Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breaking The DDO Wall Down

DDO's recently unveiled offer wall has apparently died a quick death, with an announcement by Turbine that they are "stepping away from the ‘Offer’ category for now".

The Short History of the Wall
Thus ends probably the worst 48 hours to be working in the Turbine PR department since Asheron's Call 2 closed shortly after a paid expansion launch. On Monday, the feature went live with a wide variety of scamvertisements. On Tuesday, Turbine rolled out a statement saying that:
  1. They knew that these things could be scammy and wanted to be sure their version was clean.
  2. They therefore crafted a detailed policy of what would not be allowed, which would have been effective in keeping the scams out had it been enforced.
  3. They then declared victory and went home without bothering to screen any of the ads that would be live on the offer wall on day one, despite their knowledge that the things are often plagued by scams.

The wall was cleaned up in accordance with the newly published policy, but this revamp did not last long. Shortly thereafter, players discovered that Turbine was sending player email addresses and account usernames to the sketchy offer provider, even if the player did not actually agree to try any of the sketchy offers. The wall was pulled down for evaluation, and terminated less than a day later.

Whether you believe Turbine's version - in which one or more of their employees screwed up in spectacular fashion - or you believe that the revised policy was a knee-jerk damage control effort is perhaps moot at this point. What is more interesting is that the very short-lived version 2.0 of the site was intriguingly different from what players saw at launch day.

The Free Money Problem
The initial version of the wall was doomed to fail due to the free money problem - namely that there's no such thing. The model is for companies to pay Turbine in exchange for obtaining something from players, and for Turbine to turn around and give the player a cut in the form of "free" Turbine Points.

Despite what some forum users think, marketing companies do not write checks to people for seeing how many variations of "false.address@gmail.com" and "i.think.i.am.smarter.than.you@gmail.com" they can collect via a survey. The only reason they're willing to pay is because the true goal of the survey is to load players' computers down with spyware intended to track their every movement online (or even engage in outright identity theft) - information that they can turn around to sell to even less savory elements for a profit even after their payout to Turbine.

Jerry at DDOCast argues that this arrangement is fine as long as the users knowingly consent to "paying" with their privacy. The problem is that the consent is generally anything but informed. One security-minded forum user signed up for all the offers on a carefully firewalled test machine and then ran a spyware scan. They found that they had over 150 spyware-related elements, including over 100 changes to the registry. No one would ever knowingly consent to that in exchange for pennies worth of Turbine Points, if for no other reason than because all the registry items will actively harm their gameplay by slowing their computers to a crawl.

So, the fine print simply doesn't mention what the vendors are planning to do. Instead, they simply say that you agree to their privacy policy and to the installation of their software. As a result, you have players proudly posting about how they got 150 TP for some stupid survey without any idea of what they had done. And, worst of all, Turbine had an incentive to cooperate with this duplicity, because they were receiving a cut of the ill-gotten gains.

Affiliate For The Win?
The changes made to the offer wall between days one and two ultimately were not enough to reassure players - perhaps the worst of the offers were gone, but players' information was still being sent to the same sketchy offer provider that had been willing to do business with scammers a day ago. That said, the day 2 wall was a philosophically different creature from what we saw on day 1.

All of the free money offers were gone, leaving only deals that kick in Turbine Points in exchange for the player making a purchase. Players who weren't busy denouncing the effort as a scam denounced it as being pointless on the grounds that they could just buy the Turbine Points instead of buying a magazine subscription. This critique entirely misses the point.

The Day 2 wall was never intended for the player who does not have a credit card and never spends any money. Rather, it was an attempt at a win/win scenario in which the player makes a purchase that they WERE GOING TO MAKE ANYWAY, Turbine manages to get paid a commission for directing that purchase to a partner site of some sort, and the player gets Turbine Points for using Turbine's partner. It would have been very interesting to see how this approach would have taken off, had Turbine gone with a more reputable vendor and not poisoned the well against the entire model by allowing the first day to taint public opinion.

Maybe what the game actually needed was some version of an Amazon Affiliate account. That approach probably would not offer as much of a payout per transaction, but it might make up for it in sheer volume by allowing players to participate with just about anything they want to purchase. I know I'd be willing to click through a few extra login screens if it meant getting a dozen Turbine Points with every purchase on Amazon.

Unfortunately, the way in which this debacle unfolded may mean that it's going to be a long time before anyone is brave enough to test this theory.

1 comment:

Stabs said...

Yeah there are plenty of offline examples of affiliate schemes working perfectly well (eg air miles).

But I think you're right - Turbine will not revisit this one any time soon.

Good job calling this correctly a few days ago.