In an interview last week with GamesIndustry.biz, Todd Eckert, the North America operations director for Eutechnyx, was questioned about the company's pursuit of a microtransaction driven game. In staying confident of the course, Eckert claimed that the microtransaction model is “human nature.” Said Eckert, “It's not artificially inflated, it's just the way people think.” Before this statement, Eckert had explained that players were apt to buy things that reflected status, such as a Ferrari in a racing game, in a culture that reflects an “I want to own” mentality – in the same way that music lovers may wish to purchase single tracks instead of a full album.
Eckert's comparison of purchasing singles off a track is a fair one to compare to the games industry, in a sense. None of us enjoy an incomplete product. We also don't enjoy a product which offers one or two things we love, but fails to translate that same quality and passion to the remainder. “Why can't the rest of the game be as awesome as ___?” is a question I see often asked of 'failing' games. It is an attitude also reflected in some free-to-play games, in which players can buy power or end-game items and skip the work required to get them otherwise.
Todd Eckert's claim of a microtransaction model being human nature, on the other hand, requires more scrutiny.
What is human nature? It's a philosophical and sociological concept that among the human species, there are some patterns in our actions, thoughts, and behavior that are universal; that is, that somewhere deep in our core, we're all the same. There have been a few scientific studies to indicate that some things may yes, be human nature – things like avoiding pain, self-defense, and mentally labeling things to impose a sense of order. There's even been indication that the smile is a naturally human thing that has universal meaning across cultures.
Most comments on human nature revolve instead around common observations about human behavior, rather than hard research. We can say it's human nature to pick up money off the street, to pick one's nose, to act more rude when anonymous, and to want to click on sparkling things while playing MMOs. There's no evidence that these behaviors are universal impulses; in fact, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Instead, these behaviors are merely commonly observed actions. Certainly at times, particularly when feeling most cynical, these actions may appear to be compelled by some greater force. The selective observation, however, only leaves us at a bemused hypothesis.
Am I reading too much into Eckert's words? In a way, I am. However, the statement makes bold assumptions about the online gaming consumer; assumptions not merely being made by Eckert and his company. What Eckert is saying is that the gaming consumer cannot resist buying shiny things, whether those things are symbols of status, items of power, or goodies that reflect our personality or preferences. We are, by our own “human nature,” compulsive shoppers. We simply can't resist the free-to-play market.
Apparently, “no” from the mouths of online gaming consumers doesn't really mean “no.”
To Mr. Eckert, and other game companies who think that microtransactions are just our human impulses at work, I have a few things to say.
There are hundreds of lists, perhaps thousands, of how to run a successful business. Many of them fail to include the customer, yet there is a universal agreement somewhere underneath that the customer is the backbone of a business. Without enough customers, the business will fail. The customer is the person who is responsible for driving sales, for word-of-mouth marketing, for repeat business, and for product feedback. A business does not exist as an island, serving only itself; ultimately, something must leave the business and go to someone else – the customer – and the business must be paid for it. Otherwise, it's not a business at all; it's simply a self-serving venture in the same way a person might grow their own vegetables for use in their dinner.
In an expansive online gaming market, the customer is the most effective tool a business has, but it's one that cuts both ways. One merely needs to look at the cutthroat Facebook application market to see how product quality, customer loyalty, and the nature of microtransactions can either lead to great success or leave a gaming company belly-up. This is why analyst Doug Creutz wonders why Disney paid more for Playdom than EA paid for Playfish. It's also why there were thousands of Zynga customers are upset because the company chose to not only shut down a still-popular game, but did so without offering any compensation and recommended them to another, yet completely unrelated, Zynga game. Zynga has since patched up the error, but there's a lesson to remember in their goof.
You see, when subscription-based customers wave goodbye to their games as they head off to the great MMO graveyard, they have little demands for the company. They paid not for items, but for access. They got what they paid for: time within a virtual game. If $15 buys a month's access to a game, then a customer only gets upset when they are denied the month's access and not given their money in return.
When free-to-play games say farewell, however, it's another story. Players here have not bought time – which passes and expires – but items with some semblance of permanence. When those items are taken away, and compensation is not given back, the player feels cheated. It's like buying a real car, having it recalled, and not being given money back or a replacement vehicle of equal value. Yet this is the nature of microtransaction driven games: have the customer buy items to generate profit, and when profit is no longer generated, take the items away from the customer and encourage them to try a new product in which to repeat the cycle.
The balance of making a customer happy in free-to-play games is difficult. Since money is spent not on the passage of time or access, but instead on items, every microtransaction has to feel worth the money spent on it. At the same time, players who are not 'paying into' the game must be both encouraged to do so without being forced into it. This is the model of purchasing status, so to speak, rather than power: if a player wants to spend $10 on a cute pet that looks just like their favorite animal, so be it; if a player must pay $20 to get the gear required to survive in higher level content, or $30 per month to gain experience at more than one level per month, the player base will be dissatisfied. Free-to-play games must carefully select their paid items, because the wrong selection will drive discontent into customers – and discontented customers means lost business.
It isn't that the free-to-play gaming market is “wrong” or “bad” inherently. No more so than their players are compelled by some gene in their DNA to buy items. The reason people buy microtransactions isn't because it's human nature. It's because the players like the game, and have decided that buying that cool item in the game's marketplace means that their money is going to a game they like. There are players who play free-to-play games because they can't afford others; there are others who play them but hesitate because of doubts of the worth of the items or the company they're backing.
It's nurturing your customers with respect that drives them to buy up microtransactions, not a compelling need to buy shiny objects built in our nature. We are, after all, human.