September 27, 2001 - A full four months ago, I wrote a column about a dirty word. That time around the word was "text" and I wrote about how it shouldn't be shameful, because text-dominant games have advantages all their own.
However, that's not the only dirty word lurking in the bowels of Skotos Tech. I have another one, one that I'm somewhat hesitant to broach, especially when I'm talking to gamers and fans of MUDs and MUSHes on the Internet. The word is "subscription". (Or, if you prefer a hyphenate: "pay-for-play".)
That's right, we're making games and we're charging for them.
What brings this up now? Well, as it happens, this column is set squarely between anniversaries. I've already written about September 21, 2001, the one-year anniversary of Castle Marrach, over on the forums. However I haven't yet discussed October 1, 2001, which is the half-year anniversary of the Skotos community going pay-for-play.
So here we go...
Paying for Games!?
I'm sure most of you have a small little cache of computer games near your computer. Baldur's Gate might be peaking out from under the bed. Heroes of Might & Magic III might be slightly askew on a nearby bookshelf. There may even be a venerable old copy of Doom jammed into a little used desk drawer.
And, at least some of those games probably found their way to you via the nearest computer software superstore. Which is to say you bought them.
Not a big deal. Purchasing happens every day at supermarkets, specialty stores, and newspaper stands across the world. But, that hasn't been the way things have always happened on the Internet.
The Internet, as you may already know, had a rather unique genesis. It was funded by government agencies and it was centered on universities. Not only was it full of people not too interested in making money, but in actuality the governing agencies that oversaw the Internet forbade money-making activities.
Add on to that the fact that many of the earliest online games were created by students with way too much time on your hands, and you can see that the whole banning of commerce upon the Internet was supported by a feeling that programming games and providing services was essentially valueless.
The Internet has changed a lot since its creation. In the mid-1990s the World Wide Web exploded into existence and nearly simultaneously it became OK to make money via the Internet.
A whole new world was born.
It makes sense that a new generation of commercial games would appear, that weren't programmed by bored students, that weren't administered by the same that would take advantage of the medium of the Internet and that would, here's the important part, charge for their products.
We at Skotos are definitely producing some of those commercial games. But many of us are also Internet old-timers, and so we sometimes grit our teeth when we say the "subscription" word. Would we if we worked at Sega? Probably not. But history has powerful resonances in our lives.
Why Charge for Games?
It's only because of this historical perspective that we get asked a question which might seem odd in most other mediums: "Why are you charging for your games?" In just about any other medium our simple answer would be very obvious: "To pay the bills."
We're offering a service that we think people will enjoy. But, we also have wives, husbands, children, and cats to feed. And rent to pay and loans to pay off and even sometimes a bit of entertainment of our own to pay for, be it the cover price of this week's shipment of comic books or the monthly fee for swing dancing lessons. Therefore, we charge a fee. Simple.
However when people ask that question "Why are you charging for your games?" I think they really mean, "Why are you charging when other games are free?"
I hope that's an easy answer too. At Skotos we hope we're providing a better service than those free games. (Perhaps more accurately, we think we're providing a better service, or else we wouldn't be doing it.)
That's pretty abstract, so let me offer a few concrete reasons why it's cool that we charge for our games:
Are those all the advantages that we can offer because we charge for subscriptions? No, not even close. But I figure I'm preaching to the converted here and thus mainly want to offer a thumbnail of our thinking.
Because it's the next section that's my main point this time around...
My purpose in this column, as I sometimes have to remind myself, is to offer advice and insights to external StoryBuilders who are either creating a game at Skotos Tech or might be considering doing so. And so I've spent about a thousand words meandering around the whole question of charging for online games to make a single point: As a StoryBuilder you have to make decisions that take into account the fact that you are offering a game to a paying community.
What does this mean you should do exactly? Well, it so happens that I have some advice...
Make Your Games Interesting. If you're hanging out at Skotos, you're probably not making a game for your own amusement. Thus, you have to find a way to make your game interesting so that you can attract players and turn your ideas into a true peopled virtual reality.
One of my co-workers said "Sex and violence sells." That's a true statement, but not necessarily your own goal in game design. On the other hand, you don't want to go so far the other side that you're creating something that no one will be interested in. A game of British hatters and their haberdasheries, set in a small village just outside of Cornwall, during the Regency Period? Probably of limited appeal
Don't sacrifice your vision, but do be ready to modify it a little bit to create a game that will sell.
Be Aware That There will Be Players in Your Game. I wrote about this a little bit in The Power of the Medium: People. The fact is, many game designers are amazed when they discover that there actually are people playing their game... and they don't know exactly what to do.
Though a game starts out yours, when you release it to the world it slowly comes to belong to the players instead. You will always be the ultimate arbiter of style in your world, but you will also have to listen to your players. Not their every whim, surely, but they will direct what things to build and what things to scrap -what changes to makes and what systems to keep in place.
To some extent, you, the StoryBuilder, will always understand your game better than the players. You'll be aware that some decisions were made for game balance and others to promote a certain type of game play... but when you start to absent yourself from these larger issues you will need to listen to players' wishes.
You Can't Give Players Everything. Let me tread very carefully here and put on my polite face. You will be besieged by requests to upgrade systems, expand areas, build new monsters... and just about every thing else. As I've already said, you should listen carefully to those requests. But you also need to prioritize them. Even if players want everything, you can't possibly give them that.
If players were offering several thousand dollars a month each to play your game then, yeah, you could do a lot. You'd be a consultant then. For the players' much smaller monthly subscription fee, you should try and give them a damned enjoyable gaming experience, but you should also be aware of the limitations made implicit by the cost of this form of entertainment.
Be Ready to do the Nasty Stuff. No one likes writing documentation. Or carefully organizing their code. Or writing rules of conduct for their helpers. Or carefully outlining plots. (Or working on legal contracts, my own personal hell.)
But that's part of what we can offer because we charge a subscription fee: the dirty work. It might not be fun, but, by gum, it's part of what we can give to people in exchange for their monthly fees.
Some Final Notes
That about brings me to a close on this week's column. Earth-shaking stuff? No. But definitely yet another thing you should be thinking about as a StoryBuilder at Skotos. Everything about a game influences how the game is played and one of those influencing factors is the fact that we collect money at the entrance to our community.
I want to finish off this week, however, with a slightly different note about this column's place in the world.
I've been writing this column for as long as Skotos has had games up at its web site. And, I often talk about the latest goings on at Skotos what we're thinking about and what we're planning for the future.
Despite all of that I'd like to say I'm not the editorial voice of Skotos. When push comes to shove this is ultimately my column, just like The Mummer's Dance belongs to Scott Roberts. I try to give my coworkers the opportunity to read my column before it goes to virtual press, but that's not a requirement, and sometimes that doesn't happen because I'm tight on deadline.
The point being my column won't always represent the viewpoints of either Skotos or my coworkers. Often, I think it will, but not always, particularly when I'm writing about a highly controversial and emotional topic like I did in The Global Community.
So, take one grain of salt and call me in 14 days.
I'll see you then!