Starym Takes on Microtransactions

Following the recent datamining of an XP boost available in the most recent PTR build of World of Warcraft, rumors of imminent microtransactions in our favourite MMO were bound to follow. Disappointing was the haste with which the rumors were (somewhat) confirmed. Zahrym took to the official forums to state:

We are currently exploring the possibility of adding a way for players in certain regions to make purchases directly within the game. As part of this process, elements related to this will be appearing on the PTR. We’ll provide additional updates on our plans as development progresses.

That is to say: Microtransations.

So far Blizzard have utilized an out of game store through their website to sell purely cosmetic items like pets and mounts, and most recently helm skins. These kind of cosmetic items are great additions for some and don’t really bother the larger player base. Someone else has a cool mount that they payed for, so what? It doesn’t make them any better than my character. An in-game version of this would pose no problems. But an XP boost is a dangerous step in the direction of pay to win, a direction which no serious MMO should take.

Perhaps it’s not as dramatic as pay to win. It’s only an XP boost after all. Surely we would never see loot available through this in game store….right? But why not, once the floodgates have opened. There was a time when the idea of server changing from a PvE realm to a PvP realm was ridiculous, and faction changing unimaginable. But both systems are now implemented and utilised because they were an easy source of revenue. If World of Warcraft keeps losing subscribers which it inevitably will, other avenues of recouping that money will be explored, and microtransactions involving boosts and eventually gear and titles will fit the bill. The problem that Starym picks up on though is not this horrible inevitability but the fact that micotransactions as a system were a response to solving the problem of subscriptions. A free to play game could make real money through microtransactions instead of monthly subscriptions. Does the model make sense then in a game still taking subscriptions as well? Certainly from the point of view of investors as it adds another earning potential without diminishing the primary source which is the monthly fee. But what about form a player’s perspective? Is it right that we should pay for the game itself, a monthly subscription, and then be expected to pay for additional content on top, content that actually affects and impacts how the game is played?

What follows is Starym’s take on the matter:

So, this topic is fairly complex and deserves a thorough look at all possible angles and points of view. I was going to leave this discussion and analysis to Buzzkill initially, but after reading the first two paragraphs of his article on the matter I couldn’t really believe it. So 30ish minutes later, after I was done yelling at him on Skype, I decided to tackle the matter myself.

The knee-jerk reaction

Right off the bat as the news broke a lot of people really went nuts. You see, it’s not about the specifics, hell, I doubt people even took the time to think about it for 5 minutes. I had a very similar reaction, and even though I knew it was completely premature and childish I let it play out (yes I am a Jedi). And at its core it’s simple: I paid for this game. I paid for these expansions. I am paying for the privilege to play the game every single month. Now I have to pay MORE if I want to level alts faster??? Why does Richy Rich over there get to have an easier time leveling alts and doesn’t have to do dailies for charms on each of them just because his parents have a lot of money??? Yea, ok so he works and it’s his money, who cares, it’s not fair!!!11

Now sure, it’s a hissy fit of 13 year old girl proportions, but the feeling behind it isn’t all wrong. Life isn’t exactly fair – and in the real world people with a lot of money have it much, much easier than people without it. Videogames should NOT be like that. Yes it’s idealistic and yes there’s no such thing as a starving person that plays WoW, but the principle is the same. If you don’t have the time to spend on the game, then don’t. Play it as much as you can and want, but Azeroth should be a thing unto itself (and yes, the current store clashes with this, but vanity items are ok with 99.99% of people).

Ok, that rampant idealism is giving me a rash so I’m gonna have to change up the mood a little: the original tile of the article was supposed to be The Microtransaction Crumpocalypse. Because Crumpets are Crunk.
A little history

Salesmen. These decisions aren’t made by game designers trying to improve the game or add to it, it’s pure and simple salesmanship. They will sell you as much as they can as often as they can, that’s their job. The motivation here isn’t to aid you in your 15 alt leveling troubles, or to make you be able to skip the daily grind for Lesser Charms – it’s simply to grab as much money as possible from a dwindling audience. After all if they were just looking out for player feedback why not give the XP boost away? Why not everyone gets 10 of them for each month’s subscription?
The question is whether we’re ok with it. Obviously from previous comments it’s clear that some are and some aren’t. The currently announced store wouldn’t really affect people that don’t use it that much so why would you care? Well, let’s take a look at how this whole microtansactions thing started shall we?

Arcades. This is what it’s all coming back to. Except we’d moved on from that and were buying games at fixed prices. Then came expansions to said games. Very big, sometimes even full-game sized additions to our favorite game. I mean, Beyond the Dark portal, Throne of Bhaal, come on!! So far so great. Then, relatively recently, there was another actually solid idea. Why wait up to a year for an expansion to a game you love when you can instead wait a much shorter time for a little smaller piece of additional game. DLC is when s**t started to go down the toilet. From horse armor in Oblivion, to everything EA have ever done with it, ever. When an in-game NPC in Dragon Age: Origins talks to you for several minutes, asking you to save his family’s honor, but only after you pay EA some RL cash you know something has gone terribly wrong. The advent of Day 1 DLCs that are already on the disk you bought for 60$/E is Capcom’s forte and it was the last step towards microtransactions. Recently EA (who else) put microtransactions in a single player game, you could pay real money for crafting materials in Dead Space 3. After you payed 60$/E for the game.

So now they’re here, tiny advantages and/or customization options for small amounts of money. It started with a solid idea, the DLC, then the DLC became a money grabbing tool. Then it turned into microtransactions that enable free to play games. With MMOs there was also a ramp up: The old Republic and Tera started the same as WoW did back in the day – you buy the game and pay a sub. When their audience dwindled they went entirely free to play and used microtransactions to fund themselves. Tera did it in a quite solid manner, with XP boosts, vanity items and some quality of life things like character slots, while ToR, being an EA production, was pure evil. From buying class skills several levels before you’d normally get them, to buying additional hotbars (that you desperately need) to my favorite, paying for the ability to toggle helm gfx off. Guild Wars was the next step: you bought the game, it had no subscription, but it used microtransactions to offset that.

And now, the ultimate frontier is here: a regular game you have to buy, buy all of its expansions, then have to pay a monthly sub fee that ALSO has microtransactions. It will never stop if we’re always ok with it.

The logic behind it

The basic argument that has been floating around and has been stated by Blizzard is this (at the very least COO Paul Sams stated this at either Blizzcon or another trade show, I can’t remember exactly where):

Some people spend a lot of time in the game and so they have many alts, good gear etc etc. Other people spend their time working and so have more/a lot of money. And those people should be able to “trade in” that time spent working for time spent in-game, after all that’s what money is. Now that all sounds very logical and is being implemented now with the XP boost and charms – you get to trade money for less time spent on the game. Except, if you follow this logic further, ANYTHING in the game should be purchasable. Everything you have in the game is a result of time spent in it. Hell, we pay for the game and for the subscription fee so we can play it! So if you find it logical to trade time spent outside the game (aka money) for time spent in game, then you have to be ok with purchasing everything: boss drops, Heroic gear, achievements, hell even World Firsts. Sure those last two are a little extreme as examples go, but you could argue a person could get to do Heroics if they spent enough time in the game, getting better and honing their skill. WFs are a stretch and just a silly example to get you thinking – but Heroics being sold is the direct result of applying this logic to microtransactions.

Let’s get to Buzzkill’s logic “well these services already exist through illegal channels so why shouldn’t Blizzard make them official and make some money”. This is the exact same logic used by Blizz to insert the AH into Diablo 3. Players in D2 could buy items on ebay and other sites or trade in channels with gold etc. Except when you make something an integral part of the game and give it as a basic option for players you make it so much bigger. Most players in D2 never bought an item for real money and only traded a few items, at the very top end of the scale. As soon as it became increasingly convenient to browse thousands of items for gold, why would you farm them? You don’t, you farm gold or just buy the things outright, I mean they’re so cheap! Why would you spend hours farming that last set piece when you can get it for 5$/E. And this is coming from someone that actually earned some money on the s**tty RMAH.

So what does this have to do with WoW? Well it’s the same logic – an extremely small number of people used leveling services before, but a LOT of people will buy the XP boosts once they become available. Promoting shady dealings and fringe economy into the mainstream is never a good idea. So far the bonuses you can get seem trivial, but when the store is there the urge to fill it up with as much stuff as possible will be enormous. It will be harder and harder to use restraint, I mean hell, why not just add gold in there? There are tons of gold sellers anyway! And you can’t really buy endgame gear with gold…right?

Actual implementation

It seems very clear that Blizzard intends to add more things to this shop: “First, we’ll be testing the in-game store with some new kinds of items we’re looking into introducing”. The XP boost shouldn’t really bother anyone if you skip the principle of the thing. Even the Lesser Charms, as has been pointed out, are somewhat of a minor bonus. But it’s simply not going to stop there. Wow will keep losing subs and Activision Blizzard will keep wanting to supplement its income.

The “well, we know it’s probably not a good idea, but let’s see if we can get away with it” angle, basically. So they’re testing it on Asian servers. Previously when they’ve done this kind of testing the reasoning is that the gaming culture is different there and so double resets/separate 10 and 25 mans made sense. This time around I haven’t noticed any such claims in the official posts, so why are they testing it there? Microtransactions have become pretty common out here in the west as well recently, so it can’t really be just because of a more accepting culture, can it? Even the blue post states that this is based on feedback from all regions.

Faith in restraint

“Nah, but they wouldn’t put THAT in the store, come on, that’s unrealistic”
So everyone pretty much agrees that buying raid boss drops with real money is horrible and shouldn’t ever be done, even if WoW was free to play, right? So there are limits to what you will accept. So how do we know that Blizzard will practice restraint and only give “irrelevant” things in the store? They’ve already escalated from mere vanity items and server transfers to actual in game items. Let’s take a look at their recent history shall we?

I don’t know if everyone is forgetting about or choosing to ignore Diablo 3. Is it that it’s not the same dev team? It certainly is the same design philosophy and the same company. Diablo 3 literally is pay to win. There’s no argument to be had there. You can buy the best items in the game with real life money. And the auction house there destroyed the game. Not necessarily the Real Money AH, but the AH in general. Blizzard have said as much on several occasions, going so far as to say that they would like to remove the AH from the game, but they won’t because they fear negative player feedback. So they put the thing in the game, made players play with it, forced them to use it, and then after players got used to it they claim that they fear negative feedback for removing something that is damaging to the game. And yes, FORCED is the correct term. I played without the AH for hundreds of hours but it was futile in the end. The game was designed around the AH, the drop rates, item variability etc etc. After a while playing “found only” felt pointless and you could either stop playing the game altogether or switch to the ah, where I upgraded every single item I spent hundreds of hours farming in 1 hour of the AH.

So why are so many people ready to trust Blizzard then? We all love the game we’re playing and it’s much easier to idolize the developers and make them out to be great (unless, of course, they recently nerfed your class or something), explaining away all the errors they make – but that’s not helping the game. Perhaps they will restrain themselves from overusing the in game store, but as the numbers continue to fall, you’d better believe new “revenue options” will be needed.

So to sum up, my personal main complaint is two-fold: the slippery slope is undeniable and the principle of adding microtransactions into a monthly subscription based MMO is unacceptable. Everything else is just noise.

This is all I could think of on the matter, it’s a huge development in WoW and has been covered by dozens of sites all around the net, big and small, so it’s not something we can just wave away and say “I’m sure it’ll be fine”. I’m definitely looking forward to arguing the merits of the article with you guys, I’d say I have a pretty strong opinion on this, but I certainly see the other side of the argument too. And, unlike with Buzzkill, I promise I won’t just yell at you for 30 minutes. Maybe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s