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The Free Zone: Some Wishful Thoughts on Better Disclosure

By Richard Aihoshi on July 27, 2009 | Columns | Comments

Some Wishful Thoughts on Better Disclosure

We've all seen at least some of the huge registered account numbers that various free to play games have racked up. In my case, I know I've seen 50 million and more. Maybe even 100 million and more. I don't really remember.

The primary reason such figures don't stick in my mind is that they really aren't very meaningful. The total number of accounts created - ever - isn't much help when the piece of information that most interests me is a game's current level of popularity. In that regard, what does it matter whether 100 kajillion accounts have been opened since a title launched if I jump on a server and find the world only sparsely populated? Or if I simply look and see that there are only two servers available for the entire North American market?

As I've said before, my play style has evolved over the years to where I now adventure by myself considerably more than in groups. However, that doesn't mean I don't want the option. In fact, the most fun part of MMOGs is tackling challenging situations with companions who know how to work together. But even if I didn't feel this way, I'd still be dissatisfied with the prevalent practice of showing me statistics unimportant enough that I don't even try to remember them.

It's not like there aren't numbers I'd be interested to see. As a few possible examples, how about peak concurrent users, average daily users, and total users who actually logged in during a given month? I understand that publishers are generally reluctant to divulge more than they have to. However, I find it difficult to understand how revealing such information would be likely to harm them. If a game is popular, the company will obviously want to say so, and any such claims would be far more credible when supported by data that is much more relevant than total global registrations.

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If it's not doing well, anyone who is reasonably observant knows it qualitatively anyway, so why try to camouflage the fact? Actually - and I'll admit this is a somewhat rosy-hued scenario - since most companies aren't forthcoming, it's possible to make a case that better disclosure could serve as a form of differentiation to help position some as more open and communicative. This would be especially true - and rather refreshing - if and when the figures given out indicate moderate or even poor results.

Of course, it would be great to see even more, like average revenue per user (ARPU) and per paying user (ARPPU), as well as percentage of paying users, although I'm not at all hopeful that this will happen any time soon except in isolated cases. Still, if even a decent proportion of publishers would reveal such figures, it would definitely improve my understanding of how the F2P industry works.

It might also help address some of the knocks against it. As a case in point, how often do we see statements about how it's impossible to advance at a decent rate without paying a lot of money? Sure, it's a generalization since all games are not the same, but without adequate data, it's effectively impossible to gauge how much of a simplification it actually is. Realistically, I think few people whose minds are already made up would change their opinions. However, what about those who haven't decided - perhaps because they feel they don't have enough information to make an informed judgment?

In addition, how can we tell which titles are actually the least and most offensive in this regard? Do any companies really think they're soaking their users? I've never sensed this to be so, and if they truly believe that their particular revenue models are reasonably fair across the board, why not present the facts so we can judge for ourselves?

For instance, it isn't unusual for a publisher to tell us the item mall in a particular title offers numerous articles of a cosmetic nature that allow for broad character personalization. However, other than those who play it and pay attention, we're not likely to know what kinds of things people actually purchase. And for better or worse, players' reports tend to be subjective and lacking or even devoid of quantitative data, which isn't readily obtainable. But without such support, any conclusions put forward are potentially subject to various forms of error and bias.

And while I'm at it, I also wish we'd get a lot better information about the popularity of subscription releases. Again, where is the possible harm in revealing more actual numbers? Unfortunately, I'd have to guess that the best I can realistically expect in either category is slow improvement. I just hope the publishers prove me wrong.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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