A sharp contrast to the buy to play model for video games, where consumers pay upfront to purchase all the content available in a game, many developers rely on the free to play business model to attract players to their game. Free to play games forego the upfront purchase price and instead utilize Microtransactions (MTX) to generate revenue. These microtransactions allow a player to use cash to buy additional virtual goods in-game, be it a purely cosmetic item for their character, boosters to increase the amount of experience or gold they gain, additional levels or maps to conquer, or pretty much anything else a developer is willing to make available for an additional fee. These transactions take place in a game’s cash shop, a virtual storefront accessible within the game world.
There’s no shortage of examples of predatory practices in video game cash shops. Cash shops sometimes contain the best equipment and boosts available in a game, in turn frustrating the players who spent hour upon hour trying to obtain what someone else was able to buy with the click of a mouse button. And although many games are finally starting to move away from their use, loot boxes - one of the most hated revenue mechanics in gaming - are a staple cash shop item in games, free to play or otherwise.
Cash shops aren’t inherently bad, though. Many developers stock their cash shops with items and equipment that don’t give an unfair advantage to whoever is willing to buy them. Cosmetic items, mounts, bank slots, and even some progression items can be bought without ever giving someone a hand up on the competition. So today, we’re going to be looking at the more player friendly cash shops out there. We browsed through the virtual storefronts to find the shops that, instead of gouging a player for every penny they have, provide players the best goods and services available at a fair price. They may not be perfect, but these five games have the best cash shops in gaming.
5 - League of Legends
MOBAs are all about using strategy and skill to take out other players on your path to victory. Whether it’s league play or casual matches, having a cash shop that could give you an edge in competition is a no-no. So it’s a good thing that League of Legends developer Riot Games keeps pay to win items out of their LoL store.
LoL has over 150 unlockable champions for you to take onto the battlefield. By playing matches, players will accumulate Blue Essence, which can then be used to unlock any Champion and their basic Eternal for free. The cash shop gives players that don’t want to grind Blue Essence a chance to unlock their favorite champions and Eternals with Riot Points (RP). Once purchased from the cash shop, RP can immediately be used to unlock any champion or Eternal of their choosing. This may sound like you’re paying to win, but you are only unlocking a Champion, not the skill needed to play it. There are additional Skins and Chromas in the cash shop that can’t be purchased with Blue Essence, but even these are purely cosmetic and don’t give players willing to buy RP an unfair advantage.
League of Legends - You can buy any champion. The skill required to play it is not included
The League of Legends cash shop may not be pay to win but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. One minor fault with the LoL shop is the lack of detailed descriptions. Although veteran players will be familiar with each item’s purpose, new players will have to do some research to know exactly what they are buying. Riot Games allows only three refunds per account, so be sure you are certain you are getting what you want before you buy.
4 - Final Fantasy XIV
Welcome to the cash shop that isn’t even in the actual game.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the elephant in the room. Why does a subscription only game have a cash shop in the first place? The easy answer is Square Enix is greedy and wants even more of your money. Me? I’m fine with that. If I can play FFXIV (you can check out my most recent return to Eorzea in MMO Reroll) for the base subscription and never have to touch a cash shop that is hidden away on their website, why not let players willing to throw their money away on extra mounts do so? You could say that since we’re all paying a monthly sub, all content made for the game should be available for no extra charge. I would reply that the extra stuff would never be made in the first place so you aren’t missing out on anything anyway. Then you could counter with… well, you get the idea. Like it or hate it, FFXIV has a cash shop.
So why does FFXIV deserve a spot on this list? As I already mentioned, it isn’t even a part of the actual game, and that in and of itself is awesome. So many games toss cash shop items into the game as rewards, while others even go as far as making you go to the cash shop to complete a quest (looking at you Tera). Square Enix could make so much more money if they advertised the shop in game but instead makes it to where only the most diehard fans of the game will probably ever find it. That’s a classy thing to do and should immediately debunk any ideas that they are too greedy.
Final Fantasy XIV - Hard to find but well worth the search
That lack of greed shows throughout the cash shop experience in Final Fantasy XIV. The majority of the shop is cosmetics, with the remainder being story progression items. Prices for cosmetics feel very reasonable. Less intricate items like rings or bathing suits are just a couple of dollars, while highly detailed items still come in under $20. Housing items, as well, follow suit. Another nice touch is the option to pick up event items that are no longer available in the MMO at a price lower than comparable items in the shop.
The FFXIV shop is also top notch in its functionality. Taking the shop out of the game and slapping it on a website allows for a clean, easy to use interface. Item descriptions are very thorough, giving a detailed description of the item’s use. The requirements to use the item are also clearly explained, an aspect in which many other developers need some schooling. Square Enix has also removed the annoying use of purchasable currency to use in the shop. Each item’s price is stated in USD, making it easy to determine exactly what you are paying and not leaving you with a small unused amount of currency.
3 - Star Trek Online
The cash shop in Star Trek Online makes this list for one reason - it is full of content from all areas of the Star Trek Universe and allows players to skip much of the grind needed to collect items from their favorite faction. Some of the most iconic ship designs can be purchased singly, giving you the chance to take the bridge of your favorite ship. For players wanting to acquire the whole fleet of their favorite faction, ship bundles can help you do so at a hefty discount compared to purchasing each ship individually. You’re also able to purchase bridge officers, companions, and playable species to help you recruit a unique crew to call your own.
Most of the items for sale in the cash shop can be found as random rewards as you play through the game.
Star Trek Online - Boldly buy where others have bought before
Like all of Perfect World’s games, STO uses Zen as its cash shop currency. Players not wanting to spend real-world cash to purchase Zen are able to trade for it with Dilithium, an in-game currency earned while playing. Like real world trading, the Dilithium to Zen exchange rate is based on player demand, so be sure to check the ebb and flow of prices before committing to a large buy.
Players looking to play Star Trek Online completely free do need to understand the limitations they are imposing upon themselves. While trading Dilithium for Zen does allow you to get items from the cash shop for free, doing so involves spending a lot of time in game grinding for the currency. There is a limit to how much Dilithium can be processed each day and the exchange rate leans heavily in favor of the Zen seller. Store purchases cost in the hundreds of Zen for basic items and in the thousands for ships. As a result, this means even a single purchase will take more grinding than most players are willing to endure.
All the Star Trek goodness that can be found in the cash shop comes with a caveat. Many of the purchases do not apply account wide. Depending on whether you like to play a single character or go alt crazy will determine how much this affects you.
2 - World of Warcraft
If there was ever a game that didn’t need a cash shop to generate extra revenue, World of Warcraft is surely it. Yet Blizzard still added a cash shop to WoW many moons ago. Wow’s shop is admittedly one of the slimmest out there, focusing on subscriptions, expansions, and cosmetic items only.
Most games use their cash shop to promote season passes or VIP subscriptions. Blizzard follows suit by dedicating a page of their in-game store to trial version upgrades. Without ever leaving the game, players can easily begin their monthly subscription to unlock the content beyond the trial’s level 20 limit.They also have another page where players can purchase the latest expansion pack. Subscriptions and expansions can be purchased outside of the game so this portion of the cash shop is really just there as a convenience to players.
World of Warcraft - Unnecessary? Yes. Still well done? Yes.
Where Blizzard shows its savvy in getting players to give more than their $14.99 a month sub fee lies in the shop’s ease of use as much as it does the quality of the items offered. The cost of the item is listed in US dollars, and you pay exactly the amount shown. Without an intermediate currency players don’t feel cheated by predatory practices like making you purchase more currency than you need. You know what you want and you know the price, no high level math needed.
As far as the actual mounts and pets available, players are drawn in by their quality. The designs are some of the highest detailed and visually desirable to be found anywhere in the game. Blizzard also makes a smart move by keeping all pets at $10.00 and mounts at $25.00; pricing newer or more desirable pets at a higher price doesn’t go over well with many players.
1 - Path of Exile
Path of Exile is a perfect example of how a free to play game can have a cash shop that is almost universally accepted by its community. How did Grinding Gear Games accomplish this? That’s simple - PoE can be played 100% without ever spending a dime. The whole game, including every content update since day one is accessible for free. Every character class, weapon, and spell is free. You won't find any exclusive skill gems, bonus maps, or any other item that would give a paying customer an advantage for sale in the cash shop. There aren’t any XP boosts or crafting materials for sale either.
What you will find in PoE's shop is a lot of cosmetics. There are some pretty cool armor and weapon skins to peruse. Anyone looking to really customize their look will be able to choose items like cloaks and wings, special effect footprints, pets, and even portal replacements. You can also spruce up your hideout, Path of Exile’s variation on player housing. None of these items grant you additional powers or undermine the other player’s experiences in any way. No one feels cheated or that their skill at playing the game is hindered by someone simply buying their way into the best items in the game.
That isn’t to say that the PoE cash shop is devoid of convenience items. There is one quality of life item that most long term players will say is necessary to get the most out of PoE, and that’s the additional bank tabs that can be found only in the cash shop. With so many scraps, fragments, maps, and everything else you will be collecting as you play, using just the basic stash tabs can be a logistical nightmare. The tabs range from additional generic or oversized tabs so you can hold more stuff, to more specialized - and more costly - tabs that can hold the myriad currencies, maps, uniques, fragments to name just a few. These tabs don’t add an ounce of power to your character while you are out killing mobs, but they will help keep your loot organized, allowing you to search through your stuff and get back into the action quicker.
Path of Exile - The sexiest cash shop around
Best of all, the PoE cash shop is minimally intrusive. You aren't spammed with messages during play, with the bulk advertising relegated to the Path of Exile website home page. The only on screen display is a small ‘shop’ button built into the skill bar on the bottom right of the screen. All of your purchases even go into a separate microtransaction stash so your character’s inventory and stash aren’t cluttered with all of your decorations and skins.
As far as cost, PoE isn’t the cheapest MTX store out there. Points are purchased in $5, $10, or $20 amounts, with each dollar worth 10 points. Items cost anywhere from 30 or 40 points (there are a few even cheaper) for general stash tabs or hideout decorations to as much as 800+ points for an armor pack. There are always sales going on, so those willing to wait can oftentimes find a good bargain. There’s also a preview video of each item to help curb buyer’s remorse when a $60 item doesn’t look quite like you expected. Again, it’s not the cheapest store around but with zero pay to win items or content packs to buy everything in the shop is purely optional.