It seems that with every negatively received update, especially recent ones in RuneScape — indeed in the history of all popular games — there's always that one person who says, "If you don't like it, find another game to play," or some advice to that effect, as if that's the appropriate response to the issue. It's not. Not even close. The irony is that this attitude is cynical in itself. It dismisses legitimate criticism on the basis that if an update cannot be enjoyed, the fault is with the user experiencing it, not the content itself. Don't get me wrong. I don't like players that whine or nit-pick little things to get upset over. I admit, even towards the broader issues of micro-transactions and real-world trading, that it can get tiring when users have no substantial argument to contribute to the discussion.
But what people fail to realize is that this type of voting with your wallet — merely leaving when you're "angry" with a game for another, presumably similar one — isn't a substantial argument either. It's a tired piece of advice that gives jaded veterans a few talking points to not merely counter, but silence customer dissent in an attempt to sound prescient and wise when it reeks of defeatism. Let's imagine a situation where this advice is even realistic. Let's suppose the upset users just left the game in mass droves because it's the sound and logical thing to do in the face of a controversial update, for some reason. Can you imagine a situation where this could happen? Actually, we do have a precedent: December 10, 2007 was the date of the infamous removal of the Wilderness and Free Trade in an attempt by Jagex to seriously combat Real World Trading.
However, subscription numbers only fell by a mere 60,000 out of one million subscribers in 2007.1 RuneScape reached one million active subscribers in May 2007.2 No figures were released as to how many bots represented the drop in subscriber count. Even so, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that this was a rather large percentage. I think thirty percent would be an acceptable estimate. This translates to 18,000 accounts having been bots and 42,000 having been subscribers who immediately quit for reasons related to the anti-RWT countermeasures. This is obviously a rough estimate in the absence of hard data, so the result shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Even then, with a population boasting seven million active users in 2007,3 we can calculate the rough percentage of users who left. There were about one million subscribers in 2007. 42,000 is 4.2% of one million. If we assume that each member had a base subscription of $5/month, then we'd expect a direct $210,000/month drop, or $1,200,000 drop in annual profits. However, even this estimate is very generous since we also lack data on how many quitting members paid throughout the whole year, the various methods used to subscribe (telephone, credit card etc.), and the fees associated with those subscription methods. I think we can safely assume that $1,200,000 would be the upper-bound limit, with the real figure likely lying well below that estimate, in the absence of hard data.
Jagex's total turnover for the fiscal year ending March 31st, 2008 [of which December 2007 was a part] was £34,592,468 GBP,4 not adjusted for inflation. The monthly average for the exchange rate of the Great British Pound in March 2008 was 2.000969 USD.5 This translates to a total turnover of $69,218,456 USD for the fiscal year ending March 31st, 2008. The estimate is not exact as the exchange rate monthly average varies throughout the fiscal year, but remains reliable nonetheless. Jagex's total turnover for the fiscal year ending March 31st, 2009 was £41,157,287 GBP, or $58,351,813 USD at an average exchange rate of 1.417776 for March 2009.6 That represents an 18.97% increase in total turnover from the previous year.7
The increase in turn-over [which includes turnover from subscriptions] seems to suggest that membership numbers increased even in the countermeasures' harrowing aftermath. Those countermeasures remained in place until 2011, and only because Jagex was under new majority ownership. Jagex didn't return Free Trade because of a mass referendum, or because those sixty thousand players tugged at its corporate heart-strings. It was a predetermined decision meant to go into force regardless of player response.
What do these numbers and facts mean? They demonstrate why this "like it or leave it" attitude has failed as an approach to controversial updates. It shows that while many players were upset with the anti-RWT updates, only a small percentage of the player base had registered their discontent enough to quit. This is reflective of the fact that the quality of game experience extends far beyond a single update. I value my playing experience. That doesn't mean I should stop playing when I see an update I don't like.
As a customer, I already voted with my wallet when I registered my interest enough to subscribe to the game. As a customer, I reserve the right to criticize an update which is demonstrably harmful to my playing experience or the game as a whole. And as part of the broader player base, Jagex does hold an obligation first and foremost to the customer who supplies it its revenue – not to its stockholders who merely seek a quick return on their investments. And this criticism of recent updates is making some headway. On 29 August 2012, company CEO Mark Gerhard elaborated8 on the role of micro-transactions in response to mounting player pressure:
[M]icro-payments are often associated with their potential to undermine the integrity of games so that companies can profit in the short-term. As a result, many players have questioned whether RuneScape is heading down this tragic route.
I want to say, categorically, that we will not go down this road. In reality - and quite in contrast to this speculation — the introduction of micro-payments to RuneScape has a significant role in ensuring that we can continue to support, develop and grow the game for many more years to come.
It seems that telling users with legitimate grievances to quit — when that's not the point — is no more effective at tackling the problem than organizing an in-game riot in response to a new update or policy. Indeed, it is constructive criticism while patiently watching where the show goes from here, not rage quitting, which motivates Jagex to re-evaluate its priorities, or at least assuage rampant player speculation in the meantime.
The 'market wisdom' of simply quitting when you disagree with an update also has problematic implications. It assumes that the various products offered within a particular market are more or less the same, rendering the act of quitting a simple task to perform. How can this be true, when the experience with each product varies between individuals and their preferences? It also ignores the implied time investment required to enjoy the competitor game on a comparable level to RuneScape.
I'm not going to quit my main account of seven years so I can wander aimlessly in search of a substandard game which requires just as much, if not more time investment, for me to enjoy it on RuneScape's level. I am disappointed at the direction this game has recently been taking. But don't silence me — allow me to better the collective experience by prodding Jagex to fix their mistakes. As a customer, don't I reserve the right to have my concerns fairly heard? If I wish to continue buying the product into the foreseeable future, which implies ensuring its stability and quality, I must certainly reserve that right.
The users promoting this failed wisdom should also notice that it does little to motivate the developers to release better content. This is typically one of the reasons it's promoted at all. With Jagex currently appearing to value its shareholders over the players, it won't matter how many users quit, because Jagex will just keep ramming their bulky appendage up the arse of the next customer who will take it. Jagex clearly still earns some revenue — let's not delude ourselves into thinking that quitting will pose a threat to their profits, or God forbid, pull at their heart-strings enough to reverse an update.
It's defeatism — quitting the game — in the hope of eliciting positive change — optimism. And it's a naïve form of market optimism, at that. Let's not go to that extreme. If Jagex were a recent start-up, voting with your wallet would be great advice, because it would heavily rely on membership revenue, and presumably enough users would organize in concert to effect change in their favor. But Jagex now retains several revenue streams to the point where quitting in small droves is rendered trivial, since Jagex can easily regenerate the lost income. Not to mention the aimless wandering in search of that elusive Holy Grail — that mythical "alternative game".
Don't tell me what I value. I value my experience in a way that allows me to constructively criticize Jagex — not to quit in the naïve hope that they see the errors in their ways, or in hope of a suitable replacement for RuneScape. My seven-year experience enabled me to appreciate the game for its core values, and to fight for them in a constructive manner. Not to discard it at the sight of a goblin and his wheel. You don't speak for me.