Microtransactions Can’t Be Trusted

I’ve always been slightly worried about microtransactions in MMORPGs and it seems like as more and more developers undertake them, the more my fears are coming to fruition. Over the last few years there’s been an increasing trend for games companies to charge for “extras” and whilst some seem perfectly reasonable, some come across as utterly ridiculous. As Muckbeast highlighted (thanks to Tobold for the link), Cryptic have decided to charge for character respecs in Champions Online via their online store and apparently this highly necessary functionality comes with a hefty price tag of $12.99.

It seems to many that Cryptic have crossed the line with this latest move and have begun to exploit the principles behind microtransactions. I guess in their purest form, microtransactions are about freeing the player from subscription fees whilst still enabling the developer to earn a fair reward. They should be additional extras, non-essential, that are a bit of fluff, flexibility or enjoyment to the game without effecting the balance of those who choose not to indulge in them. However, I think they are fundamentally flawed and all that’s happened is that we’ve opened up a new gateway for games companies to exploit the player.

I don’t have anything against the idea of microtransactions but I do believe that they are a naive concept that can’t operate in our current, greedy world. The main issue is that there’s no control or restriction over what can constitute a pay-for-item or feature. Character transfers? Name change? Race change? New items? New abilities? It’s a slippery slope and, as Crytpic have demonstrated, one that MMORPG companies are wiling to go down.

I know that we can’t judge the entire concept by one poor, miscalculated implementation but I guess I’m just too cynical to believe that this is the last sort of thing we’ll see like this. I bet that before the next 12 months have passed, we’ll be seeing more and more basic and required features become purchasable only. Subscription models will still exist and yet the developers will be finding new and innovative ways to make us part with our cash. And it won’t be for useful content either, but for highly useful or necessary items and rewards.

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  1. Yeah, the “buy a respec” thing in the Cryptic Store is a big “screw you” to Champions players. I have some sympathy with the game design problem.. The way CO works, if retcon was free then you’d basically have one infinitely adaptable character. I see why they want some stickiness so that character choices have some permanence. But to then turn around and say “or pay an extra month’s subscription and you can completely retcon!” is outrageous.

    • Gordon says:

      I don’t have sympathy with the developers because they decided to build it that way (well, actually I’d bet it was a management decision). Still, I’m sure there would have been ways to work around it all and find the right balance. Charging people for a respec like that though is pretty poor form.

  2. spinks says:

    The thing with microtransations is that games will be designed to get the most profit out of microtransactions. A good game designer will be viewed by the industry as whoever is most successful at getting money out of players.

    Maaaybe this will also result in more fun games, but I wouldn’t want to bank on it.

  3. spinks says:

    I mean heck, we could all go sit in casinos if that was the object …

  4. Jason says:

    I have no problem with the “buy a respec” if there is also a way to “grind a respec”. If not, then I’m glad I didn’t buy Champions Online.

  5. Dickie says:

    Hear, hear. But, this is the same industry (as a whole) that is releasing console games and having DLC available day one. They’re struggling to make more money, and sadly it’s not likely to go away. When a game like wow is applauded for allowing people the divine privlidge of a sex change for their characters for a low, low cost of $15 (or whatever it is), then other developers take notice and start charging for things as well.

    • Gordon says:

      I think the difference between something like a sex change in WoW is that it’s not necessary to enjoy or play the game, it really is an added extra only. However, charging for respecs or vital items is totally different.

  6. Andrew says:

    CO is being idiotic, period. Micro on top of subscriptions is a terrible, horrible idea.

    If you want to see microtransactions done right look to DDO and Wizard101. Even Runes of Magic is pretty good.

    • Agreed. DDO and Wiz101 both have fantastic microtransaction systems–probably the best. I also love Wiz101’s subscription system, but that’s something for another time and place.

      I wish that more games would go that way because if they continue the way Cryptic went with full retcons costing RL cash, then they can kiss my subscription fee goodbye. I don’t mind throwing a few extra dollars at a game when I can, but charging for functionality that SHOULD be included in in-game mechanics is where I draw the line.

      If it were offered both ways, I’d be okay; whoever wanted to pay whichever way they chose would be able to. But I’ve not seen nor heard mention of the full retcon even being available outside of the C-Store.

      • Gordon says:

        Me too, I don’t mind throwing away a few bucks for something frivolous like a gender change or funny hat (although I’d still argue that fluff items should always be achievable in game too) but when it becomes about buying stuff that’s absolutely necessary, it’s starts to worry me. How long before we see companies selling uber items for cash and suddenly the entire point of item progression is lost?

        • Agreed. Fluff items should always be in game. I don’t mind them even being stupidly rare, as long as there’s the chance. A scroll of race change or Expatriation Papers would be awesome.

          I’ll draw the line at uber items. Free Realms does that (to an extent) by selling items that actually enhance a character’s stats. There is a level 1 sword you can buy for $2.50 that has better stats than what you can loot at level 20–or so I read. Silly much?

    • Gordon says:

      Indeed, I think there are some good examples of microtransactions. Sad that some developers have to take it too far.

      • Andrew says:

        Right – so it sounds like you may actually agree that your post title (Microtransactions can’t be trusted) may be a bit overblown, and it fact there are solid examples of GOOD RMT payment models out there.

        I mean, we could claim that “subscriptions can’t be trusted” in the same manner…. some games are released so poorly and yet still charge $15/month, when they are worth far less. Even worse, some games (*cough* Champions *cough*) release with huge lifetime subscriptions that seem to be nothing more than a scam.

        What I’m getting at is that individual payment models aren’t inherently good or bad in and of themselves, however particular implementations can be downright horrible (or, amazingly good).

        • Gordon says:

          Ah c’mon I’m allowed a bit of melodrama ;)

          You’re right, of course… I guess my stance is that the model itself gives the developers too much power and too much temptation to become corrupted compared to subscription models which, once in place and fixed, are a lot harder to exploit.

  7. ogrebears says:

    Back when Microtransactions where only in free games i had no problems with them. But now the large MMO companies are looking at Microtransaction as a way to add on to there subscriptions.

    Ie let have people pay 15 bucks a month to play the game, and then some more for extras.

    And the large MMO companies are not putting a micro price on there microtransitions. Eq2 is charging 25 bucks to change your race, 5-15 bucks for armor. Hell they even added a zone in the new LoN expantion has a loot card. Which has less than a 5% chance of appearing in the LoN booster you buy for 2.99.

    It just comes off as pure greed

  8. Longasc says:

    Microtransactions fail the very moment players feel they are getting milked or taken advantage of. It is pretty easy to piss off people, but Champions Online does it really well.

    I was really waiting for this after I heard how hard to afford a respec is in CO. Seems they were planning this already beforehand.

    This shows how design can be influenced in a negative way if microtransactions are in the business model. But a smart business model also does not scare away customers, so much about that.

  9. Here’s part of a comment I left over at Muckbeast’s site:

    News flash: any business model can fall prey to greed. What if WoW decided to raise the monthly fee to $20/month? What if they decided to release a “mini expansion” every few months for $20 a pop? You think millions of players are simply going to stop playing? Some might, but I’ll bet you any amount of money it would be much more profitable for them in the long run. When Meridian 59 went from $10/month to a confusing structure that made most people spend $30/month, 3DO actually made more money right after the transition. Most of the people leaving were going to play UO anyway, and the price difference only soaked the faithful and most likely hurt growth in the long run. With WoW getting long in the tooth and most likely not growing anymore, now is the time that Blizzard could just go into cash-cow mode and start trying to squeeze extra revenue out with the idea of people flocking to their next big game.

    As much as I love LotRO, I think the $20 mini-expansion thing is a crock and a money grab; the only reason I’m not writing angry rants about it is because multi-month subscribers get the expansion “for free” and I happen to be in that category. But, I can just as easily see them not offering the same deal next time around when they want a cash infusion. Let’s not even talk about the “adventure pack” issue which is once again adding features but not letting already paying customers enjoy these features. And LotRO has a pretty typical “box + subscriptions” business model! This doesn’t even touch the multitude of for-pay services in subscription games: name changes, server changes, even lore-screwing faction changes in WoW, all for the almighty dollar. The difference here is that it’s incremental changes and we’re getting used to it; THIS is the cliché of the frog in the slowly boiling pot, and it’s already happening all around you.

    The problem here isn’t microtransactions; that business model can be used to good effect as Wizard 101 and DDO show. No, the problem here is greed and subverting player expectations based on initially using the subscription business model. The “retcon” issue is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can grind for about 100 hours for a respec as Muckbeast points out in another comment to this post instead of paying $12 or whatever, but there’s no way that makes any sort of sense. Added to the facts that they’re changing powers frequently, including a nerf at launch, and that they significantly raised the price of respecs in game it all adds up to Cryptic being not being on the level. Frankly, it has nothing to do with the microtransaction business model.

    • Gordon says:

      Maybe I’m being too cynical but I just think microtransactions are too powerful and too easy to exploit and thus can’t, as a form of ’subscription’ or whatever, can’t be trusted.

        • Gareth says:

          I’d agree totally with the title of this blog post and that they are too powerful, but in a different way.

          The way I see it the traditional business models have been to sell a game outright, in this model they just need you to buy once.

          The other model then is subscription, here the game is to provide the user with something that has to be good/addictive enough to keep them playing, that’s the developers motivation.

          But as soon as you add in RMT and microtransactions it changes. If there was a paid feature say in WoW that allowed you to change class for example, imagine the sort of financial pressure the class designer could get into there to make unpopular class X the flavour of the next expansion? That respec paid feature mention in the article is a classic example, not playing that game!

          Its those sorts of influences on game design that I’d agree are too powerful in a sense, and this power corrupts the game.

  10. Angus says:

    “… it won’t be for useful content either, but for highly useful…”
    It won’t be for useful things, but for highly useful things?

    Anywho, this is very true. One MMORPG that combined microtransactions with subscription fees was the game “MapleStory”, where you could buy custom outfits and whatnot which only affected the player’s appearance. But instead of paying $10 to have your MMORPG character look cool and unique forever, you had to pay $10 every 6 months or so (6 months, if my memory serves me correctly) otherwise the items would disappear. I thought that this too crossed a line, and was ripping off players.

    I (and many other people, most likely) enjoy reading your posts, so keep this blog going.

    • Gordon says:

      Ah hehe, I think I was in the midst of a flu fever then :) I meant “but for highly necessary…”, my point being that it stops being about purchasing good value-for-money and becomes about being forced to purchase necessary items to make you competitive in game.

  11. Scott says:

    Psychochild beat me to it, but for the topic — we don’t trust “microtransactions,” we trust (or not) “companies” and “people.” We don’t have to look far in the headlines to see how easily people and companies allow greed to guide them.

    On the flip side of things, let’s look at the “MMOs as a service” argument. We’ve been paying the same $15 per month since EQ; ten years now. In 1999 what was the monthly cost of your cell phone? Or your cable tv? Or internet? Or any other service? Probably lower than it is now. But because MMO’s are “just games” and therefore “not real services” and “don’t really matter” no one has had the balls to actually charge more. Mythic mentioned it for both DAOC and WAR and quickly shut the hell up when players shouted them down.

    I’d love to hear from someone on the inside who knows what server costs, bandwidth costs, etc. were back in the day compared to now. Not to mention development costs. Does keeping the same $15/month today equate to the developers taking a pay cut from what they made 10 years ago due to increased costs in the present without a way to increase the company’s revenue to account for that inflation?

    • Gordon says:

      I wouldn’t actually mind paying more for a game every month if it was worth it. For example, I’m currently subscribed to EVE Only which is almost twice as expensive as WoW is. I don’t mind because I enjoy the game.

      It’s a very interesting point you raise about the increase in development costs. Games now are becoming like Hollywood films with huge budgets and thus the player is required to pay more and more to play. But is it all really worth it? Are the games any better today just because they have realistic graphics or wonderful pixel shading or full voice acting?

      • Scott says:

        But is it all really worth it? Are the games any better today just because they have realistic graphics or wonderful pixel shading or full voice acting?

        Unsubscribe to every modern MMO you’re playing and commit yourself to *only* Everquest 1 or Asheron’s Call for a year. Hell, even a month. Then tell me if all the new stuff (including the eye candy) is worth it.

        Sometimes ya just can’t go home again…

  12. [...] without effecting the balance of those who choose not to indulge in them.” – Gordon, Microtransactions Can’t Be Trusted, We Fly [...]

  13. Jeremy S. says:

    While this stuff seems rampant and happens all to often, companies and devs don’t seek to find ways more and more ways to implement it in their specific game at the cost of everything else.

    Take Shaiya. I hate their use of RMT. They sell a potion that significantly boosts your stat making you near unstoppable for anyone not paying. And this is a very PvP centric game. But what they did was find a system that worked. People who play it and enjoy it, are willing to pay and there isn’t anymore RMT rants in Shaiya’s forums than on any other F2P game’s forum.

    RMT is big. I don’t think you can say RMT v. Sub. Because RMT means what? there is no one definition. It’s very situational.

    There are games that show that the company and/or devs try to seek balance, not solely a means to make money from a mass that they know will pay.

    I think this mentality will win out in the long run. Players don’t like it, and obviously the majority of players. Companies will use that.

    A game like shaiya works. I don’t like it, but it works, and will probably stay around for a long time and continue to keep the same RMT practices. This same RMT approach wouldn’t work for a game like Runes of Magic that plays more like a Western MMORPG. Primarily the majority of players agree that they don’t want to pay for enhancements that effect the in-game balance in that way.

    Maybe we’ll eventually have more concrete definitions for all the many different ways RMT can and is being handled, and the lines between them won’t be so blurry. But RMT is too big in itself to look at it as one thing.

  14. samthedagger says:

    I really like the way DDO handles microtransactions. Virtually everything in the DDO Store is non-essential. I can’t think of a single thing in the store that is necessary for the game that can’t be earned through play in some other fashion. A F2P player can unlock the entire game with time and patience. But it is nice for someone with the cash to be able to avoid some of the grind. AFAIC it is far better to give money to Turbine for account options, special items, and bonus features than it is to give it to some farmer in China who capped your character. There are always going to be people who would rather pay to take the short-cut, and giving those people a legitimate way to choose their own level of involvement through microtransactions is a good business model for the player and the developer IMHO.

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