4 January, 2008
Money is a funny thing in online games, both online and offline variations. Of course, the offline version of money is a very confusing issue. On one hand, game companies are businesses that want to make a lot of money. On the other hand, some players want to downplay that and keep games “pure” by not making them about money. These two points of view seem to be in conflict with each other.
Add in RMT and the waters get even more muddied. Consider a virtual item sales business model and even the most steadfast people become confused.
So, let’s take a look at how offline money affects online games.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I tend to be authoritarian in my views on running online games. If the developers didn’t intend to have RMT, then they should be able to enforce this decision. Not that this will stop people who really want to buy and sell items for offline money, but it is their prerogative. It sucks for the player when expectations are violated because someone waved around a bunch of cash.
RuneScape has been tackling this problem recently. They posted an announcement about changes, and a writeup about the reasons for the changes. Read the second link first, since it gives a bit more insight about the changes even if you’re not familiar with the game. The gist is that you can only make trades that are within a certain system-defined amount (in this case, 3k gold pieces). You can only make one such unbalanced trade every 15 minutes. This means that you have to make multiple trades to get your cash, since the pre-defined amount isn’t very much in terms of the wealth players can have.
This is interesting, because it does limit the amount of economic activity that can go on. There is still a way to sell your items on the open market for an endless price, but the transactions are anonymous (therefore you can’t buy someone’s overpriced items to specifically give them a boost). It’ll be interesting to see what the long-term effects of this are. One reason why I think this works is because RuneScape is a very established game by this point. My first thought was, “Won’t this hurt newbies who might get generous gifts from their friends?” Then my second thought was, “How many new players are they likely to get at this point?”
Of course, I’ve already developed a system that could still allow for gold selling. If there is an item that sells for significantly more than its system-defined value, the gold farmers could just collect those. For example, if a foozle has a system-defined value of 500 gold, but it regularly sells for 2500 gold, then ordering 2,000,000 gold would be handled by getting 1000 foozles for 500,000 gold. Not as simple as getting someone to drop a bunch of gold in trade, but still possible. The issue is: is it enough of a hassle that people won’t do it? The response to this is that the developers have to be able to adjust the value of items quickly. But, if they do this then you can have someone game the system. Have the gold farmers sell a class of items with the promise they’ll go up in value, then do a bunch of sales on the auction for high amounts to increase the value and the people holding the items from before profit. This requires some level of trust, of course. But, I think these ideas demonstrate that the war hasn’t been won in RuneScape, it’s possibly just taking on new forms.
On the other hand, I firmly believe the subscription fee is doomed and that item sales are the wave of the future, particularly for smaller games. A game with a few thousand users simply cannot survive as a source of income for someone using a subscription model. Item sales allow for incomes of 2-3x what subscriptions would bring in. In addition, you can allow some people to spend more to subsidize the people who don’t want to spend anything at all, but who still bring intangibles like community to the game.
One of my big concerns is that this type of business model could be adopted and abused by a larger company that tries to soak people for all the money they’re work. This has happened recently in china with the game ZT Online. I read a translated article about one person’s adventures in the game. The game gets rid of a lot of issues that people complained about in other games (specifically Legend of Mir according to the article): having to grind up levels and go through mazes to get to boss monsters. Of course, you had to spend money to do almost anything in the game.
The thing is, people still played and enjoyed the game. There are some things in the game that sound like they try to take advantage of gambling impulses (like the chests), but for the most part it seems like people were willingly playing and paying for the game. Of course, there will always be some buyer’s regret for some people after the fact when they spend more than they feel like they should have. This was the same when people playing games and paying by the hour racked up hundreds, thousands, or even more dollars in charges for the older online games in the bad old days.
Of course, the game was wildly profitable for the original developer. The article says that the original developer is probably one of the richest people in China right now. Most people in our industry seem to worship numbers and say things like “9 million players can’t be wrong!” so perhaps they’ll justify such behavior by pointing out that it’s successful. I think that, despite the success, this was a poorly designed game. But, the developer will have to take being one of the richest people in China as a consolation prize. But, I think that a game can sell items without being such a naked money grab. The problem is, there are surely going to be some companies exploiting that along the way.
So, there’s some of the recent goings on about offline money in games. What do you think? Will RuneScape be victorious over the gold sellers? Is that article about ZT Online going to hurt the item sales market, or is it a pattern for greedy capitalists to follow?