PlaySpan and the Free-to-Play Hype Machine

23 Dec
23 December 2009

I know this will come as a shock but I’m a fan of arguing.

In fact, I’m such a fan of it that I’ve cultivated that truly endearing quality all your favorite debaters exhibit — the ability to fervently argue a position I in no way actually support.  That’s right, I’m not happy just arguing with people who don’t agree with me.  I want everyone in there.

Some of this is work-related.  I only truly get comfortable about some design decisions by attacking them myself, so I pick fights about these and take various stances and see what develops.

Some of this, according to my wife, is that I’m a jerk.

Who’s to say which of us is correct (P.S., I am) but, whatever the reason, I argue a lot and I tend to gravitate toward people who can hold their own in a verbal scuffle.  But, while I love a spirited discussion, I am not a fan of several trends in modern arguing, chief among them “the Google argument”.

If you’re not familiar with this fine practice, allow me to provide the steps:

1. Get in an argument with someone.

2. Take up a position that is batshit insane.  Try something like, “that HAARP thing in Alaska is mind control”.

3. Following incredulous, flustered sputtering from your audience, find a computer, browse to Google, and type in your nutty claim.  In this case you might try, “HAARP is mind control”.  (Note: Be very careful not to type in anything that could be construed as a desire for information on the subject — do not search for just “HAARP” or “what is HAARP”, for example.  Doing so could produce links to pages that do not agree with your position.)

4. Click a few links.  Look for ones with headlines that support your statements, particularly ones that originate either from seemingly legitimate sources (look for “institute” or “foundation”) or celebrities.  Well formatted pages are harder to refute too — how can they be wrong, they look so professional?  Don’t bother reading anything except the headline, maybe the lead statement.

5. Cut and paste links to your selections in an email addressed to your earlier audience along with the in-your-face closers of your choosing.  For the current topic, I might suggest:

Srry but ur wrong.  Look -

O but I guess Jesse Ventura is wrong 2 huh?  That why he PRESIDENT of Minasota.  Thats why he HAS A TV SHOW.  Where is ur TV show?

Perfect.  You win.

Quickly on their way to becoming my all time favorite example of the Google argument are all of the reports posted regarding a press release made by PlaySpan,  a virtual goods monetization outfit.  These first started soiling my inbox back in September, when people who like to argue with me sent “I told you so” notes with this piece linked:

Free-to-play games account for over half of digital purchases

Several argue-partners were capable of reading almost the entire first sentence of the piece, giving them something to cut and paste along with well reasoned analysis, like:

“Free-to-play games take more in digital revenue than any other genre of game, followed by MMOs” — This is huge.  More money than WOW here.

This provided some fun (for me).  Then, for reasons I’m not clear on, the same study resurfaced again this month, when Gamasutra posted this slightly better headlined piece:

Study: 58% Of PlaySpan Users Buy Goods From Free-To-Play Games

Again, “I told you so” emails appeared in my inbox, again with a first line cut and paste and detailed analysis:

“58% of all its users have bought virtual goods from inside free-to-play games, significantly more than more traditional titles” – Just more proof.

This is the Google argument at its finest.  Not only is the standard “IF agrees THEN forward” logic applied but it’s being applied so expertly that the fact that both pieces are based on the same source material goes unnoticed.

So, before this gets reported somewhere else and I’m forced to talk about it again, allow me to highlight some of the bits that appear easy to overlook….

The PlaySpan study is a survey of PlaySpan customers.  Not of all humans on the planet or even of all people who play games.

So, when you see this:

Free-to-play games take more in digital revenue than any other genre of game, followed by MMOs….

What it really means is this:

PlaySpan users made more digital purchases on free-to-play games than any other game they made digital purchases on, followed by MMOs….

What it really, really, really does not mean is “free-to-play games make more money than World of Warcraft.”

In the first place, even they aren’t making this claim.  They’re saying they make more  “digital revenue”.  Not more capital-R revenue.  Not more profit.  More “digital revenue”, which could be defined  as almost anything.

Secondly, take a peek at the games PlaySpan deals with.  You will not find World of Warcraft or Lineage or Zhengtu or Aion or Fantasy Westward Journey or Final Fantasy 11 or any of a number of other massively popular and profitable MMOs.  I’m not making value judgments about any of the MMOs they do offer payment services for — I’m saying that this massively skews the results of a survey of their users.

Similarly, when you see this:

58% of all its users have bought virtual goods from inside free-to-play games, significantly more than more traditional titles…

What it really means is this:

58% of people who use PlaySpan bought virtual goods…

What it really, really, really does not mean is “58% of people have paid for (or will pay for) virtual goods.”

The statistic comes from a survey of people who use PlaySpan.  PlaySpan is a service that allows people to spend money on in-game microtransactions or virtual currencies.

Follow me?

The survey is asking people who are using a service that allows them to make “digital purchases” WHERE they are spending.  The survey is not (for the love of God) asking random people IF they have spent or will spend money on virtual goods.

Similarly, the fact that people who use a service that specializes in allowing them to buy virtual items spend “significantly more” money buying those virtual items than they spend on “more traditional titles”, does not mean “people spend more money on virtual goods than traditional titles”.

In the end, I know that I’m unlikely to change the opinions of my usual “future of games” argue-buddies with all of this.  However, the next time I get a “told you so” with a report on the PlaySpan study linked, at least I can just reply all with this page.  I give even odds that the fact I wrote it will go unnoticed….

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