Compensation gone wrong
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 April 2013, 4:26 am

The Nosy Gamer reports a 25% drop in Planetside 2 player numbers following the Cert-Gate affair. So what happened? Basically an accident of the Free2Play business model: SOE made changes to their Free2Play model which were well meant and positive for the players; items which were previously sold per character were now unlocked account-wide, thus in future you get more use out of the same purchase. And SOE even looked ahead, and predicted that people who due to these changes would end up having bought the same item twice should be compensated. They set up a generous rate of compensation, 2 certificates for each 1 Station Cash spent.

And that is where things went wrong: The system that calculated the compensation had a very wide definition of what a “Station Cash spent” was. If you bought a bundle of items, it considered it as if you had bought each item individually at full price, although the price of the bundle was heavily discounted. There might or might not have been bugs in the calculation that added even more compensation. And so some players ended up with a huge amount of certificates, which is an in-game currency that can normally only be acquired by playing. People who hadn't played much ended up on top of leaderboards, and then spent those certificates to get gear others had played a long time to acquire.

Now generally we shouldn't complain about generous compensation. It is clear that the changes to the Free2Play model would hurt people who had spent real money on the game, and that is not the part of your customer base that you want to anger. But the fundamental error was to not refund them in Station Cash, but to give them compensation in a currency which normally cannot be bought. This turned the compensation into a kind of Pay2Win scheme. People who paid money ended up having both the benefits of the real money purchases and the benefits of the certificates as if they had “grinded” lots of hours.

Ultimately the whole story is very revealing about the illusion of progress on which modern games are built. In the past you got better at a game because you were learning things while playing. It takes many hours to master chess, but the reason why you are a better chess player at the end is an increase in your personal skill. If somebody designed “Chess Online” today, you would start with only pawns and the king, and acquire the other pieces by playing lots of games, or have the option to get the pieces faster by paying for them. Thus even if you didn't learn much from playing, you would get better with time, or with money.

Getting better at a complicated game by learning through playing is a slow process. Getting better at a not-so-complicated game is fast, but can’t go on very long, because you quickly learn everything there is to learn. Getting better at a game because your stats increase through playing or paying is a process which is more easily controlled by the developers, and can give an illusion of permanent progress. Players end up with nearly the same positive feeling of success that they would have from learning to play better, without the game having actually to have an extended learning curve. When Raph Koster wrote in his Theory of Fun that fun comes from learning how to play a game, he didn't mention that you could substitute that learning curve fun by a “getting better at playing” curve fun that is based on other principles than learning.

Of course in the end all that is just smoke and mirrors, and the Planetside 2 compensation scheme blew away some of that smoke. People realized that suddenly the “best players” were those who had spent most on the game. No wonder many of them ended quitting the game: The compensation scheme shattered the illusion of getting better by playing. But it isn't clear that this will actually hurt SOE, because those who left are most likely the games “worst customers”, those who didn't pay anything. The people who spent money on the game are presumably quite happy right now, and those who spent only a little might even be wishing now that they had spent more. What more can a game company wish for?
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