Monday, June 08, 2015

Cosmetic Versus Content Pricing

Hearthstone introduced a new Hero: Magni Bronzebeard. This is basically a replacement for the current Warrior, Garrosh. As far as I can tell, Magni is entirely cosmetic. The warrior ability is identical, as are all the existing cards. Magni just replaces the hero artwork and sound effects. Magni is being sold for $10.

I thought that this price was entirely reasonable. Magni is cosmetic, and is totally unnecessary. So why not charge a premium?

I was quite surprised when I saw the community reaction to Magni's pricing. Though honestly, when it comes to F2P games, I should just expect that the community will always complain, regardless of what the pricing actually is.

But seriously, isn't it better for the content that is sold to be cheap, and the cosmetics be expensive? Shouldn't a player on a limited budget be directed to content, like packs of cards or Arena, rather than pushing her towards unnecessary cosmetic items?

The problem, however, is that consumers look at the individual transactions, rather than the game as a whole. Content is considered to have more value than cosmetics, so inexpensive content is seen as a good bargain. Meanwhile expensive cosmetics is seen as poor value, and the consumer gets angry at the company for "gouging".

But pricing according to perceived value would have a negative effect on the F2P model. Content would be expensive, and cosmetics would be cheap. It would actually be very expensive to play the core game, becoming closer to the Pay-2-Win complaints. The base level of money needed to play would skyrocket, while the optional value extracted would be quite small. F2P games operate on the opposite principle, that the base level of money needed is low, while the optional value that can be extracted is high and variable. This is the very element that allows players to pay what they want and they can afford.

If a player has a budget of only $10, it's better that she buys 5 rounds of Arena, rather than 5 cosmetic items. In the long run, spending money on content will be more useful. Pricing cosmetics more expensively pushes the limited budget player towards content, as the better value matters more to her.

High profit cosmetic items allow content to be sold relatively cheaply. If you're a fan of F2P games, you should be applauding Magni's pricing. In the end, it's much better for all players that content is cheap and cosmetics are expensive, rather than the reverse.


  1. Nice writeup, and a good argument..

  2. With cosmetic items having no gameplay impact (usually) it seems best that they be priced for the "frivolous" spender who is willing to drop the cash. I think the negative reaction was more to the perception of how much actual work was put in. Remember the outrage at the $25 sparklepony in WoW? People, in part, were angry because they believed a small amount of work went into something that could be infinitely duplicated. Now we have no actual idea how much work goes into either of them, I'd imagine a reasonable amount; but an amount equaling ~1/3 the game's price?

    People aren't looking at it from your perspective, reasonable as it is, because they just want to pay relative to the work put in. They aren't looking at Magni's price relative to content; even if Magni (and other cosmetic options) are essentially subsidizing content development. I think Magni is the same way; people see a different portrait, icon, vocals (I think?) and card back and assume it took Blizz a handful of days to crank it out, then they charge $10 and people assume they are being gouged.

  3. People are pissed because when compared to recent content releases, 10$ got them a couple of wings of Blackrock Mountain. That is, 6-8 boss fights, each with its own voiceovers and flavor, new cards - the full monty. Considering that alternate heroes have been asked for since launch, the pricing could've been a bit less aggressive/eye-gouging.

  4. The video showing how to get Magni "for free," basically justifies the reaction to me. It also clearly signals that what we currently have in the game in terms of unlockable achievements is all that there will ever be; everything else will be locked behind paywalls. Fully expect more deck slots to be $4.99 apiece, etc.

  5. Only major flaw is that HS is already massively Pay-4-Power, as most card games are, so the whole 'content/power is cheap, fluff is expensive' F2P thing isn't true for HS. To buy the average decent deck, you would need to spent WAY more than $10, and that's assuming the RNG gods are kind. If you build the average deck via crafting, that price tag is silly high.

    I think the more accurate complaint is what you get for that $10 in HS vs other fluff, like say a LoL skin. The average LoL skin for around $10 is higher quality and has more game impact (you see/hear it more). In comparison this fluff offering, especially since its from Blizzard, just feels cheap. Doesn't help that, again because of Blizzard, HS content delivery overall is also pathetically slow (not to mention zero effort made to balance cards post-release), so them 'wasting' time milking the game rather than actually making it better is seen as a negative as well.

  6. If a player has a budget of only $10, it's better that she buys 5 rounds of Arena, rather than 5 cosmetic items. In the long run, spending money on content will be more useful. Pricing cosmetics more expensively pushes the limited budget player towards content, as the better value matters more to her

    My counterargument is that not all players think in such utilitarian ways. What if that player prefers to "look" better over being more effective in the arena (maybe even especially because they're bad at Arena)? Such a player would find 5 cosmetic items more useful then 5 content items. As a result, expensive cosmetics is actually harmful to their interest in the game.

    I agree that the blowback is probably because of the mental disconnect between the value of content and the value of cosmetics, and Blizz looking to amoratize the cost of the game on the back of optional content (or maybe just expected them to be less popular). But I'm not entirely sure they got it as right as you feel they did.