Ophelea, "Out There"
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From Big Countries Come Fragile Dragons

2007-10-09

Permalink 00:00:18, by Ophelea
Categories: MMO

From Big Countries Come Fragile Dragons

Considering the amount of time I spend playing games, reading about games, researching games, talking about games and discussing game design and the industry I find it disconcerting that I write so little about the actual games! I do a fair amount of previews and interviews, and when all of the planets align just right on the third Tuesday of the fifth month of the Gregorian Calendar, I get to write a review...but most of my work is behind the scenes and verbal. I like my job. I learn a lot. I teach others and through teaching learn even more.

Recently, my work and personal life have collided rather suddenly and I find myself comparing the culture of the US with every other culture of the world rather frequently. This can be difficult as the only other culture I have first-hand knowledge of is British; I have first-hand knowledge of immigrated Latinos and a litany of Asians and - regardless of Homer Simpson’s proclamation that Canada is “America Jr.” - I am keenly aware that it is very different indeed.

Games are expensive. It doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see that an online component extends the monetary value of a game: episodic content = additional dollars. Unless you’ve browsed to this site and blog from a cave you know this and have probably experienced it through the now ubiquitous downloadable content on Xbox Live.

When designed with downloadable content in mind, I like what this does for my gaming experience. In theory, my game should become cleaner, more polished and less expensive. If a game is received well and earns enough to cover its initial design cost, the player is rewarded with more game. In theory again, those games that do best should offset the cost of downloadable content for marginal games – those games for which downloadable content would turn a barely profitable game into a very profitable game.

Design is key. Until very recently, the sector of the industry with the most experience in this area was massively multiplayer games. And this is where the design and culture begin to show glaring differences.

Better get a cup of coffee and prepare for a long one...

Follow up:

Historically, North American/European (Western) designed MMOs have been built and a subscription slapped on to the product. I believe there are reasons for this that I’ll get to in a moment. But, part of the inherent design of the Western MMO is the fact that we exist on a continent that has as many as 7 distinct time zones. When the first “big three” MMOs launched in North America, the concept of licensing to localized providers didn’t exist and communities were built of players from all areas of the globe encompassing all 24 time zones. Because licensing and localization does occur in the European market for many MMOs, the idea of a 24-hour time zone may not exist in the front of a designer’s mind. Nonetheless, players who want to play together will find a way; and let us not forget our friends Down Under.

Each month/quarter/expansion pack new content becomes available and for a subscription fee a person can sit in their garage with someone across the country or across the world and play. The uniting ideal? The reward. This is most often known as the quest or mission, but it’s the common goal uniting two people who, due to sheer geography, will never meet yet often consider each other good friends.

Western MMOs may have originally been a translation of MUDs/P&P gaming but ultimately, geography has defined exactly how the games must be designed. Four years ago I sat on a panel with Aaron Rigby, then the Lineage II North American producer. We were talking to a Korean consortium who were considering bringing several titles to North America. It was difficult to explain the difference a single time zone could make until Aaron stated:

“A boss dragon had been created for Lineage II. We had to reduce his difficulty here in the US significantly simply because it was impossible with the varied time zones to ever get enough players together at once to take him down.”

Geography dictated design.

The games we viewed also had Christmas events occurring in December and the entire LAN center was decorated with Merry Christmas statements. When I suggested a Winter Festival it had honestly never occurred to any of the designers to use any other holiday motif than Christmas. In North America, we have many different religions that celebrate a winter holiday; Christianity is only one. Korea is a “single” religion nation. Culture dictated design.

On the other end of the spectrum from the subscription model is the Free to Play or Item Pay model. There are many variants of this but in general, the player has a limited amount of time or a restricted area in which to play until they must pay for additional content. Then, that content is based upon purchasing items necessary to further play. To be fair, many games don’t require items and will let free play continue unimpeded but the ability to maintain pace with a player who can/is willing to use the Item Pay model is severely hampered.

Asian MMOs historically have this model and with it come other design factors. Often, they are missing what the North American market would recognize as a tutorial or new player experience; Player vs. Player and even player-killing is a primary component of play; quests are secondary and don’t exist within a storied framework; and play component known as “grind” or the regular killing of monsters or players for the purpose of leveling is weighted very heavily in design.

Like Western MMOs, the payment model wasn’t designed with the game. It was in place before the design became entrenched and is now accepted canon. And, like the Western MMO, the design is very heavily influenced by the culture and geography.

In Asia – Korea and Taiwan in particular – the internet café was the place to play MMOs at their genesis. A group of friends would go to a local (very local) café and pay by the hour to play together. Thus begins the Free to Play model. A player had to pay the local café for online time; this meant that the game with the most enjoyable free play and affordable items could hold an entire country in rapture.

Those same friends at the café played in such close proximity with one another that text chat was unnecessary. North American players are often startled at the 24-50 character limit of an Asian MMO text chat line but if a heal is needed from a party member and the ability to yell, “Heal Me!” is available, text chat becomes a tool used for long distance friends only.

When sitting in close proximity, the “grind” is the gameplay. The joy is in the playing together as a social experience – whether that be killing 1 or 1000’s of the local monsters or in killing each other repeatedly. Quests require a level of coordination and time that cannot be afforded (literally) when internet costs are by the minute.

Guild Wars is considered the epitome of PvP in North America but failed miserably in Asia. Recently, I was speaking to the PR Director for Arena.net and asked why he felt it had failed in Asia:

“We don’t have grind. When everything is instanced, you enter with an established party and your spawns are mostly static within that instance, there’s no grind. You cannot just hunt.”

Two different designs; two different payment systems. Yet, Asian MMOs invariably fail in North America. In fact, with the exception of a few notable exceptions - Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, Furcadia - the Free to Play model fails regardless of who develops it. Yet, as Blizzard’s success with World of Warcraft in China shows, Western MMOs can succeed in Asia. Why?

The success of Western MMOs in Asia is the easier of the two to attempt to understand. Assuming the design has far less instancing that the above mentioned Guild Wars, the content will contain the necessary elements for a group of friends to sit down in an internet café and play together. The simple solution is simply to charge for time used as was the case in the early days of America Online (or CompuServe/Prodigy for the purists).

If the gameplay is compelling, the cost minimal (pennies per hour), the ability to capture a nation with quest-driven content will work. I enter a caveat here - there must be the option to grind and the option must be available to groups. The recent focus on large-scale raid teams often fits this description. An entire café can raid together and through text and voice chat – and an ability to simply get up and walk across the room – manage a raid. Smaller raids are even more successful.

However, in North America and Europe we are still restricted by our geography. Eastern design is built around the single-time zone/group experience. Grinding on monsters or in PvP for hours with no discernable purpose loses enjoyment when the immediate social interaction isn’t available. Laughter and frustration do not translate from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Although voice chat has increased the ability for players to communicate, without a common goal to unite the players the gameplay quickly breaks down.

And now we reach what I like to call “The Pen Problem”. How much does a Western audience, and a North American audience in particular, value a Free to Play game? A nation of so-called smart consumers would place a high value, but experience shows that to simply be not true. (And yes, I accept that this implies that those of us in the North American market are not smart consumers!)

Take this pen I have for sale. This pen is revolutionary. You will write to the best of your ability at all times when using this pen. It is so incredible that the feel of it in your hand will give you serotonin rushes. I have two price plans for you:

  1. You can have this pen for free. It’s yours. But, it has very little ink. If you decide you like it, you can refill it at any time, with any available color for $1.00 per refill. You can buy multiple refills at once, swap out colors, or simply purchase one at a time when you run out. The pen refills could cost you as little as $1.00 for the entire year! Or as much as you want to spend…I mean, this pen makes you feel good!
  2. You can have this pen in your pocket with refills in whatever colors are available (more to come out as time goes on) for $3.99 per month. However, if you stop paying the $3.99, I’m going to take the pen away. If you don’t use the pen, it will still cost $3.99. But, it will always be available to you.

The simple fact is that the North American consumer will more frequently pick option #2 because the amount is minimal in an overall budget and he/she will greatly overestimate the time the pen will be used.

An answer to the above problem is now being tested in the truly free games such as Pirates of the Caribbean. These games will cost nothing to play; and most often will be subsidized by advertising. This could – and should – work well with an Asian demographic. Internet cafés and providers in other countries have had the ability for some time to bill for game time in addition to internet usage.

But once again in Western society, we run into a perception of value. Anything given away is suspect. And when value is less often a personal definition of utility and enrichment, and more often a definition of status, how money is spent is less important than what we have to show for it.

For those who think I’m wrong I offer you the same pen, please choose your price:

  1. This pen is available from vendor A for FREE + $10.00 shipping and handling.
  2. This pen is available from vendor B for $8.00 + $2.00 shipping and handling.

Which is the cheap pen? Define cheap. Is it low in cost? Or is it poor in quality?

All of the above become the ramblings of a woman eating pancakes when you take into account that games – until the earlier mentioned Xbox Live games – were not designed with episodic content in mind. The MMOs played today are not designed with subscription vs. item pay in mind. World of Warcraft may be wildly successful in China by charging .45 Yuan/hour (at current exchange rates this is $.06/hour) but if it had been designed with item pay in mind from day one, what would revenues be?

This isn’t just about money. Revenues should denote quality. If a game is designed with a subscription model then the size of the team, frequency of updates and quality of gameplay should reflect that. Should is the important word – perceptions are the slippery slope. Game developer Brian Green often compares the disadvantage of the subscription model in terms of the small game compared to that of a larger game as such:

“The main problem I've run into as a small game operator is that this business model doesn't scale down very well. Let me illustrate: if I have 1,000 subscribers and charge them $10/month, I have a yearly income of $120,000. If another game has 1,000,000 subscribers and charges the same $10/month, then they make $120 million. Obviously, the bigger game has more funding to do more development work. Yet, to the individual players, it appears that they are paying the exact same price for a different amount of development. For the company, the only way to increase income is to increase the number of players, which requires appealing to a wider and wider audience (which often requires appealing to the least common denominator).” You can read the entire blog post here.

Yet the continued failure of Eastern games in the Western market show the current design of item pay isn’t working. I don’t believe the payment model is at fault, but the misunderstanding in game style from one culture to another. Western audiences simply cannot play as Eastern audiences do – geography is a primary definer of culture.

Melding the designs is impossible and not desirable at this time. A grindy quest game will try to reach too broad an audience and leave both unsatisfied. Neither culture would enjoy a bastardized version of subscription with Free to Play elements, although there are certainly game designs where this would make sense and be the least expensive way of covering the ongoing cost of development. Until those games are made and players are ready to play them, they remain in the future.

The term “massive” exists in a massively multiplayer online game to describe the number of characters playing together on a single shard. More recently, it has morphed to become a defined percentage of World of Warcraft’s total subscription base. Perhaps it is time to use the 800lb. gorilla’s castoffs and test the waters with a smaller playerbase. There are exceptional examples of the use of Attention Currency on the market yet all too often I find that the term is an unknown. (If you knew it, post a comment!)

There exists a little used but successful economy and payment system known as a Dual Currency Economy. It is monetized through the use of Item Pay – sales of specific items or content within the game. Attention Currency is what a player earns as an in-game currency for playing, for paying attention. They also buy an out-of-game currency known as real world money.

Items within the game sell for either type of currency or more often, a combination of both. The currencies are also tradeable within the game. Players who have more time, play more and trade for real world money; players who have less time, buy more and trade for Attention Currency. The players set the economy – the rate at which the currency exchanges. The designers simply set the price of the items. A stellar example is the RTS, Bang! Howdy – a game where the designers have worked to find the right balance on the value of the items within the game to help keep the economy from becoming too Bullish or Bearish at any one time.

Both cultures need to take a very cold, objective look at what makes games on either side of the ocean successful. Success needs to be defined when doing so: Is it the most popular in terms of users? Income? Retention? Market penetration? New player experience? Money is only one measure of success and not a terribly accurate tool at that. If my pen is the only pen on the market it will make a lot of money. But does that make it successful?

Designers should view games that are all about grind yet still include episodic content. Why do players return to A Tale in the Desert every time there are new trials? Why do hundreds of thousands of people find games like Progress Quest and Kingdom of Loathing appealing? If it is all about the graphics, how can either culture explain Runescape?

There is so much for developers to learn but more than that, there is so much for players to experience. Each of us simply needs to stop positioning our gameplay so that it can be defined as Eastern or Western, Item Play or Subscription. Developers, redefine the word success. Players, let them.

And no matter which side of the fence you fall on, player or developer, East or West, subscription or Free to Play, don’t value your fun by how it impacts your wallet. Fun is a very personal term. Own it!

Phew. I’m going to finish my pancakes.

7 comments

Comment from: Brian 'Psychochild' Green [Visitor] Email · http://www.psychochild.org/
The quote from my blog above is taken from "Why the monthly subscription fee is doomed" at: http://www.psychochild.org/?p=98

One aspect you haven't touched on is popularity. I've heard stories that the Korean game developers worked hard to get posters and other items in the cafes to get people to learn about their game. They would also send people in to play the game, because people would often want to play what everyone else was playing! This make sense, because if everyone else is having a fun time, then it sucks to not be part of that fun.

Likewise, there's an appeal to playing a "popular" game. In the west, people will often leave an existing game in large groups because "everyone else is leaving". It's a similar situation to the Korean example I give above but in a larger scope, where people don't want to feel "left behind" by not playing the popular game and talk about it online. This game has changed over the years, but there is usually one dominate on the top that dictates what is "successful".

Anyway, I think that things will change, but there is a lot of resistance to change in both cultures.

My thoughts,
2007-10-09 @ 01:00
Comment from: Ophelea [Member]
I was told in private chat that I'd not spoken out on the lack of individuality in Eastern design and the Western design that allows the player to BE the hero.

Both popularity and hero designation are affected by culture but are more related to content than mechanics...

And if I'd written everything I wanted to it would have been MUCH MUCH longer! I could only cover so much! *grins*

But in response to your commentary, in both cases it comes down to "I want to do what the cool kids are doing" as well as the need for socialization. Particularly, the latter.

In the cafes, they want to socialize with the people laughing; in Western society, we simply NEED people to play with in the game because they aren't in the room - especially if the game design is built around social play.

In both cases I think there are lessons to be learned. Western design has the easier lesson with the more difficult implementation - find a way to make it so that players don't WANT to leave. Blizzard has done a spectacular job of this with the raiding system and the need for a specific group. There's nothing more guilt inducing than not being there for your guild - even months after the game has existed to be fun.

The Eastern market needs to find a way to break free of the cultural bias in their design so that their games become unique from one another. Right now, they play too much like clones of one another. Then their players will choose to play the game they enjoy, not the game that everyone else is.
2007-10-09 @ 01:12
Comment from: Chris [Visitor] Email · http://onlyagame.typepad.com
Wow, that was long. :)

I have heard of Attention Currency - you mentioned it to me at GDC when we first met. :) I note also this old article from a decade ago:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.12/es_attention.html

In reference to the various games you mention at the end:

- A Tale in the Desert has unique appeal through its non-violent paradigm - a paradigm with far wider appeal than just this game. But it only pulls in a few thousand subscribers. It's a notable title, and more than self-sufficient, but economically trivial next to the rest of the online industry.
- Progress Quest is appealing because you don't have to do anything, it plays itself. You get the satisfaction of powering up without the cost of having to spend your own attention on it. But I think we can agree no-one is going to pay money for this!
- Kingdom of Loathing has humour on its side - never underestimate the appeal of comedy. It has a modest subscriber base (140K) - I'd like to know how much money it makes on its item sales. I suspect, like A Tale in the Desert, this makes ends meat (pun intended) but little more.
- RuneScape is more notable because it does make money and has a huge subscriber base. You ask if its all about the graphics, how to explain the success of RuneScape. Well, in part it is all about the graphics (or at least the aesthetics) and RuneScape looks great for the price you pay for it. If you wanted better graphics, you'd pay for them, but not everyone has the money or inclination to invest in the kit required to do so. The accessibility of RuneScape (in terms of low spec machines) is one asset it has in its favour.

But in all these cases, the people who made the games did not know they were going to succeed, and the business model in each of these cases isn't strong enough for investors to have faith in their success.

World of Warcraft succeeds on a subscription model because it's the best at what it does at the moment, and what it does has the widest appeal. When you are in such a strong position, the subscription model makes the most sense.

But for "weaker" titles (which does not mean worse titles), a subscription model makes less sense - it in fact becomes a barrier to adoption. Free to play becomes essential to get the numbers up if nothing else.

None of this has anything to say on the issues of the difference between Korean and US market, of course. I suspect the lesser success of Korean titles in the West is as much a product of the difference in average hardware as anything else - in the West, early adoptors are drawn in by flashy graphics (i.e. by aesthetics); WoW has a huge advantage in this area. It looks better than almost every other game in the market place; the artists who worked on the game are to be commended.

Plus, the Korean firms don't have the marketing money to attract a wider audience - another definite problem.

As for Western games not succeeding in Korea - too high spec! The typical Korean machine doesn't have the punch is my understanding.

Well, alas, out of time... Best wishes!
2007-10-09 @ 10:11
Comment from: Ophelea [Member]
LOL Hey Chris! Yes, I remember telling you about Attention Currency but that was a few beers in, very late at night!

I don't disagree with your assessments of the games listed but I think there is much more to look at in the first two:

- ATITD is a non-violent game but more than that, it's a free-form creative game. Each of the new trials gives players new disciplines to work with. Also, it is wholly unique in allowing players to determine the Law of the Land and I mean this literally. They vote on the rules that govern the land to the point that the designers implement the code - even if that allows griefing. They may have to repeal it later but it's part of their freedom.

- Progress Quest does occur without interaction but I do believe people will pay for this as an element of their gameplay. It's the "I Win" button that people look for in gaming. The Agency being made out of Sony Seattle will include operatives that join your spy network that create and investigate in real time even though you aren't logged in. An entire Agency of your own will keep you notified of the events of the world and involved - through email or text notification - and advancing without logging in. It will be a different type of advancement, but advancement nonetheless and you get to PROGRESS.

And while I understand the point about machine specs I don't agree. Make a game that is compelling and - this is VERY important - can be jumped into and played within five minutes - with high specs for an Eastern audience and the cafes will upgrade their machines. Demand will require it. The simple fact is the prep time it takes for Western games simply isn't FUN when you're paying by the minute for your game time.

And don't kid yourself, Eastern firms have the money. But what feature set do they have to market??

Define an Eastern game feature set. :)

I want blueberry pancakes today! SOOOOO on a pancake kick.
2007-10-09 @ 11:17
Comment from: Harmakhet [Visitor] Email
Great writeup here and something that has intrigued me for some time being a gamer (specifically a Western MMO gamer.)

Is there something to be said for other pricing schemes that arise on occasion? The most recent example being the Founder pricing for LOTRO. Admittedly it was a means to have more people pre-order the game but enough people (that I know) did it specifically to snag the cheaper price.

The Lifetime membership for a higher price has merit in some cases. If I had the disposable income at the time I would have probably taken advantage of it.

I would say that finding the happy medium between the markets would be key for the future. The idea of Attention Currency sounds like a sound assessment of a direction for people to move.

I know from my experience that distance is an issue for gaming. I've been a part of a gaming guild for some 5+ years and while initially a good amount of them were local they have almost all since moved on to bigger and better things but still tend to get together online when they can. I enjoy the voice chat aspect that is becoming a staple for MMO's as it gives us all a means to easily communicate.

Since the birth of our son the Mrs and I have even less ability to get out and socialize. So sometimes that round of Halo 3 or the night of running quests in Middle Earth is the only contact we have with our friends.
2007-10-09 @ 11:50
Comment from: Rawdge [Visitor] Email
Great article you got here Ophelea! It really brings up a lot of interesting points... many of which quickly start to expand beyond what you covered here, so kudos on managing to keep it focused.

Something occurred to me regarding the possible stigma associated with "free" games in a Western culture. I haven't quite gotten the time to flesh out entirely (exams in my classes this week have grabbed most of my attention thus far), so I don't really know what I'd like to say about it just yet. I'm wondering though if it's so much an attitude towards the payment model and by extention an attitude towards the game.... of it if might have more to do with the way the game is presented. Again, I don't have my ducks in a row here, but I'm wondering where other online games come into play here, particularly ones such as Counter Strike or other popular multi-player mods. Granted these mods are smaller in scope when it comes to development, as well as the amount of players per server, but the popularity (and longevity) of some of them is certainly equal to, and in some cases surpasses the amount of time spent in some of the more persistent worlds. These mods are free to play (disregarding for a moment the initial investment for the game they're based on) yet are played by people all over the world, and aren't really limited to either an Eastern or Western culture.

Now, these games are truly free-to-play, with no strings attached there, but I'm wondering where specifically the breaking point is between a popular online mod thats free to play, or a persistent world with a payment model.

If the culture of one region or another is having such a significant effect on the design of persistent worlds as well as their payment model, and (to continue your example) if those of us in the West are viewing free-to-play games as some sort of taboo, then why have some mods been as successful as they have been? Where is the division between "This game is free-to-play, but it's a mod, so that makes it okay to play." and "This is a persistent world, and it's free to play, so that means I won't play it."

This might be a case of apples to oranges here, and at 3:40am, I'm prolly not making the most sense anyway, but still, I'm curious nonetheless.
2007-10-12 @ 05:40
Comment from: Rawdge [Visitor] Email
yeargh!

sorry about the eye-bleeding inducing typos. =/
2007-10-12 @ 05:44

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