Virtual goods vs virtual services (how to get RMT right)

RMT (real money transactions) is currently the hot new charging strategy for MMOs which are not WoW but want to take players to the cleaners anyway. By new, what I really mean is not very new, I think EQ2 has had servers where you could buy items for cash for awhile.

So, the idea is that instead of (or as well as) paying for a subscription, you can also buy various items and/or consumables for your characters by paying extra. So you have more choice over how you spend your cash to tailor your in game experience. And you might be able to pay for your game time in more easily manageable lumps also.

Ixobelle sums up neatly some main objections to the scheme. Do players really want to be nickled and dimed all the time, or would they be happier with a flat rate, even if it means paying the same as people who play many more hours?

The upside is that theoretically you only pay for what you use. If you feel that the flat rate is just a way for casuals to subsidise the hardcore, you don’t have to buy in to it. Also, the appeal to companies is that it’s much easier to get people to sign up to a free game, and theory is that 5% who get hardcore and spend through the roof will subsidise those who don’t. So someone still subsidises someone else, just in RMT you actually can be a freeloader. For example, in this interview with the CEO of the company that runs Puzzle Pirates, he notes that only 10% of customers actually pay anything.

Maybe the idea is sound, but they’re using the wrong model

My main problem with the idea is that as a user is that I don’t want to buy bits and pieces for my online gaming as if I was in a supermarket. A virtual shopping basket full of bits of gear, access to extra careers, experience potions, and anything else the company cares to price up is just that bit too much hassle. And I have years of experience of supermarket shopping – years of experience in writing shopping lists in advance and then ignoring them in favour of some really good offer, years of experience in guesstimating how much I need to spend for a week’s shop and weighing up possible items to see if they fit. It’s not an exciting or engaging experience that I’m keen to keep repeating if I don’t have to.

I don’t want to log into the game and feel that I have to check what the hot deals are for RMT every day/ month so that I don’t miss any good bargains, I just don’t think it would add anything to the gameplay. If I want to do that, I can play on the AH.

An online game is simply not a bag of items. However much companies like to pretend that they are selling me virtual goods, I don’t think that’s the case. They’re selling me a virtual good which is tied to a service.

And in my books that means that they are selling an extra frill to an existing service.

So what if we abandon the supermarket model and look instead at … telephones? Mobile phones offer a network based service and there are tons and tons of options as to how you pick and choose which bits you want. Wouldn’t it be better if RMT games used that kind of pricing model? It can be complex, but I think it’s more intuitive for a service based offering.

If you want a high bandwidth monthly subscription with loads of internet usage and instant messages thrown in, you can sign up for that. If you are a very low volume user and prefer to pay as you go, you can buy a PAYG phone instead and pay by the minute. If you want an extra network service, you can add it to your monthly bill. You can even use your phonebill to pay for virtual goods online in some models (ie. buy them, and have it added to the bill).

But what you don’t have to do is keep paying a bit here and a bit there. Because telcos (telephone companies) know that customers find that a hassle. Also, they want you tied into their network. And gaming companies should want players to feel tied into their games – by choice I should add. They should not want you to be deciding at the end of every month whether you want to switch or not.

There are other advantages too which telcos have been quick to offer. Subscriptions where your calls are cheaper if you phone someone else on the same network. Subs where you can name five people and get cheaper calls to them. (ie. encouraging players to refer-a-friend*5 and then play with them, in gaming terms.) There have been deals where you could buy a second phone more cheaply, for a child, or to use as a spare.

The MMO industry could easily adapt those offers to gamers. We’re users on a network which happens to be a game.

And there’s more: what about players who are looking for a new game? Telcos offer bonuses to new subscribers, they’ll help you transfer your address books over, they may even let you transfer your number. And that’s only the start.

The downside is that mobile phone billing can get very complex – BUT once you have picked a deal, it’s easy to understand what you have paid for and what you are committed to if you go for a monthly subscription. I don’t know about you, but I wish devs would stop treating games as if they were supermarkets. They’re not. I don’t want virtual goods, what I want are virtual services.