Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The psychology of microtransactions

So I've been playing around with Bounty Bay Online for a while, on a so-called Free2Play server. As most of my MMORPGs up to now have been monthly fee based, it was interesting to explore the business model of microtransactions on these Free2Play games. So I decided how much money I would spend max, and bought 1,000 point for €30 in the Bounty Bay Online item shop. For the rest of the post I'll count costs in Euro cents, with one BBO point costing 3 cents.

In theory you can play BBO without paying anything at all. In practice the game company is doing their utmost to seduce you to spend points, and thus money, because they have to live of something. For example they are offering a very cheap starter kit for just 75 cents, which contains gear that improves your character and his ship, as well as a scroll which 5 times 1 hour doubles your skill point gain. As Bounty Bay Online is all about gaining skills, it is easy to get hooked on those scrolls. They cost 45 cents if you buy them outside the starter kit, so very quickly you end up paying 9 cents per hour if you constantly use them. Such "double points" scrolls are something I've seen in every microtransaction game I've come across.

Gaining skills is usually fast at low levels, and then gets slower and slower. Sooner or later there comes a point where you think your progress is too slow, and thus are tempted to spend money on faster skill gains. Besides the double skill scrolls there are potions with 100 charges for just 21 cents which refresh your energy, reducing the downtime between skill gains if you do something energy intensive like mining. Or for 60 cents you can buy a skill book with which you automatically gain skill for the next 6 hours without having to do anything. I haven't even tried out those yet, because to me that appears to pretty much kill the interest in the game. In a similar vein you can buy 10 million silver for 225 cents, which to me also appears to remove the interest of the trading part of the game. I thought the point was to do something like gathering or trading, and earning skill points and silver for that activity as a reward. Skipping the playing part and just buying the skill and the silver seems odd to me. But I guess there are enough people out there who want the reward without the activity leading to it.

The most expensive thing I bought, for 600 cents, is a basic bank functionality. Without paying anything you only get a local storage in your starting town. The bank you can buy for real money is accessible from every town. But even then you only get a relatively low number of slots and weight limit, both of which you can further upgrade in installments of 600 cents each, which quickly gets prohibitively expensive.

In Bounty Bay Online you can also buy repair kits for your ship for 45 cents, or first aid kits for you sailors for 45 cents, or first aid kits for yourself for 21 cents, each with 100 charges and useable instantly without restrictions. Which means that if you just spam them enough, it is really hard to get killed. Which is nice in PvE, but extremely unbalancing in PvP.

Apart from that there are gimmicks, like being able to ban another player from chat for 2 hours for 60 cents. Now that is an option I'd like to see in some other games. ;) There are also a lot of fluff items in the item store, like nice clothes without stats, or pets from rabbits to white tigers.

As Raph Koster explains, revenues from microtransaction games follow a power law. That is there is a large number of players paying nothing, and a small number of players paying a lot. If you don't set yourself limits, you could easily spend far more on a Free2Play game than on a game with monthly fee. But I do like the idea of having choices: I could play Bounty Bay Online on a monthly fee server, or I could play it for free, or I could spend as much as I want to advance faster and have ingame advantages.

Having played Magic the Gathering, I'm well aware of the traps involved in that, you ending up spending far more money than you wanted to. But then I have to wonder why most of us would consider it insane to spend $100 per month on a game, but find it totally normal if we spend 100 hours per month in a game, chasing after basically the same rewards. I certainly wouldn't be willing to skip the whole game and go directly to the maximum reward for some fee. But paying *some* money to advance faster is something I can live with, because I look at it as balancing the game between those who have a lot of time on their hand, and those who have less time but more money. Sad as it is, but most MMORPGs have progress based nearly completely on time spent in game, with very little contribution of skill, and somebody with a regular job and family simply can't compete against somebody who for some reason is able to play all day. Microtransaction games allow me trade money for time, but of course that only makes sense if the time I save is time that I wouldn't have enjoyed much playing anyway. So microtransaction games are frequently full of deliberate grind, to make skipping the grind more attractive. In the end I'd rather have a game which is fun all the time, so there would be no interest in skipping parts of it for money. I wonder if the only business model that allows that is monthly fees. Or will we see "9 cents per hour" business models in the future in the US and Europe, not just in Asia?

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