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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.

Counter-Intuitive Insights

While providing a very similar experience, what Rift has going for it is a smaller community.

Keen

At first, I could not help but laugh. There is context for the quote, sure, but it struck me as funny regardless to take what would normally be a negative quality (few people are playing your game) and spin it as a positive. Especially when it is an MMO one is talking about, where the whole idea is the “a lot of people” part.

But… hmm.

It is undoubtedly true that an MMO “community,” such as it is, has an impact on one’s enjoyment of a game. I read threads like these on the Guild Wars 2 forums, and the sort of hyper-competitiveness inherent to the dungeon-running culture presented there makes me not want to bother at all. The people running these dungeons are getting them done in 20 minutes, whereas it will take me hours to get a similar level of competency all while I slow them down (assuming I am not kicked to begin with).

Incidentally, this is why you have LFD tools: there will always be abrasive social encounters when grouping with strangers, but at least with LFD you are not dependent on their goodwill to zone in at all. As long as you have reasonable expectations (i.e. not expect four strangers to wait while you soak up the atmosphere), you will be fine.

I believe that Keen is probably correct that Rift’s smaller community is a positive, assuming you are into that sort of thing. Fewer people means less of an audience for trolling, more reliance on social contacts to get things done, which probably all contributes to a Cheers-esque atmosphere. Or at least a “we’re in this foxhole together” atmosphere. So… yeah. The fewer people that like your MMO, the more you will like it. And the converse – the more popular your MMO gets, the less you enjoy it – is probably true for many as well.

All of which means you can never say bad things about hipsters ever again.

Can There Be Too Many Zombie Sandboxes?

Nope.

In fact, the default answer to any question of “Can there be too many X games” is No.

A game does not magically get worse because there are a lot of similar titles on the market; you might get tired of playing the same theme/setting multiple times in a row, but whose fault is that? I will take a thoroughly unoriginal knockoff game that is actually fun over the groundbreaking original snoozefest any day. The key is that each otherwise copycat game that comes after needs to be better than the one before. Do that, and you’re golden in my book.

I bring all this up because I just read Keen’s brief write-up of a zombie sandbox pseudo-MMO called The War Z. Not to be confused with World War Z, the bestselling 2006 book, of course. Or DayZ, the zombie sandbox mod that caused me to purchase ArmaII during the most recent Steam sale. Or The Dead Linger, the fairly recent zombie sandbox pseudo-MMO Kickstarter that I originally thought was what Keen was talking about. Or Dead Island, of which I have logged 30 hours playing in the last 10 days. Or Left 4 Dead 2. Or…

…well, there have been a lot of zombie games, eh? Technically even Minecraft.

But you know what? Zombies still have some life in them. If these upcoming games are actually fun, I say bring them on. I just signed up for The War Z’s beta, so we’ll see how that goes.