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Selling Gear for Cash

William Murphy Posted:
Columns Player Versus Player 0

Welcome to the first edition of Player Versus Player, a new experimental column where we square off on the issues you care about, taking on both sides of the story and playing devil’s advocate when we need to in order to make sure the argument is well represented. No one dies, and no respawns or repairs are needed... this is a battle of words, folks.

This week we're talking in-game gear for real world cash. It's been a hot button issue since free-to-play first gained a foothold. Trion Worlds decided to stir the pot once more by selling equipment in RIFT. This leads us to wonder, should MMOs with cash shops enter this field at all? Here are the viewpoints:

  • GOOD: Selling gear in item shops is good. It offers players more options for tackling content and caters to their time and resources.   
  • BAD: Selling gear in item shops is bad business. It de-motivates players from running content, un-balances the game, and skews development goals.

Our Master Debaters are these fine two specimens:

  • Chris Coke: Podcast host and columnist for MMORPG.com. He's playing Devil's Advocate today and arguing in support of gear sales.
  • Bill Murphy: Managing editor and gamer-at-large, Bill is stepping up for the consumer to explain why selling gear is a big no-no.

Chris: Let's get right into this. Buying gear for real money is just another way to get to the content you like and skip what you don't. If you have more money than time, and most of that time would be spent repeating Kill Ten Rats quests, why shouldn't there be an option for you? I'll caveat that with PvP games being the exception, but they are, by and large, an exception to the entire genre.

Bill: Where does it end? If you start letting people skip everything, power their characters up via what used to be illegal means for most games’ TOS, eventually all MMOs will be is just a place where you buy everything you want and those without the expendable income are left hurting.  You say it’s okay because players should be able to skip the crap content. But I’d rather developers find a way to stop making crap content. Instead what you’re advocating is lazy development for profit.

Chris: Fair enough, but is that realistic? How about games available today -- do we scrap them all? Point two. One of the biggest criticisms of against gear sales is Pay-To-Win. What a crock! Unless you're playing PvP, what exactly are you winning? Being the 1,984th person to down a raid boss? Or are we supporting the 2% of players attempting world firsts? Maybe it's teenage dreams of joining the “elite.” Here's the thing: those players don't exist outside of YouTube. Games are too big and, frankly, this isn't 2005; exclusive, expensive pastimes are a thing of the past.

Bill: Again, any game that needs to allow players to buy things to complete content is just designed poorly.  Not pointing fingers at Trion here, as their gear-game isn’t that hard to do the legitimate way, but if your players feel compelled to not do something because it’s a repetitive grind, then chances are you should probably remedy the problem with your design.  Or you can always just make money off of their frustration... that’s cool too.

Chris: I agree, alternative design for the win, but making those changes is slow, costly, and not feasible in existing games. That’s why virtually every AAA example is a retrofit to keep the servers running. And not all content being passed up is bad. It may just be familiar. Point three: most naysayers base their arguments on a sense of equality that never existed in the first place. In the past, only time mattered, so players with less to do outside of the game always had the upper hand. Now these players feel infringed on and cry equality. Where was equality when the single-dad wanted to see raid content? Exclusivity used to be the name of the game, now it's accessibility and fun with friends. We've grown and this trend is because of that.

Bill: It all keeps coming back to design. If you make your game’s content more accessible and less exclusive, then you won’t ever really have the need to sell gear to let people play everything.  As a new father myself with plenty of responsibility outside of Telara and other virtual worlds, I appreciate what Trion’s trying to do.  But tell me if you feel as good buying an item as you do earning the loot.  If the developers can make the experience of obtaining gear less cumbersome and arduous, without cheapening the quest for epic loot, everyone wins. There’s no easy solution to the problem of accessibility of content... but selling gear isn’t the fix in my book.

Chris: It definitely isn’t easy! What is easy is FUBARing the cash shop alternative, but developers are getting smarter. Take RIFT. They sell gear and it's no big deal; what's for sale also drops in-game and is never the absolute best. That's the example critics should look to and rally behind. No one likes a cash shop that devalues gameplay and segments players. It's time to start supporting models that work for Western audiences and stop yelling about whole concepts. You're getting ignored.

Bill: I agree that it can be done well, and done poorly.  If I have to pick one method of gear sales, it would be Rift’s.  But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, because it still devalues gameplay, even if it doesn’t segregate players.  I’d much rather have item sales remain cosmetic, and let the quest for power through gear be about actual gameplay.

Chris: Fair enough, but for all the outcry on that very thing, we keep seeing gear for sale in item shops. Why? Because people are buying them. So many, in fact, that modern MMO companies seem pretty willing to write off a lot of the criticisms being thrown out. They're getting smarter but they're not changing course. What does this tell us? The outcry is from the vocal minority. Heard that story before?

Bill: You may very well be right about the vocal minority. Hell, I’d be curious to see just how many bits and pieces of gear Trion has sold so far. I’ve ponied up some of my loyalty rewards for costume gear, and I can imagine new free players are keen to skip content.  But again, I go back to my initial point. If this is the growing trend of F2P gaming, where will it end? Whole worlds will be created, but bypassed because spending five to ten bucks will allow it? That’s not what I had in mind for the future of MMORPGs, and while I’m a fan of well-done F2P or B2P games, I’d rather not see the actual playing of the game trivialized.

That's all folks. Sound off in the comments with your thoughts! Who won, who lost, or are they both right?

Chris “Syeric” Coke / Chris is a lifelong gamer with a passion for debate and consumer advocacy. Sometimes he takes opposite tacks for the sake of discussion. Read his column, The Tourist, every other Friday and hear him weekly on the official podcast.

Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.