Sunday, February 9, 2014

To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance

When it comes to the era of non-subscription MMO's, I'm more worried about monetizing nuisance than so-called "pay to win".  The game either is or is not fun on its own merits, and for me personally it doesn't matter whether someone else is able to pay to get out of it.  By contrast, non-subscription titles are far more likely to create inconveniences and nuisances and charge to alleviate these problems.  This approach bothers me because it affects the quality of the game experience even if I am willing to pay the fees.

Case in point is Marvel Heroes' new "runeword" system.  Largely copied from Diablo II, the idea is to collect random runes and enhance gear with them.  The issue is where to store these items.  DII implemented a total of 33 Runes during its run, but Marvel Heroes has chosen to launch their system with 38 runes and plans for "dozens" more in the future.  Runes stack with other like runes (though this prevents you from dropping them on the ground to trade with other players - supposedly to be fixed in a patch later this month) but that doesn't do you much good once you've got 72+ different types of runes to stack. 

The money in the system then, is in selling players crafting storage tabs in which to place all this new clutter.  The price tag is for the most part reasonable - roughly $3 buys you a crafting stash tab that should solve your problem for the foreseeable future.  From a rational perspective, unless you intend to just donate all of the runes to vendors for exp and credits (not a horrible idea in the short term for all but the rarest of runes), it's a no-brainer of a purchase.  No doubt the developers sold a bunch of these things this weekend.  And that's what concerns me. 

The metrics are going to say clearly come Monday morning that adding over three dozen drops to the game dramatically increased their revenue on crafting storage tabs.  By making this purchase - a purchase that is well within my means - I'm sending a message that every patch should add another several dozen drops (I'm not making that number up, the FAQ on the feature says that "dozens" plural of new stones are planned) and rewarding the developers for a decision that in my view adds clutter without adding fun or interesting gameplay. 

The subscription MMO era was not without its dirty little secrets - the whole daily quest system was invented to make repeatable content take more real world days and thus more real world subscription dollars.  Even so, I'd suggest that having a single payment model enforced a constraint that the game in its one pay-or-not state had to be fun.  The monetary reward for doing something obnoxious - say, adding dozens of additional runes in the future rather than new recipes that use the existing runes - was less direct.  With the new model, you can pay to store the stuff but there's no way to pay not to have dozens of items that are designed to be stored cluttering your inventory with each new patch. 


Bhagpuss said...

This is the side of F2P that bothers me too. Unfortunately I think it's the way the market is going. As time goes on I think I like the hybrid model best, the one where the developers would really rather you subscribed but will somewhat grudgingly let you play even if you don't.

In a good version of that model subscribers would get automatic storage for all those Runes at no extra cost so long as they remained subscribed. Free players would then have the choice of paying to remove the inconvenience piecemeal or subbing to remove it completely.

Does Marvel Heroes have a sub option? And if so, does it let you avoid stuff like this?

Stabs said...

Sometimes there are workarounds. In EQ2 guilds get storage so when that went F2P I set up a personal guild to store items in. I also set up numerous alts called things like Tier1Harvests purely for storage.

That's another downside of this monetisation approach that people will work around it. So what should the games company do? Ban its customers?

Helistar said...

As much as there are workarounds, it's really nothing new or unexpected. LotRO was doing this well before anyone else with billions of rep items, and when they added the solution (the wallet), you had to pay for it.....

BTW I stay on the subscription side :) sure it may push developers to drag things on longer, but at least I know that my monthly expense is 12E, end of story.

mindofyngwe said...

My big STASH issue was Artifact hoarding. I cleaned house last night, and now I find out that Runes go in crafting tabs! Oh well, something I needed to do anyway.

So far, Runes have dropped very rarely for me (one in about 4 hours). At this rate, I don't see a huge amount of clutter happening, as I will be using as many of them in recipes as I can. I do need to check out X-Def, as I hear the drop rates are much higher there.

For the record, I have four general tabs, and three crafting tabs, all purchased pre-2.2. I refuse to buy any more.

Psychochild said...

I think people are too quick to assume the worst with free-to-play. There are good reasons for that, but I'm failing to see how this Marvel Heroes example is so terrible.

Consider this: what would happen if they had introduced the "runewords" system, but had charged $3 before you even got drops. Would you feel the same way? Well, people probably would have complained about it being "pay to win", but it might have been viewed as "paying for content".

In this context, what the developers did was add a new system to the game and then give everyone a free, functioning sample. You can get the runeword drops, but if you want to fully use the system and save up all the various runes, you have to pay $3. As the post points out, if you don't want to use the system you can at least turn the drops in for a bit of a reward for what you want.

Have we really gotten to the point that any charge is seen as profiteering? Isn't this supposed to be what free-to-play is about? Where the developers add content and players pay for that content if they want to use it?

Green Armadillo said...

@Bhagpuss: There is no subscription status. There are bundles you can purchase that combine heroes with storage for that hero's gear, but no account level differences. In fairness, I've always had some misgivings about the hybrid approach as well since it seems tough to strike a balance where the sub is truly optional (rather than mandatory or useless).

@Yngwe: Artifacts I've been doing okay with pitching, in part because they're worth a good chunk of crafter exp. Cosmics and uniques for characters I don't have stash tabs for are problematic, since we've been told to save all of these for Starktech. Then there are all the retcons and boosts from drops, quest rewards, cube shard fortune cards, Advance Pack fortune cards, etc.

I own one crafting tab (full), the free general tab, and a bunch of hero tabs from packs. (Aside: Uru items and unbound runeword Uru items go in any hero's stash, like any-hero uniques, rings, and insignia that hero can wear). If I do expand on my storage, I will probably go with another general tab. Because I'm chaining alts rather than doing endgame, most of the rune bonuses I would want can be immediately applied to that character's gear. I guess I should probably save the uber valuable top end runes, but if I'm not collecting all 38 then there's no reason why a few can't go in a new general tab with my other inventory.

@Psychochild: I would not have complained about a $3 buy-in for the system, and I would have happily declined to purchase it. As an optional add-on, it's really only relevant to end-game folks. I strongly suspect that they will sell more storage slots by having the things drop and counting on people wanting to retain stuff that is considered desirable when they run out of inventory than they would have sold unlocks for the rune system.

Your last comment touches on what may be a better expression of my point. Very few games in the MMO space are actually in the business of straight forward a la carte content sales. Turbine's games are, with the caveat that Helistar notes that they've also been monetizing inventory and grind reduction since their relaunches. TSW is doing something similar with its post-relaunch paid DLC. Both studios have optional subscription hybrid models, and both face legitimate questions about how they're doing of late. Rather than having players pay if they want to use content, most "free to play" games are giving away all of the content and making all of their money on improving the experience.

Psychochild said...

@Green Armadillo - LotRO is hard to discuss in this context because it started out as a subscription game, and there were obstacles intentionally added to the game when it went free-to-play. The limited inventory space was created to create a pain point if you don't pay. (I think DDO does this better, because as far as I know they didn't really take many mechanics away for free-to-play, they just made you buy some of the content you can still get for free by subscribing.)

But back to the example you give in your post, what you're describing is a free sample. Do you think the people at the grocery store handing out nibbles are doing it because you look a bit hungry? No, they're giving out samples hoping you'll buy the product. Same thing here. You get samples of the runewords and you can use them, but if you want to optimize you have to pay. Seems fair to me.

How is this different than the wallet in LotRO? Because the currencies were part of the game to start with. They added the wallet to gloss over a flaw in the design, and then continued with that flawed design by introducing more currencies. The currency is given by the game as a reward, not as a bonus.

But, the runewords sound like a bonus. You can save a few rare ones, or you can sell them off. So, the way you describe them makes it sound more like an additional system added to give the game more stuff to do.

So, are you really complaining about them adding content and giving away free samples of the content? Because that's what you're doing to my point of view.

Electrolux said...

Bakeries have never grabbed me around the neck and violently forced a 'free' sample of Cheese and Onion Roll down my throat. And for good reason, it's criminal. I hate Cheese and Onion Roll. If the only alternative to being force-fed 'free' Cheese and Onion Rolls is to make a one-off payment of 1 cent then I'm going to pay you and resent you bitterly.

P2P is an excellent opportunity to allow gamers to get to the stuff they love without annoying them with stuff they don't. Sub games can't do this.

They can miss the opportunity if they like. Indignation tastes great when served in a rich money gravy.

Electrolux said...

*sigh* meant F2P is an excellent opportunity etc etc

Green Armadillo said...

@psychochild: Using DDO as an example we both know, if they started dropping adventure guest passes I would see that as free samples. It could incidentally clutter inventory if you got passes you couldn't use yet, but the biggest effect would be showing off new content for sale.

MH runes are purely random world drops (one rune is more likely to drop per day as per the Norse calendar, but that is the only modifier). If you had to fight Dr. Octopus on Tuesday for an Octopus rune, that would be content because people would look for groups on Tuesday. With no way to influence the drops, it is a stretch to call it content. You play the game normally, stuff piles up in your bags and maybe someday it is useful (or you vendor it if your playstyle permits).

Also, for context, inventory management is a large pain point already in the MH experience, even for people who own all the available storage. This makes being handed something potentially of value and being told you can pitch it if you don't want it a bit more of a sore point than in most games.

mindofyngwe said...

Just read on Doomsaw's AMA that we will be getting 20 extra gear slots in an upcoming patch, and that Team Up heroes (essentially combat pets skinned as heroes) will come with bag space.

Also, in the patch notes, they are tuning down Rune drops in X-Defense, which is the only place they dropped with high frequency.

Combining those two points, I think the Rune system is only going to be taxing the bag space in the short term of the people who play this game like a second job.

Green Armadillo said...

@Yngwe: The drop rate in X-Defense was supposedly nerfed (I didn't actually do any farming there), but the second half of that change was that the rate was intended to be higher everywhere else and is now fixed. I trashed about six of the things this evening, compared to three total that had dropped before the fix.

The news on inventory 6-8 weeks from now is good, with the cynical caveat that people who are going to buy more tabs to deal with runes will probably have done so by then. Last I heard, the 20 slots (which are free) are coming with Dr. Strange at the end of March. Inventory associated with Team-Up heroes (previously discussed around the time of Cap 2) is a completely new detail from today's Q+A - thank you Torchlight I suppose? :) Note that Doomsaw also confirmed that the default method for getting Team-ups will be G's and Splinters.

Personally, my approach remains roughly the same - I'll probably hold onto the very rarest tier, the two runes for the +exp runeword (that we all got a free sample of, and that I'll immediately attach to level 25 Uru items as I get them) and the rune for SIF% (if I can't just stick it directly on gear, doesn't seem to work at the level listed in the compendium). The rest are going to various NPC's (level 18 crafter, level 7 enchanter cause why not).

They are saying on the forums that specific runes may drop more commonly off of specific bosses or content in the future. That would go a long way toward making this an interesting incentive rather than just an inventory hog.

Psychochild said...

I'm late in responding, I know. I didn't even move across an ocean.

Green Armadillo wrote:
"Using DDO as an example we both know, if they started dropping adventure guest passes I would see that as free samples. It could incidentally clutter inventory if you got passes you couldn't use yet, but the biggest effect would be showing off new content for sale."

And, if the free passes were cluttering up my inventory, I'd destroy them. Is there some reason you can't discard the runewords in Marvel Heroes?

I guess I really don't understand this "help! They're forcing this free sample on me!" attitude given that it seems that there are ways to benefit form the system even if you don't have the inventory to store it all. Or, you should at least be able to destroy the items in your inventory if you truly can't be bothered to claim the benefit.

Green Armadillo said...

@Psychochild: You are absolutely correct that you can vendor the stuff for marginal but non-zero benefit (which I'm doing). You can also drop/destroy it. (Theoretically you can decline to pick it up in the first place, but in practical terms this is an ARPG and the pile of loot generally doesn't scatter well enough to prevent you from misclicking on something.)

That said, even moreso than a normal MMO, the point of an ARPG is to kill mobs and loot their stuff. No one is "forcing" anyone to retain any rare drops that are intended to be used for stat bonuses. When raid encounters are tuned, you can do without that stat bonus in the same way that generally games don't automatically kill characters for not wearing pants. That's why I describe this situation as a "nuisance" that creates financial incentives for game design I disagree with (i.e. add dozens of junk drops every patch), rather than calling it something intolerable, unacceptable, etc.

As an aside, the game's creative director has acknowledged the large number of complaints about inventory since Runes were added to the game. (My test for whether something is a real issue is whether people who are in game are prepared to spend time complaining about it instead of playing the game. There will always be complaints about everything on the forums, but the ones that people are talking about in non-public channels in games are the ones that are much more likely to get reversed.) He's now emphasizing previously announced plans to add more storage (some free) in roughly two months. My view of this entire game system might have been different if it hadn't felt like the portion of the system that eats large amounts of your storage went live now with all the fun and quality of life aspects of the system saved for later patches.

Psychochild said...

Yeah, the fact that people complain about something doesn't mean it's bad. There will be people who complain about every change. Going to DDO, people complained about the revamp of the enhancement system, even though it allowed for clearer presentation, for more options that weren't allowed before, and a greater viable variety of character builds.

But, to listen to the chat channels for a while afterwards you'd swear it was the end of the world. The reality is that the people who liked to do a TR each week hated that they had to learn a new system.

The problem I see here is that we have increasingly byzantine requirements for the free-to-play game. People don't want "pay to win" for obviously reasons, but they don't want too much customization otherwise it becomes an "eyesore", and really expensive items like monocles are to be hated, and.... Well, you get the point.

So, here's my challenge (and, I'd love to see this as a separate post): Start with the assumption that a developer thinks the runewords system is a good addition to the game, but the boss says that they need to make money for it. How would you implement a business model for the runewords that feels fair to you?

I will, of course, absolutely and gleefully pick it apart for you. ;)

Green Armadillo said...

I will definitely consider the challenge, but my gut feeling is that there is no alternative. The devs aren't charging for content and this type of system would sell poorly as an optional add-on anyway. I don't see any obvious knobs besides player inventory in the current business model that could be used to monetize this system.

This circles back circle to the bottom line of my original post two weeks ago. The subscription model was not perfect, but I feel it was more accommodating for systems that improve the quality of the game experience without a direct, obvious tie back to something that can be monetized. Marvel Heroes sells new heroes, cosmetic costumes, and storage space. If a new game system does not drive sales of one or more of these, it is going to be hard to justify under the business model.

Psychochild said...

I think the real problem is that (rightfully in the case of some companies), people are too suspicious about the behavior of companies. They suspect there's a trick to anything sold.

As I said, I think it's mostly perception. You can think of it as "they're giving me crap and then gouging me for space!" or you can think of it "they're giving me stuff and I need to buy space to hold it." or you can say, "this is a free sample of the new system, but I have to pay to really use it to the full extent." It depends on how charitable you want to be about the developers' actions.

As I've said before, I like the free-to-play model for games as a player because I have more control over what I feel required to spend. Again, you can look at the subscription model in multiple ways: you might see it "accommodating for systems that improve the quality of the game experience without a direct, obvious tie back to something that can be monetized", but I see it as holding my characters hostage until I pay up for the month. I usually prefer the option to pay what I want for what I really want to use.

I look forward to that future post. :)