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Scott Jennings: Macrotransactions

Column By Scott Jennings on February 24, 2010

gPotato’s Allods Online stretches the meaning of “microtransaction” – and misses the point

Allods Online has been something unusual – a ‘free to play’ MMO from Russia’s Nival that rivals many subscription-based games for its polish and level of gameplay. It’s gotten a lot of good press and positive reviews… until last week. In fact, in one day, the buzz from the beta testers went from “this game is awesome” to “they’re crazy if they think we’ll play this”.

What happened? gPotato released their “item shop” and players went ballistic.

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Item shops are how the great majority of free to play games actually make money. The idea is simple – start playing, get interested in the game, and then buy something that makes the game better, or easier, or whatever. This model is, to put it mildly, successful. Players generally don’t mind seeing “free to play” games as, more specifically, “free trials”. If they really like a game, many don’t mind paying a little extra to play it more. Not all players do – free to play games are especially popular with kids who simply can’t afford subscriptions or things in item shops – but enough do to make the scheme profitable.

So, Allods’ using an item shop wasn’t seen as that surprising. What was surprising was the prices. Most players at first thought the item shop, when it first came out, had to have a translation error, or too many zeroes in the prices, or something. There was no way, players thought, that gPotato seriously thought players would pay $20 for a backpack, or $1 for half an hour’s worth of 100% PvP effectiveness, or in the most outrageous example, the top tier of item-enhancing “runes” that cost $7,000. You might think that was a typo. Allods’ players certainly did. It literally seemed as though gPotato had simply taken the prices that Russian players, who were already playing a released version of the game, were paying, and multiplied by 10.

It wasn’t a typo. gPotato came out and said, well, you can still play for free! Free to play, woohoo!

We wanted to make clear that beyond the introduction of the item shop nothing has changed in Allods that wouldn’t allow you to enjoy the game just as much as you did during closed beta. You can still enjoy the entire game without ever having to spend a single cent. Additionally, many of the items available in the item shop are tradable in-game, appear through a number of quests, and can be auctioned off by other players.

…but if you want a level 10 item rune, it’ll cost you $7000. Apparently, this already sold for $700 in the Russian version of Allods, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for really high-priced gear – gPotato just decided to grab the palladium-encrusted diamond ring. At those prices, after all, they don’t really need to sell that many!

Just in case the point hadn’t been driven home, a patch then promptly went live on the Russian Allods servers that effectively made the game less free-to-play – making sure that, gPotato’s promises to the contrary, the newly pricey item shop gear would be even more required. As Keen, who has been the main source of news about this issue on his popular blog  (which until, oh, this past week was one of the premier sources of positive buzz for the game) put it:

Today the patch notes for 1.0.07.07 were released for the Russian Version.  Guess what was in these notes?  Game breaking changes to the cash shop…   the math was done and we’re looking at over $50 / month in order to participate in end-game PVE…  Mounts were also added but require you to purchase food for them from the cash shop in order for them to work their best…

Patch 1.0.07.07 will be the end of the game for pretty much everyone and not by choice.  We’re all very confused as to what is going on right now.  None of us can afford to pay $50-$75 per month to PvE at level 40.  None of us understand why the game that was literally pure gold is now struggling to hold on for dear life and how it all happened at once…

Note well: when the most visible blogger writing about your game writes things like this? This is what community managers refer to as a nightmare scenario. Usually while drinking heavily.

Monday, gPotato posted again:

We want to make clear that this is something we are not taking lightly. We are not sitting and waiting just to see how many dollars we’re going to make over the next four weeks. It is very clear to us that players are already disgruntled with the situation and we are actively working on new pricing options to accommodate the masses. However, we ask the Allods community to please be patient with the situation! Adjustments like this cannot happen overnight.

This probably is as close as you’re likely to see to “Uh… boy, did we goof.” The associated “please post here to give us feedback, even though you’ve already posted 900 other threads giving us feedback, we’re reading this thread TO DEATH” thread in the official forums had the following plaintive cry from a no doubt very, very frazzled community representative:

We are reading this on an hourly basis and relaying the feedback and suggestions to those who can make such decisions and changes. Let me assure you that I know tensions are high right now, I know many of you feel as though the game you love is being run into the ground, and changes need to be made. We are working on it, I promise.

So – that’s the situation as it stands. My comments?

It seems pretty obvious that there is a fairly big disconnect between the people talking to the players and the people making decisions. Note the key phrase above: “relaying feedback to those who can make changes”.  Because, let’s face it – changing the price of an item in a shopping cart isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t require weeks of planning. If your market research (helpfully supplied by your market threatening to research other games) tells you your item shop gear is overpriced, you cut the price. Simple. Effective. Would eliminate the player’s fears immediately.  So why hasn’t it been done?

Because whomever is making the decisions doesn’t understand how free to play games work. Which is fairly surprising, since this isn’t gPotato’s first free to play title. Yet apparently someone forgot how to design a player experience.

You see, for games that have item shops with, for better or worse, “essential” gear, it’s priced to be the equivalent of a monthly subscription fee. If a hardcore player purchases, say, experience enhancement or drop enhancement gear so that they can play the game as intended (instead of the radically slowed version available to free players willing to skew far into the time side of the time-over-money paradigm) then the game developer knows exactly how much that average hardcore player will need, and prices their gear accordingly. They don’t want to price them out of the market, because they need those hardcore players to make the game profitable.

Although there’s certainly room for high ticket vanity items (Simutronics, for example, sells developer-officiated player weddings in their text MUDs for quite a hefty sum of change) simply jacking up prices of items that are supposed to be impulse buys defeats the entire psychological purposes of a “micro-transaction”. If you have to think about it, it’s probably not really an impulse buy. A $2 backpack would be an impulse buy for many players. A $20 backpack, not so much.

Which tells me, again, that there is a disconnect in play between the people who are dealing with their customers (and designing the experience for them) and the people who are setting the prices. And if that disconnect isn’t resolved quickly, there won’t be much need for people to deal with their customers.

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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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