All aboard the monetization train – pay for levels, ads in games

Just when you thought it was safe to step out of your computer room, a couple more companies are experimenting with additional ways to get their paws on your hard earned moolah.

Buying levels in WAR

Arkenor covers the new Warhammer Online account entitlement purchasing service –- a cash shop by any other name. As well as the (now usual) server transfers, vanity pet, shiny cosmetic trinkets for your armour and mounts, they are also selling a ‘specialised training pack’ which grants one level to all of your characters.

Naturally this has the blogosphere up in arms, but I wonder if selling a single level for an inflated price is really such a game breaking issue. I remember many times when playing DaoC wishing I had the option to pay to jump ahead a level or two, particularly if I’d hit a hell level or was just tired of the final stretch of the level grind.

The fact that players even adopted the name ‘hell levels’ for levels that seem unusually difficult to pass during the levelling phase of the game  shows how common a phenomenon it was in older games.

Obviously we like to think that slicker design solved the hell level problem in modern MMOs, but does it matter if someone is desperate to pay to level up?

Hadrune argues that none of the new WAR cash shop items are gamebreakers, and feels that they are all optional.

To my mind, the proof of this particular pudding will come not when cash shops are added to sub games, but in how game design changes in future to make better use of them. Maybe adding the facility to buy a level is not a great solution to the hell level problem, but it’s far worse if hell levels are deliberately designed into the game to entice people to buy.

That’s the slippery slope argument. And it hasn’t happened yet.

Zynga takes in game advertising

Zynga, as we know, has no qualms about maintaining the purity of the gaming environment, and what could be more immersive than finding an advert for Megamind inside your Farmville?

Gamasutra notes that their current partnership with DreamWorks isn’t the first advertising promotion that they have run. Presumably it’s another good source of income for them so expect more in the future. And there’s no mention of allowing players to pay to avoid the ads.

I would argue that Zynga’s route is likely to prove far more ruinous for MMOs than WARs. Buying your way past a hell level isn’t in the same league as encouraging all your players to dismiss the idea that immersion in a virtual world has any value at all, or is something they might miss when it’s gone.

Giant Skeletons as Art

bonesentinel

You might think to look at this screenshot that you were looking at a simple, everyday, giant skeleton of the sort you might find anywhere in a MMO.

Here it stands in its natural habitat, on eternal watch, waiting for an adventurer to come past and pull it to its inevitable death animation.

But there is something different about this particular type of mob in WoW. It’s a new breed.

Placed in Icecrown, one of the end zones in Wrath where it is assumed that the player will have a flying mount, this mob is designed to be flown over rather than killed.

It’s true. There is no quest in the game that requires anyone to kill one of these giant skeletons, yet they are common mobs in Icecrown. They patrol battlements. They stand on guard at strategic locations. They look tough and they are (relatively) tough, being elites. Not only is there no quest for them, but the drop tables don’t attract people, they aren’t part of anyone’s optimal xp gathering schemes, they don’t give rep. There isn’t even any xp for them (that’s quite damning in a MMO!)

The very first comment in the Bone Sentinel entry in wowhead says, forlornly:

I killed one and it didn’t drop anything and it also did not provide any experience.

Ladies and Gentlement, I present to you … the decorative mob. Be nice to it, it may be the herald of a new (aka old) immersive era of zone design, in which mobs are placed because they look right or they should logically be there, and not just to drive quests.

Joking aside, that’s quite an old school approach. Older MMOs often placed mobs without any intention that players would kill them. But it’s uncommon in WoW.

Are MMOs getting easier or players getting lazier?

via Bio Break, I was reading a column in GameSpy about the lack of challenge in WoW. Don’t get me wrong, now that I’ve seen most of the raid content for myself, I can understand where that’s coming from (and it’s a subject for another day!)

But. It isn’t the raid content that he’s talking about. It isn’t endgame at all, in fact. He’s talking about the levelling curve and how Blizzard have mostly trivialised it. And if you want to go even faster, you can grab bind on account items that adjust themselves to match the level of your alts. And because they are BoA, once you have finished you can send them on to another alt. Although by definition, heirloom items are only available to players with max level characters, to help speed up the levelling of their alts.

Not only that but people also have easy access to websites like wowhead and addons like questhelper which neatly remove any residual quest related frustrations anyone may have had with not finding things or puzzle solving.

All of these things conspire to make questing and levelling a trivial (but still time consuming) part of the game. Aside from the fact that no one forces you to go look things up every single time you get stumped for more than half a millisecond, what we are seeing is a fundamentally different way in how players respond to in game quests.

They are no longer viewed as fun puzzles. Instead, they’ve become sleepers (or even speedbumps) on the railway of levelling, and the objective of most passengers is to get past them as quickly as possible on their way to their final destination. Levelling quest rewards are largely ignorable. Even if they are useful upgrades, you’ll grow out of them soon enough. Some questlines will have particularly engaging storylines or fun tweaks. Those are the equivalent of the Settle-Carlisle scenic route*. Pretty, a fun day out, and good for photo/screenshot opportunities. But you’d skip them if you were in a hurry.

This is not a WoW-specific paradigm shift.

Looking at newer games, they’ve all been tweaking to make the questing process more streamlined and single player friendly. WAR has its red blobs (which actually fulfil much the same function as questhelper, but more nicely implemented and integrated) which I think have been roundly welcomed. Anyone want to complain that levelling in WAR is too easy? They’ve eased their levelling curve too. You don’t even have to worry about accidentally pulling groups because most mobs can be solo pulled.

I don’t think people complain, because they’re not unhappy with it. And WAR in particular does offer other ways to level, the solo questing isn’t supposed to be challenging so much as to just give you something to do inbetween scenarios.

Why does the levelling curve need to ease off?

This one is obvious. In any level based game with multiple expansions, if you want to make your game appealing to new players, they need to be able to catch up to the pack. Is there any way to do this other than to speed up the low level game?

  • Spread out the pack, either by being very very alt friendly or by spreading the appealing content through all levels and letting players stop at a place they like.
  • Let new players start at higher levels. Still would need some kind of tutorial.
  • mentoring schemes (sidekicking, or letting you help a friend to level faster)
  • Nuke the old content at the start of every expansion. Let everyone start from level 1 again together.
  • Nuke the whole server regularly.
  • DITCH LEVELS! (wait, am I shouting? :) )

I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift on quests and level based games. WoW is, for logical reasons, trivialising its levelling game. This will be less fun for people who enjoyed the challenge (I’d direct them to LOTRO where the quests are much more old-school style), but it’s a strange reason for not trying WoW because the high level quests in TBC and Wrath are brilliant.

The level-by-quest design served MMOs, and WoW in particular well but we’re seeing how it fails in a mature game now. Once you have seen the stories once, you don’t need to see them again. New players need to be able to catch up.

We need a new scheme for levelling. WAR with its multiple options, multiple zones, and public quests is surely on to something. So why is the prospect of levelling an alt in WAR so unappealing?

* You have to love that the Settle-Carlisle railway doesn’t have any pictures of scenery on the front page, although the scenery is the main reason that it’s famous. There is a picture of a station cat on the station page though.