Greedy Goblin

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pay-by-cheat games

Tobold wrote a post about pay-by-cheat games. The official name is microtransaction and it means you can play the game for free, but you always have the opportunity to get game currency (gold), equipment, extra XP, housing, access to VIP-only content and so on.

Let's not mistake this system for "free trial" where you can play the first levels of the game to try it out.

Tobold perfectly explains that "The theory behind that is that if you make a graph with one point for each player, listing how much time he can spend on the game on the X-axis, and how much money he is willing to spend on the Y-axis, the large majority of players will be concentrated in two quadrants: The time-rich-but-money-poor, and the time-poor-but-money-rich. Items of convenience allow the money-rich to trade their money for time, but allow the time-rich to arrive at exactly the same result by spending time.".

I also play a perfectly tuned pay-by-cheat game: ikariam. Here you can access anything for free, for money you can get some extra transport ships, trade resources for each other and access a more user-friendly interface. I use none of them and I'm doing really fine.

However I think Tobold completely misses the point, and mix up two completely different things: the ingame simulated economy where our character make business decisions and the real world, where we make business decisions.

The big question is, what do you get when you buy an epic sword for $5? The dumb answer is "I get the epic sword". However this exists only in a video game as pixels. On the top of that, you don't even own it, as the game provider can shut down the servers any time destroying "your" sword. When I pay $15 for WoW subscription, I (me, human being) pay for gaming experience or simply "fun".

When my character buys an item for ingame gold, he makes a business decision, while I am playing a game and maybe learning about business, the behavior of other people and such. However I am not making any business. I'm sitting in my room front of my computer, playing a video game. Granted, I'm playing a business-game, but still a game.

So again: what do I get for my $5 when I buy an epic sword? Faster leveling? Why would I want that? If I enjoy the game, I don't want to rush. If I don't, why do I play? It's extremely stupid to pay real money for not playing. It's exactly like I'd pay a guy to have sex with my girlfriend to save my time. It's not like when I pay for a taxi to save traveling time.

In real life my time is limited. Time is money, usually calculated by hourly wage. If the taxi saves me an hour and asks for less than my hourly wage I made a good business decision. However the whole game gives me 0 money. So if I want to save gaming time I simply play less or stop playing completely.

To understand what someone buys for the $5 you only need to read Tobold further: "Another Free Realms example are the level 1 weapons you can buy for $2.50 (or $5 for the same stats plus fancier graphics), which are better than the best level 20 weapon you can either find or craft in the game. Having first leveled up a blacksmith to the level cap of 20, and struggled with a Free2Play combat class, the brawler, I tested this out by playing the member's only warrior class with a $5 weapon. After easily killing monsters with the thus armed warrior at level 3 that my level 10 brawler had problems with, I haven't touched Free Realms since. Having the class and the weapon you have to pay for being so much better than the Free2Play content really turned me off. And I felt that the effort I put into blacksmithing was completely wasted."

Well, his efforts are obviously wasted as he did nothing but sat at his computer playing a video game. But wait! What does it have to do with the $5 weapon? If it wouldn't exists, the same time would not be equally wasted?

I think it's obvious now: the "real world item" one buys via microtransaction is "being observed winner". Not winning itself. Winning means overcoming challenge. Actually Tobold won the game by reaching top level with the weakest class using only low level items. By eliminating challenge, the microtransaction-item actually takes away winning. However the cheater believes that others consider him winner what is the exact opposite of what he really is: a loser who has to cheat to reach the same thing that others reached by effort.

There is a huge industry in the world that sells "prestige" items for such people. A luxury car (that is only cosmetically "better" than ordinary cars) costs much more than a $5 pixel sword still there are buyers for that.

So: you can make great money, both ingame gold and real world money from selling useless items high to such people who want to look like winners. Just look at the perfect example: the WoW goldsellers. They get real money (granted, not much) for selling pixels.

Moral of the story 2: don't mix different tiers of systems. The gold is great thing inside the game as you can buy consumables, enchanting stuff, BoE for your characters. However gold is completely useless thing in real world, and actually does not even exists. The only WoW-thing that exists is the "game experience".

PS: To be continued.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of Ikariam? Ive been playing it for a few months now, and I think its a great game. Have you messed with the economy at all? Everyone seems so oblivious to trades, you could probably make a killing.

Which server are you on?

- Alex

Jorad said...

I don't think it's fair to completely separate virtual life and real life.
Otherwise I could ask: why do anything at all that doesn't further your goal of getting more money?

You play to relax or to have fun with friends or to get the good feeling of achieving a goal or just for the thrill of it (in a horror game).
So if someone pays for World of Warcraft to play two hours a week and the fun of that, then I don't see the difference to the same guy buying himself a perfectly equipped PvP-Char after half a year because he has exhausted the enjoyment of just leveling and making some money - the only thing he can do with that much time. Now he has an equipped PvP-Char and enjoy PvP for the next 6 months - he bought himself another game experience.

Catalin said...

"If I want to save gaming time I simply play less or stop playing completely."

The game has many facets, and you can enjoy one or more but often not all of them. Several examples: fishing, cooking, PvP, leveling, fighting hard encounters solo, raiding, making gold, etc.

The game itself allows many choices, but doesn't give you complete control over what to do. You can't install the game and see a list of options where you'd go: oh, I want to raid so I click this button and start raiding in 3 mins from character creation.

Let's assume for the sake of this example that I like raiding. That's the part of the game that I enjoy, and view everything else merely as the means to reach the part of the game I enjoy.

I don't actually want to save game time, I don't have a problem raiding for hours and hours, I want to reach faster the part of the game I want to play. Thus I look at ways to make leveling faster.

Jezebeau said...

On the Free Realms side of things, that $2.50 buys me fun. It means that I don't have to wait a minute and a half after every fight to regenerate health and mana because I kill most things before they get more than two hits on me. It's a romp vs. a slow forward grind. One wasn't fun, so I paid to play the other one. (to be fair, I think the lvl5-10 instances are balanced to be easy for paid weapons and brutal for level-appropriate).

Jacob said...

I think you missed the point of paying to enjoy and get more fun out of the game. You will have advantages over other nonpaying players in the game and do things faster, ergo spending less time ingame. Then you can spend the time on more productive things. You will most likely have more fun in the paid version of the game so you will basically pay for a better gaming experience.

Yaggle said...

If the game is not fun enough to play without buying the in-game gold or items with RL currency, then it's a loser-game, made for losers to be played by losers.

Tobold said...

But there are many, many different forms of microtransactions, and not all of them are pay-to-cheat. For example while buying a sword which is better than any ingame sword in Free Realms is certainly bad pay-to-cheat, paying $5 in the same game for one month access to more classes and more quests is not a cheat at all.

And then there is everything in between, like the teleportation tickets in Luminary I was talking about. You play for free, you walk. You pay, you teleport.

And who would claim that every single part of a MMO is fun? We aren't talking about paying a guy to sleep with your girlfriend vs. paying a taxi to save 1 hour in which you make more money than the taxi did cost. We are talking about paying the taxi to get to your girlfriend faster, instead of walking, in spite of that having no monetary value.

Anonymous said...

I think Tobold has it more correct than Gevlon. You either invest time or money in those type of microtransaction games, and everybody's time has value to it.

As an example, I will use WoW and buying gold. Say I am starting over, new server, faction and class. For me, while leveling the first couple times was enjoyable, I do not enjoy it the 3rd-5th time and Blizzard still does not allow buying level 60 (or 55) premades.

I do however enjoy running heroics, raiding, PvP at 80 etc. So for me getting to 80 is a necessary evil and I want to make that go as smooth as possible.

I know from experience that gearing my character out in top items of his level makes the grind faster and therefore more enjoyable (or I should say less horrible). So I have no problem buying gold so that I can purchase the best items for my level, or getting that mount the second I hit the required level. That doesn't mean that I fail, or that I am wasting gold.

It means I value my time enough to know when not to waste it. I'm sure Gevlon wouldn't waste his time in WoW earning less than 1k gold/hour if knows he can earn 5k gold /hour.

If spending $30 bucks gets me enough gold to keep my player rolling in Top end BoEs and enchants for about 50 levels and probably reduces my grind time buy a couple days than it's a very sound investment.

ZachPruckowski said...

A false assumption that you make, Gevlon, is that all time in the game is equally valuable. You make this assumption because you do two things - AHing and raiding, both of which you enjoy. There's also leveling up, grinding for money, farming mats, and a number of other things, each of which has its own "fun" value.

The interesting thing about MMOs is that people have to do the "less fun" things in order to facilitate the fun things. What's fun and not-fun vary from person to person. Not everyone is a goblin*, so not everyone can avoid doing the "less fun" things with their game-time. If one plays 15 hours/week and 5 hours of that is "utility time", wherein they have to do less-fun activities to subsidize their fun activities, RMT lets them either pay to spend those 5 hours not playing or pay to spend those 5 hours doing something more fun.

Properly designed RMT allows a player to skip the "less fun" activities by paying money, so that they can spend their game time doing more fun things. It's not "paying someone to do your girlfriend", it's "paying someone to go to a chick flick with your girlfriend"**, so that you get the perks of the relationship while skipping the less-fun parts.

* - For that matter, goblins depend on non-goblins to extract as much profit as they do. You'd have to work a lot harder for your 5k gold/week in an all-goblin world.

** - Substitute here any part of your relationship that she enjoys and you would prefer to skip. If there is no such part of your relationship, congratulations, you're far luckier than most.

ZachPruckowski said...

@Anonymous (Comment 8)

I'm in precisely that spot - I recently re-rolled Horde Side on a PvP server (coming from Alliance PvE) in order to play with a group of guys I know. I had multiple high-level characters (1 at 80, 2 at ~70s), several thousand gold, epic flying, etc.). I'm starting over and leveling from scratch, doing the same sort of stuff I already did 2-3 times before. I'm interested in running the WotLK instances, heroics, and raids, and I want to get back to where I was with multiple high-level characters.

Taking my main (a Shaman) up to 66 has taken me a while. I'll get him up to 80, get started in Heroics and Naxx, and then have to work to bring the next guy up. Not having found someone to do RAF yet*, I'll be doing that same progression (1-80) on my next character at only 110% speed (gonna blow a bunch of badges on BoA shoulders as soon as I can). If I could pay $20 to get 200% or even 150% leveling-speed for my next alt, I wouldn't hesitate. It'd save me badges (letting me gear up faster), and let me spend my game time running instances instead of killing rats.

Gold I'm less worried about. At 66 I have enough to now buy dual-spec, having previously been able to buy riding and the faster land mount when first available.

* - Here's a fine example. If someone would RAF with me, I'd buy their copy of the battlechest (with the first month included) for them. That would be such a great deal for me it's not even funny.

Anonymous said...


When me and my friends rerolled after several years off two of them did so doing recruita friend, while a couple of us just ractivated old accounts. In the time it took me to get to level 20, they were both moving through the 40s because of the triple RAF bonus on quests/kills.

After seeing that we actually bought a second account each purely to get the RAF bonus through 60 (/follow and free for all loot). Its a shame RAF does not persist through 70 or I would have bough the expansions for that account. It literally reduced my time spent leveling by at least 1/2.

Once you hit 55 have a couple higher level friends run you through Scholo once and Strath twice and you will get 60 on kill XP alone.

Liu said...

I think that folks are missing the point when they call it a bug that Blizz doesn't let you buy your way past early levels. The reason that you have to reach level 80 with each character by playing through 80 levels, rather than just starting out there so you can jump into raiding, is that those 80 levels teach you how to play said character.

The abilities are phased in, one every couple levels, so that you can experiment with what works for you and how to optimally play your class. For me, moving from a 'lock to a rogue was a huge shift, suddenly needing to learn to play melee, manage combo points, figure out which stats provided the best DPS boost... these are all things you learn in the leveling process so you can be a competent member of your group at max lv.

So while you may find the leveling process less fun than raiding in the endgame, it's a necessary part of getting to that level of progression, character-wise, and Blizz allowing you to skip that step would be an error, IMO. Just look at how awful many DKs were when wrath first came out.

Anonymous said...


How many lower level abilities will you be using at 80, or 70, or even 60? I as a Fury warrior use 4 abilities, and pop 2 cooldowns every so often. When during that time will I be using crap or offspec abilities like "rend" which I am forced to use during my lower teens.

if you feel you need to play levels 1-60 so you can learn the ins and outs of your character than feel free to do so. As for myself, levels 70-80 are more than enough for me ....including dual speccing and gear.

DKs are more of a special case as they were designed witout as many useless abilities or simplified rotations (developers learned). Also, mayn people are bad as DKs were so overpowered so it takes getting into tougher content (raids) before weaknesses in playstyle are shown.

Leveling was sort of necessary nack in Vanilla WoW, but the further you get from the starting level, the less relevant levleing becomes.

Bristal said...

"We are talking about paying the taxi to get to your girlfriend faster, instead of walking, in spite of that having no monetary value."

SOMEBODY's got their priorities straight. And you made a nice point, too. One reason economics is so fascinating to discuss (and a pseudo-science) is that VALUE is subjective.

If I want to trade my 10 minutes of work-drudgery for a pretty flaming sword that makes me feel powerful for 30 minutes, I will do just that. I agree, however that my ability to do that may affect your valuation of the game and therefore the overall value of the game as a business.

I think the real problem with Free Realms using this system is that kids have limited ability to make good decisions spending MY 10 minutes of work drudgery.

Marketing to kids like that makes parents NUTS.

Unknown said...

I'm just amazed at Gevlon's conclusions and his basic logic about life and money... just astounding.

As Tobold and Anon put it, Time = Money. Paying someone to have sex with your gf? WTF are you talking about? That statement was sooo off bulls-eye all I can do is laugh. Then again I guess I missed the point that you find having sex with your gf to be burdensome. Then I see the validity.

Personally, I paid a service to powerlevel two of my characters from 1-80 in parallel to me leveling my main char from 70-80. So many would say I "cheated" and lost so much of the game's experience. I would totally disagree with that considering I have gone through all of it with one character and I can honestly say that I truly hate leveling.

Leveling is time wasted in my eyes so therefore paying someone to level for me is a good investment. Similar to how you pay a mediocre guild to basically run you through Ulduar. BTW, have you guys even downed Yogg yet?

Bottom line, it's all the same sh*t. We all pay money that we earned or borrowed or stole to play a video game for entertainment value. It's considered a past time, just like baseball or whatever ppl do for enjoyment that has no ROI.

Unknown said...

In regards to my analogy about paying a leveling service and Gevlon paying a guild, in reality it is not the same since I pay real life currency, however if we equate time to RL money and wow gold = time then my statement would be true.

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing you don't like Microtransactions or something about the game. Turn it off.
Devs will get the hint...sooner or later. Perhaps when their in unemployment line.

Townes said...

The argument about enjoying the slow leveling is an old one. I've never heard the joy of killing 30 of this and 30 of that for Nesingwary compared to sex, but the principle is the same. If you like killing 30 of this and 30 of that. And if you haven't done the quest 10 previous times. But while some of us enjoy many things in the game, many just enjoy the endgame. I'd guess this blog, with so much talk about raiding, attracts many such readers. Imagine you've re-rolled a class you've played before on a new server, you've done all the quests multiple times in both factions, and would be happy to never kill ogres in Feralas or robots in Borean Tundra again. It's more like having to have sex with your ex-girlfriends instead of your girlfriend.

At that point, the epic weapon that kills things faster is nice, just like the epic mount that doesn't let you look at the scenery as much, just like those shoulders that make you level a little faster, or playing a human to get rep a little faster. Not that you don't, of course, enjoy the Sons of Hodir quests.

Hagu said...

I think the analysis fails to mention that this is about "optional & variable" microtransactions - asymmetric microtransactions if you will.

TANSTAFL -so the game company needs its (for sake of argument) $15/person/month.

They can get it with advertising - hop in your Vespa Choppers or Scion Destroyers and remember FL does half-damage if you are wearing Banana Republic orange pants.

All you can eat - the Bliz $15/mo.

$0.10 / hour

$2 / level

There is the typically civilized EVE Online - all you can eat $15/mo with no variable pricing. You may use real money to only buy in game gold (ISK). So your RMT buys you nothing that you could not get on your own. But you can choose to spend RL$ or in-game time mining or pirating or whatever; Seems to me like a 30-something doctor / lawyer / professional has a different time/money tradeoff than a teenager. And it addresses the other side of the time/money equation - a teenager (or recently fired or someone with cheap spouse) can mine enough to earn ISK to buy their time cards and never spend RL$ again. I like this model.

Now if mostly everyone needs a $5 sword every 5 levels, then that is merely another way for the vendor to get paid. This is a microtransation, but there are no fairness issues.

What is much more problematic to some is when RMT buys you something that you can not get in game. The fairness issue is not caused by buying a $5 sword; it is when some people buy 0 and some buy 2 that is unequal. And for the socialist and children, that is not acceptable. It's hard to see it being an overly successful business model.