Category Archives: microtransactions

Thought for the day.

The scary thing isn’t that Blizzard have opened a micro-transaction store for World of Warcraft; one should consider that event to be as the emotive theme tune is to the shark in Jaws, or a dissonant violin crescendo is to Jason Voorhees.

It’s a warning, but not a guarantee, of the actual horror waiting to strike.

The audience sits gripping the arms of their chairs and each other, or peering through fingers, all the while willing in vain that the innocent band of plucky wallets and purses turn back from the strange path that they are following lest they are caught by the monster that stalks them and have their innards sucked out.

Everyone holds their breath. And waits…

Wallet death by a thousand microcuts.

Not all microtransactions are created equal.

Turbine have seen the light with DDO: a large proportion of the items that you can buy in the store you can also earn through playing the game; from basic +1 Items of Slight Betterness to the sigils that allow you to continue past each of the limit caps at levels four, eight, etc. You can earn all of these items through playing the free game. The things that they generally hold back on are the adventure packs, classes/races and those items which make you level up faster; these are held back for obvious reasons, although even these can be earnt through playing the game and earning favour which can be converted in to store points.

How is Blizzard approaching the issue at the moment? So far they have a small store, with a couple of pet vanity items which – after mounts – are some of the most sought after fluff items in the game. Except on RP servers, where it’s usually a dress that makes your character’s boobs hang out and leaves little imagination in the buttock region either. And that’s just the male characters.

The important difference for me is that there’s no way to earn the WoW vanity pets in the game, and I think that’s a mistake when your game also requires a monthly subscription to play. Blizzard seems to have swung entirely to the other end of the scale with their pet store, catering to the More Money Than Time folks, and ignoring those who are of the More Time Than Money variety. This seems especially silly when Blizzard could make a nice grind for the vanity pet items and keep people invested in their game, both in terms of time and money, while offering those who baulk at the real world price of these trivial vanity items a chance to afford them in their own way, which, given the cost of a monthly fee, would work out about the same if you made the grind a daily affair that lasted a month.

Of course at the moment Blizzard offers these pets only as an additional cost to the game and, knowing the WoW community, that will probably cause a lot of ill will, probably more than it really warrants, but I think Blizzard are indeed being greedy and foolish with their first foray into a forthright game store.

SoE are looking to create a subscription for Free Realms, presumably because they aren’t getting the returns that they were hoping for from the game store, but again some of their better vanity items require you to pay or go without; it’s surprising how many people will baulk at paying for something when they are forced to, yet pay exactly the same price, for exactly the same item, if they have the option to earn it in the game, but can take a shortcut by paying for it now.

With DDO, Turbine have mastered the psychology of microtransactions; others would do well to learn from them.

The morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine.

I remember many a school lunchtime misspent down at the local arcade. A friend and I would sneak out past the school prefects who stood on guard at the gate, and make the long walk down to our local electronically-chanting neon Mecca; through back streets and alleys we wended our way, thus avoiding any teachers or police officers who would want to enquire as to why a couple of youths were in that part of town on a school day. I remember the entrance, it was dark and seemingly impenetrable, and the first time we stood before it – like two adventurers stood before the gaping hollow of the dragon’s lair – we almost didn’t venture inside. Scared perhaps, that it wasn’t an arcade at all but the mouth of some strange creature set to look like all the other shop fronts, to tempt young men inside with the mimicking chime of arcade games and slot machines, before gobbling them up in one swift violent movement, then slowly settling itself back in place ready for the next unwary school kid with pocket money to spend. Of course we didn’t have pocket money to spend, but we did have our lunch money. We had come to the conclusion very quickly that we didn’t need food, we felt that we could subsist purely on the thrill of mortal combat, the challenge of a street fight, the engagement of afterburners to outrun our enemies. The siren song of the machines inside was too much for our little Odyssian expedition, our fears were quickly washed away as we were swept inside and into that whirling maelstrom of noise and smoke and strobing light.

It was a good time, for the most part, but it was always over too soon. Ten pence went a long way in those days, enough to get you three or four credits on the slightly older machines, where now you’d be lucky to get one credit for a pound coin. With our eighty pence of lunch money you’d think that we could have lasted there forevermore, trapped unwittingly on a digital Aeaea, feasting on the delights of the den of pixelated pleasure. Little did we understand at the time, however, that arcades were a business and thus had a vested interest in you spending as much with them as they could possibly convince you to part with. It is a treacherous situation when you pay money to play a game where the profiteer can set all the rules. Many of the games we played would have a wall, a point at which it was almost impossible to pass without feeding an inordinate number of coins in to fuel your character’s lives and thus allow you to play on, just that little bit further.

Just that little bit further. Oh perfidious phrase! How you have visited misery on so many of those arcade gamers who would follow your promise of glory; yet what triumphant jubilation and what gleeful satisfaction you have rained upon those few lucky enough to overcome your challenge and win through.

My concern is such: MMOs seem to be making a shift towards the philosophy of the arcade, but where previously we had coins, we now have micro-transactions: virtual game currency linked to real world currency by a piece of plastic card. When we ran out of credits in the old arcades it was time to crawl around on the floor looking for dropped and forgotten coins, to rummage around in the return trays of the change machines and the game machines, before finally resigning ourselves to the fact that we had no more electronic lives left and beginning the long walk back to school. Such physical limitations are not so readily present in our Internet enabled world of electronic commercial transactions, and it’s all available without so much as having to step foot outside the front door of your home. What’s more, if ever the phrase ‘just that little bit further’ wished for a home where it reigned supreme, king of all it surveyed, untouchable and godlike in its power over the majority of its minions, it wishes no more, for it has found its throne and it observes with lofty indifference its subjects toiling daily all across the captivating land of MMO.

‘A coin for a life’, that was the agreement in the days of the arcade; a simple one-for-one transaction, a deal with the devil of temptation no doubt, but one where you could at least see the terms of the contract clearly. But now the contract has changed: that coin is no longer equivalent to a single coin in the real world, it is now ‘coin’ plural, or a ‘gold’, a ‘credit’, a ‘point’; furthermore it buys you much less than a life, a little more health perhaps, more mana or energy or other potion of wondrous invention to boost your character’s dwindling fuel. But wait! It can also buy you improvements to your character, better weapons and better armour. Even better companions. There are now a myriad number of options to help you carry yourself over that wall and on to the next, it is no longer the binary choice of “Continue: Yes/No?”, no longer continue to play, but continue to play better.

‘Just that little bit further’ teases you, seduces you, wraps itself around your body and whispers in your ear:

“You can have it all: you can go further and faster and higher than any other. All it will take is a little more coin.”