When video games first started being a thing that people bought in retail stores, they were pretty much the same product for everyone. You bought the box and it came with the instruction booklet, the decoder wheel, and the 15 floppy disks it took to run the game.
Eventually, we got to the point where these games (RPGs, in particular) needed to offer more rewards for those who wanted a deeper experience. Just like an Ovaltine decoder ring, the little extras could potentially add to the total package. Plus, the average age of your typical gamer has been steadily rising over the years, as has the potential for tapping their disposable income. Enter the Collector's Edition.
Various forms of a Collector's Edition are available for most new games these days, and they all give us added bonuses with physical items and/or in-game benefits. But MMOs have taken this concept a step further by offering social advantages for extra cash, while coyly sidestepping behind that you-don't-need-this-to-win mantra. So game developers have stretched the limits of creativity to discover new ways to keep customers and earn more money on these community-driven games, while still offering the base game from start to finish as a cheap or even free download. The barrier of entry is low, and those who really want to be hardcore can still do it.
I'm not really here to argue the positive or negative implications of free-to-play and how much that model has changed our favorite genre (at least in this column, anyway), but I want to focus on what our extra money (above and beyond the "box price") is going towards in these VIP loyalty-building programs. Are they worth it? Are they succeeding in building true loyalty?
ArcheAge's Patron Program is a perfect example of this. I could spend the next thousand words explaining the intricacies of what currency is used for which Patron feature, but it all comes down to the fact that you're paying extra for premium services to show how serious you are about the game. These services range from XP bonuses and Marketplace discounts to Loyalty Tokens and a faster loading queue.
Now, I'm all for rewarding loyalty, and often times, loyalty comes in the form of cold, hard cash. But, more importantly, loyalty comes in the form of early interest in a game before launch or that first beta test. When players support your game in its pimply, awkward, squeeky-voice stage, you reward them appropriately when the cocoon bursts open to reveal a beautiful butterfly. But what you never, ever do is later offer those early founder's rewards in the cash shop for a few extra bucks. It's just not worth it. Betraying loyalty like that is a sure-fire way to lose the respect of those people who would probably still play your game after the tourists have come and gone.
I understand that game development is a business and new players are needed to earn money to support that business, but there should always be a focus on proper balance between attracting the new and rewarding the old. Most MMOs over the age of two or three are now supported by a handful of hardcore fans, affectionately referred to as "whales." These players are the ones dishing out all the money to support the game, and they're the ones who will be that game's biggest cheerleaders. Head to any of those games' forums to see what I'm talking about.
But with MMOs, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to keep people around long-term. Blizzard showed us that fans can stay true to a title if that title continues to deliver regular content, but we've already evolved past that. It's not enough to expand the game map another 500 miles east or open up a new island anymore; we want new features, races, classes, game mechanics, terrain, mounts, enemies, outfits, and minipets, and we want it as a free patch that downloads in 15 minutes.
Yes, we're a finicky bunch, but that's exactly why true loyalty should be rewarded differently than throwing money at a game. We want to know that it will be worth sticking around. Give us a reason!
Trion's Loyalty Program does this right, for the most part. While subscribed to the Patron Program, you earn these Loyalty Tokens that can be spent in the Loyalty Store. The items in the Loyalty Store should always be exclusive to that store and not available any other way. This will build prestige and respect among players, and not everyone will get the same trophy.
Sure, this model is prevalent in several other MMOs, but ArcheAge is the latest game to evolve the design to include all Founders automatically as Patrons. Lord of the Rings Online did this with its lifetime members when the sub fee was phased out, and many of those members are still happy and playing the game seven years later. It will interesting to see if the same degree of loyalty that Turbine enjoys is earned by Trion.
So we have several different methods of rewarding loyalty, from XP boosts and store discounts to special cosmetic items and outfits, but just about every MMO makes sure to stay away from any game-changing privileges for anyone, regardless of how much money they have or how long they've stuck around. While not entirely true-to-life, I can understand why these companies do this. You want your top players to feel special, but not at the expense of driving away any potential new players.
Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing a game give slight game-changing boosts to loyal founders, though. What's the worst that would happen? The game's "hardcore" reputation would work for, not against, its attractiveness to new players. Right, EVE Online fans? You know what I'm talking about. Hardcore isn't only about permadeath and PvP. Hardcore is about earning your spot amongst the elite. And that should never be for sale in any cash shop.
So let us know what you think. What keeps you coming back to your favorite game? What could be done differently to earn your loyalty?