With World of Warcraft adding an in-game store, or cash shop, one of last bastions of pure subscription MMORPGs is yielding to market forces and testing the micro-transaction model. There’s no indication that the WoW subscription is going away completely, but it seems today that the line between using in-game money and real money to purchase virtual items (cosmetics, potions, mounts) is becoming increasingly blurred. Purists complain that adding an in-game store breaks immersion in the game world, with filthy real-world lucre polluting and destabilizing the in-game marketplace not to mention adding dollars or pounds to silver or gold piece in-game currencies. But can the in-game store be made palatable, or even “immersive?”
The hardest thing for many old-school players to reconcile is the idea of real money being used to purchase in-game items. The term “pay-to-win” describes the fear that any newbie player can just come in and purchase a stack of high level gear or items and never learn to actually play the game. Early subscription games simply gave you access to the world, and hard “work” was required to advance within the game world. The most dedicated players would, having logged many hours in the game, would be the experts, and also be the ones who were decked out in the best gear or equipment. They “earned” those rewards through dedication and hard work.
Enter the Gold Farmer: companies literally sprang up (around WoW especially) founded on the objective of gathering in-game gold to sell to players who were looking to find faster ways to advance in the game. This is a multi-million dollar industry, which the creators or WoW, no doubt, discouraged heavily. Even so, it has never been completely eliminated.
Fast forward to 2013, where many players today have competing obligations and cannot log the hours they could when they were younger. Many players today have family or work or school obligations, so play time is scheduled and regulated. In a way, this has actually created divisions between the gaming groups – those who have plenty of time to game, and those who do not – many a spirited debate on the forums is launched on the basis of the convenience/casual player vs. the dedicated “hard work” gamer.
Even so, newer games that could not compete with WoW’s loyal subscriber-base started looking for ways to make it easy to try a game without the commitment of a subscription, yet still earn enough money to continue development and enhancements. Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) was one of the larger games to convert to a “free-to-play” model with a microtransaction store. Players could start a new character at any time, free of charge, and even progress through most of the game without paying a dime. That said, they certainly offered lots of little incentives to buy shortcuts – coins that allow you to teleport back to the quest giver, expansion packs, many convenience items, like extra bags or potions. Many players left the game due to the “nickel and diming” and intrusiveness of the “buy now” prompts, but many more came to the game, and LOTRO lives on now, and arguably would have gone under if it had stuck with a pure subscription model.
Since LOTRO’s success, many more games have moved over to the cash shop model, and indeed, there are few games without a cash shop these days. The biggest complaints, however, are still immersion, “pay-to-win” and disruption of the in-game marketplace. How could those concerns be addressed?
Integrating the Cash Shop
What if instead of lots of immersion breaking pop-ups or prompts, the cash shop actually was a real location within the game world? Instead of a virtual window that can op-up anyplace and anytime, the cash shop could be integrated in to the game’s lore. Perhaps it is located in the underground, sort of a shady back-alley sort of place where deals can be made to “skirt the system?” It could even be something like visiting a loan shark – in exchange for the head start, your reputation with the underworld grew the more you used the back alley? Maybe you could make enemies of certain factions by using it, which would restrict your involvement with them unless you worked your way back into their good graces? What if the cash shop were a wealthy benefactor that expected some in-game quests be done in return for the advantage. Or more simply, what if wealth were factored in as part of your starting character? If you used the cash shop, your background would reflect a wealthy upbringing and again reputation increases and penalties based on where you start. I think the cash shop could make sense within the lore if (1) the cash shop(s) held physical locations and unique lore-inspired characteristics, (2) there were in-game repercussions of making use of the shop, and (3) explained the influx of wealth from “outside sources.”
Reducing the Impact of "Pay to Win"
This is a big one for many players, especially in the west – culturally, eastern players seem to have less of an issue with it. Using the multiple cash shop locations model, within specific lore-inspired characteristics for each, wouldn’t it be easier to tailor the items in the shop to the overall level or experience of the character? A level 1 character might be able to purchase Level 80 armor, but would he or she actually be able to equip and use it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer items that would serve the player well at their current level? Sure, there might be common XP potions that everyone could buy at any time, but that would only boost XP for the level the character is currently at. And the cash shop in the level 1-10 zone would be a lot different than the one in the big city. The trick here is to offer items that can help a character through the current zone and levels, without giving them complete shortcuts.
And would buying a character starting at Level 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 being that bad a thing? You start the character in a higher-level zone, along with the starter equipment appropriate to their level, and let them get on to playing with their friends who are already there. The WoW Death Knight is a little bit of an example here – that character starts at Level 60 and has its own backstory within the world (you need a level 55 or higher character to be eligible to roll one). It’s simply a higher-level character that is starting in a later zone – players can make up their own backstory if they want, and they still need to learn to play the character well.
As long as potions or equipment do not completely negate the need to learn to play the character, I think “pay to win” can be averted. Purchased equipment should never be better than the equipment that can be obtained by simply playing the game, either through exploring, doing dungeons or crafting. Another suggestion was that a purchased piece of gear would get a different look and title than the one obtained through play. Ideally, purchased equipment should be good enough to allow a player to group in a dungeon or raid with friends, but would be quickly replaced by better equipment found by simply playing.
Keep the In-Game Marketplace Stable
One of the disadvantages of completely separating real-game money from in-game money is the opportunity offered to 3rd party gold farmers. Game companies must hire or program algorithms to police the world and then ban the gold farmer. By allowing purchase of gold in-game, that money actually stays with the game developer and can go to creating new features or content. There’s also less control over the marketplace when gold is flooding in unexpectedly. Blizzard took a step toward addressing this with the real-money auction house in Diablo 3, but there were problems in the implementation there; instead of playing the game to obtain items, players would simply purchase the best items through the AH. The other problem with introducing purchased gold into the market – even if it is sold by the game developer rather than gold farmers – is that it essentially devalues gold and consequently all items in the game.
A better option might be to allow players to sell “second hand” cash-shop purchased equipment through the standard auction house, or even some character-bound equipment. Players wanting cash-shop gear could get it at a discount, while players who purchased gear get an influx of in-game gold. Sure there’s the intermediary step of buying the gear then selling it, but it gets around directly flooding the market with purchased gold. You could even apply a “used” look and title to some of the gear sold this way for fun: “Marco’s Gently Used Staff of the Magi.” Maybe the maximum repair level of the item could be lowered a bit.
What it really comes down to is finding some sort of translation of game-time/effort to money. How much is the effort in a dungeon to obtain the great Staff of the Magi worth? Instead of making that decision as a company, why not let the market decide? The complaint will be that people who did not do the work will have access to the item, but the counterargument is that those users will need to spend actual dollars in order to obtain it.
The change that all these suggestions bring is a blurring of the line between those who choose to work to advance within the game, and those who wish to buy their way to higher levels and challenges (pay to win). At the end of the day, is it more important that players be able to play the game the way they like, and with the friends they want, or that everyone go through the “work” of advancement?