Tuesday, June 29, 2021

This Day's Portion

Among the many fine points made in the lengthy comments on yesterday's posts was this from Yeebo

"In terms of whether I consider the ongoing support from developers of a MMO adequate, it comes down to how much of the revenue seems to be getting folded back into the development of more content for the players vs. siphoned off for shareholders or to support projects that few players of the game could reasonably bet expected to care about"

Later, I read this post from Azuriel at In An Age, in which he talks about non-service games ("aka regular-ass games") and the shock he feels on realizing a game he's bought has reached a point of equilibrium from which it will receive no further amendments of any kind: 

"The thought that nothing will happen with the game anymore though? It feels like I was duped."

It seems the whole idea of "games as a service" has fostered a sense of expectation that affects not only the way we pay but the way we think. We want value for money, of course, but in a some strange way we also want to be valued ourselves. We don't just want a game, we want a relationship.

Players often claim to have a clear idea of what's fair when it comes to value for money but what is fair, really? Back in the days when a video game was a once-and-done purchase it used to be easy to tell. You bought the game, you played it, you knew. These days it's a lot harder to be sure. 

Take Guild Wars 2 for example. In theory it operates somewhere in the "games as a service" model but as a buy-to-play game it's less than clear what that means. And the more you think about it, the less clear it gets.

Whatever the service is, it's certainly not an ongoing arrangement between you and the company. As a service-user no commitment is required from you. That one-time payment is all you'll ever be asked for. GW2 has no subscription, optional or otherwise. If you want to give the developers any more money you'll have to buy something from the cash shop.  

Oh, except for the expansions. Those you'll have to buy. Another one-off payment. Twice in nine years that's happened. And even then you can just not do it. You can just carry on playing the content you originally bought. That's service for you!

It gets more complicated because ANet also pride themselves on keeping all the content relevant all the time. Most of the new stuff added within an expansion cycle requires that expansion but not all of it. So even if you just stick with your original purchase you'll get some new content, now and then.

Of course, if you're new to the game, you get everything for that one payment because now you get the expansions thrown in. At heart, GW2 remains a buy-to-play game. It's just that these days what you're expected to buy is the latest expansion. Buy that and you get everything. Until the next one, of course.

Only, there weren't supposed to be any expansions. Ever. ANet claimed on multiple occasions they weren't going to make any. They kept trying various ways to add content without going the full box route. 

They couldn't do it but what if they had? Then they'd have been giving all the new content away for free, forever. That single box purchase I made back in the summer of 2012? It would still be giving me two or three hours of entertainment every day of the week, nine years later. Even as it is, I've only had to buy two more boxes in nine years to make sure I don't miss out on any content at all. It certainly sounds like a good deal.

Not everyone would agree. Last night, as I was happily fighting holograms in the arena, I listened to someone in map chat complain at length about how worthless the whole Dragon Bash event was because ArenaNet have done nothing with it since it was first introduced. 

Which is kind of true in a way. Dragon Bash was on hiatus for years and when it came back it was much the same. They certainly haven't added an awful lot of new events to any of the holidays over the years, but then again, why should they? That guy aside, most people seem happy enough already.

GW2's holiday events aren't particularly imaginative and they rarely get updates or additions of much significance year on year, but they remain fabulously well-attended. Dragon Bash has been running for a week now and it's still heaving. There are been multiple instances of Hoelbrak and the Arena instance running every time I'm on. Several times the map's been so laggy from all the people crammed into it I could barely steer my beetle round the sharp turns. There are so many people clustered around the guy who takes the bets for the moa races you can't see him at all, sometimes. Granted he's an asura but even so....

It does make me wonder just what this "games as a service" idea hopes to achieve, when it's a service no-one has to pay for. If a company is going to keep servers up and encourage players to log in to them, it is, presumably, in the hope of somehow making some money out of the whole affair. If the players aren't paying for access (no subscription) and only paying a one-time fee for the game (buy-to-play) that only leaves the cash shop.

No wonder most players don't like cash shops. Or say they don't, anyway. It follows that cash shops must be more profitable than selling games and content for games, at least in those games that don't also charge a sub. 

Those are the games that are either being given away (free to play) or sold as loss-leaders (buy-to-play) after which they exist solely as reasons for players to spend money in the cash shop. That becomes the game's entire raison d'etre. There has to be a game to hang the cash shop on because otherwise there's no reason to buy anything. You have to have a game. But the game itself is secondary. It's not why you're running the service. The cash shop is.

I never really realized that before. It explains a lot although not why the games are still so frequently entertaining. That's because you catch more flies with sugar, I guess. (Actually, you catch more flies with rotting meat but that's a whole different metaphor...). There doesn't just have to be a game. There has to be a game people want to play, and keep playing, otherwise they won't be around to buy things in your cash shop.

All of which brings me back to the question I began with: just what kind of a "service" is it these games are offering? I'm not exactly clear on how there's even a service at all.  

I work in a bookshop. It has to be staffed and stocked and lit and heated, all so we can sell people books. Lockdowns notwithstanding, you can count on the store being open seven days a week, all year round. We don't call that "shopping as a service". We just call it running a shop.

In a game that funds itself by cash shop sales, isn't keeping the servers up and the game stocked with events and "content" just "running the shop"? The cash shop, in this case. Where, exactly, does the "service" part come in?

Mmorpgs with subscriptions and cash shops are in an even more dubious position. Does the sub pay for most of the costs and provide most of the profit, with the cash shop being a minor add-on? That seems fair enough, but how would we know? Are there still any games like that? WoW? FFXIV?

Usually, a subscription is really just another purchase, a way to rent items and functions that could be (and possibly are) sold piecemeal through the store. That also seems fair in principle. It's up to the player to decide if the perks represent good value or not. It's still not a "service", though. It's just more shopping.

Years ago, when Free to Play was something new and scary, we talked about this sort of thing a lot. We don't so much, any more. We're used to it now. And we've changed, many of us. We don't think like players so much as customers. 

Back then, there was one choice. Which game to play. Make that decision then all you had to do was buy the box and input your credit card details for the monthly subscription. That was "gaming as a service", the service in question being guaranteed access to the game 24/7/365, patch day excepted.

It's no wonder people hanker after the good old days. I'm not at all sure it was better value back then but it sure as heck was easier to understand. Now games are just another contract with costs that need constant monitoring to make sure they're not running out of control.

According to the Inflation Calculator, the standard $14.99 monthly sub from the turn of the millennium would now cost a shade over $27. Not quite double. Would you pay that for an mmorpg with no cash shop today? 

I might... until I think about my nine years in Guild Wars 2. Nine years in which I've used the cash shop exactly once, about seven years ago. Nine years that have cost me around $150 for one account, expansions included. Six months' subscription at the 2021 mark-up, in other words.

I think my real question here is how the hell do ArenaNet stay in business?


  1. I remember the "no expansions" era and correctly predicted that would go out the window as soon as NCsoft felt their revenue needed a boost. But yes, how does ANet stay in business. I have no idea what they actually sell in the gem shop, but I always feel like there is really only so much you can buy over time before you've worn out the appeal.

    I am not sure EQ's cash shop, optional subscription, and annual expansion is necessarily the best way to run an MMORPG, but from the outside it at least give the impression that there is a lot of economic activity in play.

    1. I came back, read just that bit, though I made a mistake, then came back again and realized I had not. Typical me.

    2. As they used to say on The Fast Show, "I'll get my coat...".

      GW2's Gem Shop sells next to nothing I ever want but Mrs Bhagpuss spends roughly as much there as she used to spend on her All Access sub. She mostly buys cosmetic items, a lot of which she funds by converting gold to gems, but every so often she buys some with real money, usually when they've just added something new. That sort of constant dripfeed of roughly the same cost as a standard mmo subscription is probably quite common, I'd guess.

  2. I think my real question here is how the hell do ArenaNet stay in business?

    One word: whales.

    Those are the tiny subgroup of players that go out and blow tons of money on a game, the cash shop, external stuff (plush toys, etc.), booster packs, and the whole nine yards. A few whales probably buy more stuff from GW2 than 50% or more of the player base.

    1. "Whales" is always the answer, but how regular and reliable is that as a business strategy? Dont' whales tire of games too and move on?

    2. If I recall correctly, the relentless search for whales doesn't generally end well. Games that tend to rely on this approach strike me as those companies that tend to consider luck as a strategy...

      To Bhagpuss' point about buying a game as a product or as a service, and the attendant player expectations associated with each, I do think there is an element of tribalism inherent in a game with which you build a relationship over time that ticks both players' and developers' boxes.

      "I own that thing" doesn't feel the same as "I'm a part of that thing" (or perhaps that thing is a part of me...). I suspect that the shrewd developer recognizes that more players are susceptible to the lure of belonging than there are whales to find in the ocean of gaming and players looking to belong are willing co-conspirators.

      Once the perception is established that a game is pay to win (or pay to avoid the suck at least), then you've alienated a huge potential customer base and you're left with trying to get more and more from fewer and fewer players.

    3. The "belonging" part is very important. That was something I was alluding to yesterday re WoW/Classic. It's a bit like supporting a sports team, too. Once you get that tribal loyalty you can expect it to last through some bad times as well as good. Sports fans go through periods of hating their team for all kinds of reasons but they often still feel unable to abandon them and support another instead. That's the kind of loyalty that pays the bills.

      On the topic of whales, I've definitely read that relying on them is a poor strategy. Games that do it end up changing systems to suit a tiny percentage of their playerbase and I suspect those would also be games with much smaller overall populations than GW2. The thing about GW2's cash shop is it sells a lot of very expensive utility items, all of which have very obvious visual effects. You can see in game that the majority of players use these as a matter of course. The income from those alone must be significant. There's also a strong lootbox effect on the skins, too. You don't have to be a whale to spend a fortune on those - just an idiot.

  3. Whales aside, these non-sub games stay in business by selling boxes to the people who haven't bought it yet. Some of those people weren't born yet or had not yet been an age in which the game was appealing. Others were but hadn't heard about it, or did and weren't interested based on X, Y, Z factors. Patches and improvements not only generate existing population good will (usually), it also helps get the game back in the news and on the lips of players.

    Look at No Man's Sky. That game is approaching five years old at this point, and they still put out substantial, free updates. I don't have the link anymore, but when one of the devs was asked about it, they mentioned that each time there is a major free patch, they make more money than they did during the last patch. And that is just with box sales. Presumably that is not eternally sustainable - there has to be some kind of saturation point - but, well, there ARE people being born every minute. And after too long, you can just come out with a sequel and start it all over again.

    1. I think this is a really underrated part of the process, the selling of the existing game to new players. And once you start to think of "new content" in the terms of "advertizing" it makes a lot of sense that developers keep pumping it out, even when the game appears to have plenty of content already.

      We used to hear a fair bit about "churn", a term that seems to have dropped out of currency. Devs regularly used to talk about the way players left games and were replaced by new ones. Come to think of it, there's been quite a lot of talk about CCP's issues with new player retention in EVE. The focus is always on how few of those new players stick around but the raw numbers, how many new players actually give the game a look, are a lot more impressive. GW2 is almost the opposite of EVE in terms of accessibility. The low-level game is immensely impressive and welcoming. It's later on that it gets less so. It's easy to imagine a relatively high percentage of the curious free players deciding to buy the game after a few sessions.

      And anecdotally I can say there are always a lot of new players in the starting zones. It's a very chatty game and there's very little stigma attached to being a newbie there (especially compared with some other mmorpgs) so people out themselves as new all the time.

  4. I may be in the minority here, but i buy gems on a regular basis.
    About one 800 batch every month or two. As sort of a self managed subscription.

    This netted me all account upgrades (bank, material storage, shared slots, etc),
    all bag slots on a few characters i play a lot, a ton of unbreakable harvesting tools,
    at least 4 coper fed salvage o matic (three of which are in the bank now),
    some mount and other skins i liked and some other stuff.

    Sometimes i buy a few black lion keys when they are on discount, but thats very rare,
    perhaps once a year.

    And i bought all the collectors editions.

    I see it as keeping a game alive i play nearly every day. I dont know if this
    goes into whale territory, bit it's definitely not more expensive than a subscription.

    1. Oh and i forgot i never exchange gold for gems or the other way around.
      And i still have a good amount of gems lying around waiting for something i really want.

    2. I'm very curious what you do with your gold if you don't use it to buy gems. I now have more than 10,000 gold on my main account, with half as much again on the other two and probably another 5k at least in mats that I could sell. And I never do anything to earn gold other than whatever it is I normally do - no farms or anything like that. It just keeps rolling in.

      I have all the bank slots on my main account but other than that I can't see the point of shared slots, extra mat storage etc. I have three upgraded guild banks from back when small guilds were viable. That covers "shared" storage. I've never needed to hot swap anything so I don't even use the free shared slots for anything meaningful. I just put something in them and forgot they were there.

      I have a couple of characters as bank mules for overspill mats although I sell virtually everything as I get it. I did buy the character slots but that was years ago and I used gold. If I had the mat storage it would just mean a ton more unused mats sitting idle. I almost never have any use for any of them other than to sell. For salvage and harvesting I just buy the same stacks of tools from NPCs I was buying back in 2012. They do the job perfectly well. I've never understood the appeal of the permanent ones.

      The problem for me isn't not wanting to spend gems, whether I get them with gold or real money. It's that in ten years Anet have barely added half a dozen items that I ever wanted - and all of those were among the cheapest, like the cat and rabbit ears and the witch broom.

    3. I think i play a lot less than you. GW2 Efficiency tells me i play about 1.25 hours per day.
      So i may not have accumulated that much stuff. Also i'm a pack rat and do sell only things
      i can not refine or store otherwise. So my income stream is about 10 Gold per normal week i think.
      I stopped doing dailys some time ago because i need nothing from them.

      Currentlyl i sit at about 5k gold.
      A few weeks ago i bought myself a permanent bank access contract for about 5k.
      I think the four legendary weapons i have account for about 3-5k gold too.
      All characters i level to 80 i equip with at least one set of full ascended equipment
      which i mostly craft, this cost some money for ingredients, runes, sigils etc if i have
      not enough lying around already.

      Upgrading my home instance with all the nodes ate up a few hundred gold too.

      So all in all i do mot make that much money, because i play what catches my fancy and
      never ever farm gold. I get extremely bored after 20 minutes of Silverwaste farming for instance.
      Drizzlewood i do only with my guild because it's fun to talk while doing it and this rewards mostly
      crafting materials that go into the bank and get refined.

      Currently GW2 efficiency tells me my Account is worth 102,000 Gold, 55,000 excluding gemstore items, 16,000
      liquid gold and about 5000 gold in the wallet.

    4. And i really like the shared slots. I use them for all the stuff all my alts can use.

      Currently: Permanent Bank Access Express, Mystic Forge Conduit, Copper-Fed Salvage-o-Matic, Runecrafter's Salvage-o-Matic,Mystic Salvage Kit (2X), Black Lion Salvage Kit, Portable Composter, Prototype Position Rewinder, Teleport to Friend, Mistlock Sanctuary Passkey, Invitation to the Party, Spearmarshal's Plea, Invitation to "Lily of the Elon",Season 3 Portal Tome,Season 4 Portal Tome, Icebrood Saga Portal Tome, Metabolic Primers, Utility Primers

      A few empty slots i use for exchanging items beetween characters.

  5. I like the musing you did here in regards to how the cash shop is really the important thing for the bottom line but not what we think of as the primary experience. I do think there are comparable business models in real life though, even if they're less common.

    E.g. my parents used to go on some package deal bus holidays when they were younger, where you got the actual trip for cheap but then had to put up with them trying to sell you all kinds of other junk like heated blankets during your time on the bus.

    Or maybe cinemas would count as a more prominent example? We tend to think of going there for the experience of seeing a movie (when there isn't a pandemic on, anyway), but I've always been told that they actually make most of their money from the food and drinks they sell you while you're there.

    1. Apparently that is true about cinemas and snacks. During the lockdowns, while cinemas have been struggling, there have been campaigns to get people to buy more snacks or if they don't want to eat them just donate the cost. The discussions I heard about that all emphasized that it's the food concessions that keep the projectors running.

      I think there's probably quite a range of activities where the ostensible reason for being there is really just the lure to get warm bodies through the door to sell them something else. It hadn't really occurred to me until I wrote the post just how the cash shop related to the game under F2P models particularly.

      It makes a lot of sense of why the reaction to Genshin Impact was so intense - there was no reason at all for the developer to have made such an excellent game just to sell characters in the cash shop. It seems like a huge extra expense for no particular reason - until you see how well the game has done. No wonder all the other F2P companies were shocked. Given GI's success, though, I wonder if it may have set a new bar. That would be interesting.

    2. Most gas stations work that way too. All of the profit is from the overpriced stuff they sell in the little convenience store.

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