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The Devil's Advocate: Game Vision and Paying for It

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on June 14, 2013

Last week’s Devil’s Advocate brought up an interesting comment that made me think a bit about how games are designed in relation to their intended model for acquiring revenue.

The comment, written by jbombard, talked about an aspect of last week’s article, in which I wrote, "For some reason, excellence isn’t everything in this day and age of choice. With the gradual shift from maintaining long-term adoptees to making games fun for more people in short bursts, the paradigm of online gaming is shifting as well."

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His reply to my statement was this:

I think the question is making games fun for short bursts only a good design match for F2P? I honestly don't see how it could be.  I am not going to put money in a game that I don't put a lot of time into.  If I was a F2P game designer I would be aiming more for maintaining long term adoptees than short burst game players.  If they want people to spend money in their games it seems like making quality games with stories and/or action that really suck you into their world and keep you there would be the way to go.

Today’s Devil’s Advocate is all because of you jbombard, because you made me think of a bunch of scenarios that fit the idea you presented and a bunch of other scenarios where the situation is a little more complex. I quite enjoyed the mental exercise, so I decided to discuss your thoughts in my typical roundabout manner.

The Chimera of Payment Models

The demographic among gamers who play online has shifted. Instead of a few thousand people playing Everquest, you now have a couple of million people spread across a ton of online games.  This means that the original targets that existed to maintain a game’s “safe” status have shifted, as new games get a burst of players following launch, and is then followed by a decline of players over time due to a variety of other factors, such as boredom with a game or more games popping up, until a game settles into its realistic set of general numbers of people playing and paying subscriptions.

On the other side of things, games before with a low cost-barrier to entry generally implied less depth, or required further grinding or paying for hindrances to be removed from play. My personal leaning is that I did not like the offerings on this side of the fence and, when I was able to maintain a credit card, I went ahead and spent for subscriptions to games.

The sort of “tide-comes-in-tide-comes-out” occurrence for subscription-based and free-to-play games was turned on its head when subscription-based online games started flipping their revenue models to reveal all sorts of nuanced differences. Get the game free and pay for conveniences and cosmetics. Get the game free in chunks, and then pay for zones you’ve never been to. Buy the base game and pay what you want for conveniences but get free updates. Buy the base game, pay for conveniences, and pay for new content too.

There are a few dozen variations to the above, and I had a headache plotting it in my head (should have used a pen and paper). The point, however, is this... the online gaming genre today is a many-headed, multipartite abomination made of different sorts of beasts, and with outliers like Final Fantasy XI, World of Warcraft, and EVE as examples of long-term subscription-based games, it’s really hard to determine what makes one game worth paying for on the long-term as opposed to in short bursts.

Paying for Visions

There are, perhaps, at least two primary visions for online games. Either you build a game with a long-term goal of sustainable development or growth in mind, or you make a game that tries to cash in on the online gaming audience. Let’s deal mostly with the first one, as that’s probably what jbombard plays (though this is entirely subjective since I have no idea what he plays).

Earlier, jbombard wrote, “If I was a F2P game designer I would be aiming more for maintaining long term adoptees than short burst game players.”

Well, here’s the general thing I’ve managed to notice in a bunch of situations. Designing a game with long-term adoption in mind is really tough and requires consistent revenue to keep building content and systems to keep folks interested.

Quest development, especially of really special, memorable quests, costs money. In cases like The Secret World and Star Wars: The Old Republic, voice acting also costs money. Do note that TSW and SWTOR are perhaps the most well-known currently for intriguing storylines, and they switched from subscription-based to a premium sort of model with different nuanced options for acquiring revenue.

If you have a revenue model that has a low barrier to entry that generally means it takes a longer time to develop content as people will likely try to avoid paying for things they can get for free. Eventually, game content dries up as people reach a cap, and people leave a game because there’s nothing to do and a ton of free alternatives that offer just as much fun.

With subscription games, you can get past that “leaving phase” because people have shelled out money for a month, and they’ll likely keep playing till the month ends to get their money’s worth... and if something clicks between last month’s payment and this month’s payment, they’ll keep paying.

The vision of a fun game that people stay for long periods of time is slowly being obscured by payment model changes. This shifts the attitude of gamers, both those who want to play for free and those who pay for game services and are thus shouldering the thriftier fellows, towards burst-type gaming. While that’s a disheartening bit of text to write, it doesn’t mean games are any less fun when you play them, unless you’ve chosen a game that you completely disagree with on some basic level.

Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

Two years ago, if you asked me where I stood on the free-to-play phenomenon, I would have said that I wasn’t a big fan of it. Today, however, if you asked me the same question, I would have likely slapped you upside the head for categorizing everything as free-to-play or pay-to-win, as if those keywords were your own invention and not some maniacal marketing spin to force people to shift their perceptions for or against revenue model changes.

For a game to shift its revenue model... that’s not necessarily a bad thing if a game plays it right. Proper marketing, advanced word, and having enough content to people engaged and paying so you can make more content is likely even smarter than maintaining a sub in the supersaturated market of MMOs these days. MMO outliers today exist primarily because they fulfill the needs of a large-enough and powerful-enough niche of gamers (in WoW’s case, that’s a pretty large niche) who can not only afford the way things are, but could also destroy the very fanbase of a game if people decided to change the revenue model significantly.

Since I can’t change what’s happening now, I decided to change my approach towards games. I set aside some disposable income every month, and I play a game (or games) and support games that are fun with my money. If they’re not fun or engaging, they get shelved in my hard drive until news of an update makes me remember the game and makes me want to come back to see what’s changed.

If I feel like I want to savor the game or if I know I’m reaching a milestone I don’t want to hit, I simply pause by trying one of the other games I have in my computer, and in this way I support more than one game with my money, and I explore the breadth of gaming culture as a result.

As I mentioned last week, I don’t enjoy RIFT as much as other games. At the same time, Trion Worlds is also localizing ArcheAge and how they treat RIFT may allow me to see further into their plans for ArcheAge. I’ve already shelled out US$20 on the public test realm to test the store and, because of a promotion connected to that, I should get US$40 worth of credits when I log on. Smart marketing, plus well-timed announcements and a game I don’t play as much as others despite owning the game and the expansion? That’s a recipe for making 40 bucks worth of credits last a month or two.

And that’s not a bad thing indeed.

Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and ArcheAge columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains the the Landmark/Everquest Next and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can also find him on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.

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