The Zynga Facebook games that used to spam your feed were a success if they had a conversion rate of 2%. That’s right – a successful business model if 98% of your population never drops a dime. (4)
— Damion Schubert, Dark Warlord of Game Design (@ZenOfDesign) November 15, 2017
Should Developers Be More Upfront About MMO Costs?
There is a sort of shared common knowledge about the free-to-play market for massively multiplayer games. It is one of those things passed around as “everyone knows”. Specifically, it is the fact that a small core of players in any given free-to-play title are supporting the rest.
There will be no judgment of that fact here. Not of the players who do not spend nor of the players who throw around large amounts on in-game items and stores. There’s enough going on in the microtransaction space to keep various YouTube stars and columnists in business for a while. In a way, those microtransactions, bought or not, are paying for content for you to enjoy.
We’re going to focus on a recent Twitter thread by a game developer that highlighted the fact that only around 2% of a free-to-play gamers pay for items in the store when looked at en masse. That 2% enables the other 98% to play. Personally, I think that’s amazing. Not to the point where I would myself laud the spenders as somehow above the other players, but I do think it’s fantastic that there is a threshold. A point at which enough players buying the skins or boosts or convenience items ensures that the game continues.
The thing is, I wonder why we haven’t seen an MMO try to make the leap from a “social game” to almost a socialist one. This isn’t politics 101 so we won’t get caught up on which label applies best. Why isn’t there a game out there that is upfront (let’s call it upfront rather than honest as I do not want to imply dishonesty on the part of those games we enjoy) about the costs.
MMOs are not cheap propositions, neither in development nor in execution. The various MMOs that have popped up on Kickstarter all have, as they should for different projects, different funding goals. However, this leaves us, the armchair developers, woefully unable to judge exactly how much it takes to make a game and get it out in front of people. How much of the development of City of Titans is paid for, for example, and how much of it is an ongoing labor of love in spare moments here and there? How can Star Citizen, which has gathered a small mountain of cash, not yet have a game ready and out the door?
We can’t know ourselves without some experts chiming in because for all the new tools making games development cheaper, easier, more welcoming to indies and hobbyists, we can’t know what figures are needed to get a game off the ground until we try. Nor am I suggesting that fans start a habit of directly funding the development and paychecks of people for a brand new game that may, due to the vagaries of the industry, never see the light of day.
In a way, I suppose I could be accused of slightly, and I do mean slightly, pining for the days of subscription fees. However, we all know from experience that those fees have kept some of our friends out from games before. Sometimes it’s enough of an ordeal to get a buy-to-play game and swallow the box price to test a game that you may not even enjoy.
Free trials and weekends do a lot to mitigate that, and I think the industry has a good handle on how to bring in new players and make the taste test as palatable as possible.
I would like to see a game though that I could play, enjoy and then know absolutely how they were doing. Have enough of us bought the latest skin pack to keep things afloat? Are we all paid up on server costs? Developers and studios do have bills to pay, and sometimes it is the hit or miss of that new hero skin or silly seasonal weapon that impacts those funds. Maybe I am taking too simple a view of the transaction, the flow from my pocket to theirs. I know that for any given $10 I would spend in a game it will be fractions of a cent to each person in a large studio.
I just wonder if it would help. If it would heal some of the rift between player and developer. Or if it would aid in demystifying marketing and business. Of course, there’s the risk of anyone so honest having a barometer out there to show how well the game isn’t doing, just as it might show how well it is if people are buying and pitching in.
I don’t think that the answer is a return to the days of subscription fees but neither do I think it’s a good idea to have developers relying on the player base like it was a Patreon account. How many people are still throwing in their $5 and how many have gotten bored? Do we have enough to continue developing the next great expansion and/or game, or should we focus on more loot boxes because we need to pay the mounting costs?
It may all just be a pipe dream or perhaps something that evolves out of public access to free game engines and super cheap computers. Who knows, maybe we will all one day be playing the next Minecraft looking MMO hit that is just too endearing and engaging to complain about how it looks. Maybe we’ll be playing on small servers made of clustered Pi computers: all tiny but greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe one day the tip jar will go on the website for this game, not as an additional thank you, but with a little goalpost. This is what the student needs to keep her little social space going for another month. This is what the weekend developer needs to ensure the lights stay on in his original world.
Maybe we’ll never get there. Maybe we will. I can tell you one thing about that game though, whatever it ends up being or wherever it ends up being hosted. We’ll get back to the spirit of the genre, of what attracted people in. We won’t be competing, we’ll be cooperating.Related: Development, Facebook, Kickstarter, Loot Boxes, Microtransactions, MMORPG, YouTube, Zynga