Microtransactions in MMO games

POSTED BY Viet Nguyen March 1, 2017 in MMOPC Game,
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Let’s talk about the potential and positives from microtransaction game models.

All right, for those of you who don’t know already, a little while back, EVE Online adopted a micropayment system where you can buy clothes and accessories to make your avatar look cooler, like this monocle here. As of the time of this recording, that monocle costs $70. I wish I was making that up. I’m sorry. I know we’re always trying to be the calmer voice. It just kills my soul every time I see a major company screw up microtransactions this badly.

  1. It’s not rocket science. Monetization design is tough. It’s real work. But I mean to bum it this badly takes some real effort.
  2. Microtransactions aren’t going anywhere. They’re probably the way of the future for our industry. Steam recently implemented broad, free-to-play support. We’ve already seen the online gaming world embrace the power of microtransactions, and I guarantee you, the next generation of PSN and XBLA will support in-game micropayment as well.

Many people may rail against the emerging microtransaction trend, but in and of itself, I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing. When done well, I think microtransactions are better for the consumer and for the industry. They let the consumer try out titles before they invest, set their own payment scale, and potentially acquire assets that’ll go up in price.

And they also let the industry avoid a lot of problems with piracy without having to resort to terrible DRM.

Additionally, a microtransaction model allows developers to cater both to the consumer who wants to spend $5 and a consumer who wants to spend $500, rather than just trying to sell everything regardless of value to the consumer who wants to spend $60. And this is all great but only if we do it right.

But right now we seem to be heading in the other direction. Companies seem to be interpreting microtransaction to mean free-for-all gouge fest. And if we don’t cut it out, that greed is going to get the better of us. Games that could make money in the current market will sink under the weight of untenable prices and player backlash. Granted if we players keep proving that we’re willing to buy $70 monocles, the industry is going to keep trying to sell them to us. That’s our fault. But that’s a much harder problem to fix, so let’s just keep this focused on the industry for now.

What do we need to do to make microtransactions work in games? First, let’s handle the perceptual shift. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but the industry needs to see players as something other than the enemy. Somebody at EA once asked, “How many players who are not paying me do you expect me to buy bandwidth for?” The answer was, “As many as you can get.” Here’s why. In a multiplayer game, players are content. We all know that no matter how good the mechanics of a game are, it’s no fun to play if it’s a ghost town. If you can’t get a game or find players to group with, the experience withers on the vine.

So if you’re going to make free-to-play games, you’re going to have to actually be okay with people playing it for free. After all, ask World of Warcraft players why they pay to keep playing or don’t switch to a competing MMO. And the answer is often, “Because my friends play.” We have to make playing for free actually viable in our games and just accept some of the associated costs because some of those free players may eventually decide to buy some stuff. But without them around, no one will be monetizing your game.

This brings me to my second point. Let players earn every type of currency in your game, even the ones they can also pay for. The Koreans have this down, and to my mind, this seems mind-blowingly straightforward. But it’s something we have an almost universal revulsion to in the U.S. for some reason. There’s actually no good business reason to stop free players from earning pay currency in games. You need to have it via remarkably slow process, but there’s no business justification for preventing someone from gaining access to all the items in your game if they’re actually willing to put in the time and dedication to earn it in game.

Now usually, when we first tells game companies that, they always recoil in horror and tell him that no user is going to pay for their game if they can just earn currency while playing. That is strictly not true.

Giving away currency has four major advantages:

  1. Players feel as though the game is fair and it’s not going to make them pay at any point. Many players are turned off by the idea of free-to-pay microtransaction games because of that nagging feeling that the whole model is just a scam to weasel more money out of you. But if players know they have the option to earn all the store’s items and no one is forcing them to pay anything, they’re a lot more likely to begin playing in the first place.
  1. Using the in-game store in free-to-play titles is sort of a magic barrier for many players. It’s something that seems difficult, foreign, and unnecessary to many people until they actually use it. Across the board, microtransaction games report that as soon as a player uses the store once, they are way more likely to monetize again. Many of you may have had this experience with Steam or XBLA. Think about how much inertia it took to get you to download Steam and make your first purchase or buy your first pack of DLC. Second time came a lot easier, didn’t it.
  2. If you’ve balanced earning pay currency in your game anywhere in the ballpark of wealth, many players will eventually decide that their time is more valuable than the small amount of money it takes to purchase currency. Bam, you just converted some of your players into paying users. And the best part is that they feel more comfortable giving over money at that point, either because they’re already deeply invested in the game or simply because they feel the game has given them a fair shake. Again, the choice to make these purchases is theirs. The game never forced it upon them.
  3. If you don’t do this, you effectively exclude everyone without a credit card or without disposable income, and that means you’re often cutting out a big chunk of the 14- to 21-year-old players who make up such an avid part of gaming communities. Often, these are the guys who provide ancillary services to games such as maintaining wikis and putting out YouTube videos. Losing these players has a big cost.

Never sell power. This is seriously Microtrans 101. But we still seem to have this temptation to try to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of our players by selling them things which alter the balance of gameplay. This is the absolute quickest way to make players feel like you’re taking advantage of them because selling power really does force players to pay to play. After all, when you’re balancing your game, which players are you going to cater to, the people who are monetizing or the people who aren’t?

What you want to sell is convenience, things like extra bank space and character load-out save slots. Those are great. They’re utterly unnecessary, and at first, every player feels like the default amount is going to be plenty. But sooner or later, anybody who’s dedicated to the game is going to find it totally worth the few dollars to have some of those extra features.

Even things like selling leveling speed is okay. It’s not as good as selling more supplementary perks, but it just means the players blaze through the content faster. It doesn’t unbalance your game or affect any of the other players. All it does is make it more convenient for some of your players to see the later stages of your game if they choose. Just never sell power.

Next, always keep your monetization plan in mind as you build the game. You can use monetization to incentivize the type of player behavior you think will create the best overall experience. There are several Korean MMOs out there that only allow players a limited number of lives each day. Once they’re out of lives, they have to pay to refill them, or they can’t play until their lives refresh the following day. This ends up forcing the player base to get better at the game, which in turn (at least in the developer’s mind) creates a better gaming experience.

Likewise, Zynga usually offers the player the option of paying or getting their friends to help, which encourages the player to bring in more of their social network and expand the community rather than paying, though arguably, that one is a wee bit more evil.

If you think about how you’re going to monetize as you build, you can use it to make the game more enjoyable, make paying more palatable, and make the whole experience feel less disjointed than tact on rather than figuring out how you’re going to monetize near the end of production.

You should also never, ever, ever split your community. Say you’ve got a multiplayer game and you only allow paying players to partake in certain maps or specific zones. You’ve not only effectively decreased the size of your community, but you’ve also cordoned off paying players from the non-paying players, which is a terrible idea because one of the best ways to get non-paying players to eventually pay for in-game goods is to have them hanging out with the paying guys.

Finally, market-test your prices. For God’s sakes, we market-test everything else. We market-test the background color for our box art. Not thoroughly market-testing a make-or-break feature like how much your item should cost is downright criminal.

And yes, CCP, I’m staring at you through my monocled eye right now. And to everybody out there in industry land, no matter how good this business model looks both in terms of earnings or even potentially better player service, just remember this: It isn’t the right business model all the time. You wouldn’t build an entire game and wait until the last minute to choose the input device, so don’t do that with your monetization scheme either.

Microtransaction games will be better if the microtransaction elements are built into the design from the ground up rather than just being layered on top. That’s the only way it’s going to be better for the consumer, the developer, and the distributor. But even if this is the way that most games end up going in the future, it’s still important to make sure that it’s the right tool for the job because some games are just always going to make more sense as subscription or pay-up-front style games, and that’s never going to change.

(from Extra Credits)

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