Save Point

Money can buy everything except “love”, “friendship” and “exp points”.

At What Price My Digital Life? December 12, 2008

Filed under: Genres,Metagaming,MMORPGs,Specific games — haounomiko @ 12:40 pm
Tags: , ,

I don’t usually play MMORPGs– I had a brief flirtation with Final Fantasy XI a few years ago, but my friend’s sister was always on it, which kept me from putting in enough steady time to get addicted. I’m kind of glad I didn’t blow too much time on it, because I don’t think that MMORPGs are my thing: the social world is too full of inarticulate teenagers, and the objectives are insufficiently concrete (and insufficiently motivated) for me to feel like I’m working towards something satisfying.

However, Second Life is an exception. It’s perhaps the only MMO game that doesn’t actually involve combat unless you go out of your way to join an RP group. Most of the focus in the world is one’s personal image and/or artistic creation. In short, it’s one of the few games that actually has creativity as a primary objective– most games, by nature, are not set up for it– and that intrigues me. I don’t play consistently, but every once in a while I pick it up for a bit and spend several days totally immersed in it.

When I first joined Second Life, I felt a little odd about the way it encourages people to spend money on it– even creating content costs you in-game currency for the necessary uploads, and because it’s creative you have a lot of people selling things, so there’s a big emphasis on spending currency to buy things. And the easiest way by far to get the in-game currency is to pay Linden Labs for it in US dollars, because although you can get a job in-game or “camp” to earn money, these things earn you a tiny pittance, and never enough to afford anything good. Although you can certainly play the game without spending any money and you can find lots of nifty things for free, being stingy in-game is not fun, because the nicest things always cost something.

So my biggest disappointment was that I felt like I was paying money to have fun in this game even though it was supposedly free. I have never liked the idea of spending real-world money to buy game items. Admittedly, you don’t have to spend very much in terms of real-world currency to have plenty in-game, and it’s not going to hurt my pocketbook to shell out the equivalent of $2 US to buy a dragon avatar and fly about the world as a giant golden hydra. I simply had some mental resistance to it.

Lately, though, I’ve been seeing signs in Second Life about digital content creators’ associations and about resisting art theft. I think it finally sunk in for me that these people are artists who would like to get paid for their work. And it occurred to me to examine my resistance to spending money in the game. I realised that I was resisting based on an old idea I had about traditional MMORPGs: that equipment should be earned and not purchased with real-world money, and that using your credit card to equip yourself was a cheater’s trick; that if you spent enough time in the game to need good equipment, you should already be spending enough time actually playing the game to afford it with the money you got from quest objectives; and that if you had to spend real-world money to get enough equipment just to survive the beginning quests, then the game itself was poorly calibrated. But that situation was different. That was paying the game owners for your equipment, which you could also be earning by simply playing the game as it was meant to be played for the things that you were meant to enjoy. The situation is different in Second Life, where you’re really paying the digital artists who spent so much time to make these creations, and where my normal objections do not apply. I usually like to support artists and buy things from them because I believe that art is a job that people work hard at and should be paid for what they accomplish. And, now that I reflect on it, it would be good to support the artists of Second Life by making occasional purchases from them, as well.

So I suppose I no longer feel cheated that I might have to shell out actual money if I want to buy something nice in Second Life. I’m not being ripped off or cheating; I’m doing my part to support the hard work that people are putting into making nice things.

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7 Responses to “At What Price My Digital Life?”

  1. Ayulsa Says:

    Hmm, yes, I’ve been seeing those signs in SL too. I noted one in particular that said “I’d rather go bald than wear stolen hair”, which rather amused me because it was evidently playing off the “I’d rather go naked than wear real fur” campaign that happened in modelling a while back, yet… stolen hair. It’s just an amusing and strange concept to see being presented in a really SRS CAT poster.

    It’s an interesting perspective you came from, there, regarding subconsciously thinking of it as like cheating. I don’t have that same reaction, but I have, from time to time, resented the fact that spending just a little bit of money in SL is so easy and tempting and it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to just buy a bit more when you want something new, yet it really adds up. Not nearly as much as if you were to buy those clothes in this world, true, but it still does get to feel like a lot. (FWIW, those dragon avatars were around 2000L, I think– which is more like $6-8, from the exchange rates I’m seeing currently, although it might have been different back then. So it’s sort of pocket change, but not quite….)

    and that if you had to spend real-world money to get enough equipment just to survive the beginning quests, then the game itself was poorly calibrated.

    I don’t think that ever is the case, mind (that would probably be an intentionally badly-calibrated game designed to make the developers money); I think people generally do it for the initial reason you mentioned, to “cheat” and become the best quickly and show off their “status”. Which is pretty meaningless status when it’s earned by buying items, but then… so is most status in this world. XP

  2. Ayulsa Says:

    Also, it struck me the other day that the Lindens must be making VAST GIANT WADS OF CASH off SL, really. Because if most of the people in game never exchange their Linden dollars for US dollars, then really it’s primarily the Lindens who are being paid every time someone buys cash in SL. Given how much I’ve spent on it (probably about $15-20 in the past few days) setting up a new avatar and such, and multiply that by the number of people online at any given time (40,000 or so last time I logged on), and the fact that if you do spend a lot of time in the world you keep wanting things, albeit not as often as that… they must be making a complete packet.

    (Also, premium accounts, land, etc….)

  3. haounomiko Says:

    I saw a sign that said, “Be proud of the skin you’re in– unless it’s stolen.” That was an interesting riff on the positive-body-image slogan you see around. Of course, in SL body image generally isn’t a problem, but on the other hand it’s still important because it is self-expression. I suppose the difference is that it is more likely to be a positive to show off, as opposed to in “first life” where it is so often a negative that people are ashamed of. It means “Be proud of your self-image” rather than “Be proud of what you have even if you aren’t stereotypically beautiful”, and one’s self-image ideally shouldn’t involve being a thief.

    Re the dragons– I was thinking of the hatchies, actually. Which are awfully nice for the maybe $2.25 they run you. That’s less than the coffee I’m drinking. Although, as you point out, it does add up, it also adds up for the artists who do make a living off of it (and some genuinely do. I believe there is one content creator who supports her family of six kids on it as her real job).

    As for games that are calibrated such that you have to buy equipment with real money just to get anywhere– I have mostly heard this in reference to Korean games. I don’t know how widespread it is or isn’t, but I’ve long had the impression that it’s a more lucrative industry over there (didn’t the idea of buying your equipment via real money start there?)

    Re: the Lindens– yes, they undoubtedly are. On the other hand, it probably costs them a whole lot to run SL itself– think of the bandwidth alone, plus all the server storage, plus they probably have offices for their employees and a lot of business overhead, just like any other big software company. And ultimately one is still paying the artists, because they can go and cash in on their Linden and get real-world money to buy the groceries with, and those who manage to scrape together enough generally do.

  4. Ayulsa Says:

    It means “Be proud of your self-image” rather than “Be proud of what you have even if you aren’t stereotypically beautiful”

    It’s an interesting contrast, yes, and an association you wouldn’t normally get in this world: “be proud of your self-image” isn’t something we tend to say, like, oh, you should really express what you are on the outside and value that, but in SL walking around looking exactly as you want to look is normal and expected. I wonder if “be proud of your internal self, wear it on your sleeve– or your body” is a concept that could have only originated in SL.

    I mean, for example… if you wanted to walk around wearing a full-body animal costume in First Life, or pretend you’re a vending machine, or something, people would probably point and stare. But in SL, this is just normal. And I know it’s partly the ubiquity of it that makes it so, but really, I don’t see what’s socially worse about doing it here than doing it in SL. It’s harder to do here because it costs more and it’d be heavy and uncomfortable, but that doesn’t address the question of why it’s generally considered okay to look how you want in SL, and be treated as that by default, but not here.

    That’s less than the coffee I’m drinking.

    As someone who has a Last Boss’s Black Mug in SL, I totally parsed this as “a hatchie costs less than my mug of coffee in SL”. That’s one expensive coffee mug, though I suppose they never run out….

    As for games that are calibrated such that you have to buy equipment with real money just to get anywhere– I have mostly heard this in reference to Korean games.

    Huh! I didn’t know that, like, that you needed it to even start off; learnt something new. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that did start off there….

    And with the whole game-balance thing, you do have a point, actually– like, I’d been thinking, “oh, it’s not that the games are designed poorly, it’s that the creators want to make money off them”, but if you do consciously set out to make your game that way, it’s still unbalanced as a game even if it’s intentional, I guess….

  5. Morganite Says:

    Hope you don’t mind late comments, but I just saw this on Ayulsa’s journal and it’s interesting. (Also misread it there and thought it said two days old… o.O )

    I haven’t played Second Life, but I’ve played a variety of online games (or at least flirted with some), and gone through similar thoughts on some.

    Some years back I spent a fair amount of time playing on Aardwolf MUD, which took donations to support the game. (And it was popular enough to have pretty respectable hardware and bandwidth needs, as text-based games go. A fair number of things got implemented with the specific purpose of reducing bandwidth consumption.) There were rewards for donating, but while useful, they were available by other means, and even large quantities were not game-breaking. This did not stop there from being a big stink at one point about the way the donations were being done going against the license of the game’s original code base, even though one really doubts the original creator *wanted* to condemn it’s descendants to “death by popularity”, and the money was all used to support the continued operation of the game.

    On the other hand, there was another MUD around, which sold a lot of unique equipment (which was considered essential) for rather hefty amounts of cash. ($50 for one item sort of amounts.) Apparently much of this went to support the owner’s wild parties, which definitely went against the spirit of the license he’d inherited.

    Years later, I started playing Kingdom of Loathing, and it’s got it’s own kind of situation. Every month there’s a new item that can be had for a $10 donation. No license issues here, and none of the items are really game-breaking, so I don’t feel to bad about shelling out the $10 to support the game. (Which, for a game of text and stick-figure artwork, consumes a prodigous amount of time and resources.) But with how expensive some of the older items have become in the game’s market, I’m somewhat dubious of just what it would take in terms of time and/or real world money it would take to get them. At what point do things stop being reasonable?

    It’s also interesting that you mention FFXI. I’m a semi-active player, and the game’s somewhat noticable for being infested with “players” who collect money and items to sell for RL cash. I wouldn’t be particularly bothered by this if they collected them by legitimate means, instead of via botting, bug exploiting, and various harassment of regular players. The introduction of amounts of cash into the market that wouldn’t normally exist has caused a lot of distortions in the economy, and though I actually benefited from the way things went, now that SE has heavily cracked down on them, the deflation in the market has made things pretty hard for everyone. (Also, some are now using the tactic of hijacking accounts via spyware to steal the items they have to sell, which strikes me as a rather self-destructive thing to do.)

    I think the thing that bothers me about Second Life would be the ease with which my purchasing could get away from me. I already know how I get in games with customizable outfits, and that’s when I only have to buy the game once…

  6. haounomiko Says:

    Late comments are always welcome! A discussion that was interesting to me a few weeks ago is probably still interesting to me today.

    I suppose donations and purchases can be good in the case of a small game that needs them to keep running; ideally, though, they need to not break the game for players who don’t roll that way. I would be a bigger fan of in-game purchases that didn’t have an effect on gameplay but were simply collectible as status symbols, or out-of-game purchases like merchandise.

    And, certainly, if you’re prone to spending, Second Life would put a dent in your cash, albeit most likely not a bank-breaking one. You have to be somewhat resistant to advertising, at least, in a world like that one.

  7. Morganite Says:

    I suppose the dilemma I end up having in KoL is how much of a donation is to keep the game running (and while it isn’t really small, it has no ads or fees, so it couldn’t exist without donors), and how much becomes paying to get an advantage, which bothors me. Though given the way the game is structured, I don’t think in most cases it’s a disruptive factor. More just having a larger number of options available.

    I’ve remembered a couple other odd cases. One was the US version of Fairyland. It was a subscription game (sort of), except when you paid for months of time, you also got in-game gold and a set of items. Of course, I never figured out what most of the items were good for…

    Then there’s private servers for Ragnarok Online. One I saw gave out what sounded like impressively powerful items for rather large donation amounts. ($130 or so, I think.) Bothered me enough hearing about that one MUD doing it, but at least most of their game was created by them. RO… Well, private servers are somewhat ethically dubious for a game that still has a commercial existance anyway, but this one really kicked it up a notch.

    Ultimately I decided neither game really interested me beyond having a bit of cute artwork (that I could see on websites), so I was spared having to figure out anything for those games…

    It’s really not the spending thing so much as the clothes customizing thing. I’m not one for fashion in the real world, but I’ll get easily sucked into messing around with clothes in games, whether it’s something like the costume creation in City of Heroes, buying outfits in Rock Band, games targeted at kids a third my age, or even adult-only games… if there’s customization, I’m interested and will spend a lot of time messing with it. Except, none of those things involve continuing expense…


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