Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

On Micro Transactions

In the light of the recent Allods Online cash shop fiasco, let’s have a look at micro-transactions and their impact on gaming. There is a generic dislike for cash shops out there, and many bad examples make that dislike very well justified. But I’m going to go ahead and say that there are cash shops that are not actually bad for the game and still make some money for the developers.

Your money or your life! (image: IGN)

First and foremost is the cash shop that only sells fluff items to the players. Character name changes, non-combat pets, re-skinned vehicles, special titles etc are all fair game in my book. As long as there is no in-game advantage to be gained through spending additional money, I don’t mind micro-transactions at all. The issue is, of course, that sales volume can be quite low for such cash shops. Me, I’d never (well… it’s unlikely) buy such fluff items for my hard earned money. I even have an issue with buying them with in-game money.

Clearly, free-to-play game developers have seen this problem as well and modern cash shops rarely just sell fluff items. If they simply sell power, that’s an obvious problem because it will ruin the game for those that don’t perform micro-transactions. But what about games that sell convenience items? Not interested in grinding for hours to level up, why not buy an experience potion. Annoyed by limited bagspace? Get a bigger backpack!

The issue here is, that these games have annoyances deliberately built in to promote the cash shop. Games don’t need to have unnecessary and boring grind or severely limited storage space. The worst part about the Allods fiasco, as I see it, are not the high prices on the items, but the fact that the developers patch the game in such a way as to more or less force players to use the cash shop. When you get resurrected you get a debuff now that hinders your playing for two hours. If you buy some perfume from the cash shop, that issue goes away. This way the game developers make sure that everyone with high-end content aspirations has to buy items from the cash shop to be able to play. That’s bad. If your game can be made better and more fun with a few items from your cash shop, then your game was bad in the first place. If I get the choice between a bad game for free or a better one that I have to pay for, that really isn’t a choice at all. This game isn’t free to play, it is free to suck.

Mhmm. Fluff.

Still, fluff isn’t the only way a cash shop can work. I’ve talked about horizontal advancement on Monday last week and that is one way that a cash shop can work. Allow players to acquire different items/skills/characters through the cash shop that are of equal power to those that are already available. That way you can play the game absolutely fine without paying, but you can modify the game experience to your liking if you are willing to pay. Alas this isn’t without issues either, as it requires delicate balancing and a game that really supports such a form of advancement. In World of Warcraft, for example, this would be very hard to integrate. Itemization simply isn’t interesting enough to allow for such a thing for one. An item is pretty much either better or worse than another one – either the cash shop items would be better than what you get in-game, which is bad, or worse in which case no one would buy them. Still, if you design your game upfront around such a scheme, this can work quite well.

Finally, there’s the way it’s done in Magic the Gathering Online. Just like in the real world collectible card game, players have to buy cards in order to be able to play. To a certain degree, buying more cards gives you an advantage over players who don’t do that so you can buy power. This only holds true for the so-called constructed formats though, those were you bring your own cards. There are others were everybody starts out with a certain amount of packs of cards, plays through a tournament structure and gets to keep those cards at the end. In such a case everybody pays the same entry fee for the tournament, gets some cards out of it and – and this is the clue – has a chance to win more packs.

I knew a couple of people who were so good at the game that they never had to spend any money on the game because they kept winning enough to enter new tournaments. Others, like me, were on the fringe. I rarely had to pay and kept myself afloat by winning packs and trading the cards I got for more packs. I still paid from time to time, always hoping to catch the break into that select group of players who were truly infinite.

The MTGO store

Other players had to spend money over and over again, but they didn’t mind so much because they felt like they were actually purchasing something instead of bypassing a nuisance like it is in many free-to-play games. Just like people are willing to invest money into their Warhammer 40k armies, or even their collection of shot glasses from all over the world, MTGO players get the feeling of actually getting value for their money. And of course there’s always the hope that if you collect enough digital cards, you will become good enough to win tournaments regularly and make some of your investment back.

This is a very successful model for Wizards of the Coast and I find it quite odd that other game developers don’t pick up on this. Especially the part in which being good at the game can reduce the costs of playing the game or even allow you to make a profit. The only other example that comes to my mind is EVE, and maybe Entropia Universe, but neither feels as polished as  MTGO. This model isn’t for everyone, surely, but why don’t people even attempt it?

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