Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 February, 2007

Drawing the wrong conclusions
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:19 PM

Talk about the Station Exchange whitepaper is making the rounds on the blogosphere. It’s actually quite nice to see SOE open up the kimono a bit and show us some numbers that could have remained a trade secret.

Of course, there’s one quote that everyone is picking on:

Station Exchange is not an extension of game play. It is a utility. It offers a fundamentally different approach to play: a means of skipping the boring parts.

Unfortunately, people seem to be missing the point and using this quote to reinforce their pre-conceived notions. I figured a bit of discussion is in order, particularly from an actual EQ2 player. ;)

I think one problem is that EQ2 is the favorite whipping boy when talking about MMOs that have not met the impossible goals of WoW. Obviously if people are buying stuff with real money, then the design sucks and people are paying extra to skip it.

Sara Jensen wrote a bit about this on her outstanding blog. (Seriously, add it to your bookmarks; she posts great insights into data mining and management.) She focused on two areas: why characters weren’t selling equally and the quote above. I posted a reply on her blog addressing these issues. But, to the quote above, I wrote:

I think people tend to read too much into statements like the one made. The simple fact is that not everyone will find every part of every game fun. I know a few friends that never got to high levels in WoW; they found the low-level content to be the most fun and kept rolling new alts instead of focusing on just one character. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can point to like RMT in this situation to claim that WoW “failed” with its high level design.

I think the issue you bring up is self-correcting. If the lower levels are boring, people are going to be less inclined to stick with the game. In the early days EQ2 had a very painful newbie process; instead of buying high level characters, most people just quit and went to play other games. I suspect that most of the people buying characters find some parts “boring” because they’ve already been through that. Going through the same content again is boring for most people. Eventually even the people that rolled a ton of alts got to the “Oh, hell, not quests in Westfall again!” stage.

It would be interesting to see how Station Exchange sales are going since they recently released a bunch of new content for the lower levels with Echoes of Faydwer. My guess is that character sales are down significantly as people are working up new characters in the new low-level zones and enjoying the new content.

Damion Schubert also posted a similar sentiment, stating, “Perhaps the most interesting insight, though, is the idea that players don’t buy to cheat, but rather to surpass a roadblock instantly. Which is to say, players spend money to get past bad design.”

As I said in my comment on Sara’s blog, I think this is an incorrect conclusion to draw. If the design of the whole game sucked, then people wouldn’t play the game. Enough people have quit the game since launch, so the audience has no trouble doing that. There has to be some level of investment into the game before you’re willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy in-game stuff or characters.

Further, this is an issue in the golden child of our industry, WoW. WoW has managed to attract a large number of people, surpassing the peak population of all previous games by at least four times! Yet, every place where I can buy EQ2 platinum I can also buy WoW gold and/or get a character power-leveled. (Raph recently posted a blog entry about an article on power-levelers, with a breakdown of how much it costs to get powered a level in WoW.) Does WoW suck as well because people are buying gold and paying others to skip “the boring parts”? If so, I think we’re pretty fucking doomed when it comes to making a game that doesn’t suck! History doesn’t look very kindly on us in this matter….

The real issue is what Raph points out in the power-leveling article above: the primary motivation is to keep up with your friends. And while I’ve said that RMT is usually something that people use to make up for time they can’t dedicate to the game, I think the stronger motivation is variety. A friend of mine bought a high level character on a game not too long ago. He already had a few high level characters and was part of a raiding guild. His motivation? He didn’t want to run through the newbie quests yet again, but he wanted to try out a new class. It was worth it for him to buy a high level character with meager equipment for a few hundred dollars. He could then gain equipment for the character via raiding and using his alts. He wanted to continue playing the game with his raiding friends without spending all the time to trudge through the same areas he has been through a few times already.

I think we all have to admit that running through the same content for the sixth time in one year isn’t all that fun. As I pointed out in my comment on Sara’s blog above, even in WoW people get the “Oh, fuck, not Westfall again!” feeling despite the newbie experience in that game being consider one of the very best. So, this isn’t an issue of the design failing as much as it’s about people not being enthusiastic about running through the same content one more time. Yet again, we see our old nemesis “the rapid consumption of content” rearing its ugly head. But, as I mentioned above, I’d bet that sales of characters have slumped after the most recent expansion which includes a lot of new low-level content.

To be fair, there are some “solutions” to this “problem”, but they tend not to be very pretty. DAoC offered a “/level” command, which allowed you to boost a new character up several levels after you had advanced at least one character to a specific level. This helps eliminate some of the RMT drive, but it also causes your newbie areas to feel abandoned. I’ve heard people complain when trying out DAoC a little while ago that they felt like they were living in a ghost town. There was no opportunity to run into anyone else in the lowest level areas, making it hard to get into the social fabric of the game.

Another option would be to eliminate the large disparity in power between levels. If a level 1 and a level 50 could adventure together (meaning they could both experience significant advancement, so mentoring systems don’t necessarily count here), then you would probably eliminate a lot of desire to buy characters and items. This would involve a radical change in how current games are developed. Ironically enough, despite criticizing the “bad design” of a game that encourages RMT, Damion has spent quite a bit of time explaining why levels are a good thing. (And, yes, Damion’s point of view is more nuanced than that, but I’m going for a laugh here! :P)

Anyway, in the end RMT is going to happen. I think the whitepaper is a fascinating read and I’m glad it was made available. But, I don’t think the motivation for why sales like this exist is based on faulty design.

I’m sure you’ll post your thoughts whether I want to hear it or not. So, go ahead. :)

Edit: One bit I wanted to point out to show why RMT is not going away. From the paper:

The top buyer for the year, meanwhile, spent nearly $19,000 on 200 purchases.

Read that again. One person was willing to spend $19,000 in one year on the game. That’s the equivalent of paying for about 105 accounts during that year. This person spent more than the yearly operating costs of Meridian 59. I believe the term is “leaving money on the table.”

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  1. “Another option would be to eliminate the large disparity in power between levels”

    By skill, gear or otherwise. In Eve, I’ve done a few in-game “herding cats” contacts, when I was basically organising a corp of nerbs to fight against a group of very experienced griefers who’d wardecced them. Sure, the Pirates LOOKED fierce, in their nice expensive ships. But the newbs could fly cheap, low-skill frigates…and lose 10:1 and still come WELL ahead economically. Given those pirates life off their ability to loot and force corps to pay, those fights didn’t last long.

    I don’t think Eve’s model is necessarily ideal in many respects, but for a game which is item-centric even beyond WoW, it manages to a large degree to disengage that from overall PvP success. A single victory is not the war – perhaps this is as much about longer term goals as anything else,, given say in WoW the fight for the sake of itself is the ONLY condition, and there’s no real comeback or consequence.

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 8 February, 2007 @ 4:37 PM

  2. Good post.

    Comment by Dan C — 8 February, 2007 @ 10:18 PM

  3. I think you miss my point. What the White Paper talks about (and Raph elucidates better than I) is that a surprising number of the purchases were impulse purchases when players hit specific roadblocks – which is to say that people are enjoying playing the game except for specific elements of the game.

    Which is to say, these players are paying to bypass bad game design decisions in a game they otherwise enjoy.

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 8 February, 2007 @ 11:07 PM

  4. Damion wrote:
    I think you miss my point. What the White Paper talks about (and Raph elucidates better than I) is that a surprising number of the purchases were impulse purchases when players hit specific roadblocks – which is to say that people are enjoying playing the game except for specific elements of the game.

    I disagree that this was a conclusion in the paper. It says:

    [That most auctions were settled by instant purchases] shows that players are choosing to purchase at auction in order to fulfill an immediate desire. A player realizes, for example, that he needs a particular type of armor in order to defeat an enemy in a quest. He also knows that a crafter inside the game can make the armor for 10 platinum. The player then visits the Station Exchange, instant purchases the platinum he needs to buy the armor inside the game and continues on his quest.

    So, I don’t think that this is really avoiding “bad design” as much as someone more willing to spend money rather than time. Further, I think the instant purchases are more to avoid the hassle of being outbid on an item. Perhaps I’m overlooking something (ooh, pretty charts!)

    However, the paper does have some bits to support my position above.

    Experienced EverQuest II players may also be using Station Exchange as a way to re-experience the game. A player who has completed a series of quests as an elf will decide to go through the game again as a barbarian. But rather than repeating the mundane tasks that all starting characters must complete in order to advance, the experienced player pays for a shortcut to the more exciting material. He is, in essence, getting on-demand access to the best battles and quests in the game.

    This is the paragraph right before the “money quote” people use to show that people are buying their way past bad design. I suspect this is the primary motivation for people buying items. Or, to put it in terms of Raph’s A Theory of Fun: they’ve already mastered the pattern related to the item, and there is no more entertainment to be had by repeating it.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 February, 2007 @ 1:57 AM

  5. Brian, i think with that last statement you’ve nailed exactly why it’s a bad design. There’s a longstanding tradition in online games (especially level/diku games) for “harder” to mean “more time/more boring”. The bad design is that the particular pattern we’re talking about does not change, it merely has to be repeated more times.

    If one takes, for example, the old-style level grind of EQ1 or SWG, how exactly was achieving level 60 and different to achieving level 59 except that it required more stamina, more time and a higher boredom threshold?

    RMT provides a way of bypassing that time/boredom in current games. The challenge lies in finding a way of avoiding repeating the pattern and of making a new pattern which the player has not eked all enjoyment from learning while at the same time, removing the benefits of following the old pattern (fastest route to cheese, water running downhill etc etc etc).

    In real terms, what Station Exchange does is provide SOE with a financial incentive to continue to require that many bits of many games be boring.

    Comment by Cael — 9 February, 2007 @ 3:03 AM

  6. There are other alternatives to skipping huge boundaries. A very simple one is transferrence accross class. Lvl 60 Orc Mage in Warcraft decides to be a Lvl 60 Orc Warrior – LET THEM. Put it on a cooldown so people aren’t switching just because ‘a class is missing.’ Yes there are barriers to this (namely specialised equipment) but as I think that most armour in WoW has an equivalent in each class. E.g. Helm of Valor, Beaststalkers Cap etc. So just visit a friendly ‘transmutifying Gnome, and voila, your items are mutated to their variant – players are now equipped for a warrior.”

    People will still ‘roll alts’ to play through again and have two changeable characters, there’s no silly /level command.

    There’s no doubt similiar ‘solutions’ for item or craft goods. My favourite for crafts is to enable the player to hire a robotic harvester. They automatically gather for them (albeit at a reduced rate compared to doing it themselves)

    Itemwise, i’m still thinking of ideas, but there are always solutions that DO NOT COST MONEY.

    The conclusion of the paper inevitably leaned toward RMT being a positive thing for players. It really isn’t. It’s a positive thing for developers and publishers who can make more money. It’s also filled with a lot of ‘positive marketing’ word use: “Exciting, On-Demand Access, Best Battles, Immediate Desire.” They are the sort of words I would use if I was making a sales pitch.

    Also just take this sentence:
    “The Station Exchange White Paper results demonstrate beyond a doubt that there is a significant demand for a secure, sanctioned online marketplace where players can enhance their gaming experience by spending real dollars.”

    Split that in the middle… “There is a significant demand for ” … “a [...] sanctioned online marketplace.” Hmm, is there? I find that flawed logic myself. The demand does not necessarily arise because people want to spend real dollars. I know there is some funky latin term that means that they are generalising from a specific example. Positive Sales in EQII -> Demand for all MMO’s. When it’s really just Positive Sales in EQII -> Demand for things in EQII.

    You could just as easily write that there is a demand for “an alternative to current gameplay design that promotes every player getting what they hope for, for free.”

    RMT is, despite all my hope, the inevitable future. If money can be made, it will be. Whether it’s bad game design or not. Xbox live marketplace already starts to show that people will pay, regardless.

    Comment by Jpoku — 9 February, 2007 @ 3:28 AM

  7. What I took from this paper is “oh shit, I hope designers keep making games, not publishers, not producers.”

    This is another revenue model, but it won’t replace the current one. So what happens when games are designed specifically to tap into this? You can’t create a single game and have different servers with different RMT rulesets. Well, you could, but the game would be designed with RMT in mind, not fun factor of the non RMT servers.

    I am firmly in the camp that a lot, if not most RMT is the direct cause of shoddy game design.

    To take your point about people wanting to buy high level characters, that’s exactly why most my alts never get past level 10. Sure, I want to play a high level priest, but the hell if I’m going to go through the faction grinds, the buying the mount grind, let alone the level grind for 240 hours just to get back to where my friends are. On my first toon I’ve run most instances ad nausea already, I don’t want to do them again, especially without my mates. On the flip side, I want my character to grow and play my new toon as the abilities unlock, not just get a gift wrapped premade lvl capped thing.

    That’s probably one of the reason I’m looking forward to Tabula Rasa, their tier system looks to go a long way to not having me repeat stuff too much / take to long to catch up with my mates if I want to try something new.

    Players do pay money to surpass a roadblock, more so if it’s one they have to repetitively surpass.

    But yeah, my main concern with people going “zomg RMT can work!!” is that it will become the default MMOG model, and further stagnate the genre as a whole. Sure, make your RMT friendly games, but can we also get games that don’t require me to spend income because some dev thought I’d have fun needing to kill 60000 spear wielding frogs so I could get to the next part, again.

    As a final note, on looking how much players spend, cut out the top and bottom 10%, and average whats left, I think you’ll get a much better idea of the average spending.

    Comment by unbeliever — 9 February, 2007 @ 5:01 AM

  8. I have to add that the “roadblock” need not be achievement-oriented.

    I know roleplayers in SWG and EQ2 that resorted to RMT to permit them to focus on Roleplaying opportunities. One ran shops, but cared more about interaction than the nuances of making a profit. She RMT’d a little so she could afford to keep the shop stocked and competetive enough to keep customers coming. Another group liked the advanced rooms available in EQ2 and used RMT to pay the rent- IIRC, they still had to pay the “status” part of rent, but that saved them from even more coin grinding while they played. I’ve also known roleplay “weddings” that were funded by RMT, and SWG “player cities” where RMT was used to keep the coffers full.

    When we use faucet/drain concepts, we often have many of these “rent” costs that affect all players, regardless of whether they’re earning hundreds of gold a second or playacting in a tavern. Usually, the bigger rooms- the places that are of more interest to the roleplayer than the powerleveler- cost even more to rent. That’s an “obstacle” for the roleplayer, and one that they’ll pay to avoid.

    Comment by Chas — 9 February, 2007 @ 6:48 AM

  9. It would be very interesting to know how many of the character buyers already leveled up a character or two on their own. It shouldn’t be hard for Sony to find out, if they aren’t already paying attention.

    If they’re buying an additional character, that’s one thing. If they’re not, and you can see where they’re giving up, that’s something else. You know where the content becomes discouraging, and you can fix it. Then again, you’re making money on those character sales, so maybe you have an incentive not to. :)

    Thank you for the kind comments about my blog. :)

    Comment by Sara Jensen — 9 February, 2007 @ 10:14 AM

  10. Cael wrote:
    The challenge lies in finding a way of avoiding repeating the pattern and of making a new pattern which the player has not eked all enjoyment from learning while at the same time, removing the benefits of following the old pattern (fastest route to cheese, water running downhill etc etc etc).

    It isn’t bad design, it’s the nature of any game according to Raph’s assertions. In other words, it’s a fool’s errand to think you can design around it. (But, once again, I’ll be happy for you to prove me wrong. ;) You have fun learning the game, but you eventually get to the point where you’ve mastered the game and it’s no longer fun (that is, you’re no longer learning). A game designer can attempt to frustrate this process, but this is a fundamental change to the nature of gameplay as a whole, not just a different way of designing online RPGs. The only way we’ve come up with to avoid this process is to add more content, which we’ve generally accepted is not infinite.

    But, it’s natural for players to eventually get tired of a game. Using more of Damion’s own rope to hang him, you might want to read up on player burnout. From my observation, most people who engage in RMT are people trying to extend the life of the game. They don’t want to repeat the same content yet another time so they purchase items, characters, etc. instead of burning out and leaving their friends behind.

    Consider the game that everyone hails as the modern messiah: WoW. Now, WoW didn’t find the magic bullet, they were just able to throw enough content developers at the project to provide a whole load of content. And, as I point out above, WoW still suffers from RMT just as much as any other game. If the issue truly is one of poor design, then ever single online game designer should just quit and flip burgers for a living. If the game company with the biggest funding, strongest IP, and some of the best developers can’t avoid this “bad design”, then the rest of us are just fucking doomed.

    In real terms, what Station Exchange does is provide SOE with a financial incentive to continue to require that many bits of many games be boring.

    No, because if the bits are truly boring, then people won’t become attached to the game. The fact that people are willing to put in time and/or money shows that the game is compelling enough for people to want to play the game. In the end, I don’t think it’s a conscious design decision as much as it’s just the way things work. You might as well be complaining about car makers that manufacture cars that obeys the laws of gravity; that just makes the cars burn more gasoline!

    I think you could just as easily argue that this motivates a company, such as SOE, to strengthen community, enhance the new player experience, add more directed content, and not simply add tons of content to the highest levels in order to encourage people to get interested in the game and not simply spend all their time on a single character. IMNSHO, these changes are probably positive things, even if they could encourage people to buy more items from the game.

    Jpoku wrote:
    Itemwise, i’m still thinking of ideas, but there are always solutions that DO NOT COST MONEY.

    The solutions always cost money. Designing, implementing, and balancing a system for switching classes as you describe costs money to pay the poor fools that have to do the grunt work, for example. I know that you are talking about charging the player more money, but I think people need to realize that the fantasy doesn’t extend outside the game. These games cost money to build, and the developers (and their investors) want to make back their investments. We’ve been lucky to get relatively cheap games for as long as we have. I’ll talk more about this below.

    unbeliever wrote:
    But yeah, my main concern with people going “zomg RMT can work!!” is that it will become the default MMOG model, and further stagnate the genre as a whole.

    You’ve got that backwards; it’s the reliance on the subscription-based business model that is stagnating the industry. I wrote about this issue before. Here’s the money quote from that post:

    Unfortunately, there are a few problems here from a business point of view. The main problem I’ve run into as a small game operator is that this business model doesn’t scale down very well. Let me illustrate: if I have 1,000 subscribers and charge them $10/month, I have a yearly income of $120,000. If another game has 1,000,000 subscribers and charges the same $10/month, then they make $120 million. Obviously, the bigger game has more funding to do more development work. Yet, to the individual players, it appears that they are paying the exact same price for a different amount of development. For the company, the only way to increase income is to increase the number of players, which requires appealing to a wider and wider audience (which often requires appealing to the least common denominator).

    Unless you believe that the large companies are the only source of innovation, alternate business models are one way that smaller games will be able to remain profitable enough and able to break out of our current stagnation and be able to try something different. If you rely on a business model that requires pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to gain the most profit, you will see a lot of stagnation. (Not to say that larger companies can’t innovate, but it’s usually the people that come out of nowhere that provide the most revolutionary changes.)

    As a final note, on looking how much players spend, cut out the top and bottom 10%, and average whats left, I think you’ll get a much better idea of the average spending.

    Average spending means nothing, it’s the total revenue which is meaningful. That one person who spent $19,000 over the year still spent a lot of money, regardless of the average amount spent. if that money were all going to the developer, it could subsidize about 100 other players to play for free. If people are willing to spend that much on the game, it makes sense for the business to try to gain some of that money. For a smaller developer, this type of business model could keep them in business whereas relying on subscriptions may cause the game to falter.

    Chas wrote:
    I have to add that the “roadblock” need not be achievement-oriented.

    And, this is an excellent point. Simutronics’ GemStone is infamous for its weddings. These can be very lavish affairs with custom items and GM assistance, but these cost real money to offset the time spent. I’ve heard anecdotes that people have spent more than US$10,000 on a wedding in GemStone!

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 February, 2007 @ 2:23 PM

  11. “In other words, it’s a fool’s errand to think you can design around it.“

    I totally agree. You can not design RMT out of a game because it has nothing to do with game design. Yes, some historical games had elements in them that just stank to high Hell and the ‘Time = Money = Time = Money = Why The Hell Am I Camping This Again?’ mantra was definitely true for those games.

    That said, RMT isn’t about bad game design. That’s not the reason it exists. It’s about human psychology, and people wanting things irrelevant to the actual play of the game. A guy starts playing a game and sees a cool horse that another high level player has. He can’t get that horse because he’s a n00b and it costs too much (and has some quest that unlocks it or whatever). The guy has two options:

    1. Play the game and accomplish things until he gets the horse.
    2. Call up an RMT outlet and pay for powerleveling and a pony.

    Now the actual gameplay for option #1 could be insanely compelling and fun and it wouldn’t matter for some people — they just want their pony. They want it now. Instant gratification matters more to them than gameplay. So they buy the path to a pony and ride off into the sunset.

    Does that mean the content between n00b and pony! sucked? No, it means the person had motivations outside of gameplay and bypassed it because it was irrelevant to the confirmation of those motivations. This is the sort of stuff that Raph digs into… player behavior and motivation.

    You can design a great game, many have, and people are still going to want to skip it because their motivations aren’t 100% to find and play a great game.

    …um so nice post Brian! I agree on the conclusions and it’s not corporate brainwashing, I swear!

    P.S. Don’t you try to spring that “Are you saying people are playing the game wrong?” trap on Uncle Grimwell either! I’m not falling for that! If someone wants to buy a horse, and they have a way to do it that does not cause me (or any other player) to have to sit out content while some farmer hogs content from me in my legitimite play path — what do I care?

    RMT is pretty much a fact of the industry, and this white paper proves it — There is money on the table. I’m pleasantly surprised that SOE shared it with everyone… they… er we could have just took the knowledge and stored it.

    Comment by Grimwell — 9 February, 2007 @ 10:59 PM

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