Everything has a cost, whether it is measured in time or money. Without getting into the philosophical connotations too deeply, Aristotle asserted that the more intangible something is, the greater its value. We have farmers who sell food that is essential for life making very little. Basketball players, movie stars, fashion companies and diamond dealers make big money for providing entertainment and prestige. Shoes are relatively inexpensive until you through a Nike branding symbol on them.
Time can be considered the most valuable commodity of all as it is an abstract concept. For however much time we may have, it is never enough and no amount of money can really buy us more. The inconvenient fact is that some are able to monetize their time better than others. Some people have more time than money, some people have more money than time.
These are relevant factors both in game design, monetization and lifetime value. Some games are very casual and may only involve a few hours of play to experience all they have to offer; others may involve hundreds – potentially thousands of hours of game play – just to reach the “end game”.
Games tend to offer an incredible “value” for the amount of entertainment they provide. Compare, for example, paying a $5 or even $15 monthly subscription for “All you can play” to seeing one movie at a cinema, or ordering one pizza. This dynamic goes all the way back to the 1970’s, if not earlier. TSR, the company which originally produced Dungeons and Dragons founded by Gary Gygax, priced its “modules/adventures” for about $5 to $10, or about how much someone would spend on a pizza. The idea was that adventure would offer 4-5 people entertainment for 3-4 evenings.
Perhaps a digression, but “back then” it was frequent for people who played D&D to have a dedicated group of players and one “game master” (DM). Each adventure had suggested levels like 1st to 3rd, 4th to 6th, and so forth.
What happened when a new player joined the group? Did they start out at 1st level like everyone else?
No, the game master usually had them roll a “new” character that was slightly below everyone else’s level. That way they could play, be relevant and have fun.
Things are a bit different today, but the dynamics are still very similar. Many games are offering very similar options to new players. A game that has been out for some time will see most of its player base in or close to the end game. Where does that leave the new player? In the starter zone and 120 hours away from being able to play at the same level as their friends?
A large number of dedicated gamers are happy to do that, but for some, that’s not practical. Offering them a fast start option is not a game breaker. Neither does it need to be free, especially in an otherwise free to play game. Most of the larger MMO’s are catering directly to this niche, offering advanced set-up or fast start options to new (and old) players alike.
Is that fair? Is that Pay to Win? That requires spending some time evaluating what Pay to Win really is – which really is not within the scope of this article. However, there is a distinct different between Paying to Win and just Paying for the Potential to Win.
The Lottery is by nature a Pay to Win game. To win, you have to buy a ticket. But just because you buy a ticket or a thousand tickets, there is no guarantee that you will win… anything. That does not advocate giving away Lottery Tickets for free. So the Pay to Win argument really only goes so far. Its relevancy applies most when games involve direct competition between players. That is not characteristic of most games; definitely some.
Gear and Skills. For most players, the concept of “you need the gear in order to get the gear” goes without mention. Depending upon the game, the same can be said for inherent game attributes and skills – like Strength or Power Attack. So also, there are games where actual physical player skills, hand and eye coordination define winning or losing. There are “challenges” in some games that I’ve personally spent hours trying to complete and still have not completed. There are no Pay to Win options for those, and rightly so.
Crafting. One other thing needs to be considered. In many games, you might be able to get a head start in terms of “character level” but not professions or other crafting options…
I might be a powerful 90th level Paladin and can subdue large dragons with a wave of my hand, but I don’t know how to make you a glass of water…
Well… Crafting is not just a matter of time, but resources. Whether to try monetizing crafting abilities depends very much upon the structure and vitality of your game world’s economy. It influences supply and demand within your game world, so needs careful evaluation.
The functional point though is that your game is not a “job” – it is or should be aiming to be a form of entertainment. And if your game involves groups or other forms of socializing, you also want to aim at making it easy for new players to associate meaningfully with those who introduced them to it. That does not, in all cases, mandate a fast start. Indeed, in many cases, it does mean starting out from scratch like everyone else, and letting their more advanced friends help them get up to speed.
Ultimately, if your game involves a large trek from starting area to end game, monetizing the ability to jump in closer to the end game is an option useful and valuable to your players and to your bottom line.