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.

The Morality of Free to Play

Whenever you get something for free, it means that somebody else is paying.

Michael Arrington has an essay on TechCrunch called Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell. And he’s asking who actually pays for the massively popular social games that are taking over Facebook. You might think that games like Farmville are free to play with options for players to spend real money on buying extra assets in game if they want. And then the micropayments fund the game. You’d be right, but that’s not the whole story.

There’s also a whole infrastructure of adverts attached to the games, where players are offered in game currency for filling out forms, subscribing to unrelated services, etc. And some of these adverts are actually scams (ie. tricking people into signing up for $10pcm mobile phone subscriptions). One thing’s for sure, there’s a vast amount of money on the line here, and the scammers are likely to pay the game producers at least as well as the legit advertisers if not better. If you read the comments on the article linked above, you’ll see several from people claiming to be involved with either social networking sites or games, who comment that the offers which monetize the best are the ones which scam or trick users.

As gamers, what we really want out of the whole system is fun games. So any payment scheme that motivates devs to produce anything that isn’t a fun game is against our best interests. Still, assuming that scammers will pay well for the opportunity to have their adverts embedded in a game with in-game incentives to sign up for the scam, what does that mean?

  • In subscription MMOs, it’s been said that casual players subsidise the hardcore so devs are motivated to produce content for the casuals.
  • In some types of F2P game, the hardcore players subsidise the casuals, so devs are motivated to produce content for the hardcore.
  • In a game funded by adverts, the advertisers subsidise all the other players so devs are motivated to produce content that drives people towards the adverts.
  • In a game funded by scams, the scammers subsidise the players, and the scammers are subsidised by the gullible/stupid people who fall for the scams. So devs are motivated to produce content for the gullible/ stupid or which helps trick people into the scams. Also, some of those gullible/ stupid people are actually children (who might be expected to be less sophisticated in parsing adverts, especially if they really want the in-game currency.)

Even if you don’t care about other people getting scammed, as a gamer you might not want games to go that route. Because our ideal is always that our games are paid for by people who want exactly the same things as we do. Which probably means us.