Mention the term “Cash Shop” and you’re likely to elicit groans and sharp yelps from any crowd of MMO gamers. Item Shops are mostly known, despite the efforts of more modern incarnations, as “Pay to Win” shops. It is expected that any game which offers a cash shop is either A.) selling the mythical “I Win Button” or B.) selling stuff that should have already been included in the game from the start. To a certain extent, I can understand it when players get miffed that they are being asked to shell out extra money when they’re already paying a subscription. When World of Warcraft started doing it, the game was a few years old and the stuff they sold was pretty much inconsequential to anyone who didn’t want to pay extra. On the other hand, making a race that’s pretty much iconic to the game’s lore a purchase-only sort of deal seems a little off. So with that in mind, as we forge onward into the new Western MMO World of hybrid payment models, and the rise of quality in our F2P games let’s make a list of the best ways companies can use a Cash Shop, shall we?
5.) Experience Boosts
I’m sure some might scoff at number five and say that it’s a sort of cheating. But really, considering there’s no “winning” in these games when it comes to the leveling process and the fact that I lost count of how many times I or another of my friends fell behind one another in terms of the leveling game and found ourselves unable to play together… well then purchasable experience boosts make sense to me. Sure, so does every MMO developer including some form of “Mentor” system, but until that day comes I wouldn’t mind shelling out a few bucks now and again on an a character if it meant keeping up with friends. I’m usually the kind to stop and smell the roses when I play, but sometimes a little help climbing a hump might be nice.
4.) Health, Resurrect, and Other Consumables
The only reason consumables are number four and not closer to the top of my list is that I do think they pose a more controversial use when compared to the other items listed. Consumables are often usable in combat, and unless they were designed to not be used in PvP or had other limitations in mind, I picture a whole host of players complaining that purchased consumables are becoming the dreaded “I win button”. However the convenience of being able to buy resurrection potions for you and your mates? That’s something I can get behind, especially if they were not usable in PvP as mentioned previously. And let’s not forget the fun-tential (that’s fun + potential) for goofy side effects and other special visual treats driven by said consumables. Which brings me to item number three…
3.) Purely Aesthetic Gear
This one is probably best suited to titles like Lord of the Rings Online or Everquest II, which have a “style tab” of sorts where you can equip items for purely visual reasons and not have them affect your stats. I’m one of many LotRO Lifers, and I’ve spent quite a few of my points on just purely aesthetic gear to make my lower-level guys look like something a little less ridiculous. Throw in potions mentioned above that temporarily alter the look of a player, or perhaps their pets, and it’s the kind of thing I can really get behind. They’re not essential for players to enjoy the game, and ultimately they’re just status symbols and we as a culture should be used to that, am I right? Let people drive their Lexuses… Lexi? If they want to shell out that kind of money for what’s essentially a Toyota with an “L” on it, l say let them have at it.
2.) Special Mounts
Speaking of Toyotas with the letter “L” plastered on them, this is also probably one of the least invasive and most ingenious uses of a cash shop. Whenever the mount as it pertains to MMOs was invented, players have always been clamoring for cooler and faster looking rides. I don’t know if that’s solely an American ideal, or if it stretches across the world, but we like to look good when we’re going places even if those places are housed in a server farm. Look at the ever-popular “Sparkly Horse” from World of Warcraft for proof that people will gladly shell out their hard-earned money for purely aesthetic things that make them stand out from the crowd (even if you also become part of said crowd when you buy one – Catch 22). I don’t even really care if the mounts that are purchasable let people circumnavigate the game world in half the time compared to my regular old Buick of a mount. If someone wants to spend a little extra money on an in-game ride that makes them look wicked-awesome, that’s fine by me. My only and constant caveat is that whatever the item is, and in this case it’s a mount, it had better not affect PvP. That’s the only part of my game I don’t want affected by cash shop items.
1.) Real Extra Content
I am firmly in the camp that outside of boxed or digital full expansions, subscribers shouldn’t have to pay for extra zones or dungeons. That’s what your subscription should automatically net you. But in games like the new F2P LotRO, or the forthcoming Guild Wars 2, or any currently free offering, I think the number one best use of a Cash Shop is for actual content. If you need to make money because your MMO is free to play and you don’t want us to whine about it, give us some real meat and potatoes to play with. Give us real playable and palatable content. Give us a new questing zone for or a repeatable dungeon, and we’ll gladly cough up cash if we like your game.
I can see Champions Online making a decent amount of revenue from selling Adventure Packs when the game goes semi-F2P next year. And it’s because we don’t have qualms about coughing up cash for real content in our games. Look at the success of DLC on PCs and consoles if you want proof. If you want to run your MMO for free and have users pay for something, content is where the sweet spot is. I suppose everything listed above is “content” in some way or another, but playable adventures is more along the lines of what I’m thinking, and if you can steadily offer players new adventures to be had, you’re going to find yourself raking in plenty of money… so long as your game is good to begin with. But that’s a rant for another day.