Chris Coke, my fellow MMORPG.com columnist on The Tourist, pointed today’s Devil’s Advocate topic to me some time ago, and the topic itself is a little absurd when you first think about it. In the same way that there’s a Cash 4 Gold phenomenon in parts of the world where you can earn money for trading in gold jewelry, the idea of Cash 4 Gear appears to also be making its way into the MMO sphere via Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO).
Despite an earlier Devil’s Advocate (What’s For Sale and What’s at Stake) where I pointed out some dubious psychological practices to get people to pay for virtual currency, we’ll be discussing the circumstances under which I would support Cash 4 Gear as a practice. Trust me, this’ll be a bit crazy to explain, but it was a fun thought experiment when I came up with today’s column.
Shards in my Astral
Astral Shards in DDO are purchased using real money, and are normally used to pay for services, such as equipment repairs or enhancement resets.
The Shard Exchange creates a new Auction House where people can trade certain types of gear they have in possession or, in some cases, have already worn, for Astral Shards. As such people can pay cash (or credit... you get the gist) for gear.
There are some rules to the proceedings though, which are outlined on the Lamannia test forums, but I’ll post them here as well:
The Moderate Peril
Roger Edwards of Contains Moderate Peril parses some of the concerns for this sort of activity, noting that this could translate into another Turbine game, Lord of the Rings Online, with its Mithril Coins setup..
In his piece on the matter, he writes that unlike in-game gold (which has little to no real-world value, though he says no external value, to be clear), Astral Shards cost real money and have tangible value. He explains thus, “Ultimately real money is used to sell and purchase gear. This also “opens an entirely new market in the reselling of previously equipped items.”
He continues his explanation by noting that while raid items and other bind-to-character items cannot be auctioned, other gear (such as stuff you’ve moved past in the progression curve) can be traded to players for Astral Shards.
A Case Study
In the “What’s For Sale and What’s at Stake” Devil’s Advocate column, I noted how one problem with virtual currency is that, because you buy some of it at different conversion rates, it becomes very difficult to actually determine the relative value of a virtual currency. I actually attributed this a lot to LOTRO’s manner of selling currency, but it seems to be rather Turbine-specific.
As you can imagine, this is made worse when you turn one virtual currency into another virtual currency, especially when a company is being annoying with the not-rounding up business. Let us make a case study that would be more or less par for the course once the Shard Exchange gets implemented.
According to the DDO Wiki, you can buy 600 Turbine Points (500 with 100 bonus points) for US$7.99. Basically, let’s set that as our going rate, though you can pay more to get better conversions, and sales would provide better conversions as well. 100 Astral Shards costs 595 Turbine Points, so as such, Turbine has obfuscated the price severely enough for me to not make any mental math worthwhile even in this simple case.
How quickly will 100 shards run out? That depends on how desirable an item is, and what people with money to burn will pay for a good item. If you factor in the price of posting a successful unbound auction (1 Shard), have an assumed winning bid of 3 Shards (the minimum bid for this auction type), and have a 30% cut of the shards earned (1 shard), you only gain two shards. with one shard as profit.
Some of you are probably thinking the case study is really stupid. The thing is, I do too, as the case study above is not realistic. Min-maxers who’ll want to invest in this sort of thing will buy low and sell high. They’ll buy Turbine Points on sale in bulk, trade for Astral Shards for a good deal, mathematically. They will then sell their items for a significantl Shard profit to other people who have done the same. People who’ve been smart enough to buy a small number of shards just for posting items will probably get the best bang for buck.
Regardless of what happens, the house wins. Turbine (and Warner Bros.) already has your money, enough to pursue further development on their games.
Now, I do not believe in “pay-to-win” as a possible revenue model for an MMO, primarily because the most one can truly acquire from paying for gear is the increased chance of success due to the bumping up of statistical specifications on a character.
For subscription-based MMOs, the equivalent would be EVE Online’s PLEX, though that would not be an exact approximation, since PLEX buys you time to get stronger in game, while the Shard Exchange lets you buy statistical boosts that will pretty much get traded back to other people lower in the food chain. Also... EVE is a sanbox PVP game, and DDO is more structured though potentially just as repetitive to a certain degree if you’ll play the Shard Exchange metagame. Despite the strange mental leap, I can be okay with this, provided Turbine is clear about what’s going on.
For one thing, any game with a low barrier to entry needs to make certain that people buying Astral Shards understand that they’ve traded money for virtual currency in the second degree. A simple reminder reminding users that Astral Shards cannot be used to purchase game content, but only statistical boosts in the form of gear would be a good warning to lessen tickets saying they’ve been ripped off. A tutorial for the Shard Exchange may also be needed.
Second, and Contains Moderate Peril asks this question well, is that there has to be a really good rationale for cutting into Astral Shard Exchange profits. If they’re running a separate server for the auction house that’s powered by Astral Shards (some weird roleplay reason), or if they’re simply trying to curb inflation (more feasible), they better explain that thing well and accept any flak coming to them. Lastly, and this is the probably the most important thing, if they intend to do Shard Exchanges as a means of allowing the game to make more revenue or to stay afloat, then they better provide more content that people can enjoy.
If they’re doing this to gouge people, I wouldn’t stand for it, but if the additional income provided by further purchases of Turbine Points actually provides for a game’s growth, then the least they can do is tell me without any BS. That’s the least one would deserve as a Turbine Point-buying customer.
Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and The Secret World columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.