Monday, May 24, 2010

The Role of "Optional" in the Item Shop

"…these guys are still leaving plenty of money on the table still. If players will pay $25 for just a mount, can you imagine what they’ll pay for the next expansion pack? Wheeee. Come on SOE, make the next expansion pack worth $150. Come onnnnn. Doooo eeeet!! I’m just waiting to see how crazy they go with this."
- Darren, the Common Sense Gamer
"But the main thing to take away from the article is thus -- if you don't like the practice, don't buy into it. Don't angrily bitch to developers, don't slit their throats on the forums, and don't make a scene. You can let them know exactly how you feel by simply telling them that you don't want this in your game, and then by following through and not buying the item (or items) in question. If it doesn't sell, you can be sure that it won't be coming back.
- Serafina Brennan @ Massively

There's been a fair amount of blog fodder already on SOE's decision to release an item store mount for $25 - identical to what Blizzard decided to charge a month earlier. These two quotes from opposite sides of the issue - Darren thinks that the market is stupid for accepting this price point, while Seraphina admits to being tempted now that the $25 mount is something she actually wants - do a good job of highlighting what I believe to be the central issue in this story: the "optional" price increase.

The option and the vote
Darren's idea won't work for the simple reason that expansion packs are mandatory purchases. I like EQ2 reasonably well, but I would not pay $150 for a future EQ2 expansion. Without the current expansion, continuing to play the game would not really be an option either. As a result, increasing the price on this mandatory item would actually cost SOE revenue that they otherwise would have received - a $40 expansion box fee plus a $15 monthly subscription. Perhaps they're leaving money on the table from people who would pay $150, but the alternative apparently leaves even more money on the table from people who will NOT pay the higher price.

By the same token, the fact that this additional purchase is optional renders Serafina's point moot. The two options in this rigged election are to support El Presidente or stay home and watch other people vote yes. Not giving SOE and Blizzard additional money that you were not giving them to begin with doesn't register as a vote for the opposition unless you're willing to cancel your subscription outright. If people were doing that in any significant numbers, we wouldn't be seeing a proliferation of $25 mounts.

The problem, then, is where the impact on the actual game lies. On this point, the Cash Cat is far worse than WoW's Sparkle Pony.

What exactly are you buying?
WoW's vanity mount is pure vanity - it moves only as fast as the fastest mount the player already owns, complete with all of the level, cash, and achievement requirements thereof. On the other hand, the EQ2 cash mounts come with 65% mount speed and some increased combat stats, and are usable at level 1. If you want to ride that fast, you'll have to level to 80 and grind out some faction or run some raids - none of the character on my account currently have access to anything faster than the low 50's.

Back in the old days, where most leveling was done in grinding groups, mounts were more of a luxury item. By contrast, the modern questing model is literally built around the frequent use of travel time to break up the grind. I'd guesstimate that my EQ2 characters spend somewhere between a third and half of their time traveling places. Suddenly, a 65% boost to travel speeds is a pretty big deal - not only does it reduce travel times, but it increases the proportion of your gaming session that you can spend doing things that directly earn you experience (killing mobs, looting items, etc).

The good news is that the heirloom mount is actually a bargain compared to the other, more temporary forms of experience boost available in EQ2's cash store, as the mount is permanent and can be shuffled to your alts through the shared bank. The bad news is that this move illustrates a continuing trend to make the game's best incentives into optional cash store purchases.

Next stop?
This type of model has become increasingly popular because - for the moment - it appears to be free money. As I said, very few players will cancel a game on principle because of this type of transaction, and many more would consider canceling a subscription in the face of a price increase.

In the long term, though, I'm concerned that this type of trend diminishes the value of player accomplishments. The content difficulty treadmill ensures that you don't actually get more powerful relative to your latest challenge. In many ways, the cosmetic rewards - outfits, furniture, mounts, pets, etc - are the most durable incentive rewards in the game. In EQ2, all of these are now available as additional purchases, and the custom station cash versions are often more impressive and unique than their in-game counterparts.

The danger for the game is that seeing a price tag placed on these items will encourage players to consider their worth more closely. This could create a perception that choosing to do without is the thrifty thing to do. Sure, it might be worth $25 not to have to grind out that pesky faction, but, if I can somehow squeak by without a mount at all - perhaps by rolling up a class that has inherent runspeed perks and does not need mounts - I get to keep both my time AND my money.

In a genre that is so heavily based on incentivizing players to reuse content, encouraging them to put more thought into how much exactly they value those rewards may not be the smartest long term move.


Yeebo said...

I had no idea that the mount gave the same run speed buff as something you can't earn until level 80 in game. That seems like it would give a player that buys it a big leg up.

I know I'm sounding like a broken record on this, but if the developers of sub based MMOs keep pushing in their current direction (i.e., more and more emphasis on item shops)...I can foresee a future where players will look at the best FtP MMOs and wonder why they should pay for server access in a game of roughly similar quality.

We aren't there yet. No FtP MMOs currently offer the amount of content that something like EQ II or WoW does. And less than a handful of FtP MMOs offer the polish of an average modern sub based MMO. But in the long term, I think blurring the line between the FtP and sub-based models risks tilting the economic landscape favor games that offer free clients and free server access.

Stripes said...

" WoW's vanity mount is pure vanity"

Not quite.

If you have a mount already the sparkle pony is pure vanity. It is a free mount at level 20 (you have to pay to train), so that is like 2 gold. I don't know if it is a free fast mount at 40 though. I have been told it is a free flying mount at 60. Again, I don't know if it is a free fast flyer if you pay for the training though.

So it is a free medium sized purchase (level appropriate priced) at 20 and 60, and maybe at some other levels as well.

In other words, in some situations it is a free non-zero but trivial amount of gold you can save for new toons.

Not game breaking. Not even game bending. But measurable without special scientific instruments.

Chris said...

Stripes, the cost of the full speed ground and initial flying mount were dropped a lot to be mostly trivial (its something like 50-100g). While epic flying remains costly (5000g - 20% rep so 4000g give or take) the others are cheap enough to become incidental now compared to the 500g/1000g for the Paladin and Lock ones.

Magson said...

I can get a free 55% Rhino in the Fens really easily once I hit about level 72 or so. Using my racial ability to increase mount speed by 5% and spending 5 AA points for an additional 10% mount speed gives me 70%. Using the new "hide mount" option will make me simply be running that fast all the time out of combat, except in dungeons where I'll run 35% with my Bogstrutter thingie from the Moors.

The "Cash Cat" would be 80% overland, and no change in a dungeon.

$25.00 for a 10% outdoor runspeed increase? Meh. I do think they look nice in the promo shots, but I'm not even remotely tempted to buy one.

Stripes said...

Yep, non-zero but trivial cost. I think 2 gold at level 20, and 1000 gold for the epic flyer. Around 100 or 150 for the slow flyer at 60.

Which are all doable at the level, but are bigger then typical costs at level. I think at level 20 two gold costs as much as all your training. Of corse one stack of herbs sold in the AH will pay for it.

Like I said non-zero, but trivial. The epic 1000 gold is five days or so of dailies, or maybe 25% of what the quest rewards from 70 to 80 should have left you with (if you didn't spend it leveling trades or buying gems and enchants). That is the closest to a real chunk of gold since it represents a few hours of in game activity....

Green Armadillo said...

@Stripes: Your numbers are from before the most recent price drops. According to WoWhead, the current numbers for the cheapest available mounts in each speed class (before faction discounts) are:

Level 20 (regular ground): 1 Gold
Level 40 (epic ground): 10 Gold
Level 60 (regular flyer): 50 Gold
Level 70 (epic flyer): 100 Gold

None of those include the training cost, which is required for the sparkle pony as well (i.e. the level 70 number is moot, someone who can pay for the training isn't even going to notice the gold for the actual mount).

Though I'll concede that this is a small in-game benefit to someone who is absolutely set on not buying the stock vendor mounts, I think we can agree that almost no one is basing their decision for or against the Sparklepony on not having to auction a single stack of copper ore to buy the mount to go with the training they still have to pay for.

@Magson: The Rhino is somewhat of a substitute once you're level 70+, if you're completing most of the solo quests in the Fens. The early access, not the additional speed, is what makes the Cash Cat remarkable. (I have heard that guild mounts will be getting a speed boost this patch, so maybe buying a ton of status items to sell on a lowbie to buy a guild mount will be a practical alternative for people in high enough level guilds.)

On the other hand, the collector's edition of the current expansion also included a 65% speed mount, only I'm pretty sure it was claimable for your entire account instead of one heirloom version (stuck on one server for altoholics). That $30 box, which came with some other stuff too, is sounding like a bargain by hindsight comparison.