Tuesday 28 June 2011

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

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