Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do casual gamers care about fairness?

The Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks nerf

Do players of casual games care about fairness and equal treatment? Or are they so blasé that they remain unaware of any disparity in treatment that might give some players an advantage? Can publishers of casual games get away with deliberately withholding information in order to keep players ignorant and happy? With the case of the Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks item nerf in its game Free Realms, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) may be on the way to finding out.


A somewhat hard to get item, Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks offers a speed boost to a player wearing it. SOE reduced the speed boost on the item, and then after the predictable complaints, restored the original speed boost, but only for players who already had the item. Thus players with the old item have an advantage in all the timed minigames where it may be used. Among other disadvantages, players with the inferior version of the item will never be able to reach the top spots on the leaderboards for those minigames.

Subsequent posts from the Community Relations Manager (CRM) for Free Realms revealed that it was a deliberate decision to create two classes of players: those with the faster original item, and all other players who will receive the new slower item. While complaints from disadvantaged players have caused the CRM to avoid conducting events that might involve use of the item, the relatively mild uproar hasn't caused SOE to resolve the issue and restore fairness and the equality of players.

SOE sells items within Free Realms via microtransactions that confer advantage to the buyer. Players seem to have accepted this since any disadvantaged player can opt to spend real money to buy the item. In the case of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks, players with the inferior version have no recourse. As the issue is still being played out, it's too early to know how customer satisfaction will be affected.

One of the benefits of paid membership is getting ranked on the leaderboards. Making top spots on the timed minigame leaderboards unavailable to the majority of players won't help membership numbers. Zam's wiki has over 60 entries in its timed minigame category, but some are job-related and thus preclude wearing Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. The large number of timed minigames indicate that they are an important component of the Free Realms experience, and at least several dozen are affected. Since timed minigames are just one of the activities affected by the speed disparity there is ample potential for unhappiness.

The changes to Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks were not listed in the update notes, and were only acknowledged by the CRM in response to player inquiries. SOE has a policy for Free Realms of limiting information about updates to a brief summary of highlights. This stands in stark contrast to the detailed information about updates made available by SOE for its other games (which follows standard practice in the online game market).

The broader issue is not that a specific class of players is being disadvantaged by this particular change, but that by witholding details about changes to the game, all Free Realms players are disadvantaged compared to players of games with full disclosure. It's as if casual gamers are to be kept fat, dumb and happy: that by offering many distractions in the form of activities and new content (fat) while hiding details about game changes with negative impacts (dumb), players can be kept happy. It remains to be seen if such a policy can succeed.


To get Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks, a player must complete three collections. These collections, Postman Packages and Envelopes, Postman Postcards, and Postman Stamps, are completed by gathering items from resource nodes that spawn in a limited number of locations and remain invisible unless the player is doing the Postman job. (Free Realms currently offers 15 jobs for subscribers, 10 of which, including Postman, are available to free players).

Due to the difficulty of finding the item spawns (called Mail Supplies and Mail Supplies <Rare Collection>), it's common to reach level 20 of the Postman job (the level required to wear Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks) before completing the collections needed to acquire the shoes.

On 8/14 SOE released an upgrade to Free Realms which nerfed Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. In keeping with SOE's policy of hiding the detailed information about Free Realms updates from players, no indication of this was given in the update notes.

On 8/18 the original speed was restored. Again, no mention was made in the maintenance announcement, but in response to a player-created topic heralding the restoration of the former speed, the CRM posted [reqires login]:
Those with Speedy Kicks have the speed boost back. We may make it so any future versions of the kicks will be at the reduced rate, but your's are good to go.
On 8/19 a topic was created that confirmed the reduced speed of new Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks and in that topic kadewolfspotter noted that [reqires login]:
...the referee confirmed that this is the policy moving forward.  New kicks are level 11 speed boost vs. the originals which are level 13 speed boost.
Within just a few hours posts were added to this topic discussing the fairness of the change and its impact on disadvantaged players, as well as the lack of disclosure by SOE about changes to Free Realms.

Also on 8/19, kadewolfspotter posted [reqires login] a link to the video below which shows the speed difference between players using the two versions of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks:

Video showing comparison tests of the old and new versions of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. As of this writing it had 1,333 views.

Discussion continued over the next several days in both of the previously-linked topics. On 8/25 the CRM posted [reqires login]:
We did allow those players who already have the shoes to keep them. There aren't that many of them out there when compared to the number of people who play on a regular basis.

The biggest issue was that the change was not announced or explained properly. FR is not a typical adult MMO and we don't post every change that gets added to the game like other titles.
On 8/26 the CRM posted [reqires login]:
...I was going to do a postman run as a community event, but given all the Speedy Kick uproar changed things.
There have been no developments since 8/26.


SOE has admitted to a policy of treating its casual gamers differently than other MMO players. This affects not only current players of Free Realms but also potential players of its forthcoming casual Star Wars MMO. Its actions make clear that it's unconcerned by the potential business ramifications of disadvantaging the great majority of Free Realms players in favor of a tiny minority, since if the disadvantaged are kept ignorant they won't know any better and so won't complain. An assumption has been made that equal treatment isn't important to casual players and those in younger demographics, but anyone with kids knows that children can be particularly sensitive to unfair treatment, so this policy seems counterproductive for a game heavily marketed to younger players.


Thanks to FreeRealmsInsider for the video on YouTube, and ZAM's Free Realms Wiki was a handy reference. While I've specifically quoted and linked kadewolfspotter's comments on SOE's Free Realms forums, several other posters provided information and insights; see the topics linked above.

I've refrained from mentioning by name SOE's Community Relations Manager for Free Realms since they are simply communicating policy decisions made by others.

Update on 9/17: This post was written before the GDC Austin keynote in which SOE president John Smedley said:
"There are some upsides to kids. They don't call customer service, almost ever. And they don't talk on the forums."
For a summary of his remarks, see John Smedley on Free Realms at GDC Austin.


  1. Why would you not tell people about game changes? How hard could it really be to post a "FYI, your fast shoe items dont work anymore" somewhere obvious?

  2. Personally, I see the Sony way as being more fair. It certainly is more like real life where the term is "grandfathered in." It is legally easier and gets less customer resistance to change the terms and conditions going forward rather than to retroactively try to change a contract.

    So if i grinded to get a +12 strength sword and now they think new swords should be +10, then mine should stay +12. That is fair. That is what it was when they "sold" it to me - when I decided whether I wanted to whatever it took to get it. Perhaps if I had know it was going to be +10, I would have gotten a +11 mace or just not bothered. Not retroactively changing equipment is a great idea, is fairer, and is more like real life.

  3. @Hagu: Somehow I doubt that you would think it 'fair' if the reverse happened (the item were boosted rather than nerfed, and yours was left alone). This situation you describe may be fair to -you- but not fair to the multitudes of people who have not gotten it yet, or who might EVER want it (because they first hear of the game today).

    Thankfully most games are more interested in fairness to the majority, not a minority. Free Realms is apparently not, but perhaps the adage of 'You get what you pay for' applies here.