The Kleps kicked the never quite dead F2p-debate back to life this last Monday, and another interesting series of posts (Rohan, Tobold, Rowan, Telwyn) emerged as a result. With Rift now also F2P and upcoming titles like Wildstar or TESO having not yet disclosed payment options, many gamers are wondering who will ever be bold enough again to dare the subscription. Personally, I seem to care more for debating principles than the answers to these questions. If Zenimax Online want me to pay a sub for TESO, I will. If not – well, either way I’ll raid the shop.
Blogging buddy Liore and I go way back when it comes to discussing F2P back and forth on our blogs, so it was only a matter of time until we’d put on our boxing gloves and get into the ring together. No really, it was my great pleasure to finally have a personal chat this past week as guest on the delightful Cat Context Podcast (our exchange starting around 31 mins), with both Liore and co-host Ellyndrial speaking for the F2P skeptics. We tackled many of the core issues and realized that we disagree mostly on details rather than what matters most to us in MMOs. No surprises there.
That’s not where the discussion ended though – no, this is a persistent one. Belghast went forth and shared this interesting follow-up on his F2P “conversion”, sharing his past experiences with EQ2 going free to play (which then also spawned another reply from Liore here). I am always looking for personal recaps like this; what’s changing for you when an MMO switches to F2P? What tangible consequences does it have that possibly impact on you negatively?
Random drops vs. gambling
In an exchange with Ellyndrial on the podcast, I mentioned that I do not believe random lockboxes (for which keys can be bought via ingame shops like in GW2) or lottery tickets can be compared to real world gambling, the way it happens in casinos for example. The basic assumption being that cash shops may cause players to lose control of their spending, getting addicted to a luck-based system looking to relieve them of their money. To be clear, I absolutely feel casino gambling needs to be regulated – I do however not believe that lockboxes dropping in MMOs follow the same psychological pattern or harbor the same potential for addiction. Not claiming professional expertise on the subject (and those who do may come forth please), I see some distinct differences between the two activities.
Interestingly enough I happened to watch a documentary recently on David Choe, graffiti artist and facebook millionaire, also pathological gambler, which added to my inner monologue. Choe made his first million gambling in Las Vegas before turning 30 years old. That first milestone was preceded by years of a vagabond lifestyle, being notoriously broke and loosing vast amounts of money at the gambling table. Self-proclaimed gambling addict, Choe had this to say about his “fever” (paraphrased): I always felt I was winning, even when I lost everything. I won most of my games, only to go and lose everything on the last one.
There’s a devious quality to gambling in the sense that it continuously conveys feelings of both success and control to its victims. Gambling is a game of many stages, there is a progression to the gambler’s journey in which he feels that he is learning, improving and even winning. Winning is a big part in that quest for more, raising the stakes and then “gambling it all away” in one fatal loss (endorphins and adrenaline = powerful drugs). All of these elements are essential to developing addiction (biological dispositions aside) – the sense of control/strategizing (poker pros will tell you that the game is 90% nerves), reassuring mini-successes, progression of risk and potential winnings.
Virtual lockboxes do not share any of these psychological hooks. They’re completely random, there is usually no influencing outcome, improving one’s own performance or “getting closer” involved. It is therefore not nearly as motivating to spend endless cash on keys because there is no “game” aspect. Which doesn’t mean somebody might not spend ludicrous amounts of cash on the off chance of epic pixel – but to speak of addiction or danger to a wider audience feels off in this scenario. That person is likely after a very specific drop and generally there’s nothing wrong with spending money (or time) on something luck-based in games. We do this all the time?
There’s more to this though, even if we assumed a way simpler analogy such as a slot machine with very random outcome (I do not know how many people get ruined by this rather than card games). A big difference between gambling and pixel-hunting is that gambler’s play for money. The Faculty of Economics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland (ya, I live here so that’s my resource), recently revealed intriguing study results on the development of “altruism” in children. Test results were based on children’s social sharing behavior between ages 3-6. The perplexing part: while children, especially older ones and therefore already more socialized, were happy to share candy equally with peers, results changed dramatically once money was substituted. Children would either change the ratio in which money was shared or share none of it. This lead the leading researcher to assume that children learn the social and economical significance of money early on. He then elaborated on why humans react differently to money than to any other type of resource: money is a tricky currency because money is abstract. Money isn’t so much goods as it is potential; to give money away is to give away opportunities and power that we cannot control or estimate. We can imagine few things anyone could do with candy – but money, money holds as many plans as there are people.
Gamblers gamble for money and when they gamble for money, they gamble for plans and dreams. For one person it might just be a dream of winning or wealth, for another the resolution to very imminent and dire life circumstances. Not only that – gamblers gamble with money for money. When I spend coin on the slot machine, there’s a very clear, calculated ratio/equation between input and output. I’ll make a mental note à la “if I put in 10$ and win 100$, that is ten times more” or “if I lose, that’s still only 10% of my potential winnings”. That makes it seem alright and in some cases probably adds fuel to a perilous journey.
Again, lock boxes / lottery tickets hold neither abstract appeal nor absolute value in MMOs. Usually players hope to get a very specific drop, most likely an epic item or rare pet or similar. How much that reward is truly “worth” is impossible to measure (unless sellable – but this is not the chosen avenue of gold farmers) and therefore also cannot be equated to how much money was spent in order to get it. Sparkle ponies may be worth 10 keys to one player and 50 to another. Add to this considerations of “what other mounts are there in the game I could go for instead?” and meta-currency systems that also allow ingame currency to be converted in some cases, and you’ll see how much that differs from casino gambling or even real life lottery.
To return to the topic of F2P, I believe it is very important to continuously question and observe the practices developers and publishers engage in to make systems more profitable. I’m very critical of pay-to-win in MMOs and shy away from games mentioning their cash shop at every occasion. I also agree with Liore that F2P only works because of micro-transactions and therefore needs to try draw players in. To me, that is a legitimate cause – without anyone spending money in a F2P game, there is no game. I have faith in players managing their own money and knowing what they want though. What matters to me is how cash shops are implemented, what kind of wares they offer and how their presence impacts on gameplay and overall immersion. We’ve recently experienced just how much of a difference the audience can make in this business and it remains our job to keep both an open mind but also open eyes to changes in this industry and how they may affect us.
At the present stage where F2P is still being adopted and shaped into a better model for western MMOs, I’m personally not seeing signs of a pay-to-win culture developing the way we know it from East-Asia (Gamasutra has an interesting clarification on this, check it out!), nor do I find items for sale that would significantly impact on player economy or endgame (just to name two examples of what’s popularly deemed unacceptable) in the F2Ps I am personally playing. Cash shop items remain optional and practices transparent – if not without inherent advantages, triggers and temptation, especially where cosmetics are concerned. If that’s where we’ll stay with upcoming MMO titles, hopefully offering more hybrid models à la LOTRO, I am completely okay with F2P.
Happy weekend everybody, with or without virtual shinies.