This Week in Video Games: A Change of Heart

“A Change of Heart”

I’m making some changes to the format of my weekly blog, in line with some personal changes in philosophy.

When I started this site at the beginning of 2016, my aim was to demonstrate that a player could have access to a rich vein of game content without having to funnel an outrageous amount of money into their hobby. I was deeply uncomfortable with reports of people investing tens of thousands of dollars into individual games. I wanted to publicly demonstrate that you didn’t have to spend a fortune to get the most out of the medium.

I have changed my mind about this. I can now accept the idea of people shelling out massive sums of cash on an individual game. Here’s why:

As August began, I started to place a narrower focus on my gaming hobby. I began to concentrate exclusively on VITA games.

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I realized that the VITA was the perfect platform for me: I love the convenience of mobile, but I want the quality of console. Looking at the system’s catalog, I realized that there was already enough high quality content available to provide for a literal lifetime of unique experiences. And so, a quest began: I decided that I wanted to own every VITA game that’s been released physically in the United States. In 30 days alone, I purchased more than $600 worth of VITA games. I traded in roughly $500 worth of console games in the process. I found myself acquiring games more rapidly than I ever had… and I came to love the hunt. If I had the resources to purchase every North American VITA game today, I would drop that cash in an instant… and then move on to collecting the Japanese releases. I found a hobby that I deeply enjoyed, which effectively allows for unlimited spending.

Collecting games for a nearly dead system sounds crazy to a lot of people, especially when it leads me to buy stuff I’m not even particularly interested in playing. And it is crazy… unless you happen to be collecting for VITA, too. I found The VITA Lounge and the VITA reddit sub-forum. Thanks to those sites, I’ve made new friends from all over the world, who share in my excitement when I find a game worth $84.99 on Amazon for $17.99 at GameStop.

And then it hit me: I really am a VITA “Whale” (I hate that term, but it’s the easiest way to communicate a specific player profile). I’m happily opting into spending habits that make no practical sense at all… the purchases are entirely driven by emotion and the fun of collecting. I finally have a personal context for why people spend an extraordinary amount of money on their gaming hobby. It has allowed me to stop looking for a universal definition of value, which in turn allows me to be much less concerned about high spending in F2P.

By extension, I now having nothing to prove by detailing my own spending… so I’m no longer going to document that on my blog.

There is one issue with most F2P games that is still highly problematic to me, though: lack of transparency in pricing. Take a look at the screenshot below, from Need for Speed: No Limits.

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No transparent spending path.

You won’t be able to keep track of the actual cash value of the gold you buy, unless you plan to jump to a “Proportion” app and/or a calculator every time you want to spend.

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If you stick with $4.99 gold purchases in Need for Speed No Limits, then $1 = 28 gold coins. Have fun dividing everything by 28 every time!

To contrast, let’s look at a top performing game that does allow for transparent spending, while I detail my two “Golden Rules”.

“Golden Rule 1:”

If players are spending money on a game, they are entitled access to an experience that provides transparent pricing. 

To be clear, this can be achieved with hard currency. If a game has at least one spending path where you can buy hard currency at a rate that is directly proportional to real money (give or take a penny), that’s fine. Here’s CSR 2 as an example:

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CSR 2 allows you to purchase 300 coins for $2.99 and 500 coins for $4.99. This provides for transparent spending at the base levels. Effectively, every coin equals one cent… which is easy enough to calculate as you consider car purchases.

CSR2‘s setup makes the cash value of coins crystal clear. If players choose bundles with offset conversions  to get a better deal, that’s fine… that’s their choice. But Natural Motion has provided a path that allow players to buy currency that is not obfuscated.

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CSR 2’s hard currency allows us to understand at a glance that this car costs $1.20. They even allow you to avoid purchasing multiple currencies. If you want to keep things simple and pay only in hard currency, you can.

Clash of Clans allows customers to purchase 500 Gems for $4.99 (a transparent hard currency option), but not everything can be purchased using that currency. Some items require you to use soft currency in order to make a purchase, which brings us right back to the problem of complicated value conversions. If you want that Dark Elixir Drill, you have to buy more soft currency with hard currency, which will make the actual cash value fly right out of most players’ heads.

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In Clash of Clans, I can understand that the Builder’s Hut is $20.00 at a glance. But what is the cash value of the Dark Drill Elixir?

Allowing soft currency purchases is fine, but customers should also be able to make the purchases with hard currency if they choose to (as seen in CSR 2). This allows players to always have a transparent purchasing option.

“Golden Rule 2:”

Gacha/blind pack purchases must either disclose drop rates, or allow the direct purchase of items that are functionally equivalent (or better).

Let’s look at this ad, from CSR 2:

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The ad is problematic, because you need to know what the drop rate of the Z06 actually is in order to understand the the value of the offer. Is the base drop rate .05%, or 5%? Customers NEED to  know this in order to make an informed purchasing decision.

There is one fair work-around, which Natural Motion provides: They ensure that players can use hard currency to buy cars that are functionally equivalent to the items in the gacha draws, if not better. Sure, it may not be exactly the same car, but for the purpose of progression, you always have the ability to directly purchase cars that will get the job done.

The option to play with transparent spending is great, and I’m happy that CSR 2 makes that possible. But make no mistake – Natural Motion will constantly press you to play with your costs obfuscated, as you can see in the pics below. When I finally was considering making my first purchase after several hours of play, Natural Motion removed options for direct purchase spending.

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When attempting to buy a car after finishing Tier 1, the game initially fails to offer any transparent currency options.
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Going back to the full store page, you’ll see that the $2.99 for 300 coins is still there, but the $4.99 for 500 coins is gone, replaced by a Tap Joy offer wall.

CSR 2 is also really pushy when you beat a tier boss. Want the car the boss is driving? Better buy a Super Nitro RIGHT NOW. This is always presented as a one-time offer… and if you opt-out, you’re asked multiple times if you are sure.

Regardless, unlike most other games at the top of the charts CSR 2 does allow you to play without obfuscated spending… in order to complete the story path, anyway. Since the game has a gacha mechanic, I’m sure that transparent spending options disappear if you get heavily into the competitive modes of play. But hey, having one substantive path in the game (in this case, the solo campaign) that makes tracking your spending possible is good enough for me.

IMG_0745So, does anybody do it better than CSR 2? Yes – the Candy Crush Saga games allow for transparent spending. At the four base bundles, 1 gold bar equals 10 cents in real money. That makes it very easy to understand your actual spending throughout the game. And better still, there are no gacha/blind packs in the game at all, so there are no fears of being confused by a ‘video slot’ mechanic.

To summarize, I think that it’s critical to allow customers the ability to see clearly what the dollar value is of every item in a game, because they are granted this option at any real-world storefront. Could you imagine going to Target and being made to convert the $300 you intend to spend into 560 “Target bucks”? Even casinos give you chips that reflect their real cash value.

Top monetizing games prove it is possible, and as a consumer, I won’t spend a dime without transparency in pricing.

 

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