Tuesday, April 7, 2009

When the business model effects the game design

MMO games need to be designed for two reasons: entertainment and money. The need to keep the player entertained, as well as make a profit. If the game does well in one area but not the other, or if it does measly in both, it often fails. Therefore game designers need to be vigilant when designing their games, so that they keep both boxes ticked at all times. This is where you say: "hey wait a minute, the business model has nothing to do with game design!?!?!"... if only that were true.

The design of the MMO must play to the business model and vice versa. An excellent example of this is Wizard 101. The game is designed so that certain areas of the fantasy world are 'locked' and you need to buy in-game tokens in order to unlock them. I know it sounds stupidly simple (and it is), but if the game map hadn't been designed into 'lockable areas', they would of had issues with their business model. In the case of Wizard 101, the alterations to their game design to incorporate the business model were rather minimal. The player's experience is impacted in a very small way.

Lets now take a more extreme example, where the business model greatly impacts on the game design. Since I'm not a big fan of WoW, it seems only fair that I pick on it. WoW unfairly gets a lot of attention on this blog when talking about bad game design. Apologies to the WoW readers.

WoW uses a subscription based model, and therefore makes it's money by enticing players to 'hang around' as long as possible. The game employs multiple techniques to achieve this goal, but the end result is the same. The player must spend a large amount of time to gain a very small step in progress. This could be in the form of grinding to gain a level, an item or an achievement. In the time it takes a casual player to get from level 1 to level 80, Blizzard has just made 4-8 months worth of subscription fees off them. In the time it takes to deck a character out with all the most awesomely powerful items, another 2-4 months. You get the idea... Essentially the game design plays to the business model, and it does an excellent job of it.

Where the problem lies, is what happens if all you want to do is skip the formalities and get to the endgame? You might want to only play WoW so that you can do raids with your mates. Unfortunately incorporating such a design change would conflict heavily with the business model. Blizzard would no longer make the 4-8 months worth of sub fees off you. Such a design change would be considered infeasible and bad for business. What does that mean for the gamer? It means you have to pay the money and put the time in or tough luck.

This brings me to my next question. Which business model has the least impact on the game design?

I haven't fully done my research on all available MMO business models, but I know from experience that the Guild Wars 'pay upfront' model has very little impact on the game design. ArenaNet could change what ever they liked about the game as long as the entertainment value stayed the same or increased. Their designers have one less thing to worry about when taking your entertainment interests into account. Ultimately the gamer benefits.

I know there have been many discussions about what business model works best, and this post is not about reigniting them. I just wanted to provide something else to think about when choosing an MMO :P


Ysharros said...

I still really want a model that lets me be subscribed (to whatever extent) to 5-6 games instead of the 1-2 (or, at a stretch, 3) I manage now. Even if it's only partial access or time-limited access or what have you, it would make it a lot easier to keep up with my ever-more-scattered online friends. I'm nostalgic about the days where we all seemed to play the same thing, but that was before there were 30 MMOs to choose from and I doubt those days are coming back (nor would I want them to!).

Anton said...

I can see your arguments in regards to WoW and Wizard 101.

Guild Wars is an interesting one, though, because the business model simply relies on people buying another expansion and getting their friends to play it.

I hear there is an actual storyline in Guild Wars, so the motivation for getting a new expansion is probably to complete another storyline. And I bet some people buy the game because it is one of the few that doesn't have monthly fees...Therefore, the existence of other MMO's that DO have monthly fees could be considered a part of their business model...

Crimson Starfire said...

Multiple games to the one sub will definitely become a reality once companies get a few MMOs under their belt. Can't see it happening cross company for quiet some time though.

Therefore, the existence of other MMO's that DO have monthly fees could be considered a part of their business model.

That's a really good point. It doesn't have much to do with game design, but I see what you are saying. The Guild Wars business model relies on making other business models look less appealing. Nice observation.

Tesh said...

Don't forget the social cost of having WoW as a "mistress", as Big Red Kitty so poignantly pointed out recently. A subscription game will naturally have stronger pull to play (with concurrent addictive design) than a GW model.

GW and W101 have money from me that no subscription game will ever have. They recognize that I'm looking for a good game, not another commitment.

Anton's right, in that GW does bank a bit on being an alternative to the "mainstream", but I don't think that it's as big an effect as it might seem. GW offers exceptional gaming value per dollar spent, compared to either WoW or something like a Star Ocean.

It fares well in any value calculation in gaming, in other words, and would thrive even if there were no subscription games, simply because it's serving a different audience than the sub games serve.

As for the Blizzard level capped characters, they could just sell level capped characters right out of the gate (the Death Knights have cracked open that door), and recoup the money "lost" from those who don't want to grind for months to play with friends. Also, it may very well be that they would earn *more* money, since there must be those players who would love to play the endgame, but don't want to bother with grinding up a character to the level cap.

That's one of the themes that I keep coming back to; choice. If you give players the choice to skip ahead by paying for it, you're making customers happy and making money. Some will inevitably get their proverbial panties in a knot, but that's a social issue, and as with anything else that makes the company more money, it comes back to "suck it up; what someone else does with their progress doesn't affect your own".

Thallian said...

@Tesh awesome comment. I agree completely. I really jsut wish there was more variety in pricing and stuff. I love the lifetime membership program and I love monster play in lotro because then I can start at max lvl and pvp if I want to. I'd love a "start at max level just to try the raiding" system too because most of the time by the time I get to max level I no longer feel like playing a game much anymore, let alone put in the time and energy for a tiny bit of gear driven progression. (and story, don't forget that the best raids still have storylines)