Cash and Carry Part One: The Economics of Pay for Play Games
by Scott Roberts
"I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine."
The overwhelming response to my call for column suggestions provided a proliferation of ideas which took forever to sort through, but I've finally decided on which one to write about. It was a vicious competition, but one idea shone out above the others, fairly singing to me to write about it.
Pardon me a moment while I turn down the dripping sarcasm device... thank you. The topic for this column of "The Mummer's Dance" pertains to economics: the economics of pay-for-play online games and how such economics factor into gameplay and the opinions and reactions of the gaming community.
Free games have a variety of economic systems and they work to greater and lesser degrees. We'll start by eliminating them from the mix entirely save to say that in some cases, a free game may offer considerations or benefits in return for donations to improve its server or connections.
Pay-for-play games, as they exist in the current online marketplace, generally all follow the same model: flat monthly fees for unlimited play time. While some exceptions exist to this model, the primary MMORPGs and most pay-to-play text-based and other online games work along this standard subscription basis. Certain rare exceptions allow for the purchasing of in-game gear and perks, but these are exceptions rather than the rule in the overall marketplace.
The issue with games based on this economic model is that the economics of fairness are weighted firmly in favor of those players with the most amount of time to play the games. While everyone pays the same amount to play the games, the people with the most "free" time to play the games tend to reap the greatest rewards. Time translates into experience, in-game money, roleplayed relationships, powerbrokering, high-end equipment, and the like. "Casual" gamers a very broad term which refers to people who don't have the time to devote to "seriously" playing the game (an interesting use of semantics which could be the basis of a column in and of itself) don't have the sheer amounts of time available to advance as quickly in the game as the "serious" gamers.
This disparity between casual and serious gamers has led to a rise in auctions on eBay (and elsewhere) of characters, equipment, and housing. These auctions bring a number of concerns, rightly or wrongly, to the communities of the games in question.
First there's the companies themselves. Every MMORPG company with a subscription-based model discourages auctioning of characters; some, like Verant (the producers of EverQuest) attempt to ban it outright. The rationale, in their case, is relatively simple to puzzle out: as they make their profits from folks spending time in-game gaining levels and equipment, when folks sell the characters or equipment they've gained outside of the game, someone other than themselves is profiting from their game. They lose the revenues that they would have gained from the purchaser had that individual spent the time required to get a character to the position of the one that the purchaser is buying.
More surprising, perhaps, is the general anti-character-auctioning attitude amongst the community of players itself. For some reason, players feel that those who purchase characters in such a manner are "cheating". Never mind the simple reality that there are those who simply don't have the time to play a character that much, yet want to get a certain experience out of the game that they can't get out of the box or from the company providing the service; there's still a significant segment of the community that sides with the companies running the MMORPGs. Anarchy Online's original CDs shipped with labels on the boxes that attempted to prevent resale to a third party.
Is this legal? For a simple column like this one, I don't have the resources or the time to do the sort of research that such a question deserves. I do know that, in order to attempt to avoid the legalities of reselling Verant accounts (which are ostensibly Verant's property), some auctioneers took to claiming that they were selling the time they had spent to level a character up or gain a certain piece of equipment rather than the equipment or character itself. There are those who were auctioning levelling services pay them a certain fee and these hardcore players would level your character up for you while you were at work or for whatever reason could not play. A thriving black market developed and continues to exist, trading in the online gaming world, catering, primarily, to the casual gamers who simply don't have the time (or are willing to pay cash in lieu of time) to get the equipment or the kind of characters that they wish to have. The prevailing attitude of the community toward this trend tends to be one of scorn and dismissal.
This attitude seems vaguely illogical in many ways. Certainly, there's the feeling on the part of the company that they're being stolen from, but if one considers that in many cases, the people buying these accounts from third parties might otherwise quit the game entirely for lack of interest or ability to experience these high-level things, one would think that the companies would at the very least turn a blind eye to the practice (and in most cases they do).
The attitude of the player base, on the other hand, tends to be in the form of a protest against fairness. The prevailing attitude seems to be that if the player can't spend the time to level his character up, he somehow doesn't deserve to get the same enjoyment out of the game as those who do, even though they're both spending the same amount of money on the game. The use of economic power to purchase a character is viewed as cheating or unfair; replacing the time and hard work spent on a character's development with "mere" money is somehow seen as gaining an unfair advantage. This is, however, one of the major underpinnings of capitalist theory the investment of funds rather than labor, or the investment of funds into someone else's labor to obtain a desired end. That it is considered unfair by the community is an interesting commentary on society's views in their leisure time about money.
An example, perhaps, might be taken from my local amusement park. One can purchase a day pass, which allows one entry for a single day; one may also purchase a season pass, which not only allows entry anytime the park is open but also comes with a suite of coupons and some special events. You don't have a large upsurge of folks complaining that there are those who should "earn" their season passes, even though they're occasionally given away in drawings. Why, then, does this disparity exist in the service economy of online gaming?
Probably the only (in this columnist's opinion) legitimate reason to have a problem with those who purchase characters is the question of real-world experience in how to play or handle a high-level character. In EverQuest, for example, high-level characters often go on raids or missions which require a finely-developed sense of teamwork and timing, as well as a thorough knowledge of not only your character's abilities but the abilities and weaknesses of the character types with whom you are adventuring. Buying a character on an auction is no replacement for this sort of experience, which comes only with hardcore playing; hence, the purchaser of the high-level character in a situation where other characters depend on that character to be played appropriately can harm the experience of others. On the other side of this coin, though, is the fact that it's perfectly possible to run into a high-level character that is played foolishly or stupidly in some cases. Merely having the skills to bring a single character to a high level doesn't necessarily translate to working well in a group. Thus, this argument against the practice sort of falls flat as always, if engaging in a dangerous endeavor in a game, make sure you trust the person (or people) you're with.
This topic's a big one, so I'm going to continue it in the next Mummer's Dance, talking about different ways to handle purchasing power in online economic games. Until next time, your comments are always appreciated!