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"Free" is Getting Very Expensive

"Free" games are increasingly coming with triple digit price tags, while still in development. Are these the coveted "super premium" games, or are these just attempts to make quick money before the reviews start to come in?

Ramin Shokrizade, Blogger

May 3, 2013

5 Min Read

This week I tried to check out two games that are in retail beta test, meaning that if you pay them they will let you help them test their game before it is ready for launch. This was not the part that caught my attention. What did catch my attention was that both were offering access via “Founders” purchases. The two games I am referring to are Marvel Heroes (https://presale.marvelheroes.com/index.php/presale_en_us/) and MechWarrior Tactics (https://mwtactics.com/founders ).

In the case of Marvel Heroes, the top founder's pack costs $199.99 and says it has a “...value of over $750”. For MechWarrior Tactics the top founder's pack costs $120 and has a “$642 value”. I have not seen such value in games in a long time, so this caught my attention. Sure in EverQuest or EVE Online people used to drop a cool $1K pretty frequently for gear or ships that were rare. I know because I was the one selling these goodies (http://articles.latimes.com/2000/apr/20/news/mn-21581 ). I could only use my middle name, Lee, in that first article because I worked for SOE at the time.

But what makes the stuff in these games so valuable? Rarity does make things valuable in games, but for both of these games there is no limit to how many people can purchase these founder's plans. So just what makes the content of these games so valuable? Or if it isn't that valuable, is this just a con to try to coerce gamers into making uninformed choices that they would not have made if they were properly informed about what they were buying before they bought it?

I have a proxy testing Marvel Superheroes for me since I was not invited to the beta test. He says that the game is fun, and that each of the heroes you can play feels distinctive and has lots of well performed voice acting that gives it a good feeling of immersion. So perhaps some players will really want to experience what it is like to play each of the heroes, and thus play through the game content 20 or 30 times. This seems legitimate to me, though since I know the game gets a bit less exciting every time you have to repeat content I tend to implement discounts to purchases after the first if the developer lets me. So for now I'm going to rate this game “pricey but reasonable”. Each customer will have to make their own decision as to what the value of game content is to them, of course.

I likewise have not played MechWarrior Tactics yet, but can tell from the description that it uses a collectible card mechanic somewhat reminiscent of Magic the Gathering in the building of your Mechs which can then be deployed to a turn-based hex map against another player. The core gameplay sounds really great, especially since I am a big MechWarrior fan and as I get older and busier I really appreciate turn-based games.

So what is this $642 value I am getting? It seems clear that what I am getting here is a tremendous amount of game advantage. I can get cards that would otherwise not be available to players who did not spend this much, and presumably I can win battles that I would otherwise not deserve to. Likewise, other players will be able to spend money to win battles against me that they otherwise should not have been able to win. For me this severely reduces the value of this content. I might even go as far as to say this content now has a negative value for me since I would feel so corrupt in using it. The knowledge that others will be using such content against me, even if I am “playing for free” means that I am just there to be fed to the players that outspend me. So here I am going to rate this a “poor value”.

I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that the conversion rates for Marvel Superheroes are going to be a lot higher than for MechWarrior Tactics. Note that this is even after you factor in that many players will be repelled by the obvious “pay to win” aura of MechWarrior Tactics before even registering for the game, and thus not show up in the data we use to measure conversion. Thus the conversion rates we do measure for MechWarrior Online will be artificially high (but still low).

Note that these are two of my favorite franchises, so I really want both of these games to be successful. I also think there is a real market for super premium games with more aggressive monetization models. Ten years after the launch of EVE Online and World of Warcraft we should be capable of making some amazing games for our consumers. The ultimate measure of how these online games perform is the quality of the player interactions in these games. If players are having a lot of fun with other people, they will pay a premium. But here the egg must come before the chicken. They should not have to spend a lot in order to be able to have a positive social experience. Taking this one step further, if I can spend to lower the experience of other players, this will cause a rapid collapse of revenues.  

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