Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time, Money, and the Journey

A discussion of the Diablo 3 $AH took place on our TF2 forums, and someone commented:
it all just seems silly to me.. why play the game if you're going to buy your way to the end result? I've spent $4 on tf2.. and I still look at it as a waste.. items will come and go, and there is always trading.. same goes with diablo3, why pay for pixels that you can obtain yourself and they're obviously going to continue releasing bigger and better weapons that you're going to replace said weapon with, and I see it happen in WoW all the time.. people pay for gold, buy the new shiny off the auction house, and the next day they win a drop in a raid thats better.. $20 down for a days' virtual satisfaction. Its all fickle to me lol
The following was my response.

Diablo, like other action-focused computer RPGs, is designed to be very Achievement oriented. The heavy Goal-Oriented-Play coupled with high-accessibility (and very few set backs, i.e. punishment) fosters an environment where the ends of playing the game are the achievements themselves. For many Achievers, there is no longer any fun in the journey--they want as many vacuous trophies as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with getting your jollies from virtual shinies, but here is where the contention lies.

Traditionalist gamers have been, I believe, vaccinated from these psychological lures. They have seen leaderboards and Skinner boxes for decades. If they play a game, they enjoy learning the system, assuming that system is complex enough to hold their interest. If they play strategy games, they enjoy complex resource management. If they play RPGs, they like the journey. They are OK with gating content, with stratifying players into Haves and Have-Nots.

They have been trained to believe that Time and Skill equates to Power. To Traditionalists, games are a great equalizer. The Real World does not leak into their synthetic worlds, and each player's reputation (and Power) are built via in-game means only. This is a fallacy.

The person playing the game has a certain amount of real world resources and real world dexterity. Resources come in the form of Time and Money. Dexterity is both Mental and Physical. Different game genres tap these 4 attributes differently. MMORPGs typically require Time. TF2 takes Physical and Mental dexterity, as well as practice Time. What we are seeing in the Game Industry is the incorporation of Money resources.

This transformation is occurring because many Traditionalists are opting for other responsibilities: jobs and families. They no longer have 10 hours a day to throw at Everquest or StarCraft. They can't wait around for 2 hours to get a game started; they need high-accessibility games. Lowering the barrier to entry is also allowing brand new players to enter the scene. This is the explosion of Casual and Social gaming. These players have Money, but no Time. And quite a few of them are willing to trade their Money for Power. Believe it or not, there are markets that enjoy Paying to Win. This makes Traditionalists exclaim, "WTF ARE YOU DOING?!"

The Time-rich no longer have the upper hand, and that makes the status quo feel as if their time isn't as valuable. And they are correct: with the inclusion of Money, it inflates the resource supply. Buying characters, power leveling, and gold was and still is seen as cheating in various online games primarily because it devalues the achievements (i.e. Time) of players.

To more directly answer your question, "why would someone drop $20 for such an ephemeral trophy?" we really have to answer why humans trade resources for ANY status-signalling good. Fashion, competition, self-worth, belonging to a group: all of these are deeply rooted social instincts. The next time you do a farming run for a piece of loot, ask yourself why are you trading your time for these synthetic goods. And then ask if you'd rather trade money instead. If the goal is the trophy, it really doesn't matter how you got it. If you value the story attached to the trophy, then hopefully the journey is worth taking--and that is something money can't buy.


Kenny said...

Problem is monetizing time is more lucrative for the studios so we will see more and more "games" that tap into the reward-center of our brains to cash in on the urges there - all the while gamers who like a game for what it is are left with...

Logan said...

Great analysis.

way deeper than i think even blizzard was thinking.

i'm pretty sure the thinking for including a real money auction house is simply that it's going to exist no matter what... and if it's going to exist, then blizz might as well run it so that people know they won't get scammed and the studio that made the game gets a cut instead of a 3rd party.

(you could also make this argument for marijuana, prostitution, etc:..)

you're absolutely right that everything on this planet could be considered a resource, even intangibles like time and mental effort... everything that happens in the real world, and even in games is simply and exchange of 1 resource for another...

for example, as i write this, i'm exchanging time, and mental effort for the chance for my voice to be heard on the internet... and it's up to me whether or not that trade-off is worth it.

different people value resources differently, and it's this difference in how people perceive the value of resources that causes a lot of the problems we see in the gaming culture today.

Anonymous said...

Seeing Starcraft or Everquest players called "Traditionalists" put your analysis in an interesting light. If you had 10 hours/day to spend on those games, you were born in the 1980s.

When I started playing video games, the leading edge of multiplayer gaming was 2 players swapping turns in the arcades. Look up an Atari game called Gauntlet for the start of real-time collaborative dungeon crawls. At that time, game time was not divorced from money; if you wanted to play 10 hours/day, you were going to need a lot of quarters AND you were going to piss off a lot of other gamers who wanted their turn. Gaming then was very social and I didn't think much of blowing a few bucks for a few hours of fun. Back in the day, we admired people who had invested more in our favorite games but we also recognized the real money costs. At least for me, the fact that others spent more on "my games" didn't make them less fun for me.

We essentially rented time with the good games because home computer games were lower quality. This changed as personal computers got more powerful and common but the business model of game makers was still about selling boxes of software in the store. By the 90s, the balance had tipped and we saw some great games for PCs and game platforms. This was the low-point in terms of socializing via video games.

The people who created the early MMOs were pushing the envelope to get back to the multi-player setting that video gaming had temporarily abandoned for technical reasons. The mindset that it's wrong to pay for extras in a game seems very particular to gamers whose experience was that everything to do with a game was "in the box" from the start. But that's not how many games used to be; publishers were always looking to upsell you on this or that cool item. Now that online games have evolved the capacity to do this again, it shouldn't come as a surprise.

Until recently, online games haven't been able to provide the status signals that were common and understood in offline games and in the arcade. In those contexts, it wasn't shocking that someone dropped $20 on ephemeral pixels because, when you have personal contact with someone, you see them signaling social status in a million other ways. It's only in the artificially uniform space of early online game worlds where this signalling is hard to do.

motstandet said...

You make a good point: arcades did indeed tap the Money resource.

Raph Koster's "single player games are an aberration" argument has been resurrected recently. While "games" in the proper sense have traditionally been social, there are self-trials or self-imposed tests humans choose to undertake. E.g. skipping a stone isn't really a vital life skill, but rather a neat little system people learn in solitude.

And yes, I was born in the '80s :P Perhaps "Traditionalists" is a misnomer.

The "if Blizzard didn't do it, it would still exist" reasoning is pretty weak. They are attempting to justify legitimizing the trade of Money into Goods without actually explaining why it is a good idea. Keep in mind a black market would still label that transaction as "cheating", since Time would be the only legitimate method of progression. The official $AH creates an entirely different ecosystem.

I definitely think this is a great move for Blizzard and a good deal for the Money-rich.

Logan said...

yes that argument is pretty weak, but i wouldn't call it a red herring.

I'm just saying that blizz doesn't need to put that much thought into it... it's really a no-brainer from a business perspective (and something i'm sure a lot more companies are going to copy).. they don't really need a deeper reason for it.

"They are attempting to justify legitimizing the trade of Money into Goods without actually explaining why it is a good idea."

uhh... we trade money for goods every day...

i'd say the burden of proof would be with those trying to prove that it's NOT legitimate to trade money for online goods... (which in some cases it isn't, but in the case of diablo 3 i don't think it's going to hurt anything)

in some games you could make a valid argument that real money trading would cause more harm than good to the game... but i don't think that's the case with diablo 3.

keep in mind that all items in the AH are coming from drops that players get, players aren't buying gear from blizz.. they're buying from other players... so now players get to choose whether they want to farm in-game gold to trade for items, or pay dollars...

i don't think the extra choice is going to be a bad thing... i think the issue of needing a permanent internet connection is a bigger issue than the $AH... but maybe that's just because my internet connection can be a bit sketchy at times.

Anonymous said...

(Forgive the grammar, not my native language.)

You say that the factor triggering this transformation is the traditional gamer's shift of priorities. Yet you profiled them as being ok with haves and have nots, as valuing the journey itself. The two don't quite match. I think it is rather about game developers' profit maximization drive, trying to tap a much broader player base. WoW's history pictures their learning process perfectly.

Our definition of what makes a casual gamer is very different. In my book it does not have much to do with time, your average casual gamer might indeed hang around in the game a lot. I played WoW in what one would call a hardcore raiding guild; 4-12 hours of scheduled raids a week, 20 for a few weeks after new content is released. I know a lot of casual gamers who play that much every single day. So what is the distinction? Although the exact words elude me, this actually happened: "-If you want to raid with us, you have to learn every boss ability, practice your damage rotation, and attend at least 90% of our raids." "-LOL no way, that sounds very much like school / work. I just want to hop in and enjoy the game." Instant gratification. They WANT everything pronto for no effort invested. And again I refer to the history of WoW depicting how Blizzard systematically eliminated each barrier that stood between wants and welfare epics.

"The Real World does not leak into their synthetic worlds, and each player's reputation (and Power) are built via in-game means only." This is the third point I can't agree with, in fact I believe it is the exact opposite. Players want to match their skills with others through games. Pole vaulting, chess, football or computer games you name it. You have the skills you were born with, improve them through practice (time investment), and the product of this is how good you are at any game. Money has always been present as an additional resourse. It is accepted to spend money on better running shoes, it is not to buy performance enhancing drugs. It is ok to hire a top of the line football coach, it is not to bribe the referee. It is ok to have a fast computer, it is not to buy in-game gold for money. What Blizzard is doing is analogous to sport associations holding tenders for runners; the more you pay the shorter the distance you have to run. Kenya won't be happy.

The reason gaming is evolving this way is because of human ego and the internet. For decades all we had to compete against was the computer, ourselves, or a couple of friends. That deluded us into thinking we were actually good, we maybe even "pwned them like a boss". When the internet evades that safe bubble we suddenly have millions of people to compete with. And that's when we realize we were utter shit all the time. Not a pleasant experience. Some can cope, others want the easy way out. And Blizzard delivers, mass producing "Sword of the Unique Snowflake".


motstandet said...

There are 2 camps of Traditionalists: Time-rich and Money-rich. As Traditionalists priorities shift, and they find themselves more and more willing to trade Money for power, they separate themselves from the Time-rich.

The option to trade Money for progress is a game changer--it modifies the unspoken rules of the game, namely "Time dedication will get you places" or "skill alone is the determining factor of victory".

Pretend you are playing Monopoly and all of a sudden, one player hands the Banker $10 and receives 500 Monopoly Dollars. There would be an outrage (this is 3rd party gold- and character selling).

But now imagine another game of Monopoly where the players have agreed BEFORE HAND that buying Monopoly Dollars is legitimate. All players accept the currency exchange, and even though there might be a bit of resentment during the transaction, they won't cry foul.