Monday, July 25, 2011

OT: The Problem With F2P and Microtransactions

Are you someone who almost never engages in microtransactions, has no real issue with people that do, but nevertheless feel like you are losing something whenever a game company starts to embrace them? Do you get the sensation that the purchasing power of your money is decreasing the longer a game goes on, seemingly for no real reason? Do you think cash shops are just plain wrong but have difficulty expressing it in words? The good news is I finally remembered the name of the economic concept behind the sensation: consumer surplus. The bad news is... so have game companies.
Consumer surplus is the difference between the maximum price a consumer is willing to pay and the actual price they do pay. If a consumer would be willing to pay more than the current asking price, then they are getting more benefit from the purchased product than they spent to buy it. An example of a good with generally high consumer surplus is drinking water. People would pay very high prices for drinking water, as they need it to survive. The difference in the price that they would pay, if they had to, and the amount that they pay now is their consumer surplus. Note that the utility of the first few liters of drinking water is very high (as it prevents death), so the first few liters would likely have more consumer surplus than subsequent liters.

The description is pretty self-explanatory, but I think the graph is a bit more useful.

And why not, here is a Greek college professor talking about it.

Do you want some videogame examples? Think back to multiplayer Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3. When I bought Diablo 2, it was because I wanted a quality dungeon-crawler experience similar to Diablo 1 - that there was an entire multiplayer experience attached was pure consumer surplus for me. Same with thing with Warcraft 3. Would I have paid an extra $5 for access to multiplayer? Probably. That $5 that I would have paid but did not have to amounted to Blizzard "leaving money on the table."* Non-game examples includes Netflix Streaming, where you can access hundreds of movies at any time for $7.99. In spite of the "controversy" surrounding them raising prices of dual streaming/DVD plans, I think it is rather obvious that most Netflix customers would actually pay $10, $15, or even $20 a month for the service, especially since Movies On Demand-style services can cost upwards of $4.99 per movie.

The entire premise of microtransactions is dividing your content into smaller chunks to (re)capture and monetize every ounce of consumer surplus. While it is true that overall the game and it's various monetized components are still worth buying - it falls within the bounds of the Demand Curve, which by definition means you value the game more than the money used to purchase it - it is equally true that literal value has been extracted from you. In other words, microtransactions remove value from games by reducing your consumer surplus.

Now, there may be the open question of whether the sort of microtransactions Blizzard is doing "counts" as consumer surplus mining. If Blizzard could/did not charge $25 for a mount, for example, would they have made the mounts at all? Would Blizzard have never made the Mobile Armory and/or the premium RealID grouping features if those did not tack on an extra subscription fee? I think they might not have developed those features and mounts, but that is more of an issue with the lack of credible competition** Blizzard faces than anything else. Indeed, competition generally engenders the greatest amount "value-added" consumer surplus since direct price wars are untenable. Then again, I might also bring up the Red Queen argument in that, much like raiding content, Blizzard has to continually be moving forward to maintain its present position. The artists that made and animated the Disco Lion would have been working on something either way, so if not adding that mount in as a PvE/PvP reward of some type, the effort might have been directed into a Titan or Diablo 3 model instead (increasing consumer surplus in those games).

In any case, I find the F2P and microtransaction model somewhat disturbing, yet inevitable. It obviously has the power to save games that would not exist otherwise (e.g. LotRO, APB, etc), and thereby opens the possibility of radical innovation in the types of games we play. Similarly, the rise of Steam and iTunes (and Facebook for that matter) as content delivery services makes indie games/music possible that could not exist in a typical retail box store. That said, the existence of that hitherto unexploited consumer surplus also leads to worse games, like Tiny Tower***. Meanwhile, instead of growing the industry, we have the major players pumping out sequals and squeezing the blood from what rocks are left instead of, well, mining for new rocks. This same phenominom is going on in the movie industry, with parallels like making movies 3D not because that adds value, but because A) they get to charge more, and B) it makes the movies nearly impossible to pirate.

The way I see it, the more game companies fall over themselves trying to monetize every corner of our consumer surplus, the less they fall over themselves giving us quality entertainment. Eventually, there will be some break-point beyond which lies an Era of Subsistence Gaming where we get exactly what we pay for and not one whit more. And those will be very bleak times indeed.

*Except Blizzard did not actually "leave any money on the table," since that implies there was no value to Blizzard for giving consumer surplus. As we all know, it is the exact opposite: we as players give that value back to Blizzard in the form of brand loyalty and positive word-of-mouth recommendations. Part of that comes from the (historic) quality and polish of their games, but the feeling that we are getting more plays a non-zero part in the calculus.

**Blah, blah, Rift, LotRO, etc. Rift peaked at 600k subs and is now hovering around ~480k. LotRO peaked at 560k and is now at 360k. If you add both Rift and LotRO numbers at their peak, and then multiplied that by two, WoW would still have had more players than that in just North America... in 2008. Lost subs are lost subs, but I bet the Disco Lion made more money in the opening day it was released to cover a year's worth of lost subs.

***Worse as in psychologically designed to exploit your nucleus accumbens, and essentially disprove the economic theory of rational consumers single-handedly.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

OT: The Single-Player MMO

Syncaine made a very interesting footnote in a recent post:
*It’s a multi-layered joke. One: Immersion is a long-running inside joke. Two: While I jokingly say that I’m looking forward to playing an MMO solo, the sad truth is many today hope for just that in their Massively Multiplayer games, and SW will make Cata look like a sandbox. Three: Barrens chat will look tame compared to SW general chat in the first month or two. Not only are SW nerds the worst nerds of all, but you just know every Huntard is going to take their unique brand of ‘gaming’ to SW and making the most (worst) of it.
I do think it is an open question about whether gamers actually want an MMO versus a single-player game with (optional) MMO components. Unlike Syncaine however, I do not think people playing MMOs as single-player games is "sad" at all - it is more indicative of the lengths gamers are having to go to find meaningful entertainment. In other words, I think it is a lack of quality games that have driven this segment into MMOs in the first place.

This is not to say there hasn't been quality single-player games, but rather there are not enough being put out. Outside of the game-crippling bugs and sloppy design in several areas, Fallout: New Vegas was absolutely amazing and I spent 70 hours in there, loving every minute. I spent a similar amount of time in Dragon Age: Origins. Portal 1 & 2 both fantastic, both over in ~10 hours. So... that is 160 hours out of the 20 I play each week, or amusement enough for about two months. What about the other ten months?

I quit smoking when I bought WoW, joking I would trade one addiction for another. I have not smoked in 4 years.

My 4-year WoW anniversary was last weekend, having started 8/17/07. Adding up all the days /played across my toons, I ended up around ~322 days, or 7,728 hours. Depressingly that averages out into 5 hours a day, every day, for four years. I played more when I was unemployed for a year, of course, but it is still shockingly bad. Then again, that also equals $0.087/hour as far as entertainment goes. Or imagine buying a $0.99 app and getting 11.38 hours of gameplay out of it. I find it unlikely that I would have done something (more) productive with my time had WoW not existed, so with that in mind perhaps I should be instead celebrating all the money I saved by switching to Geico playing the everliving hell out of WoW.

I have heard and agree with many people who suggest that WoW will be their first, last, and only MMO. Although I am a storied veteran of games that require other people to play with, e.g. pen & paper D&D, split-screen Goldeneye, Magic: the Gathering, etc, the common denominator was a group of people you enjoy hanging around with. In the absence of friends, WoW is a pretty shitty single-player experience once you reach the endgame. And while this problem can be "solved" by making new friends, actually shifting through all the bullshit is a lot of work* for the payout of challenging gameplay that comes in the form of hoping people that are not you do not screw up, e.g. raiding.

In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.

And until then, WoW (with liberal playing of Steam games) will have to suffice.

*As outlined in this three year-old Cracked article, which is still pretty dead-on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Valor Back on T11

Per recent blue post:
Due to some recent player feedback we’ve made the decision to implement a hotfix that will put Valor Points back on the bosses in Blackwing Descent, Bastion of Twilight, and Throne of the Four Winds (except Argoloth).

We agreed that players should have some additional options for earning Valor Points beyond Firelands, Zandalari dungeons, and tier 11 Heroic difficulty raids. We don’t want raiding guilds to feel like they have to raid Firelands AND the old raids every week, but we do want players to feel like they have some options besides running ZA/ZG over and over.

Bosses in these raids will award 35 VP on 10-player normal difficulty, and 45 VP on 25-player normal difficulty, to match the rewards currently offered for the Heroic versions of those encounters. (Source)
That is correct, ladies and gentlemen. Now you too can experience the wonder of cobbling together a group of nine other people in a specific configuration and killing 12 (nerfed) raid bosses, walking away with your whopping four-hundred and twenty (420) Valor points. And then perhaps continuing to do your normal routine of seven heroics a week and still not capping out. Or, you know, solo-queuing for three ZA/ZGs and getting the same amount of VP. Admittedly, with the state of ZA/ZG queues you might actually spend longer in LFD than going 12/12, but hey. One of those two options requires a wee bit more organization than the other so I guess it "cancels" out.

I did not post last week because A) I barely played WoW, B) honestly there is not a whole lot more that can be said about making gold that hasn't already been beaten into the ground, and C) I now realize how much I painted myself into a corner calling this Player Vs Auction House when I would rather have gone meta and fostered some cross-blog debate on some of the crazy-ass posts people are making.

The irony I suppose is that I could have phoned in some filler episodes on my acquiring two (2!) Obsidium Cleavers cross-faction for < 15k apiece, a 10x return bringing over a 359 BoE chest from Horde-side, or my experiences in the Vial of the Sands market. Then again... why? I probably spent in the neighborhood of $140 in Steam games over the last two weeks of deals, and would rather be playing those and/or Minecraft and/or even goddamn Tiny Tower instead.

Speaking of foreshadowing, I would tell you to stay tuned for a post three months in the making, but I am not entirely sure when it will be finished.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Honorgate Solved: Mark Your Calenders

In true, inane 24/7 News fashion, I hereby coin the PvP fiasco of this past week "Honorgate." Ladies and gentlemen, allow me also to bring to you a truly groundbreaking Blizzard solution to this controversy. From blue lips to your eyeballs:
We’ve been working over the past few days to evaluate and determine the best course of action to offer players some kind of compensation for those who were caught off guard by the new gear. The plan we’ve found to be achievable within an acceptable amount of time is to provide players who were affected with 4000 Honor Points. This extra Honor would function similarly to the currency down-conversion in that it would stack over the cap, but you would not be able to earn more until you spent under the 4000 cap. (source)
You read that correctly: four thousand (4000) Honor points. The announcement is hedged in "this is still uncertain" and "things could still change" but to come right out and say they would be giving out 4000 Honor and then not doing so would likely cause more problems than the initial screw-up. The other thing Blizzard mentioned is that the most likely date of this distribution of wealth would be July 19th, which is about a week and a half from now. I recommend marking your calenders because there will likely be thousands of players on your server getting 1-2 pieces of high-level epic gear that will need gemmed and enchanted. This is about as close to a patch day AH run you can get without it actually being a patch day.

Honestly, this post by Blizzard rather floored me. The solution I thought they would go with would be to simply reset the purchase timers on all of the Season 9 gear bought in the last week. You know, this thing:

After reseting it, you could simply sell it back to the vendor and recoup your Honor points to purchase the 371 gear. Perhaps that is more technically complicated than I am aware of, or maybe they did not want to run the risk of players missing the announcement and playing for 2 hours while the timer expired. Other solutions suggested were to add the ability to purchase the 371s with the S9 pieces like they sometimes do when you upgrade heroic raiding gear. Then again, that would require a vendor to always have that available, lest they remove the option and get bitched at by some clueless player a few weeks later. The "let them eat cake" option is truly unprecedented especially considering they decided to grant 4000 regardless of whether you just bought a 1650 Honor belt, or similar.

It will be intriguing to see whether my warrior ends up getting a 4000 Honor stimulus package despite my having gotten the S9 Chest refunded already. I must say though, this solution almost makes me sad that I did not "waste" Honor buying more S9 gear across my other toons.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

OT: Welcome the C Team

I think I will allow Blizzard's C Team speak for themselves here:
You are correct. The season transition and introduction of new PvP items was different this time around, and we apologize for the lack of advanced warning.
The Season 9 set was removed today. The items available for purchase with Honor Points are now considered lower tier Season 10 items. They are still the same items from Season 9 in terms of aesthetics, but the item level and stats are slightly higher to ensure that the Season 10 honor gear has the correct item level relative to the Season 10 conquest gear.

It's likely this is how things will work going forward and we'll be sure to make that more clear when the next season transition takes place.

New basic transition flow:

1) Season X ends and rated play is unavailable; Season X gear becomes available for purchase with HP; CP is wiped.
2) One week later Season Y starts and rated play is available; Season X gear is removed entirely; Season Y introduces a low tier of items which replace Season X vendor items and are available for HP; Season Y introduces the new top items available for CP and rated play. [source]

If it is not entirely clear from the above, or the 51-page post-capped thread, the basic gist is anyone who bought S9 epic gear in the last week got punked by Blizzard. The 365 gear that previously required Conquest Points, then required only Honor points - this is what you would expect in an universe of forms and logic and elegant game design. In bizarro-Blizzard C Team Land, taking the 365 epics and obsoleting them one week later with strictly better in every conceivable way 371 gear, for the same Honor costs even, makes sense. Here is a visual:

On the right, the 365 PvP chest that was 2200 Honor as of June 28th (gemmed and enchanted as you'll notice). On the left, the 371 PvP chest that is 2200 Honor as of July 5th, about 168 hours later. Luckily enough, I had not played my warrior all that often after purchasing the chest, so I still had time remaining to sell it back to the vendor for a 2200 Honor refund, and then buy the new 371 version. Whether the stat upgrade seems like a big deal to you or not really depends on how much you PvP, but one way of looking at it is that the 371 pieces give you 6% more stats.

And, you know, the whole fact this was such a huge designer "Gotcha!" moment; a fitting insult to the injury of literally wasting dozens of hours across hundreds of thousands of players. That is the other way of looking at it.

This is par for the course for what I can only imagine is the C Team. Remember when they accidentally did the Conquest --> Honor conversion a week early without raising the Honor cap, resulting in thousands of Conquest points being turned into relatively useless gold? Or when MMR values were so FUBAR that they made the 2200 weapons require level 86, then delayed returning them to normal for months because not very many people were clearing heroic T11 content?

It is hard finding a stickie thread that is not also an apology for some massive screw-up.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Achieving Zen

So I warned you about certain crafted BoE epic gear and how the new Firelands dailies would essentially obsolete them entirely. At the time, I was under the impression that the vendors with these 365 epic gear would be gated behind 25 days worth of dailies. That is not entirely the case, as you undoubtedly witnessed yourself on Thursday if you have been doing them daily.

Our good friend Zen'Vorka here has some goodies for anyone who fights their way into the Firelands. The items themselves are Matoclaw's Band (Agility ring), Nightweaver's Amulet (Intellect necklace), Fireheart Necklace (Strength necklace), and Pyrelord Greaves (Tanking Plate boots). I knew the Pyrelord boots were going to obsolete the BoE JP boots, but I thought that was going to happen closer to the end of August, not the beginning of July. Speaking of surprises, though...

Blizzard snuck in a stealth hotfix allowing you to unlock Firelands on Day 1.

What ends up happening now is instead of ending up with 8 Marks of the World Tree when you get to the point of unlocking the "outside" dailies, you have 16. After doing a single set of dailies, you will end up with 4 more Marks, unlocking the Firelands portal after one more quest. At that point, you are a mere one elite mob away from unlocking our friend Zen'Vorka and his goodies for your alts. The entire process takes ~35 minutes from zero to epic 365s depending on the dailies you get stuck with.

It is an open question as to why Blizzard made this change, and it will be even more interesting to see whether they end up doing something similar once "phase 3" starts being unlocked by people. And that is on top of the question as to whether or not it will actually take another month to unlock all the vendors or if they will be more like our friend Zen.

In any event, if the thought of doing 50+ dailies a day was stopping you from pimping your alts, the way has officially been cleared. Get out there and get geared.