, which you then spend more money to fill. One forum estimate says that it would cost $225 for a single set of best-in slot item enhancements, all of which would be permanently lost when you replace the gear you put them in.

Somehow, $15 a month is sounding like the best deal in gaming.

Charging for convenience or necessity?
Obviously, both games ultimately need to bring in money, both to pay for their initial development, and to recoup current operating costs (including servers, salaries of developers), not to mention actual profit for their investors. Though these two games share the obnoxious business practice of doing their best not to reveal their prices to prospective customers, they differ a bit in approach to that problem.

W101's approach is two-fold. With their subscription model, they're basically requiring a certain amount of money. Perhaps some players will bum around the newbie areas indefinitely on principle, but the vast majority will need to pay for one of the two means of access to additional content in order to continue enjoying the game. (And, realistically, only small children, or disinterested parents who don't want to take the time to do the math on what the access pass costs in the long run, are likely to benefit from skipping the monthly fee. Then again, perhaps a smart parent might use the access plan as a way to teach their kids the rudiments of how to manage a budget.) On top of that baseline level of income per user, they're hoping to collect extra via sales of optional, but convenient (and, in some cases, overpowered) gear and other perks.

The good news for players is that it sounds like many of these optional things are relatively optional, though the question of power inflation may become a huge balance issue for the game. Are the next set of items going to be even more overpowered, and going to cost even more than $20? The devs are going to have to walk a fine line in providing incentives to buy the optional stuff without making it so powerful that the subscribers who aren't willing to pay significant amounts on top of their monthly fee decide to punt. (Also, one would imagine that even the staunchest RMT proponents will balk at the prices someday if they keep going up every few levels.)

The Runes of Magic approach, on the other hand, sets no floor for what they can expect to make from their players, but also appears to have no ceiling. Their model really rests on having supposedly low prices for things that they think players will want, without having them technically be mandatory. The expensive things like that mount aside, they're focused on smaller ticket items like charging players for consumable teleport items, exp potions, and, yes, those absurd bag rental fees. The issue here is a bit more difficult than mere inflation.

The developer of the game is now ultimately in the business of trying to sell players perks. This means that their incentive is now to actually make it hard to play and enjoy the game without perks. For example, maybe monsters should now drop items that have to be vendored instead of carrying coin on their person, so that players have more need for extra bags and teleports back to the nearest vendor.

Does "optional" convenience mean optional fun?
I'm living another odd example of this over in EQ2. At the moment, EQ2's forums are full of complaints from players who are getting to maximum level without anywhere near the number of alternate advancement points (earned via quests, exploration, etc) they need for endgame content. This issue results from the fact that the devs chose to increase the speed of leveling - to a pace that is arguably too quick - while holding the rate of AA gain constant (and even increasing the number of AA's available, after players who have been around for previous expansions used up content that would have awarded them AA exp while stuck at the old cap). Now, perhaps SOE's motives here are honestly for honoring the time players have previously spent on gaining these achievements in the past. Then again, it is awful coincidental that they just so happen to have rolled out RMT AAXP potions.

(Unlike W101 and ROM, Sony is at least willing to admit that 1 station cash is 1 cent, and they've even passed on the opportunity to use a multiplier that forces you to pull out a calculator to figure out what things ACTUALLY cost. However, I can't find a list of prices of actual items on their official site, so half of that story is still missing.)

At the end of the day, there definitely are situations in which it makes sense to pay for convenience. If I could have paid Blizzard the $20 in real money ROM wants for a ground mount (presuming that said mount was faster than non-paid alternatives in WoW) back in 2004, I absolutely would have saved enough travel time between then and now to make it well worth my while. Perhaps paid exp potions would have made those painful grinding levels in the mid-40's in LOTRO (back before the Angmar revamp) actually fun. My ultimate caveat is, in some ways simply a different way of looking at the issue.

If I'm paying extra, I want it to be for something that makes the game more fun. If, instead, your microtransactions are deliberately shrouded in secrecy to conceal the fact that you have taken industry standard features (such as bagspace and hearthstone teleports) and slapped a real world price tag on them? Well, if you make me feel like you don't want me playing your game without paying for all the extras, the danger is that I might take you up on your offer. Perhaps that's still worth your while if there's a big spender who will pay you $30 for every $15 subscriber who leaves. Then again, as Elder Game points out, that means dealing with a smaller, and increasingly influential, minority of your playerbase that will begin to have a larger and larger impact on your bottom line.

15 comments:

hound said...

I don't like microtransactions. They are too dangerous to be considered and I am fairly alarmed that many gamers think they are fine. I understand your views that if it makes the game more fun then microstransactions can be good, but I just don't trust the game companies to have our best interests in mind.

I made a blog post this past December about how even WoW players have embraced microtransactions without even giving it a thought. I kind of feel dirty about pimping myself but I would like to have your opinion about what I wrote. Is there a way to email the address to you or is it ok to leave the address here in your comments?

Green Armadillo said...

I definitely agree that the publishers (perhaps not always the actual developers) can take a very mercenary, and sometimes shortsighted, view of these things.

For instance, I think I would prefer the W101 system over the ROM system - W101's transactions do a better job of seeming like extra bonuses. Then again, the exchange rate kind of rubs me the wrong way. If I decide I want to spend $20 a month for 4 months, and the company comes back by saying they'll give me a whopping 50% bonus if I give them the full $80 NOW NOW NOW (no doubt in the hopes that I would spend it all before the four months are up and decide to buy even more), that does make me think twice about wanting to do business with them.

Of course, W101 and ROM were designed from the ground up with RMT included, which is a different creature from tacking it onto a traditional, pay for the box and pay again for the subscription game. I don't care much what Blizzard chooses to offer in terms of name/sex/appearance changes since those are both optional and cosmetic, but selling exp, a line that all of the major games seem to be toe-ing or crossing outright, is somewhat questionable.

Feel free to post your link here, there might be other folks who want to see it. (I believe I do have an email address posted on my profile as well.)

hound said...

One of the F2P games I tried out this past year is Rappelz from Gpotato. After I got past the point and click mechanic (that is a difficult thing for me to accept) I was able to enjoy the game for a couple of days.

In the limited time that I played, I never felt as though I had to actually pay anything to enjoy the game. But my character screen had an extra "layer" of gear that could only be acquired through microtransactions.

Even now I am uncertain how I feel about extra stuff that I cannot get by playing the game my way.

Even in WoW I have this issue. The upcoming PvP arena has a tremendous amount of rewards in the form of pets and mounts that I may never have access to. I am generally a solo player and seeing all of those pets that I cannot go out and grind or farm to achieve irritates me. Nor would I be happy if all I had to do was lay down some cash for them.

My opinion is that if the developers can take time to design extra stuff for the game, then put it into the game that I've already or am paying for.

I guess I'll have to think some more on games that are designed from ground up for microtransactions.

hound said...

Here is my blog post from December,

http://warcraftdialogues.blogspot.com/2008/12/microtransactions-in-wow-because.html

In short I point out that WoW players have already embraced microtransactions (or grande transactions as the case may be) by accepting the in-game loot card from the WoW trading card game and items from the Upperdeck points store.

I offer some basic (likely poor) math to show what players are actually spending on these items and suggest that Blizzard is watching and intends to eventually take advantage of player's "deep" pockets.

Stabs said...

I can certainly see the role of free to play games with RMT perks in the industry. If we look at the subscription-based rivals to WoW that came out last year, AoC and Warhammer they both seem to have bombed and subscriber numbers are low.

If Warhammer, the better of the two imho, had been free to play with RMT perks would it have matched WotLK? Probably yes in terms of numbers. Possibly eventually in terms of revenue once they have solved various balance and gameplay issues.

Because WAR is so similar to WOW let's assume most WOW players are potentially interested but declined to risk box fee + subscription at a time when they knew WotLK was about to come out and they would want to play that. Had WAR been f2p many people would have bought the box, played for a couple of weeks, jumped back to WOW when Lick King hit, then gone back to WAR when they got bored. Even if actual RMT transactions were minimal there would have been many more boxes sold at a price of losing the subscription revenue.

For all that I don't like RMT and had WAR released in that format I would have bought a box and played as an eternal minion in some wealthier player's army but so what as long as it's fun?

Mallika said...

If you want to see a price list for access passes in Wizard101, it's here:

Link

Green Armadillo said...

@Hound: AFAIK, the new Argent Tournament is going to be soloable. It sounds like a vehicle interface for jousting, rather than an actual arena. As to the broader question, I guess I am, in some cases at least, okay with the fact that there is some gear that I can't have. If the effort/reward curve gets too far out of balance, I might give up (e.g. if the only thing to do is a boring token grind that you just so happen to buy your way out of, that seems like a sign that it's time to find a new game), but otherwise there's ALWAYS something that is beyond my reach.

@Stabs: Throwing in pay to buy, free or microtransaction to play can be even more complicated. Hellgate London tried it and the hybrid business model didn't help them any (though it was far from their only problem). Honestly, the $50 entry fee bothers me more than the ongoing subscription fee. Because we can't (legally) resell accounts, that's $35 in sunk costs I'm never getting back if I figure out that the game sucks on day 1.

@Mallika: Yeah, I mentioned that page in my post. The prices are in crowns. Nowhere on the site that I could find without logging in does it tell you what the real money cost for a crown is. I did find a brief reference to the fact that crowns are used to buy in-game items, but it doesn't talk at all about how much those items cost, what niche they serve in the game, etc. If you're considering playing this game and you would like to know how much a typical player will want to spend on it, they've deliberately gone out of the way to make that information difficult to access.

hound said...

@Green

The problem for me is not so much that the gear is unavailable to me but that it is not an option at all unless I play a different game.

If I absolutely must have a Sprite Darter hatchling, I know that I'll have to make an alliance toon and follow the quest line. Same game, different view.

If I want some glam gear in Rappelz, I have to give them some money. Granted, in that case I never paid for the game to begin with, so I'm not quite so spiteful about it there, but in the case of WoW, if I want a Nether Saber mount I'm out over a thousand dollars...unless I'm really lucky in a booster purchase.

I'd like a phoenix mount someday but right now it is out of reach, but someday I might get an overpowered group together or be able to solo the boss that drops it.

I don't mind not having immediate access to everything I'd like, but I want to know that if I've already paid for the game and also give a monthly fee for it, that all I have to do is keep playing it and not have to do something outside of the game to enjoy it.

If in one month I've paid my $15 and happened to purchase a $30 dollar expansion should I really need to go to an online shopping mall for the latest rare mount for another $10-$20?

I don't think I should be asked to do more to enjoy the perks in the game.

Sorry, I'm prone to creating walls of text.

Green Armadillo said...

This may be a quirk of my overly analytical mind, but I think of things that I technically could get in game but choose not to (e.g. I could bribe some guild for some of their KT loot I guess) the same way that I view things that I can't get in game and choose not to (e.g. card game lootz). The why matters from a moral perspective I suppose, but either the thing that I can't have bothers me enough for me to quit the game or it doesn't.

Tesh said...

At least the data is available. I'm hard pressed to see that the $15 flatline actually gives fair value for what they are asking. There's almost no data whatsoever what that pays for, and the granularity is, well... nonexistent.

With W101 specifically, you don't have to spend money on crown gear, you can grind it out and buy them with in-game money. It's not even hard once you get to the midgame or later. A parent who gives in to the instant gratification ploy likely has larger incontinence problems than an MMO.

Not that such justifies the cost on some of these items, but since none of these things are *necessary* to play and have a good time, the problem lies just as much with the impulse spender as with the items themselves.

And ultimately, if the customer is happy, why fuss? That's the mentality behind the $15 flatline, so it may as well apply here too.

hound said...

@Tesh

I agree with you, however it seems that you are suggesting that there is no difference between the two models, when actually there is a difference between a monthly flat fee and microtransactions.

A monthly fee (at least in my case) is automatic. They are not reminding you of the impending withdrawal every month or asking you submit the payment. It just happens. A player can play for weeks or even months without ever thinking about the automatic monthly.

The microtransactions however, are a constant reminder about the money you are spending. That you are buying virtual items with real money to enhance your experience.

Tesh said...

There are definite differences, but I'd not put the "fire and forget" sub model on a pedestal. That only makes it easier to steal money from those who aren't paying attention to their wallet. The MT model may be a reminder that you're spending money, but I'd argue that especially now, given troubled economic times, people really should be paying attention to that. As such, a company that plays it straight and above board gains respect... and isn't that what you were arguing in the first place?

Green Armadillo said...

@Tesh: I guess that brings me back to my original post. A company that "plays it straight and above board", by definition, would be posting their prices publicly rather than not revealing the prices until you've signed up and made a character (i.e. invested at least some minimal time and attachment in appearance, name, etc) to log in and ask the vendor.

HP said...

Monthly subscription prices sound so much better after your article =X

I know also that overseas, there are alot of games that require you to buy a game card that can then be used to pay for your game use, either monthly or for microtransactions...

I am definitely pro monthly subscription fee now, it makes it easier too for the companies to manage as well. It will be a steady source of income and all players are equal so you don't potentially lose out on alot of income by alienating if your big spenders don't like any changes you made to the game.

Yeebo said...

Sorry to to necro this old post. I just found your blog.

In my experience Wizard 101 is a fantastic value as long as you only use crowns to open up new areas. I've been playing it for a little over two months now and I've spent maybe $15. You absolutely don't need anything that you can't afford with gold that you get in game questing. I've opened up about a third of the game, and I never have to pay another dime for access to any of it. I also have more gold just from questing than I have any good use for. I'm actually thinking about buying a house.

For me personally only paying for the content I use is a great value. I tend to spend ages farting around with alts until I settle on a character I like. And even when I do settle on a main, it's a rare MMO indeed that holds my interest all the way to the level cap. I can't tell you how many MMOs I have stalled out in the mid levels playing, it would be nice if I had only paid for the content I used instead of a $65 (box and a month of sub time) fee up front.