It’s Not A Pipe Dream

The gaming industry is so bizarre. I’m looking at news articles this morning and chuckling to myself at everything I see. Peter Molyneux has lied about Godus (to the utter shock of no one) and already moved on to his next game about social media and emotions. Valve apparently forgot that in a voting system people tend to do whatever it takes to get those votes. All around us are Kickstarters, early-access titles, and paid alpha/beta tests.

We’re inundated with false promises, half-baked ideas, and incomplete projects. Every day a new ploy to manipulate how people pay for games is being concocted. What happened to saying you’re going to make a game, making it, then selling it? The industry went from selling complete games to giving them away for free, and now they sell ideas for games that might be in the future. Seriously, what the flippin flyin friar tuck is going on?

I’ve said it a dozen times, but I’ll say it again: I’m willing to pay money for video games. I like my video games to be what was promised, finished, and playable. Why is this exchange of value — such an elementary and fundamental concept — so lost to us?

I can afford to pay more than 99 cents for a game. I’m willing to pay $59.99 + tax.  I don’t want to buy experience boosts or items in a cash shop. I’m willing to spend time killing monsters, exploring the world, and actually playing the game. I don’t need extravagant never-been-done-before ideas to get excited about a MMO. I’ll happily take what was done 15 years ago in a simple game like Ultima Online, or EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, or Star Wars Galaxies. I’m even willing to pay $15/month for continued support and development of the game. I’ll even buy bigger expansions and pay full-retail.

Again, I know I’ve said all of that before. Yet every day we slide a little more. Every month there’s a new early-access or F2P debacle. I’m trying hard to vote with my wallet here. I can’t think of a single time I spent money in a F2P cash shop. I’ve resisted buying early-access games I really want because I don’t want to support that model. I just hope we can somehow see a return to the days when people want good games and developers make good games and both sides are happy. Pipe dream? I really, really don’t think it is.

Pay 2 Win

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 4 days, you probably saw something about H1Z1’s early-access launch debacle. SOE clearly stated several times that guns, ammo, etc., would not be something players could acquire with real money. They would not be purchasable from the cash shop, yada yada. Turns out that wasn’t entirely true.

In what is now being apologized for as a misspeak by a dev during an interview, SOE is cleverly getting guns into players’ hands via the cash shop … indirectly. Players can buy airdrops with a random chance of dropping these types of items.  The problem with the airdrops was that they were landing too close to where the player ordered them. Supposedly these have been tweaked for balance already.

So yes, players can get guns and ammo from the cash shop. It’s just not a direct option. You can’t go to the cash shop and buy an AR-15 with ammo. You have to order an air drop and hope no one steals it from you. I’ll let you decide for yourself if the semantics matter. Smed and his team are 100% pro-air drop, so unless they change their minds it looks like it’ll stay.

What I love about this entire affair is how hard the community policed the anti-pay-to-win philosophy. Reddit blew up on Smed, players started demanding refunds (to which SOE is currently obliging) and a massive spotlight was shined on some pretty crappy decisions and (maybe) bugs leading to a style of play that isn’t in-line with what players want these days.

If only the community would pick up on the design implications of F2P and police it just as hard. The world would be a better place.

We’re Willing to Pay for Value

Why are MMO gamers perceived as inherently stupid? Before you say, “Because they ARE stupid…” let me explain. MMO gamers are consumers just like everyone else. Consumers want value. The word value is often mistaken for “cheap”.  Value propositions come in all sorts of varieties: more for less, more for more, less for more, etc.

You can charge money for good products. People are willing to pay for something awesome. There’s a reason why Apple is able to charge $600+ for a PHONE and people are lining up and hurting each other just to get their hands on one. They’ve identified what people want, they make it, then they sell it for a premium. Due to their product actually being pretty good, Apple turns their customers into brand champions who then recruit more people to buy Apple products. This isn’t unique to Apple or to any company or industry.

Why do we have to pretend games are free or better yet that they have to be free in order for people to want to play them? MMO gamers are capable of identifying whether a product is worth being paid for or not. A good product will sell. A poor one will not.

When I see a “free” game I immediately wonder what they are trying to hide or what they are trying to accomplish. Are they hiding the fact that they aren’t a good game? Are they trying to hide something nefarious like a pay-to-win cash shop? Are they focusing on simply hooking whales and not on making good game design choices? There’s a reason why that product doesn’t have a price tag. Find it, and you’ll find the flaw.

People are happy to offer money to pay for beta testing a game or getting “Early Access” on Steam. Crowdfunding raised millions for games in 2014.

My lesson for today is that games do not have to be free. Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing. What dissuades people from playing is a failure to provide or convey value.

Seabeard App

seabeard-app

Take elements of Animal Crossing, Rune Factory, Harvest Moon, and everything annoying about In-App Purchases (IAP) and you have a “free” game called Seabeard. Seabeard is all about restoring your island to its former glory. You do so by clearing out overgrowth, restoring ruins, building new houses, and bringing commerce back to your empty corner of the map.

Gameplay is simple: You tap the screen to move and interact. You can decorate buildings, obtain pets, harvest farmable items, explore dungeons, craft recipes, do quests, go fishing, play mini-games, and the typical stuff you’d expect from a game of this type. Watch the video below from the creators of the game for a visual presentation of what you’ll find.

I really enjoy Seabeard’s use of islands. Your have your own island home that you are trying to build up, but you can travel via ship to other islands. Traveling between islands provides an opportunity to play sea-based mini-games where you can earn prizes ranging from gold to rare crafting materials. If you choose not to play a mini-game, you are lifted up by a zeppelin and carried to the next island.

seabeard-islandsOne of my favorite features is the ability to set up vendor stalls on your island to sell your goods to the game itself or to other players. I don’t mind the concept of having to put items up for sale and waiting 5 minutes to an hour for them to sell. I also don’t mind having to earn additional slots. I think this system works well for Seabeard, and it’s something I can see working well in other games. Selling your items to other players is also a novel feature for devices like this, and allows people like me to get my friends and family playing so that we can help each other build up faster.

Seabeard is one of the best graphical presentations I’ve seen on the iOS. The stylized visuals are captivating, the game runs flawlessly on my iPhone 6 Plus, and I’m once again challenging my previously held belief that phone games have no chance of providing a full-featured gaming experience. Seabeard is capable of providing the exact same experience found in games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. The key word here is capable.

 

In-App PurchasesWhere Seabeard falls short is in its use of IAPs. The game starts out decently accommodating. Wait 10 minutes here, 5 hours there, spend a few hours earning coins to afford the next building, etc. Then suddenly you hit this wall where it’ll take several hours of doing the same repetitive tasks before earning enough gold to move on. Conveniently you can purchase Pearls or Gold from their cash shop, but the rates are so ludicrous that you’d quickly spend hundreds of dollars before even putting in a decent amount of time into the game. IAPs take what could be one of the best games ever made for phones and warp it into a cash grabbing annoyance. My heart was crushed when this realization came crashing down on me right in the middle of enjoying the game.

If Seabeard was available for $20 I would be telling everyone I know to get out there and buy the game. Totally worth that price. But now I’m stuck in this weird position of telling people they may as well avoid playing it because they’ll only be disappointed after about 3-4 hours of play.

Despite its enormous and unavoidable flaw, I really do hope people try this out and realize the potential for creating a fully-realized game of this calibre on mobile devices. I like having this type of game with me on my phone — a device I carry with me everywhere — and I like knowing I can pick up and play for 30 seconds or 10 minutes then slide it back into my pocket.

In-App Purchases

In-App Purchases

I’m playing a lot of mobile games these days now that I have an iPhone 6 Plus. Playing on the iPhone 6 Plus screen is way more fun than the iPhone 4. I can actually see stuff and my fingers aren’t blocking 40% of the screen. I’m not really a “mobile gamer” though, so I’m not inclined to spend more than $0.99 on an app, and even then I won’t buy ones that aren’t on a huge sale and critically acclaimed – Terraria for $0.99 today, for example.

The apps I tend to play are “freemium” which means they have In-App purchases (IAP). The IAP are generally the same type of thing you’d expect from a F2P game like League of Legends, or something a little more insidious like the type of model found in a F2P MMO. The worst of the lot are the IAPs tied to the “waiting game.” Freemium apps are notorious for being timer games where the main gameplay element is actually just waiting for time to pass. Token, Pearls, Doodads, or whatever the in-game currency for that particular app can be earned in-game at a tauntingly slow pace (only there to make put you in pain) or bought from the store. Spend the premium currency and the timers speed up.

Mobile games, the games meant to be ‘on the go and quick’ end up being slow and tedious upkeep games. It’s this weird juxtaposition of time and convenience, and that’s what makes mobile gamers the perfect prey for this type of business model. In order to keep a game that should be quick and convenient actually quick and convenient, money has to be spent.

IAPs have become a license to make bad design decisions or in many games entirely bad games. Games that would be AMAZING — even better than so many PC/Console games — are destroyed by IAPs having to dictate design direction. It’s sad because had the game simply been sold for $5 or $10 or heck even $20 I would have happily bought the game rather than feel like I have to be nickeled and dimed (many times to extreme sums of $$$) just to find the level of enjoyment I could have by paying the initial cost.

I truly believe we are entering an era where mobile devices are capable of providing as-good or better gaming experiences. For that to happen these games can not continue to exist predominantly as IAP waiting games.