On the final day of the 2007 Austin Game Developers conference, GoPets' Eric Bethke, Areae's Raph Koster, EA Mythic's Marc Jacobs and Sony Online Entertainment Austin head John Blakely convened to answer a question, in a panel of the same name: What are the biggest online gaming opportunities?
Jacobs raised issues with microtransactions relating to the value of the items sold, and Bethke chimed in: "Whatever you write in your EULA is your best wish, but we have hundreds of years of English common law about transactions."
"We really really really have to make a distinction between the concept of microtransactions -- which means spending a tiny amount of money -- and the ownership of digital assets," Koster stressed. "They are not the same thing. We cannot equate them." He added, "Betting the farm on business models instead of audiences and consumer needs is always a bad idea."
"Out of the top 10 MMOs in USA and Europe, WoW is probably the only subscription-based [game], and the only one that comes on a CD. Habbo is bigger than WoW in Europe." Koster noted.
"You don't go to The Gap and buy a $99 monthly subscription to clothes," Bethke added.
Jacobs disagreed. "I think RMT doesn't work in a lot of games. I think it's bad for the players and bad for the consumers," he suggested. "I think anyone who says there is 'one model' is wrong. Eric, if you say simply, 'this is bad and there is only way we should be doing it,' then you are engaging in the same thing you accuse me of doing."
So will a big RMT game come? "Yes, it will happen -- of course it's going to happen that someone is going to do a great game that will involve heavy RMT," Jacobs answered. "When it's going to come, God only knows. I don't think it will open the floodgates. I think, like the subscription model, it's just a model and people will try it and, like most MMOs, it will fail."
A possible success route, as Blakely suggested: "Engage your consumers in meaningful ways and give them choices. I'm a consumer, I love choices."
"The thing that is confusing is that RMT is not a model, it's thousands of possible models," clarified Bethke. "I love that, in Nexon's KartRider, if you want to switch [your user interface] you can buy 100 switches for a buck. If you want to be a competitor, you put in 4 cents."
"Think about your life; we are consumers, we thrive as consumers," added Blakely. "Whenever you bring people together, they'll participate in transactions."
"You look at the ecology that's been built up around The Sims, where people have item-based sites -- that is the exact same thing... as somebody selling epic mounts," Koster pointed out.
The panelists discussed Web 2.0 and the advent of user-generated content. "It's almost a bizarre question. This feels like two conferences going on at once with two distant branches of the family who don't like each other," Koster said. "To some degree, that used to be the coolest thing about the game industry. Richard Garriott was UGC at one time. We can't be snobbish about UGC. We are all users. There is a category error here."
He continued, "The technical sophistication to make content has gotten too damn high for the typical user. How many of you used to like playing mods? Seen any good ones lately? People can't even make a texture anymore -- it's making eight of them. 50 percent of Americans are creating content on the web... that's only if you count uploading their own photos, writing a blog or contributing to a community site. If you add in [things like rating on eBay] it's 100 percent of users! If you look at something like Facebook... it has levels, it has points, it has items, it has reputation systems, it has kabillions of users... there it is!"
"I hate the distinction between virtual worlds and games," agreed Bethke. "You want directed content to get them started -- they don't know what to do in your world. This is the skeleton? The user-generated content becomes the flesh between the bones. A great game would be a virtual world people could have a full existence on, and enjoy interacting on."
"You mention polish and quality -- which I agree, for seed content, [is] incredibly important, but we need to throw in some words like 'empowerment'." Koster suggested. "From what we see, the huge area [where] user-generated content flourishes is in fansites."
"I think Blizzard should sell gold -- I would buy it," Bethke noted.
Xbox Live Arcade
The topic turned next to Xbox Live Arcade. "Xbox Live is one of the most successful stories in the game industry," Jacobs pointed out. "Look at what Microsoft has done with it, and what people said when they launched it."
"The issue is that on the web, there is such a noise level -- and not just a noise level, a noise level of totally kick-ass product," Koster added.
"I think that the future of gaming will be large virtual worlds with RMT transactions," Bethke suggested. "I think the Web 2.0 guys are failing by not putting in good content," he added, as opposed to content-rich MMOs. "When I'm in the web space, I go 'you web guys, do you not realize you suck at content, you suck at fun?'" Koster agreed -- suggesting MMO guys are missing the boat as well.
"Subscriptions are one big thick chunky tool, it's hard to make them work for that user," Bethke said.
"There is a balancing point with [the value of microtransactions items]," Koster said. "And believe me, your customers will tell you about it."