Cash to burn

The Diablo is in the Details

Since I was part of Bungie when they sold-out at the beginning of the halcyon Halo era, a large slice of my retirement portfolio is in Microsoft, makers of the Xbox game console. A scant few weeks after I joined them, my new employer Sucker Punch sold-out to Sony, creators of the PlayStation game console. Now, in-so-far as my contributions to Sony games makes their video game system a more effective competitor against Microsoft’s product, and to-the-degree that this competition hurts MS’s stock value, I have a conflict of interests.

Can't we all just get along?

Either way, I lose!

In my situation, the conflict is minor and insignificant. The rewards for doing a good job far outweigh the potential negative side-effects. For a game designer working on a free-to-play game, the conflict is large and debilitating.

The traditional objective of game design is to craft a game that is so much fun people will exchange money for the opportunity to play it. In order to make more money, the game must be more fun for more people. The creative and financial goals of a game designer are in perfect alignment. But no matter how fun a free-to-play game might be, nobody will give you money to play it, because they can’t. It’s free. So while it is still the creative goal to build a game that is fun, it is financially a waste of time. This is not a happy situation for a game designer.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Most free-to-play games make money by being not fun in clever ways. People will pay to skip the boring, repetitive or difficult parts. They will pay to get new floors in Tiny Tower, or earn money faster in World of Tanks, or play their favorite hero in League of Legends… In most games, “this part of the game is so boring, I would pay money to skip it” is something you would find in a bug report, not a business plan. It’s the kind of issue a good game designer would fix, no extra charge. Most micro-transaction games put the creative and financial goals at odds with each other.

Cash to burn

Guess which I would choose?

Which brings me to Diablo III. (At this point I should mention that while I know many designers at Blizzard, this post is entirely speculative.) One might assume that since WoW mints money faster than the Fed in an election year, it doesn’t really matter if any other Blizzard games make revenue. But as a consequence of their success, every minute any employee spends doing anything other than building new WoW content carries an enormous opportunity cost. After such a long development cycle, if Diablo III doesn’t make as much in revenue as two or three WoW expansions, it was a poor business decision… unless it tests out an experimental business model like a real-money auction house, that is.

That’s why I am frustrated by commentators accusing the Diablo team of selling out and cashing in on the popularity of the franchise. They must test a new business model to generates revenue beyond initial sales, or they don’t get to make their game. (Just like Starcraft II needed to be an e-sport experiment.) They could have tried free-to-play, but thankfully they didn’t. I hope they never do! It would mean they had compromised themselves as designers and would doom a lot of other companies to following the same path. The real-money auction house is a long-term revenue source, but it doesn’t force designers to choose between making the game more fun and making more money. And nobody else is in a position to take a risk and show the industry another way.

So, as a designer, I am excited by the direction Blizzard has taken with Diablo III because it can save us from the conflict of interest caused by the glut of free-to-play games. And as a gamer, you ought to be happy about the auction house because it means the Blizzard designers haven’t sold-out and still prize gameplay above all. At the very least, everyone should understand that without the real-money auction house, or something like it, Diablo III probably wouldn’t exist.

4 thoughts on “The Diablo is in the Details

  1. I’m not completely convinced that there’s a conflict of interest in free to play games. In particular, I can imagine an alternate reality League of Legends that cost a fixed amount $X of money and had a fixed set of N heroes permanently unlocked. It’s not at all clear to me that that’s better for players than a free-to-play version where you can unlock heroes for $X/N each.

    In those two scenarios, the F2P player can choose to get the same outcome as the fixed cost player (especially if the game were to make a well-balanced set of N heroes permanently available for unlocking, which admittedly I don’t believe is the case in the real F2P League of Legends) (or is it? Maybe the set of available heroes at any given point in time are exactly such a collection?), but there are more options available for players to choose. And while options aren’t, in general, always a good thing (that’s why we have designers, instead of having every game be a complete sandbox!), it’s not obvious to me that it’s bad for players to have the options of buying more heroes (and spending more money), a different collection of heroes (and spending the same amount of money), or a smaller collection of heroes (and spending less money, possibly no money).

    Or, an alternate point of view: you say that most game designers would be happy to provide more fun, free of charge. But it seems to me that that claim depends on somebody already having decided “we’re going to charge the player $X for this game”, and removing the game designer from any responsibility for that decision. I’ve played League of Legends once, I didn’t pay any money for it, and I had a pleasant evening with friends. I had a better experience than I would have had in your alternate scenario where I would have had to choose between spending money or not having had that pleasant time with friends. So, to me, it seems that the F2P model has actually led to a nice solution to that potential conflict of interest between making money or restricting access.

    I’m not arguing that the conflict of interest doesn’t exist in general: in fact, I’ve worked on a F2P game where some of the design choices did seem to me to be at odds with players’ enjoyment. I’m just not convinced that that’s an inherent flaw with F2P, and I think that League of Legends is an interesting test case in that regard.

  2. I am also inclined to disagree about LoL’s free to play model. Forcing you to play the game as the free champions until you build up enough in-game currency to buy your preferred ones actually makes you better at the game in the long run. In fact, many times it will take that long just to decide which champion you want to buy!

    I know people who have never spent a dime on the game, and others who have likely spent hundreds of dollars at this point. You really can play that game at any budget. As a general rule, however, most F2P games do seem to suffer in the way that you described. Spiral Knights is especially egregious.

    I think the key difference is that LoL gives you a tech-tree of sorts and says “You can fill this out with money, or with in-game currency.” and allows you to make the call about what matters, whereas most games block of parts of the tech-tree unless you pay the developer.

    Anyway, interesting point about Blizzard. I do wonder if the diminishing returns on WoW content creation are at all significant, or if more content directly translates to more money.

  3. Ok, I actually doubt that the Free-to-Play model had a significant impact on LoL’s game design. All the important design decisions were determined by DotA, which had a Buy-Warcraft-Three-to-Play business model. But fundamental aspects of the social design obviously _were_ made for exclusively financial reasons.

    Trying a game for free doesn’t require free-to-play; lots of games have demos. But I’ll also concede that free-to-play is not, by definition, an inferior experience for a given player. Micro-transactions can be done in a way that doesn’t prevent a game from being fun. But I’m not arguing from the perspective of the player — this is a game design blog, after all — and I’m convinced that the free-to-play model undermines designers and hampers them in their craft.

    And as a game designer, you can’t have it both ways. If unlocking all the characters for every player would have made the game better, than free-to-play is a compromise because non-paying players have limited strategic options. If keeping most of the characters locked while a player learns the basics improves the game (which it probably does) then free-to-play is a compromise because players can spend money to skip an important part of the learning experience. Either way the design is compromised by the business model.

    t’s hard enough to make a good game without shackling yourself like that.

  4. Ok, I see what you’re getting at, and due to the DotA lineage LoL probably isn’t a good example anyway. In fact, learning to play that game isn’t a great experience whether you pay money or not.

    Granted, as has been touched upon, the “pay X to buy game” model has it’s own shackles.

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