Looking back a little over a year ago, microtransactions were a rarely talked about issue. They existed in only two common contexts: the item shops of free-to-play MMOs, and account services for subscription MMOs. Both of these microtransaction situations have been commonly accepted. Free-to-plays certainly have to get funding from some source to keep their games running; their item shops allow them to sell subscription packages as well as both utilitarian and cosmetic items. Charges for account services (most commonly server transfers and name changes) in pay-to-play games, on the other hand, deter abuse of those services by players attempting to cheat others and then hide anonymously among the community.
One notable exception from these two contexts stands out: Sony Online Entertainment's Marketplace, an item shop built for EverQuest and EverQuest II (now expanded to Free Realms). Announced in December 2008, the Marketplace was created with the intent of offering a flexible way to pay for account services and offer “cool stuff” for players across their games. From the day Station Cash was introduced, Smedley stated that “we will NOT add ANY microtransactions that will disrupt the integrity of these games.” Yet the day it opened, the Marketplace offered experience potions beside the “fluff.” The feedback posted by players was in no way positive, and ranged from rage-quits to a grumbling acceptance. Over time, the Marketplace has come to be accepted by the player base, with occasional uprisings at new items, such as the race change potion offered a few months ago after a change to racial abilities.
After discussions about SOE's Marketplace announcement, the buzz about microtransactions went down considerably. The chatter heated up again in July, however, when Champions Online revealed its support for microtransactions. The community was promised the majority would be aesthetic, and that any items that offered in-game effects would also be available without paying real cash. So far, Cryptic has held faithful to that promise on both accounts. That promise has also created a new dialogue in the MMO community about microtransactions: a demand that all utilitarian microtransactions are offered for the game's virtual currency in addition to real cash.
More recently, other games have joined the “subscription plus” mix, including DDO Unlimited (which, despite offering a subscription, still has RMTs only available in the DDO Store), Star Trek Online (which follows Champions Online's model), and the Warcraft juggernaut (mini-pets, anyone?).
This past week, Aion also created a stir, but not with its launch of payable account services. Instead, the fuss came out over a Valentine's pack offered as a microtransaction. There were two packs available: “True Love,” which offered 5 True Red Dyes, 10 Love Potions, a Sunflower Headband and a Heart emote; and “Chocolate” which offered 5 Hot Pink Dyes, 10 pieces of Dark Chocolate, a Tulip Headband and a Flowers emote. The problem wasn't that it was a limited edition due to the holidays. It's that the emotes in particular were available in game as purchasable items. Yes, even though the MMO community has been rallying behind the idea that microtransaction items should be available through in-game means, when a microtransaction appears that offers something already available in game, complaints appear.
Is the MMO community split on what we want when it comes to microtransactions? Or are we confused?
When microtransactions are mentioned, usually talk goes to accusing gaming companies of massive greed. Of course, gaming companies are businesses – by now, you've all heard that argument. Are they money-grubbing scum? Well ... maybe? To the MMO community, a gaming company is a giant, ambiguous entity with no distinguishable face or personality. Sometimes a great community manager or, rarer yet, a developer, steps up and offers a face of the company people can relate to; unfortunately, this human face often becomes separated as an individual on the side of the community, joining their side as a knight against the amorphous company blob. Point in case: I doubt many of you adore Mythic the way you adore Sanya.
Community managers aren't the only humans with beating hearts inside the game companies, though. I have talked to many people within companies, from those managing PR, customer service reps, producers, designers, and CEOs (even McQuaid and Smedley). These people are passionate about their games. They love meeting and learning from their community. They want players to be happy, because they understand the basic concept of business and customer service: a happy customer is a paying customer. Somewhere though – maybe in the CFO's office, maybe in accounting, or maybe in a simple lack of communication – something changes that affects player pocketbooks, and leaves them dissatisfied.
What's worse, though, is that the MMO community isn't sending a clear message to game companies. We say we don't want microtransactions in subscription-based games, yet we buy up just about everything a company offers to us when they go down that path. We say that we want the items to be available in game for virtual funds, but complain if microtransactions don't offer exclusive items, and if exclusive items are offered, complain there's no way to get those items in game. Quite simply, we are contradictory consumers.
As a community, we need to spell out what we want from gaming companies when it comes to microtransactions. Do we really find it alright if a subscription game offers microtransactions, so long as certain conditions are met? If so, what are those conditions? Aesthetic items only – fluff like mini-pets, mounts, housing items, hair styles, etc.? Should these items be microtransaction exclusive? Should they be tradeable between players? And what about items that offer tangible benefits to a character, like experience potions. Should they be allowed at all? Is being wealthy enough to buy in-game advantages “cheating”?
Even once we lay out these opinions, we still have decisions to make about the worth of virtual goods and services. Is a mini-pet worth $10, or a race change worth $30? Are we willing to pay more for microtransactions if a subscription costs less than the typical $15 a month – or more, if it means we're promised no microtransactions, including account services?
In turn, we need clarity. We need companies to state their microtransaction policy clearly (like Cryptic has done) and then stick to what they say. We need communication before microtransactions are introduced into our game – developer blogs, chats, roundtables, webinars. We need real representation to the decision makers, not the voice of a community manager who gets passed through three other sources before being mentioned casually in a small conference room upstairs. Most importantly, we need decision makers who truly understand what microtransactions can do to the atmosphere of their game.
Let's draw the line, as a community, about the value of our gaming. Let's demand communication and involvement in decisions that affect the cost of our gaming. And let's send a clear message that we will not stand to be taken advantage of.