Selling Knowledge: Guides as Revenue

Recently, in my other life as a rabid consumer of MMO-related fansites and blogs, I’ve begun to notice the prevelance of ads for paid fan-written strategy guides. But I didn’t think much about the depths of this topic — or its potential impact for developers — until I stumbled across a fascinating article called “Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?“. In short, this article suggests that the secondary market in selling game knowledge deserves as much attention as the secondary market in game gold and goods.

Of course, companies like BradyGames and Prima Games have made it their business to print strategy guides for quite some time. But now some players are getting into the business as well, selling guides for their favorite game. Sometimes these are traditional bound guides, but more often they are strictly online — as e-books or websites — and they may even involve a subscription for ongoing, updated content. Many of these strategy guides are free (and about what you would expect for the price), but the best of them are surprisingly professional — and incredibly useful.

But what does this mean for developers? Well the first question you may ask is: Should we let our players get away with making money off our game this way? Don’t we do everything in our power to shut down gold and item selling? How is this different?

The biggest difference is that, while gold/item RMT arguably harm your players’ experience, stategy guides arguably enhance it. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about hacks and cheats here, but rather suggestions on the best place to level from 20-30 for different character types or an expanded explanation of how the crafting UI is supposed to work. You players benefit from being able to access this information if they want it, and if you are not able or willing to provide it yourself for whatever reason, then at least it’s still available to them.

(There are actually quite a few reasons you might not be interested in providing this information to your players directly, from the particular type of audience you are nurturing to the expense and difficulty involved. We’ll be discussing some of those topics later on.)

So no, you shouldn’t usually bother trying to shut down the sale of legit strategy guides. But here’s a much more interesting question: What’s stopping a developer from offering similar services? Asking players to spend extra money for a simple strategy guide is probably over the top — you’d run smack into player expectations on that one, I’m afraid — but what if you extend the idea? A small game with the right audience might find success selling roleplaying lessons, for instance, or a one-on-one in-game ‘Intro to Our World’ session. Or how about an interactive ‘Basics of Grouping’ course for a group of friends that wants to play together? I know one or two MMO teams that have considered this idea, although I don’t believe any of the big US games do this right now.

Well, it’s an idea anyway. *grin* And in the meantime, I’m very interested in seeing how the secondary market on strategy guides continues to develop.

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6 Responses to Selling Knowledge: Guides as Revenue

  1. That article has an interesting premise, and actually one I share. Using the Bartle archetypes, gold buying:Achievers::strategy guides:Explorers. (A free SAT flashback for you.) Of course, this also applies to other sources of game information: information sites like Thottbot or Wowhead, etc.

    One reason why developers hate RMT is because it short-circuits the game. People aren’t playing the game, they’re merely paying someone else to do it. Simply put, this is also what the strategy guides do. (There’s also the secondary effect that gold farmers will monopolize high-profit locations to the detriment of other players, but this is less of an issue in games like WoW that have instancing that can be taken advantage of.) I’m sure Scott Jennings will be along shortly to complain that if your game needs a strategy guide it’s fundamentally broken, just like RMT. ;)

    But, this is one reason why you don’t see many Explorers in games, because people will go compile the information into sites that spell out the secrets of the game to you. Thottbot or Wowhead both fill the niche that Explorers used to fill in games, so the true explorers aren’t as valued anymore. And, since the games tend to be rather static, the information remains good for a long time. What’s more, Thottbot didn’t even need humans to enter information, it gathered everything mechanically from it’s very popular UI mod.

    Why don’t people get upset by strategy guides/information websites like they do RMT? Because most games are heavily slanted toward the Achiever archetype. Things that violate the achiever mentality are reviled, while streamlining the exploration process helps the Achievers. This isn’t something I can really lament, though, because there are more Achievers than Explorers, and they tend to be more steady customers, anyway.

    My thoughts.

  2. Sandra says:

    Thanks for the SAT flashback! :>

    I admit, though, that I am a little confused as to what you mean when you say that game info sites are one reason that you don’t see many Explorers in games — that true Explorers aren’t valued anymore. Was being highly valued ever a big part of being an Explorer? Sure, they like to show off, but with YouTube that’s easier than ever.

    And while Thotbott and Wowhead are undoubtedly useful, they aren’t very good for learning to understand the game. For in-depth, targeted information I go to sites like El’s Extreme Anglin’ and Crafter’s Tome — sites run by individuals who are consummate Explorers and highly valued by the game community.

    So far as I can tell, Explorers haven’t left — they’re the ones writing the strategy guides!

    (Interesting side note: The player who runs El’s Extreme Anglin’ is also the author of the article that triggered this post.)

  3. Babs Saito says:

    Back in the day, forums were not allowed to showcase hints, cheats, or guides other than in general terms. If someone wanted to post about leveling through areas in Gemstone III, for instance, it would have been frowned upon =unless= it was something benign like, “I’m level 30 and I hunt in the Misty Chambers most of the time.” Much of the game’s strategy was passed on in the game. Players spent more time in the game than on the forums; I suspect it worked this way for most of the MUDs of that era.

    Times have certainly changed. Developers now stickie player posts that are lessons in everything from where to hunt at level “X” to the best way to reach max level in the shortest and cheapest amount of time. The forum has become a haven of rants, raves, and ongoing guides written by the community itself. Trolling the forums has risen to an art form, with information passed on via posts as often as (or more often than) in actual play.

    With websites being dirt-cheap these days, anyone with an avid interest in a game can put together a terrific fansite and no one – not even the game’s owner – can stop them from disseminating insider information to the rest of the world. Aside from the obvious commercial sites like Allakhazam or MMORPG, there are player and guild sites galore, UI writers who have learned to embrace .lua to offer third-party programs (for free) to enhance game play, critique sites, and better systems documentation for things like crafting than was ever given out by the company who made the game.

    As in all businesses, timing is everything. The aforementioned commercial sites have been around for a while and are considered beacons of the game info industry. They use both ad revenues and premium memberships to take care of themselves, but look at the amount of effort and real estate they require to cover every single software release. They’re making enough money for =someone= to survive but I’m not so sure they would if it weren’t for the plethora of volunteers who act as correspondents.

    How many more of these sites, their eye fixed on making a buck or two, can the industry sustain if they are all (and at this point they ARE all) spreading the same word to the same internet? Would a printed (bound or electronic) compilation make any sense given that “search” is a pretty awesome tool to find what you need at the precise moment you need it? What would it take to make a printed compendium successful? Exclusive art? Articles? Interviews?

    I think Explorers are a fickle and cyclical kind of being. They’ve set a precedent for their kind that is cash-negative, and eventually there is no more for them to explore. Folks like Zepath, who created all the player maps for Gemstone III and was our hero for nearly half a decade, who’s moved on to other things but whose maps are still used as the basis for every subsequent fan map of the game…and lovingly referenced by Simutronics, who didn’t have to create maps themselves because Zepath was their fan. I think he got, all told, one letter of thanks for his legacy.

    A game compendium is, in theory, a very nice idea and could possibly make enough to sustain itself, but is only of value to an audience that is already aware of what it says. Until someone creates a game without boundaries of max levels or max ingredients or max shelf life, I don’t know that there’s money to be made writing about it in this fashion.

    But who knows. I’ve been wrong about things before =P

  4. Sandra says:

    Hey, Babs! It’s great to see you here.

    Unfortunately, the long response that I wrote to your comments was eaten — twice! by two different series of improbably events (also known as me being an idiot). And after thinking about it I realized that I really hadn’t added anything anyway, so I think I’ll just leave it alone and not tempt fate a third time.

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