Monday, June 27, 2011

Ineffectual Cash Store Bitternesss

EQ2's Associate Producer, Emily "Domino" Taylor, is puzzled by player reaction to item shops - why, she asks, are players simultaneously angry that the shop exists and dismissive of its offerings?  The answer, I would suggest, can be found in her own long-running "what do players want?" series; players occasionally ask for things that may be both nonsensical and not what they actually wanted. The complaints about prices of cosmetic items are more of a pre-emptive sour grapes defense against an indirect price hike that the players are not willing to pay. 

The 68-dollar gorilla in the room this week has been Eve's new cosmetic monocle, which consumes items worth several months' worth of game time in exchange for a cosmetic item for one character.  The clever thing about this approach is that the price was never designed to target the player who actually opens up their wallet and pulls out $68 because they want a monocle.  Rather, the intent appears to be to encourage players with more in-game ISK currency than they know what to do with to destroy in-game-timecards, rather than allow them to get cheap enough on the in-game market that the average player can avoid paying the monthly subscription. 

Fair but unbalanced?
The in-game cash shop draws the level of bitterness that Domino and others observe because it is simultaneously egalitarian and undemocratic.  Until CCP sticks even more 0's onto that price tag, the cash store approach means that anyone who wants to pay can, and, at least in principle, can mean that those who are unwilling or unable can still play the base game for the old price.  In principle, the extra revenue could be the difference between survival or closing for your game of choice, which would seem to be a good deal for everyone.

At the same time, the process is inherently undemocratic in that there is no real way for those who are opposed to "vote against" the cash shop.  Unless you are willing to cancel your subscription altogether, your vote is +/- zero, and the guy who is willing to pay for the monocle's vote is +68, and the short term net total appears to be positive.  Meanwhile, the financial incentives will almost certainly drive future development in the way that the guy with the monocle wants. 

In the long term, I think it is possible for cash store creep to do long-term harm to a game's reputation; for example, I think the uproar over EQ2's new class was rooted in SOE's decision in December to add the game's first new race in three years to the game's cash store, rather than including it in the $40 expansion box.  Unfortunately, this impact is not going to be apparent immediately in the short run, and the result runs the risk of destroying the village not to save it, but as an example to other village owners.

Companies want to appear responsive to customer feedback, which is why protests sometimes work as Spinks notes (with the caveat that a PR event does not equal changing the policy), but there's very little even the large majority of customers can do if the company's minds are made up.  In this case, ineffectual cash store bitterness sometimes feels like all unhappy customers have left. 

11 comments:

DSJ said...

As a long time EVE player I can say that $68 for a monocle is retarded but not in and of itself reason for concern. Even players with large balance of ISK and nothing to spend it on aren't going to purchase this kind of item. As PVP game with the importance of corporation and alliance views even individuals with large balances and no sense tend to get restrained by the sentiment of the groups around them which are predominantly negative at this time. What really gets everyone worked up is of course the idea of "golden ammo" such as world of tanks which takes a subscription PVP game that many have devoted enormous time to and puts an "I WIN" button next to a dollar sign. As someone who is very active as well in WOW raiding (and looking forward to firelands) I have absolutely no objection to the "sparkle ponies" or pets in their cash store. For all of Blizzards work to cash in they still haven't crossed a line of selling in game advantages that would impact raiding by those willing to spend cash. I don't know if they plan on doing so but I suspect that they will be smart enough about the development process to not put the "debate" on the idea out in a company newletter for the internet to see like CCP. It is "golden ammo" that every player in the competitive world of 0.0 fears the most ... and it's in that hot house of pvp competition that it would have the most balance issue impact. Cash for "golden ammo" in pvp means that your subscription, time, and skill are meaningless next to the guy with the larger wallet or the corporation/alliance with deeper pockets ... its a permanent advantage granted to the richer/bigger over the poorer/smaller groups.

You mention that it appears that CCP was aiming for rich eve players as a way to soak up and remove the plex out on the market and thereby drive up the in game prices on the plex to players paying for their game time with ISK. But does that in any way really make business sense? Would not selling 100,000 $1 pair of boots, shirts, and pants have made more sense in both the long run and short run to achieve that purpose? A new must see outfit that everyone can buy and own every month for $3-5 (paid for by ISK) can't cost that much to develop can it? It just seems like not only muddled goals but incompetence and a lack of business smarts piled on top.

Stabs said...

"Cash for "golden ammo" in pvp means that your subscription, time, and skill are meaningless next to the guy with the larger wallet or the corporation/alliance with deeper pockets ... its a permanent advantage granted to the richer/bigger over the poorer/smaller groups."

This is the same game where a Russian aluminum billionaire famously set up a huge nullsec alliance by selling plexes.

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:JXXrmZj18FAJ:forums.f13.net/index.php%3Faction%3Dprintpage%3Btopic%3D16412.0+mittani+russian+billionaire+ten+ton+hammer&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk&source=www.google.co.uk

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

A co-worker of mine pointed out this presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/bcousins/paying-to-win (Listen to the audio, button just under the slides.)

It's about Battlefield Heroes, an EA free-to-play game. When they decided to sell permanent weapons and increase the cost of in-game weapons to encourage sales, people revolted. People said they were going to leave because it was an obvious "I WIN" button. But, surveys said a large number of people they wanted the advantages, and after desperation prodded the developers to add the feature, it increased revenue without decreasing user participation. The speaker points out two frothing mad fans, who turn out to still be playing (and even pay for!) the game after tons of drama.

Given the nature of EVE, as Stabs points out, it should be easy to guess how this tempest will likely turn out.

Nils said...

Brian, this is exactly why I worry so much about it: f2p games make more money as most players succumb to rather play a worse game than not play it at all.

Especially players that are emotionally invested have a hard time to just quit over an itemshop. And if they need to buy to stay competitive they often will. That doesn't mean that game is more fun.

And that's really the problem with microtransactions. They are financially successful. They will turn out to be profitable for CCP!

But they don't make the game better.

An over-exaggerated version:
It's like adding heroin to your game and then quote the number of addicted players to prove that your strategy was successful. Well, in a way it was successful. That's exactly the problem.

Galaji said...

"...rather than allow them to get cheap enough on the in-game market that the average player can avoid paying the monthly subscription."

The problem with this is that time cards CANNOT be created by any means other than purchasing them.
This means that their price on the in game market has no real meaning because there is a set real world price that is being paid to CCP for each of them.

The average player who is able to buy them is not playing the game for free. They are playing the game while having somebody else pay the subscription fee to CCP.

This is the main reason I was ok with PLEX to begin with. CCP was getting their money and it allowed players without the RL cash flow to participate in eve.

I think the overlooked reason for discontent with the new cash shop is that it breaks long standing EvE design. Almost every single item in EvE is created by the players.

By inserting new item types into the game and not allowing players to create them, ccp is breaking the consistency.
Do you really think any of the economy based players are happy about this?
New minerals could have been added for miners, new designs for R&D guys to make blueprints out of, etc.

The gameplay options have been trashed in favor of a money grab.
This, combined with taking away gameplay that has existed for years in eve (station spinning / interface), is of course going to be frowned upon by players who enjoy the game.

mbp said...

While I do think that CCP will deal with this issue and that EVE will go on to thrive I don't really buy the argument that it this is just a few hotheads protesting and that the whole thing is a storm in a tea cup.

Yes there are plenty of hot heads around but EVE like any mmorpg also has a cohort of core players. These are the people who hold corporations and alliances together, who participate in the development of the game through dialogue with developers, who constructively contribute to forum discussions. When this cohort of key players get upset as they appear to have in this case then it is more than a storm in a tea cup and the developer had better react to it.

Nils said...

mbp, what is certainly a problem for CCP is that these core players order their corps to shoot anyone wearing a monocle.

Wearing a monocle is suicide in Eve right now ;)

mbp said...

Lol Nils that is completely business as usual in EVE. Any time EVE brings out a new shiny there is a campaign to blow them up.

Not that many bullets are going to be wasted on monocles. I hear that less than 60 were sold. I doubt that even recoups the cost of the artwork.

Bertie said...

>>>> It's like adding heroin to your game and then quote the number of addicted players to prove that your strategy was successful. Well, in a way it was successful. That's exactly the problem.

I like this analogy. To extend it a bit, BF Heroes and TF2 both worked like drug dealers: first get 'em hooked on your game with a free not pay-to-win version, then sock your addicts with the pay-to-win stuff they can't help but buy.

Side question: So, is there anyone left at this point who disputes that "free to play is pay to win"? I mean, is that even seriously arguable at this point?

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Nils spewed:
"It's like adding heroin to your game and then quote the number of addicted players to prove that your strategy was successful."

Yes, because an "a la carte" business model is EXACTLY LIKE a drug that creates a physiological dependency. Damn those restaurants that hook you with cheap sides then make you pay more for full meal! Worse that crack dealers!

The people in question had the option to leave and knew they had that option. Instead, the participated in the very system they raged against. I suspect the reality is that they realized the system wasn't quite so horrible as they first thought. As I've said, I think most of the people against free to play models have no actual experience with the systems and come up with incorrect "worst case" scenarios.

But, seriously, let's keep the drug related hyperbole down here? The U.S. finally accepted games as worthy of free expression, let's not make them worry about having to regulate it like marijuana, OK?

Bertie spewed:
Side question: So, is there anyone left at this point who disputes that "free to play is pay to win"? I mean, is that even seriously arguable at this point?

Yes, I will make the argument. I play DDO under a "free to play" system. While I could certainly spend a lot of money on convenience items, there's nothing I could buy that would let me "win" the game. Personally, I enjoy the challenges of playing the game without a lot of the conveniences. And if someone buys an item that lets them self-rez inside a quest to finish it instead of starting over, somehow I manage to still have fun.

As I've said before in a discussion with Nils, I've been able to control my spending in DDO a lot more than I could while playing WoW. As for fairness, you might as well call WoW "have too much free time to win" as being hyper competitive in that game requires a lot of time investment. Hell, you could even "pay to win" at WoW, too. Imagine if some Russian billionaire paid salaries for top raiders in WoW for them to play with him; would you suddenly hate WoW? Seems people were fine with said Russian billionaire paying for PLEXes in EVE.

Basically, claiming a cash shop is "pay to win" is about as accurate as calling golf or bicycling "pay to win". You can certainly spend a lot of money on bicycles, but no matter what clubs someone is given, most of us computer nerds be able to beat a Tour de France competitor, even if they aren't doping. And, if you are a competitive cyclist, then it should feel pretty good to beat that overweight banker on a $10k bike when you're on a beater.

Yeebo said...

@Bertie: it depends an awful lot on what game you are talking about. If a game sells mainly content and cosmetic items, "no not really" imo. Even when a game sells real upgrades, it also depends on whether the item shop sells items that are better than what you can get just by spending time in the game, in my opinion. If not, again I'd say "no, not really."

That said, someone raised what I consider to be a very legitimate concern about the EVE items shop over at Ancient Gaming Newb. Apparently they plan to start selling guns, ammo, and ships at some point, not just overpriced cosmetics. If players can buy ships and convert them into base minerals, it has the potential to completely trash EVE's economy. Converting PLEX into in game cash is one thing, the only source of resources is still internal to the game. However, letting players summon resources out of thin air could potentially be much more of a detriment to the economy than PLEX ever was.