Tobold's Blog
Monday, August 10, 2009
Atlantica Online microtransaction review

So with the general philosophical considerations out of the way, let us have a look at the specific example of microtransactions in Atlantica Online. I'll review what is on offer, divided into various categories, and give my opinions on how useful or how unbalancing the different items are. Where I mention cost, I'll do so in Gcoins. I bought 12,000 Gcoins for $100, but that is the cheapest possible rate, if you buy smaller amounts you pay up to $1 per 100 Gcoins. Note also that you can pay in dollars, wherever you live, there is no "1 Euro = 1 Dollar" scam exchange rate used by some companies. So I paid only about 70 Euros for my 12,000 Gcoins. That is the cost of a console game over here, for comparison.

Licenses: Licenses are items that allow you additional game functions, either permanent, or for a time. I bought 2 extra inventory licenses for 1,499 coins each, each giving me 15 extra permanent inventory slots. Useful for pack rats, but these extra slots can only hold crafting materials, not things like weapons, armor, or consumables. You can have up to 4 of these extra inventories, and they are nice to have if you are into crafting, but they certainly aren't necessary to play the game. I also bought a teleportation license, which enables me to quickly teleport to any place I have already visited. Teleportation licenses exist in 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day versions, with the 30-day version costing 999 coins, and the longer licenses offering up to 10% rebate. This is again a design where having the teleportation license is convenient and nice to have, but not game breaking. Teleportation costs will, which regenerates slowly, so you can't teleport all the time. The license enables you to travel quickly to cities and dungeons you know, but without the license you can still teleport from one city to the next, paying a modest fee in in-game gold. Finally I bought a 30-day auto-search license for 499 points, which adds a robot to my group which loots one dead enemy per round. In easier battles that only speeds up things a little bit. But in harder, longer battles, it enables your mercenaries to spend every turn fighting, instead of having to pick up loot which evaporates if not picked up after two turns. Thus this license is not just convenient, but also increases your power.

I did not buy the other sorts of licenses, but the game often lets you have short-term versions of them, so I know how they work. This is pure marketing, you get a license that lasts for 1 or 7 days from a quest or one of the frequent publicity events, in the hope that you get used to play with that sort of convenience items and then end up buying licenses. There are health check licenses and patrol licenses that enable you to get better information about monsters. The most expensive 30-day license is a blessing license for 1,499 coins, which both increases your power, and the rate with which you earn xp.

The only license I wasn't at all happy with is the auto-battle license, 599 coins for 30 days, which does exactly what it says on the package: Turn auto-battle on, and your group fights enemies automatically, without your input. Thus PvE becomes EvE, the computer playing itself. There is a limitation, you can only do 20 auto-battles in a row, and then have to recharge the counter by 5 for every manual battle you do. And your group isn't fighting as good in automatic mode as in manual, so you should only use auto-battle for easier fights. But to some extent you can use this license for legal botting, standing in the middle of aggressive, lower level mobs, and going afk for the duration of the next 20 battles. I don't like that sort of design. I can only explain it in the context of internet caf├ęs, where a good part of the attraction is hanging out with the other players around you, and a game which requires little input can be an advantage. In the context of a home computer that works much less well, watching the PC play himself. It only enforces the impression that the game you are playing doesn't require a whole lot of skill.

If you want to buy several different licenses, there are packages offering extreme rebates. For example 5 different 30-day licenses for 1,499 coins, which bought individually would cost twice that. Of course that does not include the blessing license.

Scrolls and supplies: Scrolls are a lot simpler than licenses. You buy a bundle of 50 or 100 scrolls for between 1 and 2 coins per scroll, and equip your group with them. Scrolls can be used in combat, and there are damage spells, healing spells, and resurrection spells. There is also a scroll that charms a group of monsters to fight for you for 10 minutes, in case you aren't grouped with another player.

I didn't buy any scrolls directly, but scrolls are often handed out for free as rewards from quests or from events. I also got scrolls from boxes, see below. Scrolls are universally useful, but generally Atlantica Online is balanced in a way which allows you to fight mobs of your level without the help of scrolls. Thus scrolls can be used to solo content that otherwise would require multiple players, or in high-level PvP.

The other supplies you can buy in the item mall are potions, food, and enhancement stones. Most expensive option are Blessing Potions, which work like Blessing Licenses, only for the cost of one 30-day Blessing License you get around 15 potions, each lasting for 50 battles. Thus if you play infrequently, the potions are the better deal, but if you do over 25 battles a day, the license is the better option. Other things you can buy enable you to fix mistakes you made in character development. For example in Atlantica Online your abilities are determined by what weapon class you wield, and you can only change from lets say archer to swordsman with a potion for 999 coins. Or you simply start over and reroll a new character.

In the same vein there are skill decrease books, 10 for 199 coins, which allow you to recover unwisely spent skill points. Skills are special magic attacks you can use in combat, but only after they have charged up. Besides skill points, your characters also have "potential" skill points, which can be used with a potion of potential, 10 for 199 coins, thus enabling your characters to learn more skills than another character without such a potion. But as you already get 1 skill point per level, there are 120 levels, and you can only put up to 60 points in the same skill, that really isn't all that necessary. As you can't use your skills in combat every round, and easier combats don't last all that many rounds, having a lot of different skills isn't useful enough to make these potions "must have". Your characters also get 1 bonus point per level, and a growth vial (again 10 for 199 coins) transforms 1 bonus point into a random stat increase. Useful, but there are ways to get the growth potions in game, you don't necessarily have to buy them for real money.

Boxes: I have never played a game in which you open so many boxes as in Atlantica Online. There even is a limit of how many boxes you can open per day, at my current level 300. Monsters don't drop weapons or armor, but boxes containing random pieces of weapon or armor. Or boxes with crafting materials. Or boxes with skill books and growth vials. Boxes, boxes, everywhere. But there is a special kind of boxes you can buy in the item mall.

Item mall boxes cost between 100 and 999 coins, and contain random items from a predefined list. The lists usually contain a chance to find 1, 2, or 3 new boxes. Then there are a few extremely valuable and rare items. And the rest is filled up with useful stuff like scrolls and potions. You can't really lose when opening such a box, the least valuable prize you can get would still have cost you more coins if you had bought it directly from the item mall. And you can potentially win big, getting some rare item worth a fortune. Thus item mall boxes are the closest Atlantica Online comes to online gambling.

At first I bought a mount box for 999 coins. That was probably a mistake. A mount box has only a very short list of possible items, with a very large chance for the lowest kind of horse, and a small chance for a just slightly better uncommon horse. With the common mount only adding 10% run speed and no stat bonuses, that isn't such a great deal.

Then I decided to gamble, and my eye fell on a box called Enigma of Sheherazade, which contains one of 19 different random items, including a better sort of mount box, with uncommon to rare mounts. Each box costs 100 coins, but you can get 11 for the price of 10. So I bought 22 boxes for 2,000 coins, to make it statistically quite likely that I get a better mount. Opening boxes where everything you can find is useful is a lot of fun, and as you can find boxes in the boxes, I ended up opening more than the 22 I bought. And I got extremely lucky, finding not one but two rare mount boxes. And both contained one of the rarer mounts, a level 70 snow tiger. I also got lots of scrolls, crystals to upgrade my mercenaries, and other useful stuff.

I also found some Ancient Skill Books, which give one of your characters 1 million xp. There being generally no commas in the numbers shown in game, I misread 1000000 as one hundred thousand, and completely misjudged the impact of reading them. What basically happened was that by reading one of those books with my main character, I catapulted myself from level 25 to level 45. That turned out to be unexpectedly unpleasant. In Atlantica Online at certain levels, in this case 29 and 39, you are blocked from advancing further, until you finished the requisite quest in the main quest line. And while you are blocked, you get no loot except quest items. Thus I spent hours doing a long series of quests for which I was basically too powerful, getting no loot at all, and getting the same error message every time I got xp that I had to do some quest to advance. And you can't even skip quests in the main quest line. I can only strongly advise against using Ancient Skill books before being much further in the game. The books are however useful later on, as you can do quest lines that allow you to hire new types of mercenaries, which then start as level 1, and the book brings them closer to the level of your other characters.

But in spite of getting lucky with the rares, and being happy with the other loot, I remain a bit critical about the concept of boxes. It's a lottery, and there is a distinctive risk of spending more than you wanted if you don't "win" what you were looking for. It is comparable to opening boosters in trading card games like Magic the Gathering, and hoping that the one ultra-valuable card is inside. Having ripped open hundreds of MtG boosters, I know how addictive that can be. There is no way in Atlantica Online to buy the rare items directly in the item mall, so you never know how much something ultimately will cost you. I don't regret having tried it with the boxes at 100 points each, but the boxes for 999 coins each are an expensive gamble.

Summary: So this was it, this is what you can buy in the Atlantica Online item mall. Only a few of the items you can get from the mall are not tradeable in game. Thus while you can't buy in-game currency in the item mall, you can buy stuff you can sell for in-game currency. When I got my first snow tiger, I sold my first common horse for 10 million gold on the market. When I got my second snow tiger, an event by the way which is announced to all other players online with a popup window, I received a bunch of tells asking me whether I would sell it. So I sold the extra tiger for 100 million gold plus a common horse, having meanwhile noticed that you can't ride the tiger before level 70. I also sold a bunch of the crystals I got from boxes, as they were for mercenary classes I didn't have. This is a lot of money. After buying all sorts of stuff to upgrade my characters, now around level 48, to the hilt with gear, growth vials, and skill books, and investing money into crafting, I still have 100 million gold left.

There is a good and a bad side to that: Atlantica Online has a very rich economic gameplay, with many options and possibilities. On the good side, the ability to trade rare items against in-game gold means that somebody who does not want to spend money can be economically successful in the game, and buy the items for in-game gold, ending up exactly as powerful and well-equipped as the guy who paid real money for the stuff. On the bad side, toiling in the economic game and making 1 million gold somehow feels less good if you got over 100 million gold for less than 20 dollars.

I would also say that I was too eager to explore the various options of Atlantica Online's microtransactions. Playing the game for free for longer, and then only slowly buying stuff for real money would have been more fun than deluging a low-level character with expensive stuff and millions of gold.

But overall I found the microtransaction system of AO well done. There was nothing where I felt that I could not possibly play the game without. Thus I do not feel as if there was a hidden monthly fee from having to buy items that last only 30 days that one can't do without. If I really wanted all the licenses every month, the discount package would make that cost less than the $15 per month of other games. If I want, I can spend more, buying various enhancement and convenience items, but up to now I don't feel as if I really need them. I assume that progress gets slower the higher up you get in level, and that the urge to speed up your progress with money gets stronger. But I would consider that to be not more harmful than how the classic MMORPGs urge you to play too many hours to advance. MMOs in general are not suitable for the weak-willed. If you know what you can afford in time and money, Atlantica Online offers a good selection of options, being very playable for free, as well as offering various items of convenience that all together can drive up the cost to several times the cost of a classic MMO, or anything in between. Personally, I enjoy having those options.
Wow, sounds very interesting.

It sounds like in game gold is king. You can buy pretty much anything you want with it.
It also sounds like you can basically get all the in game gold you want by buying the lottery boxes with real cash.

So you basically have a legalized way of exchanging real life cash for in game gold.

Now, I don't think I'll be playing any time soon, but I just wonder what it would feel like if WoW had this sort of thing.

Blizzard would be making quadrillions of dollars. Sure it may very well ruin the game, but they would be able to fund any game they wanted to for the next 100 years.

Interesting. I wonder if as more and more games get super rich with micro transactions if Blizzard's parent company will begin to apply more and more pressure to implement something similar.
I am pleased to hear that the maximum bonus rate for bulk purchase of currency is 20%. I seem to have heard that W101 offers double the currency if you buy in $80 lots. That goes from being a bonus for committment to a penalty for attempting to stick to a budget. I'm sure the studies are that players with $80 worth of credit to their account will spend faster than players who have to notice the act of reaching for their credit card in $10 increment.

The "boxes" sound precisely like TCG booster packs. I don't play TCG's anymore because I decided that I didn't like shelling out cash and not getting anything I wanted in the pack.

As to the "MMORPG's are not for the weak willed" comment: If the game is balanced to make you feel like you need transaction items at extremely low levels, then they're doing it wrong. The exploitative way to do it is to make it fun and easy until you've had time to get attached to your character, so they can leverage that emotional investment into payments for experience boosts.

You could argue that the same incentive exists for subscription games and players' time, but there is a crucial distinction. Blizzard gets no additional money from the player who spends 100 hours per week, and, indeed, they're probably more likely to lose that player's future subscription dollars when that player runs out of content or suffers the consequences of excessive time online. By contrast, if Atlantica gets me to disregard my budget, I spend $100 in a week and then quit, they've pocketed $100. If I were paying $10/month, they'd have to keep me around for almost a whole year to make that much money off of me.

As I said in my comment on the last post, it's not the AMOUNT of money that concerns me with the transaction business model. It's the fact that the developer's financial incentives are far more adversarial to the player's than the subscription game. The subscription game makes money when the player enjoys the game and continues to play. The transaction game makes money when they can convince the player that they need to buy some transaction.
A good F2P system has to satisfy 3 diverse groups each with their own agendas.

Foremost, it has to generate enough income for the company and any shareholders. Secondly, it has to have enough options where the paying customers feel like they are getting their money's worth. Lastly, it can't alienate the free players; those who are unable or unwilling to pay for the game.

I feel like Atlantica Online is just such a F2P system. Kudos to nDoors for coming up with such an innovative and profitable model.
A good writeup, but somewhat incomplete since you did not mention the PvP impact the shop has. Since AO's endgame (and arguably mid-game as well) is all PvP based, those 'nice to have' mounts become must-haves, as do many of the licenses (especially teleport and health check). Factor in that all gear can be purchased on the auction house, and that PvP losses cost you gear at random, and again being able to funnel unlimited gold to your character is a huge advantage.

I did like how AO was set up until I hit level 60 or so, and got more involved in the PvP (since at that point PvE grinds to a mindless grind without spending cash). The PvP itself is great, but once you run into a few cash-shopped parties (and it's very obvious who paid and who did not), its either pay up or quit.

AO is a good game, but I'd much rather pay $15 a month to RvR in WAR than pay far more to keep up in AO, and ultimately that was the reason I quit.
You'd be surprised at how many of those so-called "cash shop" players you complain about, Syncaine, are actually folks who never spent a penny in the item mall.

Since almost everything can be traded ingame for gold, those willing to grind for it the old-fashioned way can also reap the benefits of great gear.
Probably going to double post with this new comment moderation system but I felt like I had to address another comment that Syncaine posted.

In a good F2P unlike a subscription model, the reason you quit should never be that you wanted to spend the money elsewhere. You might not want to put the time into the F2P game anymore, but quitting because of money concerns is missing the whole point of F2P IMO.
This is a great example of why I never use microtransactions.

It has nothing to do with the cost, or with any ethical objections. I have no problem with the concept of microtransactions. It's the execution. It's the mind-numbing, nit-picking, fiddly-diddly detail of the damn thing!

I actually gave up reading the review after the first section on Licenses. No criticism of Tobold's writing, just that I was losing the will to live from all that tedious administrative hogwash.

I'm a player who actively enjoys inventory and bank management in MMOs. I'm not afraid of a little tidying and sorting. But every time I open an Item Mall and look at that swathe of time-limited, cooldown, restrictions-apply add-ons, designed to offer minimal incremental benefits while never giving a clear and definite advantage, I JUST CAN'T BE BOTHERED WITH IT!!

If a game appears that simply offers me "Ten Levels - $10" or "Axe of Raid Quality" - $5 then I might at least pay attention. Something that's clear, simple and self-evidently game-changing I might at least consider. But Licenses, potions, consumables? Give me a break. I wouldn't even buy those in-game with in-game gold. I don't even use most of the ones I get as drops or Veteran Awards - they just sit there taking up bank space.
A quick tangent on the boxes in the game. Sure, the boxes from the item shop are lotteries, but I found the boxes as drops from critters to be a fantastic thing, if a bit weird. They effectively reduce the need for tons of inventory space. You can stack 20 boxes of a type in a single inventory slot, but if you were to open those boxes, they may take up to 20 slots, depending on what you get out of them. It's a bit weird, opening boxes to get your loot, but pragmatically, I love that you can just have your pockets full of Schroedinger loot, and you can sift through it all when you get back to town. (It's exceedingly rare that you'll need anything in a regular loot box at the moment you get it.)

Nice writeup, and my time in AO squares neatly with your experience. Well, except that I didn't spend any real money, but found that I could still have a blast in the game. I'm especially happy that the vast majority of item mall purchases are those of convenience, nothing more.

Syncaine's right in that the PvP scene does get a bit imbalanced in favor of those with deeper wallets, but if you're just playing the PvE, out doing your own thing, there's no reason to care about that.
A quick tangent on the boxes in the game.

The boxes that drop in-game are also the basis of most of the money-making trick in AO. People dislike boxes, because you never know what you will get, to the point that boxes sell for far less than the average content is worth. Plus, in the case of book boxes, there is an NPC who exchanges for a small fee the less valuable books back into book boxes. Reopen until find something better, rinse, repeat.
FTP combined with microtransactions may well be the business model of the future. Important imho is the nearly unlimited flexibility to create extra cashflow on the most opportune moments. Compared to the monthly fee you are essentially removing the cap on what players are paying. And enthousiasts will pay a lot...! I'm scared to think about the money i sank into MtG (the paper version) a long time ago (fortunately i could sell my vast collection for a tidy sum).

In general i have no problems with microtransactions and will probably use them: i fall in the more-money-than-time demographic.

The system in AO (which i am not familiar with) as described by you sounds pretty well thought out. I like the box/lottery idea (injecting some needed randomness in the proceedings).

I wonder though if this could lead to problems in countries with strict lottery laws.
It's been my experience that the discrepancy between box prices and box content prices go up with the value of the items. For example, a low level Spirit Box (at least a while ago) was actually selling for *more* than any of the individual items that it might hold, but a few tiers of Boxes up, the individual gear was indeed selling for far more than the box itself.

It's a curious commentary on purchasing patterns. People might be happy with low cost lotteries, but when the purchases are more significant (and choices for merc build have been made and played with for a while), it's far more psychologically satisfying to know very specifically what you're getting.

It's not unlike the difference between buying a sub and buying items, actually. An item shop allows you to carefully customize your gaming purchases, while a sub lets you play the time lottery. (And buying a lifetime sub is playing the lottery with higher stakes, not unlike buying a high level gear or mount box in AO. Maybe it's good, maybe it's crap; that's part of the game.)
@Winged Nazgul: Having talked to the top-rated guild on my server before quitting, and having it confirmed that they almost to a man spent a ton of money AND time in-game, it's really not the case of F2P players just playing a lot.

Think of it this way: Out of the thousands of players on any server, it's not unreasonable to assume that 20-30 players that have both time AND money will get together and dominate. You can't reasonable outspend them (or in the case of the top top guys, even unreasonably), and since they already play 5+ hours daily, you can't exactly play more either. Considering how war works in AO, if that uber-guild decides to pick on someone, they can EASILY wipe the floor with anyone in the game, basically making the game unplayable for the week-long war.

That's actually what happened to my guild, and that's how I got to talked to those guys before leaving. We had fun fighting their junior members, who like us were F2P players, but whenever a fight got big enough, one of the power players would teleport in and it was game over.

Like I said, the system works if you don't get too involved or care about being at the top, but ultimately who 'wins' in a F2P game comes down to time AND money, which at least in a sub game is only limited to time. It's not like Tobold, with his available income, could decide to be a top play and just spend a ton of cash while not playing a lot and still get a high rank. The guys at the top would just outspend/outplay him.
This sounds just awful.

I hear a lot about the "future" and microtransactions.

I just fail to see what problems this "solves" for me the game player?

Seems like developers get to take polished game features out of the main game and then resell it to you at a premium on a per month basis?

Why not just make annoying features and bugs in the free game and then sell you "fixes"?

This is dumb and ugly.

I like my $15 a month just fine thanks.
Truly excellent blog post, Tobold.

I think I've basically drawn the conclusion that microtransaction games are not for me.

I like to succeed and I like to play a lot.

I don't really want to bumble around as some kind of virtual peon when for $15 a month I could play WoW or Eve and be as good as everyone else.

However if I opened up the wallet I might get very tempted to spend too much - I'm another recovering M:TG fan.

Having said that if I get bored of all the sub mmos I'd certainly download Atlantica.
@Syncaine: Seriously, you talked to the most hardcore guild on the server and found folks that spent loads of money on this game? This surprises you how?

Talk to the more casual guilds out there. You'd be surprised at what you can learn.
It did not surprise me at all, I was just adding to the statement you made below.

"You'd be surprised at how many of those so-called "cash shop" players you complain about, Syncaine, are actually folks who never spent a penny in the item mall."

My point was that in a cash shop game, the illusion is that you can supplement not playing a lot with paying a bit more to stay competitive, when the reality is that you have to play more AND pay more to keep up.

It's not an issue if you don't care about competition, but for anyone who is looking to compete and keep up, get ready to play just as much as a sub game, but also drop tons of cash (the rate of which depends on how fast the company can add new power items to the shop, which in AO was rather frequent with new mounts).
In WoW pre-2.0, where getting the highest PvP rank was only possible by playing more than the competition, it got so bad that the people who reached that rank had had to play up to 16 hours a day, every day. Some people are incredibly competitive, and will do whatever it takes to beat the competition, be that spending too much time, or too much money.

But A) that is a problem of how you design PvP, and not one unique to microtransaction games. And B) the only good solution would be a game in which PvP would be decided by who is the better player, and neither time nor money spent would make a difference. But that would by definition not be a MMORPG.
Oh I'm totally not arguing the people will go to extremes (be it PvP like the WoW ranking or PvE and world first raiding), my point was that in an RMT game, you now ADD the extreme of spending a ton of money along with spending a ton of time.

Imagine if WoW had an item shop, with mounts that gave stat bonuses or other character power items. Now for raiding, you either tune hard mode to account for all items from the shop (otherwise it's too easy), or you add a 3rd tier, hard cash mode, which is tuned for those items. Option one you make the game too easy for the true power gamers (which was the point of hard mode all along), and option 2 you basically admit to forcing anyone who wants access to that level to pay up.

That's what RMT is today in any game with competition (be it PvE or PvP), it's just not as black and white as a set difficulty. (And this is again why EVE does not fit, because the amount of ISK you sell a PLEX for has almost no impact on Alliance funding for fleet battles. No one could sustain selling PLEX cards to fund Titans)
WoW has gold sellers, many gold sellers.

I read that a lot of top players have to resort to buying gold because they simply don't have the time to grind.

Could anyone dispute that some money gold sellers make doesn't end up in the hands of organised crime?

Just a thought.

I've only recently started playing AO, but the Item Mall seems to offer convenience rather than anything game-breaking.
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