Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Myth of Voting With Your Wallet

I find the controversy surrounding the recent, rocky launch of the latest Sim City interesting due to parallels we've seen in online gaming over the past few years.  Much of the anger we have seen against DRM, DLC, cash shops, and item gambling boxes goes beyond the specifics of each individual episode.  Rather, these changing business practices - driven in part by increasingly visible online capabilities - are driving home to customers who purchase video game products that they have no effective way of directing the development of these products. 

One of the more interesting arguments raised during this controversy is the idea that customers' anger is misplaced.  On a recent episode of MMO-Radio discussing the launch, Chris (of Game by Night) lamented that EA had already gotten their money from sales of the title, and that the backlash is only punishing developers at Maxis who had nothing to do with the more controversial business decisions.    Pete at Dragonchasers also feels that the game is not getting a hearing from gaming journalists and fans, and suggests that people who do not like EA's decisions should vote with their wallets. 

The "vote with your wallet" argument is not new - Chris (a different one!) of MMO Reporter fame often cites it in discussions of the latest addition to LOTRO's cash shop.  The problem with this "vote" is that the ballot has only a single check box next to the word "yes".  When you are only interested in "yes" votes, you don't find out WHY people have voted no. 
  • In Sim City's case, this makes the longtime simulation fan who chose to avoid the game due to DRM and server issues indistinguishable from the non-customer (like myself) who never would have purchased the game for any reason.  
  • In the days of subscription MMO's a significant number of canceled subscriptions would be noticed, but this was at best a paradoxical way of conveying feedback - the only way for your vote on improving the game to be heard was for you to quit the game, and for the developers to believe they could get your business back.
  • In today's era of cash stores, DLC, etc, the issue is no longer voting with YOUR wallet but rather voting against OTHER people's wallets.  To actually register a "no" vote you have to withhold money that you would otherwise have spent on the game, the developer needs to be aware that this is why you are withholding the money, and the amount that you and your like-minded colleagues are withholding has to be greater than the amount that people are spending on gambling boxes or whatever it is you are protesting.  Simply refusing to purchase the stuff yourself if you aren't also willing to cancel your subscription or not purchase the next expansion is NOT a "no" vote because only the "yes" votes are counted.  
Perhaps the increased prominence of "indie" games in general and video game Kickstarter campaigns - with their underwhelming track record - in particular is not just a question of rooting for the creative little guy.  Perhaps these are viewed as one of the few venues where producers of video games are more directly responsive to what their customers want.  And, on the other side of the coin, perhaps the anger over Sim City's servers provided the rare situation in which there are enough "no" votes to be noticed. 

The protests may be unfair to the developers and they may be unlikely to achieve a result that satisfies the customer complaints.  Even so, I can't agree that the wrath is mis-directed.  When you deny people a say in something they are invested in, and leave things such that the only way for players to disagree is to burn down the review scores and tell everyone who will listen not to buy the product, you can't be surprised if once in a while the customers turn around and do just that. 

4 comments:

Ettesiun said...

In economy this is named the "Voice or Quit" dilemna. In any social structures, when someone is disatisfied he can only do two things : Voice it or Quit. He can also wait before doing one of these actions.
The conclusions of these studies, is that owner of these structures (be it a Company, a state, a group of friends, etc...) should always try to put in place a maximum of Voice solutions, as the Quit does not give a lot of information, and is not sustainable in long term.

Michael said...

One thing is that a lot of the no-votes are from people the developers genuinely don't want to listen to. Like a group of players strongly protesting against DRM because they want to be able to pirate the game for free. Not only shouldn't that group have any input into how the game is made, simply by existing they diminish the voice of legitimate customers who also don't like DRM.

Also, if I don't like a game feature, and I vote with my money and stop buying the product or decline to buy it in the first place, what then? Say I go online and make a big fuss about it, post youtube videos of why this or that feature is bad, write letters to the company and harass developers on twitter and all those things people do. Following my suggestions might (maybe) make the game more enjoyable (for me). But that's not necessarily the best choice. Games that are better (for me) are not necessarily the most successful in terms of profit, and the company wants profit more than my praise.

People don't say why they declined to make a purchase, but they also don't say why they actually did make the purchase. If some number of people quit their subscriptions to some game because of whatever, it's quite possible twice as many people retained their subscriptions entirely because of that feature. If not purchasing is quiet, surely not unsubscribing is even quieter?

Wilhelm Arcturus said...

@Michael - "One thing is that a lot of the no-votes are from people the developers genuinely don't want to listen to. Like a group of players strongly protesting against DRM because they want to be able to pirate the game for free. Not only shouldn't that group have any input into how the game is made, simply by existing they diminish the voice of legitimate customers who also don't like DRM."

How do you distinguish the two groups? Are there actually people out there complaining about DRM and expressly saying it is because it will hurt their chances to pirate a game? I have personally never seen such a thing.

As far as I can tell, over the last 30 years I have been buying and playing PC games, the pirates generally view DRM as a challenge. The DRM on new games is generally cracked and the game up on pirate sites within days, if not hours.

That is, of course, the main argument against DRM. It doesn't deter piracy, except for the casual inept pirate, while harming the experience of paying customers.

tremayneslaw said...

Not spending money is not voting with your wallet. At best, it's abstaining with your wallet. To vote with your wallet, you go and spend your money with a competitor instead. When a company notices their competitors getting more business, that has more impact than some guy saying "I was going to give you some business, honest, but you don't deserve it so I won't". By actually giving business to the competitor, it makes the first company ask "what is our competitor doing that we aren't?"

Oh, and Wilhelm - I think you underestimate the number of vocal casual, inept pirates out there :)