MMORPGs: For Love or Money?

Lots of interesting news this past week about real money transactions (RMT) in MMORPGs. I’ll get into specifics shortly, but first, I encourage you to view the following information through this lens: are traditional MMORPGs first and foremost a game, or first and foremost a social networking service? (And assuming you think the distinction is even meaningful, what bearing does your answer have on RMT, user-generated content, cross-cultural communication, and “virtual property rights” in these games?)

For-profit power-leveling

First, from Raph Koster’s blog, a look at the power-leveling industry. As Raph points out, the average market value of a WoW level is $8, and an hour of WoW play is worth under 75 cents. Clearly not enough to turn most US citizens into WoW entrepreneurs, but certainly enough to keep inspiring “level farms” in China. What I found more interesting was a comment by Raph outside the article:

Disneyland doesn’t tell you “Sorry, you can’t get on Space Mountain until you have ridden A Small World five times. Your friends have, so they can go on ahead. you have to sit and listen to inane music a while longer.” If I met that situation, damn right I’d pay someone else to listen to that annoying song endlessly.

Is it paternalistic to assume that the shared experience of leveling up is necessary to preserve the overall enjoyability of an MMORPG for all its participants? If so, is it then a mistake to design MMORPGs around the concept of leveling up? If not, what other design mechanisms can be used to create shared experiences? And lastly, does any of this even “matter” as long as users are given the opportunity to segregate themselves into communities that respect a given set of social and economic rules?

EQ2 Station Exchange: “legalized” RMT

Speaking of: Sony recently released a whitepaper (.doc link) exposing some interesting stats from the Everquest 2 “Station Exchange” — the proprietary RMT market run by Sony itself, which is only accessible from two special EQ2 game servers. (Thanks, once again, to Raph for highlighting this.)

Some key information from the whitepaper:

  • Net cash includes any money that passes through the Station Exchange auction service. Total cash collected between June 2005 and June 2006 was $1.87M. Recognized revenue for the first year was $274,083. (DJE: theoretically it could have been more, since Station Exchange is limited to just two EQ2 servers. It depends on user demand and the extent to which some long-time users may have felt rooted to their existing, pre-Station servers.)
  • The average active Station Exchange buyer is 32 years old. This is much older than the average age of EQII players overall, which is 25 years old. (DJE: probably supports the assertion that most buyers are simply busier individuals — i.e. with advanced careers, families, etc.)
  • The top 15 sellers all earned upwards of $10,000 from trading.
  • 40 percent of customer service time was spent on disputes over virtual item sales. Since the debut of the Exchange, the overall customer service time spent has dropped 30 percent. (DJE: in other words, the best way to manage a potentially disruptive, deeply-rooted social practice is to carefully regulate it, not outlaw it.)

Again: is the Station Exchange an “unhappy solution” to a core design problem — the need to keep pace with your friends — or is it a good solution for an affluent segment of the market? Does user self-selection into different social/economic environments (i.e. different servers) address most major concerns with RMT?

Are there “alternatives” to RMT, from a user perspective?

Lots of interesting questions. I’ll leave off with one final thought: in sports (and indeed, in some video games), we have the concept of a “handicap” — an advantage given to players with less skill and/or experience. Handicaps enable players of different levels to face off and make an otherwise boring game much more interesting.

MMORPGs typically try to segregate players of different levels, not indulge them with handicaps; real-money purchase of powerful virtual items is a (generally unsanctioned) workaround. And frankly, not a very effective workaround for the user, since items in MMORPGs are generally a poor substitute for skill born of experience or innate talent. Same with power-leveling; inexperienced users frequently fail to fully take advantage of their unnaturally-advanced characters.

Is the general absence of handicaping in traditional MMORPGs a good, bad, or neutral thing? Could handicaping reduce the demand for RMT, and is that even a desireable outcome for traditional MMO developers that may profit from RMT? And again, can MMORPGs sidestep this entire debate by reducing or eliminating level-centric player segregation altogether (which may or may not mean eliminating levels altogether?)

Your answer may depend, in part, on your own personal skill level and/or available free time. 😉

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