Saturday, September 15, 2012

Accountability In the Post-Subscription Era

I've heard several generally insightful podcasters commenting on the relatively ban-happy policies of Guild Wars 2.  I'm disappointed that many people do not state the obvious - due to the lack of subscription fees, ArenaNet loses no recurring revenue when it bans a customer. 

We don't have the data to tell whether bannings in Guild Wars 2 is actually more prevalent in other games since none of the studios routinely publicize such numbers, but one can certainly imagine that removing the subscription fee removes a financial incentive NOT to ban a customer.  Sure, a banned player might eventually have opted to pay for microtransactions or expansions, but it's nowhere near the guaranteed revenue of someone who is happy to pay $15/monthly for the opportunity to troll.  Moreover, their conduct also affects the tone of the community in a way that might influence whether others stay and pay. 

Looking beyond this issue, we are in a somewhat unprecedented scenario in which two separate major titles - Diablo III and GW 2 - launched within a six month period never intending to collect a subscription fee.  Both sold seven digit numbers of copies at $60 a head.  We have some free to play games that have over a million users - few of whom are likely to have paid $60.  We have a small number of subscription MMO's that actually have a million former subscribers.  Neither category of game intentionally chose that outcome. 

Even if most players will never pay for additional transactions, both titles are franchises with at least some incentive not to ruin their respective brand names.  See, for example, Blizzard's scramble to add an alternate advancement system upon determining that the base game lacked staying power, when in principle they could have shrugged, secure in the knowledge that people who run out of stuff to do have already paid.  It will be interesting to see if anything more substantial than policies about banning people for abusing their group-mates in chat changes as this type of model becomes more common in online gaming. 


Tesh said...

I think that it's a Good Thing that the devs don't have potential subscription revenue coloring their judgement on banning situations. It seems to me that may well make for a better call and ultimately, a better environment as the trolls can be weeded out more effectively.

seanas said...

you raise a good point re: accountability and subscriptions, but I don't know if it's quite so straightforward. I think we can well say that different business models create different incentives to ban or not ban players.

We all 'know' the example of the subscription service not wanting to ban ongoing revenue streams (ie, players :p) if they don't have to. I asked Rift's Community Director myself at Gamescom why a group of players caught using a (faily mild) exploit weren't banned, even temporarily; and she was very clear that she didn't want to ban players unless she absolutely had to. By the same token, however, Scott Hartsmann has been quite vocal about the costs incurred (from credit charges) as a result of gold farming and thus the zero tolerance that Trion have for gold farmers, subscription notwithstanding.

However, we can readily create a use case where a box-only business model (or box + microtransactions) creates an INCENTIVE to ban players. On such example of this is the notorious SomethingAwful forums (home of the Goonswarm): it has a small one-off fee ($10 or $20, I can't remember at the moment) and explicitly uses this as a 'fine' on bad behaviour - they happily ban users, and equally happily allow those same users to re-join the forums under another name upon payment of another registration fee. It is not such a great step to imagine ArenaNet doing something similar - they've got the player's money already, after all, and if they want to re-join, well they can always be banned again if they misbehave again. Some of ANet's more extreme policing *does* fit this use case: the banning (later overturned if the player jumped through enough hoops) of players buying and vendoring mispriced items is one very obvious example.

Likewise, we can easily imagine a use case where a F2P game might not ban a player if they'd spent enough. Again, a clear case study: a credit card company I worked for was quite explicit about only providing good quality customer service to customers who had generated enough revenue recently - ie, customers who ended up paying lots of interest charges. Customers who paid in full always, and thus generated very little revenue, were NOT extended the same liberties or opportunities as those who generated lots of interest revenue. You can easily imagine a F2P company first checking the revenue generated by a player before deciding whether to allow otherwise bannable actions.

Are any of these three banning strategies better than each other? Not really, just different ways of privileging their more valuable customers/ generating extra revenue; in all three business models, the revenue possibilities colour the banning decisions.

Maybe we're all used to Blizzard and Xbox Live permitting all sorts of trollery and misbehaviour because of their reliance on subscriptions; but while ANet are admirably open about their willingness to ban, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they've got an *interest* in banning as many players as they can get away with.