Your virtual cow could be worth $0

@CNNMoneyTech September 6, 2011: 6:08 AM ET
Google is shutting down SuperPoke! Pets -- and the cash users spent on virtual goods has likely flown out the window

Google is shutting down SuperPoke! Pets -- and the cash users spent on virtual goods has likely flown out the window.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Dedicated social gamers devote many hours to tending their online farms and digital pets -- and lots of money, too. This year they'll spend an estimated $650 million in real cash on virtual goods.

But when those games are shut down, the digital items -- and the cash -- are left in limbo.

Fans of SuperPoke! Pets were crushed recently when Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) announced it was pulling the plug on the game. Google killed off all but one project from social app maker Slide, which it bought last year for around $200 million.

Players posted a torrent of comments on Web articles about the shutdown, saying they were upset to lose their beloved game -- but they also wanted to know what would happen to the cash they've plowed into it.

SuperPoke! Pets lets players buy online "gold," which can be redeemed for virtual goods in the game. Many other social games, including Zynga's wildly popular Farmville, also make money by encouraging users to shell out cash for virtual decorations, livestock and more.

Those paying customers keep the games afloat -- and they're not happy about the prospect of losing their digital stash.

"You do realize that people paid REAL MONEY for gold items, don't you?" Jennifer Gyurkovic-Hagmann commented on a TechCrunch article. "I expect a check in the mail for all of the gold items that I have in the SuperPoke Pets game."

But it's not as easy as simply refunding what's been spent, says Net Jacobsson, a former Facebook exec who now advises game companies including CrowdStar and Aurora Feint.

"The accounting issues can be massively complicated," Jacobsson says. "They've already counted it as revenue. They've taxed it. Refunding $20 would cost more than $20, not to mention the man-hours involved in dealing with it."

Slide seems to be mulling its options. In an e-mailed statement, a Google representative acknowledged that many people had asked about virtual goods, and confirmed that they'll be usable until SuperPoke officially goes offline (which is slated to happen "in the coming months").

But both Slide and Google are vague about what will happen after that point.

"One thing you can't do [with virtual goods] is bring them home and keep them forever," Slide's communications team wrote in a post to the SuperPoke! Pets user forum.

They also offered up a clunky comparison calling Halloween costumes the "closest real-life analog" to virtual bling: "You purchase it to dress up and enjoy the experience, but likely don't wear that costume day in and day out, or for every Halloween thereafter."

Slide said is trying to find a way to help users export some of their content and virtual items for access outside of the game, but is still "working out the details." Google declined to comment beyond that post.

Jacobsson thinks Slide should compensate users in some way, possibly with a credit toward another Google product.

That's a tactic other companies have used. Tom Sarris, a representative for Electronic Arts (ERTS)-owned social games maker Playfish, recalls the "difficult decision" to shutter a handful of games in April.

"We knew it would disappoint players who were still engaged in the games earmarked for retirement," Sarris says.

To heal some of the gamers' pain, Playfish allowed players of Pirates Ahoy!, Gangster City and Poker Rivals to move their currency to another game. Playfish also offered free gifts to entice users to transfer to a new game, Monopoly Millionaires.

FarmVille maker Zynga made a similar move last year when it shut down its Street Racing game. But the terms were stricter: Zynga offered credit only for purchases made in the last 90 days, plus an extra 100 units of virtual currency.

No matter what Slide decides, Jacobsson warns that Google should not make the mistake of marginalizing its customers.

"People in the tech community tend to laugh at them a little bit, asking why a single mom in Texas loves her virtual pets so much," he says. "That Silicon Valley ivory tower attitude is completely disrespectful."

Plus, it erodes the trust that keeps the entire virtual-goods economy afloat. If too many people get burned, they'll stop spending.

"These people are paying your salary, and they loved your game," Jacobsson says. "They were invested emotionally and financially, so they deserve to be upset. And they also deserve answers." To top of page

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