Online Predators

By Alec Meer on January 8th, 2008 at 1:47 pm.

METAPHOR

January for shiftless UK games freelancers means frantic tax return time, in which we hand an eye-watering amount of the money we thought we’d earned in the last year back to the Inland Revenue. Going through the terrifying mountain of paperwork involved, something on a recent bank statement catches my eye.

SOE*SUBSCRIPTIONS GBP 9.20

SOE Subscriptions? Y’what? A frantic search reveals that whatever it is, I’ve been paying it for the last 11 months. SOE is, of course, Sony Online Entertainment, the MMO-centric arm of the Japanese games/tech despot. I log into Station, their central account service for all their games, and check what I’ve been charged for. It’s not Pirates of the Burning Sea, the beta of which I tinkered with a while back. It’s not Planetside, which is now free, and whose glory days I miss terribly. It’s not Star Wars Galaxies, which I haven’t played since 2004 (though I’m strongly tempted to revisit it for an RPS post some time). That means it’s…. Oh no.

It’s Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. This was the MMO released last year, with some fanfare, by Sigil, a new studio headed by some former Everquest luminaries, and was once the great hope for a smart, deep game to beat WoW and somewhat reinvent this often workmanlike genre. It didn’t. Some great ideas in there, especially in terms of making a world that wasn’t hung solely around hitting stuff, but it was horribly broken, depressingly characterless, wildly inconsistent and cursed with laughably demanding system requirements at its launch. It wasn’t terribly successful, and Sigil and Vanguard were subsumed into SOE last May. The game continues still – several major updates down the line, Eurogamer reckon it’s in slightly ruder health these days. It sounds as though it’s still short on personality, the major shortfall for me, so I’m not likely to go back, but if anyone here’s playing Vanguard, we’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Edit – we were gonna save this for a round-up post rather than be filthy rumourmongers again, but, seeing as we’re on the subject anyway, and people are bound to say “why haven’t you jabbered about this?”, here’s an ex-Vanguard developer offering his entertainingly scandalous tuppence on what caused the game to be the mess it was. Opiates, apparently…

I specifically remember cancelling my subscription after just under a month of play, before my free trial ran out, but presumably the bailing out request got lost in the system somewhere. I don’t have an email about it, but then I haven’t had an email from SOE since 2005 and The Matrix Online beta, for some reason. The sum total of around £112 isn’t a devastating amount of cash, and I don’t quite know what my legal rights are here, but it certainly feels like it’s been stolen from me- £112 of fun I haven’t had. That’s compounded by discovering that the bank card SOE have on file for me expired last March. It even says EXPIRED in big red letters on my Station account page, and demands I add a new card. And yet they’ve been merrily pulling cash from it on a monthly basis for almost a year. How can this happen – how can details of a dead card still be used to pull money from my account almost a year later? And can I get it back? Yes, I can. The lovely fraud prevention folk for my bank say they can easily strongarm the last four months of payment out of SOE, but the rest apparently can’t be claimed because I didn’t notice this sooner (which is fair enough, really).

This screenshot is the only reason I found to love Vanguard

While I’m childishly delighted about little old me getting to call in a fraud service on one of the biggest corporations in the world, I don’t actually believe SOE are some great, corrupt evil to be avoided at all costs. It’s just One Of Those Things. I’ll be sticking to timecards rather than ever setting up a standing subscription with any of their games again, mind.

I guess my only hope of getting those first six months of cash back is pointing Sony at the records they must have, showing I’ve not logged into Vanguard since last February. That won’t count for anything – it must happen all the time, and I suspect it’s some of the financial bedrock the modern MMO is built upon. My mind spasms in mathematically-deficient panic when trying to guess how much money Blizzard, SOE, Codemasters, whoever must make each year from those hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of gamers whose time in an MMO organically dwindles over the months, until they’re no longer playing at all, but actually cancelling the subscription slips their mind. Either it just doesn’t occur to them, or somewhere in the back of their heads they’re still thinking “yeah, I’ll go back in… when I have the time.” Cancellation’s something commonly done as an immediate reaction to a negative experience – my guild has split up, you’ve nerfed minstrels, a caption in your magazine says a rude thing about Jesus/the North of England/flight sim players… Gradual entropy of enjoyment seldomnly causes that burning need to demonstrate one’s dissatisfaction.

In which case there’s nothing they can do once they notice they’re still paying, no-one to blame except themselves. No doubt that’s one of the reasons MMOs are so beloved of publishers – it’s a hook right into soft, yielding bank account flesh, and one that can stay attached for years, regardless of whether the owner’s actually playing. Free, invisible money in vast quantities.

No wonder Microsoft thought it could persuade PC gamers to part with their cash for a Games For Windows Live Gold subscription – there’s probably a whole bunch of damning demographic data that reveals we’re capable of being an incredibly stupid bunch about our gaming money. I’d love to see figures on how many people are actually paying for a GFWL Gold account. I’d like to think it’s not even in triple figures, but there’s always that dread chance that a few thousand people who picked up Universe at War or Gears of War PC didn’t manage to jump through enough legalese hoops to realise that they could play it online without paying extra. Even one RPS writer – who shall remain nameless unless he chooses to ‘fess up – was initially convinced the GoW multiplayer required a paid-up Gold account, and wouldn’t work with the free Silver version. Can GFWL Gold really have a future? I suspect so. It’d surely be dead already if it wasn’t earning anything.

Rant ends. Any tales of gaming-related financial horror yourselves, mighty readers?

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35 Comments »

  1. Evo says:

    On the GFWL issue – across various forums and sites I frequent I often see people complaining that they have to pay to use GFWL. Not that they have the option to pay for the gold service but that they think they HAVE to pay just to use the service.

    This shows a lack of knowledge when it comes to GFWL and probably (as in your case Alec) a lack of knowledge of MMO subscriptions.

    Companies have to be more clear with people and their options for paying and canceling subscriptions as many people will just read someones rant about having to pay to play GoW online and take it for fact.

    In short game companies need to come out and clearly define the options to everyone, not hide them away in a webpage which is only ever linked to once in a blue moon.

  2. Zell says:

    I’m impressed with Blizzard on this. None of the usual tiresome hoops to jump through, just a friendly UI that lets you trivially cancel anytime and just as easily resubscribe.

    My guess is that while they could probably get a small amount of extra income by making unsubscription a hassle, most current WoW players (including myself) have gone through at least one iteration of leaving (for a substantial amount of time) and then returning because all their online friends are still there. That’s something you’re happy to do only with a company that hasn’t screwed you.

  3. Peter says:

    Blizzard acctually has a maximum subscription time of 6 months, and requires you to log in and allow them to charge for another 6 months.

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    That was me. They hid the fucking thing well enough.

    KG

  5. Trevor says:

    “returning because all their online friends are still there”:
    Online friends… ha! Online friends are not ‘real friends’. They are more like ‘people I associate with’ or ‘people I talk at’. I would not even consider ‘online friends’ to be equal to ‘friends at work’.

  6. Nallen says:

    I would consider many online friends > many work ‘friends’.

    Anyway I’ve been paying for EVE for 2 years, there was at least 9 months of that where I was paying 3 accounts, then I had a bit of a wtf moment and sold one of them, for ISKies.

    So now I’m not playing two EVE accounts :)

  7. Muzman says:

    Darn. I was hoping you’d happened upon some secret Special Operations Executive tax to help fund anti nazi operations in Europe, ‘accidentally’ left on the books for 60 yrs and the British government has quietly become dependant on.
    Oh well.
    Er, no stories from me though, sorry

  8. Phil says:

    Not to turn this into ukresistance, but I wouldn’t discount Sony being “some great, corrupt evil to be avoided at all costs” so readily.

  9. Cargo Cult says:

    It’s not Frantic Tax Return Time until you’ve entirely lost your login details for the online submission thingy, it’s a day before the final-final-final deadline (April, or something?), you’re having to calculate it all by hand from a ream of instructions that would make your average bureaucrat cry, and, oh, you’re in another country. Without a lot of your paperwork.

    BUT I MADE IT!

  10. Sam says:

    I went back and had a dabble over the holidays after getting a 1 month free pass… – read: they were trying to tempt me back – It runs a lot smoother, looks pretty enough and there is initially a nice feeling of exploration making you ask yourself, ‘Whats over that hill?’ Of course you then generally suffer the disappointment, ‘Oh, more of the same’. The geography doesn’t deviate much I found and the cities seem devoid of life, in both the PC and NPC variety.
    I’ll remember the game fondly from the beta where it seemed to have such great promise. Of course then they released it. Ah well, I’ll be looking elsewhere for my MMO fix…

  11. Zell says:

    I’m glad your real life friends mean so much to you, Trevor, but your experience is not shared by everyone. Looking back at 18 years of online communities and the myriads of complex ways in which they have intersected my life, ‘real’ and otherwise, the distinction seems increasingly immaterial.

    People are people. The medium may or may not be a big factor in how you relate to them.

  12. The_B says:

    I can’t remember where I read about you could still play multiplayer without a gold sub on GFWL, but I do remember having to state a fair few hundred times to various people who asked about it. I agree, Microsoft did seemingly try to keep it too quiet and people made erroneous assumptions. Which in a lot of ways can be the downfall of a lot of games really. When people make assumptions about stuff without reading more into it and suffering as a result. Example: the recent Crysis/UT3 sales thingy – a lot of people have assumed without even checking to verify – that their machines won’t run the game, and then stay away. And then of course the recent stories on here about gaming ‘stupidty’ – I think it would be very interesting to hear about gaming stupidity but in the realm of before the game is purchased – a recent example personally is that yesterday I came across someone who thought that the PC version of Guitar Hero 3 didn’t come with a Guitar controller at all, and that people were expected to use the keyboard.

  13. Zuba says:

    I paid for FF11 for over a year between actually returning to play for a week or two once, and having the computer the login info was saved into (quick password I could remember, the unchangeable nasty one was lost to me) die on me forced me to call into tech support, which was only open while I was at work, and somehow remember the right things needed to get them to tell me my stationID and all that crap. After a year on it I had enough and got around to getting it killed off.

  14. Ben says:

    “It’s not Planetside, which is now free, and whose glory days I miss terribly. “

    Uh, Planetside isn’t free. If it was free? We’ve have better pops. However, right now we’re in the middle/nearing the end (I think) of a free account reactivation period from the holidays for all those with old PS/Reserves accounts. So the free is going away at some point. Supposedly they’re bringing back the Reserves some time this year.

  15. Halibut Barn says:

    I’m really awful at letting subscriptions linger on and it usually takes some kind of event or crisis to jar me into action.

    In Ultima Online, I dutifully logged in and refreshed my house once a week for months after my actual playtime had dwindled away to nothing. It wasn’t until my card expired and I would have had to go through the billing system to reactivate my account that I finally broke down and said “Eh, not worth it…”

    It was a similar housing-driven story in Asheron’s Call, except I actually did forget to log in one month and lost my house, spent a few hours running around to find the items needed to repurchase it, and then thought to myself “Why in the world did I just do that?”

    I still haven’t let go of Everquest, though. All those levels, all those accumulated AA points, all those new zones and monsters to see since I last played. But I might go back and check them all out anytime now. Real soon now. Honest.

    Oh who am I kidding…

  16. Mike says:

    Talking of Vanguard, did anyone catch this fabulous rant by an ex coder on the game?

    http://www.fohguild.org/forums/mmorpg-general-discussion/31593-vg-producers-letter-49.html

  17. drunkymonkey says:

    I’ve only ever used game cards for World of Warcraft. They’re convenient, and what you see is what you get. You pay the money to the shop, and that is the end of the exchange. It also gives me a chance to wander around GAME aimlessly, which is always relaxing.

    And sadly, it seems Guild Wars’ biggest draw…that of it not having any subscription fees at all, was not followed up.

  18. Cook says:

    That is why for MMOs i use a special credit card, it’s tied to my account and it only works when i transfer money to it. So when ever i need to pay a subscription i load it up with th 15 euros or whatever… and if i don’t. Well then they don’t get any chas and they cancel the account.
    Speaking of which i wonder how many times there has been a “mistake” the other way… that a aperson gets to play for free. :)

  19. Nuyan says:

    I did Mike and it was one of the most fascinating things I read last couple of days.

  20. Seniath says:

    When I got my Xbox, back in 2004, I signed up for a Gold Live account. Well, my mum signed up for a Gold account, since I didn’t have a credit card. A year later, after using it about 3 times, I ask her to cancel the Direct Debit, and think nothing more of it.

    Two years later, she rings me up and says “What’s this charge of £49.99 from Microsoft doing on my card”. Shit, I thought to myself, I know exactly what that is. And it’d have charged her the year before. And the year before that. By this point, I’d got myself a 360 and a new gamertag, so spent the evening trying to track down my old gamertag details, and cancel the damned subscription. Which was fun.

    Luckily, it was close enough to the latest charge date that they refunded that £49.99. Shame about the other £100 :s

  21. Nick says:

    That was an extremely interesting post.. Brad McQuaid on drugs certainly explains a lot.

  22. malkav11 says:

    Most MMOs will hang onto your account data for ages without you being active, so there’s really no point paying for an account just to maintain your character’s existence. (As a corollary, if they *didn’t*, I’d probably immediately drop the game and never, ever play again – I ain’t repeating entire swathes of gameplay just ’cause I’m easily distracted.)

    Yes, I know they talk about getting rid of your account after six months or whatever. As best as I’ve ever been able to determine, that’s just to give themselves the *option* of deleting your data if they need to. Most people will never have it happen.

  23. Asif says:

    The system that MMOs have been using was perfected by gyms and various fitness clubs years ago. Many people who have gym memberships don’t actually go. They hope in the back of their heads that they will, if not today, then tomorrow. This distant hope goes on indefinitely, while money continues leaving their bank account, until they die from collapsed lungs under the crushing weight of their man-boobs.

    MMOs function similarly. Some vague hope keeps players funneling money, even once they’ve completely lost interest in the game. Somewhere in the back of their minds they’re thinking that one day they’ll become inspired enough to hop back onto the gaming equivalent of a treadmill, doing a lot of work but not really going any where. It’s sort of simultaneously romantic and retarded, like when two people at in an assisted living home kiss.

    I guess, in both cases, some subset of each population (gym members and MMO subscribers) are going to end up needing an oxygen tank to get up the stairs, mainly due to cases of chronic huge-ass.

    I haven’t had any financial horrors with MMOs but I have had minor issues with a gym. I moved to a different area and forgot to cancel my membership. Now that I think about it, I still haven’t cancelled. Thanks RPS! If I don’t forget in the next five minutes, I will definitely get around to canceling my membership to a gym I live 40 miles away from!

  24. Devin says:

    No matter how many times I tell my bank that yes, every three months some guys in Iceland charge my credit card forty bucks, they still bust out with some fraud prevention bullshit and call me at the crack of dawn every time my EVE subscription re-ups. For me, that’s a pain in the ass, but perhaps you’d like to join my bank? You wouldn’t have to call fraud on SOE, they’d call you up and ask if you wanted to.

  25. DigitalSignalX says:

    Should allowing yourself to be billed 11 months for a game you’re not playing count as runner up?

  26. Jay says:

    No PC gamer in their right mind will pay for a GfW Live account, simply because

    a) Few people will want to play against console owners anyway
    b) Other programs do the same sort of thing, better and for free (although admittedly with advertising attached)

  27. StolenName says:

    Wow. I don’t even pay for XBL :| (though that’s cause I sweet-talked a Microsoft rep for a Gold subscription to enter the CoD4 beta … wierd huh?). So no, no gaming horror stories here.

    Except that I actually bought a PS3 on release day…

  28. Nimic says:

    This reminds me…

    *goes to cancel his WoW subscription*

  29. Garth says:

    That producers letter was fantastic reading – thanks!

  30. Kast says:

    Thanks for reminding me to cancel my CoH subscription.

  31. sean says:

    These horror stories of inactive subscriptions are one of the main reasons why I’m such a big fan of Virtual Asset Purchase games (ie, f2p games).

    I might end up spending far more in a month on these games than I would on a subscription game (I frequently do), but every transaction has to be authorised by me.

    The subscription model is basically the same thing as the gym membership: the profit comes from all those people who don’t take advantage of what they’re paying for. And that’s always struck me as somewhat fraudulent.

  32. Andy Love says:

    HAH! Thanx for the info…I just had THE SAME problem as you when 9.49 pounds was being deliberately taken out of my account by “Soe Subscriptions”.
    Thing is I didn’t even know the thing was on direct debit and the bank advised me to try to talk to SOE first…
    I hope I can solve this bearing in mind that as it happened to you, they’ve been taking money out of my acc since november…and my account is not activated anymore…go figure?

  33. Andy Love says:

    oh and by the way…I can’t find their phone number, online chat won’t work saying there is a problem with my authentication, same with the email…
    so basically I’ve got no way to contact them and the bank said they can only cancel my card and make a new one…and then they’d have to open an investigation against fraud that MIGHT NOT get my money back…and apparently this has been going since NOVEMBER when in my acc it says in big bold letters that my membership to SWGalaxies is CLOSED.
    UGH!

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