The Problem of Cutthroats Pricing

by NorseGamer, HSM Editor-in-Chief

There’s a Deep Space Nine episode, “Battle Lines,” in which warring factions are condemned to forever kill each other, resurrect, and start the whole process over. No one ever truly wins; every victory is pyrrhic, because your felled enemy is simply going to wake up in a little while and come at you again.

It was just…pointless.

In Cutthroats, once you’ve maxed out your levels and won all the rewards, the same problem emerges: there’s very little incentive to keep playing, because no matter what you do, there’s very little that can be done to extend the length of each round of battle. It becomes a monotonous grind of taking turns with invincibility.

Now, granted, all games are repetitive. That’s the nature of games. The question is how well you can disguise it. Some games disguise the monotony by scaling up the difficulty, in order to create a sense of progression. Others create plots that unfold as you achieve certain goals. Anything to give you a sense of forward progress.

And, to be fair, Cutthroats does have for-purchase commodities which make this feasible. You can buy all sorts of limited-use upgrades for your ship. Here’s the problem, though: while the game itself is brilliant, the freemium model being used to try to drive sales absolutely kills it.

What it comes down to is pricing, and the free-to-play model being used.

It’s a joke. And a bad one, at that.

If you’ve followed HomeStation for any length of time, then you know that I’m not averse to Sony price experimentation in Home — a position which certainly hasn’t endeared me to some people in the community. Even if I occasionally disagree with the tactics, I get the strategy (with the exception of x7 as a loyalty program initiative, which I truly don’t understand). In the case of Cutthroats, though, I can only sum it up thus: this was a golden goose that somebody killed with greed and ignorance.

I don’t say that lightly. I’m a huge fan of this game and I want to see it succeed. But I can’t ignore how the business model looks to be its downfall. Which begs the question of who thought it was a good idea to begin with, and how the hell it got approved.

I really, really hate criticizing game developers — particularly for Home, where people are asked to build compelling experiences that need to be fun for years, on a budget that’s less than what I spend on cat food — but Cutthroats’ e-commerce model just isn’t structured very well, and it’s bugging me. A lot.

Last night, I spent another ten dollars on coins for ammunition and ship repairs. This brings my running total up to somewhere north of thirty bucks. For ten bucks, I acquired roughly two hours’ worth of fireball cannon shot (and that’s with rather conservative use) and three ship-repair items — which, given the average length of a typical round of combat, are worth maybe half an hour.

I’m sorry, but that’s a crap value proposition. Whether it was precipitated by greed or incompetence, the value-to-cost ratio is worse than Herman Cain’s tax plan. And the problem with this is that it actually creates an economic incentive not to invest. Why bother?

Let’s use SodiumOne as an example. In SodiumOne, I get to play five levels for free. If I invest five dollars in a piece of virtual clothing (which promptly goes into my storage), I get permanent access to forty-five more levels. If I invest another ten dollars, I get two permanent upgrades to my hovertank’s firepower which I can enhance through in-game experience acquisition.

"Time for a repair item, cap'n?" "HULK SMASH!"

Contrast that now to Cutthroats. I’ve blown at least thirty bucks on limited-commodity items. And I have nothing to show for it that’s tied specifically to investing in those power-ups. At this point I’m halfway to a disc-based title. Where the hell is my roped-off club for conspicuous consumption? For thirty dollars, I’d expect unlimited fireball ammo, permanent upgrades to my ship’s speed and damage output, longer invulnerability windows and a hell of a lot of cannon and ship repairs. If the repetitiveness of being sunk is the game’s achilles heel, then the goal should be to lengthen the average round. This creates an incentive to actually play more skillfully, rather than simply bash into every hull out there.

Are there freemium games in Home which offer limited-use power-ups? Sure. Sodium2 has rocket boosters, and Novus Prime has nebulon boosters. In both cases, though, the cost-to-value proposition is a hell of a lot better than it is in Cutthroats. And as a result I don’t feel ripped off about investing in them.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about this. Sony could be making a fortune with this game. We won’t know for another week or so, once we see SCEA’s top-ten items (by volume of units sold) for the month of April. But I’ll wager I’m not wrong, via two circumstantial pieces of evidence:

1. I’ve rarely observed someone using specialty ammo that has to be purchased.

2. The last few play sessions I’ve been in have had so few people that only about half of the ships were deployed.

I am disappoint

This is not good. I have this horrible feeling that Sony’s making a lot less money on this game than they’d projected, and while they have no one but themselves to blame if I’m right, it may create an incentive for them to not develop games like this in the future. And that bothers me, because I’ve done my best to evangelize what I think is inherently a fantastically fun game undermined by a disaster of a microtransaction business model. Sony’s had the benefit of studying the freemium models used by Lockwood, nDreams and Hellfire Games; I frankly expected a lot more competency.

Here’s how it should have been structured:

A. Players would be restricted to five levels of experience if they played for free, and would be restricted to playing as gunners. They could play as much as they wanted, but could not progress beyond level five. This would allow those who wanted to play for free all the fun they wanted as gunners, blowing stuff up to their hearts’ content. The only access to a captaincy would be if the entire boat was crewed by players below level five.

B. Players who purchase a pirate outfit for $4.99 gain access to the other twenty-six experience levels, which they can play as gunners indefinitely.

C. At level ten, players who purchase a virtual companion (such as a parrot) for $1.99 open up skipper-level access, and can now captain a ship at will or via mutiny.

D. At level fifteen, gunners would now have the ability to mutiny. Gunners below level fifteen can support a mutiny, but cannot themselves mutiny and become captain. However, gunners who previously purchased captain-level access at level ten or higher will have the ability to lead a mutiny from that point forward.

E. Treasure chests collected from sunken vessels would have coins in them as well as experience points. This would allow people to acquire power-ups strictly from grinding, without having to spend a dime. (Why this wasn’t included in the game truly is beyond me.)

F. Permanent power-ups could be purchased, starting at level ten. $9.99 for unlimited fireball ammunition. $4.99 for permanent ship speed bonuses. $4.99 for permanent bonuses to damage, defense and maneuverability. These bonuses would increase as the player’s level escalated. Permanent power-ups could only be purchased via cash, and not game coins.

G. Players who reached the top level and had invested in captaincy would receive the grand prize of a free personal estate which included the ability to run a private three-ship version of the game (think of Novus Prime’s hangar and officer’s quarters).

Now, hey. I’m not a game designer. So maybe what I’ve just outlined is completely unworkable and the product of a disordered mind. I’m just a resort developer who’s spent the last ten years studying behavioral economics and successfully figuring out ways to get people to spend $40,000 on a $4,000 problem. So if you’re a game designer and you think that proposal was utter horse-puckey, I bow to your superior knowledge.

Besides, since Cutthroats is already live in Home, it’s not like any of that could be implemented anyway. So here’s what I’d recommend they do right now, with what they actually have:

1. Add coins to the treasure chests. Seriously. You want people getting power-ups. It’s something to strive for even after hitting the level cap.

2. Raise the level cap. People were maxing out within a single day of playing. It’s got to scale in such a way that it takes time to reach the top.

3. Deploy the ships farther apart from each other. This will cut down on the rather frustrating clusters of invincible ships sinking each other in wars of attrition. The whole point of this game is to reward strategic gameplay.

4. Real naval combat of the era had some pretty gnarly fog of war because of the cannonfire. I can’t imagine it’s that hard to program into the game, and it would add another strategic element.

5. Restrict mutiny to at least level ten. Give people something to strive for.

Kraken pls kthx

6. The setting itself should be more interactive. The warp zone is a great touch, but what about some of the great cliches of the sailing era? Random whirlpool warps? Storms which damage ships? That sort of thing.

7. Offer permanent upgrades which can be purchased either with a set number of coins or strictly through hard dollars.

8. Either offer a larger repair bonus upon a sinking a ship and collecting its treasure chest, or offer the ability (perhaps above level twenty) to careen the ship and repair a percentage of it without using a power-up.

9. Want to sell some of those outfits that were developed? Give them in-game bonuses. Skeleton gunners get a bonus to cannon damage, for instance.

I’m in the odd position of hoping that my instincts are dead wrong; I hope that Sony’s making a fortune off Cutthroats, because it’s a wonderful multiplayer game that lets people interact cooperatively and competitively without lag. I genuinely hope that the people who conceptualized this game’s e-commerce model and look at the sales volume printouts are laughing at me right now. But I can’t help shake this feeling that Cutthroats’ freemium model is inherently flawed, and Sony’s losing money on this thing as a result.

God, I hope I’m wrong.

April 24th, 2012 by | 12 comments
NorseGamer is the product manager for LOOT Entertainment at Sony Pictures, as well as the founder and publisher of HomeStation Magazine. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, he holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and presently lives in Los Angeles. All opinions expressed in HSM are solely his and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sony DADC.

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12 Responses to “The Problem of Cutthroats Pricing”

  1. Solitaire card game and board games like Monopoly remind me of your description of the Pirate Cove game. Play play play sometimes win mostly lose and go at it again. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    As a shooter boom boom boom Pirates Cove is a fun game. If one has the right crew, strategy can be used looking for wounded ships and sailing from one end to the other. If one is lucky that there aren’t pirates smarter and more skilled than your crew.

    Anyway I look at it the game is fun. Even when the scurvy ones who mutiny all the time it’s fun to see how they play. Personally, I think they’re not eating enough oranges or else had too much liquor. Some won’t even pick up chests of gold floating in the water.

    I bought 2 or 3 things, a pistol and some other stuff partly cus it was nice and partly to help support the game.
    But where’s the money coming from? I don’t see all that many fireball cannonballs. They are exciting but I’ll not likely buy them.

    You have some what appear to be good ideas on how to improve the game that would make the game more fun and more interesting to play.

    Having said all that, I love the game. It’s one of the few shooters that I can hit something. Not that I’m that great. Maybe average unlike the game.

    I’ve noticed a downturn in players but I often play early in the morning hours. And I wonder how much SONY’s online access problems have to do with the number of players.

  2. ElSkutto says:

    Excellent article, Norse, and I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendations to improve the game. I’m one of the people who played it religiously over the course of a single weekend and quickly maxed out my level. I’ve seen no reason to return to the space since.

    I’d argue an even worse decision was made with the Hunters vs. Yetis game. Again, you could spend real-world money for an in-game advantage with a very limited lifespan, but why bother? I maxed out my kills for both sides with less than 4 hours of playtime.

    Compare that with something like Aurora, where buying the experience-boosting items represents a savings of months of playtime, if not years. Or even Sodium One, where, after having finished all 50 levels, there’s still the incentive of earning credits to acquire reward items. And since new items are added every now and again, there’s reason to play regularly.

    I think Granzella has the right idea with the fossil-hunt and Edo of Nippon games. You can play for free and acquire all of the rewards with enough patience and/or luck, or you can purchase permanent upgrades at a relatively low cost with real-world money. The added bonus being that each of those upgrades includes a decorative item or piece of clothing, or even a personal space.

  3. Burbie52 says:

    All of the suggestions you made for this game make perfect sense Norse. I wish they could do the ones you said in your first example too. If they can add more leveling up it will bring people back to play too if there are good rewards to strive for. I think it should go as high as level 100 like orb runners does with an apartment at the end of it dangling like that carrot in front of the donkeys nose. You would have people there everyday just to get that alone. The coins thing with the chest HAS to happen! Maybe it could convert to that after you have reached a certain level, that would give people incentive to chase those chests down.
    The spawning thing is a great idea too. Perhaps they could somehow make it so you have to go through the warp portal to get your invincibility to start for the first part. That would encourage people to use the game to its fullest advantage and try strategy a bit more as they warped out to the larger area that seems to be little used at this point. That is a real shame as it is a beautifully rendered game and it seems that more than half of this area is going to waste.
    Great article with great ideas. I love the game and hope they take this constructive criticism to heart.

  4. Godzprototype says:

    A co-op option for naval battles would be an interesting addition to all of the suggestions above and fill the ships up with 2 sides to play. No small groups. Fill them up and work together.
    Maybe offer strategic ideas for naval battles.
    Create a learning curve for the user. The space seems large enough.
    Maybe throw in some enemy AI boats. The game has a huge potential! I just hope they don’t just drop the ball, it really is a cool game.
    The door is still open for marketing changes, I hope.

  5. BONZO says:

    It is a fun game but i must admit i haven’t purchased much myself as far as upgrades. Just a costume and the parrot companion. As far in game upgrades though I’ve purchased 0. I collected all the rewards and just shooting other players is pretty fun you generally just expect to sink at some point I haven’t played captain much I generally prefer to be a gunner. The level cap was a bit odd, wish there was a higher cap to shoot for same goes for Sodium 2. Before the Home issues propped up I hadn’t been there since the coachella weekend and there were people in the Dock just hanging out but not a single ship in use. I hope it was just the time i was logged on that contributed to that, and interest hasnt completely died out. I would like to see this game succeed but i agree there are some major flaws to the micro-transaction design. They really should have followed some of Lockwood’s methods.

  6. Kassadee Marie says:

    You have some really great ideas, Norse. I love this game and I think the best part is playing with/shooting at friends. If they quit playing, I will too. I don’t necessarily need rewards to enjoy a game, but these ones are pretty cool. (I bought the Pirate Ship to have a place to put them, which made me buy the pirate furniture package to have more to decorate with, lol.) I haven’t bought upgrades though, because I only like permanent upgrades. Having been shot at with the fire cannons, though, I can say they are awesomemost!

  7. Ro Schro says:

    Yes, yes and did I say yes already. I, like you Norse enjoy the game, and agree with most of your ideas. The fact that you can but cannon upgrades made sense to me, but that it was limited amounts…ok so that is one way to do it. That the gold chests for sinking a ship does not give you money towards purchasing the like is an obvioius fail. I liked the idea that purchasing a costume gave a reward in the game, that just makes sense. I have not, nor do i plan to spend a dime on this, because I think for the most part you don’t need to, and like you said, the reward vs cost is way off. I think there should be other rewards for level, for instance at a certain level, it opens up better ships to capitan, or better guns, say that shoot further. Or how about, a different arena for those over 15 or 20. How about a port on the other side of the aren where you can trade the gold made from sunk ships to repair, and have bonus’ for each consecutive ship sunk in the same life. So that if you sink 2, the reward is bigger than the first, and the thrid is greater than the second, so there is an incentive to stay alive; like a combo xp bonus of sorts.

    BTW, it was good playing with you the other day Norse, even though it was short lived. Dam system booted me, but you were one of the best players I had the pleasure of teaming with since I started playing.

    • NorseGamer says:

      Escalating bonuses for sinking ships in one round is a brilliant idea, and I hope it’s implemented at some point. It creates yet another strategic reason to want to stay alive for as long as possible.

      The worst value-to-cost proposition in the game, as far as I can see, are the large-scale ship repair items. A three-pack costs me virtually the same as a fireball bundle, but they can only be used once per round and still get used up *very* quickly. This wouldn’t be so bad if the treasure chests awarded more substantial repairs on their own, but the percentage of health restoration is a joke.

      Insofar as I can ascertain, the biggest weakness with this game is the lack of permanent power-ups. *Every* microtransaction only gives you temporary boosts. This is a major flaw. Every other major game in Home — SodiumOne, Sodium2, Novus Prime and OrbRunner — allow you to purchase *permanent* power-ups. Even if coins were added to the treasure chests, there’s still no permanent upgrades for those who want to use money to bypass the grinding.

      I really do love this game with a passion, but it’s bugging me that some of the basic fundamentals for a successful freemium commerce model are missing from Cutthroats.

      As an aside, it was quite fun blasting enemies with ya, Ro. We had a pretty good kill streak going before we all got booted offline.

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