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Item Stores & Payment Models: Not All RMT is Bad

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
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In the wake of last week’s column, I’d like to start by thanking everyone for the lively and mostly civilized discussion that ensued! I also want to clarify and expand on what I said regarding RMT, or real money transactions.

I usually try to see all sides when it comes to MMO debates, but when I wrote “real money transactions” I was thinking “item stores”; I entirely forgot about the less savory roots of RMT, which is gold selling. Let’s be clearer this time: I don’t approve of gold selling at all. I understand where it comes from and I know why some people feel compelled to use the service, but I think it’s directly detrimental to the games in which it happens and more indirectly bad for the community and industry as a whole.

However, blaming the farmers in-game is too easy. While they do cause disturbances, the real fault lies with their employers – and with the customers. Let’s assign some of the responsibility where it belongs: there would be no gold-selling industry if there weren’t a real and sizeable demand from the players. And ultimately it’s like cheating: we all have that option, but we don’t all choose to avail ourselves of it. I’ve had gold chat spam and gold ads shoved at me for years, and yet I’ve never bought any.

There’s a deeper issue there, of course. While there will always be players who prefer to cheat if they can, the plain fact is that games have been getting grindier and grindier over the last decade. When you need eleventy-million gold to buy something that’s actually fairly meaningless in order to, for instance, get an achievement (like one of the WoW mammoth mounts, for example), I can see how it might be more tempting to buy the gold for a few real-world dollars than to spend days getting the gold oneself.

When a game’s development emphasizes time spent over fun had, as so many games are doing, you end up with a grind many people either don’t choose to do or don’t feel they have the time to do. But we’re not slaves to our impulses; playing within the rules is a conscious decision, and buying gold remains against the rules of just about all the games I know. It’s cheating and it damages our games, because the production of mountains of in-game currency usually has extensive and-far reaching effects. Just don’t do it.

When I said I’d made my peace with RMT these last few years, what I really meant was item shops. They’ve been around in MMOs for some time now, and although it took the larger AAA-titles a bit longer to adopt them, when they finally did so they did it with gusto. All the major Western games I’ve played in the last few years – LOTRO, EQ2, WoW – now boast pretty far-ranging item shops where you can get anything from xp potions to appearance outfits to mounts, and then some.

I used to hate even the idea of item shops, because of the implication that I could spend real money in order to obtain in-game perks. I was already paying a monthly subscription for my games, so why the hell should I have to pay even more to get stuff I should be able to obtain in game, along with everyone else?

I’ll admit, it still makes me a little leery. Some games, mostly the Free To Play (F2P) ones, actually let you buy distinct advantages, which rubs my fairness attitude the wrong way. But to be honest I’ve yet to see an item-store item that’s an absolute must-have, without which you can’t really play or compete; in most cases you may be somewhat limited without whatever it is, but you’re not technically unable to play.

It’s one of the few potential drawbacks of a system that’s otherwise a pretty good idea for the industry in general. Take Wizard 101, a really cute and fun little game aimed at kids which offers several different payment models and, of course, an item shop. You can pay a monthly subscription and gain access to the entirety of the game, or you can choose to pay to unlock content as you go. Since this is primarily a kids’ game it means that their parents get to make that decision, which is a good thing. Better yet, back when I tried Wizard 101 a couple of years ago, there were discounts for family subscriptions, which I thought was a brilliant idea.

A number of non-gamers I know are suspicious of MMOs to begin with, and even more suspicious of having to pay a monthly fee to access them. It’s something I find a little difficult to understand, especially since we all pay monthly subs for an increasing range of services (TV, phones, etc.), but then I’ve been playing subs-based games for over a decade and I’m comfortable with both the payment model and the basic concept of online gaming.

In any case, opening up the choices people have in terms of payment models was not only smart, it was almost essential for an industry that seemed to be stagnating a couple of years ago, not to mention losing ground to an ever-increasing plethora of not-quite-MMOs and social games. Subscription-based MMOs are actually in the minority now, and while I don’t have cold hard figures to offer (feel free to latch onto that to disregard my entire argument), experience seems to be showing that F2P or partly-F2P models plus item store offerings have revitalized a number of the larger MMOs. LOTRO’s F2P launch last year was a huge success; I actually returned to LOTRO through the F2P beta, and I was amazed at the number of people who tried it out come launch in those places where it was made available.

The only major MMO that hasn’t felt the need to offer any kind of F2P yet is WoW, but WoW is pretty much a unique entity in the MMO world. Yet even WoW may not be immune; I saw hordes of people come back for Cataclysm, and hordes of people leave again within a couple of months. We’ll see what the next few years bring, because rule #1 in MMOs is, and always has been, “Never say never”.

Sure, most of these games also engage in some pretty hard sell when it comes to item stores, whether or not they’re combined with an F2P model; but that’s just good business. No matter how much we may debate theory, mechanics and social effect, the baseline is that games companies need to make money or we wouldn’t have our games to play; ignoring that fact is simply being willfully blind to economic necessity.

Item shops are here to stay because they provide games with alternate and probably quite substantial streams of revenue, and I’m down with that. The more payment models we have, the more new games have a chance of succeeding and the more choice we’ll have as players and as customers. It might even mean games developers get to start concentrating on the fun aspect of their games rather than on ways in which to wring yet another month of subs out of people by extending the daily grind.

Which means that maybe someday we’ll even see a fully-fledged Steampunk MMO – now that is a launch I could really get behind!


Isabelle Parsley