Free to pay to play to win

I believe Oscar Wilde was talking about EVE when he said “Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching, ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling, wanna make the world dance, forget about the price tag”. Actually, on reflection I’m not sure Wilde would have tried to rhyme “dance” with “tag”, maybe it was Mark Twain, but the sentiment[1] seems quite popular amongst many EVE players at the moment thanks to what Spinks rather splendidly (and definitively) titles Monocalypse Now.

Though the high price cosmetic items are drawing the headlines, more of a worry for the unmonocled mutineers is that they represent the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge ($68 is hardly “micro”), not unreasonably in the face of a leaked internal memo/newsletter that says “high price cosmetic items are the thin end of a macrotransaction wedge!” (that’s paraphrased, but not a massive amount from extracts like “we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time”). The possibility of more directly gameplay-affecting items going on sale in the future raises the dread spectre of “pay to win”, a phrase being bandied around a lot recently in connection with games moving to free to play models. How do you “win” a MMOG, though? By completing all the content? By making all numbers as big as possible? Getting the best virtual loot? Acquiring virtual currency? Wearing a monocle? Having a good time with friends? It’s a bit more obvious in direct PvP, of course, but between one or more of character skills, player skills, levels, gear, class balance and/or numbers on each side MMOGs are seldom level playing fields at the best of times. World of Tanks seems to be striking a decent balance at the moment, in pick-up battles at least where premium ammunition offers a marginal advantage for high cost (perhaps it’s a different story and becomes more mandatory in clan battles, though they sound pretty exclusive already).

EVE is particularly interesting as it’s featured Real Money Trading (RMT) for a few years in form of the Pilot Licence EXtension (PLEX). PLEX are bought for cash and can be exchanged for 30 days playing time, but they exist as items within the game that can be bought and sold for game currency (ISK). A wealthy industrialist, successful pirate or efficient NPC-hunter can earn enough ISK to buy the PLEX to play for free, a time-strapped cash-rich player can buy PLEX and sell them for ISK to fund in-game adventure. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention but I can’t remember massive outcry when they were first introduced, and I’ve never seen EVE classed as a free to play game though you could theoretically start with a free trial account, buy PLEX, and never need to pay cash to play (granted you’d need to scrape together the hundreds of millions of ISK for the PLEX during the trial, starting from scratch with no skill points, but hey, some people like a challenge.) Course it’s been commented on, but seems largely to have escaped the wrath of the anti-RMT lobby for the most part until the Monocalypse (that’s such a great word).

Perhaps that’s partly to do with immersion. Richard Cobbett puts it well: “… online stores and their ilk, regardless of whether they sell gold, buffs or items directly, simply don’t fit in most games. They’re out-of-context elements, and much like knowing a cheat code or hyper-effective strategy, far too hard to put out of sight or out of mind. It’s two worlds colliding. I don’t like in-game purchases, because the idea of sorting out problems by effectively nipping into a parallel universe for supplies always breaks the fiction for me.” One way conversion of cash to in-game currency fits well in EVE because PLEX fit well within the game. Apart from buying PLEX for cash you’re not taken out of the game world when dealing with them (even exchanging PLEX for game time can be seen in the in-game context of a Pilot’s License, though how that works for a dread pirate scourge of authority is another matter). Such a system really needs the in-game economy to be paramount, though.

A game like Lord of the Rings Online is at a disadvantage here. The in-game economy is something of a sideshow, as befits the setting; we’re trying to save Middle Earth, not find the next Apprentice by flogging tat to Nazguls. Trying to tinker with that could lead to players industrialising the Shire, doing Saruman’s job for him, so at least the clearly out-of-game-world LotRO Store is better than a half-arsed attempt to work RMT into the game, but it is a bit jarring, especially in LotRO where the carefully recreated setting was always one of its strong points. As someone who wouldn’t be playing at all if subscription was the only option I can’t rail too hard against the presence of the store, and I think in many ways the payment model works very well, but around the edges it’s perhaps a little pushy; Brian Green gives an interesting contrast between LotRO and Turbine’s other major offering, DDO. Critics of non-subscription models may say price tags, “BUY IT NOW!” buttons and gameplay that pushes players towards making cash-shop purchases are inevitable but I’m hopeful that a balance can be struck, especially in a marketplace with numerous options such that players can vote with their feet if they feel they’re being too blatantly exploited.

The conversion from subscription-only to the “hybrid” model seems to be generally working out for Dungeons and Dragons Online, EverQuest 2, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Champions Online and Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others, with Age of Conan and City of Heroes on the way, but with the business side of things proven as Richard Cobbett says “Now they need a champion to really hammer home how they should work as actual games”. Such a champion will probably need to be designed from the ground up to balance business and game; with the oceans of subscription dominated by the Mega Shark of World of Warcraft, to be challenged by the Giant Octopus of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the hybrid games have seen the opportunities of land and are moving that way in the awkward fish-with-legs phase of evolution, a vital step, but a bit clunky. Here’s hoping that the current free to play models are more of an evolutionary step than a Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event.

[1]Not the sentiment about making the world dance, I’m reasonably certain the desire for widespread terpsichoreanism comes a distant second to the utter destruction of all foes for 97.62% of the EVE player base, more the downplaying of cosmetic elements known colloquially as “bling” and the encouragement to abandon monetary labels

12 thoughts on “Free to pay to play to win

  1. Stabs

    The industry as a whole is definitely moving towards a higher spend per player. I have to say in the past it’s been ridiculously cheap. I spend the 90s a year behind on games because that way they cost £10 instead of £40. I did spend more on Diablo 2 but I played that for 4 years giving a spend per player of just under £2 per month.

    The time to protest all this was in 1997 when Greedy Garriott had the nerve to ask people to pay £8 per month to play a game they already owned. Double dipping the customers not only were we expected to buy the box but also to pay a monthly fee.

    That’s when the line was crossed, it’s been downhill since and continues to go downhill.

    Fortunately my chess set, purchased in 1973 for 25 pence, continues to prove compatible with my fingers and as yet has introduced neither a monthly fee nor pay to win.

  2. Zoso Post author

    Difficult to pick up consistent trends, though; I mean way back I’d shovel 10p coins into arcade machines for mere minutes of fun, then with the first wave of 8-bit home computers you could get a whole game for £1.99 or £2.99 (on budget release, at least). On to PCs, and in 1988 the frankly rubbish 3 Stooges game would cost you £30, forward a few more years and the first episodes of Wolfenstein and Doom are free as Shareware. Early online gaming at home, you had to pay for your connection *and* the game by the minute, at University I had a connection to this “internet” thing and could indulge in XPilot and MUDs until someone kicked you off the terminal to actually do some work… N64 games in the mid-90s at £55, Steam sales these days giving you months of gaming for a fiver… mbp points out you can get an awful lot for not very much these days, or you can spend thousands of dollars in Entropia

    Interesting times, as Melmoth said yesterday.

  3. Gankalicious

    My World of Tanks clan has a thread up where members post what they have spent on thee ‘free game’ with $360 USD being the most I’ve seen and $50-150 being the average range (I’m at $160). They’ve either tapped in to a cash-rich (er) gamer -older, employed, history/war-buffs, or have a good business model, or likely both.

  4. Straw Fellow

    “Mega Shark of World of Warcraft, to be challenged by the Giant Octopus of Star Wars: The Old Republic”

    I like the comparison, gave me a chuckle.

    That being said, Stabs has a point in the higher cost point per player. That may simply be linked to the fact that the crowd that grew up with gaming is now over 20 and with a good bit of disposable income. World of Tanks, judging by the amount of coverage given to it by bloggers, is not exactly taking the world by storm but could be used as a good example of how the free to play model can be done well.

    I’m inclined to thing that a business that improves upon Turbine’s model would be in the best situation to be that F2P champion. City of Heroes currently is in the running for that, as it is promising to only improve upon the subscription service by doing things such as giving store credit per month and a subscription only server. I don’t think that it will be the One to Rule Them All, but the industry is getting close. The key is to use a brand that people trust.

  5. ArcherAvatar

    IMO the reason that PLEX didn’t cause the uproar that The Monocalypse has is because a) it wasn’t an abusive, out-n-out money grab, and b) because it appealed to both extremes of the money vs time scales… serving as an acceptable fulcrum for both sides. If you had time to burn but, were cash strapped then it served as an avenue for you to use the resource you had to avoid restrictions caused by a lack of the resource you don’t have, and the same was equally true for those with plenty of cash, and very little time to play.

    In contrast, this latest b.s. with the cosmetic items being priced high enough to invoke screams of bloody murder does not benefit any segment of the player population. Added to this the “leaked” information regarding P2W (pay to win) items being added (presumably at equally ridiculously high prices) and is it any wonder that nearly the entire player population is doning blue face paint and shouting declarations that would make any Rebel Leader of the insurgency proud.

    There is a fundamental economics truth underlying all of this… supply and demand. If enough folks want what you’re supplying then you can charge as high as you’d like. There will still be some folks who look at those prices and say, “too rich for my blood…” We see this in the fashion world all the time – some absurd new trend is touted by the “right people” as all the rage and before you know it, that item is priced through the roof AND selling quite nicely thank-you very much. Does that mean there aren’t some of us looking on saying, “You paid how much for THAT ?!?” of course not but, so long as there are large enough numbers of folks willing to dole out the cash then high prices can and will be demanded for the items they are supplying. This holds just as true for the video game industry as it does for the fashion industry. In both industries there are numerous examples of folks over-estimating the price point for their products, and for both industries this inevitably has a negative impact on their “brand name.”

    Will EVE online and CCP survive this rather loud faux pas? Most likely yes but, their brand name will be diminished by it considerably… as it should be – unlike in fantasy worlds, there are consequences in RL for poor decisions.

    Here’s a free tip for any developers out there; don’t charge more for 1 insubstantial “virtual” item than everyone else is charging as the box price for their WHOLE GAME! Follow this simple suggestion, and you might be able to avoid all the hue and cry that inevitably results. And to CCP specifically… there is an old saying; “Be humble, or be humiliated.” you now know more than most just how true that saying is. Clearly there were at least a few folks at the very top of their organization who needed to learn that lesson.

  6. unwize

    I can’t see why anyone would give a toss that the occasional player chooses to throw a wodge of cash at a purely cosmetic item. A fool and his money are soon parted, and in being so relieved they are contributing to the welfare of the game that everyone else is invested in. And yes, increased revenue for CCP is almost certainly a good thing with regards to EVE’s long-term prospects. Certainly better than reduced revenue, don’t you think?

  7. moonmonster

    One, who cares if they make a cosmetic item that costs $1000? You don’t have to buy it. Seriously.

    Two, anyone who thinks Eve is not already 100% ‘pay-to-win’ as it is called are deluded or slow. Today, and indeed last year, you can go in, pay real money, and come out with a shiny ship and lots of ammo. If you pay more, you can get extra ship polish and C-type shield boosters. Is that not pay to win?

    There is obviously a line where people will stop participating because excessive money presents an insurmountable game-ruining obstacle, but even the greediest cash stores haven’t come close.

  8. nugget

    The nudiustertian that Forsaken World is – at least for low level female toons – has convinced me that Pay2Win can be done very intelligently and inoffensively, while maintaining an amazing *player-regulated* control of the economy, if the initial economic ?architecture? is set up right.

    I’ve rambled on about it at length here:

    and somewhat shorter here:

    …I think folks really need to start looking more seriously at eastern studios and devs when it comes to F2P cash shop models. IMO they’re light years ahead.

  9. nugget

    OOps, realised that it needed one more link. (Sorry for being such a spambot.)

    Need to understand the triple currency system for it to all make sense.

    “PWE is also experimenting with a triple currency system – important in a F2P game – which I’ve never seen done by another studio before. It’s very impressive actually. It’s what makes FW much more interesting (and playable) to me than the other PWE games I’ve played. Basically, there’s your cash shop currency (which you can exchange for in game gold); there’s in-game gold, which can be traded between players, is gotten from a very few quests, and is limited in circulation (at this point) because the control of the creation of it is intentionally highly limited – inflation is always a killer in F2P games because money in this genre of games literally falls from the sky; and the third currency – which makes the whole thing intriguing – soul coins – which are quest reward gold that you can ONLY use on NPCs and cannot ever be traded with other players. It’s the third currency that holds all 3 together, and makes FW really playable. “

  10. SaraPickell

    If they release these pay to win items at exorbitant prices… isn’t that better!? I mean, look I pay my sub and keep getting killed by fac battleships bought off the store for 5 pence and I’m gonna be pissed. On the other hand, someone actually pays over a hundred dollars on a battleship, undocks it AND comes out to fight me knowing full well I could have an entire fleet one system out ready to take ’em down, now THAT’s a fair cop right there. It’s only really an I WIN button so long as it’s cheap. Once it passes the price point into truly rare territory it kind of stops mattering. Maybe 5$ super missles sound like a terrible game changer, but if they only ever show up in engagements on the 200 on 200 scale and up and even then aren’t that common, I doubt its really going to change much.

    Man, now more than ever I feel like resubbing and sitting around going “can I have your stuff”. This is exactly the sort of hue and cry that EVE players have been profiteering off of while laughing at their compatriots since the beginning. Hell, the Monoclegeddon guys are kind of becoming personal heroes, taking on EVE problems like oh what was that again, oh yeah, EVE PLAYERS.

  11. Zoso Post author

    @Gankalicious That is interesting; over a bit less than three months even the low-end average is more than a $15/month subscription. I suspect there’s a fair bit of front-loading with the pre-order packages and one-off premium tank purchases (especially the Tier VIIIs), I’d be curious to see the figures after six months or a year. Certainly heartening for the World of Tanks business team, more of a worry for people for whom a $15 sub is pushing it, but then your clan are a pretty hardcore crowd aren’t they? Also as you say, the older gamer/grognard market has shown they’ll spend in a niche (the $80/$100 incredibly detailed simulations/wargames that I’m sure I’ve seen people talking about, though can’t find any links to offhand).

    @Straw Fellow The model City of Heroes are adopting does look good, tweaking LotRO a bit, and they have something of an advantage in that a “Hero Store” might not be so jarring (if done well) in the already-quite-garish super-world. I’m quite looking forward to popping back.

    @Archer Avatar You know what they say, “no publicity is bad publicity”… Still, CCP are putting it to the test all right.

    @unwize I’m pretty sure Incarna and monocles alone wouldn’t have caused much fuss past some angry forum threads (and I’m not sure it’s possible to make any change to a MMOG, including fixing a typo, that doesn’t cause angry forum threads), it’s the possibility of things like ships, ammunition and faction standing being available in the store.

    @moonmonster That’s what I find particularly interesting, that in-game PLEX for the most part haven’t been attacked as “pay to win”; perhaps due to the skill system and ferocious learning curve, such that a comparatively new player (once suitably trained) who shells out $50 for a battleship is more likely to be $50 worth of scrap metal for salvage than a serious threat.

    @nugget Forsaken World is a really good example, designed from the ground up and with currency exchange built in. Something that’s occurred, though, possibly worth a post in itself is how offputting an exchange system can be to an outsider, a factor that I don’t think really helped APB. I’m sure your Eyrda leaf post makes perfect sense within the game, but knowing nothing about leaves, statuettes or Midas Touch it’s a little confusing! Most F2P games I’ve played pretty much leave you to it for five or ten levels to let you get up to speed with everything else then gradually introduce the payment system, which I think is the right way to do it, but it can lead to a worry of “bait and switch”, that all of a sudden you *have* to be buying stuff. Still, if I could just find the time I really ought to look at FW more closely…

    @SaraPickell That’s a good point. Something at a low enough price to be considered all but mandatory, especially a consumable (potions, ammunition, whatever) is, I think, more insidious than an unashamed “yeah, this is a $100 gold-plated battleship, so what?” I think it’d be really interesting to see what would happen in EVE, I bet Hulkageddon would pale next to Premium-ship-ageddon (so long as someone came up with a catchier name for it), especially if some rich and slightly mad oligarch-type got in on the action.

  12. nugget

    Ohs! About the leaves. Actually in terms of in-game introduction it’s EXTREMELY friendly.

    There’s an NPC shouting in the cities that he’ll buy Mercury Statues (Cash shop item, FIRST cash shop item you see by default lol) for 3 gold.

    You’re introduced to the quest where you can exchange them for 5ish gold on average when you’re level ?20? – complete with shiny ? and ! and all. Very considerately set up, and not at all confusing.

    Which is intentional.

    The confusing part only happens when you try to determine exactly how much RL money 1 gold coin is, because you’re analysing their system and trying to figure it out, because you’re OCD like that.

    I believe that a) most players don’t care, and b) most players who do care will just Google it. XD

    It’s really not scarily done at all!

    (Which is what makes it so scary. O.o)

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