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Monday, December 01, 2014

Mailvox: the plus side of pay-for-play

In my opinion, Cinco didn't think this one all the way through:
I recommend you do what Valve did get rid of the +5-8% advantage, and just offer loads of different skins/models for people who want to play the game more than casuals/fund the kick starter.
Now, T11 is the most successful game of its kind out there; so why would we want to simply turn up our nose at what quite clearly works very, very well? What most non-game designers don't seem to understand is that a perfectly "fair" game in which no one can buy any advantage is actually going to be considerably more unbalanced, in practice, than one where you give people a reasonable means of compensating for their lack of time to develop mastery.

Let me give you an example, do you think you would have any chance against me in ASL? I've got thousands of hours in over more than 30 years, if one includes Squad Leader, Cross of Iron, and Crescendo of Doom as proto-ASL. You'll need a hefty advantage or be an Ender-style natural just to make it a game of it at all. The objective is not to maximize the advantage those who are willing to spend time rather than money on acquiring mastery, but rather, to provide for the broadest possible range of interesting and challenging competition for everyone.

Or for another example, take Maddens, with which I have been down since 1992. I haven't played it seriously in years. And yet, I have repeatedly demolished younger players who play it incessantly and consider themselves to be very good; one twenty-something game artist who works for a studio I know was absolutely shocked when he challenged me to a game and I beat him by 70 points even though he had a higher-rated team. Ender finally beat me for the first time when we played a game on Madden 25, a version I'd never played before with a team whose playbook I didn't know, and he still needed me to miss two field goals in order to eke out a win with a last-minute score.

Not only will the game be more fun for the lesser player if he can purchase a chance of being able to compete with the best, but more importantly, it is more fun for the best players too. I almost never play ASL without giving my opponent the strongest balance, because otherwise the game tends to get rather tedious for me. (Ender consciously tries to take advantage of my tendency to get bored and mentally check out before the end game.) The fact that the likes of Zynga go way too far - unsurprisingly, since they were never gamers - does not mean that the mechanic of substituting money for time is entirely useless for play-balancing purposes.

What about the potential problem of piling the purchasable advantage on top of the time advantage? Please, that's hardly even worthy of being labled a design challenge! It's easy to focus the monetary advantages towards game mechanics that will favor the less experienced player against the more experienced player, rather than vice-versa or on a horizontal competition. The fact that a mechanic is poorly implemented (especially in games for non-gamers), does not mean that it should be dismissed.

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39 Comments:

Blogger Tank December 01, 2014 8:57 AM  

Conceptually similar to the handicap system in golf, except you don't have to pay for your handicap. Allows players of different abilities to have a competitive match.

Of course, if someone does not wish to admit they are of lesser ability, you can always play straight up, but it's not as much fun for either player if the match is over by the 12 or 13th hole, much more exciting for one player to win on the last hole.

I'm not a gamer, but what joy is there in checkmating an obviously inferior opponent in 6 moves?

It's like playing the Giants or the Jets.

Anonymous Eric Ashley December 01, 2014 8:57 AM  

I find games in which I'm not significantly challenged to be boring. For me, that's Pokemon and Trivia Pursuit.

Blogger Nate December 01, 2014 8:58 AM  

I love how supercell does it. And I love how they do it in World of Tanks. Both are unobtrusive... and handy if you want a boost.

Blogger Nate December 01, 2014 9:00 AM  

and of course... God knows how much money supercell is making...

Blogger Tank December 01, 2014 9:12 AM  

Hey Nate, Giants play the Titans next week. Can both teams lose?

Anonymous Nate Winchester December 01, 2014 9:17 AM  

Another good example would be the CCG market, like Magic:TG, except in that case it's the secondary market that drives the pay-to-win model. As soon as a card or two are shown to be lynchpins to some winning decks at a high level tournament, the price on those cards climb. New & beginning players then have to choose whether to buy the individual cards they need at a high price, or several randomized packs for the same amount and HOPE they can get a working deck out of it.

It's probably why drafting & sealed games are so popular since they are a format where everyone pays the same flat fee, and then victory is determined by your skill with some luck in what you can pull (with drafting lessening even that luck factor). In those, old experienced players can still defeat younger newbies, but the newbies feel less crushed.

Anonymous maniacprovost December 01, 2014 9:19 AM  

It doesn't bother me to lose to someone better due to lots of practice. I would prefer a handicapping system rather than the pay-for-power mechanic, but I don't play a lot of PVP games. For example, bumping players up or down in the rankings to make closer matchups.

I think there are two demographics for monetization method: One group would rather pay up front for the game and perhaps an expansion pack, while another group feels better being nickled and dimed, because 35 times one dollar is cheaper than 35 dollars.

Blogger Nate December 01, 2014 9:21 AM  

"Hey Nate, Giants play the Titans next week. Can both teams lose?"

Nah... Giants will wreck them. The Titans are by far, the worst team in the NFL this year. I think even Jax will beat them.

Anonymous Ha December 01, 2014 9:30 AM  

Of course, if someone does not wish to admit they are of lesser ability, you can always play straight up, but it's not as much fun for either player if the match is over by the 12 or 13th hole, much more exciting for one player to win on the last hole.

I am sure you have noticed how many women do not wish to admit they are of lesser ability, and thus insist on hitting from the men's tees.

Blogger Tank December 01, 2014 9:39 AM  

@Ha, actually the few women I've seen hit from the mens' tees were able to do it just fine. But your experience may differ. I think I've only seen this 2 or 3 times in many years of golf.

Anonymous Anonymous December 01, 2014 9:46 AM  

Nate, have you forgotten Oakland or do you consider them semi-pro?

green needle

Blogger Nate December 01, 2014 9:52 AM  

"Nate, have you forgotten Oakland or do you consider them semi-pro?"

I think if they played... Oakland would beat Tennessee.

Anonymous Daniel December 01, 2014 10:11 AM  

Skins and mods and such do absolutely nothing for me. In fact, I don't want to even mess with the process of downloading the things if I do "earn" them.

I know some folks love them, so they are a fine option, I suppose, but offering one to me is like paying me minimum wage in geodes. Yeah, their worth something, and yet...

Also, totally agree with Nate. Oakland would beat Tennessee, definitely at home, and probably away. No question in my mind.

Anonymous Crude December 01, 2014 10:13 AM  

Glad to see it pointed out that there's an upside to pay-to-play. It can obviously get out of hand, but there's a place for it.

Anonymous Crude December 01, 2014 10:15 AM  

By the way, Vox. A thought.

There's an upcoming 48 hour game development event - Ludum Dare. Have you considered promoting it, even with just a post, on your site? You're a big pusher of #Gamergate, and while I imagine the LD people would like to stay out of it, I think encouraging pro-#GG people to get involved in something like that would be a good step.

Blogger Nate December 01, 2014 10:24 AM  

"Also, totally agree with Nate. Oakland would beat Tennessee, definitely at home, and probably away. No question in my mind."

It wouldn't even be close in Oakland. At Tennessee... I figure the raider would win by a TD. Its difficult to put into words just how bad the Titans are.

Anonymous DavidK December 01, 2014 10:36 AM  

Exactly, some people have more time, some people have more money, let people spend whichever resource they have in plenty.

Blogger Aquila Aquilonis December 01, 2014 10:44 AM  

What is T11?

Blogger JS December 01, 2014 10:45 AM  

A relevant discussion

http://www.sirlin.net/posts/sirlin-on-game-design-ep3-uneven-playfields

Blogger Brad Andrews December 01, 2014 11:09 AM  

to provide for the broadest possible range of interesting and challenging competition for everyone

This is something designers need to keep in mind. I want a fun play experience when I play something. Catering only to the hardcore is a good way to whittle down your player base and thus long term revenue.

Allowing me to have fun even though the parts I play may not challenge the hard core is a smart financial move. Don't gate too much behind hard play either. Let them have their titles, etc., but don't lock of big chunks of your game just because I am not the best at play.

Anonymous Dan in Tx December 01, 2014 11:11 AM  

Nate: "... And I love how they do it in World of Tanks."

I'm not a "gamer" but I'm absolutely addicted to World of Tanks. I agree, the way they tier the tanks and being able to purchase xp is done very well.

Blogger jimmy-jimbo December 01, 2014 11:18 AM  

Don't tell the SJW types. They'll try to beat you to prove worthy. "Hey I'm a gamer too."

Anonymous Jack Amok December 01, 2014 11:43 AM  

I love how supercell does it. And I love how they do it in World of Tanks. Both are unobtrusive... and handy if you want a boost.

and of course... God knows how much money supercell is making...


WoT is making serious bank too. Literally. The company bought a bank so they'd have control over their money. The tier system does a good job giving noobs a chance to learn before they're pummelled by more experienced players. The Premium tanks are great - you can buy your way to a higher tier, but the tank itself is no better than one you'd earn at that tier. And the Fury tank, I saw tons of those in the game after the movie came out and they cost $30 each. Talk about a movie tie-in.

being able to purchase xp is done very well.

Technically, you can't purchase xp, you can just pay to transfer it from one tank to another. You still had to earn it somewhere. Of course, a premium account earns xp faster...

Anonymous Dan in Tx December 01, 2014 12:27 PM  

"Technically, you can't purchase xp, you can just pay to transfer it from one tank to another..."

This is true. Again, done very well the way they structure this so that you have to actually play the game at a certain level regardless of what you spend. I'm not sure how much "gold" I would have to actually buy at this point to transfer the ungodly amount of xp I have on my Panzer III.

Anonymous patrick kelly December 01, 2014 12:31 PM  

WOT ...my only addictive indulgence lately.

WOWP is now even worse, they added experience as part of the matching for battles. Now I get to wait 10 minutes to start a battle with only 6 planes in it......supposed to balance against more experienced players sandbagging in lower tier battles, but for mediocre players like me it took away my guilty pleasure of being able to retreat there for a while after my latest humbling in the upper tiers with good players.....oh well, playing WOWP less and less, enjoying WOT more and more.....

Anonymous Doug Wardell December 01, 2014 1:19 PM  

Aquila Aquilonis December 01, 2014 10:44 AM

What is T11?


This. Google doesn't seem to know.


When games actively sell advantage, it's generally a deal-breaker for me. My experience has been that once a company starts on this path, it becomes about trying to extract maximum value from consumers rather than trying to improve the experience. It seems like a bad long term play to support that.

I also typically despise games which sell time-savers, conveniences, etc. Those games (and no, I'm not just talking Facebook games here) tend to be grindy, boring POSes because they actively insert annoyances so that you'll pay to alleviate them. The last thing I want to encourage is for game companies to spend time thinking up new ways to make my experience less enjoyable instead of improving gameplay and adding content.

One game I think is doing everything right is Path of Exile. Grinding Gear Games is constantly improving the gameplay and adding content so that people like me buy tons of chrome to support them. The devs are as open and honest as I've ever seen, and they also have the best customer service I've ever heard of in the industry.

Blogger buzzardist December 01, 2014 1:19 PM  

If you're only focusing on the effect that deep-pocketed casuals have on elite players, then you risk overlooking a lot of players in between. Unless the game is horribly designed, wealthy casuals are very little threat to elite players. But they do hurt the mid-range players who invest moderate time and money.

Where I've typically seen the frustration set in for people in pay-for-play games is first among the mid-range players. Casuals will never be excellent players. Usually, even when they can buy their way to powerful characters or positions in games, they squander what they've bought and quickly fall behind the elite players again. I played one game several years ago where weaker players kept trading premium tickets for game cash to make their characters more powerful, and yet they never overcame the top 20 or so players. We simply beat them on strategy and time invested. Over and over again.

But this is part of what drove a lot of players away from that game. The people who got frustrated and left first were those who paid a modest monthly fee, but couldn't afford any more than that, and who could play a moderate amount of time, but not as much as the obsessive gamers. These weren't inept players. Under normal circumstances, they'd win or lose on a 50-50 ratio. If they'd had more time or money to spend, they might have done so. But, with pay-for-play, most of their foes end up being elite gamers or cash-fueled casuals. It's frustrating, but acceptable, to lose to elites whose time investment can't be matched. It's maddeningly frustrating to lose to inferior players whose checkbooks can't be matched. So these players fairly quickly got annoyed and left.

After that, the deep-pocketed inferior players mostly left, too. They could almost pull even with the elite players, but never quite because they just weren't very smart. And at that point there were very few mid-range players to beat up on. These players wanted their hundreds of dollars (or more in a few cases) to make them the most powerful characters in the world, but they weren't, and then they ran out of non-elite players to beat up on. At that point, they finally left, too, and only a handful of elites were left in the game. In some games, that's fine, but this one became stale pretty quickly. There were only so many ways to line up against each other, and we could all do the math.

Of course, it only takes one of those weak players dropping $1000 on a game, which I've seen happen not uncommonly, to earn the developers more than what 20 of the mid-range players will spend on the game in a year. Money-wise, a developer may just prefer to take the big bundles of cash instead of scrape for more mid-range players. But what makes money in the first six months of a game might not make it money a year or two later after a lot of players have left in frustration and disgust.

Anonymous VD December 01, 2014 1:23 PM  

My experience has been that once a company starts on this path, it becomes about trying to extract maximum value from consumers rather than trying to improve the experience. It seems like a bad long term play to support that.

It totally depends upon the company. I think we've proven that we're not primarily focused on money; you may look at the 11 years of this blog and consider how much you've paid for the content here, for example.

We are ALWAYS primarily focused on the gameplay experience. But without sufficient revenue, there will be no gameplay experience. Zynga openly came out and said they didn't give a damn about gameplay, so it should be no surprise that they, and their imitators, could care less about it.

T11 = Top Eleven. It's a very good game and you can't buy your way to guaranteed success. I've won numerous cups and league titles and I haven't spent a dime.

Anonymous Heh December 01, 2014 2:41 PM  

The tier system does a good job giving noobs a chance to learn before they're pummelled by more experienced players.

I have some low-tier tanks that I keep with elite, multi-perk crews just so I can club baby seals. It is hilarious to kill the lemmings who have no idea where you are but they keep on coming. =)

I'm not sure how much "gold" I would have to actually buy at this point to transfer the ungodly amount of xp I have on my Panzer III.

Only time I convert xp is when I want to get past a real dog of a tank. Like when I bought my way past the terribad Pz Sfl V in order to get to the sweet, sweet Borsig.

Anonymous Daniel December 01, 2014 2:58 PM  

But they do hurt the mid-range players who invest moderate time and money.

Not saying it is right or wrong, but mid-range payer/players still fall squarely into the 80% category that is absolutely dwarfed by economic and in-game impact that the top 20% player/payers who pilot the thing.

In other words, they are as negligible, in terms of rewards, as the free players. If the game isn't broken fundamentally, when they leave, they are quickly replaced by other players like them.

I can't think of any game right now that needs to cater to its own middle class, except for the fact that there needs to be a space for its ranks to be filled with player/payers, whether they are loyal or not.

Anonymous Tallen December 01, 2014 2:58 PM  

There's a very narrow line between pay-to-play and pay-to-win. A paid-for bonus that goes beyond what you can obtain as a reasonably dedicated* player defaults to an imbalance in the hands of a skilled PVPer during 1v1 or even 1vX fights... and there are plenty of skilled gamers out there who will pay for that advantage. Once you start getting into team play, pay-to-play advantages fall apart. No amount of individual advantages will compensate you for nonexistent hours of team practice. This is where pay-to-win comes in, when a "team" of players (or an individual!) who pay(s) for their advantage but rarely play, beats a team of players who practice daily for hours.

*This is of course part of the dilemma. What does reasonable dedication consist of? X hours of play per day over time which grants you top-tier gear as power creep takes over perhaps? What about the merchant systems many games have which enable entrepreneurial players to obtain top-tier gear for no cost and minimal time investment?

I'm not a fan of built-in paid advantages in realtime games. There are enough advantages conferred by good hardware and a decent connection that someone who can pay for those things enough of a handicap. I prefer paid benefits be limited to aesthetic effects/personalization.

Anonymous Quadko December 01, 2014 3:43 PM  

What sillyness. "Milk those gamers for all the money they'll part with." Playing without paying? Better have a monitization path on those evil abusers. Other than mindshare, what would we want with whiners like that?

You want a lifelong game to play without paying much anything? Introduce yourself to Chess and Go, devote yourself to mastery of one of them, because you can't achieve both in a single lifetime.

Ok, I am grouchy today, I'll admit. But "a game company" vs. "my hobby game" better be there to collect money, or they can't pay their employees or produce another good game.

OpenID genericviews December 01, 2014 3:54 PM  

Pay for play is not for me. But then, since I am a white guy, I don't expect the world to change to suit my preferences. So, play on, dudes.

--Hale

Anonymous RedJack December 01, 2014 3:55 PM  

Personally, I would rather pay a higher price for a title once (with some DLC's) than a series of nickle and dime upgrades I need to pay in order to be competitive in a game. That is one of the biggest issues I have with games today.

Blogger The CronoLink December 01, 2014 5:04 PM  

Thanks for the brief game design lesson, Vox! I must say I think like the emailer, the Pay2Win model seems like counter-intuitive, but you argue that that it's more like Pay2GetEqualFooting, right?

OpenID badventist December 01, 2014 6:10 PM  

Lets not ignore pay-to-lose, where you can buy weaker teams to give yourself a handicap.

Anonymous Jack Amok December 01, 2014 11:56 PM  

I have some low-tier tanks that I keep with elite, multi-perk crews just so I can club baby seals. It is hilarious to kill the lemmings who have no idea where you are but they keep on coming. =)

Depending on the time of day, you may find more seal clubbers than seals in those low tier matches. The Matchmaker does try to take experience into account.

Anonymous Doug Wardell December 02, 2014 11:30 AM  

VD December 01, 2014 1:23 PM

It totally depends upon the company. I think we've proven that we're not primarily focused on money; you may look at the 11 years of this blog and consider how much you've paid for the content here, for example.

We are ALWAYS primarily focused on the gameplay experience. But without sufficient revenue, there will be no gameplay experience. Zynga openly came out and said they didn't give a damn about gameplay, so it should be no surprise that they, and their imitators, could care less about it.


I'm not sure why, but my comment which you responded to isn't showing up for me. Anyway, I didn't mean to imply that I thought you would go that route and I fully understand the need to make money. My point is that I think this well has been poisoned for a lot of consumers, at least in the American MMO market which is the only one I know much about.

It's not just Zynga and other casual-type companies either. Look at Turbine, for example. Lord of the Rings Online was a great game, slightly marred by a less-than-stellar first expansion. After their other game Dungeons and Dragons Online was about to go under, they switched it to F2P and made a bundle. Then they switched LotRO, which was doing reasonably well financially, to F2P in a blatant money-grab. Most of us were ok with that since they told us you wouldn't be able to buy anything beyond convenience items and chrome, and everything would be available without paying in any case. Great, we figured. More players and more money for development. Win-win, right? Three months later, they were selling permanent stat buffs which were nearly impossible to get without purchasing them, and they weren't cheap either.

I have every reason to believe you personally would put gameplay first and that you wouldn't lie to your players in any case, but I think there are consumers out there who simply will not take your word for it. I wouldn't if I didn't read this blog. Whether or not they will be a significant enough factor to influence a revenue model choice I have no idea, but my own two cents would be for chrome over advantage.


T11 = Top Eleven. It's a very good game and you can't buy your way to guaranteed success. I've won numerous cups and league titles and I haven't spent a dime.

Looks interesting. Do you think it would be too big of a ramp up for someone who knows essentially nothing about soccer or sports management sims going in?

On a related note, any word on when First Sword is coming out? The Alpenwolf website still says November 15, 2013.

Anonymous Nah December 02, 2014 12:04 PM  

Depending on the time of day, you may find more seal clubbers than seals in those low tier matches.

It's like hunting anything else...

Sometimes you eat the baby seal, sometimes the baby seal eats you.

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