Coin-op MMORPG

17th August 2009 – 5.52 pm

There is an interesting analogy about micro-transaction-based gameply over at Killed in a Smiling Accident. Melmoth likens micro-transactions to arcade machines that tempt players to 'insert coin/s to continue', not allowing further access to content without ensuring the game gets your money. I find his argument to be compelling, resonating with me. Brian 'Psychochild' Green replies to Melmoth making a good counterpoint, showing that a game relying on micro-transaction payments can be as good value for money as a subscription-based game, but I believe the two arguments are heading in different directions.

I think it is important to realise the changes that have been made to games in general since the early days of arcade gaming, moving to home computers and consoles, and the trends that are continuing. Early arcade games had characters that were fragile and environments that were lethal. It only took one bump with a ghost, knock by a barrel, or misstep off a ledge for your character to die, losing a life and often being put back at the start of the level. This quick loss of lives made good sense for machines that needed to be fed continually with coins for new games, but when the games were translated to home computers and consoles there was less reason to make the gameplay quite so frustrating.

Having bought the game outright, rather than renting time on a public machine, the notion of killing of the player's character quickly and often made less sense. Computer games no longer needed to be designed to have promote many short sessions of the same content, and instead could focus on presenting as much of the available content to the average gamer. Understanding the differences between coin-ops and home gaming led to a sea change. Where main characters were once killed quickly and brutally they became resilient to attacks, withstanding several bullet hits before dropping, swimming and holding their breath instead of drowning instantly. The health bar made all this possible, soon followed by the ability to replenish lost health through pick-ups. There was little point in killing off the character if the player behind them was not motivated to pour more money in to playing.

Being able to continue long games from where you left off underwent a change too. Arcade games offered a strictly time-limited option to continue within a matter of seconds, but home computers introduced the ability to store the game's state and reload that state. The player could either to continue at pre-determined points, which first had to be reached, or had to decide when to save the game manually, introducing its own problems of how often to save, to reduce the risk of future actions. Just as characters became more resilient so did the save game feature, becoming more automatic and regular, and even seeing some games, notably the Monkey Island series, remove the concept of character death altogether.

The divergence from arcade game lethality to home computing entertainment was gradual but had a profound effect on gaming. Understanding that games didn't need to be limited to five-minute slices of action led to new ideas and genres. Of course, the health bar and its relations were also used in coin-ops, where its application gave the player motivation to pump money in to the machine to boost dwindling stamina. And I think this is the crux of Melmoth's concern, that micro-transactions could be a worrying trend backwards. Comparing free-to-play games relying on micro-transactions for revenue to coin-op games seems apt, but is perhaps not as much of a concern as a game that also has a retail price, where development costs can be recovered more readily and thus be a more suitable platform for cosmetic improvements from micro-transactions. Brian Green's argument that gamers can find their own relative comfort levels of payment seems quite reasonable in this respect.

However, it is important to note that Green's perspective is less about 'micro-transactions' and more about paying reasonable sums for small expansion packs, whereas Melmoth seems focussed towards the prospect of many almost-negligible transactions that have the possibility to accumulate in to a significant expenditure over a period of time, in much the same way that ten pence per credit doesn't seem like much money until they are all added up at the end of a gaming month. Being able to pay for content as and when we want to gain permanent access to it could be a real benefit to the casual gamer, but having the true cost of a game masked by many small and individual charges is a legitimate concern, particularly if the gains are effectively temporary.

There is plenty of experience to show that companies rarely make decisions that benefit the consumer over the concerns of the company itself. Coin-ops are still around today, and their nature has evolved to adapt to the market. Understanding that some players are quite skilled and used to be able to play for hours on a single credit, coin-op games now tend more towards time-limited gameplay, offering a definite amount of time instead of a number of lives. And just as coin-ops still favour the games companies it is reasonable to expect companies basing revenue around micro-transactions to be as shrewd.

Companies may begin by offering additional and premium content for micro-, or macro-, transactions, but the payments can also be used in the same way that some coin-ops allow players to gain direct benefits, or extra longevity out of games by inserting coins. I sympathise with Melmoth's concern that micro-transactions will be used for consumable items or temporary gains that either let players twink their characters or almost vital in overcoming the more difficult challenges in the game. The worry is that we'll be find ourselves playing the MMORPG equivalent of Gauntlet, forever having to bolster our health by paying more money, whilst the ranger shoots the food.

  1. 3 Responses to “Coin-op MMORPG”

  2. People do seem to worry a lot about "spending too much". Most current systems are set up so that you have to buy currency up front. Budgeting yourself makes sense here: if you only want to spend $15/month maximum, then buy $15 worth of credits and limit yourself to that. There might be time when your friends want to go explore an area you haven't paid to open yet, but I don't see this as different than when your friends want to go out to eat when you're low on cash. Nobody rages against restaurants in this way.

    I also think smart design is important in microtransactions, too. I really like the dual currency system in Puzzle Pirates. If you have a lot of time and not much money, you can still play on the "Doubloon oceans" just fine by earning in-game cash and buying Doubloons on the exchange. (Of course, someone else had to buy the Doubloons in the first place, so the developers still get paid. Hooray for us!)

    By Brian 'Psychochild' Green on Aug 20, 2009

  3. You make a valid point. There is little reason why a rational person could not apply a sensible budget and stick with it, although you hint at the peer pressure that could possibly become a minor issue. No, nobody rages at restaurants like this, but then friends don't tend to come back from restaurants five levels higher and no longer wanting to visit the same restaurants as you any more.

    As an additional data point, I can relate my experience from collectible card games. CCGs applied the mini-transaction system—not quite big enough to be macro but certainly not small enough to be micro—for buying boosters after the initial starter deck was bought. When I started playing it was as a 'casual' gamer, and my friends were mostly like-minded. We enjoyed playing the game and only bought boosters to expand the game as we reasonably wanted to, no excessive spending.

    But then we widened our gaming circle a little to play with different people. One of the new players bought boxes of cards and had every card in the sets, making him almost unstoppable through sheer volume. One of the skilled players stepped up and decided he would show that skill mattered, but he had to get as many good cards and so started buying in volume too. Then someone else realised he could devote more money to the game, and he liked getting lots of cards to add to his collection.

    Through a few small steps, the gaming group turned from casual, light spending to spending significant amounts of money on the games played. Players either had to spend equivalent amounts or essentially be ineffective in most games. Indeed, the 'sealed deck' style of play was created as a consequence of power gamers having too great an advantage. So even though it is possible to budget, an open system of trading money for game items can influence players in ways they don't anticipate, causing players to spend more money than desired, even if that expenditure is manageable.

    This is not to say that mini-transaction MMOGs will go the same way. There is the possibility that players will be able to choose how much money to spend over any time period and how to spend it most effectively for content. However, there is also the possibility that companies will sense the profit to be made from offering consumables and similar items from mini-transactions, and if that is the case it could be that raids, PvP, or even mid-level play could be dominated by players who expect everyone to be fully stocked-up with these bought consumables in order to be effective.

    Mini-transactions for consumables may not be the perceived direction MMOG companies are heading at the moment, but I believe this is the fear that Melmoth was anticipating, and certainly what I would not look forwards to.

    By pjharvey on Aug 23, 2009

  4. Yes, a company could decide to try to milk customers for all they're worth. But, this isn't a feature of microtransactions alone. I saw a lot of people buy extra WoW accounts to take advantage of the "refer a friend" program. It was faster and easier to level up an alt rather than create a new character. Perhaps Blizzard didn't intend to soak some people for more money, but the end result is that more people bought subscriptions than they had before. And, Blizzard can claim to be innocent of accusations of money-grubbing while writing another press release about their next million subscribers.

    Ultimately, players will have to make decisions about if a game is worth the time and effort or not. Any game that makes a cash grab too early and they risk scaring off players. People who know their history know that when games charged per hour and people got a bill for thousands of dollars for the previous month, their next step was to cancel their access to the service. That strategy is not great for retaining customers.

    I think a game that uses microtransactions well, especially a small niche game, has to really tailor themselves to the players. Personally, I'd love to have a game someone spends about $240 on a cosmetic item and LOVES it. You aren't going to get that if your only concern is trying to squeeze maximum amount of money out of the customer.

    Some further thoughts.

    By Brian 'Psychochild' Green on Aug 26, 2009

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