Refunding a Free Admission: Taking Care of Customers in F2P

Thu, Feb 3, 2011

Free-to-Play, Frisky Misc, MMOG

Last week, on the TriplePoint blog, I wrote a short piece about taking care of angry customers when the service has been poor. I advised providers to be forthright, humble, and to make an immediate reparatory gesture for best results. Karma, it seems, is a real kick in the teeth sometimes.

Yesterday, a free-to-play MMORPG that I enjoy discovered an incredibly damaging bug, one so crippling to their business and to the game, that they were forced to employ the game equivalent of scorched earth: the servers were rolled back. Not by hours, not by a day, but by an entire week. Character progress? Undone. Quests? No longer complete. Purchases? Vanished. One-in-a-million loot drops and prizes? Never happened.

Needless to say, the community was furious. To their credit, the game providers had done everything I suggested, including an immediate apology, an acknowledgement that they understood how devastating this was, and a material peace offering. Yet, despite myself, knowing that they were handling this as best they could, and empathizing with their position, I was still miffed. I felt some sense of entitlement for the time I had committed to advancing myself through their game, time which would now need to be repeated over the course of another week. This gave me pause: The MMO was, after all, free, and like most of its players, I had never spent a single dollar to enjoy it. How much entitlement was I truly entitled to?

An MMORPG is a business, after all, and if I want to keep beating up bad guys and exploring my little fantasy world, then someone’s got to pay the hosting costs, the support staff needs to eat, etc. My presence in the game is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege can be revoked at any time, for any reason. If I don’t like it, nobody is forcing my hand, and no game is perfect. I can suck it up and accept human error as inevitable, and take the bad with the good, or I can try to find greener pastures. These arguments, though not perhaps what one often wants to hear, all have some degree of validity, and should serve to keep a consumer humble.

The game provider, however, cannot afford to simply tell their customers to “deal with it.” In F2P gaming in particular, the entire business model hinges on customer satisfaction: Every free player is a potential buyer, and they won’t get there if they are dissatisfied. Worse still, keeping the paying customers happy means keeping the free players around, since they add value to the game simply by existing. A massively multiplayer game needs to meet both of those descriptors to satisfy any segment of Bartle’s player breakdown: achievers need other players underneath them in the leaderboards, explorers need an audience for their knowledge… socializers and killers should be obvious.

In this particular instance, the blame is not so easily placed, and better judgment could certainly have been exercised on each side. However, there is also no obvious solution for a case like this: if the game provider gives in to the most vitriolic of demands and gives every player a wealth of premium content, then their revenue stream dries up and the game collapses. If they do nothing, their players leave in disgust, and the game collapses. The primary dilemma is that there is no fixed value for somebody’s time, and finding the right refund for a free product is a delicate art.

Now that I’ve had time to cool off, I must admit that raising the experience rate to help me gain back the ground I’ve lost is probably the best they could have offered – and they did. Kudos.

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  • Mike

    I can’t help but think of Notch’s response to the Minecraft servers crashing, which was to make the premium service free for as long as it took to fix the problem – and their popularity exploded. Nothing rallies the playerbase’s total attention like a sudden game-breaking bug, and as such it can be a huge opportunity for engagement.