Micro-transactions and the Modern MMO

I recently began the beta test of Champions Online, I will likely have my own preview before it goes live before September 1 when it launches. However, one of the things that they are touting with CO is the ability to purchase new costume outfits with real money. Supposedly this is a way to be able to keep more devs on the team at any given time and so through the micro-transaction sales they will be able to fund more content in the game itself that you don’t have to pay extra for. This coupled with a somewhat decent book called [amazonify]1401322905::text::::”Free”[/amazonify] and I’ve been thinking about micro-transactions in MMOs going forward.

Champions Online isn’t the first game to start having these micro transactions. These type of games have been around for a very long time, especially in Asia where that is basically the pricing model. Free game, pay for extra goodies. Maple Story is a good example (53 million subscribers worldwide can’t be wrong right WoW fans?). Even here in the west this idea is taking off, but we are instituting it differently.

Instead of free play with micro transactions, we have instead decided to go the route of pay purchase, pay subscription, micro transactions. I guess this is true American style, squeeze the cash out of people every way they can. Even Sims 3 has gone this route (sin subscription).

The Negatives of Micro Transactions

Now I need to say first off before I get too much further in this that I thus far have HATED micro transactions. Sims 3 is a good example of why, they take out some of the better hair styles and clothes and put them up for sale meanwhile making the base game a weaker experience. This has generally been how it works, they take out quality features of a game and then make you pay extra for those things that really should have been in the game in the first place.

So far in the MMO world they really have been sticking mostly to furniture and clothing items. The one exception to this has been Legends of Norrath. While this is mostly touted as a separate game in and of itself, the fact that they put loot cards in the game which can be redeemed for in game items really makes it more of a micro-transaction system where you only have a tiny chance to win something worth having. This can be seen by some of the items you can get in the game such as bigger houses, more storage, AA bonus potions, XP bonus potions, mounts with bonuses, Cloaks that give viable buffs to the player, etc. These items are often items that any player in the game would really want to have but the only way of getting them is to pay for many packs.

This kind of leads towards the next issue. They tend to screw with the balance of the game. Not that the items themselves are usually overpowered. But often times they are just powerful enough to entice players to get them that they actually are oftentimes better than what is in the game otherwise. What this does is it means that someone who is willing to pay extra out of game will tend to be a better equipped player than someone who doesn’t have the ability to pay out of the game which really creates an unfair dynamic. I can’t afford to spend more than 2 or 3 packs of LoN every couple of months and the chances that a loot card would be in those packs is low. The chances that I will get an actual item that is worth having is even smaller. So it isn’t really worth my money.

But what happens when it is required to have this card to be in a decent raiding guild because it really is the best thing in the game?  This sort of thing does happen rather frequently in micro transactions because if the developers don’t create an item worth having then no one will buy it. They have to give an item power to get the money that is making them do this in the first place.

Of course the last problem is nickel and diming. Even if a game is free, these micro transactions lead to a fear, especially amongst Americans I think, of being nickle and dimed to death. Travian, my current obsession, is a great example of this (and the previous problem as well). In order to really be competitive you have to get resource bonuses that gold provides. There are other less necessary services that you don’t need to have all at once, but they are extremely useful from time to time. And these all add up and actually turn out to be quite a cost to a player. The best package that gets you the most gold in the game costs $30.  This is usually enough to last for a couple of months which is just as much as I pay for an MMO. My question becomes… is Travian really the same value as an MMO? (The answer btw is: for now yes, but mostly because there isn’t an MMO worth that much right now either.)  Usually, no. In an MMO, you are getting a full featured 3D graphical game, with good sound and story lines. You also tend to get a game that gets new content and new features every couple of months. With Travian you get a cheap 2D browser game, no story, no sound, nothing really new added more than once every 6-12 months, and in much of the game there isn’t even really much to do but wait for the end. A great example of how nickel and diming truley works because you don’t even generally realize that you are paying about the same for each.

Is there anything good about Micro Transactions?

Yet there is worth in micro transactions that is actually worth doing. For one, they do offer a viable way in order to offer the game for free. And when you get free, you get a game that has the potential to have far more players (even more players than WoW as Maple Story proves). Because how micro transactions really work is if you get dramatically more players to play, and a very small fraction of those buy into the transactions, then you don’t need to have the monthly fee. You’ll likely get more money out of it than the monthly fee would buy you.

There are keys to it though. You can’t have a game breaker. Meaning, nothing that you buy can be equal to, better than, or even marginally worse than the better stuff that you can find in the game. Meaning no mount with +2% defense if no other mount in game does not at least have +4% defense in it. What I think would work is the following:

  • Teleportation to main cities. I’ve had discussion with a friend on this who doesn’t like it, but as long as you have skills in the game that offer similar, I don’t mind offereing it up for a fee as well.
  • Moderate items. Meaning, items that are better than the basic gear that you can find on NPCs, but generally worse than even the bad raid gear stuff. Stuff that a player can use to avoid having to hunt for the best quest stuff.
  • Vanity items. Different looking things that don’t affect the game at all, this is a no brainer.
  • Housing/Property. Entropia & Second Life have popularized this and it seems to work really well without affecting the majority of the population. Even better, most players want a castle even if it provides little benefit.
  • XP bonuses. This on the surface seems controversial but I will get to this below.
  • Levels. As long as there is a secondary effect, such as you gain 1 level, but cannot log into the game for 24 hours. Again will get into this more
  • Gold. Again will get into this later.

Well as much as I want to get into this next topic, because this post has already taken 1500 words, which is incredibly long, I’m actually going to split this post into two. My apologies, this doesn’t tend to work well in keep attention. But I think the length of this will easily double and thus deserves the extra post. You can read the second half of this post here.