Tautology of Value

Keen has a post up on the nature of F2P that, at first blush, reads as a truism. Namely, that one should be suspicious of any F2P title – after all, if the developers thought it were a valuable product, they would be pricing it accordingly.

Why do we have to pretend games are free or better yet that they have to be free in order for people to want to play them? MMO gamers are capable of identifying whether a product is worth being paid for or not. A good product will sell. A poor one will not.

This prescriptive sentiment has always bugged me. In one of the comments someone else asserts:

A great product will sell itself.

These all read as tautologies to me. How do you know if a game is great? It sells itself. And games that sell themselves are great, by definition.

…except we all have examples of underrated masterpieces, and garbage that sells millions of copies every year. Unless we are ready to admit that Star Wars Galaxies was terrible and Candy Crush Saga is one of the best videogames of all time, we need to decouple a game’s quality from its sales performance. There is correlation on a good day, but just as often there is not.

Similarly, the trend towards F2P is not necessarily one of naked greed and cynicism. I will be the first to admit that I prefer the antiquated “buy the box” or subscription models, as I believe it properly aligns developer incentives (i.e. make better content vs more cash shop items). But in 2015, there is one reality every developer must face:

1) F2P competition exists.

If you are all set to release a subscription-based MOBA in an environment where League of Legends still exists, you are going to have a bad time. The same is true for subscription-based MMOs these days. It is easy to claim that Wildstar (etc) failed not because of the subscription model, but because it wasn’t good enough to justify a subscription model. But that still sounds tautological to me. “If the game was good, it would not have failed.” Or to shorten it: “If it were good, it would not be bad.”

In the present MMO environment, it isn’t enough to simply be good – one has to be as good or better than all the alternatives, many of which are F2P. This is especially salient in MMOs considering the social dynamics are pretty much the only reason why you would continue playing the game. We can imagine a scenario in which the perfect (to you) MMO is released… but it ends up as a ghost town, and subsequently loses most (or all) of its value.

Which makes this part of Keen’s post a little ridiculous:

Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.

Of course charging a subscription or box price will dissuade people from playing, else lowering prices would not generate any increased sales. Obviously there are people out there willing to purchase $60 titles on Day 1; what is less obvious is whether there are enough. Unless you are willing to settle for Minecraft, most MMOs are released with $60+ million price-tags which need to be recouped by volume. Populations in the 100,000 range simply can’t cut it anymore, nevermind the negative social effects of low server concurrency. It is quite a pickle that you place MMO developers in when they either need to craft a more valuable product than WoW (etc) or go with an extremely low-budget project… which will still be called a failure anyway due to low sales volume. “A good product sells,” remember?

Overall, I do think the warning vis-a-vis F2P games is sound – there is no payment model better suited to erode consumer surplus than F2P. And there are certainly a million and one examples of very bad, very cynical F2P cash-grabs. But I do not agree that good games necessarily sell (or sell themselves), I do not agree that sales is necessarily an indicator of quality at all, and I would suggest that developers have many perfectly valid reasons to “give their product away” even if they could have charged for it. In fact, they very well may have to these days, just to get enough warm bodies in the door to achieve the social critical mass that MMOs require.

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Posted on January 16, 2015, in Commentary, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. It is not clear to me that Wildstar would have succeeded in the way it wanted to even with a pure, no-box-sale F2P model. Meanwhile, TESO seems to be doing all right and limbering up for a console release, and FFXIV isn’t doing all that shabbily.

    Of course, the reason we are able to continue spilling so much blogging and commenting ink on payment models is that their role in a game’s degree of success is quite impossible to decouple from a particular MMO’s other strengths and flaws. I would suggest, however, that the payment model affects a game’s actual design (those developer incentives you mentioned) sufficiently to make F2P and subscription games into products distinct from each other.

    What irks me about acolytes of the F2P model (e.g. Tobold) is that they burrow so far down the economic analysis rabbit hole that they’re almost ready to talk about calories of gaming being consumed (hence those arguments about casuals subsidising hardcore players in sub games). Good, enduring games really don’t work like that. The value of entertainment experience in a game that at least aspires to offer some semblance of a virtual world cannot really be reduced to being able to do five things for two bucks while your competitor charges three. These calculations do matter, but it’s all far less granular than many people insist.

    Massive churn inherent to F2P models isn’t all that great for social critical mass, either. Sure, you can smash lots of people into lots of others, and bonds may form, but it’s an open question whether things like guilds don’t work better with fewer collision opportunities but longer-lasting (at least a month) bonds when they do form.

    Sorry to rant, I am still a little bitter about this subject on account of the TOR heartbreak. Keen is very much on to something, though, when he talks about conveying quality. There is a reason people buy those iPhones, dine in restaurants with good ambience, buy overpriced drinks in clubs and generally try their best to avoid little cat-and-mouse games with their wallets in areas of life cordonned off as leisure. I honestly do wonder sometimes what comes over us where MMOs are concerned.

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    • It’s kinda funny you mention TESO, considering all evidence points to a impending F2P conversion.

      It’s a fair point about player churn in F2P games. Not only is the volume of churn higher due to more people, the zero investment from most players probably encourages more tourism. Still, there is nothing worse than an underpopulated MMO, as that discourages (time) investment even from those otherwise committed to the game.

      As for iPhones and the like, to me, it’s all a non sequitur. Those are social status symbols that have very little to do with anything; who are you trying to impress with your EVE subscription? You buy overpriced club drinks because you’re in a club trying to get laid. If you were just looking to get drunk, you can do that at home. Similarly, paying a subscription doesn’t mean you have more fun than you would have playing for free.

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  2. My biggest peeve is how casually and absolutely people tend to link a product’s financial success with its actual quality. Especially with the more advanced internet users, there is a tendency to believe that our ‘finger on the pulse’ attitude is how every other consumer operates.

    As an avid, long-time MMORPG fan and someone who writes about them from time to time as a hobby, I have a far higher chance of finding a poorly marketed, understated, or underloved diamond in the rough that Joe/Jane Consumer who isn’t going to toss bones at a marginally known game. In other words, a quality product may sell itself to me, but I am actively looking and searching for it, so most of the work is being done by me anyway.

    Quality products don’t necessarily sell. Consumers don’t act from some purely rational standpoint where quality has a 1:1 ratio with success. People buy into games like H1Z1 early because they are sold on an idea or the company pushing it, not necessarily the quality since that isn’t there yet, and then feel burned (rightfully or unrightfully) because it is crap or isn’t moving the way they anticipated.

    I guess what I am saying is that things aren’t black and white, there are no absolutes, and you are exactly right.

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  3. The thing is, we PC gamers are currently quite spoiled in terms of how we perceive value. Even if you think that 90% of what’s currently out there is crap, there’s still a load of incredibly cheap or even free games out there that are great – and any new game entering that market has to compete with them. Nobody is a blank slate that’s just judging between new release A (which is good) and new release B (which is bad). Everybody is already playing something. In fact, loads of people already own additional games that they’ve never even played. What’s the incentive to spend on a new release?

    I think at the moment any game that wants to be successful needs to either be free/incredibly cheap to at least try out (it’s one thing to pay a sub for a game I already know I like, but why would I give the same amount of money to a complete unknown) or have a major marketing push behind it/lure people in with promises. However, the latter can be expensive and people are slowly becoming jaded by broken promises and pre-orders that turn out to be crap. People may be willing to pay for value, but they can’t magically know in advance how good your new game is.

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