I empathize, remembering a similar conversation from the days when Prodigy, AOL and CompuServe all charged hourly, and we come together discussing how very, very angry multi-thousand dollar bills make parents. "There's a genie that can be unleashed from a bottle, and we wanted to get away from it," he says, getting back into the source of his inspiration. "The problem is, with a monthly fee, you've got people paying $15 a month for their game. As you well know, you've got your leet Level 60 'I own everything' who knows everything that plays hanging off the edge of his bed, 22 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, he's paying $15 a month for that. And this other guy who works and comes home and hasn't got any time, but on the weekend, he'd really like to crank out some Star Wars Galaxies or EverQuest or whatever, and he pays $15 a month, too."
That's normal for the industry and fairly obvious, right up until what he says next. "That really sucks," he says, pausing for a moment to let it sink in. "Anybody who knows anything about economics looks at that and goes, 'Well, value broken.' Doesn't work. They should be getting value for what they're paying. We wanted to address that and make sure that people are getting the value of these games that they're paying for." The idea that people should pay based on what they use is so commonsense, yet utterly foreign to most of the MMOG industry. It seems ludicrous, from an outsider's point of view - and from an economist's - that people who play once a month pay just as much as people who never log out of the game.
He continues. "And we've got people running around, doing the errands, gathering the firewood, who aren't really spending much on the game, but they're playing the game for free or very, very cheaply. And you've got other people who are playing the game very intensively, very hardcore, who are paying into it, who are putting money into the economy, kind of paying for the freeloaders who are helping them out."
While we're talking money, I ask him about some of their potential other revenue streams, or maybe if they'd consider letting people take money out. "We might do additional features, like pay for web hosting for guilds and that kind of stuff, but to be honest, there'd be additional merchandise first, like selling t-shirts." He hearkens back to the arcade model from before, saying, "We'd like to keep the virtual economics side of the game separate, make sure we don't have inflation or deflation or anything that might affect the game world. That's why we don't have transactions back out. No, we'd like to keep it sort of clean and simple. You can just buy sesterces. It's that simple."
With any game design, no matter how robust, there's always an unexpected element to how things will turn out. The potential monkey wrench in any game system is the players. I ask Kerry if they've surprised him at all. "They have and they haven't," he says. "They literally surprise me every day. They've invented something new, or they're doing something I simply haven't accounted for. You know, Richard Bartle and I go back a bit, too. I was talking to him about this very subject and he shared the story of when he used to run MUDs, the original MUD." He admits he's probably going to get the story wrong, but continues. "There was this one chap who collected roses. And the rose wasn't a viable item. I mean, you couldn't do anything with them. They didn't get you any points or anything. But he had like 10,000 roses in his inventory, and he collected them, and Richard was saying you can't account for that in design. You can't account for someone who wants to store 10,000 useless objects. Why would they do that? But they do."
That leads to a moment of reflection. "And that's the fun bit about designing about a virtual world, to be honest. Whatever LEGO bricks you put down there, people are going to build the most amazing things out of them, and you're not going to be able to predict it." Giving control freaks a bit of a heart attack, he adds, "And if you can predict it, your game is far too narrow. You need to give them that freedom. That's what they're playing for. There is activity that you as a developer will not understand, and that is a good thing. If there isn't activity you can't understand, you've made the game too narrow."