I maneuvered through golden grass, surrounded by mauve-colored trees. The branches swayed, and their movement seemed to match the ambient song in the background. A bushy-tailed red squirrel paid no mind to the tranquil music, leaping and scurrying from branch to branch. I found Quartermaster Jingith stationed in Gavion Gully, exactly where the shadowlock trainer had said he’d be. A baritone voice rang out through my computer speakers. “We’re glad you’ve come!” Jingith greeted me and immediately began a diatribe. “Beyond the Delfkut Swamps, my people are weakened by plague and famine and are in desperate need of your help.”
Those that read my novel might recognize the above scene as one of the first quest experiences the main character has in an MMO. Imagine though for a second, what the story would have been like if instead of hearing the rest of the quest line the NPC suddenly yelled: “TO CONTINUE, BUY NOW!”
Even though this example is over-dramatized, it is a fair question to wonder what our entertainment would be like if it always required micro-transactions to continue, finish, or win. If my novel used the freemium business model displayed in some MMOs, I’d have a hard time keeping the reader in the story while trying to authentically portray the MMO experience. I would have to incorporate micro-transactions somehow, and how different would the reader’s experience be then?
While discussing the future global gaming market with business analysts and developers, I listened to their thoughts about the growing popularity of the free to play, freemium, and micro-transaction models. One thing they continued to bring up was the quality of game play. Advertisements and DLC-peddling NPCs can easily ruin immersion and spread a sour taste throughout a game regardless of the rest of the content. When we’re in the game, we want to be in the game. If developers have to constantly think about what roadblocks to design in order to encourage the player to purchase something, the game’s experience could be neglected in the process, with quality and immersion being lost.
One business analyst had these thoughts: “The pay-to-win gaming model is frowned upon by western players, but an accepted practice in Asia. When we talk about monetization strategies for a FTP game, we talk either about vanity items (which are never game effecting) and time equalizers (which walk the line of game effecting). The time equalizer gives two options: ‘I could spend 5 hours farming this item, or I could give you $10 to buy it.’ In essence this is why gold farming became such a huge industry. Trade time for money. In Asian games they have been doing this for awhile and it doesn't bother them. I think in time we may see a similar change in the Western games, as FTP becomes ubiquitous.”
Of course there are successful examples that use these business models without the game quality suffering. Games like Team Fortress 2 and Portal 2 have had cosmetic based micro transactions for years and most non-subscription MMOs have done it for a very long time as well. A great comparison on the PC end would be World of Warcraft. The variety of pets and mounts (and soon to be transmog items) that are available to buy outside the game are mostly cosmetic but have always been extremely popular. They are not limited to a single character and once purchased, all of your characters are able to display the item. They can still be considered relatively cosmetic despite the addition of pet battles. World of Warcraft’s recently announced in-game store may be just as convenient and optimal for player’s as the aforementioned games.
Another good example that offers a nice balance is Guild Wars 2. Most of their purchase items are cosmetic, but there are a few "power" items available as well(mostly in the form of limited time power/exp. enhancing potions and the like). However, they're not something that seems to break or hinder the game at all, and most notable the currency for these items can be acquired in-game. You can even, if so inclined, upgrade the game to their 'Digital Deluxe' edition purely through making money in the game alone. It may require extra work, but having the option makes a huge difference.
Gamers want to experience great game play. Plain and simple. For many developers, focusing on creating those great experiences has been their highest priority. Ultimately, we want our developers to be able to continue that focus and not have to switch completely to game pay.
Is the shift toward freemium models good or bad? Possibly both. We will have good and bad effects from this business model. It may be disruptive to the industry, but disruptive events cause change and change usually keeps things interesting.
Do you think an influx of change in this direction will be accepted easily, or will the industry feel some growing pains?
Every week, Holder’s Dominion author Genese Davis opines about MMO gaming, the issues the genre faces, and the power of shaping online worlds.
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