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Armchair Philosophy

Random thoughts about gaming, both online and offline.

Author: Eindrachen

Micro-Transactions: What, Me Worry?

Posted by Eindrachen Thursday November 5 2009 at 2:47AM
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So.  This week, WOW suppsoedly "jumped the shark" in their design philosophy.  They are selling two non-combat pets in the game for $10 each, with half the profits from those sales going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation until Dec. 31.

Let's ignore the faux charity of this new opportunity.  Yes, this is faux charity.  If people were really inclined to donate, they'd just donate $5 themselves on Blizzard's advice.  This charity angle is just the sugar coating on the bitter pill of the bigger issue.

That issue is that Blizzard is moving into RMTs for in-game items.  We can deny it if we want, but over the past year they've made an about-face on a lot of issues, from being able to fly in the "old" world (which was handled with an expansion that retools the geography to permit such a thing) to not allowing talking to the other faction (handled with the merger and the need for cross-faction and cross-server communication).  RMT is just the latest thing they said they'd never, ever consider that they've apparently had a change of heart about.

You can guess what happened after this announcement.  Pandemonium ensued on every blog, forum, and other form of communications we have available to us.  This seems to be the apocryphal "end time" for WOW, which can only spiral down into an abyss of rich people ruining the game by spending loads of money to get things that "real" gamers get with hard work and devotion to the game.

Strangely, though... I don't feel that that's what will happen at all.

Let's examine the past.  At the end of "vanilla" WOW, they released a huge 40-man dungeon that barely got completed by maybe 1% of most servers.  If we assume a full server has around 40,000 players (and this is as best a guess as I can make), we're talking about 400 players a server even got to see Kel'thuzad before the expansion came.  I personally don't know of anyone at all who even completed the legendary staff Atiesh before Burning Crusade.

So Burning Crusade hits, and Blizzard sees a mistake.  They put months of work into AQ, Naxx, and ZG, and those instances became ghost towns in the wake of Black Temple and Karazhan.  Oh, some did go to ZG for those nifty mounts, or maybe put some time with Naxx to get a legendary item that was barely better than the epics found in BC's end-game (and, ultimately, wasn't as good as some of those epics).  But by and large, nobody cares about the old stuff.  Not at all.

By the time WOTLK came out, Blizzard didn't want to waste further efforts.  They could recycle Naxx (it fit lore-wise, because it's one of the Lich King's big strongholds), but the Sunwell became as barren as ZG or AQ was at that time about a month into Wrath.

If you pay attention, Blizzard keeps trying to give us reasons to go back for old content.  Achievements were one addition, and it did create a wave of nostalgia.  Even today, raiding guiilds will fire up a PUG for old content on an off-raid day and storm Molten Core, ZG, and AQ with level 80 folks who never even saw the inside of those places.

But Blizzard needed something to keep the new end-game instances relevant.  The new emblem system worked pretty darn good, and by updating which emblems dropped with each new release of content, they actually kept heroic dungeons going pretty strong.

How does this have anything to do with micro-transactions, you ask?

If they do implement a micro-transaction service for gear, it basically invalidates all the coding they put into the badge/emblems system. That system is ideal because it cuts down on ninjaing, moderately controls inflation (i.e. you can't use gold to buy badges/emblems), and it only requires you to spend the effort in running the content to get gear. Even raiding benefitted from this a great deal; I've seen little or  no loot drama since TBC first tried this method of gear progression. You may get drama over mounts and other non-essential stuff, but that's becoming few and far between.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that they did allow RMT for gear.  Even if they did... it probably wouldn't change much.

PVP, espeically in the Arena, is still more heavily influenced by class balance issues than gear progression, as well as individual player skill (i.e. no keyboard turning). Raiding does have some influence from gear, but not enough to overcome the combined influences of build/spec (which even now can be known to overcome gear deficiency), and individual player teamwork skills (taking orders, paying attention, reacting to changing tactics in a fight, etc.). You can have the best gear in the game, but if you don't move out of fire or fail to use a certain key ability in a fight (such as certain CC abilities), you can screw up and cause a wipe. This is why we frequently ask in-game if someone who does such things with top-geared max-level characters "Ebayed" their way into the game: it's easy to see if someone was a sucker who thought buying such a thing would give him an I.W.I.N. button to the game, only to fail miserably and be quickly ostracized from almost any raid or Arena team for being a crappy player.

Buying gear won't make you a better gamer.  Plenty of people have already tried that with shady under-the-table deals to buy and/or sell characters, and it hasn't worked well yet.  It's like plugging in a cheat code in a single-player RTS game: you still aren't beating the game, you just think you are because you changed the rules you were asked to play by.  In a way, people who buy accounts/gear/whatever are actually worse off than not doing it.  They have to prove, quickly and with no guidance, that they know what they are doing and how to do it, on demand, during intricate boss fights or pitched PVP battles.

Does that mean no micro-transactions are good?  Of course not!  I could see micro-transactions for, say, heirloom gear. That stuff's harmless; once you've hit the last ten levels or so, it can't compete with the stats on choice blue gear from non-heroic 5-man instances. And the worst part is that such items can rarely be can't (to my knowledge) be disenchanted or sold or anything to recoup the costs. For brand-new players who are firing up their first WOW character, there's no harm in letting them pay a few bucks for, say, a Dignified Headmaster's Charge and similar gear. It can't even accept enchants with level requirements, for Christ's sake.

I'm not saying don't worry.  Reasonable, sensible people should protest if they feel something has a negative impact on the game. But I think Blizzard would listen to a compromise better than flat-out rejection. If we draw the boundary at RMT heirlooms, non-combat pets, and a few other paltry things, that protects the integrity of hardcore raiding and Arena teams who deserve something special for the effort they put forth.  Blizzard makes some money, we might get more new players (always a plus), and folks get some feeling of reward in conquering end-game content.

Besides, aside from actually cancelling your subscription, they are unlikely to listen to badly-worded anonymous protests on this or any other website...