Saturday, June 24, 2006

Token Exchange and the profile of rise/decay

Something I have been giving a great deal of thought to over a number of years is the way that people, as social entities, collect experiences through interacting with their environment and how those experiences (I'll refer to them as 'tokens') have different values for different people and caneven have different values for an individual at different times.

To elaborate. A lifejacket is not a terribly useful or fashionable item, but it has a value for people who will be going on a boat that is significantly different to the value that people who will not be going on a boat. Even within the subgroup of people going onto a boat, the lifejacket will have a significantly different value if circumstances dictate that they are going to have to leave the boat. You can also imagine that an old, salt stained lifejacket could have yet another value to the widow of a salior lost at sea, to a sailor who survived thanks to that lifejacket or to a junk dealer scavenging at a garage sale...

Okay, now that I've got you all going "EH??" let's push on, or, to use another token "moving forward.."

SWG is in itself both a discreet token and a collection of tokens any of which could conceivably have a value greater than the 'whole SWG' token. Focusing in on the game experience for a PvPer and a crafter it is not difficult to see that the crafting minigame has little to no value for the fighter whereas it is, for many crafters, a hugely valuable element within the game structure.

The value of the whole game token varies as a player progresses through the normal rise-plateau-decline profile of the consumption of an experience token. Thus, a fast, easy to learn game has a short, steep rise going from 'novice' to 'expert' in a very short timescale. A game, or minigame, with a slower learning process goes from 'novice' to 'expert' over a longer period. The value that the players put on that learning experience token will be affected by the duration of the learning period. In short, the longer the learning period the greater the emotional investment and, presumably, the greater the feeling of 'achievement'.

Once the player has reached 'expert' level they enter a plateau phase and will remain there until they begin to become bored. As humans we constantly seek out new challenges, new experiences. We seek to obtain additional tokens which we have a value for. Thus a trivial crafting process becomes a chore, an easily defeated enemy is dismissed as yard trash or just a pest. As long as the game continues to provide these experiences and we continue to have a value for them we won't enter the decline stage of the consumption profile.

However, the speed of that deline will be in part determined by a) the perceived 'height' of the plateau and b) the amount of emotional investment in the character/skillset/game experience.

Thus a player who has risen rapidly, had a medium to poor mixture of experiences at plateau level and has become disenchanted with the game will have a very rapid decline and exit. Players who have invested considerably more time and effort in getting to the 'top' and/or have had a rich and rewarding experience while at the plateau phase will descend more slowlly, possibly even forming minor plateau as their involvement with the game fritters out but they find other distractions to delay their final exit.

We have moved from a game model that encouraged a slow climb, with intermediate level sections on the way up and that permitted the player to choose to "apply the brakes" on the way down from which they could once again build up their involvement in the game by exploring new experiences (deskilling and relevelling) with a model that actively encourages a fast rise, shortened period of gameplay (kill loot repeat is only 'satisfying' or worth anything to the player for a limited time) and, once the player has decided they've had enough lacks the mechanisms to encourage them to rebuild / reinvest.

This creates a consumption profile that is much more of a 'hump' than a low flat curve. The shorter end to end pathway for a players gaming life is critical to the long term viability of the game. MMO's such as SWG, as we all know, demand a monthly payment from players. The players, consciously or subconsciously, weigh that real world monetary value (in itself just another 'token') against the rewards of the game (in terms of fun, experience, community, achievement, etc) and are more likely to find that the monetary token outweighs the experiental token when there is a shorter game curve. Quite simply, there IS less reward.

The further reducing of long term playable functions, such as the crafting minigame, city politics, etc, by devaluing their skillbases means that you are pushing players who formed part of the long term investors into a style of gameplay that is unlikely to provide the type of experiential return that they enjoy. In short, you will reduce the value of their game experience and increase the speed with which they approach decline/exit.

This is counterproductive in the extreme. By shortening the time that individual players are loyal to the game you increase churn. This means you have to spend more and more time (and money) in attracting new customers. Resistance to taking up a game will be greater if there are elements such as a monthly fee, short game experience, lack of variety etc, and that will in time make recruitment of new players more and more difficult. The rate of churn will eventually catchup with or exceed the capacity to bring new blood onboard and the game as a whole will enter a period of decline.

That the game was previously in decline (qv John Smedley's admission that they were heamoraging players) but has survived thus far is largely down to the persistance of the elder player community who felt they had sufficient investment to stay postNGE in the hope of a radical revamp that would justify the continuance of their investment. It is debatable whether the current combat changes, targetting, upcoming Restuss event etc will be enough. What is indisputable is that it would be madness to hack away at the one remaining solid leg, the crafter/social comunity and precipitate a decline in their involvement.

Once you reduce the value of a token, debasing it, it is incredibly difficult to reverse that process. Usually it requires a far greater investment than there was originally just to get back to a 'starting' level. I have serious doubts that the current dev team (who you will notice have by and large got a very differnt 'value' for the game than it's original dev team had) have either the resources or commitment to make that size of investment, especially as they seem to be overly focused on 'slimming down' the whole package.

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