Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today

Bioshock 2 received it’s first downloadable content recently, and some gamers were a bit miffed to discover that all they were actually downloading was a small file that unlocks content already on the game disc. I don’t really see how this is different, except in timing, to “launch day DLC” which seems to be becoming more common, such as in recent Bioware titles; in both cases obviously there’s content that *could* have been part of the game itself, but has been split out as DLC to make a bit more money or reduce the appeal of second hand sales (or both). That the “content” itself is already on the main game disc does rub it in slightly, but it’s hardly news that games companies are out to make money. While flipping through old computer magazines I’d found a feature in PC Zone from 1993 looking at game expansions, data disks, and “deluxe versions”, the DLC of their day, which ranged from being worthwhile and involving extensions to rushed-out cash-ins.

Without getting too mired in a socio-economic debate on the nature of capitalism and the benefits of running a games company as an anarcho-syndicalist commune with a rotating executive officer whose decisions are ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of downloadable content but by a two-thirds majority in the case of expansions and sequels, I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that there’s an inherent tension between the desire of a games developer to offer the most magnificent, involving and splendid experience possible to humanity, and the desire of a publisher/executive to roll around in a swimming pool filled with dollar bills and five pound notes rubbing them all over those Special Places. Any time I think it might be slightly harsh to characterise CEOs as moustache-twiddling villains who’d put Mr Burns to shame, you can pretty much rely on that zany funster Bobby Kotick to come out with a line like “of course I want to make a new game peripheral that sucks the marrow out of your very bones and pipes it to a massive central vat from where we can sell it to a dog food company, muahahahahaha! Ha! Ho!”

(The KiaSA Legal Team wish to make it perfectly clear that this is a purely hypothetical statement which Mr Kotick has definitely not made.)


(We’re pretty sure he’s thinking it, though.)

As blockbuster games become more and more complex, requiring larger teams, it’s inevitable that the companies making them also grow, necessitating the business structures around them. The indie scene at least provides something of a counterpoint, with options like XBLA and Flash games offering avenues for smaller teams down to the archetypal “bedroom coder”. For MMOGs, though, the inherent need for infrastructure makes life a bit more difficult; World of Goo was largely created in San Francisco coffee shops on free WiFi, and I’m not sure MMOG players would be appreciative of a server downtime message like “Shop owner a bit cross about us taking up a table all day, the game will be unavailable until we order another couple of lattes and some muffins.”

An obvious example of the tension of profit vs player experience in MMOGs is “free to play” games with cash shops; the publisher wants to make lots of lovely money by selling stuff from the cash shop, so they tell the developer to encourage players to buy items. Make the player travel vast distances, with faster mounts or teleportation options available for cash; make it take forever to gain levels, with XP-boost potions available for cash; make the freely available armour look like a couple of dustbin lids strapped together with the entrails of a boar, with the nice looking stuff available for cash. For this reason, some gamers are vehemently opposed to MMOGs with cash shops, and I can certainly see their point, but as I blogged about with the whole Allods business I don’t think it’s a reason to dismiss all free to play games out of hand. If market forces are working, the pressure to screw every last penny from the player should be counteracted by what players are willing to pay, it’s not like MMOGs are a fundamental requirement for day-to-day life after all, and competitors seeing an opportunity to offer a superior or cheaper product.

What I find slightly puzzling is that some people who are dead-set opposed to free-to-play/cash shop games embrace and indeed champion a game with an initial box purchase and flat rate monthly subscription, as if somehow the Evil Money Grabbing Publisher of a F2P game becomes a benevolent altruist striving for nothing more than the absolute happiness of every player if you give ’em ten quid a month. To keep the money coming in you need to keep the player subscribed, and as per Nick Yee’s classic Virtual Skinner Box essay it’s not too hard to see that in terms of Operant Conditioning rather than Happy Experience Lovely Games For Everyone. With Fun Bobby Kotick in charge, I’m sure he’d fire a few people at Blizzard and introduce a cash shop in WoW if he thought it would make more money, but with a 50% operating margin there’s really no need. They’re still in it for the money, though it might not be quite so obvious in the design.

The payment model can influence elements of a game to a greater or lesser extent, at the end of the day it’s the game itself that matters, whether you like it enough to want to play and potentially pay. Is Grindfest Online a better game when you pay £10 per month to play and have to kill 10,000 Gribblings to level up, or where you can play for free, need to kill 100,000 Gribblings to level up, but you can pay £1 for a potion for a 10x XP boost that lasts for three days? As per my previous post, in defence of cash shops I call Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited, m’lud. This might be something of a special case, not having been designed as a free to play game from the beginning, but I’m still finding it really well pitched, having desirable but not essential items available in the shop to balance making Turbine enough money to be worthwhile, but costing me less than the $15/month it would be for a subscription as I dip in and out, generally playing once a week. Mixed price models, especially when including a subscription to effectively apply an upper limit to costs, can be a good thing. Rage against greed and bad design by all means, but only a lunatic would dismiss cash shops out of hand and demand to pay a greater subscription as the only way of getting a better game.

4 thoughts on “Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today

  1. Klepsacovic

    It is worth considering the incentive structure for the developer. Who are they catering to? With F2P and a store, they don’t need the masses, only the few who buy, and so the unpaying masses aren’t as likely to get a good game experience. I’m not saying this is wrong, since there’s only so much we can expect to get for free in this world, but the free part of F2P has its limits. And of course if it’s a good game, it’s a good game, regardless of the process which created it.

  2. Zoso Post author

    Yeah, that’s a good point; “free to play” is a convenient shorthand, but there’s a lot of models; totally free to download and play with cash shop (Allods), box price but no (or optional) subscription, with or without cash shop (Guild Wars, original Hellgate: London model), free to download and play to certain point then sub needed (“endless free trial” like WAR), etc etc. And within those models you can target different groups, try and make a bit of money from as many as possible, or a more money from a smaller number of people.

    The “free” bit is definitely a double edged sword, no initial cost absolutely lowers barrier to entry, but perhaps sets a false expectation, as you say, there’s only so much you can get for free. I think that’s another area where DDO is better using the term “Unlimited”, rather than slapping “FREE!1!!” everywhere just to get people through the door. I posited “Pay Different Amounts Possibly Including Nothing to Play Various Aspects” as a better term than F2P to set expectations, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on…

  3. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    You hit upon the truth: games are a business. At the end of the day, I want to eat, live indoors, and maybe someday have some savings put away for when I hit old age. (I’ve lived a bohemian existence for the past several years, but I can’t do that forever.) As much as people might like to pretend that there’s a way to keep gaming “pure” of commercial interest, that’s just delusional.

    As I’ve written before, there’s nothing keeping subscriptions the way they are. Blizzard could start charging $30/month for a subscription and I’ll bet a year’s wages that they would make even more money; 3DO did with M59 when they changed their business model before I stated working on it. What stops them? As you said, market forces and ego; developer epeen is based upon number of users. This is why Farmville gets so much attention even though it makes a lot less money than WoW does according to various sources.

    In the end, I think the industry needs more business models. I just couldn’t keep M59 going as a commercial concern under subscriptions. Unless all you want to see is big-budget WoW clones that shoot for the stars (and usually fail to gain WoW-sized numbers), then we need other business models.

  4. Tesh

    DDO, W101 and GW use the “buy content” Subscriptionless method (which needs a catchier name), and Allods and RoM use the Item Shop method. Puzzle Pirates uses a modified Item Shop, with an internal dual currency model with an in-game blind bid currency exchange (which is brilliant and far too rare). Interestingly, DDO, PP and W101 offer subscription options. Give players options, and they will lean to the payment schedule they prefer.

    The trick is keeping them all in the same game, since the business models pull in different directions. DDO and W101 seem to handle it fairly well, but their design supports it. WoW would have a hard time with a split model (though I still think they could and should offer older “expansions”, including Vanilla WoW, as boxed games with no sub, like GW), and heavy Item Shop games like Allods or RoM would take some tuning.

    I’m a strong proponent of the GW model, since I consider the sub model and the Item Shop model as much more susceptible to grind, which translates directly to money for the devs. That’s just not a good temptation, especially with Kotickites at the helm (“‘Ticks” for short?). To my mind, the GW model has to rely on the strength of the game itself (or the sequels) to move product and earn money rather than on perpetual revenue streams and their underlying abusive design. That makes for better products, methinketh. Perhaps GW2 will add fuel to the fire.

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