Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Finances of Exp Curves

Tobold argues that, because there is no such thing as a single absolute optimal rate of advancement that works for all players of a given MMO, it's somehow impossible for studios to tweak the curve in favor of cash store purchases.  I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this discussion, but I think Tobold's philosophical focus on the absolute misses the pragmatic consequences of RELATIVE rates of advancement. 

As Tobold writes, the pace of leveling is much less important than whether players enjoy doing whatever it is they are asked to do as they level.  Many of the current problems in the genre are caused by developers' continued insistence of using the primarily solo leveling game as a prerequisite for group-based endgame activities.  This turns a segment of the game that is the entire experience for many customers into a menial grind that stands between other customers and actually playing the game with their friends. 

Even so, developers have financial incentives that are influenced by how they set their advancement curve, and I would argue that the consequences of getting the curve wrong vary based on the business model.  Regardless of business model, no developer wants advancement to be too fast, as every model out there ultimately makes more money if players stick with the game.  On the opposite extreme, however, the incentives are very different.
  • In a subscription game where any added transactions do not affect the rate of advancement, the goal is to satisfy as many of the customers as possible.  As Tobold says, this is an impossible task, but the developer will have to strike some sort of balance between losing income from players who get to cap too quickly versus being branded overly grindy.  For many players, merely describing the slower rates of advancement often observed in games developed for the Asian market is the beginning and the end of their interest in the game. 
  • In a subscription game that also offers faster advancement, however, that loss of income begins to be offset by sales of experience potions and other means of accelerated progression.
  • At the furthest extreme, a model where there is no recurring subscription, only sales of theoretically optional stuff like exp potions, there is very little marginal loss of income due to being thought of as "too grindy" because 90% of players aren't paying a dime to begin with.  Yes, you might drive off some players who might have otherwise have bought mounts and costumes, but your primary demographic is the market that will pay to have exp boosts up and running as close to full time as possible.  In other words, your lost income if a big spender decides they don't need to buy potions because the curve isn't grindy enough is much greater than your lost income from driving off significant numbers of less dedicated players with a grind.
None of this depends on arriving at the theoretical ideal rate of advancement that Tobold seems to have gotten hung up on.  The question is not "what should the the exp curve be" but "should the curve be slower than it is now".  As the proportion of a game's revenue that comes from exp boosts increases, the financial incentives will increasingly make the answer to that question "yes". 

This does not mean that every game that sells some form of exp boost is doomed to be a grindfest.  In fact, I'd argue that selling max level characters might actually improve the leveling game for those who want to play it.  However, as I noted a bit ago, the direction of a game developed by a for profit entity is never completely separate from how they make their money. 


Yeebo said...

At least some part of a game has to be engaging or few will get engaged. Even in sub based games, the pace of leveling at low levels is kind of a trick to suck you in.

In a lot of FtP MMOs you get a low level game that's easy to make progress in and then becomes quite grindy if you don't pay pay a certain point. I'm actually AoK with that as long as what I'm paying for is content or classes and not consumables. If I have to steadily pay for consumables, I'd prefer to sub.

Video Game Philosopher said...

managing a grind is a hard part of MMO development. WoW went overboard on reducing this, as it largely is insane how fast you level. Reaching 60 is a piece of cake, and the pain comes in going to outlands and northrend.

I've found it interesting that most NC soft games hit a plateau at about lvl 18-22 where it becomes all but impossible to level swiftly without a group (due to increases in grouping and power of enemies, as well as increased XP requirements). I agree that there is no great balance, but I prefer the grindy games, provided the grinding is fun. Nothing is more dull than having to kill the same creatures over and over again with no real point behind it.

I recall Star Wars Galaxies, where most of my grinding was in the background of me getting money for new equipment, or getting creature resources to sell to one of my friends. I rarely sat there and ground out xp just for the xp (except when I was helping my friend get mastery xp, but that was all of 1000xp, training a skill, dropping the skill, and regaining 1000xp to repeat).