8 February, 2007
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.”