MMO Family: Is free-to-play bad for kid-friendly MMOs?

Super Hero Squad Online
If you've ever gone shopping with kids, you know how much of a nightmare-inducing proposition it can be. Everywhere from toy stores to department stores to seemingly innocuous grocery stores, there's a battle raging between parents and their children, which usually ends with tears, grey hairs, and the infamous word, "Pleeeeeease??" (Pleeeeeease should actually have its own entry in the Oxford Dictionary because it has a completely different meaning from its polite cousin, "please").

The only thing that helps parents get through it is the knowledge that they get a respite once they get home. Not so anymore, though, because there's a second front that's opened, and the new battleground is taking place on our computer screens. Those high-pitched appeals that echo throughout the store aisles are now filling our family rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms. And while many people are singing the praises of the free-to-play model in MMO games, it's actually the biggest contributor to the begging-battles at home. Let's take a look at why free-to-play and kids MMOs are not a match made in heaven.

It's wonderful in theory

Over the past couple of years, the free-to-play model has gained enormous popularity because it gives players more control over what they pay for, and it helps MMO companies bring in many more players than they had in the past because there's no upfront payment in order to get in game. For gamers, it's a refreshing change because it means MMO studios have to work for their paychecks instead of sitting back and relying on the monthly chunk of cash that a subscription model provides. But that's led to the inevitable intrusion of real-life money in our games, and while some might object, free-to-play seems to be here to stay.

Does the M in MMO stand for marketing?

There's a trade-off for the free entry to an MMO, and that's the constant nudge from the studios to get you to spend money. Players have to endure a barrage of cash-shop promotions or "upgrade to member!" messages. And when they're not fending off the direct appeals for cash, they are surrounded by it in their virtual worlds thanks to velvet rope models and limitations in game that make playing just uncomfortable enough that you'll fork over a few bucks just to be rid of the inconvenience.

Free Realms
For adults, it's hard to avoid spending at least a little money here and there, but what about kids, who aren't necessarily as savvy about marketing tactics as adults? In general, they're a much softer target, but they're also a demographic with a lot of purchasing power. Granted, MMO companies need to make money in order to survive, but when it comes to kid-friendly games, does the hard sell cross the line?

How much marketing is acceptable before we start to conclude that kid-friendly MMOs are no longer virtual worlds and are instead just pixelated marketing ploys with a scattering of minigames as a diversion? How much content should be gated behind a membership subscription? How many pets should we have to buy in order to do the activites we want to in game? Should we have to buy a key or a code in order to open lockboxes or chests that we earn in game? Should kids be nudged into lead-gen promotions in order to earn some cash shop currency? Studios that make kid-friendly MMOs need to look even more closely at these questions and hopefully be responsible in finding a way to make money without resorting to bottom-feeding marketing strategies.

A kid-friendly free-to-play MMO can actually afford to be even more heavy-handed than an adult free-to-play MMO because it won't get as much pushback from their audience. Children don't congregate on the forums and pontificate about the relative value of the various payment models out there, and they generally don't have a vested interest in "bang for the buck" because they aren't the ones earning the money in the first place.

Unite, don't divide

The MMO landscape today looks very little like the one from a few years ago, when there was a distinct separation between virtual worlds and real-life money, to the point that it was taboo to even mention the two in the same sentence. Looking back, I think it was probably a little naive for gamers to take money out of the equation because the people who made the games need to eat, and making money isn't an evil thing. But there's a point at which the intrusion of real-life cash is so distracting that it detracts from the overall quality of the game, and that's a particularly critical issue when it comes to kid-friendly MMOs because it's hard enough as it is to argue the merits of video games for children.

In a talk at GDC a couple of years ago, Jesse Schell of Schell Games talked about ways to design family-friendly games, and one of his suggestions was to market the game in a way that gets the parents on board. He said things like newsletters and emails that notified parents about the good things that kids were doing in game was a good way to gain a parent's trust and convince them that their purchase was worth it. He also cited flexible subscription plans, and family plans in particular, as great ways of connecting parents, children, and even extended families in MMOs. Like Jesse, I prefer marketing approaches that put parents and game companies on the same page rather than pit children against their parents in a constant negotiation over "must-have" microtransactions.

In the meantime, I'm a firm believer of making lemonade from lemons, so I've used it as an opportunity to teach my kids about how to be wary of advertisements and avoid becoming hooked-in by marketing tactics. And I had a satisfying moment recently when my kids were watching an ad for some nondescript collectible toys and snarkily proclaimed afterward, "Hurry to the store and buy all one zillion of 'em!" Now if only they could keep that mindset when it came to American Girl Dolls and LEGO sets...

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.