To Catch a Rant

A recent post over at Healing the Masses has been making the rounds and generating a lot of comments. Many, many readers have thus far been unable to read the opening lines which indicating that our beloved Queen of the Rant, Eri, is not in fact behind this particular one.

That honor belongs to me.

Eri and I share a close blogging relationship. We often collaborate, discuss drafts, and generate future topics for one another through our frequent Steam conversations. She had just gone to print with her ‘Free to Play Fuckery’ tag with an article that I enjoyed. In a similar vein, I expressed an anxiety to her about mobile games having Super Bowl Ads. We both agreed that the thought deserved further exploration and that a guest rant might be the way to go.

As I had missed the Super Bowl and all of its ads, my own inspiration came from a post on Contains Moderate Peril. There, he discussed these ads as offering a normalization of gaming for the event’s massive audience:

“Despite what some gamers may think of mobile gaming, its mainstream success has contributed to making the pastime more socially acceptable. I consider that a good thing. Regardless of its original intentions, #Gamergate did tarnish the reputation of gaming in 2014. Perhaps popular culture references such as Liam Neeson playing Clash of Clans can contribute to reversing that trend. Who knows, as more people adopt mobile gaming it may even lead to an improvement in the quality of the games themselves?”

While I don’t disagree with the need for gaming to reverse the bad publicity (and the root causes) of #Gamergate, I am not prepared to let mobile gaming be the champion. There are certainly gems that don’t abuse their payment models, but neither Clash of Clans or Game of War are THOSE mobile games. Both are built from the ground up to monetize the player in ways that not even the grindiest of subscription-based MMORPGs could have ever conceived of prior to the invention of Free-to-Play.

Admittedly, an obscenity-filled rant isn’t the best way to discuss an issue that I feel is still quite serious, but I also didn’t intend for it to be taken this seriously. Never in my wildest days would I present an argument to convert you to my cause in such a form. Similar to Zero Punctuation reviews, the idea was to take a semblance of my real beliefs and hyperbolize them (and my delivery) for humor.

Since we’ve barely been able to get the post’s attribution right, I suppose it is only natural that the intent and purpose be distorted by the forever echoing chambers of the Internet. Commenting here and there seems to do little, so I will take my time here to address some concerns.

Enter Joe Nobody.

Tobold started things off with playing the personal responsibility card. In his view, my example of Joe Nobody was a misleading caricature of a typical F2P whale that doesn’t actually exist. In his bubble, Tobold’s whales are all affluent, well-off, and utterly bored business types with wealth to spend on frivolous things like video games.

“In the end the attempt to paint Free2Play players as Joe Nobody’s is exactly the same as pretending that hardcore gamers are unemployed losers who moved back in with their mother and play in the basement all day”

Again, my intention was to not paint a comprehensive picture of your average whale. I assumed the line “and move in with grandma who smells” might indicate my attempt at humor and levity. This was not a serious example and it is unfair to paint it as such. An entire industry has formed around ‘whale hunting’ and I think that is a serious ethical hazard, but those most afflicted by an over-indulgence in F2P spending are every day sufferers who waste lots and lots of money without necessarily gaining a whole lot. Some of you may argue that F2P has empowered those with less means or less access to play more games, but I think the entire model has eroded away the value of the money we spend on games and the games we get for our efforts.

Tobold’s second issue has to deal with the addictive qualities of a standard subscription-based MMORPG, and how my example’s protagonist could have fallen just as easily into despair from intense anti-social behavior brought about by his escapism into that world, without the payment model having any real influence.

Others have chimed in to make the same point and I don’t disagree on the sentiment. Humans are creative creatures and when our lives don’t go the way we think they ought to, we cope in some fascinating ways. Escapism in particular is a lot easier done with games built to be escapist, but it could just as easily occur in books, movies, or television shows. Before his death, my brother lived a very troubled and lonely life – his only recourse for a long time was Harry Potter.

I do not disagree with the concept of certain individuals being predisposed to dangerous levels of escapism, but such a phenomenon being possible in a subscription MMORPG doesn’t excuse F2P games for their own failings. The entire payment model works best when a game is designed to be easily and frequently monetized, so F2P mobile games are created with stringing along the player in mind. Super Bowl ads are a big deal because these games need large amounts of people trying their game so they can get the few willing to pay invested in their product. Cast a wide enough net and some oysters will have pearls.

Not all F2P models are equal, of course. I doubt I am on record for saying anything nice about League of Legends, so I will admit that I love its model. Unlike many F2P mobile games, gameplay isn’t gated by time or cost. The entire game can be played – though in a somewhat limited way power-wise – without spending a dime. Yes, you can speed things up by purchasing champions rather than grinding for them or you can level faster with experience boosts. You aren’t really paying to win though and the game isn’t relying on problematic lockboxes to rake in cash. For a final word on Tobold, I agree with Syl when she said:

“They’d probably really agree on many basic principles, if they were actually talking about the same thing; there are some pretty awful mobile games out there right now and some MMOs do f2p worse than others.”

Much of the argument back and forth has missed or ignored my rant’s point altogether. I am aware of the current market, of those F2P experiences I deem worthy of my money and those I do not. However, my rant was intended to illustrate my fear that the overwhelming success of F2P mobile games would have a negative long-term effect on MMORPGs which have rapidly adopted similar monetization tactics, systems, and features. There in the opening paragraph, I set it all up with is brilliant pirate reference:

If two piece of shit mobile games can garner enough money to afford spots like these with people some of us have heard of, then how can any of us expect F2P MMOs to become less “ARRGGGH, MATEY! I am overcharging your credit card because you played drunk and lonely last night, you big fat fucking whale!

I stand by those feelings, even if my chosen form of expression seemed to mislead so many. Whether I have a preference or not, publishers will push their games toward the path that makes the most money. With the incredible financial success that so many F2P games have garnered, whether their gameplay merits it or not, how can we expect any developer to stand against that pressure? Presuming a guaranteed hit, no company in their right mind after seeing today’s market would opt for it to be a subscription-based game rather than a F2P one because the latter will rake in more profit.

That troubles me. While some of you may feel like this entire argument is a tired retread, I still believe that the F2P model negatively impacts the design of far too many games and they remain financially successful despite it. This is where many would argue that a free market is the fairest way to determine the value of something, but the very concept requires rational participants and that’s hardly the case when games are being designed to zip, zap, and bamboozle players by appealing to their irrational interests. To me, homo economicus is a mythical creature, so when a game like ArcheAge has a monetization model that gets in the way of it being game, I’d like to follow Eri’s lead and leave it behind, but sadly our “votes” don’t amount to much and the game continues on affecting future players/designers/publishers and their ideals of what games can be and should be.

It takes a lot to make a MMORPG, so most are created with a conservative approach that tries to appeal to broader market norms (just like AAA games). Whether we like it or not, MMORPGs are first and foremost a product – World of Warcraft’s massive success, as well as their prohibitive development costs, guaranteed that. Indie developers can make artsy games because the costs are within reach. Kickstarters can try and make quality MMORPGs, but we’re all waiting patiently to see how that plays out. The MMORPGs that do get made sink or swim by how well they monetize their players since apparently there are too few interested players to keep a smaller population MMO afloat via just the subscription model. That means F2P, and the outrageous success of mobile games utilizing various aspects of the model, have completely altered the future of the entire genre.

The genre is already leaving my own conception of it behind. Admittedly, that’s the natural progression of most things; in life, things change and often despite individual protest. Still, I know I am not alone in feeling left out. I also know that I am not the only one cautiously optimistic for niche MMOs via Kickstarter or those born by the F2P model’s mere existence to speak to my interests directly again. There are plenty of great experiences left to be had and more will come – things like this will reach a new equilibrium.

But when the future of a genre I have loved for most of my life hangs in the balance, you can’t blame me for being a little anxious, a little fearful, and a little slow to embrace these new norms, can you?

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13 thoughts on “To Catch a Rant”

  1. It all sees reasonably straightforward to me. If you have a commercial business the products or services it offers have to turn a profit. The traditional way to do that has been either to sell or hire the product or service to the end user at a profitable price point or to subsidize the cost through a third-party agreement (usually advertising) and sell the product or service to the end user at or below break-even.

    Subscription MMOs are effectively use same as businesses model as gyms or tennis clubs. You pay a recurring fee and they allow you to use the facilities. If you stop paying they don’t let you in any more. Like tennis clubs and gyms they increase their revenue by selling you more products and services while you’re on the premises – the cash shop in a subscription MMO is like the concession stand in the cinema or the bar at the golf club.

    B2P MMOs are pretty similar only they offer a one-time membership deal. You don’t see that so often in meatspace but it’s not unknown.

    F2P MMOs though… I’m not sure if they have an equivalent. Most products or services you get for free in “real life” are either supported by advertizing or exist primarily to promote other products or services. I can’t think of any holiday companies, for example, who offer free flights and accommodation to anyone in the hope of attracting a small number of folk who’ll make up the missing millions in revenue with their excessive bar tabs.

    It’s kind of reassuring to believe that it must be a small number of whales keeping all these F2P games afloat but is it really likely? How many whales would that take? It was one thing when there were only a handful of these games but now there are thousands of them if you include mobile. It may be less palatable to hear that there are a lot of relatively ordinary, relatively sane people who kind of enjoy these games and kind of don’t mind paying to remove restrictions or for a chance of getting something they want out of a lockbox but the growth of the sector tends to suggest that just might be the case.

    If not then, presumably, the whole thing will eventually sag and fold under its own weight as too many Captain Ahabs chase too few Moby Dicks. Time will tell.

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    1. Oh I am fairly sure that these models are kept afloat more than by the average paying consumer and not the select few whales. I do like your use of “kind of enjoy” and “kind of don’t mind” because that’s how I feel anytime I have purchased something in this model!

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    2. I actually have a real-life Meatspace version of F2P, or close to it.

      Way back in University, the club I was in was holding a fundraiser talent show of sorts to raise money for a cause. The bar we rented for the evening said we could have the space for free assuming our patrons purchased a minimum amount of alcohol (basically, to offset the costs of charging a cover that was going to charity rather than the bar). Thankfully, our patrons met and exceeded that amount greatly.

      It’s not quite a perfect analogue, but it’s pretty close. The crowd subsidizing the event by their optional purchases (though they still had to pay to get in, hence the fundraising portion).

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      1. After I commented I also thought of the Direct Mail sector that was huge in the 70s and 80s. The entire business model there was to send out tens or hundreds of thousands of leaflets, letters and brochures in the full knowledge that 97% would either never be read or would go straight in the bin.

        What the mailers were after was the 3% who could be hooked to buy whatever was on offer. The whole enterprise was based on “fishing for whales” or fishing anyway. It was very controversial at the time and widely disliked but it was apparently very profitable. It seemed to die away with the coming of widespread internet use but I imagine what really happened was the same practices just moved to the far less expensive platform of email and other digital services.

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  2. Aren’t the “whales” just kids whose parents forgot to turn off the in game purchases function on the iPad, and are screwed when the 5k credit card bills roll in because they let their kids download “free” games? =)

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  3. This is quite a long post, it’s evening here and i’m quite tired- but first of all let me say i’m sorry for missing that you were the author of the post in the introduction. I blame it on….well, there’s nobody. I guess i skipped the first paragraph because i sensed that the rant would begin in the second.

    On topic- they’ll try what they can to get our money- be it exploitative, extortionately or cunningly- there’s two ways this would end- the first one being that “we” stop giving them money and the second would be by law. Therefore, i think it is important that somebody makes a point and draws a line- publicly- what he or she deems money well spent and/or just exploitative- therefore, i really like the series Eri/J3w3l does over at her blog.

    The law could work, and it could happen, at least here. After all, germany’s not very shy in terms of wanting special treatment in video games. Internationally, though, i don’t see it happen. And that’s a shame, because, especially in the case of lockboxes, developers can get away with a lot (e.g. not telling exact chances).

    I’m not much into mobile gaming, though, so i don’t know what these games monetize- my guess is “pay2quick”- some mechanic that lessens waiting time- and, well, we already see MMOs trying that (Rifts minions and others, i guess).

    Also, i laughed out loud while reading the rant, it was very entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no worries! I blame Eri, who is my usual scapegoat for things anyway.

      Agreed on all counts. The United States will mostly likely be the last place that bothers to pass any sort of regulation in this regard. Too much free enterprise and too little interest in the economics of these emerging technologies or their social impacts.

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      1. pfffffttt.. you just didn’t want to sully your erudite establishment with such unrefined banter, and found a willing host among us proletariat.

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  4. […] Recent community discussions about F2P games, their quality and their financial models have made the rounds. It’s been really nice to see people care about the topic enough to write on it, even when we don’t all agree. But I think we don’t have to. To discuss F2P is to discuss not just the profits but how that profit is being extracted from us. Developers are always negotiating that line between profit and abuse when they use this model. Some have made a commitment to not manipulating their players and they’re doing well. Riot comes to mind as well as Guild Wars. There are some good guys out there making it work and showing that abuse is hardly necessary to turn a profit. Then there’s the thousands of games, especially on mobile, which are little more than elaborate slot machines, just like the arcades of old. Zynga popularized it and it’s been going strong ever since. It wouldn’t be the first time that some suit realized that they could manipulate the consumer to get more money out of them (advertising comes to mind). […]

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