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 cafés, 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.