Monday, July 26, 2010

The ROM Exp Curve As A Loss Leader

“This is, of course, the one thing that I really dislike about item shops – when the developer identifies an aspect of the game that is not fun, their incentive is to create a consumable cash shop item instead of actually fixing the problem.”
- Me, talking about the LOTRO Free To Play transition, as quoted by Syp

I hit level 20 Druid/20 Rogue in Runes of Magic over the weekend.  The dual class system remains interesting - for example, my Druid has gained "elite" skills as part of her Rogue subclass that allows her to cast shadow spells fueled by her rogue energy bar as primary nukes, leaving most the majority of her druid mana bar available for heals. 

Meanwhile, though, I've started to run into an issue that various commenters have been pointing out since I started posting about the game.  Parts of the game experience are beginning to reflect the game's business model.

Scrounging for Exp
ROM actually offers a total of three sets of quests for getting from level 1-10 - one zone aimed at each race, and one additional zone for players to move to for leveling their secondary class.  I've cleared out all three.  Somewhere in the mid-teens, I found that I was bumping up against quests that were giving me some trouble, and it made more sense to burn through the content I wasn't using for some quick additional exp to get a leg up.

Of course, every game has some neglected mid-levels, but I've never found myself scrounging for exp before level 20.  In any other game, the solution would be a simple design decision - add more quests or decrease the number of quests needed to level.  In this game, though, the entire game and all of its leveling content are a loss leader designed to get players into the item shop, which is the sole source of revenue since there are no charges of any kind for access to content, classes, levels, etc. 

At level 20, none of this is a big deal.  I'm here to sight-see, and I'm accomplishing that.  In the long run, though, players report that the game becomes much more grind-focused with every additional level range.  The intent is to drive sales of exp potions, daily quest reset tickets, death penalty removers, etc, but the net effect is that scrounging for exp is an intentional feature of game design. 

Side note on the death penalty
Speaking of the death penalty, on paper it's a relatively mild thing - about (exactly?) 5% of your exp to level in "exp debt" which takes 70% of all earned exp until it is paid off.  (Some of this debt is forgiven if you touch your tombstone, located at the place where you died, but note that this ONLY removes debt - if you paid off the debt before reaching your corpse, e.g. by turning in a quest to a questgiver who happened to be near the respawn point, that exp is lost.)  The thing that I find frustrating is the manner in which I die. 

I've died about 10 times to date, and almost all of them have been due to one of the two reasons:
  • Elite mobs that look identical to the non-elite mobs they're standing next to, other than a slight increase in size.  When you're chain pulling 20 mobs that are dying in 15 seconds each, it's very easy to fail to notice the only visual warning, the eagle on the mob's portrait, until it's too late.
  • An odd terrain bug/feature where mobs abruptly start doing about double damage and taking about half damage from my attacks.  My best guess is that this is a bonus for being above me, as it happens most frequently when the mobs are flying or when the ground is not perfectly flat and the mobs are ever so slightly above me, and it goes away if I kite the mob to more level ground.  If this is intended behavior (either for tactical reasons or anti-exploit), it isn't documented anywhere and the only way to tell that you're doing it wrong is to look at the size of your incoming and outgoing damage numbers before it's too late.  
Maybe these are bugs, or maybe they're an intentional effort to kill players more frequently to drive sales of death penalty removal items.  I don't think either mechanic would be left in their current form in a subscription game. 

An Uncertain Early Verdict
ROM seems to be a relatively polarizing game even within the opinionated spheres of MMORPG discussion.  The game's fans sing its praises, based in large part on the general quality, non-existent entry barrier, and relatively unique class structure.  The game's detractors have taken it upon themselves to warn the masses about an increasing grind (which I'm starting to see), poor customer service (my account was not yet able to purchase diamonds during a sale, and account services helpfully informed me that my account was no longer broken after the sale was over - I declined to buy anything at that point), billing issues (which I avoided by not purchasing anything, but am prepared to believe), and the well documented fact that the game offers straight up power for cash. 

From my perspective, the game is still winning my playtime at the moment.  My visit to Taborea was motivated in part by market research, and I am indeed learning things I did not know or expect about the business model.  (For example, I'd expected travel to be much more of a pain, but it turns out that I can instead use a daily quest alternative to get a temporary mount, and I've gotten way more than enough free samples of the cash shop teleport runes to carry me through a number of levels to come.)  Watching the dual class system come into its own has also been worth the price of admission (in time, not money) to date.  My outlook might be very different if I was looking for a longer term home, but ROM is certainly shaping up to be a decent vacation spot. 

That said, though I expect to continue playing this game until it stops being fun, I am starting to think that I am unlikely to pay for the privilege.  I'd be happy to pay for one-time purchases, such as the mount, but the developers are apparently so uninterested in such a small sum of money that they've made it easy to avoid paying it.  I'd be willing to pay for additional content, as I have in DDO, but the game doesn't offer any.  The main option for supporting the game - paying to lessen a grind that exists only to try and drive payments - simply doesn't appeal to me. 


Pangoria Fallstar said...

I wonder how many people they'd get, and how much money they could get by removing the intentional grind, and finding another purpose for people to spend money in the cash shop.

Question would be what could they do?

In Champions Online, I willingly bought costume pieces, since they unlock to every character I make from now and into the future, and I'd consider purchasing more character slots, if and when I hit the limit, but then again, I'm playing CO after buying a life-time subscription, which until the servers shut down, or they go free to play, has been a good investment for me so far.

Indy said...

I had been willing to pay for additional bag space, though the price is a bit steep... since it's only rental of the space. Still, I figured between a couple of bags and a mount, the pro-rated monthly for the time until Cataclysm hit was comparable to a cheap subscription.

Then my the transaction failed for some reason, and they banned my account. After two months, they finally unbanned me today, with a simple 'sorry for the inconvienence.' Well, at least they said sorry. You better believe I've changed my mind about trusting them with cash...

Anonymous said...

The grindy nature of quests and in particular harvesting/crafting was the main reason I stopped playing. I did buy a few potions for it initially, but that only speeds up the grind a bit. It does not make the grind fun.

I very much agree that it is crap to pay to get around a bad design. Jade Dynasty also had such "features", in that game you can even grind AFK - it is a built-in game mechanic. But you need potions to make it efficient.

Yeebo said...

Sounds like you are having a similar experience to the one I had with Allod's Online. I much prefer the Wizard 101/ DDO model, where you buy content or features that are added to your account, to the "pay to lessen the grind" model.

I rarely make it to the cap in any MMO, sub based or not. Hitting me with an arbitrary grind during the mid level doldrums, when my attention has a tendency to wain anyway, is not really the best way to try and get money out of me.

Indy said...

Yes, I think the DDO cash shop model is far preferable. I also really appreciate being able to earn true cash shop points in their game. (Not in huge amounts, but that's fine. It's *possible* at least.)

How can DDO make some extra cash? Make new content to buy... and players want new content, win all around. How can RoM make some extra cash? Have players buy more XP/TP bonus pots... no incentive to reduce grind there... pots to eliminate xp/tp debt or prevent it... see what their incentive is here? Daily quest reset tickets -- ok, here's more reason to stick a grind in, and disincentive to adding sufficient quests to the game.

Maybe the problem is mostly in the pure cash shop verses the hybrid VIP/subscriber + cash shop models.