Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Paradox of Generosity

An odd quirk of the non-subscription business model is that generosity can make paying for the product less attractive.  The more stuff you give away for free, the less stuff you have left to sell people.

Case in point, Marvel Heroes has possibly the most generous model I've seen in a recent online game.  All the content in the game is free, there's a decent selection of free starting heroes (see Yngwe's guide for details), the developers have repeatedly cut prices on the paid heroes, and changes since the game's launch allow players to unlock all of the playable heroes through gameplay. 

I've gotten way more mileage and enjoyment out of an optional $20 unlock purchase for this game than I did out of the $60 copy of Diablo III that I paid for as part of WoW's annual pass deal.  It feels ungrateful to complain about whatever prices they want to charge for whatever else they want to.  But when I look at what they're selling I can't help but look at the prices and feel that the benefit of paying is lower than the benefit of paying in other products that have less generous models. 

The purely optional cosmetic costumes are pricey (comparable to League of Legends - in both titles, these cosmetics cost significantly more than the characters who can use them).  There are storage issues - in particular caused by the dozen different types of relics - that you can alleviate with modest amounts of real money.  Like most other games, the cash store currency is only sold in $5 increments and almost nothing is on sale for even amounts - they're actually adding a free 250G grant to all accounts this week which is just below the price of the lowest unlock (crafting storage) that offers any real in-game benefit.  Overall, the prices are comparatively low, but so is the benefit of paying them. 

As multiple commenters pointed out last week, players who are not paying can still contribute significant value to the game's community.  Meanwhile, freeloader or not, you cannot sell anything in the future to people who aren't playing the game at all.  I just find it all counter-intuitive coming out of a subscription era, when purchasing decisions were strictly business - the product either was or was not worth continuing to play and you paid or did not accordingly.  Knowing that something is for the most part optional and paying for it anyway to support the product?  Strange new world we're living in.


Stabs said...

I think it's very much a design that favours the strong. Once a game is clearly massive, like Hearthstone or LOL it's worth paying to differentiate yourself from every random player because a lot of people will be audience for your flashy cosmetic outfit.

But if a game is F2P and struggling then people will freeload while waiting to see if it picks up. (They rarely pick up).

Anonymous said...

"Meanwhile, freeloader or not, you cannot sell anything in the future to people who aren't playing the game at all."

I think that is the crux of the matter. Keep people playing, and you will maintain a solid base of people who may buy something. Keep barriers to entry low, and something might pique their interest to get them to come back and spend money.

I have been having an internal debate lately. I know I want to get Gambit (releasing tomorrow), and I have enough cash shop currency and almost enough in-game currency to pick him up. At the same time, I want both costumes for him, and I know there are heroes that will be released shortly that I am interested in. So, do I buy the pack and save my bank of currency for things down the line, or spend my currency bank on him. For some reason, your post inspired me to drop the $16 on the pack, even though it is not a great deal. Gazillion's generosity tapped my generosity, I guess.

Also, thanks for the link. :)

Green Armadillo said...

@Stabs: The value of owning whatever is going to be less if the game isn't fun or looks like it's doing so poorly that it might shut down. It's also possible that the folks at Marvel are able to loosen the purse strings on your entry level purchases (heroes) because they feel they know how much money they're bringing in from the other stuff. I'm going to to explore your idea about cosmetics separately because I find it interesting.

@Yngwe: I'm somewhat inclined to use my splinters on random boxes so that I get some characters that I would not otherwise purchase (the odds are still good at my current roster size) and pay cash for characters I want. At these prices I don't feel compelled to play a character I don't want to be playing just to earn more splinters ($0.0225 each).

Pre-ordering the pack is actually a good deal if (and ONLY if) you were prepared to pay cash for the costume - you got a 900G hero and a 950G costume for $16 so you're already doing better than dollar for dollar without counting the misc stuff that you may or may not have needed. The only risk you run is if there is a sale between now and when you actually start playing Gambit, but I suspect they'll be cautious about the most recent heroes when Black Friday rolls around.

(Aside: I guess I'm glad I own Cyclops' stash tab from my founder's pack, but only because I'm waiting on a sale before I pay for a crafting stash. I make a point of pitching my used bound gear as I outlevel it so I'm not clear on why I need that much hero-specific storage.)

Anonymous said...

One upside for the character-specific stash is in the event that you decide to prestige your character (reduce him to level one to relevel). If you get a low-level unique or great piece of gear, you can store it in their for the eventual possibility that it could be used in releveling.

TBH, I will probably never prestige a hero, and did not even think of that use until now.

It may be more useful, however, to drop low-level uniques in there, because there is a crafter recipe that allow you to upgrade them to level 60.

Green Armadillo said...

I think it also depends on how many heroes you have and plan to use. I picked up the X-Force bundle on Black Friday special, and I can imagine playing many of those characters eventually. Having the space makes it easier to decide to keep at least a few choice items, which I'd have no choice but to pitch if I had to store them in general stash space. Also, team insignia can go in any stash for any character who has been on that team and remain unbound until equipped.