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Free for All: How much content does 25 dollars buy?


With the recent announcement of 25-dollar mounts in EverQuest II, gamers drew lines in the sand. "Step past this line, developers," said some, "and we'll teach you a lesson." Understandably, many thought that 25 dollars was too much to ask for a single in-game item. Meanwhile, hundreds, if not many thousands, bought the item and further blurred those lines. Some think that this is sending a dangerous message to developers, one that will only encourage further lazy development and lackluster efforts on the part of the world-makers.

I think the more dangerous message is sent when you avoid the purchase of the mount, or avoid the use of any cash shop in any form. We can look at established and successful free-to-play games for our evidence, proof that content should be measured on a case-by-case basis. Players have shown that they are comfortable with buying their content a bit at a time, and developers have shown that they can be trusted to put out good content.

But, what are these dangerous messages that the standard subscription model and box prices send to developers?

  • First, avoiding the cash shop sets up a standard price for many different items. While some players seem to think that a subscription, expansion or box should cost X and should be an all-expenses-paid trip through the game world, I tend to think that setting such a standard on such a variable product is the last thing we would want to do. Buying and playing an MMORPG should not be like buying a 2-pound bag of sugar, it should be more like visiting the entire store with all of its unique products and prices. If we tell developers that variable pricing options are a no-no, we are setting up standards for what they deliver. If I were to ask readers to comment on how much content that a 50-dollar expansion should deliver, I would see many different answers. Yet, instead of asking different prices for these different amounts of content, players are OK with paying one standard price. And as we have seen with gas prices, the standard price can go up slowly and steadily and we will slowly and steadily adapt. Granted, we will complain, but we will still pay the price.
  • Second, ignoring the virtual market sets a standard price for everyone. This assumes that all players play the same, or that all players should play the same. After I bought a 25-dollar EQII mount, I was told that I wasted my money and helped contribute to the demise of innovation and future development of MMORPGs. Strangely enough, I have used the mount more than any other item I own and have played the game more in the last few days than I have in weeks. I collect in EQII, and the mount has made it so much easier to zip from location to location, picking up collection pieces. Many say that 25 dollars would pay a standard subscription or would possibly buy an expansion, so that means that the mount is overpriced. This is assuming that those who pay 15 dollars a month or 50 dollars an expansion are playing X amount of hours per month or are running through X amount of content per expansion. While I have the latest EQII expansion, I have hardly touched any of its content compared to the time I've spent with the mount.
  • "While we play through their games, and pay their standard fees or buy their standard items, we assume that they are always out to get us."

  • Third, subscription-only can punish innovation. If you look at the indie/free-to-play market, you will find true innovation. Pricing can bend and mold itself to the market, and players can truly send strong messages to developers by avoiding certain cash shop items. Instead of charging one price for a box of content that will be used differently by everyone, free-to-play expansions are almost always free and profits are made instead by players who can buy smaller bits of content as they see fit. Mabinogi is a brilliant example of a cash shop balanced with content delivery. The expansions are delivered often, and they always present something new. The market has encouraged Nexon to try new prices on different items. A good developer faithfully delivers 2-pound bags of sugar, but a truly innovative developer delivers 1- and 4-pound bags as well.
  • Fourth, never assume only the worse when dealing with developers. There seems to be a standard skepticism that comes when dealing with developers, and I have always wondered why. While we play through their games, and pay their standard fees or buy their standard items, we assume that they are always out to get us. The EQII mount controversy was met with the standard conspiracy theories, the kind that assume that companies are somehow not listening, not trying or only out to trick consumers. While this might be true in some cases, in a market so saturated with choices, could developers really get away with it? Ironically, those who are leery of the free-to-play model or of cash shop items in subscription-based games are encouraging the very thing that they are against: a lack of innovation. By staying addicted to standard pricing they frown on innovations in the market, while also talking about their lack of trust in a developer's ability to innovate.
I am not sure what the recent cash shop controversies mean for the future of MMORPGS, being that many players paid for the virtual items in question. The only thing I know for certain is that we should be encouraging developers to think outside of the box, and trusting them enough to develop those new styles and delivery methods.

After all, we don't set standards for playstyles, so why do it with the items that we play with? Let's loosen the reins on developers. We need to have confidence that the market will show what works and what doesn't, and we need to let them try new things.

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