Tuesday, August 03, 2010

All Hail Julian Murdoch

I went to Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago.

I normally buy everything from Amazon, because they make it so easy, but I was curious about a specific book, and I work within walking distance, so I stopped by.

I found the book and went to the register, where I was told by the clerk that our "membership" card had expired. In short, he was asking me if I wanted to pay $25 a year to get a discount that would still be 20% higher than Amazon.

In shorter short: bullshit.

The whole idea of paying for a discount is totally f-ed up, but that's a discussion for another day. On this day, what I did was tell the clerk "no," walk back to the correct aisle and put the book back in its place, walk to my car, get my Kindle, and order it in the Barnes & Noble parking lot (my savings: over 40%, and I still would have saved over 20% if I'd gotten the hardcover from Amazon).

My first thought after doing all this: Julian was right.

Julian Murdoch (Gamers With Jobs, among many other things, and an excellent, thoughtful writer) had e-mailed me back when I made a post about DLC, and he had an interesting take:
Ultimately, the answer isn't one most gamers like: software, like music, becomes a pay-as-you go, service based experience. Nobody has a problem paying $2 for a Rock Band song (other than arguing if it should be cheaper). Why do we care about paying for little bits of content in other experiences? Dungeons & Dragons Online has this right, as witnessed by their UNBELIEVABLE 4 month doubling in subscribers as soon as they went free to play with microtransactions.

...How much do you think Dungeons & Dragons Online cost to develop? They have 300 people and two properties. They just sold for $160 million to Warner, and they're monstrously, outrageously profitable. Now.

It's a F2P microtransaction world, man. Just wait for it. It's ALL gonna be horse armor, Rock Band tracks and map expansions. ALL of it.

I thought he was exaggerating, but my Barnes & Noble experience changed my mind. There's no way I was going to pay a "loyalty" fee to get a discount, because there were far better options available.

That's when I remembered that one of the reasons I don't play MMOs (besides the need to group) is because I have a deep, fundamental opposition to paying $50 for a disc, then paying $10 a month (or more) to actually play the game. That's always been the stupidest business model ever.

See what I just did to myself there?

So I've actually always agreed that the existing MMO model was idiotic, but hadn't quite made the shift to embracing micro-transactions, because  I hate the nickel-and-dime-to-death method. However, I do think it's very, very clever in several ways. First, it almost guarantees that more people are going to try your game, and that means more people will be talking about your game. If your game generates any decent stories for people to tell, that's going to make other people want to have the experience.

I've written many times about how I feel like the gaming industry spends most of its time fighting for larger slices of pie instead of focusing on increasing the size of the pie. Having more people playing your game greatly increases the theoretical size of the pie.

Second, it seems like it's much less likely to have a DOA experience. We've all seen this--the game that's been in development for 3+ years, 50 kajillion billion dollars in dev costs, and everyone knows it's totally dead within 72 hours of launch. And once a game has the DOA stamp, it's incredibly difficult to survive (Good luck, APB).

If it's free, though, it's going to be easier to get people to come back for another try, or even a first look.

When this model proved successful (I know Dungeon Runners, with a variation of this, caught people's attention, although there may have been predecessors), and then someone tried it with a major license and succeeded, it became Amazon, basically. Sure, maybe a micro-transaction model is actually more expensive over time for some players, but it's certainly not up front. No one is paying for the right to play a game. And I believe that with very few exceptions (Star Wars: The Old Republic, perhaps), the old model is dead.

People had it all wrong when they tried to compete with World of Warcraft. Everyone kept saying that you "can't compete on content," because that's Blizzard's specialty, but what no one seemed to realize for quite a while is that you could compete on the subscription model. That was the chink in the armor, not the game itself.

The micro-transaction model makes it incredibly painless for anyone to try out a game, and even if lots of those people don't come back, it's a larger group to filter through to produce a dedicated player base, and to survive.

So Julian was right on, and I told him if it turned out that he was, I'd post to his supreme wisdom.

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