Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Developer Incentives In RMT Item Shop Games

Darren, the Common Sense Gamer spent the weekend on a one-blogger crusade against the $10 horse in the Runes of Magic item shop. Personally, I didn't link to the flurry of posts at the time because my contribution is not terribly original.

I would be outraged if we were talking about a subscription game, but Runes of Magic is Free to Play. The developers need to pay the bills somehow, which means either charging for content (as Darren favors) or charging for convenience. Personally, I'd rather have the option to keep playing, spending money as I need to, than be presented with a financial decision at every quest hub. (E.g. is it worth X money to unlock the next quest hub?) The $10 price (it was higher the last time I examined the game) is not that bad if you imagine that you will actually be playing on that character for a large number of hours. Still, something about this potential transaction bothered me, and it took a few days to put my finger on what it was.

Player Satisfaction in the Subscription MMORPG
At the end of the day, players want to continue to be rewarded for doing whatever it is that they enjoy doing. Whether it's soloing, daily quests, tradeskills, PVP, or raids, pretty much everyone asks for ways to continue their progress. It is not possible for the developer to fill all these requests at once, but their financial incentive is to take the course that keeps the largest portion of the playerbase happy and continuing to subscribe.

In short, as Sanya Weathers explains, the developers don't hate anyone's playstyle. They will occasionally hit you with things you don't like, such as gear resets, because that is the only way they can think of to continue to provide onwards and upwards progression. At the end of the day, though, they get paid when the incentive structure they have put in place is enough to convince you to keep on doing whatever it was you were paying them to let you do.

Different Incentives in RMT Item Shops
By contrast, the devs of a pure item shop game like Runes of Magic get paid when players buy items. Broadly speaking, ROM is in the business of selling mounts, bonus exp potions, and item enhancements. Sure enough, their next major patch will include:

- A new race and two new "classes" (more on this in a minute), to encourage players to make new alts that will need exp, mounts, and gear.
- An increased level cap, so that existing characters will need exp and gear. (They are also releasing new mounts - so far all have had identical stats - on an approximately monthly basis.)

On paper, these actions sound no different than what subscription games do. The difference is motivation.

When Blizzard adds additional mounts to the Argent tournament vendors, their goal is to provide players with a reason to continue participating in the tournament. The fact that I might now be disappointed that I spent my 100 seals on the current mount when I would have preferred the newer model is incidental to the goal of providing me with a reason to continue playing the game.

When Runes of Magic adds additional mounts to their cash shop, the fact that I might rather have had the one that's on sale today instead of the one I bought yesterday is INTENTIONAL. If I don't look at the shiniest new mount (in the last seven months, the game has added rhinos, ice beasts, ostriches, lions, and various other critters) and wish that I had it, someone in the item shop dev department has literally failed at their job, and I will not be paying the company as a result of that failure.

Power Inflation and the RMT shop
What's the problem, if I'm willing to pay $10 for a mount and there's a new one that I think is better than my current one? The issue is that the $10-20 is a relatively reasonable price for the FIRST mount. As Darren points out, I'm not really getting any more content when I buy a mount. I'm effectively paying to be relieved of some of the travel time that the developers have put into the game to make me want a mount. Paying another $10+ for a second mount that looks different, leaving the first mount uselessly bound to the same character, would not make sense. Perhaps a sale on an especially cool-looking mount might be the deciding factor in buying it for an alt, but players only need so many alts.

This makes it almost absolutely certain that ROM will eventually offer mounts that are superior to the current 60% ground model. They can't cut the prices without giving up revenue from new players, and they will eventually reach the upper limit of various creatures that players will pay to ride on. When that happens, the only way to continue to sell new mounts to existing players will be to offer faster mounts. Moreover, the improvement has to be noticible. WoW's prestige flying mounts move at +310% instead of +280%, an increase of approximately 10%. In context, that's not a number you're going to notice unless you're running a race. ROM's faster mounts will need to offer a much larger boost in order to catch the eyes of veteran players.

The Balance Nightmare of Rapid Power Inflation
This brings me back to the new classes. ROM describes themselves as having six classes, which could be thought of as archetypes (tank, healer, ranged dps, melee dps), but all characters are actually dual classed. For instance, a Mage/Knight gets added defense and holy-based nukes while playing as a mage, and a Mage/Rogue gets shadow damage/lifedrain attacks. Effectively, the game has 30 character class combinations, each of which plays in two separate ways (i.e. you can swap which of your classes is the main one - each class needs its own exp and gear, opening the door for yet more exp potion and gear enhancement sales).

The new Elves will have Wardens and Druids in place of two of the existing classes. This will effectively add 10 new character class combinations to the game.

Obviously, the new classes are just announced. We don't know how different they will be from their human counterparts, or how they will affect balance as secondary classes to the remaining classes. What we do know is the motivation. If the new classes are not sufficiently good compared to the existing classes to make players consider starting new characters, buying those characters new mounts, exp potions, and gear enhancements, the developers have failed.

I cannot imagine a subscription game adding 33% more class combinations - even if they are only subtle variations - to the game in a single shot. This is a potential balance disaster. Subscription games will not do this kind of upheaval because it is almost certain that there will be broken flavor of the month classes that will have to be nerfed later. As Saylah experienced first hand, sometimes balance changes will turn your impressive "Battle Monk" into a "Magus Gimpus". When you're in the business of making money when your players re-roll, however, that's a bonus, not a drawback.

I'm not entirely fond of the all-or-nothing choice forced by a monthly fee. I don't have time to play multiple games on a daily basis, but sometimes I like a little variety in my week. I'd much rather have a non-fee alternative for part-time use than pay full freight for two games. Perhaps the ROM model is the answer I'm looking for. I'm just not sure if I trust the developers to hold the game together when their incentive pressure will always be for more - better races, better classes, faster mounts - until the day I quit or the servers come down.


Yeebo said...

Great post, thought provoking.

I personally like the Wizard 101 model the best. Pay only for the zones I use, keep them forever. I find that I'm slowly starting to become opposed to sub based MMOs. As the quality of RMT games cacthes up, paying $60 for a both and $15 a month (or $200 up front) is starting to look a bit insane.

Dblade said...

FFXI actually did something similar, it added 3 new classes in TOAU, then 2 more in WOTG expansions. It is different because in FFXI not all support combinations are effective anyways for party play. a ranger/black mage really only can use the spell warp, it's inferior compared to the two real subjobs, warrior and ninja.

In TOAU the classes released were ineffective when subbed. Corsair only gave some benefit at the lower levels, and Blue Mage helped paladins and dragoons mostly, but really only modestly. In WOTG though dancer when subbed let meelees be able to solo moderately, and scholar subbed supplanted every sub for a mage before it. The game survived though. I don't know how Runes is, but if SE can manage the interaction of 20 jobs that can be combined, I wouldn't worry.

For your point, what bugs me about the horse thing is that they list as a convienience things which are actually necessary. I'm playing Mabinogi, and with no mount its a fairly long haul to walk areas. The game play is designed to make you want a mount.

Or worse, I can't have a personal shop unless i pay 10 bucks for 30 days of item storage. I have to buy an ingame bag with ingame gold for more storage, but it only is valid if I buy that service.You really feel the hurt without it, inventory is tiny, even if you ponied up money for a mount that has an invetory of its own.

A lot of the "convieniences" are only such because they are excluded. Some of them truly are, like instant teleport wings or random items, but I dislike when its things you take for granted in a subscription MMO, like the ability to sell goods or have a decent sized inventory

Harmen said...

Adding zones will keep current players interested, and the more players there are, the more IRL friends will be dragged in. I would say having happy players will pay for it in the end. A large number of players who pay a little, versus a few players who pay more.

I know I'm happy with Runes of Magic, I don't play that regularly, and it's sufficiently turn-of-your-mind to just play it for an hour or two and get back to life.

sam said...

actually the class balance is less of an issue in Runes of magic because of the dual class system. It's also why the instances are harder. Potentially every member of every group could be DPS, tank or healer.

Ironically while I don't have a problem with RMT games on some illogical level it annoys me that I have to rent my bags instead of buying them. Its stupid because I'd buy upgrades every 6 months or so but the fact that I don't really "own" them somehow diminishes my character to me.

Overall its a good game but I'm beginning to see the problem developers have coming up with the perfect mix that doesn't unbalance the game but still motivates the player to spend money.

Green Armadillo said...

@Yeebo: I like the principle of the W101 model, but it looks to me like the monthly pass is the much better deal unless you really don't play very much or you really like re-rolling alts through the same few zones once you've unlocked them.

@DBlade: Yeah, FFXI's got the closest parallel to the ROM dual class system, but there are a number of differences. Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't there like 14+ jobs in the original? 3 new jobs added to 14 is a smaller proportion than 2 new jobs added to 6. That's doubly true since, as you note, many of the possible job/subjob combos aren't really viable.

@Hanzen: Yeah, that's the hope. Time will tell whether enough players pay enough money to keep the game running.

@Sam: I'd call what you're describing a population balance issue - i.e. when a group of players get together, do they have the requisite number of tanks/offtanks/heals/etc. What I'm talking about is an issue of relative balances between classes. For example, I skimmed the ROM forums a bit, and the prevailing forum wisdom (take with a grain of salt) is that Mage/Priest is overpowered while Scout/anything is underpowered. The danger is that the devs might, for example, nerf Mage/Priest into the ground just in time to let Warden/Druid or whatever other combo take its overpowered place. Perhaps this is good for the game as a whole, but it's less fun for the people who have taken the time to level their current characters.

Tesh said...

The W101 sub model, like any other, is the better deal *if* you play enough per month to make it worthwhile. I don't play more than a few hours per month, so the Access Pass model works beautifully for me. (Ditto Guild Wars.) I'm mostly just happy that they offer the option.