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The Free Zone: Stocking the Item Shop

Columns By Richard Aihoshi on March 29, 2010

Stocking the Item Shop

Take all the best pieces of gear that are available. Boost their stats to make them even better.

If you assign credibility to a certain school of opinion, the one saying it's impossible to "compete" in a free to play game without spending copious amounts of money in its item shop, you might come to the conclusion that the methodology for deciding what to sell involves nothing more than these two steps.

In reality, of course, it's nowhere near so simple. From myriad discussions with developers over the years, I'm aware that studios seldom, if ever, approach this undertaking in exactly the same way, which is certainly understandable since both defining the major consideration factors and assigning weights to them can involve fair degrees of judgment and subjectivity. That said, I was still pleased when Petroglyph's Chris Rubyor agreed to let us in on the approach he and his team have taken for this task in Mytheon.

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The Lead Designer on the game, which is currently in closed beta, he indicates the first decision was to have three main categories of items. Equipment such as weapons and armor comprise an obvious one. Power stones are the basis of the combat system; they're used to enable a wide range of abilities, to summon various minions and to erect temporary battle-related structures. Elixirs are consumable potions, most of which provide short-term benefits.

Rubyor says it was determined fairly early that purchased items shouldn't provide substantial bonuses for individual players. So, while elixirs will only be obtainable in the shop, which is nothing new, they will benefit an entire party when used, not just the buyer. He cites this as a significant point of differentiation from many other games. Players who are grouped with the user gain the same combat boost, experience bonus, etc.

As for the power stones, there will apparently be no power difference between the ones for sale and those that can be acquired as drops. This does still beg the question of rarity. The same applies to gear, where statistically identical weapons and armor will be available both ways, with the retail versions said to be more detailed and ornate for greater visual appeal. Rubyor feels this approach addresses the two kinds of players he's expecting, the ones willing to put in lots of time and those with less who don't mind paying some money to optimize it.

It seems increasingly common these days to emphasize cosmetic-only items, but in Mytheon, the majority will afford characters some type of statistical benefit. Rubyor does understand that looks are important, thus the previously noted visual differences between purchased armor and weapons and their functionally equal dropped versions. However, he explains that having performance enhancements fits the nature of the game, which is about combat and adventure.

On the question of being able to advance more rapidly by paying for items, he feels this should be possible so that players with limited time can maximize it. However, he once again stresses that this opinion is specific to Mytheon and its style of play. "Rapid advancement doesn't mean that players have an unfair advantage," he states. "It is a group-based game that focuses heavily on cooperation rather than conflict."

And what of the aforementioned point of view that users who don't spend money aren't competitive? "We're certainly aware of that opinion, but we don't necessarily agree with it... especially for a game like Mytheon," Rubyor replies. It's designed for both players who want to play for free, and also those who don't mind spending a few dollars to improve their 'quality of life'. I believe the restrictions we've attached to our for-sale items ensure that these two types stay on parallel paths, and that no one has a major advantage. In fact, many of them, such as the elixirs, benefit an entire group of people when used."

Showing the courage of his convictions, he even appears to think he and Mytheon can change at least some people's minds in this regard. "Dialogue is extremely important, I think. It's worth understanding their concerns, and we've paid attention to them throughout our development process. I would always welcome a discussion with any player concerned about unfair advantages, so I could help him or her to understand the steps we've taken in the game to alleviate that."

Since Mytheon is in closed beta now, I'd guess it won't be too much longer before we all have the chance to see how successful Chris Rubyor and his team have been in addressing the questions and issues that arise in relation to the contents of the game's item shop. If the constellations align fortuitously, maybe it will even help open a few eyes that are currently closed. There's always a ray of hope.

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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