Monday, September 24, 2012

You are a sheep to them: corporate cultures and you

In the modern world, we've no choice but to be customers of large corporations. Even indirectly, we're affected by their attitudes towards us. That makes it a great shame that their attitudes are generally so unpleasant.

This grew from a discussion on Twitter of "moon money", the various unreal currencies games companies like us to use. Call them Nintendo Points, Microsoft Points, what you will, they're a layer of obfuscation between your money and the things you buy with that money. Sometimes, they can be bypassed; but more often, your only choice is to pay in moon money or not at all.

Part of their purpose is to allow the companies to report income sooner. Once you've bought your moon money, you're now out the real world cost of however much moon money you bought; the company issuing the moon money has the real money now, instead of however much later it is when you finally finish buying "things" (generally intangible things, mere data) to the value of the moon money you bought. They got your money as a lump sum up front, not in the dribs and drabs it would have come in had they let you pay real money; because a common feature of moon money is that it may only be bought in inconveniently large chunks. Part of this is to avoid proportionately large charges for processing small credit card transactions, but a secondary benefit for the issuing company is the decoupling of moonbucks from real money. The real money is gone, and so spending moonbucks feels like getting something for free. A further aid to this is the common oddball exchange rate; Microsoft points exchange at a rate of $10 for 800 points, which is inconvenient to remember, while being close enough that people can be tricked into assuming that the exchange rate is one point per US cent.

On the face of it, these practices seem abusive to the customer; I believe they are, but they stem naturally from the corporate culture. Any publically traded company has a duty to its shareholders to maximise profit in the short term, which will result in abuse. Consider the customer as a mature sheep; you can look after this sheep, shearing it for wool each year, taking milk (but not too much!), and gain a long term advantage of woolen clothes, healthy family from good nutrition, and so on; the farmers' way. Or, you can sweep in, take the sheep, slaughter it, and you'll get a nice sheepskin rug, some very large mutton dinners, and overall a short-term windfall; the raiders' way. The difference is that the farmers' way results in you still having a sheep all along, but gives less reward at any given time.

So the requirement to maximise instantaneous reward is what has killed any consideration for customer loyalty. There will "always" be more sheep; so slaughter them, carpet the world in sheepskin rugs, and get fat on your mutton dinners. Privately owned companies can afford to take a longer view; after twenty years, the farmers will have a lot of sheep, because well-cared-for sheep increase in number, while the raiders will have slaughtered enough sheep (in this analogy, annoyed enough people to the point of boycott) that sheep will be getting thin on the ground. Short-term thinking is not generally sustainable.

One games company which appears to be a farmer is Valve. I've said many nice things about them, but the most telling example is their system of moon money. Yes, it's still moon money; but it's denominated in dollars and cents, as if it's real money; and it's available in flexible amounts, subject to a $5 minimum purchase. You want $13.74 in Valve moon money? Go right ahead and buy it. It'll cost you $13.74, and you won't have to round up and have the $1.26 from going to $15 hanging around. But if you do round up, any leftovers can be applied as a discount to anything you buy via Steam; the one time I used Valve's moon money, I ended up with $0.02 left over, and that was knocked off my next Steam purchase automatically. Valve go to pains to make sure their moon money behaves as much like real money as possible, because they'd rather sacrifice short-term gains in favour of keeping you coming back for a long time. They can do this because they're a private company; there aren't shareholders to placate with short-term growth. They can think long-term.

Any time you're asked to exchange real money for tokens, think carefully. The entity asking you to do that is aiming to make you stop thinking of your money as money, because they want to keep your money. Casinos; arcades; points for online purchases. The root desire is to get you to stop seeing it as money.

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