Friday, June 24, 2011

EVE's microtransactions: Developing profit vs. fun? Virtual vs. Real?

Spinks recently had a post on EVE's apparent plans to put pretty involved microtransactions into the game.  Her response was, well, I can't quite say "common", because it's not the most common response, but perhaps it's the most predictable of the interesting, thoughtful responses.  Here's a bit.

One of the main reasons that I think long term players get concerned about some of these microtransaction plans is that there’s a point where you wonder how far game devs are putting profit above making fun games. And if your main concern as a consumer is to buy (and pay for) fun games, you’d probably like THAT to be their main focus. [emphasis mine]

These are interesting distinctions.  Is there really a fun vs. profit measurement duality for video game developers?  Isn't profit always the primary motivator for, say, Blizzard and CCP Games when they're designing a game?  Whose job is motivated and measured only by fun maximization?  I wonder about playtesters, but I'm having a hard time arguing they're really primarily about fun; having done that a bit, it's more of a bug finding expedition.  In fact, the only game designer I can think of that's really gotten away with "fun" (measured perhaps in unconventional ways) rather than profit is id, where johnc seems to be able to release when he's darned well ready, after the game has whatever techs and features he feels are appropriate.  It's the one place where "When it's done" is always the deadline, and if there's no id software release for, well, years, that's also okay.  But they only get to ignore profit because they already have plenty [and apparently manage that profit fairly well!].  I think you also have to argue that they changed the mode of production with video game design, or at least added an alternative mode, that of shareware.  They could make a game on their own schedule and release, give or take, directly to their market.  PopCap has a lot to thank id for pioneering.

Well, I guess there's another prime example of a "game dev" who puts "fun" above profits, and that's Jonathan BlowBraid was a game that was meant to be completely for "fun", though I believe the term of art is (ironically) an "art" game.  Watching what he's doing with The Witness, the currently in-dev Braid follow-up, is also interesting, particularly his undercover demo of the game at the Penny Arcade Expo.

I mean, Blow is a guy who says stuff like, "[My presentation is] about 'best practices' of modern game design that I find unsettling, and the way in which 'social games' and 'gamification' are destructive."  Though Braid has been horribly successful and, I think it's safe to assume, a serious moneymaker, he's likely (?) not primarily motivated by profit.  Rather, he's at the very least actively interested in (vs. id, who was passively hoping to) redefining the mode of production for video game design and consumption. 

Anyone who comments on the state of games should watch Blow's MIGS lecture slides with audio here to see a sort of game developer countculture/alternative.

(There are others who might call themselves academic game developers, but honestly, I'm not sure I've seen anyone more motivated as a group by money, with some exceptionally notable exceptions (he said twice), than academics.  Academics [in the humanities and in "hybrid" or interdiscplinary fields that include or originate largely in the humanities; engineering professors, eg, are much more honest about their profit-centric research] money fetish is revealed largely by their obsession with repressing their pursuit of cash, you know, like when they frame funding as "a necessarily evil", but love to wield the power from grants like children on their birthday.  I can't consider most of these academic game developers in the same boat with Blow though, again, many are doing good stuff.  For example, based on their work that I've seen, I'd like to think Michael Mateas or Nick Montfort is trying, but I don't know either well.)

Let me also mention, just for Google, "singular rhythms" here.

Anyhow, here's the discussion from Spink's blog, copied here in case Spinksville ever goes away (not that it should, it's just that I hate when blogs disappear).

we like virtual worlds because they’re separate from the rat race of the real world. It’s because the real world doesn’t have much effect on the game world that the game world can be relaxed and fun

You’re first going to have to show me which games don’t overlap with the “real world”. Some are softballs, like “time”, which is obviously shared. But you also have to think about links between hardware requirements, internet access, and economic status. Think Bot Fighters (a mobile phone game) vs. World of Warcraft. Also think of cultural overlaps — ever seen someone speaking French in game? Fun, isn’t it?

As brief as I can put it: There’s no way I play Sojourn MUD literally for days if I’m not a student in college, you know? I’m not exposed to it, I don’t have the always-on network connection to play, nor the “free” time at 2am to play.

There’s a willful suspension of belief [sic] when someone goes virtual, but virtual is always about potential (sorry to trend Deleuzian here) rather than an alternative to the real.

  • “You’re first going to have to show me which games don’t overlap with the “real world”

    If you really don’t want to assume people have time and hardware enough to play computer games then I guess board games or storytelling games is where you start, and assume the majority of people could make 20 mins for a social gaming session.

    But we’re talking about computer games, so let’s assume a baseline of hardware and some available time. It is pretty easy to suspend disbelief in a virtual setting, even with minimal graphics, so it won’t need to be especially good hardware. I’m quite good at suspending disbelief, but not if game mechanics are constantly throwing RL in my face.

    But ultimately it’s easier to think of it as a continuum. Some games or types of games it’ll be easier for a player to immerse and shut the real world aspects out while they play, others it’ll be more in your face the whole time. You can still play Sojourn MUD without playing it for days on end, right? Presumably a game where power is related to time available is more immersive than one where it’s related to both time available AND RL money available. I did say minimal overlap, not none at all. I just meant a game where it’s easy to pretend it really is another world.

    • First, just to be clear, I never played Sojourn MUD for days on end. It was just that my /played there was the first I’d seen measured in days, which scared me. Little did I know how low that number would be relative to what I’d be playing in a few years… ;^)

      In my post, I was just trying to focus you away from virtual vs. real. It’s so much more interesting to talk about how the two interact, as they’re always interacting. The real world always has a direct effect on the game, since there’s really no distinction. Even a board game is highly situated culturally and commercially. What game? Where was it made? How was it made? What supply chains are required for it to be made and distributed? How was it marketed? What are the origins of its rules? Does it require literacy to play? Math? Logic? What types of logic does it favor? How is gender represented in-game? etc etc etc Those are interesting questions, but for me, MMOs raise some more very interesting and specific ones.

      So here, I wonder what’s lost by having cosmetic items in game? How does the ability to directly translate conventional cash into goods break your suspension of disbelief — and why? Why is a shirt purchased with traditional 1st world currency any more off-putting than one purchased with in-game only currency? Both require time to amass. Both represent work traded for consumables. Both sorts of goods accumulation represent very similar rat races. Why is it that a highly structured and controlled rat race in-game is more liberating to you than the rat race of a gameless life? What’s the benefit of keeping a mental distinction between the two? Is there a point at which the online rat race could become the drudgery and you’re excited about your job? Do[es] anyone work at Starbucks to escape their boutique in Second Life? ;^) These are interesting questions with potentially enlightening answers, I think.

      The lack of virtual vs. real is largely the point of Edward Castronova’s work, but it’s a line of inquiry that’s worth extending. Sure, there’s a relatively minimal overlap somewhere, but that’s only a relative measurement. Dig a bit under the surface, and that perception of a minimum overlap is actually a heck of a deep interconnection.

I guess I would sum by saying, "Games always throw RL in your face, there are just times we've let ourselves get too habitualized to notice it." And it's there that the real politics begin.

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