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Customer Service - The Price of Free-to-play

Posted Tue, Jun 04, 2013 by Dalmarus

It's become clearer and clearer over time that free-to-play is the preferred business model of today's gamers. When monetized smartly, the return for companies can be tremendous with only a very small percentage of a game's population purchasing items. Those players have the benefit of having plenty of others to adventure with who don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy the game. But whether you pay for items in the game, or play for free, the piper always gets paid in the end.

For years, players paid a subscription and, when issues with the game or their characters occurred, they were able to state, "Since I'm a paying customer, I expect this to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time." And they were justified in saying so. They were giving the company money every month and expected a certain level of customer service in return. What happens when that argument is invalidated by a free-to-play platform? We'd all like to think every company out there would provide excellent customer service for anyone using their products, but sadly, this just isn't the case.

If less than 25% of a game's population is buying anything inside the game and generating revenue, then [the publishers] should only need to provide support to those paying. Right?

It's important to remember that, at the end of the day, every company is in this business to make money. One of the first areas companies think they can save money tends to be the customer service department, especially if a title is doing poorly. How can that be? If less than 25% of a game's population is buying anything inside the game and generating revenue, then they should only need to provide support to those paying, right? Taking that idea further, it’s reasonable to then assume that since less than 25% of players are paying customers, they can handle CS requests with a minimal staff. Some companies take that train of thought even further and decide to just cross train their current CS staff to answer questions for the new title.

To the number crunchers, it may sound like a brilliant idea. In reality, it's a disaster waiting to happen. Take for example, Neverwinter. Anyone who’s been reading my articles knows I'm a huge fan of the game and have been having a blast. I'm still having a great time with the game, but there is one area where Perfect World is failing horribly -- customer service. I've had a few issues I've opened tickets for, both minor and major, none of which have been responded to properly. One of those involves an auction I was outbid on and never received the one million plus Astral Diamonds I had put on it. As of today, this was exactly one month ago. During this time, I've had multiple tickets "dealt with” using one of the oldest CS tricks in the book -- mass closing. It’s a popular tactic in the world of CS, perpetrated all the time by companies all over the country, both inside and outside the game industry. Let me share some knowledge with you.

Customer service departments are slaves to service level agreements (SLA). Depending on what level of severity a ticket is listed under, it's given a timeframe as to when it has to be dealt with. When companies are bombarded with thousands upon thousands of tickets, a popular tactic is to write a blanket response containing a suggested self-fix and a request to please open a new ticket if this didn’t resolve the issue. Then they grab all the tickets that fall under X category and send out this message while closing those tickets at the same time. The theory behind this is that if you send a response to 20,000 tickets, 10-50% of them may be correctly closed since a player who isn’t having an issue anymore never bothers to close their own ticket. Assuming that a maximum of 50% of those tickets were answered correctly (and believe me, I can tell you from being on the inside that this is an extremely generous assumption), it allows the CS managers to proclaim proudly that they closed 20,000 tickets. Everyone cheers. Except of course, the 10,000 players you just pissed off by clearly showing that you never read their issue.

Customer Service - The Price of Free-to-play

The first time a company pulls this stunt, we tend to accept it because, okay, maybe they're a little too backed up and need to essentially start over. By the fourth time any company done this, especially for a player with the exact same issue all four times, they deserve to be called out on it. I love Neverwinter and think the folks at Cryptic have done a tremendous job. Sadly, the Perfect World CS department is dragging that hard work through the mud. Over a million Astral Diamonds is not chump change and certainly not something you want to be missing for a month while the parent company continues to close your ticket with a useless blanket response. If I hadn't paid for anything in the game, I'd still be irritated, but I'd be more understanding. The fact is though, like thousands of other players still in the lurch, I've spent hundreds of dollars on not only this title of theirs but more as well. (Lifetime subscription to Star Trek Online anyone?)

Sadly, my story is not the only one of its kind. Nor is Perfect World the only company currently embracing this failing version of customer service. Wrong or right, some companies are at least conscious enough of their paying customers to put them in a different category of service. To those, I say congratulations on grasping the bare necessities of customer service. My question to readers is this: Is this a price we are willing to continue paying? Is it fair to the players? Is it fair to the developers?


Yes, and no. You fail to mention that the customer can always pack up and leave to another one of the many MMOs currently on the market. Although the service might go down, there are still motivators with the F2P model for companies to provide good service to users. Their MMO would have to be the best in the galaxy for them to provide crappy service and not expect customers to eventually pack up and leave.

A valid concern though in an industry that has all but given up on the P2P model.

There's never been anything stopping someone from moving on, but when it's becoming the norm to have customers wait days and weeks for responses (again, I'm not just talking about Neverwinter) with an FTP model, the option to just pick up and move on becomes less of a worry for these companies.

Depending on which developers you talk to, they'll be more or less up front about how their company factors "churn" into their business model. The idea here is that you have to account for X number of players entering and leaving your game from month to month.

With a subscription model, you want lower churn since the goal is ongoing subscription revenue. But with FTP you always want a good mix of both stable and new customers. Long term players have a greater investment in the game, so are likely to spend cash on things like cosmetic upgrades over time. New players are more likely to purchase quality of life improvements (boosts, inventory upgrades, etc.). So your model has to account for both.

A reason why churn is considered OK is that something like an XP boost or inventory upgrade costs the developer less up front resources to implement when compared to new armor skins, or items more likely to appeal to ongoing players. So having X number of players leave and Y number entering on any given month means more opportunity to sell the low production cost items.

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