Gandalf’s Magic Beans

I just received a poll from Turbine asking me what premium services I’d be willing to pay extra for. Would I pay $5 for an extra character slot? How about $20 for more pack space? And so on. Apparently the poll is being sent out randomly to players of DDO and LOTRO.

I’m happy to see a major MMO company investigating these kinds of upsell options because their research can often be applied directly to smaller games, too. But I don’t think Turbine has thought about the likely reaction to this poll. I predict several days of forum posters screaming, “YOU WANT ME TO PAY EXTRA FOR THINGS YOU SHOULD HAVE INCLUDED FOR FREE? ARE YOU $#%!$^%$#, TURD-BIN?” To be sure, Turbine was going to get some of that anyway, but with a bit of care they could have avoided a lot of it. The secret is arming your fanboys. When you ask a loaded question like this, you have to give enough background info for your fans to help defend you. It doesn’t take but an extra sentence or two — maybe a line about what the money would be used for, or a couple words about how the influx of cash would benefit players.

Anyway, while I was taking the poll, I had my own idea about how to scrape up some extra cash for an MMO. Call it “Gandalf’s Magic Beans.” (Okay, don’t really call it that! Especially if you aren’t LOTRO. Actually, not even if you are LOTRO.) You could buy these items on the game’s website. They’re impulse items or minor gifts. Are you having a bad day? Buy a bean. Did the raid’s healer do really well last night? Buy him a bean as a gift! Is your son impossible to birthday shop for? How about a dozen beans?

Beans might sell for $.99. Purchasing one from the website gives you an in-game “bean”, which you could then eat (or plant in the ground, or something), and poof, a random item appears. A lot of the beans give random housing decorations. Others give cool hats, special appearance “skins” that make your armor and weapons look different, and so on. All of the items should involve new art. An occasional rare bean might give you an extra-slot bag, a special-looking mount, or something else that is very cool but that doesn’t affect combat mechanics. Players could trade these items among all the characters on their account, but not across accounts.

Cosmetic changes should be the brunt of what players are getting, but beans should also give a little in-game boost too, to help make beans appeal to a larger portion of the player base. So perhaps every time you use a bean, you also get a half-hour buff — maybe your health recovers faster while you’re out of combat, or maybe you get 15% extra XP from killing monsters. Nothing huge, and nothing that directly enhances your combat ability, but something that makes you feel special for a while.

Note where we draw the line here, because it’s important: purchased items can mildly affect out-of-combat gameplay such as travel options, downtime, or even XP earned from monsters (if it’s not overdone), but unless you have a very unusual audience, these items shouldn’t meaningfully affect the outcome of battles. This is the line you shouldn’t cross with Western MMO audiences. Players think of their character’s ability to kill others as their character’s “true” power level — they compare classes and characters by what (and who) they can kill. If you sell players more “killing power,” you’re making them stronger on this crucial axis. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but a lot of MMO players find the idea extremely upsetting.

Sure, some players will cry foul anyway. Even the slightest in-game advantage is enough to set some of your more vocal players off. But the whimsical nature and the very low price will keep a large percentage of players from being too upset. And when you launch the service, give everybody a few free magic beans. If the service is interrupted or bad things happen to the servers, give everybody a few more free beans. Beans make great gifts for all occasions!

Be ready to take your lumps for “nickel-and-diming” or “selling out” or whatever else players accuse you of. After all, you are in fact nickel-and-diming them. But as long as the rewards are fun and entertaining, the angry hate letters will drop off after a short while, and you’ll make the money you need. But you have to keep it whimsical and cheap. Selling pack space for $20 feels mercenary, but selling a funky new hat and a 30-minute buff for $1 seems less so.

PS: I have no idea what a good lore name would be for these items, and I am afraid to research it. My brain is still full of Star Trek trivia from my days on STO. Sometimes I’ll say things like, “Shaka, when the walls fell!” and receive only blank looks. I expect spouting Elvish would be even worse…

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7 Responses to Gandalf’s Magic Beans

  1. Azaroth says:

    I love this idea. In fact, nearly the same thing crossed my mind when I started playing WoW again and noticed the ingame special NPC vendors that dispensed the “trading card” items. I knew little about the trading cards they were selling, and assumed you bought virtual packs of cards and received virtual codes to purchase virtual items, etc.

    I was wrong. And let me tell you something — I wouldn’t be caught dead walking into EBGames and buying a case of WoW playing cards to attempt winning a spectral mount for my girlfriend. But if those cards were virtual, I would have dropped money on it right then and there. Putting a barrier between themselves and my money wasn’t something that made a whole lot of sense to me.

    They offered nothing that affected the outcome of a PvP battle (this is a lesson I know to heed very well), and they already had my credit card – so purchase could be swift and painless online. So in reality, Gandalf’s Magic Beans would hook me where WoW’s TCG could not.

    I might add one warning to this, since we’re speaking specifically about Western audiences here:

    Western gamers like to feel they’ve “earned” something. Personally, that spectral tiger mount would never mean as much to me OR my girlfriend as, say, the rare red tiger mount that used to be talked about on EVERY ZG run. I can’t remember how many times I said “Red tiger mount is a Warlock drop”. Even though the spectral tiger mount looks MUCH cooler and would have blown our minds back then – had acquiring it felt a bit more legitimate to the average Western gamer.

    I might suggest an item from the Magic Bean that leads to a quest chain (instanced, possibly scaled by the level of the player even) for the extremely special item, such as the mount. Possibly even a quest chain leading to ANOTHER item that leads to a certain boss dropping the mount for that player (again, possibly even at a small %, depending on how far you want to go).

    Of course not everyone can go to the same dungeon, so the mount reward is altered by the level of the player.

    Your last warning about backlash is valid as well, and should be heeded. Because everyone draws the very logical conclusion that Western MMO players are generally bothered by the type of thing. In my experience there’s less to be feared here than one might assume, however. Which is surprising as hell to me – but I suppose that players only ever get truly upset when you directly impact their character or possessions in a negative fashion.

    As a very recent example, I would have assumed the leveling speed increase that Blizzard is introducing in their upcoming patch would have gotten them a level of “MAN, so everyone has it EASIER THAN ME now and MY ACCOMPLISHMENTS AREN’T JACK NOW”. Surprisingly, I’ve seen absolutely zero of that. Maybe it has something to do with most players having alts, maybe it has more to do with nobody having their main character DIRECTLY affected in a negative manner, and thus nobody really caring all that much one way or the other.

    Oh, and by the way, just so you don’t feel alone:

    Darmok on the ocean.

    Darmok and Jilad at Tenagra.

    Yeah. I just did that. Mind you, as anyone who really knows me can tell you, my knowledge of classic TV trivia is about 400 yards beyond ridiculous.

  2. The only thing that I don’t like about your proposal is that it uses the random reward schedule that people complain make online games so “addicting”. This is particularly nasty since you’re requiring people to pay money. But, there’s the question of if items gained from the beans are tradable. Still, I can see someone getting disappointed when they want the pink fuzzy hat and get the rotting boar’s head wall hanging that nobody wants to trade for. I think allowing people to purchase some of the items outright might eliminate this; ironically, it might make people a bit quicker to scream, “OMG, U BLEED MY WALLET!”

  3. Talyn says:

    Your Swift Zulian Tiger mount example is one of the reasons I don’t always understand the whole “Achiever” player type or mentality. I also like to feel I’ve earned something. If I need crafting materials, I’ll go farm for them before I buy someone’s overpriced stuff off the AH. If the drop rate is ridiculously low and I end up feeling like I’m wasting my time, *then* I’ll head to the AH (since by now the farming has gained me enough gold to buy your overpriced stuff). The Zulian Tiger is a random drop though. Does simply being in the right place at the right time and winning the /roll equate to “earning it?” Did you “achieve” anything, or were you simply lucky and “acquired” a new toy?

  4. Azaroth says:

    You achieved it as much as you achieved any generally random drop from a boss, and certainly moreso than if you won it off of a scratch card.

  5. Eric says:

    Azaroth – the most hardcore MMO achievers will indeed only want to earn something. But for the same reason, you aren’t going to sell them very many extra gimmicks. So I wouldn’t even target them; the Magic Beans are aimed at other players, such as weekend warriors with only a few hours to spare or bored teens who want an alternate activity (trading and collecting). Your example of the spectral tiger is interesting, because although many players consider it valueless because it isn’t earned, it’s still worth over $600 on eBay. There’s definitely players who covet these rewards anyway.

    The only thing I worry about is making sure the promotion and presentation doesn’t actively ANGER the most hardcore players, because they tend to be extremely vocal and can give you a black eye for a while, effectively ruining the buzz.

    For instance, I think angry buzz is part of why EQ2’s “Bazaar” worlds failed. EQ2 players still buy plenty gold and items illegally, but the LEGAL variant never took off. Well, I guess that’s a weak example since there’s probably lots of other reasons it failed: buggy interface, low game populations making it hard to justify starting over on a new world, and the stigma of being seen as “a cheater” (as opposed to a discreet illegal gold-buyer) all probably paid a part too.

    Mirab, his sails unfurled!

    Eh, I guess there’s not too many things you can say with that language is there. :)

  6. Brian 'Django' Cottle says:

    Archlord has something similar to the magic bean idea.

    While working on normal free to play content you just might find a locked box as loot. But how would one unlock this bizzar little box and what exactly is it going to do for me?

    Well, happen across the cash shop and you can pick up one of several colors of keys to match the color of your box so you can open it.

    Once you’ve opened it you’ll discover a random item… a random normally not all that useful to you but maybe it’ll be better next time item.

    This way you have players getting into buying cash shop items to make use of loot they’ve found in normal free play. This also introduces them to the cash shop and using it where, if things work out right, they’ll be spending more money buying non-key related goods for 50cents a pop.

    It’s in no way perfect (I’m talking about Archlord here, if anyone plays it at all) but it seemed to be a fairly decent way to get people into the cash shop who may not have otherwise thought about it.

  7. Babs says:

    It is only a matter of time before MMO’s finally recognize the power of the $.99 transaction and start selling exclusive in-game items for real-world cash.