Casual Play: Happy Anniversary... Belated
By: Steve Wilson
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
In June of 2005 Sony Online Entertainment did something that caused more wailing and gnashing of teeth than any class nerf in their history. They allowed players on some EverQuest 2 servers to buy and sell virtual items to each other on an authorized reselling site.
For years, the practice of buying and selling virtual items has been strictly forbidden. Rather than discourage this practice, all the ban did was force buyers and sellers into black markets. This prohibition of virtual sales really hurt casual players more than anyone else. Those players that didn’t have the time or inclination to grind out levels of the very best gear typically were left behind by more dedicated players. Casual players that tried to even out their lack of dedication by simply purchasing hard-to-get items were often left to rely on unscrupulous sellers completely outside of the boundaries of the game. These sellers could simply walk off with a buyer’s money without any worry of prosecution.
As an experiment, SOE opened up 2 exchange servers in EQ2. On these two servers, players could use an authorized website to buy and sell virtual goods from other players. To ensure the market wasn’t flooded with bogus sales, SOE charged a $1 listing fee for coin and items and $10 for characters. On top of that, the sellers also had to cut Sony in on 10% of the sale price in real dollars. If a player made $100 selling an armor piece Sony got $10 of it. More importantly, casual players now had a way to buy things in game without risk of being virtually mugged.
MMO fans reacted pretty much as they always do, forum threads burned, angry denouncements were made, and many predictions of disaster were prophesized.
Just recently however, Sony has released a white paper detailing what actually transpired in the first year of their Station Exchange experiment. The results, to be honest, should encourage all players and not just the audience of casuals that continue to make up larger portions of these games.
The group that bought the most was in their late twenties to early thirties. These are typically the people with jobs and families to support. The people that sold the most were those in their earlier twenties. The people with the most disposable time were able to use it in game to acquire virtual goods. These were then sold to the casual players who have less disposable time, since they typically have careers and families, but more disposable income from better job and a more stable living environment. There are no haves and have nots in these two groups. One has time the other money, equally valuable commodities.
Sony admitted that they expected the service to be used in spikes and that the buying and selling figures would be fickle and hard to predict. Instead, what they got actually resembled a real-world economy to a degree. The players that bought and sold did so with such regularity that the amounts could be forecast to within $100 per day. The players were willing to use the services consistently as a means to an end.
Some buyers used the ability as a way to bypass difficult spots in the game. When content got too difficult, rather than quit in frustration, these players now had another avenue open allowing them to continue playing. The paper itself actually cites that the ability to purchase items allows players to skip past parts of the game that they find boring. It also mentions that because the bulk of purchases were instant rather than by auction it shows a tendency for impulse buying. Rather than finding a means within the game to bypass something considered too difficult (and potentially quit), players instead would purchase items that would help.
One of the most surprising revelations from the report for me was that some of the most popular items purchased were simply for show. Like overpriced Bed Bath and Beyond goods, the virtual items meant to decorate player’s homes sold as frequently as did items that enhanced characters. Players weren’t just looking to twink their characters and beat the game, but to make the world their own by decorating their homes and selves. The most popular items of personal gear were chests, as well as shoulder and leg armor pieces as they are more instantly noticed by other players.
While players on the exchange servers tended to be more wealthy and have access to more coin, the result wasn’t inflated prices for items but instead that players tended to own more things.
Another interesting thing mentioned is that play styles of the players on the exchange servers was no different than play style on other servers. Guild activity and time spent leveling were nearly identically the same on an exchange and normal servers. With one small difference, characters on the exchange servers tended to be able to level slightly more quickly at high levels. Access to better gear makes for a slightly better time of grinding those last few hellish levels out.
The customers most likely to gain financially from this sort of practice are still the hardcore players. One trader who made, on average, around $200 to $500 per month admitted that it took about 5 to 6 hours of time every night in order to earn that. The top handful of sellers all made more than $10,000 over the course of the year after paying the listing fees and a 10% commission to Sony. These sellers were noticeably absent from being buyers themselves indicating that the auctions aren’t used as a means to inflate prices. The top sellers aren’t buying low and selling high but are instead playing the game for gear and selling the excess.
Of all of the tidbits of info from this paper, probably the most heartening was that many players used the service in order to keep up with friends that outpaced them. Of all the mechanics that have become standard in MOGs this is the one that is most damaging to casual players that get caught up in any group with more time than them.
If nothing else, this shows a beautiful synthesis of hardcore and casual gamer. The hardcore can play to their hearts content and be paid for the time, effort and passion they pour into their games. The causal player, who might be considered little more than a tourist can still come and enjoy, even if briefly, but they can now help support those people that want to make their game a lifestyle devotion.
You can take a look at the original document here.