Only a Hobby

I read stuff like this:

Biobreak: Turbine, Shark-jumping, and $50 horses

…and just sigh. Well, first I check it isn’t April 1st, and then I sigh. This, again?

For the click-averse, the basic deal is that Turbine would quite like some specifically NON-NEGATIVE feedback on a little cash shop proposal they’re mulling over for Lord of the Rings Online. In a highly meta act of knowing self-parody, it turns out to be a stick. With a wooden horse’s head on. Which you pretend to ride while going ‘Giddy-up!’, which increases travel-speed by +68% and which costs $50 worth of Turbine points. I have no idea how ‘Morale’ can even function in this context! So yes, not content to make your pretend elf ride a pretend real horse to an imaginary war in a made up landscape, that elf can now own and ride a pretend pretend horse! What next? Orcs who are actually Hobbits in disguise? Unhandled Exception: Fatal Brain Recursion Error!

I’m all for player engagement, and focus group feedback is probably a quite useful tool in any business endeavour. Turbine seems to agree as long as the feedback is OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE! DO NOT tell them it sucks, for that is not what they wish to hear! Otherwise, presumably, you’ll get deleted.

Barely concealed passive-aggressive contempt for the player-base aside, this elicits a particularly deep sigh from me, as I am one of the few remaining fans of F2P Cash Shop payment models, and this sort of nonsense isn’t helping my rapidly dwindling case, which I now feel compelled to restate below!

Well, fan is a strong word really. It is hard to understand how someone can get more excited over billing models than actual gameplay, content and so on. Haha! I don’t mean that I look at the back of the box, skip down until I see “No monthly fee!” and click my fingers and go, “That’s the one for me!” That would be bonkers! My appreciation for the current F2P style of things is somewhat more considered than that.

You see, in Soviet Russia back in the day, when the mighty subscription gods of old strode uncaring through the freshly hewn and still-molten MMO landscape, you didn’t get a lot of choice in the matter. You paid your $15 a month, or you buggered off, generally to one of the other three MMOs, who each also charged $15 a month. It meant a kind of enforced loyalty to a product which seems ridiculous when applied to any other field of commerce. Playing more than one MMO got quite financially punitive quite quickly. Imagine only being able to buy groceries from one supermarket in a given month!

Probably a flawed analogy now I think about utilities service contracts, but my point is that if you liked some parts of a game and not others, you still only had one option for expressing your dislike, to bugger off, or to not bugger off. Very binary! It probably made life more difficult for developers too, to judge what customers liked and didn’t, how to improve the product and so on, although back then it was very easy to get the impression that MMO developers didn’t much care about what actual players thought. Oh sure, you can canvas for opinion on the Official Forum, but we all know how that goes; to hell in a hand-basket very quickly at the hands of high-pitched textual shrieking by a very vocal minority, many of whom will simply scream without pause at you until you give up and go away, trembling. Eventually, the devs probably come to disregard the whole forum as an unpleasant baboon cage, leave it to a Community Manager with a fire hose, and go back to just guessing, which is Not Scientific!

Maybe I’m just a naive old dreamer, but I thought F2P was going to change that. By dividing the content up into smaller opt-in pieces, the popularity of each piece can be more accurately assessed. Players buy the bits they like, and don’t buy the bits they don’t like, which all sends a very direct kind of feedback, free of forum lobbyists and unrepresentative pressure  groups. Personally speaking, I tend to put down cash for content; new zones, more story and missions, that sort of thing. Similarly, I tend not to buy consumables, cosmetics, power-ups and shortcuts. I spend my cash to make a game I enjoy longer, not shorter. That’s just my own preferences, but in an F2P world, my message is being sent, and received, along with everyone else’s. Whether these are then being listened to and acted on is another matter though.

I also thought that F2P might free us from the more egregious extremes of The Grind treadmill. A monthly game must keep players playing for as many months as it can, because month-end is the only payday it can expect. Obviously, this leads to design which requires players to work for a very long time to accomplish their goals. By removing that time-based requirement, I thought, perhaps the basic nature of MMO gameplay can now be designed to not be quite so wretched? I am less sure what priorities exist in a F2P game though. I suppose you still need to keep players interested and invested for a long enough time to want to buy things, only now there are more unlock-based hurdles? More front-loading?

Early LotRO and DDO did seem to get it right, which makes “Hobbygate” so surprising. The core business seemed to be content unlocks, with some fluff and a few power boosts thrown in to bulk out the shop a bit. Ultimately, it worked out as a kind of part-work lifetime subscription, which indeed cumulatively cost a lot more than just dropping £200  an actual lifetime sub, but it came in much more manageable chunks, and if you hated specific zones or dungeon packs, you could just opt out of those, which was nice. Under the old sub model, players who hated PvP or Raiding or whatever, still effectively had to buy those regardless, or not play at all.

Well, it seemed right for us anyway. Perhaps it wasn’t right for them, which is where F2P becomes an ongoing kind of debate. The MMO devs experiment with new goods and services, in order to survive and thrive (presumably some of them even enjoy creating this stuff, but I wouldn’t take that as a given), and then we decide which ones seem fair or are patently daft, and purchase accordingly. Like in every other industry or field of commerce, in fact. Internal marketplaces.

Regardless of the commercial priorities I always thought F2P was a good thing, because it put more of the decision-making in our hands. If they put a thing in the shop that you do not like, and this is the tricky bit, do not buy it. By not buying it, you’re sending a much more concrete message than a blog post like this one, which no-one will read, or a forum thread that devolves into anarchy and shrieking. Similarly, if you approve of a new thing in the shop, buy it! It’s not rocket surgery!

I suppose the big downside of F2P, and what angers so many, is that everyone else gets a say too, which is always inconvenient, since obviously everyone else is wrong and an idiot. Except you, dear reader, you’re great! Sparkleponies do get bought and the Hobbyhorse probably will sell a few too.

It’s up to us, all of us. Kicking up a fuss does help shift perceptions of course, perhaps swaying some potential customers, but paraphrasing that CCP bloke who came up with those Monocles; they’ll pay attention to what folks do, not say. They went on to only sell 68 monocles in the end (out of 100,000 or so potential customers) and gave up on the plan. I’m not sure all the in-game suicide bombings of Jita had much to add to that real life economic certainty. (I hear that that happens in Jita every day anyway?)

I tend to view all this sort of fuss as a kind of perverse kind of victory. I’ll see a hobby horse zoom past and think, “I was smart enough not to fall for that! High five, me!” and be a little bit smug knowing that for my 5000TP, I bought the entire Rohan and Isengard expansions in a sale instead, or more likely, that for my no TP at all, I quested my way to an Elfen Ambassador’s horse or whatever, which are just as good and don’t look make you look like you need an adult to help you with scissors. I really don’t mind so-called Whales subsidising my recreational time. Not one bit. And if the immersion-breaking gets too bad, well, I’ll just leave and find some MMO that takes itself just as seriously as I take it, which to be fair isn’t an awful lot! Thanks to F2P, I won’t even have to give a month’s notice when I quit!

The truth will be in the eating, as they say, and this is one of those interesting key social experiments where what people do and do not buy will matter a lot more than what they shriek about on this or any other blog. In a way, it’s Turbine’s job to come up with stuff like this. It’s our job to say yes or no, with our wallets. The hobby horse is plainly bonkers, to me, but luckily, I get to not buy one!

Tell you what though, we will all be here again, with a $75 ridable oliphant or something, and probably much sooner that we’d all like…


Anyway, it’s all academic, because I refuse to return to LotRO until I can buy my Hobbit a flying aircraft carrier, like out of the Avengers. For 495 TP, tops!

“Our shop-wizards would like to hear that this is a good idea.”


3 thoughts on “Only a Hobby

  1. Zoso says:

    Absolutely. I’ve long held that the subscription model as the One True Way doesn’t work out for somebody who likes to dabble in a couple of games a couple of times a week compared to someone spending their every waking moment mining for fish, or whatever. Course some of the more… ‘committed’ types out there would say it’s not a proper MMO if it’s not your sole obsession for three years minimum, but then they’re mental.

    What often gets lost in the whole debate, as always on teh interweb, is the nuances, it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of “(cash shops/free to play/microtransactions/DLC/whatever) are EVIL MONEYGRABBING EVIL of EVIL”, which I guess is what Turbine were trying to avoid in their feedback, albeit in a rather clumsy way. The model of a very small number of “whales” entirely subsiding an overwhelming majority sits rather uneasily with me, I’m more of a Marxist “from each according to his ability to pay and game resources consumed to each according to some other criteria that makes thing fair and this and that”. Or some shit like that.

  2. sente says:

    The introduction of a $50 toy horse seems to be like a somewhat clumsy attempt to pave the way for other high price items.

    “We have listened to your feedback and we have made a cooler, more lore-appropriate horse for just half the price, at $25”

    – that is assuming they do not already have stuff in that price range.

  3. […] feelings among many. I always liked the idea in principle, but with provisos. Opportunities for idiocy and avarice certainly do exist more now than under the one-monthly-fits-all age, and it’s very much up to us […]

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