Friday, April 17, 2009

Real Money Transactions and Conflict of Interest

Stargrace points out that the latest addition to EQ2's real money marketplace will be unique, high quality furniture for player housing. (True to form for these things, the announcement does not include a price.)

Player housing is a pretty big deal in EQ2 - there is an entire forum on the official site for players to show off their decoration projects. For two examples, see this thread showing apartments players have made using only furniture and items that new players would have access to, or take a look at the old Halasian Empire Guild Hall (Lyriana's guild, decorated by g33kg0dd3ss, who has her work cut out for her since we just upgraded to a bigger one last night).

Though these are not the first house items to appear on the real world money Marketplace (see West Karana for all the finest examples of house doll theater), there are several distinctions surrounding the furniture:

- There is an entire player character profession tasked with crafting housing furniture.

- Furniture items are also found as quest rewards - one guild on my server just posted an ad offering to help powerlevel characters in exchange for a bookshelf reward from a quest in the mid-30's.

- EQ2's appearence armor slots allow SOE to make cosmetic-only armor with no stats, which doesn't not compete quite as directly with armor available in the game by normal means. (There is still some overlap - see Lyriana's green armor set.) Housing furniture is, with few exceptions, purely cosmetic to begin with, so there is much less room for the two niches to co-exist. Either the paid version is of much higher quality than the stuff available in-game, or it is not worth buying.

Regardless of the question of whether these cosmetic items are such a major part of the game that they're no longer cosmetic, it's hard not to look at the current situation and ask the questions Stargrace is raising. Is all the best fluff is being held back from the regular parts of the game, like crafting and questing, in order to charge real money for it in the Marketplace?

Creating the appearence of a conflict of interest
The finances of MMORPG's are shrouded in secrecy; from the outside looking in, we have no way of knowing if, for example, SOE feels that it would literally need to cancel EQII outright without the extra income the Marketplace is providing. They have also claimed that they have hired new people specifically to create the content for the Marketplace, rather than diverting them from existing content. It is certainly possible that there is no real conflict of interest between the designers trying to make a positive gaming experience and the publishers trying to make it profitable and sustainable.

However, the appearence of a conflict can matter almost as much as the reality of whether there is one. If, when the next expansion rolls around, all of the new carpentry recipes look unimpressive (or, worse, there are NO new recipes), players are going to assume that the devs were told to make them less attractive to ensure that they would not compete with lucrative marketplace items. (In fact, such complaints are basically a certainty after this move, even if the new furniture for crafters is the best that any game has ever seen.)

Or, to use an example that hits me closer to home, take the Marketplace Exp potions. While WoW's 3.1 Patch contains updates I'm interested in, the bigger reason why I'm focusing on WoW this week over EQ2 is because Lyriana is out of tradeskill rested exp. I can't continue to play her without leveling my crafting, or I will lose the entire benefit of my profession (being able to craft my own spell upgrades as I need them).

In this particular case, it's unusually easy to quantify the point at which crafting goes from something I'm willing to work at to more of a grind than I'm willing to tolerate - having versus not having the vitality bonus (I'd guesstimate about 1/4 to 1/3 of my total exp) is the difference. Not only does running out of rested exp mean more time per tradeskill level, it also means making more items for exp, which means more money spent on fuel from vendors and more time spent harvesting to replenish the guild harvest supplies. As a result, I feel like it's best to leave Lyriana signed off for a few days until her rested exp recovers. This is an unfortunate design.

In the context of the game's accelerated experience curve, one could make the case that both its tradeskill and its alternate advancement exp curves could stand to be faster. Perhaps the devs have had a candid discussion on this topic behind closed doors and decided that they're happy with the current state of the exp curves.

However, from the outside looking in, I can't help but feel the same questioning that Stargrace feels. That exp bonus that I feel is missing is available right now, anytime I want it, if I'm prepared to pay SOE for exp potions. By opening the door to real money transactions, they have created the APPEARENCE that potion sales are influencing the exp curves, even if the reality is that the potential loss of Marketplace sales is not a consideration in game development.

2 comments:

Ziboo said...

I have feared that once the 'buyable' items came into the game it was a slippery slope of if you don't buy you can't stay competitive in the game. Whether it be crafting, leveling or decorating.

We all know how much fun the decorating is - it's an amazing part of EQ2, but to have buy things now . . .

I've been seriously unhappy with the added $$ to EQ2 and have hardly played since it came out. It's not that it particularly affects me, its more the idea that this will become the norm and accepted practice in MMOs.

I mean the free to play games I can understand the need for income, but we buy the game, the expansions and pay monthly (or in my case annually) and now to get dinged again - just hits me the wrong way!

I've gone from three accounts to one, and that one comes up next month. At this point I'm not sure if I'll renew or not.

Daniel said...

I have made this point time and time again. In fact, I got into a huge fight on another blog with people over this very issue. Where I disagree with you GA is that I think you are being kind when you say it merely creates the appearance of a conflict of interest; in my opinion it creates the reality.

Before I came to WoW I played several micro-transaction games (and what EQ2 is doing is a version of micro-transactions) and my own bitter experience there lead me to try the game that is actively hated in the micro-transaction community: World of Warcraft. And I fell in love.

The great thing about the subscription model is that it is the great equalizer. I may disagree with design changes, I may disagree with class nerfs or buffs, or I may get upset about neglected areas of the game like RP, but there is one thing I never do. I never question whether Blizzard puts one group of paying customers above another group simply based upon their ability to pay; we all pay the same $15 a month.

And I can assure you that developers don't bite the hand that feeds them. And when one hand is giving the developers more of what they want ($$$) they will give the issues that are important to those players more attention. In a pure micro-transaction game like Fallen Sword, only about 10% of the people playing are actually paying customers. And it is those paying customers and only those paying customers that the developers give a damn about. Oh, they will give the appearance of catering to the masses so as to keep up the illusion of population numbers. But when push come to shove the free players (or even lower paying players) are going to get the boot.

Don't misunderstand me. As an economist I totally understand why people are pushing micro-transactions: It's all about profit maximization. The downside to the subscription model is that there are people out there that actually want to spend more money on the game but can't. But I think it's a great case of being penny-wise and pound foolish. You may indeed generate more revenue in the short run but you *inevitably* change the gaming experience, the very gaming experience that drove people to want to play your game in the first place.

In real life the person with the most money winds up with the most toys. Micro-transactions simply bring this model to the gaming world. And why anyone would want to play a game, and a fantasy game no less, that mimics that is honestly beyond me. The subscription model is popular because its a great example of a place where real life money doesn't change everything.