Monday, May 25, 2009

The Greatness of the Game

Games infuse our world. People infuse our would. Thus it is no surprise to encounter people who think they are bigger than the game itself: sport players using drugs, politicians taking bribes, priests molesting children, starlets breaking the law. Karatechop.

Karatechop deserved his ban. Regardless of Blizzard’s predicate acts, regardless of the innocence of his motivation, the fundamental truth is that the actual results of Karatechop’s behavior violated the core integrity of the game. If he had killed fourteen boars rather than fourteen bosses no would have noticed. It is true that comparatively speaking boars are challenging to lower level characters and using Martin Fury to kill them would have been as insulting to such low level characters as killing bosses are to raiders. But the effect of Karatechop’s actions on his fellow players is not the correct metric; the best metric is the effect of his actions on the game itself. The truth is that bosses are more important than boars; the game is designed that way. Imagine the world without boars. Now imagine it without bosses. From loot, to achievements, to quests; a core element to Warcraft is killing bosses. Boars are a minor sideshow. When Karatechop went around one-shotting bosses he didn’t just hit the game, he critted it.

Moreover, Karatechop’s account is not essential to the game. I realize that this is a pill some players don’t want to swallow. They have invested much time, energy, and passion into their characters and the idea that their account can be cut off in a flash without recourse is disconcerting. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that banning is a severe punishment. It’s not. It’s not if the metric is the impact on the game itself. The harsh truth is that the loss of Karatechop will have a negligible impact upon the game as a whole.

The Alternative

Before I played Warcraft I played several games based upon a micro-transaction business model. Nominally, such games are free; there is no cost to log-in to kill a few monsters and do a few quests. However, to progress in the game and experience all the content, you must buy in-game items (pets, gear, mounts, etc.) with real money. The more money you spend the more of the game that is accessible to you and thus the stronger you grow.

One consequences of the micro-transaction business model is that the people who are best at the game are those who are willing to spend the most real life money. It is common for the top players in popular games to spend $5000 a year. I once spent more money in three months than I did in an entire year playing the World of Warcraft.

Believe it or not the sheer amount of money I spent on micro-transaction games was not what caused me to quit them. The bigger problem with the micro-transaction business model is the way it warps developer’s priorities. In your average micro-transaction game, only about 5%-10% of the people actually pay. Most players are free loaders. When it comes to customer service, bug fixes, game design, and anything else you can think of, money talks. Wait, it’s more like screaming.

Playing favorites

The skewing of competition based upon the possession of real life monetary resources is the inevitable consequence of the pure micro-transaction model because such disparity is precisely the source of profit. If the real life disparity in monetary resources didn’t exist, the developers couldn’t afford to support the 95% of the population that is free loading. Imagine Blizzard trying to support the game if only 5% of the people paid $13 a month and everyone else played free; they’d shut down within the week. The only way a micro-transaction game can afford to carry the freeloaders is because a minority is funding it. And when that minority cries, you bet your ass the developers are going to listen; that’s their income talking.

In a micro-transaction model the marginal loss of a player is binary. If the player is a freeloader, the marginal loss is almost non-existent; if the player is a payer, the marginal loss can be significant. In plain language, the developers play favorites. But in a subscription model every player is equally dispensable; the lose is unitary. The loss of any one player has a negligible impact on the game as a whole. Each marginal loss is the same loss since everyone is paying the same monthly fee. A subscription model offers no incentive to the developer to play favorites; the micro-transaction model requires it. The net result is that developers funded by a subscription model are driven, consciously or not, to put the needs of the game first. Consistently catering to a minority can only hurt and never help. On the other hand, the management and expansion of a micro-transaction game is molded to suit the needs of the paying customers.

When you get right down to it all people who pay to play on-line games are engaged in “rent a developer;” what the developers see as good for the game bears a direct correlation to who is paying for it. In this sense the only difference between a subscription game and a micro-transaction game is the diversity of the income stream. Yet that diversity matters, it matters enormously. Because the greater the diversity of income streams the more dispensable each income stream becomes; the less one is beholden to any single interest group; the more one is inclined to do what is best for the game as a whole. It is for this reason that a game where each player individually is dispensable but where the game itself is indispensable is a better game to be playing than one where the game itself is dispensable but a few individual players are not.

The greatness of the game

When the whole Martin Fury debacle came about my reaction was to thank god, once again, that I was not back playing my former games. Because I know what would have happened if Karatechop had been one of those players spending thousands of dollars a year in a micro-transaction game. Absolutely nothing. The developers wouldn’t have dared. The impact on the integrity of the game be damned; the impact on the bottom line is what would have mattered.

For all the incantations of fun, Karatechop committed the sin of hubris. He put his needs above the needs of the game itself. That was intolerable. Just as it was intolerable when Paris Hilton thought she could drive around drunk without consequence or when baseball players thought they could take banned drugs without fear of the consequences. It's the developer's job to play god, not mine or yours.

If all you want is selfish greatness, go play a micro-transaction game that for $5000 a year allows you to play god to the developers. If you want to be playing a great game, however, you need a different perspective. For a being of greatness stands on top and looks down upon the masses, lets go with a Martin Fury, one shots the bosses. The greatness of being is standing on the bottom looking up, conscious of the miracle of creation towering above you, perceiving how disposable you truly are. That’s when you see the greatness of the game.


Larísa said...

I could never get that upset about the incident. The fact that someone else is seeing the whole content thanks to a mindless gm doesn't change a bit in my own gaming experience. So... shrug. Most of all I guess I feel sorry for the guy. He misses the whole point of the game imo - the joy of reaching goals through struggles. Taking the shortcut like this - would the next time he downs the boss for real be the same? Or wait, he was banned, right... Anyway: to me using this item seems a bit like playing on private servers. People who are somewhat addicted to the game, who want to quit, but can't make themselves to do it, are often adviced to go there and play the game. After a couple of hours they're done and WoW has lost it's luster forever. Banned or not - maybe he quit have quit the game soon out of boredom. Nothing left to do...

Gevlon said...

I absolutely don't understand the huge uproar about this Martin Fury "scandal".

Some punk cheated and get banned. Happens all the time. I don't see how it is interesting to anyone.

Anonymous said...

You really summed up a lot of my feelings about RMT in games. It makes sense for developers to work on whatever content makes the most money.

So if enough people only want to play one small part of the game, that's the only bit that gets the attention.

Okrane S. said...

what amazes me is the proportion this thing got. People are trying to comment on the "morality" of his action and the rights and wrongs in a situation like that one etc etc

Seriously. It's a damn game. The guy found something and wanted to have fun.

Is that wrong? Hell no, it's a GAME.
Blizz banned him: good for them.
Were they entitled too?: of course, it's their game!
Is it moral: WHO CARES...

Carra said...

I'll never play games with micro transactions. I want to be known as a good player because of my skills, not because I can throw money at it. And giving other players an advantage because they play is a nonono of course. Real life money should only be used to buy vanity items. And it's a thin line between vanity items and useful items.

And I heavily disagree with your point on Karatechop. Someone sent him a kill all item and guess what, he used it. I'd use it. The right cause of action here is to find out which Blizzard employee sent him the item and punish *him*. Then go ahead and go retake that super duper item and the items they got by using it. Banning a whole guild over this just makes me want to spit on Blizzard. Blizzard was in the wrong here yet they punish their playerbase. It sends the signal "don't get attached to your avatars, we can just press the delete button whenever we want for no good reason at all".

Edyion said...

Ok i think the main thing people forget about this whole thing is from Karatechop's own words blizzard never sent Martin Fury to him it was to a friend of his which told him about it. Personally i think its THAT fact that got him banned as well as using it to one shot bosses with other people that may or may not have known he was doing it. We sign a contract to play and he violated it even if it was a mistake by blizzard that gave him the means to. The guy not only put himself in this position but those around him also got banned even though it wasnt permanent for most such as his guild which most had no idea what was going on.

Anyway i think its more a matter of people forgetting we rent this game and as such are subject to the law of blizz while in Azeroth and whims of its creators no matter how important we might like to lead ourselves to believe we are.

Kromus said...

Yeha -- its a risk- have fun when you know its bad- or dont. Its a gamble.

Tbh I can't blame him for doing it, power does that, i just think it was silly. But there ya go.

I dont like games where u have to buy stuff either. At least. Not after a subscription fee.

Dw-redux said...

There is a lot of the things here that are "iffy". First of, the item he recieved had a itemnumber of very less number of digits than any other wow-item in game, so blaiming this on a gm "mistake" is very far fetched imo.
It wasnt a matter of pressing 4 instead of 5 at the end of a long series, but instead a matter of not pressing a long line of numbers and just click "Item #17" (see -So this smells very much of an insider job, and would also explain why he got banned.

If he had been an innocent bystander who recieved an item of such power, I cannot really see how Blizz can justify banning him, and not just removing his items and achievements.
Just my two cents

Azryu said...

I thought about what I'd do if I got that shirt.

I'd likely contact a GM, and then
ask permission to kill a boar
or something with it, just to
see what it's like.

I'm sure they'd see I could have
done much worse then ask to kill a mere boar and let me use it just once, since I would have been honest in that situation :)

Tsuyin said...

@Gevlon. You are wrong about cheating. Nothing he did was "cheating". Cheating implies he somehow did something that was not implemented in the game and got somewhere/something he would not have gotten otherwise. While he did get things he would not have normally gotten, he did so within the confines of the game mechanics, using one of Blizzard's own test shirts. I don't necessarily condone his own actions, but Blizzard is at just as much fault as him.

Hatch said...

I couldn't really understand why there was debate on this subject. It was supposedly "controversial", but I just assumed the wowinsider crew were looking to drum up some fake controversy to fill space and drive traffic, a la cable news networks.

It just seemed so obvious to me that this wasn't a big deal. He did what anyone would have done, or at least I didn't think anyone would find him unreasonable. And I don't think he really hurt the game. I don't really see how his actions affected any of us in any way.

But this post showed me why there is a real debate. Because perfectly reasonable people can have wildly different opinions about this. Sadly, as we all struggle to find the real answer here, I don't think there is a real answer. This is purely based on opinion. A situation where the wisest course after hearing all sides out is probably going to be to agree to disagree. :)

Meanwhile, great points in this post about developer motivations. However, I think the favoratism works both ways. It's NOT a case, as you suggest, of "favoritism in RMT games vs. fairness in subscriptions games". In reality, they are two sides of the same coin. RMT games cause the developers to pay attention to the needs of a paying minority. Sub games cause the developers to pay attention to the mass and favor them over the minorities (because the mass is what is really paying for the game).

We've seen it in WoW, for instance. The game keeps moving more and more toward catering to the mass of M&S out there as much as they can, because it's more profitable for a sub game to keep the 9 million M&S than it is to keep the 1 million smart/good players. Eventually, the M&S own the game and the others leave in disgust. Slowly happening right now.

I can't think of a pricing model for an ongoing, updated MMO that doesn't cause the devs to play favorites with some audience or other.

Elnia said...

@Carra. Well said. You and I just have a different position; we do share the same perception.

@Hatch. Of course you are right about playing favorites in an abstract sense. But if you think that the object is the greatest good for the greatest number, then the subscription model does a better job of delivering that than the RMT model.

Khaelie said...

i would have to agree with Carra on this one. the item came from Blizzard... it was not his fault that they sent it out to a live realm. they should have frozen all the accounts involved, rolled back any achievements and taken back any loot/gold and the item and then given back the accounts. to perma-ban someone who was just doing what most people would do with an item like that (whether or not they are willing to admit it) was the wrong approach in my opinion.