Loyalty Systems

Another Bonus Post

Loyalty Systems

It is bizarre that once again I have something that I absolutely have to write about “right now” instead of waiting for a morning post.  This makes two bonus posts in a week… so it has to go down as some sort of red letter day or something.  The problem being I am just about to write out a post that is going to make a lot of people upset, or at least I think it likely will.  That said I feel like I have to be the bad guy here and take the other side of the discussion.  What is it exactly that is worth making a bonus post about you ask?  Well today Wildstar announced the scheme for their new “loyalty system” and the rewards that come with it.  Going further than just dangling shiny objects in front of our faces, they also made a fair attempt to explain how exactly the monetization and loyalty accruals would go.  On initial viewing I didn’t think much about it, but it was not long before the twittersphere was buzzing with frustration.

If you examine the system more closely you see that the deck is stacked in favor of players who pay physical money, over players who are paying with their time.  This is most noticeable when you take the issue of C.R.E.D.D. the token currency the game has had for awhile that provides players with an alternate form of paying for their subscripting by trading in game platinum for a months token.  The C.R.E.D.D. tokens cost players $20 and then can be sold on an in game brokerage for a variable amount of Platinum that fluctuates with the demand on monthly tokens.  This allowed some of those early players to get in on the ground floor and snap up several months worth of game time on the cheap, and then has continued to allow folks to play largely for free at the cost of time spent in game farming currency.

Currency Exchange

When it comes to loyalty the equation is very much not equal.  The player spending the $20 for the token earns 4000 cosmic points, in addition to whatever platnium they get out of the transaction.  The player redeeming the C.R.E.D.D. for a month’s worth of premium game time only gets 1000 cosmic points out of the deal.  The initial complaint that I keep hearing is that the C.R.E.D.D. player is paying $5 more per month than the subscription player who is getting their play time for $15 a month instead of $20.  At first glance this logic makes a sort of sense, but it isn’t quite that simple.  In some game systems you are actually selling your subscription token to another player who then sets the price point.  In Wildstar however there is no actual transaction between two players, and a such it becomes hard to really equate the two.  What is ultimately happening is this…

  • Player 1 purchases a C.R.E.D.D. and indicates that they want to sell it.
  • The Broker NPC gives that player an amount of platnium based on the current exchange rate for that token.
  • Player 2 indicates that they want to purchase game time for platnium.
  • The Broker NPC gives them a C.R.E.D.D. token in exchange for an amount of platnium equal to whatever the current exchange rate is.

At no point did the player actually pay $20 for a month’s subscription time, but instead bought in game currency.  The second player spent a fixed amount of in game currency to gain a month of subscription time in lieu of spending any real world money.  The key benefit of buying C.R.E.D.D. will always be gaining a month of subscription time, or in the new scheme a month of premium access.  The loyalty being gained is just a nice added effect, and a thank you from Wildstar for keeping the system running.

The Restaurant Analogy

The deck will always be heavily stacked in favor of the person who is paying physical money to a free to play game.  The “free” players have a lot to offer to games, largely because they make a game feel alive and active.  In an MMO this is especially important when it comes to filling out dungeon finder queues, and providing items for the economy.  However the hard facts are that without folks actually plunking down cash and buying into the game, the games would not and could not exist.  I don’t know any figures for the MMO market, but the mobile game market has something like an abysmal 2% “conversion rate” or the amount of players who actually make an in game purchase.  Even if we are exceptionally generious and think that MMO players are more likely to spend money… you are probably still looking at something like 10% of the players spending money.  Think back to every game launch and the copious tweets, forum posts and blogs that essentially say the same thing each time…  “I like the game, but not enough to pay for it.”

In High School I had a good friend from a broken home that was one of four children living off of a super meager single income.  My friendly simply could not do a lot of the things that I could do, so often times I would subsidize a dinner here or a movie ticket there… because I valued his time and companionship and knew there was no way in hell he would ever get to do these things unless I did.  I never felt used in the equation, or taken advantage of, because having him along made my experience more enjoyable.  However if you think about going to a restaurant with someone who is picking up the tab for the entire table.  They are doing it as a way of appreciating your company, or because having you along makes the dining experience more enjoyable.  However shift for a moment and think about the Restaurant.

While no restaurant owner wants anyone to have a bad time, and they want everyone to get good service…  or in this case the awesome game filled with interesting things to do.  At the end of the day the person who matters the most to the restaurant owner and their employees is that person picking up the check.  That person is going to reap the lion’s share of the special service, and if they tip well are also likely going to get remembered and treated especially nice from that moment on.  That check and those tips go directly towards supporting the restaurant and its employees.  It makes sense that the person who pays the bill is the one that gets remembered and gets special treatment.  So in the case of an MMO the loyalty systems will always be stacked in a way as to reward the person who is willing to keep funneling more money into the system that keeps the lights on, the community staff paid, the servers running, and more content being created.

It Feels Shitty

At this point you are probably saying, “But Bel, that isn’t really fair and feels really shitty” and I agree with you.  It does feel shitty.  It feels shitty when your time spent in a game and your loyalty to that product is worth less than someone who is spending a lot of money on it.  The problem is I can’t really fix that, and I am not necessarily saying it is an amazing system, but just the way these things work.  The term “loyalty” always gets bandied about but I think it is a horrible term to use.  This is essentially a patronage or donation system, where the folks that are willing to pay are supporting the rest of the folks who are enjoying the system.  There is a quote that I have heard hundreds of times, that today I finally looked up the source of.  It was apparently originally attributed to the user Blue_Bettle on a MetaFilter article called User-Drive Discontent.

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

As much as I dislike the cynicism of that statement, I cannot argue with the fact that it is absolutely true.  When we use Google, we are making a financial transaction.  They are providing us search results and we are selling them our rights to aggregate the data in those search results and present advertisements based on it.  Similarly when you purchase game time with C.R.E.D.D. you are essentially providing a product that Carbine turns around and sells to other players for cold hard cash.  It is very much the modern equivalent of “sharecropping” where the company owns the game, and you pay with your time spent… and get free rent as a result and a small small share of the rewards.  Loyalty systems will always be anything but, so long as the equation does not balance.

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