Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The ethics of money

Raph Koster recently doubted that World of Warcraft was the most successful MMO. By either restricting the geographical location, or by throwing doubts on WoW's definition of subscribers without looking too hard on the definition of other games, you can "prove" that for example Hotel Habbo has more users. Such consideration tend to forget one important aspect: Money. Hotel Habbo or Club Penguin and similar web based browser games are free, with the possibility to pay something for advanced features. World of Warcraft costs about $200 per year, just counting buying the game, expansions, and the monthly fee. If Hotel Habbo can't get quite as many users for a free game than are willing to pay $200 a year for WoW, who is the more successful game?

That isn't to say that Habbo Hotel and the likes aren't profitable. They obviously have much lower development cost and server hardware requirements. If just 10% of the 7.5 million "active users" spend a part of their pocket money on some virtual furniture or access to extra games, that already adds up to quite a stack of money. Many people in the industry assume that alternative payment methods to monthly fees will one day rule, just up to now nobody got that right. There hasn't been the equivalent of a Magic the Gathering for MMORPGs, which would be played by millions, each of them spending an average of $1,000 a year. (I spent that much on MtG in the 90's)

Part of the reason is some sort of "olympic spirit" that players in the western world feel towards all sorts of games: Money shouldn't affect the outcome. Of course that is just an illusion. Top athletes cost a fortune not only in salary, but also to maintain, train, and keep fit. And that is before considering doping or other illegal performance enhancers.

I never understood why many people consider monthly fees to be "fair". They obviously aren't, because not everybody is paying the same amount of money for the same service. People whose real life allows them to play a lot end up paying a lot less per hour than other players with a job and family. The only place in the world where WoW is paid for in a fair way is China, where you are charged the equivalent of 5 US cents per hour played.

But why should MMORPGs be fair, when the rest of the world isn't? I'm not going into a Marxist rage every time I see somebody driving a much nicer car than mine. So why should I mind if somebody bought himself the equivalent of an epic mount in cash in some game where that is legal? Spending lots of money on Magic the Gathering certainly allowed me to build better decks. And in Shot Online I just received the items I paid for, and now play the equivalent of about 4 levels better. On the one side you could consider that "cheating", me now getting more xp and money per hole played, and being a bit more likely to play better. On the other side the benefits I paid for include reduced green fees for the people I play with, plus as long as me and them are below level 21, whenever I play par or better, they get half of the xp I get, so my double xp benefit them directly too.

World of Warcraft is *not* an inherently fair game. If you make your first character and at level 19 visit your first battleground, you're going to be crushed by twinks. In PvE that isn't so visible, but obviously a twink is also having an easier time to level up than somebody playing without help from friends or previous characters. Provided that the game company would allow it, would the ability to buy yourself that sort of advantages be so much worse? And if the game company itself was selling gold or in-game items, wouldn't that be actually better than the bots and spam messages from the gold farmers?

How many people more would play World of Warcraft if it hadn't a monthly fee? Having experienced first hand with Magic the Gathering how easy you can be suckered into paying more for a game voluntarily than you would have been willing to spend on a monthly fee, I still believe in my idea of a trading card MMORPG. Selling things in random "boosters" helps disguising the fact that you can buy your way to success. But you have to get it right, and make the game in a way that people with lots of skill and time, but no money, can still succeed at least as well as people with deep pockets.

Besides having people pay for things that advance them faster in the game, there is also a huge potential market for useless stuff. What if all armor in World of Warcraft was brown, and you could pay real money for dyes, decorations, and special effects to make them look better, without improving their stats?

In summary, I don't think that money is a dirty word in MMO games. There is still a lot of potential where alternative payment methods could be beneficial for both game companies and players. What do you think?

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