Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lessons From Facebook Scams

Here's an excerpt from "How To Spam Facebook Like A Pro: An Insider’s Confession":
People on Facebook won’t pay for anything. They don’t have credit cards, they don’t want credit cards, and they are not interested in shopping. But you can trick them into doing one of three things:

[scams 1 and 2 deleted for space]

Give up their phone number: You took the IQ Quiz, so give us your phone number and we’ll tell you your score. Never mind that you’ll get billed $20 a month or perhaps be tricked into inviting 10 other friends to beat your score.

Last week, Tech Crunch managed to call some attention to these sorts of scams being run on free-to-play item-store games on Facebook. Players thought they were taking some survey in exchange for item shop currency on Farmville or Mafia Wars, and wound up with massive cell phone bills. Everyone responsible is very sorry that they got caught, which means that we're nigh certain to hear about something similar in a few months.

The lesson in this tale is that, if you are using a professional quality product, whether it's a game or anything else, and you are not paying for it, someone else is.

Many players, myself included, will grudgingly say that we're okay with microtransactions as long as those transactions are limited to cosmetic items. The problem with this approach is that it's effectively a vote for "if you guys really feel that you need more money, you should charge someone else". You'd think that everyone would have largely the same opinion, but it turns out that there is a group that's happy to be charged more, if it means that they can get a greater variety of high quality cosmetic items.

Should we really be surprised that games that add item stores end up adding more and more items that get closer and closer to the nebulous line of having "too much" effect on gameplay?


  1. Where's the boundary of "too much effect on gameplay", though? Let's be honest here, some people don't want microtransactions to have any gameplay effect because they want to be cheap and play the game without having to pay. (Not including you here, just pointing out what some people have told me.) Trying to sell only cosmetic items means that only the highly social players are going to likely fork over cash, plus maybe some kind-hearted folks that realize that game developers have to eat, too. This means we're left with the WoW pet store as the best way to monetize players.

    As I've said before, the beauty of a well-design free to play game is that it can attract more people to the game that might not want to fork over cash to buy a box and then pay a subscription. A lot of people are giving DDO a pass, but the nice bit is that the model DDO uses allowed them to try out the game for free to find that out. Not like some other games where people pre-purchased 6 month subscriptions and are now regretting it.

    Ultimately you are right: someone's gotta pay. I think we have to be realistic about how a non-subscription model is going to be like, though. Subscriptions just don't work for smaller games like Meridian 59 despite having a dedicated core of fans. So, what reasonable business models can we have?

    Personally, I think Puzzle Pirates has the best example of a model that works. The purchased currency is used for access to the game, not direct sales that make you stronger. There's a currency exchange where you can buy and sell the purchased currency for in-game currency; this means that people who earn a lot of in-game money can get the purchased currency without spending money if they want. Alternatively, people who buy currency can get in-game currency without causing inflationary problems. It's a really different business model than subscriptions, but it works well for a smaller game. But, it can have an effect on how you play the game.

    So, back to my original question: where is the "too much" line? I'm genuinely interested to hear opinions here.

  2. "Let's be honest here, some people don't want microtransactions to have any gameplay effect because they want to be cheap and play the game without having to pay. (Not including you here, just pointing out what some people have told me.)"

    You don't have to exclude me, I basically said as much in my post. There is a small population that is serious about pet collecting, but many people think of minipets and outfits as "okay" for microtransactions at least in part because they themselves have an easy time saying that they're never going to pay for such items. My point, which may not have been clear enough, is that the non-microtransaction crowd may be inadvertently diminishing our own vote by pushing developers to cater to the pet collectors, because they're the only ones willing to spend more on the game.

    I think the "too much" question, like "what's the best class/spec", depends heavily on the context. I think it will be hard for a game where raid loot is the pinnacle of in-game incentive content to justify selling that loot directly in a cash store. Balancing the game assuming the use of cash store consumables might sound egalitarian on paper (no more casual subsidizing the hardcore, you pay for the amount of time you spend playing), but the social problems from having a financial incentive NOT to use consumables could get ugly.

  3. I am still not a fan of RMT or microtransactions. I understand that smaller games may need to have these systems in place to make up for a lack of subscription revenue. However, I do not approve of a large and successful game such as WoW employing such a system. They already make more money than they can efficiently spend on the game's development.

    This is nothing more than an attempt to appease shareholders who must always receive more than the previous year, no matter how big the profit is.

    I apologize for straying off topic, but we've seen this money grab happen already with the decision to make Starcraft II a three-part saga. It is a standard marketing strategy to spread out the income revenue. In the past, Blizzard would have simply pushed the release date back.

    Their next MMO will be both an awesome success and grave tragedy. They will have RMT/micro. built-in from the beginning.

    To put things into some context, Evony is a browser game with RMT. They have "deals" for players who spend up to $90 or more in a single month...for a browser game...

  4. Green Armadillo wrote:
    You don't have to exclude me, I basically said as much in my post.

    I thought your position was a bit more nuanced than that. Obviously, most people are happier to get more stuff for less cost. But, at some point you have to understand that developers gotta eat. And, if people will only support a business model where the bigger games are preferable, then the state of affairs will only get worse before it gets better.


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