How to make a cool $2MM+ in one day -- with a sparkle pony

In case anyone thought that virtual item sales weren't a big deal in the traditional MMO world, this morning Blizzard announced the online sale of a new "celestial steed" for use in WoW.    These mounts cost $25 (on top of the retail price plus $15 monthly subscription).  So in a world of free games and virtual items selling for a dollar or two, how popular could a $25 sparkly flying pony be?

Well, the queue for their purchase was at least up to over 91,000 people waiting in the queue earlier today.  When I took a screen shot, it had fallen to "only" about 85,000.

90,000 X $25 = $2,250,000.

In one day.  From one item.  In a game that isn't free to play anyway.

Something tells me we really, really haven't mapped the extent of the market for fast, frictionless sales of online goods -- "objects" that have a low cost of creation and essentially no cost of duplication.  Even 90,000+ times.

Sparkle Pony FTW
A snapshot of the queue on the Blizzard store.

Update: as of 22:50 Eastern Time US tonight, the queue was still over 90,000.  Approximately 21% of the available steeds had been sold.

(Crossposted from my Online Alchemy blog.)

(Update from greglas: Sorry, comments are closed on this until we figure out how to go past 100 comments per post.)



Comments on How to make a cool $2MM+ in one day -- with a sparkle pony:

Jack says:

there's a fallacy here: 90,000 people in the queue at any one time doesn't translate to 90,000 sales - it includes all the people who queued up out of curiosity, saw the timer tick over to hours instead of minutes, said "Hell no!" and bailed.

For reference: I queued up at 4pm. The timer estimated a 7 hour wait. I was at the front of the queue in 90 minutes. so if 90,000 people in a queue translates to a 7 hours wait, then an actual 90 minute wait is more like 19,000 mounts sold.

It's still an amazing profit for the effort put into it, but it isn't as craaaaaaazy as you think.

Posted Apr 16, 2010 12:17:26 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Yeah, that's possible. But if that was the case, I would have expected the queue to drop off much earlier in the day and not fill back up -- it's been well over 80K all day. So the sales are in all probability much higher than the simple queue number shows, and they're chewing through them faster than the timer shows.

We'll see if they say anything about the sales in the coming weeks.

Still: if there's anyone out there who still thinks real money for virtual goods is nuts or evil... well, welcome to crazy spring, like I said before. :)

Posted Apr 16, 2010 12:24:38 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

>if there's anyone out there who still thinks real money for virtual goods is nuts or evil... well, welcome to crazy spring

This would have been worrying if the horse had functionality that was beyond that already available to purchasers, but Blizzard have studiously avoided that. It basically only replicates the functionality of your existing horse. If you could buy a mount that went at 310% speed and you didn't have one already, then this would be buying a gameplay-meaningful advantage. As it is, though, you're just buying a cosmetic improvement.

Of course, the fact that people are willing to stump up $25 to buy a transparent pegasus that does nothing but look cool justifies your "crazy spring" analysis even more!

Richard

Posted Apr 16, 2010 6:32:58 AM | link

Brian Carnell says:

Richard Bartle wrote:

"This would have been worrying if the horse had functionality that was beyond that already available to purchasers, but Blizzard have studiously avoided that. It basically only replicates the functionality of your existing horse."

In fact, the mount does have functionality beyond what you can get from in-game mounts. Specifically, it is the only mount in WoW that functions both as a ground mount and a flying mount.

That is something some users have wanted ever since they introduced flying mounts (to be able to use a flying mount as a ground mount in areas where flying is not possible) but that has not been implemented by Blizzard.

Obviously that's not a huge game changer, but it is intersting that when Blizzard finally introduced such a mount, it was only available through RMT.

Posted Apr 16, 2010 11:20:29 AM | link

Brent Michael Krupp says:

That's not technically true, Brian. The headless horseman's mount from the Halloween holiday event and the love rocket from the Valentine event both work as a ground mount and a flying mount. However, they're both insanely rare.

Doesn't really change your point, or perhaps strengthens it, since the incredible rarity of this sort of mount prior to this made them even more appealing.

Posted Apr 16, 2010 4:59:59 PM | link

Brian Carnell says:

Thanks for the correction Brent.

I'm also assuming that WoW doesn't distinguish between RMT and non-RMT pets/mounts when it comes to achievements, so I can buy myself 5 pets on their store and get that much closer to finishing the pet achievements, as opposed to someone else who just has to grind through whatever they need to do.

What I'd like to see Blizzard do next is sell an Achievement. Charge $25 for something like [The Poor Little Rich Boy] (Purchase this achievement at the Blizzard store) and award 25 achievement points.

Posted Apr 16, 2010 9:54:07 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Brian>What I'd like to see Blizzard do next is sell an Achievement.

An achievement that's bought can't very well be called an achievement, but I think you may be onto something here - achievers don't really care about irony (witness the fact that so many people organising PUGs for content that results in an achievement ask you to show you've already obtained that achievement).

Richard

Posted Apr 17, 2010 7:07:04 AM | link

Patrick Prax says:

There is an interesting clip on Warcraftmovies discussing a possible functionality of the celestial steed. It helps pug leaders seeing whom not to invite in the raid.

http://www.warcraftmovies.com/movieview.php?id=146009

There have also already been threads on MMO-Champion were people who bought the mount complained about being discriminated.

Interesting as it tells something about the view of the community on RMT.

Posted Apr 18, 2010 7:53:59 AM | link

robusticus says:

It's actually much more worrisome the item DOESN'T convey a more meaningful gameplay advantage. Because the virtual currency model is so much cleaner and more profitable than selling service for time. It opens up worlds to people who don't have time. i.e. all but the independently wealthy, unemployed and kids.

Which is one reason why you see the model taking hold and growing. I wouldn't be surprised if more than 90% of these things were built on this model within 10 years. Capitalism is nothing if not fair and balanced. Even if sometimes it is BRUTALLY thus.

Posted Apr 18, 2010 12:04:53 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus>It's actually much more worrisome the item DOESN'T convey a more meaningful gameplay advantage.

Not to people who like the game element it isn't.

>Because the virtual currency model is so much cleaner

Cleaner? What do you mean? The flat fee subscription model was itself lauded for being "cleaner" than the per-hour charge revenue model it replaced, on the grounds that you always knew what you would have to spend and there was no need to budget for it.

>and more profitable than selling service for time.

It does seem to be more profitable, except for people who don't want it as part of their service.

>It opens up worlds to people who don't have time.

What do you mean, "opens up"? Are you talking about premium content areas, which you can't access unless you pay? Or do you mean it in a "removing barriers" sense, so everyone can go straight to the high-end content?

>Which is one reason why you see the model taking hold and growing.

There are several reasons why it's taking off, but "opening up worlds" isn't one of them. One is simply the fact that kids prefer 80% of something for free than 100% of something they can never have because they don't have the money. Another is that there are plenty of non-achiever types who don't see virtual worlds as "games", so aren't fazed by RMT. A third is that people will accept lower quality graphics for "free" content, which makes development costs lower.

>I wouldn't be surprised if more than 90% of these things were built on this model within 10 years.

I'd be surprised if less than 90% of the virtual worlds in development weren't already being built for this model.

>Capitalism is nothing if not fair and balanced.

It may be better than most of the alternatives, but it's not fair and balanced; if it were fair and balanced, the pressures that drive it wouldn't work. Do you mean it in the sense that it treats all commodities equally, in a goods-agnostic kind of way? I'll go along with that, yes.

Richard

Posted Apr 19, 2010 3:18:35 AM | link

robusticus says:

Sure a monthly charge is better for the customer than an hourly one, just as an annual is better than monthly. It's just that in order to realize the full Lifetime Value of a Customer under any sort of pay-for-time system the design must facilitate enough "content" to last for whatever period of time the LTV is specified. The virtual currency model frees the design from any sort of time constraints to realize revenue.

And a flat fee doesn't allow for the "head" of a power (paretto) distribution, though it does nicely provide the tail.

So like with skiing the head is the Olympics, where players will spend relatively lots of money on competetive advantage. The tail is the twice a year people who don't even own skiis and wince at the amount of money operators charge to rent them.

In today's game worlds you don't have the option to buy skiis. You must wait several months sliding down the mountain on two-by-fours because that's the point at which you've made your LTV for the operator.

So that's what I mean by open up. Broader audience. Give people who love the game the ability to buy the nice stuff but retain a standard for people who like it but aren't that commited (F2P). Right now in MMOs like or love em you're still skiing on two-by-fours for several months, and you have no choice on the matter that doesn't end up being perceived by the operator as harmful to them.

Thanks for the thoughts. But really what I want to know is it so different paying $25 versus spending 80 hours? I don't think it is, and I think offering both options opens a game up to more people.

Posted Apr 19, 2010 10:52:11 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

@Robisticus: But really what I want to know is it so different paying $25 versus spending 80 hours? I don't think it is, and I think offering both options opens a game up to more people.

I agree. This is the classic time-vs-money equation: some players have more money than time, and some more time than money. Traditionally gamers have fallen largely into the latter category, which has built up a cultural ethic that buying for money what they "earned" with time is somehow morally repugnant.

This is a difficult perception to fight (though you might say that the introduction of millions of new people into these games is solving the issue by zerging it ;) ). One solution that a lot of games have provided is that there are some functional items that can only be bought with money and some that can only be earned with time; this way those of both sets have things to show their achievement and can know who they are.

When we were working on the ill-fated Firefly MMO, we had a design to encourage 'more time than money' people to be ships crews (living "on the raggedy edge"), and those in the 'more money than time' set toward taking on the role of the nobility in the 'Verse -- land-owners, job-providers, etc. This would have provided gameplay suited for both crowds and would have made good in-game use of the enmity that those without the means or desire to buy their way often feel to those who prefer to go that way. (Maybe someday we'll actually get to use this design.)

Posted Apr 19, 2010 11:12:23 AM | link

Luis says:

When we were working on the ill-fated Firefly MMO, we had a design to encourage 'more time than money' people to be ships crews (living "on the raggedy edge"), and those in the 'more money than time' set toward taking on the role of the nobility in the 'Verse -- land-owners, job-providers, etc.

Wait, wait... so you wanted people to replicate the class structure of the real world in the game? And you expected people to *like* that? I must be missing something; would love it if you could elaborate.

Posted Apr 19, 2010 8:36:59 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Luis, there are a lot of assumptions to unpack in your question. I don't believe the time/money divide is indicative of "the class structure of the real world." I do however think this represents an interesting set of gradients that can be turned into satisfying gameplay where people with different preferences and goals can create gameplay for themselves and each other.

The fictional world itself was highly classist; giving players the ability to play in ways they choose, so that they could all "win" (struggle, achieve, triumph) in their own eyes and the eyes of those whom they value would add a lot of texture (and effectively, fun, MMO-style) to the world.

As my final defense of a design that won't see the light of day, I can at least say that Joss liked it. :)

Posted Apr 19, 2010 9:30:42 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus >Sure a monthly charge is better for the customer than an hourly one

It's better for the customers who are paying less than they would under an hourly regime, and worse for those who are paying more. Last time I saw any figures on this (which would be, ooh, 15 years ago) the majority of players were paying more under a subscription system than they would be paying under a per-hour system. However, there was so much resentment over feeling that there was always a clock ticking whenever they were online that they much preferred the flat system. The same applies for Internet usage in general, of course, which switched from per-hour to flat rate in 1996 (well, that's when AOL succumbed to it).

It's possible, if the per-hour charge were low enough, that it wouldn't matter. If you were charged a cent a minute, then would you mind being told after a 4-hour raiding session that it had cost you $2.40? What if it were $1.20? Or 60c? At some point, you're going to think the cost is negligible; whether that's a point at which the developers could make a profit is another matter, of course.

>in order to realize the full Lifetime Value of a Customer under any sort of pay-for-time system the design must facilitate enough "content" to last for whatever period of time the LTV is specified.

That's not strictly true. If the subscription is low enough then people will leave it running even though they've used all the content, while they wait for new content to be released or in the hope that they'll wish to revisit old content later.

>The virtual currency model frees the design from any sort of time constraints to realize revenue.

Instead, it imposes monetary and gameplay constraints.

>In today's game worlds you don't have the option to buy skiis. You must wait several months sliding down the mountain on two-by-fours because that's the point at which you've made your LTV for the operator.

But if everyone else is buying skis, you don't really have the option not to buy them if you want to keep up. Furthermore, having bought them, you find they're only good for one slope and then you have to buy a different set. That's the sort of thing players don't like.

>So that's what I mean by open up. Broader audience.

OK, I agree that it opens the virtual world up to a broader audience. The broader audience will be missing out on what it is that MMOs deliver that very little else does, but hey, if they don't want or need that then fine. I would take issue with any suggestion that this kind of revenue model leads to the same celebration of identity that a non-RMT model does; it's possible, but the chances are very much reduced. Put another way, the virtual worlds that result from this may be fun, but they're not the same kind of fun as the ones that don't have RMT.

>what I want to know is it so different paying $25 versus spending 80 hours?

Well, the difference is that you see the 80 hours as work you would pay $25 to avoid and other people see it as entertainment they would pay $25 to experience. If you're not being entertained, you need to question why you're playing at all; if you are being entertained, you need to question why paying $25 makes your experience better. For skiing, going down a hill faster is (I presume - I've never been on skis) more exciting and therefore a better experience; what is it about RMT that makes the experience "better"?

>I think offering both options opens a game up to more people.

It does, but the two don't sit alongside each other well. The RMTers are OK with the non-RMTers, just as drug-takers in sport are OK alongside non-drug-takers, but the non-RMTers aren't OK with the RMTers. You can't have both and please both camps, at least not on the same server.

I have no problems with people creating RMT worlds that are designed to be such, just so long as they don't make out they're the same as non-RMT worlds.

Richard

Posted Apr 21, 2010 3:10:54 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>This is the classic time-vs-money equation: some players have more money than time

Is there actually any evidence for the existence of this equation? In my experience, people with a lot of money tend to have a lot of time, too. It's the people who have very little money who have least time, as they're trying to hold down several jobs at once to make ends meet.

>which has built up a cultural ethic that buying for money what they "earned" with time is somehow morally repugnant.

That's not how they see it. They feel that what they have achieved in a game is an indication of their personal level of skill and expertise, and they don't like the fact that someone else can just come along and get the same result by paying for it. It is, in their minds, not something you ought to be able to buy.

Two analogies from real life:
1) I don't have a PhD in History. I don't have the time do study for a PhD in History. I do have savings. Why can't I just buy a PhD in History from a reputable university? It's just a piece of paper.
2) I want to run a marathon in under 3 hours. I don't have the time to do all the training. Why can't I just buy a 15-mile head start? Or do it on a Segway? Or pay someone else to run it for me?

It doesn't matter whether this is how you see things, it's how a good many players see it. They regard what they have achieved as a qualification, and they are not happy when someone else can buy that qualification. If all they're buying is a fancier-looking certificate for their PhD, or a running number edged in gilt, OK, that doesn't undermine the qualification. If it makes a tangible difference, though, they object. This isn't some outdated cultural artefact about "earning" something, it's about meeting internal criteria using external means.

>would have made good in-game use of the enmity that those without the means or desire to buy their way often feel to those who prefer to go that way.

This is a very clever solution - make the dislike between the groups part of the gameplay. It would only work if both groups felt they were being unfairly treated by the other, of course, but assuming you could have pulled that off then yes, that's a great piece of design!

Richard

Posted Apr 21, 2010 3:35:36 AM | link

Shava Nerad says:

As I wrote recently on Gamasutra, Virtual Goods are a Fashion Industry. It would be great if you could tease out how many people:

  • bought the steed for flash
  • bought the steed for function
  • bought the steed for function and hate the flash
  • bought the steed for function and are ambivalent about the flash

Let's see how it plays out. The RMT divide is pretty deep, but it's also one I think that the players can resolve, if they stretch a bit.

There will always be refuges of "fair play" -- but the concept of "fair" in the west, much less British-descended cultures, doesn't translate very well to much of the world. Although, perhaps as prosperity, market integration, and solid moral codes (Neoconfucianism,...) take firmer hold in modern China, they will start to think more like the more historically prosperous west about fair play?

Posted Apr 21, 2010 8:45:38 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, you said: I would take issue with any suggestion that this kind of revenue model leads to the same celebration of identity that a non-RMT model does; it's possible, but the chances are very much reduced. Put another way, the virtual worlds that result from this may be fun, but they're not the same kind of fun as the ones that don't have RMT.

Really? On what basis do you say that? You seem to be saying that worlds based on virtual goods transactions (not exactly the same as RMT but we'll set that aside for now) are somehow lesser than those that are not. Evidence?

Personally, this strikes me as not much more than a generational issue -- the latest round of the endless text vs. graphics debate, for example. Text used to be the main way we approached virtual worlds. Even now it may be "best" for a very small group of people, but for the vast majority, it demonstrably is not. Similarly, worlds in which everything is based on time-in-game (and maybe some skill) may be most comfortable for a relatively small group -- small in comparison the many millions for whom it is not. Given the argument from utility (many more find one method more appealing than another), you'll have to come up with something else -- something besides a personal aesthetic -- to argue that virtual goods games are "missing" something essential that traditional MMOGs do not lack.

If you're not being entertained, you need to question why you're playing at all; if you are being entertained, you need to question why paying $25 makes your experience better.

For the same reasons that buying a better seat in a concert makes the experience better, or buying a better pair of sunglasses, renting a flashier car, or buying better skis. There are combinations of utility, social value, and convenience that people will pay for in both entertainment and non-entertainment situations. This really isn't a mystery; entertainment isn't some "pure" experience that is unaffected by these factors.

Mike Sellers>This is the classic time-vs-money equation: some players have more money than time

Is there actually any evidence for the existence of this equation? In my experience, people with a lot of money tend to have a lot of time, too. It's the people who have very little money who have least time, as they're trying to hold down several jobs at once to make ends meet.

There's a mountain of evidence, in the form of both user interviews and user behavior. It affects all sorts of industries, not just our own (premium microwave meals, drive through dry cleaning, online investments, and essentially all of Netflix's business model, to name just a few others). There is a large set of people -- professionals, parents, etc. -- with more disposable income and less leisure time than they'd like. They tend to be in their late twenties to mid-forties (and older), and often skew slightly female. This is different from the traditional view of the gamer (MMO or otherwise) as a teen-aged or young-twenties male; that set has more leisure time than disposable income. But that set has also not been the heart of gaming for years: the most common game player online is now a woman in her mid-forties, typically with a career and a family. She has discretionary money to spend, but no time (or desire) for a four-hour raid in a dungeon.

[Mike:] which has built up a cultural ethic that buying for money what they "earned" with time is somehow morally repugnant.

That's not how they see it. They feel that what they have achieved in a game is an indication of their personal level of skill and expertise, and they don't like the fact that someone else can just come along and get the same result by paying for it. It is, in their minds, not something you ought to be able to buy.

Yes, I believe that's what I said: those who value time-based skill-acquisition and resulting achievement in-game do not like (at some moral level) that others can come in and purchase items that provide a similar indication of achievement. Moreover as your comments illustrate, this ethos goes further -- even when what is purchasable is not the same as what is obtainable via time-based achievement, the ability to buy anything at all similar to such achievement-objects elicits a negative reaction.

It doesn't matter whether this is how you see things, it's how a good many players see it.

Exactly. The difference between us is, I believe, that you see "a good many" being a few thousand perhaps who scowl and stamp and object to purchasable items in-game, while the "good many" I'm looking at are the tens of millions who have heartily approved of this with their behavior.

The argument against virtual goods is a curious one to me, but also one that has quickly become a small eddy away from the mainstream of game development, entertainment, and behavior.

This is a very clever solution - make the dislike between the groups part of the gameplay. It would only work if both groups felt they were being unfairly treated by the other, of course, but assuming you could have pulled that off then yes, that's a great piece of design!

Thanks. :) Yes, central to this was the ability for both groups to feel "right" in their actions, and also wronged by the other group: the nobility could always feel cheated and robbed by the poorer ships crews, and the ships crews could always feel the nobility of the adventurer and the need to get out from under the thumb of the nobles. Not that this would stop ship owners who become wealthy from buying into the gentry, or gentleman-adventurers from taking out their somewhat shinier ships for fun and profit. The lines could become blurred and tangled in interesting ways. Or that was the plan. So it goes.

Posted Apr 21, 2010 8:45:41 AM | link

robusticus says:

> Well, the difference is that you see the 80 hours as work you would pay $25 to avoid and other people see it as entertainment they would pay $25 to experience.

Obviously there are alot of things to cover but just as an example: the fastest mount question. In WoW, the primary gate is 5000 gold (as I understand it), which is probably alot more gold than people have without trying (assuming no RMT). So it is a money game they are playing with very very limited marxist options to make virtual money, especially with an auction system. Basically it comes down to minimizing risk and maximizing gain. I'm still at a loss to understand why you force someone to play a money game for an explicit gameplay benefit but you are insistent that currency exchange is outlawed. It doesn't hold up well from a gameplay argument but makes perfect sense if your income is dependent on time played.

Pay-per-quest or pay-per-instance would work in a way that preserves achievement without the needless re-use of content as well, I would think.

> For skiing, going down a hill faster is (I presume - I've never been on skis) more exciting and therefore a better experience; what is it about RMT that makes the experience "better"?

Ah well then my carefully constructed strawman is lost on you then, eh? It isn't so much to go faster, though for some that may be the reason, the longer they ski the more of a factor that becomes. Though at first it is generally more about control and avoiding penalties (i.e. falling on your backside repeatedly). It's also economic. If you are sufficiently hardcore it saves money to own rather than rent. It also saves time because you can get a pass at home so when you get there you just go to the lift, you don't have to wait in line to be outfitted for skiis. Of course, you also need a rack to carry your skiis, etc. I would guess that at the point you buy skiis you are at the apex of the power law, you are entering the top 20%. Interesting about skiing the top skiiers are reported to bring 20 or more different sets of skiis to events to cover every possible course/weather condition. But they also say skiis that have been used for a few years perform better.

Well I'm bummed about the Firefly MMO. I think that would've also brought alot of content-starved people new to MMOs on the strength of the IP. Though I would think in the model you've outlined Mike you would see a juxtaposition of what you are thinking. The money rich folks would want to play the ship crews and the time rich folks would want to play the nobility.

Posted Apr 21, 2010 12:26:58 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

The money rich folks would want to play the ship crews and the time rich folks would want to play the nobility.

Some would, sure. But it all depends on how you line up the gameplay incentives and costs. If it primarily takes time to go from one planet to the next and real money to buy, say, a section of a planet (so you can mine it and have NPCs and PC colonize it), those will appeal to different kinds of players.

It's a shame, I agree, and it was tough going. But there's always another game.

Posted Apr 21, 2010 1:30:32 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

A few thoughts:

Although I’m sympathetic to the hard-line against RMT, the Celestial Steed is an almost inconsequential form of it. If you bought no other mounts, it would save you a total of 161g over the course of your toon’s career, the equivalent (at current prices on my server for gold from IGE) of about 91 cents (or roughly five to ten minutes wages for the average ‘time-starved’ player).

With respect to the back and forth over RMT demand: Nobody really knows how important leisure time (or the lack of it) is to RMT demand. There’s so much endogeneity in that model: What counts as ‘leisure time’? What is the distribution of that scarce time across different activities, and what determines that distribution? How will the extra leisure time conferred by the use of RMT be distributed amongst those different activities (I guarantee you not all of the free time you create by buying RMT is spent in-game)?

I don’t think micro-transactions have to be the future of WoW, or any MMO, if the designer chooses not have them. The main threat to the subscription model must, in the end, be attrition. Mike Morhaine spoke of the 70% trial account attrition rate back February. WoW’s woes are related to its ability to attract and retain more players.

Maybe, instead of the slow trend to out-and-out sanctioned RMT, what WoW needs is a welfare system for more ‘time-constrained’ or ‘low-skilled’ players. Consider the following: Suppose Blizzard designs a metric of player ability – some combination of income, DPS, death rate, leaving-rate, time spent playing, whatever – and then confers an in-game benefit on players with less ability/time. This could be (say) higher experience rates, higher DPS rates, lump sums of gold, lower repairs costs, auction house cut discounts, mount discounts, whatever. Suppose further that receipt of that benefit is not observable by any other players (and preferably neither by the beneficiary). I have a lot of thoughts about how to make this work, but I think the idea is clear: By not making leveling seem like such a chore – especially for new players leveling for the first time – you reduce attrition and amp up the dwindling revenue problems that has Blizzard headed in the direction of RMT.

Posted Apr 21, 2010 11:06:08 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Me>I would take issue with any suggestion that this kind of revenue model leads to the same celebration of identity that a non-RMT model does
Mike>Really? On what basis do you say that?

I say it because any revenue model that uses RMT for the purchase of non-cosmetic items undermines the sense of achievement that achievers get. It also interferes with the conceit that the virtual world is not the real one. Both of these are important factors in a virtual world's ability to deliver a hero's journey. Because a hero's journey is what virtual worlds offer that nothing else that isn't either expensive or deadly offers, this is their USP. Take it away and, OK, you can still experience such a journey but it's much more difficult as the pressures driving you on aren't there.

If you don't buy the hero's journey argument, OK, well you're not going to buy the idea that RMT ruins it, either. We'll just have to agree to disagree in that case.

>Personally, this strikes me as not much more than a generational issue

It's a generational issue, yes, but that doesn't mean we have to hold up our hands and surrender to it. Something important is being lost here. I can see it going one of two ways:
1) People who have played MMOs that are getting more and more watered-down turn to new or bespoke MMOs that are truer to the concept. We do get millions more playing the "casual" version, but there are still millions playing the immersive versions. Basically, we get an MMO amoeba that throws out a casual pseudopod that eventually grows and separates from its parent. Both survive.
2) MMOs become more and more anodyne, with the cost of entry remaining so high that no indie can make a viable alternative to what the big guys are making. X years from now, people wonder why anyone ever thought MMOs were awesome or inspiring or exciting. 2*X years from now, someone will reinvent the concept, produce a new wave MMO that gives players what old-time ones did, and the wheel turns.

>Text used to be the main way we approached virtual worlds. Even now it may be "best" for a very small group of people, but for the vast majority, it demonstrably is not.

Well, "demonstrably" in the sense that they won't ever try textual worlds, so it's moot whether or not they're better than graphics.

>Similarly, worlds in which everything is based on time-in-game (and maybe some skill) may be most comfortable for a relatively small group

Heh, in the text MUD days we regarded time as a poor substitute for skill. If you could get to the top through time alone, with no skill, we called it "plodding", and it was regarded as A Bad Thing. Today's MMOs put severe stress the sense that skill is somehow involved, but as yet not quite enough to break the suggestion.

>Given the argument from utility (many more find one method more appealing than another), you'll have to come up with something else -- something besides a personal aesthetic -- to argue that virtual goods games are "missing" something essential that traditional MMOGs do not lack.

I don't challenge your view that there are likely to be many more people who play casual MMOs than play traditional ones. The same applies to computer games as a whole, not just MMOs: many more people play casual games online than play AAA titles. Those who regard themselves as sophisticated gamers will have different tastes to those who don't regard themselves as gamers at all (but still play games).

I do, however, feel that casual style MMOs do lack something that traditional MMOs offer - that whole ability to be and become yourself. Now not everyone wants or needs what traditional MMOs offer, nor has enough time even if they do want or need it, which is fair enough. Those that do want or need it are not going to find it in a casual MMO, though.

Now it may be that you don't buy that argument, and for you the relationship between traditional MMOs and casual MMOs is basically the same as that between a 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. OK, well as I said, we're just going to have to agree to disagree on that, then.

>For the same reasons that buying a better seat in a concert makes the experience better

In a concert, because of the physical layout of the concert hall, there are "better" seats. In an MMO, there are no "better" seats. Anything that can be done to improve the seating equivalent of one player can be done for all players. If you're paying $25 to improve your experience, that means the developers have deliberately crocked it; otherwise, it wouldn't need improving. Blizzard could have given that horse away to everyone; would this have improved everyone's experience? No, because at the heart of RMT is "I have it and you don't" - using wealth is what makes the experience improved (for you - it doesn't for those who can't afford it, which is one reason it annoys them).

>There are combinations of utility, social value, and convenience that people will pay for in both entertainment and non-entertainment situations.

What I find annoying about RMT is that it stops the above being true. I have no problems at all with people developing RMT-friendly virtual worlds that are designed to support the concept. What bugs me is that if the particular combination of utility, social value and convenience that I want to pay for is embodied in an immersive, non-RMT world, I can't have it - the RMTers will move in anyway. I can't buy what I want, because people who don't want it will come in and try to change it to what they want.

>There is a large set of people -- professionals, parents, etc. -- with more disposable income and less leisure time than they'd like.

There is also a large set of people with less disposable income and less leisure time than they'd like. The way this argument is framed, it's as if there were a straight line with a slider between time and money and everyone is on it somewhere. Person A is time rich, money poor and person B is time poor and money rich - that's how the argument is always couched. Yet it's not one straight line, it's two, making up an axis. There's nothing to say that if you have more of one then you must have less of the other.

>This is different from the traditional view of the gamer (MMO or otherwise) as a teen-aged or young-twenties male; that set has more leisure time than disposable income.

Those young-twenties males aren't the ones doing the gold farming.

>even when what is purchasable is not the same as what is obtainable via time-based achievement, the ability to buy anything at all similar to such achievement-objects elicits a negative reaction.

Yes, it does. It still undermines achievement if someone can buy what you have, even if you can get it yourself by investing time. If I could buy a History PhD, telling those people who worked for 3 years to get one that it's worth the same as theirs is not going to go down well. Likewise, if I'm a WoW player who spends half an hour a day doing random dailies to get the tokens I need to buy a piece of the armour I want every few weeks, I'm not going to be pleased if someone can just buy it for dollars; in my view, I deserve it, they don't.

>The difference between us is, I believe, that you see "a good many" being a few thousand perhaps who scowl and stamp and object to purchasable items in-game, while the "good many" I'm looking at are the tens of millions who have heartily approved of this with their behavior.

I can look at the hundreds of millions who think MMOs are worthless and have never played them and never will, too. They'll play Bejewelled and Canasta all day long.

What we're arguing over here is boundaries. As I said, I don't mind it if MMOs are watered down, so long as we still have some that haven't been watered-down. I believe the latter offer something that the former don't, as I see a step change between them. I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) that you see it as a continuum with no discontinuity, with the hardest of hard-core PD MUDs at one end and the wimpiest of stroke a fluffy bunny together games at the other. For me, there comes a point at which a virtual world ceases to be a virtual world and becomes something else instead. This isn't to say that this something else is inferior or better, it's just different. It doesn't do what MMOs do, it does something else. That something else is just as valid, but we're now out of the province of MMOs and into a different domain.

>Yes, central to this was the ability for both groups to feel "right" in their actions, and also wronged by the other group: the nobility could always feel cheated and robbed by the poorer ships crews, and the ships crews could always feel the nobility of the adventurer and the need to get out from under the thumb of the nobles. Not that this would stop ship owners who become wealthy from buying into the gentry, or gentleman-adventurers from taking out their somewhat shinier ships for fun and profit. The lines could become blurred and tangled in interesting ways. Or that was the plan. So it goes.

I hope you or someone else gets a chance to implement it, it's a very classy and original idea.

Richard

Posted Apr 22, 2010 5:57:37 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus>In WoW, the primary gate is 5000 gold (as I understand it), which is probably alot more gold than people have without trying (assuming no RMT).

They still have to pay most of that for this new flying horse. The bulk of the in-game cost comes as training in the "cold flying" skill that lets you use such a mount, not for the mount itself.

>So it is a money game they are playing with very very limited marxist options to make virtual money

Where did the idea that it was Marxist come from?

>Basically it comes down to minimizing risk and maximizing gain.

There isn't a lot of risk involved. If you play, you're going to get a steady stream of in-game income without a lot of effort. If you specifically aim to acquire money, you can get more but it usually involves doing less entertaining things.

>I'm still at a loss to understand why you force someone to play a money game for an explicit gameplay benefit but you are insistent that currency exchange is outlawed.

Because the gameplay benefit disappears if currency exchange is allowed.

Suppose that you were an immensely wealthy philanthropist who operated an MMO without feeling the need to make any profit. Anything that players can get in the game for game money, you could give away for free. There's no need for a money exchange - if a player wants more gold, they merely have to ask and you will shower it on their head. So, would you do this? Well no, because the fact that game money can not be conjured from thin air is an important characteristic of it; it is the bedrock of the in-game economy, about which much gameplay is constructed. If people can acquire in-game currency, or acquire what the in-game currency can buy, merely by pressing the "give me gold" button, the gameplay is spoiled. All you do by charging people real money to press the button is limit the number of people who get to spoil the game.

>Pay-per-quest or pay-per-instance would work in a way that preserves achievement without the needless re-use of content as well, I would think.

It would have to be handled carefully, but I guess it could work. The more you ask people to pay for something up-front, the more they are likely to pass, so charging someone 10c every time they entered an instance would annoy them. However, if you bought "instances" in batches of 100 for $10, OK, I guess they may go along with that.

>It's also economic.
So what you're saying, then, is that people buy skis because in the end it means they get to spend more time skiing?

OK, so why would they buy RMT gold if that means, in the end, they get to spend less time playing?

Richard

Posted Apr 22, 2010 6:20:16 AM | link

robusticus says:

> Where did the idea that it was Marxist come from?

That's my thought, though while independent I'm sure is not original. It is a situation where the best way to generate wealth is to replace human thought with automation. If that's not Marxist I don't know what is.

> All you do by charging people real money to press the button is limit the number of people who get to spoil the game.

Well you said yourself in the same post that generating wealth requires "less entertaining things"... so it spoils those lesser activities, perhaps. Disregarding cold hard cash as a significant gate is generally a perspective of people who have plenty of it without having to spend much time to get it. Which is why I made the comment about juxtaposition.

> OK, so why would they buy RMT gold if that means, in the end, they get to spend less time playing?

No, just like with skiing RMT enables people to spend more time playing the way they want to play. Skipping over the "less entertaining things" and moving to experience success in the more entertaining parts.

You mentioned that non-RMTers have a problem with RMTers. I don't think that is absolute, and in some cases the opposite. If you ski with a group of people who own skiis and you don't, there are social issues because they have to wait or leave you at the beginning and they have to wait at the end while you return your rentals.

Similar with the mounts. If you're rolling on the RMT 400% sparkle pony with someone who uses the "free" mount gained from that long quest with the really tough boss but only goes 300%... well, you're waiting for them on your way to your group adventure wondering why they are so cheap or broke they don't RMT a good mount.

It isn't zero sum. If it were (and sometimes it is) I would totally agree.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 9:13:58 AM | link

robusticus says:

And on the flipside, as someone who doesn't own skiis and doesn't RMT you may admire those with such a dedication level and love-of-the-game that they are willing to part with their cold hard cash to perform at a higher level. Especially if it is a case where you are well off IRL and they aren't.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 9:18:45 AM | link

robusticus says:

Oh and another thought I had regading loud players who throw a fit about RMT cheapening their lofty achievements... those types also tend to get frustrated that their voice carries the same minimal weight with the developer that any casual scrub does, because they pay the same to play. In a scalable model their voice would actually carry much more weight due to heavier cash investment thus they would have more power to influence the direction of the game.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 9:29:03 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

I think with all the tossing around of phrases like "market forces" and "currency demand" we may be forgetting that WoW is a very successful game. It has gotten that way despite (or because of) it's stance on RMT. Only now, with its growth under threat for the first time, has it finally succumbed to its first - very minor - RMT-conferred advantage on players. So whatever your particular feelings, you can not deny that the subscription model WORKS.

It's possible a pay-for-instance, pay-for-level, or other system may be the wave of the future. But these solutions still ignore Blizz's primary problem: new player attrition. I think a safe bet is that new WoW players are more casual. They see a level cap of 80 and think, when they ding 10, "Holy crap I have to do this for another 70 levels?" You can't really argue that this is an economy problem, because if you quit before level 10 you barely know anything about the economy. You don't know that you're that short on cash.

No, this is a legacy, backwards-compatibility problem. They've built a game for hardcore players, and although they've tried to mitigate the problems for casuals, they're reaping what they've sewn in stagnating sales. Blizzard has to do what it can with WoW, and try to fix these long-term issues in their next-gen MMO. I just hope that with WoW, the use of RMT remains as minor as the celestial steed. I hope that before their plans for RMT become more ambitious, they consider alternatives (I'm still a fan of player welfare).

Posted Apr 22, 2010 10:49:19 AM | link

SusanC says:

I get the feeling that the notion of "makes the experience better" could do with being examined more closely... To use terms from Jean Baudrillard, it is "functional value" (what it enables you to do) or "sign value" (what message about you it conveys to others)?

Some items in MMO are purely sign value, in that they don't affect the gameplay at all. Items with functional value (enabling you to kill monsters faster, or whatever) might still have significant sign value, in that people might be mainly aquiring them as status symbols.

This would have been worrying if the horse had functionality that was beyond that already available to purchasers, but Blizzard have studiously avoided that.

There's an ideas expressed by Dr. Bartle and others that RMT is OK for purely cosmetic items, but not for functional items. I don't necessarily disagree with that view, but I wonder how it could be justified theoretically.

There's a bit in Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life where he remarks that in the US, wealth plays a bigger part in determining relative status than it does in some other societies. (I forget the eact quote, and my copy of the book is at home). This seems possibly relevant here: status in MMOs potentially exists on several different axes, but RMT risks collapsing the structure down to a single dimension, that of (real life) wealth.

Dr. Bartle's idea of only having RMT for cosmetic items would preserve a two dimensional structure of status symbols: those that could be bought on the RMT markets, and those that are acquired through game play (some combination of skill and time).

Posted Apr 22, 2010 11:02:58 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, a few thoughts:

If you don't buy the hero's journey argument, OK, well you're not going to buy the idea that RMT ruins it, either.

I guess I don't really buy that the hero's journey is the MMO's USP; if anythng, I would say that single-player RPGs (say, KOTOR as a possible example) are closer to Campbell's notion of the HJ. There's no real journey (no transformation, either personal or in-character, beyond a linear ramp in power) -- or no more than there is in say, a beer ad on TV. I don't mean to denigrate MMO gameplay, but neither should we puff it up beyond what's actual or reasonable.

It's a generational issue, yes, but that doesn't mean we have to hold up our hands and surrender to it. Something important is being lost here.

This is what I don't get. What is being lost? Later you say that RMT-MMOs and other new games are "watered down" compared to traditional MMOs, but then say that they aren't inferior, just different. But clearly as you say here you believe something vital is being lost. You list a few possibilities, but none of these seem singular to MMOs, or in danger of being lost. So I can't help but feel like you're just mourning the change in fashion as others have mourned the passing of disco, screwball comedies, or pinball arcades.

1) People who have played MMOs that are getting more and more watered-down turn to new or bespoke MMOs that are truer to the concept.

I have to wonder who will fund these bespoke MMOs. I don't believe they exist, or are likely to. MMOs that are "truer to the concept" have not done well (see: Vanguard).

2) MMOs become more and more anodyne, with the cost of entry remaining so high that no indie can make a viable alternative to what the big guys are making

This has been the situation for at least five years. Believe me, I know this one first hand, with lots of hard knocks.

What we're arguing over here is boundaries. As I said, I don't mind it if MMOs are watered down, so long as we still have some that haven't been watered-down.

I think this is part of my bewilderment with your argument. You seem to be arguing from an etherial view where MMOs are necessarily available in some Pure Form because they are simply a Good Thing.

But this isn't how MMOs are made. MMOs are first and last commercial endeavors. Period. Concerns for their fictional integrity, for preserving the magic circle, etc. are, to be blunt, not relevant to how or if MMOs are made.

Given that, arguing that one form is "better" or provides some benefit that is not actually valued by those who pay for them (or not valued by enough people who pay for them to make them viable in the marketplace) is sort of nonsensical. You could assert that MMOs are the one true path to enlightenment -- but if they're too expensive and risky to fund, and if the market moves on from these, then that is irrelevant from any POV that results in actually having an MMO to play.

I don't know what MMOs will become. They won't be what they have been -- nor will they be what other games are now. I hope we're able to infuse them with greater meaning than we ever have in the past. But clinging to a particular passing form seems odd to me.

One of the things I was told about movies and movie deals (when dealing with the difficulties surrounding the Serenity MMO) was that in Hollywood they call these "buses." As in, don't worry, another one will be along soon. That's hard to realize sometimes, certainly in the moment of loss. But that's the way it is: how much you like a story, world, or game-form really doesn't have anything to do with how well it survives in the market, or what it morphs into as time goes by.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 9:47:44 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

Mike: So why not make an MMO that is adaptive to player skill/'leisure' time? Individual game designers would then have more time to focus on creating and improving a game that players will enjoy (and pay for), rather than making up for the design's one-size-fits-all philosophy by designing and selling ability-enhancing products.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 10:32:56 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Working on it, Isaac. Making any MMO is difficult enough... trying to be even a little bit innovative that goes against perceived market forces is like surmounting Mt. Everest.

Which isn't to say it won't be done or can't be done.

But such a game will definitely involve the ability to buy social, decorative, convenience, and even functional items for real money as part of the design. In today's market, I don't see any possibility of that not happening.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 10:53:53 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

Sorry I didn't mean to make it sound so inconsequential - " _just_ make an MMO that does X". I understand it takes more than just snapping one's fingers.

Posted Apr 22, 2010 11:07:50 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

You have to snap your fingers twice. :)

Posted Apr 22, 2010 11:17:55 PM | link

Shava Nerad says:

> Pay-per-quest or pay-per-instance would work in
> a way that preserves achievement without the
> needless re-use of content as well, I would think.

This is pretty much the basis of the model that DDO (Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online) has adopted in their RMT model. They charge for potions, bags, and you have to pay to be a monk. But mostly you pay for access to modules just like people(content), just like a lot of folks used to do with the tabletop version of (A)D&D.

In the blog article I wrote, referenced above, I pointed out that we have a history of games (and sports) in the West that benefit from money. On the game side, Magic, the Gathering comes immediately to mind. Many people play Magic for fun, but if you want to play in tournaments, it's likely you'll be shelling out for card packs and individual cards to build the decks you want.

People who are skilled with less money-tuned decks are admired, but ultimately, a skilled tournament player with a solid gold deck will win over a skilled player with an average collection, or even above average. Tournament Magic is not cheap.

Likewise many sports require more money to get that edge (similar to PvP games online). The newest Speedo high-tech swimsuit is likely to mean the difference in Olympic level competition between breaking or not breaking a world record.

The better funded football (either kind) team will recruit better players, have better practice fields and equipment, and will likely have an edge over less well funded/sponsored teams.

The idea that RMT isn't fair is an *oasis* over-all, from real life. In real life, we are fatter, slower, shorter than our avatar counterparts. It's the nerd's idealization of sport -- a computer game where money and brawn are secondary to understanding a problem, engineering a proper set of methods, and working with others to become a hero! What proper geek wouldn't want that.

But RMT invaded this Eden and it's hard to give up on the idea that intelligence, problem solving, obsession, and cooperative play aren't the final answers to success. That's the early world of these games from MUDs to recently. Hell, even Infocom games, I remember spending evenings at the Third East lounge at MIT hacking around problems cooperatively and sharing information socially, and that was our game.

But, just as professional sports diminish the term "amateur" from "doing it for the love" to "doing it not as well as a pro," RMT will inevitably break up the Eden of the folks who want to just do it for the love. Not for the absolute number of the level, or the DPS, but for the absolute joy of solving the puzzle or finding the perfect way to direct your raid to defeat a boss *finally*.

So in a way, I think we split the Achievers into two: Achievers who think bigger is better (RMT) and Achievers who love immersion and accomplishment solely on their own wits.

Maybe we need a new Bartle Test?

Going to polish this up and post it on my Gamasutra blog. *Wonderful* discussion!

Posted Apr 23, 2010 2:16:42 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Me> Where did the idea that it was Marxist come from?
robusticus>It is a situation where the best way to generate wealth is to replace human thought with automation. If that's not Marxist I don't know what is.

So you're saying that Blizzard is the bourgoisie who owns the means of production, the players are the proletariat who they exploit and dominate, and that the players should therefore rise to seize the means of production and put it into collective ownership?

Yeah, you're right: you don't know what Marxist is.

>you said yourself in the same post that generating wealth requires "less entertaining things"... so it spoils those lesser activities, perhaps.

Or it could be the contrast that makes the entertaining things entertaining? Being wiped in a raid isn't entertaining, but it makes winning a raid you've wiped on many times more entertaining when you finally do it. Also, it's a matter of taste: for some people, those less entertaining things are more entertaining.

>No, just like with skiing RMT enables people to spend more time playing the way they want to play. Skipping over the "less entertaining things" and moving to experience success in the more entertaining parts.

This wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that their skipping over this content has a negative effect on the players who view "success" in the entertaining parts as being predicated on having done the less entertaining parts. Back to my analogy: you don't get to have the kudos that comes with being a History PhD unless you spend 3 years of grinding to get a History PhD.

Instead of thinking about skis, think about qualifications.

>you're waiting for them on your way to your group adventure wondering why they are so cheap or broke they don't RMT a good mount.

Or you could just wonder why Blizzard doesn't provide insta-teleport for free. They could, so why don't they?

>you may admire those with such a dedication level and love-of-the-game that they are willing to part with their cold hard cash to perform at a higher level.

They only love part of the game, otherwise they wouldn't be paying to skip the rest of it.

Besides, it's only a "higher level" if not everyone does it. If everyone does it, it's the same level. When you splash out to buy an advantage, it's only an advantage when not everyone can afford it. If everyone can afford it, you don't get an advantage, you're just paying to avoid having a disadvantage.

>Oh and another thought I had regading loud players who throw a fit about RMT cheapening their lofty achievements...

Indeed. However, most people who don't think RMT is fair are not "loud players", they're just regular players who want what they do to mean something.

Richard

Posted Apr 23, 2010 5:21:52 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

SusanC>I get the feeling that the notion of "makes the experience better" could do with being examined more closely...

It could. The problem is that people have different ideas of what "better" means.

>Items with functional value (enabling you to kill monsters faster, or whatever) might still have significant sign value, in that people might be mainly aquiring them as status symbols.

They could be acquiring them as the means to obtain further functional or sign value objects. I want the big sword not because it looks cool but because it means I'll get to the next level quicker.

>There's an ideas expressed by Dr. Bartle and others that RMT is OK for purely cosmetic items, but not for functional items.

Actually, there's a further school of thought that says it's not even good for cosmetic items, as this spoils players' sense of immersion. If you see someone wearing bright red armour and there's no way to get bright red armour within the context of the virtual world, that disrupts your experience. Some strong role-players, who throw themselves into their characters, could have an issue with this for example. Although it's only a relatively small group of people who are likely to be affected by this, that doesn't mean their views aren't valid; it just means there are going to be fewer MMOs that share their views.

>I don't necessarily disagree with that view, but I wonder how it could be justified theoretically.

The reason why many players don't like the ability to buy functional improvements with real money is that they feel what they have achieved in the game is a qualification. If someone can obtain that same qualification using means outside the framework that these players believe they themselves operated within, then that reduces the value of their qualification. For MMOs, there is a distinct real/virtual boundary that players will into existence so they can believe the virtual world to be separate from the real world. This means it's doubly bad for them if someone crosses that boundary to undermine their qualification. Cosmetic changes, while bringing down the boundary (see my earlier point) don't bring down the qualification as they have no meaning within the context of the virtual world.

As for why players hold these views, the theory for that is outlined

Some items in MMO are purely sign value, in that they don't affect the gameplay at all. Items with functional value (enabling you to kill monsters faster, or whatever) might still have significant sign value, in that people might be mainly aquiring them as status symbols.

This would have been worrying if the horse had functionality that was beyond that already available to purchasers, but Blizzard have studiously avoided that.

There's an ideas expressed by Dr. Bartle and others that RMT is OK for purely cosmetic items, but not for functional items. I don't necessarily disagree with that view, but I wonder how it could be justified theoretically.

There's a bit in Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life where he remarks that in the US, wealth plays a bigger part in determining relative status than it does in some other societies. (I forget the eact quote, and my copy of the book is at home). This seems possibly relevant here: status in MMOs potentially exists on several different axes, but RMT risks collapsing the structure down to a single dimension, that of (real life) wealth.

Dr. Bartle's idea of only having RMT for cosmetic items would preserve a two dimensional structure of status symbols: those that could be bought on the RMT markets, and those that are acquired through game play (some combination of skill and time).">here.

Richard

Posted Apr 23, 2010 5:43:57 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike>I guess I don't really buy that the hero's journey is the MMO's USP; if anythng, I would say that single-player RPGs (say, KOTOR as a possible example) are closer to Campbell's notion of the HJ.

Well let's not get into a talk about that or this thread is going to go on forever. I do believe that there is personal transformation through playing MMOs, but if you don't then there's no point in our arguing ourselves to a standstill over it.

>This is what I don't get. What is being lost?

The transformative ability of MMOs.

>Later you say that RMT-MMOs and other new games are "watered down" compared to traditional MMOs, but then say that they aren't inferior, just different.

They're inferior if what you want is to be and become who you really are. They're not inferior - and could well be better - if that's not what you want. However, if that IS what you want, you're not going to find it in many other places (KOTOR included).

>I can't help but feel like you're just mourning the change in fashion as others have mourned the passing of disco, screwball comedies, or pinball arcades.

No, it's not that at all. I genuinely believe that there is something important that MMOs deliver which you can't get pretty well anywhere else. It's not a lament of the passing of the superseded past (although I was sorry to see the end of pinballs, and have written two screwball comedy screenplays myself); it's frustration that a golden locket is being buried under mounds of sand.

Because you don't think that MMOs offer anything exceptional, you're not going to have a problem with this: plenty of people like beaches, and the locket isn't made of gold anyway. I don't have a problem with people liking beaches either; my problem is that I think the locket is made of gold, and it's getting lost in the sand.

That's what it pretty well comes down to here: I think MMOs offer something unique and you don't. Both our arguments make sense based on our respective axioms, but if we don't agree to disagree then we're going to spend the rest of forever trying to persuade each other that we're right.

>I have to wonder who will fund these bespoke MMOs.

CCP?

For the real diehards, no-one has to make them. You can get this sort of thing in a cheap text MUD. However, I concede that until people have the ability to make graphical worlds as inexpensively as we used to make textual worlds, this is something some distance away.

>MMOs that are "truer to the concept" have not done well (see: Vanguard).

It has to be more than merely true to the concept to succeed. It has to launch in a state of completion, have a decent genre and unsucky gameplay, too. Oh, and not switch to RMT two years after launch.

>This has been the situation for at least five years.

Five? More like 10 or 12 if you ask me!

>You seem to be arguing from an etherial view where MMOs are necessarily available in some Pure Form because they are simply a Good Thing.

No, I'm not basing my argument on some quasi-religious view that they have innate goodness, I'm saying they can provide a service you can't easily get anywhere else, and that watering them down reduces the effectiveness of this service to barely noticeable levels. The service is of exceptional value to those who want or need it. So, either virtual worlds will be made that provide it, spinning off those that don't into a (probably much larger) sub-group, or they'll effectively disappear until the concept is rediscovered.

OK, so you don't believe they offer such a service, and I do. However, to explain my reasons I would have to go right the way from start to finish from player types to hero's journey, fighting over every single point, and when I got to the end we'd both have spent hours and hours here, the thread would be 300 posts long, and in all probability neither of us will have changed our views. Agree to disagree?

>But this isn't how MMOs are made. MMOs are first and last commercial endeavors.

They weren't when they were MUDs. Give it a few more decades and they might be hobbyist projects again.

>Concerns for their fictional integrity, for preserving the magic circle, etc. are, to be blunt, not relevant to how or if MMOs are made.

At the moment, yes, except for a few projects like ATITD and Love.

>if they're too expensive and risky to fund, and if the market moves on from these, then that is irrelevant from any POV that results in actually having an MMO to play.

It's getting so that almost all MMOs are too expensive and risky to fund. It's not just "art house" back-to-their-roots MMOs that don't get made, it's all the rest, too. There are hundreds that die in production for every one that staggers blinking into the daylight - and most of those that do make it can't be regarded as having lived up to their promises. By your argument, we shouldn't bother working in MMOs at all.

>clinging to a particular passing form seems odd to me.

It's not the form that's important, it's the content. We had something no-one else had, and now we're throwing it away to get something that everyone else has. The only difference between our views is that you don't think we ever had it in the first place.

Richard

Posted Apr 23, 2010 6:58:01 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, FWIW, I believe MMOs are unique in what they offer... we just don't agree on what it is that they offer. I can easily get more heroic transformation, more immersion, more "becoming myself" in a table-top D&D game (or in a few single-player games like Portal or KOTOR). I have not seen examples of this in any MMO. So yes, I believe you're mourning the passing of an illusory quality.

I do think that virtual worlds offer some fascinating and unique capabilities and opportunities for us as individuals and communities (e.g., these are the only context in which communities can be formed ex nihilo without regard to pre-existing community or physical conditions). But I don't believe any MMOG (or non-game VW for that matter) has lived up to this promise as yet.

Nor do I believe that the increasingly ossified MMOG genre is the matrix for this -- but some offshoot is likely to be. Barring the sudden philanthropy of a Gates or Branson, we will get there through commercial success, not in spite of it. This means embracing new forms and seeing what they can bring us, not clinging to old ones because of how they used to make us feel.

Posted Apr 23, 2010 10:43:56 AM | link

robusticus says:

> Blizzard is the bourgoisie

Well I meant that there is no bourgoisie, there are no hereos, the hero's journey just goes in the same circle Groundhog Day style, day after day. But that didn't happen by revolution, the world was just made that way. But yeah, they do have some serious ownership issues, don't they?

> Or it could be the contrast that makes the entertaining things entertaining?

Well I thought the contrast was supposed to be with getting up and going to work/school day after day. But I can see if you don't have to do that how that would be true.

> Also, it's a matter of taste: for some people, those less entertaining things are more entertaining.

No accounting for the very many exotic and esoteric things small groups of people do for thrills. But providing an RMT option doesn't preclude those who enjoy griding from doing it that way if that's what floats their boat. NOT providing an RMT option DOES preclude those who DON'T enjoy it from getting a mount. Which makes them, as you say, question why they play. Apparently, they can't find an answer.

> Or you could just wonder why Blizzard doesn't provide insta-teleport for free. They could, so why don't they?

Blizzard is part of a large, publicly traded US corporation. There isn't any need to wonder why they do anything. But yeah, I always prefered ArenaNet's implementation.

Anyway... Hero's Journey, Achievement, Celebration of Identity. Got it. (Though that last bit is still a bit fuzzy). Thanks again. I tend to agree about the golden locket but my view is the sub model is the sand. It may be RMT is just a different sort but it seems to fit the mould a lot better.

Posted Apr 23, 2010 10:50:17 AM | link

CherryBomb says:

Shava Nerad wrote:

As I wrote recently on Gamasutra, Virtual Goods are a Fashion Industry. It would be great if you could tease out how many people:

* bought the steed for flash
* bought the steed for function
* bought the steed for function and hate the flash
* bought the steed for function and are ambivalent about the flash

You could test this, and I would be very interested to see the results. Offer something for sale (like a mount in WoW) that has the same functionality as an object that is available through game play without paying extra. Offer it in two versions: One identical to the one you "achieve" in-game, and one glittery (and prettier) such that everyone else knows you paid cash for it.

My guess is that a lot of people would buy the plain version because they want other players to believe they did the grind for it and be admired for that. That is my feeling, but I dunno. Have to do the experiment.

Posted Apr 23, 2010 5:54:51 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>I can easily get more heroic transformation, more immersion, more "becoming myself" in a table-top D&D game

Well, I guess you could if you played it for 2-4 hours every night for 2 years, yes.

>I have not seen examples of this in any MMO.

I've seen it too many times not to believe it's there. I've seen it less in recent years, though.

>This means embracing new forms and seeing what they can bring us, not clinging to old ones because of how they used to make us feel.

They never made me feel that way; I've always been a designer, not a player. I don't have any personal nostalgia for the way they used to feel in the old days, because I never felt it.

I'm like a horticulturalist who discovered a new wonder food plant which was rich in taste and nutrition, from which people bred new varieties that offered better taste and better nutrition, but which also had pretty flowers. Eventually, people saw they could make more money from selling the ones with pretty flowers and they bred for those instead, losing the taste and nutrition in the process. Someone whose first experience is of the pretty flours wouldn't even know they're a wonder food. Eventually, though, the need for food will become enough of an imperative that people will go back to older varieties and make new ones from those. Perhaps they'll be both a wonder food and pretty?

Richard

Posted Apr 24, 2010 7:10:37 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus>Well I meant that there is no bourgoisie, there are no hereos, the hero's journey just goes in the same circle Groundhog Day style, day after day.

There isn't actually any virtual world, either, it's just a construct in the minds of the players. They have to will themselves to believe that none of the above is true in order to experience an MMO. They have to believe that the virtul world is in a "natural" state, that what they're doing in it matters, that they are advancing even though they're merely repeating what they always did just with different dressing - they have to believe all this. However, they do believe this, because the rewards they get for doing so are worth it. Having obtained those rewards they will look at things objectively again and decide whether or not to continue playing. One of the long-term problems we have with today's MMOs is that people continue to play when they no longer need to, because they don't realise that what they came to do, they've done.

>they do have some serious ownership issues, don't they?

So who should own WoW? There aren't actually all that many ownership models possible.

>Well I thought the contrast was supposed to be with getting up and going to work/school day after day.

A player who views the reason they play as basically escapism only needs the virtual to counterbalance the real. It can do this either by a constant weight, or by the average of a set of weights. If you prefer your fun to come in a steady stream, OK, you go with the former (which is more the socialiser approach); if you prefer some variety, you'll go with the latter (which is more the achiever approach). Not everyone plays for the same reasons.

>But providing an RMT option doesn't preclude those who enjoy griding from doing it that way if that's what floats their boat.

Ah, but it does if part of the reason they do it is because they're trying to prove something to themselves. It's important to some people that their play has value; if that value can be had for $5, well that puts it into an unwelcome perspective. They see the purchase they make at the end of their grinding as reward for the grinding; they wouldn't just grind for fun if they didn't get the reward.

>NOT providing an RMT option DOES preclude those who DON'T enjoy it from getting a mount.

No: not providing a "press the button and get the mount for free" option precludes it. There's nothing about what you say that means this has to be done using RMT. What you're saying is that if people don't want to do any of the many and varied things that will get them in-game money to buy a mount, but they want a mount, then they should have one. Making people pay for one is mere opportunism. So, that being the case, if I want anything at all in an MMO but don't enjoy jumping through the gameplay hoops to get it, why can't I just fill in a form on a web site and get it? By your argument, the people who enjoy grinding to get the money will still be OK, and the people who don't enjoy whatever content don't have to endure it. You'd be in favour of such a system, yes?

>It may be RMT is just a different sort but it seems to fit the mould a lot better.

I think we both know what we mean by RMT here, but for the benefit of people reading this later I should point out that formally there are actually three things going on:
1) RMT, or Real Money Trading, is where players buy things from each other, or from organisations that industrialise playing, using real money. Sometimes this is allowed by the developer under the EULA, but most often it's not (at least in the West).
2) Microtransactions is where the developer sells the players game goods or services for real money. This can be done either directly, as with WoW's horse, or indirectly as in Puzzle Pirates (you buy a second currency, then use that currency to buy things - including regular in-game currency).
3) Freemium, or F2P (Free to Play), is as with microtransactions except the developer gives the game software away basically for free and sustains it from microtransactions. Typically, the sweet spot is where some 90%-95% of players don't pay a bean and the remainder spend far more than they ever would in a subscription model.

We've been talking about all three of these using RMT as a shorthand, but actually there are differences. There are some microtransaction MMOs that don't allow RMT (Earth Eternal is one, I believe).

Richard

Posted Apr 24, 2010 7:40:33 AM | link

robusticus says:

> It's important to some people that their play has value; if that value can be had for $5, well that puts it into an unwelcome perspective.

So you're saying that an achievement may feel or be perceived as equivalence of earning a PhD in history but that if you put a USD label on it that feeling and perception is diminished. Even if in reality the achievement has a monetary equivalence of mowing X number of lawns (where X isn't even a very high number, depending on where the lawn is). That's what you mean when you say the conceit of the virtual world. Fair enough.

> By your argument, the people who enjoy grinding to get the money will still be OK, and the people who don't enjoy whatever content don't have to endure it. You'd be in favour of such a system, yes?

When it comes to mounts (or more broadly, NPC economies), yes, I am for that money going to the operator. They are theoretically in the best position and have the most motivation to apply that capital towards improving the health of the virtual world (avatar birthrate > deathrate). Other mechanics probably not so much but with those I probably just wouldn't implement them altogether.

Posted Apr 24, 2010 12:02:54 PM | link

robusticus says:

To be clear I should say I am for that money being collected by the operator directly from the players, wholly sanctioned.

Posted Apr 24, 2010 12:17:42 PM | link

SusanC says:

Offer something for sale (like a mount in WoW) that has the same functionality as an object that is available through game play without paying extra. Offer it in two versions: One identical to the one you "achieve" in-game, and one glittery (and prettier) such that everyone else knows you paid cash for it.

I think that would be a really interesting experiment to do. You could also turn it around: have three functionally equivalent objects (A, B and C). Either A or B can be obtained through grinding, C can be bought with RMT, and B is visually identical to C.

Posted Apr 24, 2010 1:45:31 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

@robusticus

It is true that you could find ways to impute dollar values of cultural notions of prestige and accomplishment. That doesn't means society has chosen to do so, nor that it should. I don't pay my mother for raising me. I don't charge money for the gifts I give to friends. If I'm a fireman, I get respect, adoration, and prestige, as well as money. Sure, I can probably buy one (adoration, prestige, respect) with the other (money) to some extent, but that is subject to very high diminishing returns.

The relationships we have with one another are more than just economic. My concern is that game developers/operators risk pushing economic and market relationships and statuses into areas where, in real life, we wouldn't want them. We would not want many of our relationships and accomplishments to be converted into their monetary equivalences. Why would we want that to be true in our virtual worlds?

Posted Apr 24, 2010 2:12:58 PM | link

CherryBomb says:

Richard, your "freemium" model seems to be the one developers are chasing these days. But there are people O/C enough, like me, who actually *count* the number of buys they get, and it just does not add up to enough. I can't figure out where the money is coming from.

Posted Apr 24, 2010 6:05:29 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus>So you're saying that an achievement may feel or be perceived as equivalence of earning a PhD in history

Well, it feels like earning a qualification, in the same way that earning a PhD does, but I wouldn't say it was at the same level of experience (ie. that a level 80 WoW character is worth the same as a PhD in history).

>but that if you put a USD label on it that feeling and perception is diminished.

Not if you put the label on it so much as if you put a price on it that you can buy it for. It's not that it has a value of $5, it's that you can buy it for $5. I suspect that they wouldn't be quite as upset if the value were something they thought meaningful - $500 instead of $5 - but they would still feel it wasn't right. If a PhD could be bought for $3m, it still wouldn't please those who worked for theirs to find that it didn't mean quite what they thought it meant.

>When it comes to mounts (or more broadly, NPC economies), yes, I am for that money going to the operator.

No, I meant for free. The operator doesn't charge you for getting online gold in the game, the game gives it away. If there were no harm in letting people who don't want to grind for gold just have it, then the operator could provide some place in the game where you could just go and get the gold for free. The people who like grinding can still do it the old-fashioned way and the people who don't like it can have as much as they like by pressing the button on the vending machine - for free.

>To be clear I should say I am for that money being collected by the operator directly from the players, wholly sanctioned.

Yes, I'm OK with that if the game is designed that way. Personally, I think it spoils the game, but designers and developers have a right to do what they like, so that's fine by me. Someone may hit on a winning formula that works (Mike's had promise, for example) so we could end up with the best of both worlds.

Richard

Posted Apr 25, 2010 7:04:50 AM | link

robusticus says:

@SusanC > A, B and C

Yes, that is something that is part of the New Shiny Business Model. It is used to tune content to popularity, and helps with conversion rate.

From this discussion though I'm learning there may be something to test for other than popularity (content that is liked by the most poeple). You could also test for content that is liked a great deal by a few and not at all by the most.

Posted Apr 25, 2010 9:33:49 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

CherryBomb>Richard, your "freemium" model seems to be the one developers are chasing these days. But there are people O/C enough, like me, who actually *count* the number of buys they get, and it just does not add up to enough. I can't figure out where the money is coming from.

Well what happens is that small numbers of people pay much, much more than the rest. In the case of Puzzle Pirates, which always gets mentioned because Daniel James is very free with its data, only 10% of the user base has ever given the game any money at all. It makes most of its quarter of a million dollars a month income from about 5,000 users, who pay an average of $50 a month each. Most of those don't pay anywhere near $50, though - it's the ones who spend hundreds that make up the average.

Here's some data from a 2006 paper by MacInnes et al (figure 4) in which 1,247 gamers from Korea were interviewed about their microtransaction spend per year:

$0...............851
$1-$99.........70
$100-$499...12
$500-$999.....1
$1,000+.....313

The highest single spend was one person who splashed out $86,754 a year. Two others spent over $10,000.

So, it looks as if the reason that your sums don't add up is that although your spend may be typical of those who buy virtual good, there are some atypical buyers who more than compensate for you to bring up the average.

Richard

Posted Apr 25, 2010 9:57:39 AM | link

robusticus says:

> Yes, I'm OK with that if the game is designed that way. Personally, I think it spoils the game, but designers and developers have a right to do what they like, so that's fine by me.

Unfortunately for your standpoint the converse is true as well. Choosing not to monetize transfers possession of that value to the players.

On the qualifications point I think you are arguing transferability. Without an analog to independent accreditation. Besides, the mastery plateau is out of sync and adds to the surpluss. You would not argue it takes the same qualifications when talking about your second character?

Posted Apr 25, 2010 2:36:25 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, I've been thinking about the analogy you've made several times in this thread to someone "buying" a history PhD as a way of showing how "buying" items in game devalues someone else's "achievement" (all quotes on purpose).

For example, you said, I don't have a PhD in History. I don't have the time do study for a PhD in History. I do have savings. Why can't I just buy a PhD in History from a reputable university? It's just a piece of paper.

First, a PhD is more than just a piece of paper as you know: it represents an original contribution to the corpus of knowledge in a given field. So even if someone could buy the paper and the letters, they couldn't buy the originality and additional knowledge they had illuminated.

You went on to say: It doesn't matter whether this is how you see things, it's how a good many players see it.

Some. A few, compared to the overall market. Not that their feelings are unimportant... they just appear to be less and less relevant in any commercial sense. Full anti-RMT hard-core gamers are, I think, quickly becoming the analog of those who were sure paper hex-gaming (and maybe disco) would never die, and any computerized versions were a travesty (I worked in a game store in the early 1980s, and this debate was common and passionate, just like today).

... They regard what they have achieved as a qualification, and they are not happy when someone else can buy that qualification. If all they're buying is a fancier-looking certificate for their PhD, or a running number edged in gilt, OK, that doesn't undermine the qualification. If it makes a tangible difference, though, they object. This isn't some outdated cultural artefact about "earning" something, it's about meeting internal criteria using external means.

Your argument falls apart because we're not talking about anything remotely like PhDs. As accomplishments go, we're talking about something more like "riding a roller coaster hundreds of times." Fun, for those who enjoy them, time-consuming, and requiring a certain amount of dedication and fortitude. But also not of any external or overt value other than maybe to other roller coaster fanatics. See for example this CNN iReport.

The guy in this video is "working hard" to "earn" his accomplishment -- riding over and over again and keeping his own records -- even though there's no level or badge attached. But suppose there was some visible award for this, say a picture of a trophy he could carry around (since online games don't give you a tangible trophy either).

Now, suppose too that the park he was riding at allowed people to pay little extra to not have to wait in line; this is common in many parks. This means that potentially someone else could get to this guy's record faster! And get the picture of the trophy before him!

Is that a problem?

Would it even be a problem if the park sold similar pictures of trophies in the gift shop? Would anyone really take someone seriously if they said, "hey, you just bought your picture-of-a-trophy, I earned mine!"

No, I don't think many would. Nor would protestations about the transformative growth experience had while riding over and over again ("grinding" the coaster) hold much water for many people, despite the enlightenment that one might actually gain while riding over and over again.

Riding a coaster over and over or leveling to 80 are accomplishments, of a sort. But let's be clear about this: these are entertainment, and set against anything else we do in life, these are at best faux accomplishments. Leveling to 80 in WoW or beating a huge boss monster may be exciting and immersive, but when all is said and done this is all just... entertainment.

Those of us who develop or study MMOGs may take them very seriously for various reasons. But we should never forget that no matter how we dress this up, no matter how meaningful or even artistic these experiences may become, when all is said and done, they are entertainment.

Posted Apr 27, 2010 12:10:50 PM | link

Jessica Healy says:

As a small sidenote to this very interesting discussion, text MUDs seem to be taking a page from MMOs' economic books, but in ways that come across as far more satisfactorily to users on both sides of the time/money divide. For example, Iron Realms Entertainment, probably the biggest commercial MUD franchise, has started offering the option to purchase "chalices" off their website - when used in game, these double your xp gain for a set period. This seems an interesting way to approach balancing the grinding and time-based needs of playing with those who would rather use disposable income to reach top levels of potential.

The key for this working, though, is that it doesn't automatically make you stronger than other players. It just makes you potentially stronger, by helping you get to that level cap quicker (or, in the case of other purchaseable things, makes you hit a bit harder or tank a bit better). You still need skill to exploit that strength, however - in MMOs, because of various factors, equipment seems a much larger determinant on success than player ability, so I have a strong feeling that's part of why you see such a kneejerk reaction against people being able to directly purchase, with real cash, high quality gear.

Posted Apr 27, 2010 1:02:56 PM | link

CherryBomb says:

Richard, the MacInnes paper really is looking at people buying from third-parties, not via microtransactions directly from the game company. That's the business model I was talking about.

No question, some (like Puzzle Pirates) are doing quite well with it, but many, many people trying this are simply never going to generate enough traffic to pay the rent.

Posted Apr 27, 2010 8:37:52 PM | link

CherryBomb says:

Richard, the MacInnes paper really is looking at people buying from third-parties, not via microtransactions directly from the game company. That's the business model I was talking about.

No question, some (like Puzzle Pirates) are doing quite well with it, but many, many people trying this are simply never going to generate enough traffic to pay the rent.

Posted Apr 27, 2010 8:37:52 PM | link

robusticus says:

I think you gotta be an educator to appreciate the PhD analogy. I mean, it isn't real clear what the use value would be.

Knighthood on the other hand. OMG, want!! How much? $3B? Before anyone objects think of the benefit to the state. I don't follow the UK economy that closely but if it's anything like what's going on in the states they'll be fairly desperate to close those budget gaps. Selling knighthood would do nicely. And what true knight would object to such a noble cause? Surely not Elton. (Not that I have B more like T if you're thinking of hitting me up to fund that virtual economy pitri dish)

The ability for players to fall in love with each other is more to the point, I think. That too is transferred posession, and a right to posession via duly executed contract and acceptance of tender. And non-transferable (at least with base coinage). Even if players probably aren't allowed to own that love, they still have it, just like the keenah. Which could be a problem.

How's good old Iron Realms doing these days? Revenue, content and users all growing I hope.

I'd like to see a dual currency model with one based on USD. Gresham's Law (Coppernicus) says that USD would never be used. In other words, an end to RMT.

Yes, that's right, I've downloaded to my brain via Wiki the knowledge equivalence of a degree in economics so that I can win this argument. It wasn't a very long download either, and my bandwidth ain't all that.

I wonder if the explorer player type is the most expensive to please. Instead of the word grind I will now use "Gossen's First Law" in all the virtual debates on virtual economies.

I did think the mount subject very good. Because anybody who plays an MMO to win, straight up knows that most of those fastest-mounts-in-the-game are obtained with RMT anyway. But you can explain it with marginalism - mounts are high priced and low use value. You have to be exceedingly wealthy to own one.

Posted Apr 27, 2010 9:39:57 PM | link

robusticus says:

Oh and I forgot. I looked it up. 5000 gold = $25. Coincidence?

Posted Apr 27, 2010 9:41:43 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

CherryBomb - few if any game companies have people buy directly from them; the liabilities are too great. These days it's much easier to trade off 5%-30% of the gross revenue to have a third party handle the credit card transactions and such (also the sometimes scammy offers and surveys).

For stats on this, see some of the posts on my blog such as One Winner or Many and Better Revenue Forecasting for Social Games.

The short of it is that many social games are doing quite well for their developers -- more both as a percentage and numerically than in any other area of game development. The revenue metric of about $20 per day per 1000 daily users seems to hold up across many games, even with only 2-5% of players actually paying in any given month.

Of course not all games do well. Some even with a lot of press make a horrible sound as they smack into the ground.

But overall, the rise of virtual item sales in browser-based online games has done more for broad-based game development than anything in the past thirty or more years: budgets are lower, development times are shorter, there are no retail channels to worry about, and revenues are more direct and more dispersed (not so based on the whims of hard-core gamers).


P.S. Is that the John Mellencamp or Cherie Currie Cherry Bomb? :)

Posted Apr 27, 2010 9:44:46 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>First, a PhD is more than just a piece of paper as you know: it represents an original contribution to the corpus of knowledge in a given field.

This is how a good many achievers see their level or gear or whatever other metric they use to measure attainment. To them, it means something.

>So even if someone could buy the paper and the letters, they couldn't buy the originality and additional knowledge they had illuminated.

No, but they could go around calling themselves Dr Whatever and getting any kudos and respect that comes with it.

>Not that their feelings are unimportant... they just appear to be less and less relevant in any commercial sense.

What you're saying is that as the market for MMOs expands, the population density of those who are value achievement in this way is falling. Fair enough. In absolute terms, though, their numbers could be increasing for all we know. If money is how you judge success, there's still money to be made from them, albeit not as much in total as there is from the newer, more relaxed achievers in total. Then again, if it were market sectors you were looking at, you wouldn't be looking at the games industry anyway, you'd be looking at pharmaceuticals.

>Your argument falls apart because we're not talking about anything remotely like PhDs.

Yes we are. Many achievers really do feel they're earning rewards for their achievements, and they really do get angry if people can get those same rewards through some back door. If you don't get this, then that would explain why you don't see it as an issue.

>As accomplishments go, we're talking about something more like "riding a roller coaster hundreds of times." Fun, for those who enjoy them, time-consuming, and requiring a certain amount of dedication and fortitude.

That's how it may look to you, but it's not how it looks to the players. They started to play a game that has an initial goal of reaching level X, and when they reach level X they feel they've accomplished something. If other people get to level X using some method that's not in the spirit of the game, they will resent this. Now from the outside, sure, all they've done is used different methods to cause a single number in a database to change, but it's the meaning that the players put on it that matters here.

>This means that potentially someone else could get to this guy's record faster! And get the picture of the trophy before him!
>Is that a problem?

You'd have to ask the guy, but my guess is that no, it wouldn't be, because fast-pass tickets fall within what he considers the be the legitimate playing field. If, however, someone were to hire the park at night and get unlimited rides, then he may call foul. If those rides only took half as long because they followed a maintenance route and missed out a long section of regular track, he definitely would.

>Would it even be a problem if the park sold similar pictures of trophies in the gift shop?

It would be a problem if they sold actual trophies with names on them. Then, anyone could "prove" they'd ridden the roller coaster 100 times.

>Would anyone really take someone seriously if they said, "hey, you just bought your picture-of-a-trophy, I earned mine!"

The person who earned theirs would, just as someone who earned a medal would complain if there were other people wearing it. To an outsider, riding roller coasters relentlessly may be regarded as an oddball thing to do, but to those who do it it's very important. The same applies to any activity for which there are awards: if you think what they're getting the award for is no big thing, then sure, you might for a laugh wear the badge or put up the certificate and tell people that you won greetings card rhyme of the year competition; to you, it's not a big deal. To those who live that life, though, it IS a big deal, and you just casually undermined what they were striving for.

So it is with MMOs. You don't have to believe that going up levels and getting a monster gear score is important; you do, however, have to believe that there are people who DO think this is important, and who will not want to play games that don't respect their view.

I agree, though, that there are going to be many more people in general who think these people take their fun far too seriously, and will have no problem playing (for free) in a game where a few rich kids pay to skip content. I just don't think that the people who do take achievement seriously should be dismissed as out-dated irrelevances. They're getting something from their play that the others aren't.

In 1981, I got a day pass to Clacton Pier and rode its roller coaster 14 times in a row. I got off, because by then the fun had diminished to near zero. I may not understand what the people who ride them hundreds of times in a row get out of it, but I do understand how they'd feel if someone could just buy a block of the same photos they used to prove they'd ridden the ride without actually having done so.

>these are entertainment, and set against anything else we do in life, these are at best faux accomplishments.

People who play MMOs know they're not real, but while playing they will themselves to believe they are real, so as to get the benefits of immersion that come with this. So yes, they're not "real", but they're treated as though they are because that's where much of the power of MMOs derives.

You don't have to agree that what these players are doing is sane or commonplace, but that's how it is with them. You're basically saying that they're taking it too seriously, "it's just a game"; they're saying that you don't take it seriously enough, "it's a game".

>Leveling to 80 in WoW or beating a huge boss monster may be exciting and immersive, but when all is said and done this is all just... entertainment.

So's baseball, but I don't see people allowed to pay for the privilege of using loaded bats.

>when all is said and done, they are entertainment.

I agree. It's just that different people find different things entertaining.

Richard

Posted Apr 28, 2010 3:39:54 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

CherryBomb>Richard, the MacInnes paper really is looking at people buying from third-parties, not via microtransactions directly from the game company. That's the business model I was talking about.

Yes, you're right, it is. I was using it as a quick-and-dirty way of showing how one user's payment pattern may not be reflective of those of other users who pay. The basic point is that some people spend spectacular amounts of money compared to others.

As an analogy, whenever there are surveys done that compare how often heterosexual men and women have sex, men always come out having it more often than women. This always used to be put down to the boastfulness of men, but then one survey netted a prostitute who alone had had more partners than all the rest of the women in the survey combined. It wasn't that men were lying, it was that there were rare women accounting for large numbers of men and balancing it out.

With freemium, we have most people paying very little, a few paying a passable amount, and a tiny percentage paying so much that it skews the figures. That's what seems to happen, anyway.

Oh, the MacInnes figures are also a little unusual for Western markets because many of the $1,000+ people were probably guildmasters buying things for their guild that several people had chipped in for, so the numbers could be murky there.

>many, many people trying this are simply never going to generate enough traffic to pay the rent.

Indeed. If they don't get a few high rollers, they'll struggle.

Richard

Posted Apr 28, 2010 3:52:35 AM | link

Jessica Healy says:

>How's good old Iron Realms doing these days? Revenue, content and users all growing I hope.

Yes to all, though they still rely on the business model of player volunteers. However, if that threatened bandwidth charge for internet usage ever goes through, I see a potential for MUDs - or smaller, low-graphic/high social/politics MMOs - having a chance to take over the market. People will still want to game, and suddenly these cheaper alternatives might see a spike. Just a very random tangent.

More on topic, I would happily have paid $100 or so to level to max in WoW or to get decent gear, and not for the time investment it saves me but for something this debate seems to be overlooking - social pressure. When you play a game like WoW, where your own advancement is dependent upon others for raiding purposes or whatnot, being behind the curve suddenly becomes a social stigma (you notice this most especially when you are dating someone who also plays. I don't advise it :P). Regardless of time investment or income, you want to stay up with your group, and if purchases can help you achieve that, all the better, because falling behind the curve in a multiplayer game -feels- just as harsh as falling behind the curve in normal social interactions. Perhaps more so, because of the lack of polite filter functions the internet tends to have.

I'd even go a step further and cite the "female gamer" mentality - yes, it's a generalization, but it's an accurate one. Many of us want to be useful and to help others. If you give us options to be so, especially above and beyond the norm, we will, at the least, consider them. Combined with the fact that, as already cited in this discussion, the slightly average majority of MMO players are females of a maternal age...well, then, it's just easy pickings.

Posted Apr 28, 2010 4:07:37 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

robusticus>I think you gotta be an educator to appreciate the PhD analogy. I mean, it isn't real clear what the use value would be.

The value is that people assume you got the PhD on merit, so treat you differently. If you believe that the way you are treated would be better than you are treated at the moment, OK, you might pay to have people call you Dr Robusticus. It's just a piece of paper after all. However, if you're already Dr Robusticus because you got a PhD the hard way, and you meet someone who has bought a PhD and is accorded the same (what you might see as) privileges as you, then you would probably feel cross.

As a different analogy, people in the US military are given Purple Hearts for being wounded or killed in action. The US government could make a lot of money selling Purple Hearts to people who have not been wounded, or who haven't even been in the US military. Those who got their medals for bona fide reasons would be outraged at this: those medals mean something.

Indeed they do mean something. For many MMO players, their character's status means something. Obviously it's not as emotive or powerful a meaning as a Purple Heart, but nevertheless it's something they are not happy to see sold.

>Knighthood on the other hand. OMG, want!! How much? $3B?

No, you can get them much cheaper than that. Become a Commonwealth citizen, give $50K very publicly to charities for 5 years, then make a private donation of $250K to a major political party (it doesn't even have to be in government) and there you have it. You could even get a peerage out of it if you did it right.

>Selling knighthood would do nicely.

Yes, which is exactly what used to happen until the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925.

>How's good old Iron Realms doing these days? Revenue, content and users all growing I hope.

You'd have to ask Matt Mihaly, but from what I hear it's doing very well indeed.

>anybody who plays an MMO to win, straight up knows that most of those fastest-mounts-in-the-game are obtained with RMT anyway.

Well this is like saying that most 100m runners know that so-and-so is taking performance-enhancing drugs. It may give them the moral high ground, but unless the practice is outlawed it won't give them the gold medals.

Richard

Posted Apr 28, 2010 4:10:23 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard:

I said: Your argument falls apart because we're not talking about anything remotely like PhDs.

And you responded: Yes we are. Many achievers really do feel they're earning rewards for their achievements..

Their feelings (and even their anger) notwithstanding, your argument is nonsensical on its face. You are saying that because an individual might accord similar value to an achievement in a game and earning a PhD, that we should do the same. That makes no sense. You would then have to argue that we (society, game developers, whomever) also have to put the same value that any individual puts on anything they value, whether it’s their tea cozy collection, a sand castle they’ve built (“funds must be diverted from libraries to stop the sea encroaching on it, because I value it so highly!”), or their imaginary friends.

The value that an individual puts on something has no inherent bearing on the value that others must put on it. In any non-idiosyncratic, non-egotistical view, no in-game achievement has anything like the real world achievement of earning a PhD (or even that of completing a college course, or say, cleaning your room). It's true that there may be secondary value aspects, such as someone becoming more assertive through leading a guild, but outcomes like this have no "achievement" tied to them and gain their own value in how the individual behaves in their real life.

In other words, in-game achievements may make an individual feel better, but that does not mean that that achievement has any other, external value at all. Meaning that a developer providing other paths to the same visible award (level, trophy, etc.) may or may not anger a subset of the players, but if it does there is no inherent "value" basis that they can claim as the basis for their anger (the counter-argument is that their anger is actually just evidence of their realization of the actual nature of their achievement).

I said (and I stand by this analogy): As accomplishments go, we're talking about something more like "riding a roller coaster hundreds of times." Fun, for those who enjoy them, time-consuming, and requiring a certain amount of dedication and fortitude.

You said, That's how it may look to you, but it's not how it looks to the players.

“The players,” Richard? I think you mean, “that small subset of vocal players who continue to be upset about this sort of thing,” a subset that I would argue is small enough to not be all that commercially significant (and becoming less so all the time).

You may say that the “commercial” concern isn’t the most important part of this, and I’ll tell you it’s the only part. Of course design and the overall experience are important, but if you cannot create those in a commercially viable fashion, they are completely irrelevant (as for the players’ feelings, some subset of them will always be upset about something you did or didn’t do; the basis for achievement is no more likely to incur their wrath than the height of the dwarves or the length of the elves’ ears). This will remain the case until someone manages to create a viable non-commercial MMOG. Like I said before, if you count Gates or Branson in your circle of friends that might be possible; otherwise I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Posted Apr 28, 2010 10:26:05 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

I understand you both are fairly entwined with the industry in your respective ways, but there is a lot of claims flying around about the size of the population declaiming RMT and the intensity of its declamations (amongst players of MMOs like WoW, EQI/II, EVE, etc.) and I wonder how much hard knowledge anyone actually has about those feelings.

On the one hand, Mike, I suspect Richard's notion is correct: the group of individuals who dislike RMT is nontrivial . He is also right that while relatively speaking their numbers are smaller, they are in an absolute sense still willing to pay $15/month, and there are potentially hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of such individuals. It would be a gross failure of markets if this population were not served relatively well by developers.

On the other hand, Richard, most of those who care may not care very much. Small changes to the RMT policy, where things like mounts and cosmetic items are sold, are unlikely to press out even a small minority of players. Offer a non-RMT server for $16/month, and see how many flock to it. I'm thinking few will. We might see a different reaction if Blizz's RMT policy becomes much more lax.

Finally, maybe one other reason to decry RMT in WoW right now is because it can be construed as a little exploitative. For years, Blizz has stayed out of RMT, put a great deal of effort into comabatting it, and in so doing enjoyed a reputation amongst players as committed to 'pure' play. In this context, players have developed a very strong social network with one another, friendships that are meaningful inside and outside the world. The game is a game, but the world is a place for people to experience life with one another, even if it is mediated through a computer screen. So finally, after all this, Blizz sees that marginal increases in RMT, though aggravating to many players, is unlikely to increase attrition because there are so many ties that bind. Blizz is counting on the fact that people place a great deal of meaning in their achievements and relationships with others to counteract inclinations to leave the game over the introduction of RMT.

It is a business, and that's what businesses do. But it is in recognition of the network externalities that add value to its world that Blizzard introduces RMT with little concern over player retribution.

Posted Apr 28, 2010 11:41:19 AM | link

robusticus says:

> Well this is like saying that most 100m runners know that so-and-so is taking performance-enhancing drugs. It may give them the moral high ground, but unless the practice is outlawed it won't give them the gold medals.

Not so-and-so. All of them, just about. You're demonizing. And while I agree it is an excellent goal to provide an environment where players can acquire moral goods, they should be goods that are non-transferable in fact, not in law. Because outlawing exchange of use-goods obtained lawfully will not prevent it, and you will be forced to sink copious amounts of resources into fighting it. And you may achieve some injunctions and mass avatar executions... if you have the historic backing of the entire country of France's national debt. And you may feel proud that you have maintained the sanctity of your game in your view. But if your revenue is falling year over year your shareholders may not see it the same way.

Posted Apr 28, 2010 11:42:47 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>You are saying that because an individual might accord similar value to an achievement in a game and earning a PhD, that we should do the same.

No I'm not. I'm saying you can do what you like, but just because you don't feel the same way about MMOs as these players that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be heard by someone else. The way you're talking, they're some kind of dinosaur facing extinction for being an evolutionary dead-end. I see them more as tigers who are losing their habitat because of deforestation - with you arguing that the forests should be chopped down.

>You would then have to argue that we (society, game developers, whomever) also have to put the same value that any individual puts on anything they value

We don't have to, no, of course not. However, we don't NOT have to. We can do both. Your argument is all about the relentless advance of the micropayments revenue model and how it will sweep all before it. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't forget that there are people who don't like that revenue model, and never will like it, and there's a place for creating games for them. Your view seems to be that these individuals are misguided or just plain wrong and don't deserve to be listened to. My view is that their opinions aren't crazy, they do make sense, and even if you don't agree with them they exist in sufficient numbers for products aimed at them to be commercially viable. You may see them as luddites who won't move with the times, but it's not as if they're trying to stop you doing what you want to do - they just want to be able to continue doing what they want to do.

>In any non-idiosyncratic, non-egotistical view, no in-game achievement has anything like the real world achievement of earning a PhD

I know, I wasn't saying that the magnitude was the same. That's just an analogy. If you prefer, go with something less spectacular like a boy scouts woodworking badge or something. If I spend 6 weeks earning my badge and you spend $6 buying it, I'm still going to be upset.

>In other words, in-game achievements may make an individual feel better, but that does not mean that that achievement has any other, external value at all.

"Feeling better" is all it needs to have. In the long run, that's all games are about: entertainment is "feeling better".

>“The players,” Richard? I think you mean, “that small subset of vocal players who continue to be upset about this sort of thing,”

I meant "the players we were talking about", who you may characterise in this disparaging way, but whom I regard as that part of the broad church of players who have a stronger idea of what constitutes fair play than others.

>a subset that I would argue is small enough to not be all that commercially significant (and becoming less so all the time).

They were commercially significant enough to get the industry rolling. All that's happened is that others have also become commercially significant, and there are more of them potentially paying more money. In relative terms, sure, you may be able to make more money if you can capture large numbers of these players, but you'll still make a lot if you capture not-so-large numbers of those players who are also gamers.

>You may say that the “commercial” concern isn’t the most important part of this, and I’ll tell you it’s the only part.

Right now, yes. Not forever, though.

>This will remain the case until someone manages to create a viable non-commercial MMOG.

Well, "recreate" maybe - we've had them in the past. All that's stopping it right now is the lack of cheap tools and assets.

Richard

Posted Apr 29, 2010 5:27:55 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Isaac Knowles>most of those who care may not care very much. Small changes to the RMT policy, where things like mounts and cosmetic items are sold, are unlikely to press out even a small minority of players.

If these sales are basically cosmetic, then sure, it's not going to worry too many people. It'll annoy those who cherish immersion and role-play, but they're few and far between. The real problem comes when you sell things that affect achievement.

>Offer a non-RMT server for $16/month, and see how many flock to it. I'm thinking few will.

If Blizzard didn't offer the horse for sale on RP servers, that might be interesting. I'm sure there would be people calling for it as a prop for role-playing with, but strictly speaking it's external to the universe so they shouldn't be allowed to have it (even if they do try to come up with a cover story for why paying $25 in a different universe should get them a horsie).

I haven't checked, but I don't suppose that many people on the RP servers are complaining about it - mainly because so few players on those servers do actually role-play.

>Blizz is counting on the fact that people place a great deal of meaning in their achievements and relationships with others to counteract inclinations to leave the game over the introduction of RMT.

So what you're saying is that Blizzard is using players' social capital as a way to keep them in place while they milk them. This is only going to work if the players don't leave en masse though. It's not at all unprecedented for entire guilds to up sticks and change games - WoW itself has benefitted this way at times. Social relationships are sticky, but they stick people to people so it's not quite as sticky as people, not people to games.

Richard

Posted Apr 29, 2010 5:38:14 AM | link

robusticus says:

"Because outlawing exchange of use-goods obtained lawfully will not prevent it"

I'm actually over-stating. It isn't outlawing exchange totally. It is only outlawing exchange of natural goods for certain other types of natural goods. The transaction is perfectly legal in its entirety if the buyer's natural goods are obtained as you approve.

You listened to that kid who dropped out of college to play and argue fiercely and frequently about the evils and unfairness of RMT? But then when he got tired of the rollercoaster after his 200,000th ride couldn't resist cashing in his accounts for a nice sum. A sum that your customer service department vicariously contributed towards.

It is impossible to attribute morality or immorality to currency by itself. That I think is the central fallacy of all arguments presented as fair play.

But what do I know. I don't even play WoW, so I'm just speculating. And resting this case, for now at least. ;)

Posted Apr 29, 2010 8:35:43 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard: just because you don't feel the same way about MMOs as these players that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be heard by someone else.

Of course. Anyone is free to make whatever sort of game they want. I'm not arguing that only RMT games should be made; if someone wants to make a no-RMT game that's great -- I might even play it.

But see, I'm not arguing from a particular moral position, that one option is better than the other, or that the other is more dilute, loses something important, etc., as you have. To me these are merely commercial choices in response to emerging markets. If someone wants to buck the market, good for them.

The way you're talking, they're some kind of dinosaur facing extinction for being an evolutionary dead-end. I see them more as tigers who are losing their habitat because of deforestation - with you arguing that the forests should be chopped down.

This is what I mean about you arguing from a moral position. We're not talking about endangered species any more than we're talking about PhDs -- the magnitude you put on these is out of line with any actual moral concern. As I said before, I don't think the achievement in a game warrants the same concern you'd give to even cleaning your room, much less a PhD, endangered tigers, or even a woodcarving badge in Scouts. The feelings in-game achievements engender are real, but that does not mean they have any real-world moral magnitude whatsoever.

And FWIW, I'm not arguing for chopping down any forests -- to the extent your analogy is useful, I'm saying the forest has moved on. It's not a naturally occurring forest that someone is chopping down; it's a bunch of trees that people planted on purpose, and which they have now largely taken to other locations where the trees grow better. You, in effect, are ignoring the fact that the trees are not simply a forest, or are hoping they'll return someday.

The commercial aspect of this is really at its core, and is one you appear unwilling to accept.

I said, You may say that the “commercial” concern isn’t the most important part of this, and I’ll tell you it’s the only part.

To which you replied, Right now, yes. Not forever, though. ... All that's stopping it right now is the lack of cheap tools and assets.

That's more than a little. And it's not all. The virtual world/MMOG market is not what it was 5 or 10, much less 20 or more years ago. What worked then will not work now, anymore than recreating urban transportation with oxcarts and pennyfarthing bicycles will work today.

It's possible of course that free or inexpensive server software, graphical engines, client UIs, networking layers, asset creation and management systems, hosting computers, bandwidth, metrics and service tools, and other pieces required for an MMO will come along -- but I think not likely. As Ted discovered, creating a non-commercial modern MMO is a much larger more complicated task than it might first appear, even when you have some funding and ready access to tools and labor.

Of course even without access to a broad range of free or low-cost technology and assets someone could make a no-RMT game, and they'd find a ready market for it. Whether that market is sufficient to sustain such a project is another question. With games in costing in the range of $20MM or so, it's unlikely to say the least -- any additional risk is too much risk, in effect. But of course some person or company could choose to do this anyway. That's their choice.

But portraying that choice as catering to endangered species, people who have a proper regard for the achievement of a PhD, or even as serving "the broad church of players who have a stronger idea of what constitutes fair play than others" is just a form of special-pleading: you're in effect attempting to create a moral position where none exists. It's arguing for what you want, for how you think things ought to be, for what you miss from the old days, not arguing from how things actually are, and what the large majority of players have amply demonstrated that they want.

The market for MMOs has changed. Maybe it will change again, who knows (well, we know it will change again, just not in what direction!). But arguing against virtual item sales in games, or saying that such games are lesser in some way is not actually arguing for fair-play or valuing bona fide achievement. It's just valuing the way these games used to be over the way they are now ... because that's how they used to be.

Posted Apr 29, 2010 10:22:17 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

> So what you're saying is that Blizzard is using players' social capital as a way to keep them in place while they milk them.

It certainly makes demand for their game less responsive to changes in their enjoyment of actual play.

> It's not at all unprecedented for entire guilds to up sticks and change games - WoW itself has benefitted this way at times. Social relationships are sticky, but they stick people to people so it's not quite as sticky as people, not people to games.

Sure. Except this time the question has to be "Where do we go?" There is no obvious answer to that. It would be like a bunch of friends on facebook deciding they are going to use friendster out of protest for text ads. Guild members may be closely tied to the guild, but they also have connections outside of it. Furthermore, you don't have to stop paying for your WoW sub just because another game becomes your primary focus. (Although having the time to level up somewhere else means you have less money to pay for other things, or so i hear)


Posted Apr 29, 2010 10:27:48 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Isaac: Except this time the question has to be "Where do we go?" There is no obvious answer to that.

Since at least 2006 I've been asking people showing new MMOs two questions: "if I'm already playing WoW, why would I change to your game? And if I'm not playing an MMO, why would I start with yours?"

It's surprising how few have any solid answer to this. I've heard non-answers like, "our textures are better," and semi-answers like "our world is bigger."

A few games -- LOTRO, DDO, and SWTOR -- have intellectual-property answers to that question, for fans of their worlds. Others seem to be searching for an answer other than, "well, we're here so they should play." I'll be interested for example in how TERA differentiates itself, and to see how even SWTOR fares (even if some of its budget estimates seem a little high there's no denying it has to do very well in the market to survive).

Posted Apr 29, 2010 10:40:33 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

@ Mike

THe fact that people don't know where to go, however, should say something about the statement that, at base, "MMOs are just entertainment"

Precisely because they are not just games, neither are they just entertainment. They are social networks. They are a form of competitive team sport. They are a medium of expression. Advancement in them requires a substantial investment of scarce resources. These things make the cost of switching very high. It means that people who don't want something to happen will nonetheless maintain their toon(s).

So I think RMT diminishes the experience for a lot of people, without necessarily setting off a mass exodus. Summed over enough players, that margin of disappointment becomes an area large enough that a game-maker can profit by using other revenue generating mechanisms to grow.

Personally, I'd pay 15.99/month if it meant no RMT in WoW.

Posted Apr 29, 2010 9:07:25 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>I'm not arguing that only RMT games should be made; if someone wants to make a no-RMT game that's great -- I might even play it.

It did seem that you were being dismissive of people who wanted a non-RMT game as being soon-to-be-irrelevant relics of a fading past. If that's not what you meant, OK, sorry for the misunderstanding.

>But see, I'm not arguing from a particular moral position, that one option is better than the other, or that the other is more dilute, loses something important, etc., as you have.

I wouldn't characterise that position in terms of its morality: morality has nothing to do with it.

Years ago, we used to get these triangle diagrams with a "hard core" point at the top and a "care bear" line at the bottom. There were fewer people in the hard core than in the care bears. Then we'd see this triangle form its own small triangle at the tip of a larger triangle with "mainstream" at the bottom. If only we could get the mainstream interested, what riches awaited!

Well, we now have the mainstream interested, and riches do await. To get to them, OK, we have to be as soft an alternative to care bears as care bears were to the hard core, but we can do it; we are doing it, in fact.

The whole structure hangs from the tip, though. That's where the definition of what's beneath it flows from. It's the same in any artistic field: you have the leading edge, which is only attractive to (and in some cases, eg. modern art, only accessible to) the cogniscenti. The rest flows from this tip. The rules and aesthetics for this tip are arcane in comparison to the base of the pyramid, but they are what those who understand the form understand to be important. It's like this in sculpture, dance, fashion, literature, movies, ... It's like this in MMOs.

At our tip, the people who are playing are outright gamers. They're why these things are even called "games". There may not be many of them in comparison to the mass below, but they're what gives context to the whole triangle. They're the core of what an MMO player "is". They're why this is an "MMO players" tree and not an "online games players" tree.

If the distance between the tip and the base is too great, such that the base no longer finds the tip relevant, then it will tear off, land in a heap and make its own, new triangle in its own, new area. This could possibly be what's happening now, although I don't think it is personally. Another aspect of the old triangle drawings we used to see was that players tended to move up the triangle (ie. gain a more sophisticated palate), and this is what usually happens. If the upward flow of people is too slow or the downward artistic coherence too interrupted, then we get a shear. Movies used to be recorded theatre; they're not any more.

So when I defend those people who have this very particular game-oriented view of MMOs, I'm defending the MMO form. If you cut off the head, the rest of it may run around for a while, but it will have to grow a new head fairly soon or it's going to stop.

>To me these are merely commercial choices in response to emerging markets.

I see MMOs as art, not commerce. I judge them not by how much money they make, but by how they affect individuals. I suspect this may be at the core of our disagreement (and also why I'm never going to be rich!).

>This is what I mean about you arguing from a moral position. We're not talking about endangered species any more than we're talking about PhDs

Jeez, they're just analogies... Analogies are used to highlight the basic point; once this is established, you then get to apply the "like that only not as big" function to it. So:
1) Achievement in MMOs feels, to many players, like a qualification.
2) You don't see why that's an issue.
2.1) Another qualification is a PhD in History.
2.2) People who get a PhD in History would be outraged if they could be bought and sold.
2.3) You do see why that's an issue.
3) Achievements in MMOs are like that, only not as big.
4) Now you see why it is that undermining achievement is an issue.

>I don't think the achievement in a game warrants the same concern you'd give to even cleaning your room, much less a PhD, endangered tigers, or even a woodcarving badge in Scouts.

You don't have to think any of that. All you have to do is understand that there are some players who do think like that.

>The feelings in-game achievements engender are real, but that does not mean they have any real-world moral magnitude whatsoever.

The players are real-world entities. Their feelings may be about virtual achievements, but those feelings are real.

>The commercial aspect of this is really at its core, and is one you appear unwilling to accept.

I accept that at the moment it's important. However, I add that it derives from the artistic imperatives of the core concepts at the heart of what a virtual world "is". If you sever that connection, or don't even recognise its existence, then your commerce will suffer.

>The virtual world/MMOG market is not what it was 5 or 10, much less 20 or more years ago.

And it's not what it will be in 20 years' time, either.

How long do you want before people get to be able to create their own virtual worlds as easily as - or easier than - they used to create textual worlds? 50 years? 100? You can have as many as you want. We'll get it eventually.

>It's arguing for what you want, for how you think things ought to be, for what you miss from the old days

What I want is for MMOs to become what they have the potential to become, not to rebecome what they once were. When I started on this, I looked forward because there was no backward to look; I still look forward, and I always will look forward. When people take backward steps, I point out what they've just lost. To you, this may appear to be nostalgia for past glories; for me, it's trying to drag MMOs kicking and screaming into the future.

>It's just valuing the way these games used to be over the way they are now ... because that's how they used to be.

Some used to be like they are now, too. They weren't the ones that moved us forward, though.

Richard

Posted Apr 30, 2010 5:05:27 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard: The whole structure hangs from the tip, though. ... The rules and aesthetics for this tip are arcane in comparison to the base of the pyramid, but they are what those who understand the form understand to be important. ... There may not be many of them in comparison to the mass below, but they're what gives context to the whole triangle. They're the core of what an MMO player "is".

This I would call the presumption of the hardcore. For years most MMO devs thought this was probably the case: sure you want the mass market, but you have to attract the hardcore players first.

But it turns out that if that ever was the case, it no longer is now. So the "tip" quickly becomes relevant only to itself, and not to any larger context. I think this is probably one of the sources of the differences in our our points of view here: you're arguing that the tip is more important, and that without them something vital is lost. I'm saying that the hardcore tip is important in its own context, but that the context of MMOs and virtual worlds has so far exceeded their view that they no longer define or drive context.

If the distance between the tip and the base is too great, such that the base no longer finds the tip relevant, then it will tear off, land in a heap and make its own, new triangle in its own, new area. This could possibly be what's happening now, although I don't think it is personally.

I wonder on what basis you don't think this is happening, or has happened. Consider: there are at least 10x the number of people playing graphical MMOs as play text MUDs (perhaps even 100x). The vast majority of those who play one do not play the other. These have evolved into different things with different aesthetics.

So too, there are at least 10x, perhaps as much a 100x the number of people playing new persistent-world avatar-based games that don't happen to carry the label MMO (though some do) that are fast evolving into something else as well: the designs, goals, genres, player interactions, and revenue models are growing more different all the time. There are definitely MMO roots there, even if most of the developers making these new games have never developed an MMO (as with early MMO devs and MUD devs). And yes, the gameplay is still thin to say the least -- again recapitulating former evolution from rich MUDs to thin early MMOs.

This is really my point: MMOs are evolving. Sure, WoW, LOTRO, SWTOR, and a few others will remain and be successful in their sphere. Evolution doesn't mean the former generation simply dies off. But after SWTOR, how many more heavy-client, traditional-gameplay MMOs do you expect to see? My guess is a handful in the next few years. Maybe 3 or so, maybe as many as 5. Maybe.

And of those (including SWTOR) how many will not incorporate virtual item sales in some way? Almost certainly the answer to that is zero. I base this on the fact that DDO saw its revenues jump over 500% when they dropped their traditional subscription model and went free-to-play with virtual item sales instead. You have to believe that every other MMO game dev and publisher out there has heard that loud and clear.

I see MMOs as art, not commerce.

A privileged position, and one I find curious even from an academic POV. It is impossible to divorce commerce from MMOs -- even more so than for movies, say, where there is a tradition of patronage in making "art house" movies that may or may not have any commercial success (though even there they try). In games in general and MMOs in particular, we have no such patronage system (more's the pity).

MMOs -- new and old forms -- are commercial. If they aren't, they don't exist. Yes, someday maybe they won't be. Someday we'll have free systems and tools and assets and hardware and bandwidth. Maybe. In the meantime, while I would love to see MMOs approach some standing as art (not that I agree with Ebert's turgid, ignorant assessment of games at all), they are undeniably commercial through and through. Assessing them in any other way that does not incorporate their commercial nature is IMO simply turning a blind eye to this inconvenient truth -- a truth that drives their evolution from earlier hardcore forms to newer, mass-market-friendly, free-to-play, virtual-items-purchasing forms.

Posted Apr 30, 2010 8:14:40 AM | link

robusticus says:

> So the "tip" quickly becomes relevant only to itself, and not to any larger context.

Remember, it is still a function of scale invariance. The tip still has relevance but anti-RMT perspectives limit that tip (head) and thereby prevent the tail from growing.

Games create class divisions - that's their point. As a developer, the goal is to provide as many equivalent gates to the upper class as possible. The problem with anti-RMT worlds is they don't reap the benefit of the money gate to the upper class and thus can not acquire casuals at a sufficient rate, not the least of which because they can't offer them a discount or free play.

That's the agenda of the Achiever, though. They will not quit until they possess all of the kinah and nobody else has any, including you. Follow their wants too closely and you are diminishing the head which in turn diminishes the tail, leading to a downward spiral.

If you could get nice gear by being unbelievably skilled like nobody else in the world the achievers would still be pissed in the exact same way they get pissed about RMT. Their goal is to make you live small, as Go players say, it gives them a foil to boost their ego.

Posted Apr 30, 2010 10:29:46 AM | link

CherryBomb says:

"P.S. Is that the John Mellencamp or Cherie Currie Cherry Bomb? :)"

Mike Sellers, it is neither; it is the geologist CherryBomb. Many years ago, I wanted an avatar with a different name to test something in a game I was playing then. Nothing evil, I just needed to be anonymous. For complicated reasons, I got stuck with that avatar for about a year, and just got used to it, so I use CherryBomb for all my game characters now, and my postings. Sort of like eating my cake and having it, too; I can be anonymous and people still know who I am, in context.

Maybe it has gone too far, though, I have been using "CherryBomb" occasionally when writing about stuff I really understand, like paleontology and exploding oil rigs.

Posted Apr 30, 2010 8:57:57 PM | link

robusticus says:

Sorry, one last thought, I know I've been posting on this alot.

On the money collector achiever... if he is true to his word then operator auctioned currency provides a perfect alignment. Because protectionism would guarantee the value of the currency. If he changed his colors at some point he would not be allowed, physically, to transfer his accumulated assets. But while he stays true his status is maintained in the context of the world.

It will be fascinating to watch what degree protectionism is allowed going forward, but for now this is corporate law. When the currency is bread and butter we shall devise protection to make seekers and terminators look like puppies and kittens.

And you would get the side effects that the mainstream cares about. An end to gold spamming and third party involvement.

Posted May 1, 2010 2:17:24 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>This I would call the presumption of the hardcore.

It's only a presumption if you don't believe it's true.

>sure you want the mass market, but you have to attract the hardcore players first.

This worked for many years, but I was never fully persuaded by it. My view is that you need a hard-core to provide evolutionary pressure, but you shouldn't have to target them to the exclusion of everyone else. The prevailing view was that the hard core was where all the money came from, and the aim was to move people up the pyramid to the apex.

In the micropayments world, the people at the top of the pyramid still pay most money, and there's still a view that players should be encouraged to move up the pyramid ("conversion"); however, whereas in the past the bait was supposedly better and more rewarding gameplay, the corresponding bait now is more and more stuff. I don't know how sustainable that is, but there's certainly money to be made from it right now.

>So the "tip" quickly becomes relevant only to itself, and not to any larger context.

This is the same in much art. Some of what fashion designers display on the catwalk is impractical nonsense that could never be worn in public except on a catwalk model; however, ultimately it determines what people will be buying in shopping malls 6-18 months later.

This kind of art is often inaccessible. Others, though, are accessible at one level but not at another. Top chefs, for example, produce menus that have to expand the boundaries of culinary experience but also taste good. It's no use saying something profound through a dish if it tastes like cardboard.

For MMOs, we need somewhere for the experimentation to occur to drive the medium forward. It may be that it's not to the taste of a good many people, but what happens there ripples out.

>I think this is probably one of the sources of the differences in our our points of view here: you're arguing that the tip is more important, and that without them something vital is lost.

Well it depends what you mean by "important". If it's not there, then everything else suffers more than if anything else wasn't there; however, it's not where the money is, so from a financial point of view it's only indirectly important. There's more money in selling bread than in selling grain, but if there's no grain you get no bread either.

>they no longer define or drive context.

This could well be true. I'm sure some of the designers of these casual MMOs have only a vague knowledge of the genre, and pay no attention to it except from what they've got via the paradigm. This would be the pseudopod-splitting-off situation I described earlier.

>that are fast evolving into something else as well: the designs, goals, genres, player interactions, and revenue models are growing more different all the time.

This is what I'd expect. We're seeing evolutionary development that could be leading to a new species. You're betting on the new species; I have no problems with that, but caution there's a DNA link with the old species that won't go away.

>This is really my point: MMOs are evolving.

I agree, but then they always were. The reasons it's happening right now are business-related, which is just as good as any other I guess. What concerns me, though, is that this is leading to a loss of much that is special about virtual worlds. The magic they have is emergent from qualities that are being stripped away. You may not see that as any great loss, or deny that there was anything there in the first place, but that's not my opinion. I've seen the transformative things MMOs can do too often not to believe they do have something that other forms of entertainment don't.

>But after SWTOR, how many more heavy-client, traditional-gameplay MMOs do you expect to see?

The same as before. These things never were all that commonplace. However, I do expect to see far more browser-based or phone-based ones that in the past.

>>I see MMOs as art, not commerce.
>A privileged position, and one I find curious even from an academic POV.

I don't think it's privileged at all. I think not viewing them this way is blinkered.

>It is impossible to divorce commerce from MMOs -- even more so than for movies, say, where there is a tradition of patronage in making "art house" movies that may or may not have any commercial success

Even huge budget movies are art. Avatar was art. It may not be non-movie art, but it's movie art.

>Assessing them in any other way that does not incorporate their commercial nature is IMO simply turning a blind eye to this inconvenient truth

It's the same for any cultural artefact that costs a ton of money to make. MMOs are nothing special here. You want a quality TV drama series that will sell across the world? You need about $20m to make a season of Dr Who. That doesn't mean it's soap opera schlock, though.

>a truth that drives their evolution from earlier hardcore forms to newer, mass-market-friendly, free-to-play, virtual-items-purchasing forms.

And..? Continue beyond there: where do you think we're going next?

Richard

Posted May 3, 2010 6:21:40 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard:

>>>I see MMOs as art, not commerce.
>>A privileged position, and one I find curious even from an academic POV.
>I don't think it's privileged at all. I think not viewing them this way is blinkered.

MMOs do not exist unless they have a very good chance of making money. There are no MMOs that are made without this as their primary goal. There are no MMOs that operate for long without being commercially successful. MMOs may (if you're very lucky) also approach some form of art, but that is, for better or worse, a secondary consideration at best to any commercial consideration.

In your comments you continue to seem to be blind to this overriding reality. For example, you say, "For MMOs, we need somewhere for the experimentation to occur to drive the medium forward. It may be that it's not to the taste of a good many people, but what happens there ripples out."

Such a place or sub-part of the industry for experimentation would be nice, but it's unlikely to happen (despite what we may want or "need"). This happens in the traditional arts (and sometimes in movies) because of patronage that is unconcerned about making an immediate return. It happens in fashion because of fashion houses that make their money on more pedestrian versions of avant garde work.

Such experimentation is vanishingly rare in MMOs. "Love" may be the only extant example of this. In games in general this is also very rare, though we do have some experimental work happening in the indie scene. It is unclear whether this "ripples out" to the more commercial mainstream however.

So, I go back to what I said before: viewing MMOs as art is a privileged position. No one I know who works on MMOs has such a luxury.

where do you think we're going next?

It's always difficult to say of course but a few things seem clear to me:
- free-to-play with item-based revenue streams are quickly becoming the dominant form
- we will see a lot more blurring of single-player, barely multiplayer, and large-scale multiplayer games with persistent worlds
- we will see greater integration of web, mobile, and heavy-client experiences
- play session lengths will vary considerably. The era of people playing 22 hours per week is on the wane. Some will play that much or more, but they will share the world with those who play with much shorter sessions.
- less genre (fantasy and science fiction), more niches opening up.

Other than that, we'll have to wait watch and see.

Posted May 3, 2010 12:22:03 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

>MMOs do not exist unless they have a very good chance of making money. There are no MMOs that are made without this as their primary goal.

Primary goal of whom?

Well of the shareholders of the company developing them, sure, but MMOs aren't made by shareholders, they're made by developers. Developers aren't in it to make money - programmers can earn much more programming in other industries, for example. Sure, they want to be paid for what they do, but their primary aim is to make games. That's why they do it.

Now yes, the business requirements are such that these games must make money. This can mean they have to have a particular revenue model. It's a mistake, however, to confuse the aims of the company with the aims of the individuals working for the company.

>MMOs may (if you're very lucky) also approach some form of art, but that is, for better or worse, a secondary consideration at best to any commercial consideration.

Yet it's a primary consideration for those working on it. The revenue model is merely an extra constraint within which they must work.

>In your comments you continue to seem to be blind to this overriding reality.

In yours, you seem to regard developers as cogs in a machine.

>Such experimentation is vanishingly rare in MMOs. "Love" may be the only extant example of this.

Well, there's A Tale in the Desert too, if it's one-man-bands you want. I'd go further, though, and say that there are established MMOs (Eve Online springs to mind) that have this kind of experimentation, too.

>So, I go back to what I said before: viewing MMOs as art is a privileged position. No one I know who works on MMOs has such a luxury.

It's because they don't call what they do "art". Yet art it is...

>- free-to-play with item-based revenue streams are quickly becoming the dominant form

Agreed. Do you see this as something sustainable in the long term, or will people turn away from it in time (as, you argue, they're now doing with subscription models, and as, in the past, they did with per-hour payment models)?

>we will see a lot more blurring of single-player, barely multiplayer, and large-scale multiplayer games with persistent worlds

Agreed. I believe we differ over whether these can all be called virtual worlds or not.

>we will see greater integration of web, mobile, and heavy-client experiences

Agreed. This hasn't happened as quickly as I was expecting, but it's sure to come eventually.

>play session lengths will vary considerably. The era of people playing 22 hours per week is on the wane. Some will play that much or more, but they will share the world with those who play with much shorter sessions.

This is inevitable if you have more casual players (it's pretty well what "casual" means). They'll share the worlds; I'm not persuaded they'll share the experiences, though.

>less genre (fantasy and science fiction), more niches opening up.

This has been predicted for a while, but we still get the same old favourites. Niches are good for business if you own the niche, but if someone gets in before you then you're stuffed. I think the "must make money" attitudes of investors could be playing a part here. Personally, I'd love to see more niche games, like we had in the old days before stock MUDs came along. Maybe if we wait awhile longer...

Richard

Other than that, we'll have to wait watch and see.

Posted May 4, 2010 2:51:33 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, at the very least we have very different set of experiences in MMO development. I've worked on the development teams for more than a dozen professional MMOGs, and am familiar with the teams on many more. Your comments are not consistent with what I've seen in each of those cases. I wonder which development teams you're basing your comments on, or whether this is your view from within academia?

I said: MMOs do not exist unless they have a very good chance of making money. There are no MMOs that are made without this as their primary goal.

You responded: Primary goal of whom?

The people who make it possible for such games to be made. All the aspirations in the world won't do much if you can't actually get the game made.

Well of the shareholders of the company developing them, sure, but MMOs aren't made by shareholders, they're made by developers.

I think you underestimate how many developers are the shareholders.

Developers aren't in it to make money ...

They really are. Oh, maybe not like Bernie Madoff or Wall Street bankers, but a commercial motivation, including salary, hopefully profit sharing, and often some form of equity in the company, is what makes MMOGs possible for all concerned. Do you know how many MMOs have been released where the programmers, artists, producers, designers, QA, and others in the development process were not paid? Close to zero; maybe one or two -- maybe. And in those cases, the individuals were as they say, "betting on the come" -- they wanted to share in the profits of the sales or of the sale of the game to a publisher. It's simply naive to state otherwise.

It's also true that game development has a lot to attract it besides a salary -- but while part of that is being able to make something interesting and possibly fun (hint: it's rarely a lot of fun for the developers), and of course for your peers to see what you've created, the ability to make money doing so is key to every professional game developer out there.

Yet [making art] is a primary consideration for those working on it. The revenue model is merely an extra constraint within which they must work.

This is an old view, and a model that is the cause of many of the greatest frustrations faced by developers. Divorcing the revenue model from design and development only hurts the game and the developers, and oddly reduces the chances of them being able to produce anything like art.

I said: In your comments you continue to seem to be blind to this overriding reality.

You replied: In yours, you seem to regard developers as cogs in a machine.

Have you seen a typical MMO team? Do you know how large they are, how long the work is, and how regimented? I'm not saying the developers on these teams are unprofessional or anything like that; quite the contrary. They are professionals who do their jobs very well. Very very occasionally they get to contribute something that might represent a level of art to someone else. More often, they hope for profit sharing.

--

I said: free-to-play with item-based revenue streams are quickly becoming the dominant form

You replied: Agreed. Do you see this as something sustainable in the long term, or will people turn away from it in time (as, you argue, they're now doing with subscription models, and as, in the past, they did with per-hour payment models)?

Define long term. Subscriptions have been the dominant model for over fifteen years. That's a a remarkable run. I would say that the subscription model has been sustainable in the long term, but now market conditions are changing.

So yes, I believe virtual item sales as a revenue model is sustainable in the long term. Is that ten years or twenty? I don't know; it depends on the market. But we will not see millions of people suddenly say, "well that was stupid, let's go back to only paying monthly subscriptions" any more than they did that with paying hourly.

I said: less genre (fantasy and science fiction), more niches opening up.

You replied: This has been predicted for a while, but we still get the same old favourites.

Not really. There have been some in the "same old favorites" category like Vanguard, Age of Conan, Warhammer, and Tabula Rasa, all hanging on the edge or outright commercial failures. There's also Aion, EVE, and a few others that are at least somewhat successful. We've also had DDO and LOTRO, two successes -- both based on game-friendly properties and DDO at least surviving by turning to the free-to-play model.

But outside of the typical genres there are MMOs like City of Heroes, Club Penguin, YoVille, Wizard101, Maple Story, FlyFF, Habbo, Gaia Online, Zula World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Webkinz, Puzzle Pirates, Toontown, Fusion Fall, Hello Kitty Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and a long list of others, all doing reasonably well to astonishingly well. I'm sure there have been failures in these broader genres too, but nevertheless, the predictions about more niches opening up are definitely happening.

Posted May 4, 2010 9:20:43 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

Could it be that you are each making fallacies of composition (Richard) and decomposition (Mike)?

That individual developers are creating directed pieces of art (in the form of geography, buildings, UI, character models, gameplay, etc.) does not mean that the company which employs them is itself producing art.

And, on the other hand, just because a company exists to make money on an MMO does not mean its employees (or shareholders) are not, at least in part, in the business of being artists.

Or maybe the issue is that one person is seeing art as always intentional and the other as something we can create unawares. In that case, I agree with Richard. A hammer, for instance, though a practical tool, will nonetheless have the touch of a designer's eye in it. It is a work of art in the sense that it doesn't HAVE to look that way.

None of this means that an artist can't earn money however he/she chooses. I don't see how an artist selling her art (or even producing art to generate income) thusly defiles her art. I suppose you could argue that selling a weapon (say) would be like selling a 1"x1" square of canvas from a copy of the Mona Lisa, but I think that would be a poor analogy. Nevertheless, the sword is still a piece of art in the sense that I think Richard means it.

Is this really the core argument? Art vs. Business? That seems a false dichotomy, as the two are not mutually exclusive in any way. This may really be something as "trivial" as what players really want vs. what players think they want, how these feelings vary across swaths of players, and how big those swaths are. It looks as if no one here knows any useful facts about the actual motivations of players in different games markets, and so the argument has drifted into realms better understood (but not obviously relevant).

Posted May 4, 2010 11:18:01 AM | link

robusticus says:

Mike Sellers > play session lengths will vary considerably. The era of people playing 22 hours per week is on the wane. Some will play that much or more, but they will share the world with those who play with much shorter sessions.

Richard Bartle > This is inevitable if you have more casual players (it's pretty well what "casual" means). They'll share the worlds; I'm not persuaded they'll share the experiences, though.

Actually the word casual means by chance. It may be that this was some grand artistic concept but I doubt it. I suspect rather it was a bug that when analyzed people discovered it would spark an increased investment by some player types which increased their business. I don't think they anticipated that these games get further out of balance as time goes on, which actually hurts business in the long run.

So the core argument I think is inflation versus deflation. I'm still convinced massive deflation is in order. There has to be something else to create value but if not then I suppose from my perspective MMOs will continue to be a side show and a dream.

Posted May 4, 2010 12:03:57 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Isaac, are you suggesting that we might be getting stuck in overly binary positions? Perish the thought!

To your points, the professional developers I know all want to exercise their profession, their craft, and when possible, to make something of beauty, something arresting, something compelling.

But vanishingly few of them do this without a desire to be paid -- and if possible, to get a slice of the commercial success pie.

And, to the point I've been making, it's a mistake to see MMOs as dependent on anything other than commercial success. No commercial success = no MMOG. It really is that simple. I guarantee you that in obtaining funding to create an MMO, the question of art and beauty comes up only in passing, if it comes up at all. In contrast, the questions of commercial risk and success will occupy many hours of careful, thoughtful discussion.

Now that equation doesn't preclude art, but art is not the limiting factor; commerce is. If art exists at all in an MMO, it is because it was carried carefully through the minefield leading to commercial success; too often considerations of "art" have to be dropped along the way just so you can get through to the other side at all.

What this means is that any discussion of what MMOs are, could be, or should be must acknowledge at every step that these constructs are not free-standing things. They are not merely emergent social phenomena. They are not forest that occur naturally. They aren't even degrees or merit badges handed out for effort and knowledge. They are not projects funded by patronage irrespective of their return. They exist only and solely because there is a commercial case for their existence.

Losing sight of that harsh, unforgiving, often unpalatable reality leads to all sorts of errors of reasoning about MMOs and their evolution. Among these errors are those connected to things like "the magic circle," where this circle is taken as something that exists on its own, which is not itself subject to various forms of commercial success.

Similarly, reasoning about "what players want" is necessarily driven by commercial considerations. If that means that the vast majority of players want games that are free to play and where you can buy better items if you want, then that is what developers will produce (and the data on that is clear, per some of my earlier comments).

Due to the commercial necessities inherent in any large, complex game project, questions of whether some experience is diluted or something important and pure is being lost are just not relevant. This is what I meant by saying discussions of MMOs as art are coming from a position of privilege: art is good and desirable, and if you're someone who studies MMOs, that may be a valid discussion. Those who actually make these things, who provide them so that others can study them, have no such luxury.

Posted May 4, 2010 12:13:27 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

At the risk of pounding home this point like a stake through the heart of an already-dead vampire, there was a quote rolling around in my head that I managed to find.

Here's the thing: making games is incredibly difficult. And risky. I've worked with large and small companies in diverse areas of software for more than 25 years -- CAD, medical devices (where people die if you get it wrong), the military, etc., and I've never seen anything that compares to the tightrope act of making games -- and MMOs are among the most difficult.

So when people complain about how virtual item sales or whatever ruin their pure experience, it's just not an argument with a lot of weight behind it. Art is good, but art is what you're concerned with when you're not concerned with blowing the project (as you typically are on a daily basis).

But I realize that this is a matter as much of perspective as anything else. Tycho at Penny Arcade (as usual) said it best when talking about a visit to GDC:

That's the story with so many games, though. The stakes are high, and getting higher, and publishers who were once merely gun-shy are now officially paranoid, rolling around in a padded cell until the drugs take effect. Part of the reason GDC made me uncomfortable is that I could feel its culture pressing on me from all sides, and I knew it wasn't mine. But the other part was that I got a sense of how brutal that life is, how unstable it can be, how maddening, and I just wanted to come home and match gems or some shit. I didn't want to see it anymore. I don't want to think about a cow's quiet eyes every time I grip a hamburger.

Posted May 4, 2010 12:29:06 PM | link

robusticus says:

> If that means that the vast majority of players want games that are free to play and where you can buy better items if you want, then that is what developers will produce

I agree with everything you say it just isn't clear how that works for an existing game with 6 million subs. It may not.

If you put up for sale every item in the game that can be had with in-game coin nobody would ever buy them with real money directly. The black market would immediately and lurchingly adjust to where that (gently used) sparkle pony costs somewhat less than $25. In other words, 5000 gold would not equal $25 any more. Monetae cudendae it was called, from the year 1526. On the Minting of Coin.

That may be ok and not a complete NGE, but it is hardly the growth engine to get to a metaverse with a billion+ citizens.

It's a conundrum. You may recall a piece written here relating this to rental property. I thought it was a beautiful analysis but I keep coming back to this concept of "unowned things" and the inherent just power of it. In other words, avatars don't exist without the players behind them, unlike rental property.

Posted May 4, 2010 4:25:47 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

robusticus: I agree with everything you say it just isn't clear how that works for an existing game with 6 million subs. It may not.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend that an established game with millions of players change their revenue model. OTOH, DDO did this (admittedly, they may not have been doing all that well beforehand) and said their revenues jumped 500%. And clearly it's working for WoW as well, at least in limited (if extremely profitable) cases.

If you put up for sale every item in the game that can be had with in-game coin nobody would ever buy them with real money directly.

The easy (and well-known) solution to this is to not make every item available for in-game coin. Some items can be bought only with real money, or with a second currency that is itself exchanged for real money. So you can exchange dollars for doubloons (as in Puzzle Pirates), and you can buy items or Pieces of Eight with doubloons -- but significantly you can't reverse that. Doubloons can be purchased only with dollars, not with POE. And some items can be purchased only with Doubloons. This two-layer strategy keeps a virtual economy linked to the real world, but without risking a collapse due to a black market.

Posted May 4, 2010 5:14:09 PM | link

robusticus says:

> without risking a collapse due to a black market

Those tend to get more sophisticated with scale I imagine. Though I really do like the dual currency idea, or tri-currency. Even being able to transfer to the subordinate currency. Not sure about transfering back at all, even a little bit, however. Which seems miserly I know but what can you do? "harsh, unforgiving, often unpalatable reality" indeed. Go mow some lawns, kids, it builds character.

They could start selling the soul bound items, also. That would be some tasty irony.

Posted May 4, 2010 11:06:38 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>Your comments are not consistent with what I've seen in each of those cases. I wonder which development teams you're basing your comments on, or whether this is your view from within academia?

This isn't an academic view. I do consultancy for industry too, you know. The main stages I see them in are pre-production and close-to-failure. In the former, I stand by my comments: there is real art going on there, and people are in it to create, not to make money rain down on their heads. They'd like it to, obviously, but that's not on the whole why they're doing it. In the latter, the company is full of people desperate to do whatever it takes to keep afloat. They usually got where they were through under-resourcing, bad design or the world changed around them. They would indeed sell their principles down the river if it meant they'd still have a job in 6 months' time.

>The people who make it possible for such games to be made. All the aspirations in the world won't do much if you can't actually get the game made.

The people who make it possible are those responsible for the business requirements. The business requirements are where their interest in the design stops - otherwise, they're taking on the role of designers themselves. Some do indeed do this, and pain and hurt inevitably follows. If it's a business requirement that the MMO has RMT, then the designers work within the space this creates. It can still be art, just as commissioning a painter to create a portrait of your cat can be art (or, alternatively, just hack work to earn a crust).

>>Developers aren't in it to make money ...
>They really are.

Well in that case why aren't they doing the same thing in a different industry that pays more?

>a commercial motivation, including salary, hopefully profit sharing, and often some form of equity in the company, is what makes MMOGs possible for all concerned.

That's not the same as being in it to make money. It can be an incentive, sure, but it's not why they're developing MMOs. They could get all of those things working in defence or banking or film or advertising or a slew of other industries. The reason they don't do that is because they like games.

>Divorcing the revenue model from design and development only hurts the game and the developers, and oddly reduces the chances of them being able to produce anything like art.

I wasn't saying people should divorce revenue model from design. I was saying that the revenue model is part of the specification. Designs tell programmers what has to be programmed, but they don't tell them how it must be programmed; business specifications tell designers what has to be designed, but they don't tell them how it must be designed.

>I said: In your comments you continue to seem to be blind to this overriding reality.

And as I said, you think I'm blind because you seem to be blinkered. I'm not saying that financial aspects of MMO design are unimportant, I'm just saying that they're not the be all and end all of it. You seem to think it's so important that it subsumes all else, and the development team is little more than a squad of mercenaries assembled to win a particular battle, for which victory promises lands and wealth.

>Have you seen a typical MMO team?

Well yes, of course I have. Size doesn't undermine anything I've said here.

>Define long term. Subscriptions have been the dominant model for over fifteen years. That's a a remarkable run. I would say that the subscription model has been sustainable in the long term, but now market conditions are changing.

OK, well let's put it a different way then. How long do you think it will be before the microtransactions model is replaced by something else as the dominant approach? Is it a bubble that's going to burst, or is it a foundation upon which more will be built?

For what it's worth, I myself see the greatest danger to it being government attitudes to taxation of virtual transactions, although there's also a suspicion that it's slash-and-burn and people could see through it eventually (as you yourself said: these things aren't real).

Richard

Posted May 5, 2010 3:03:17 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Isaac Knowles>That individual developers are creating directed pieces of art (in the form of geography, buildings, UI, character models, gameplay, etc.) does not mean that the company which employs them is itself producing art.

I agree. It doesn't mean it isn't producing art, of course, but generally they're not interested in the subject of art unless it's a requirement for some reason (eg. they regard "artsy" as a niche that they're aiming to target).

Richard

Posted May 5, 2010 3:08:14 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard: The main stages I see them in are pre-production and close-to-failure. In the former, I stand by my comments: there is real art going on there, and people are in it to create, not to make money rain down on their heads.

Ah, pre-production. Yes, I'll grant you that. Pre-production is that wonderful period for blue-sky design when anything goes, when aspirations soar, when art and fancy dance before your eyes on the conference tables. Pre-production is wonderful. It's what most people think of as game development (not saying this of you).

But pre-production ends when reality begins. Pre-production is what you do before you get down to the hard business of developing a game. Nothing in pre-production is sacrosanct; everything must pass through multiple stringent filters that have nothing to do with art. As I said before, if art or an orientation toward making art survives, it's only because someone worked very very hard to make that happen. It's not that art is bad, only that it's not the primary motivation. I'm not sure I can think of an example in an MMO other than some of the visuals in WoW and maybe EVE; the game that springs to mind first is Portal with its level design and depiction of GladOS. Even keeping in what they did on that game must have been a minor miracle to pull off.

The people who make it possible are those responsible for the business requirements. The business requirements are where their interest in the design stops - otherwise, they're taking on the role of designers themselves.

Their interest stops? I don't think I've ever seen that. In a large organization, the executive producer, senior producer, and/or general manager (often shadowed by a VP or similar) are the ones who set the business parameters. I can assure you, their interest and involvement only increase as development goes on. They may not dig into the specifics of the design (though that, sadly, is exceedingly rare), but they definitely bound it carefully and constantly, with lots and lots of review.

If you can work in some art there, terrific (see my "carrying it through a minefield" comment above). But it's at best incidental; and if something that exists primarily for arts' sake gets in the way or takes too many resources or can't be justified, it's dumped.

Designs tell programmers what has to be programmed, but they don't tell them how it must be programmed; business specifications tell designers what has to be designed, but they don't tell them how it must be designed.

All I can say is that that's a curious view that isn't consistent with what I've seen. The lines between designer and programmer, and between business and designers, is much more blurred than that. Senior designers necessarily take into account and work within both business and programming realities. More junior or focused designers sometimes work in a hand-off way with a programmer, but more often the lines are blurred there too -- and the focus is so tight they have little ability to affect anything other than their specific bit anyway.

How long do you think it will be before the microtransactions model is replaced by something else as the dominant approach? Is it a bubble that's going to burst, or is it a foundation upon which more will be built?

Definitely foundational. In fact I see the methods of product development, marketing, and monetization spreading outward from games -- expect to see more free services that are monetized ala carte and on your schedule. We see this already in some open source products, but the free-to-play/item-based transaction model is a refinement of that. Of course it will eventually be added to and maybe supplanted -- by what or when, I don't know. But it's not a bubble or an unstable method of developing and selling a product or service; if anything it's much more robust to various sorts of negative conditions than either retail or subscription models.

Posted May 5, 2010 8:14:45 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike Sellers>Pre-production is that wonderful period for blue-sky design when anything goes,

It's the fun part for designers.

>Nothing in pre-production is sacrosanct; everything must pass through multiple stringent filters that have nothing to do with art.

It's like construction work. Most people think of construction work as hauling bricks and putting up walls, but they're working to an architectural plan created by people who won't be there hauling bricks or putting up walls.

>As I said before, if art or an orientation toward making art survives, it's only because someone worked very very hard to make that happen.

Yes, like construction work again. People want buildings to serve a particular purpose and have a particular function (and obeying stringent safety laws, too). If they're going to pay $400m to build a bridge, they want it to be usable. However, that doesn't mean the architect can't make that bridge art (it doesn't mean they will, either, of course).

Some pre-production work I see has people making crazy suggestions that they genuinely want in the design. I don't mind outlandish ideas if they lead to something practical, but when they're nonsensical and the designers are pushing for them, OK, well that's when I feel that perhaps the process should be a little more grounded. Other times, though, designers hold back and are trying to second-guess what their bosses want them to create the whole time; in these cases, I tell them either to get the bosses to do the design or do what they're paid to do and design it themselves.


>It's not that art is bad, only that it's not the primary motivation.

As I said: the primary motivation of whom? Of the company, yes; of individuals, not necessarily. Architects don't become architects to make money; they become architects to design buildings. Likewise, MMO designers don't become designers to make money; they become designers to design MMOs. The company employs them because it wants to make money from what they want to do.

>I can assure you, their interest and involvement only increase as development goes on.

In terms of making sure that the project is conforming to their requirements, yes, of course. In terms of design, though, no way are they going to roll their sleeves up and delve in.

>Senior designers necessarily take into account and work within both business and programming realities.

I don't think I explained what I meant very well. A designer needs to know that what is being designed can be programmed, but they don't get to tell the programmer how it can be programmed unless the programmer complains that it's unprogrammable. A designer needs to know what the business specifications are, but they don't get to change those specifications; what they can do is talk to the producer if they feel that the specifications can't be met, with a view either to getting them changed or to being told how they can, in fact, be designed in.

>Definitely foundational. In fact I see the methods of product development, marketing, and monetization spreading outward from games -- expect to see more free services that are monetized ala carte and on your schedule.

I see this happening too, but it's easier to justify when it involves tangible goods and real-world services. When it involves virtual goods, though? There doesn't seem to be a reduction in demand in the Far East, where this has been going on for longer than in the West, but could there be a time when people figure that all these virtual goods they've bought are worthless, so they don't buy any more?

Richard

Posted May 6, 2010 4:44:09 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Richard, I'm going to leave the art/commercial discussion to you. We clearly have very different experiences in terms of how MMOs are developed and how much of a factor the creation of art is in MMOs. If you're right we should see a great deal more art being created as more MMOs are created; sadly I don't believe this is the case (I'm not even sure what examples of actual art you'd point to in existing traditional MMOs).

FWIW I hope to make art myself, but I have learned through hard trial (through the unforgiving, unpalatable and inescapable reality I mentioned above) that having this as your primary motivation when creating an MMO is a sure way to frustration, and often disaster.

In terms of virtual goods, I don't see any signs at all that people are becoming disillusioned with them or that they will do so. It's not just that there are "no signs of reduction in demand" as you say; it's more the case that this sector of the overall market is one of the fastest-growing and has one of the broadest populational bases of any ever seen. If anything these goods are becoming more real, more entrenched in more peoples' lives, not more virtual and ephemeral.

Consider the ritual of giving flowers to a girl: yes, the flowers are real, but they're also almost beside the point. They're more a symbol of a feeling; they have meaning in context, and their physicality is almost beside the point. As I recall, the site "hot or not" has made large amounts of money on guys sending a picture of a rose to a girl. It costs the guy $10 to do so, and the rose is entirely virtual -- but it serves exactly the same symbolic purpose as a physical flower (and the knowledge on the part of the girl that the guy was willing to fork over real money to send her a [picture of] a pretty flower is important too; just sending the picture without the cost-context diminishes its perceived value significantly).

Consider too our general move to "virtual" news -- email, web pages, etc. -- and the crumbling of print communications. People show no signs at all of moving away from news and conversations that exist only virtually; instead these are becoming more firmly rooted in our lives.

For these reasons among others (including the astonishing success of virtual goods in Asia, without counter-example -- i.e., there is no backlash at all), I don't believe there is going to be a retreat from virtual goods. Someday this revenue model will be complemented or supplanted, but only by something with greater utility for the market of the day, not as a retreat to something we used to have and all collectively decide was better after all.

We're no more un-integrating the virtual from our lives than we are un-integrating any pervasive technology such as the car, the suburb, the freeway, the airplane, etc. There may from time to time be quasi-Luddite movements, virtual Amish if you will, who decide to shuck all this and go back to some earlier way of doing things, but they will be notable because of their difference, not as any kind of bellwether of societal movements as a whole.

Virtual goods, free use of products, and small incremental payments-of-choice (you pay when you want) are not fads, and are not going away. In five years or less these will be as pervasive as URLS are in ads now, and looking back it will be as strange to think of life before this model in real and virtual goods as it is now to look back and think of a time before the web changed our lives.

Posted May 6, 2010 8:44:49 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

So this thread is notable for the absence of other TN authors chiming in. I'm curious: Is there a lack of interest? An active back-channel discussion? If so, any interesting points?

Mike - If virtual goods are coming to the West in earnest, do you think we will also get some of the 'darker' side of virtual goods/worlds? I.e. cases of murder over virtual good theft, gross negligence of children, upticks in 'addiction' etc.?

The reason I ask is that it may be that there is an important difference between the way we view virtual goods in the east and those in the west. Should we expect them to be AS big? AS important? Is there truly some huge pent up demand for virtual goods just waiting to be unleashed around here? Or might we have more of a predisposition towards things tactile, less virtual, even if they are (mostly) symbols, like flowers?

Finally, it seems as if the success of virtual goods sales has not been driven by good art or good design, but rather by effective exploitation of existing social networks, and/or of the value with which players imbue their characters, social ties, etc. If that's the case, then should we not expect virtual goods sales to continue to be a highly concentrated market with very few successful firms? And, in that latter case, is it really the wave of the future, or is it the future already here and in a form that probably won't change much at all?

Posted May 7, 2010 2:23:58 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Mike>I'm not even sure what examples of actual art you'd point to in existing traditional MMOs

Here's one: http://www.youhaventlived.com/qblog/2009/QBlog170509A.html. The example is from a subscription MMO, but there's no reason something similar couldn't be in a microtransactions MMO. It just depends on what you call "art". For me, game design can be that irrespective of revenue model.

>guys sending a picture of a rose to a girl. It costs the guy $10 to do so, and the rose is entirely virtual -- but it serves exactly the same symbolic purpose as a physical flower

And it probably lasts longer than a physical flower, too!

>I don't believe there is going to be a retreat from virtual goods.

Me neither, unless legislators mess it up. However, I don't believe either that they will sweep aside all that went before them, and that they are 100% compatible with all online products. There are some things that money can't buy; virtual worlds where the act of buying devalues that which is bought would be an example of this. Your view is that this is largely irrelevant, on commercial grounds; my view is that where it isn't irrelevant it's extremely relevant. If we knew what the magic ingredient was that made the players of these games view them with a passionate intensity that players of casual virtual worlds don't have, then we could perhaps add that ingredient to the casual games and then those would become even more commercially relevant. The point at which we diverge is that I think there is such a magic ingredient and you don't.

>Virtual goods, free use of products, and small incremental payments-of-choice (you pay when you want) are not fads, and are not going away.

Micropayments for the Internet in general have been talked about as inevitable since well before the dot com boom. What I find interesting here is that now it looks like we're finally going to get them, the driver is virtual worlds. It's not premium web sites selling news stories at a tenth of a cent per page, or movies being streamed to your PC, or up-to-the-minute stock prices, or even regular computer games: it's virtual worlds. There's something about MMOs that makes them special here. What is that something?

Richard

Posted May 7, 2010 4:45:33 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Isaac Knowles>So this thread is notable for the absence of other TN authors chiming in. I'm curious: Is there a lack of interest? An active back-channel discussion?

There's no back-channel discussion. I think the other authors either haven't seen it or have decided the area is full of mines they don't want to step on!

Richard

Posted May 7, 2010 4:48:56 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Isaac: what Richard said re other TN authors.

If virtual goods are coming to the West in earnest

Um, they're not coming, they're here. Given their fast growth, games using virtual item sales will probably make as much as subscription games (including WoW) in 2010 or 2011. At least 10x more people play these games than play subscription-based games. This is not an "if" or even a "when" -- it's already a reality.

...do you think we will also get some of the 'darker' side of virtual goods/worlds? I.e. cases of murder over virtual good theft, gross negligence of children, upticks in 'addiction' etc.?

This is much more a cultural question than a business model one. We've already had the "darker" side of online games with divorces, child neglect, theft, etc. I don't expect we'll see more of this -- perhaps even less, proportional to the much larger population, given the new shorter session-length games.

there is an important difference between the way we view virtual goods in the east and those in the west.

Cultural differences between east and west are extremely important, and will be coming more to the fore in the next couple of years I think (my company has been working with a Chinese publisher on a game that we believe will do well in both Chinese and Western markets). However, I don't believe there are foundational differences in how people relate to virtual goods.

Is there truly some huge pent up demand for virtual goods just waiting to be unleashed around here?

Given that this market has gone from near zero to about half a billion dollars in consumer sales in a couple of years and continues to grow explosively, I believe it's safe to say there was (and is) pent-up demand.

Or might we have more of a predisposition towards things tactile, less virtual, even if they are (mostly) symbols, like flowers?

I see no evidence of this, and lots to the contrary. How about you?

Finally, it seems as if the success of virtual goods sales has not been driven by good art or good design, but rather by effective exploitation of existing social networks, and/or of the value with which players imbue their characters, social ties, etc.

I would put this differently: that in spite of poor art, design, technological constraints, etc., games using virtual item sales have succeeded beyond all expectations. Imagine what happens when more of these games are fun to play!

If that's the case, then should we not expect virtual goods sales to continue to be a highly concentrated market with very few successful firms?

That's not the case now. Yes, Zynga is far and away the most successful game company using virtual item sales. But unlike the traditional retail and online subscription game markets where only a handful of companies are successful -- there's your concentrated market -- in online free-to-play games there is a much longer fatter tail with many winners.

Posted May 7, 2010 1:32:18 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

>> I don't believe there are foundational differences in how people relate to virtual goods.

I'm skeptical of this. If it were true, then we should've seen the business model spready more quickly in the US. We didn't. That was sort of my point in the first place. Not to say it can't be/isn't/won't be a viable business model, but rather that it may not be the phenomenon it has been in the East because we relate to virtual goods in a foundationally different sort of way. It is a cultural question, but insofar as culture directs preferences (and so directs demand), it matters for a business model.


>> I see no evidence of [a predisposition towards things tactile, less virtual, even if they are (mostly) symbols], and lots to the contrary.

Eh point taken. Every dead anthropologist in the world probably turned in their grave after I wrote that.

>> In spite of poor art, design, technological constraints, etc., games using virtual item sales have succeeded beyond all expectations.

Sure. But the point i was trying to make is that Zynga depends heavily on facebook to provide a social network and platform for its success. With a veritable duopoly on all things networking right now, what is to stop facebook and myspace from charging Zynga and future startups a considerable 'rent' for utilizing that network? And why shouldn't I expect Zynga to acquire any really successful social game company (or for the next successful social gaming company to acquire Zynga, or for a comany like EA, Activision-Blizzard, or even facebook itself, to do the same)? This could create very high barriers to entry, concentrating revenues in the hands of just a few companies, and (arguably) stifling innovation.

Then there's the question of how many social games people will devote themselves to and play. Sure there will be 'hardcore' social gamers who play a number of social games at once, but most people will only pick one or two - likely the most popular, since it's what all their friends play - and leaving most others to merely scrape by. And then, finally, those individuals who are heavily invested in a game will face strong psychological incentives to stick with it EVEN IF an objectively 'better' game is created (cf RMT-haters in WoW who are sticking with the game despite their anger over The Celestial Steed).

I mean, you point out the fat tail, but a number of the popular games are owned by Zynga, a single company. That's market concentration. I think if you aggregated by firm, you'd see an emaciated tail.


Posted May 7, 2010 10:40:11 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

I'm skeptical of this. If it were true, then we should've seen the business model spready more quickly in the US. We didn't.

By what standard? The difference in the speed of the spread here in the US is that most US developers were very wary of this model -- but whenever it's been tried it's been extremely successful. Three Rings was an early adopter in this area, and SOE stuck their toe in the water, but many devs and publishers have been extremely reluctant, or even derisive of this model.

It took a new set of companies and a new (mass) market to wake everyone up. And in that area it's gone from about zero to roughly half a billion dollars in revenue in the US in 2-3 years. How is that not incredibly fast?

...what is to stop facebook and myspace from charging Zynga and future startups a considerable 'rent' for utilizing that network?

Nothing, except that Zynga and other game devs are FB's golden goose. If FB begins providing a hostile environment, it will take about a day for Zynga or someone else to put up the next social networking site catering to games -- and FB loses a huge mountain of advertising revenue.

And why shouldn't I expect Zynga to acquire any really successful social game company (or for the next successful social gaming company to acquire Zynga, or for a comany like EA, Activision-Blizzard, or even facebook itself, to do the same)?

I expect we'll see a lot of M&A over the next couple of years. OTOH, not all devs will want to be acquired -- for many in this space, if they can keep revenues coming in without having to have new management overhead, they have the best of all worlds.

This could create very high barriers to entry, concentrating revenues in the hands of just a few companies, and (arguably) stifling innovation.

No, there's no barrier to entry here -- except eventually, good design. That's one of the amazing and terrific things about the new disintermediated market and the free-to-play revenue model: marketing helps gain customers but it doesn't set up a barrier to entry for newer entrants with evolutionarily better designs. There's no distribution channel to take over, no major technological barriers, and no barrier to access to the players. Design sense and funding are the primary barriers here, and no company has an exclusive lock on either of those.

Posted May 8, 2010 3:22:20 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

greglas>I wonder if there should be a special term (other than micropayments) for developer->player only RMT? That sort of "RMT" is different, dynamically, artistically, and legally, than player-to-player RMT.

Sometimes it gets called "item sales", but that only covers goods, not services (eg. double experience points). Player-to-player RMT is what we usually mean by "RMT", and there is a difference between this and developer-to-player RMT. There's a further distinction between DRMT and PRMT in that DRMT can involve goods and services that are merely cosmetic, whereas PRMT isn't controlled enough for that. I called these "tangible" and "intangible" in my book, but the terms never really caught on.

The full set of partitions for RMT seems to be:
[] Laissez-Faire. Anyone can create and sell virtual goods and services to anyone else for real money or convertible game currency. Example: SL.
[] Edited. Anyone can sell virtual goods and services, but creation has to be approved. Example: There, iPhone apps.
[] Player RMT. Players sell goods and services to one another, but they can't create new out-of-context saleable content. This may or may not be sanctioned by the developer. Example: Puzzle Pirates.
[] Developer RMT, tangible. Developers sell goods and services to players that have actual gameplay impact. This may work alongside player RMT (example: most Far Eastern MMOs) or it may not (example: Runequest).
[] Developer RMT, intangible. Developers sell goods and services to players that have insignificant gameplay impact. Example: realm transfers, WoW's little pony. Player RMT in these goods may or may not be possible (example: the trading card game gives you a unique code for an in-game item, and you sell that code).
[] No RMT. Any RMT that does go on constitutes a black market. Players trade using in-context game currency.

Did I miss any?

Richard

Posted May 8, 2010 5:45:33 AM | link