Monday, August 10, 2009
Microtransaction review prequel
This week I am going to post a review of the microtransactions in Atlantica Online. Having found that I like the game, I decided to try out the various microtransaction options, both for personal fun and out of curiosity. So I'm planning to write a review, reporting the various options, and giving my opinions about whether they work to enhance the game, or do destroy it. But as microtransactions are hugely controversial, and besides the specific options of a specific game there is an important philosophical discussion about microtransactions in general, I am writing this prequel. So if you are for or against microtransactions in general, please discuss that in this thread, as I am going to moderate the discussion in the review thread to one about specifics. If you are anti-capitalist, I can only advise you to skip all these posts.
I do believe that microtransaction are, if not "the" future of MMOs, then certainly an important part of that future. Champions Online will have microtransactions, and we will see more and more games offering additional in-game content for money. They will not all be *called* microtransactions, but unless somebody comes up with a better term, I'm going to use that one. Even World of Warcraft offers various character services for money. This month you can effectively buy a Murloc space marine pet from Blizzard, bundled with a video stream from Blizzcon for those who couldn't get a ticket for that event in the 8 minutes they were for sale until they sold out.
I also believe that you can't just bundle up all microtransactions and universally proclaim that they are "good" or "bad". There are both good and bad options, and then there are both cheap and expensive options, and that is not the same. Cheap isn't necessarily good. Free Realms has relatively cheap weapons for sale, but I consider them to be bad microtransactions, because they are much better than the best weapons you can create in game after having spent considerable effort to maximize both mining and smithing careers, thus making those careers obsolete.
The reason why microtransactions are an inevitable part of the future of MMOs is demographics. People like me, who were teenagers in the 80's and grew up with video games, are now middle-aged. Video games in the past have been mainly marketed to children and adolescents. These customers have endless enthusiasm, lots of time on their hands, and little money, so a monthly flat fee business model is ideal for them. The same business model is not necessarily ideal for somebody older, who has a lot less time and a lot more money. Feeling you advance slower than the people around you, because you have less time to spend in the game, can be incredibly frustrating. Frustration does not make good business.
Once you have discretionary income, that is money left over after paying for all the necessities of life, you have a natural urge to spend it on fun stuff for yourself. People have always splurged on their hobbies, be that an expensive set of golf clubs, or yet another train for the model railway. MMO demographics being predominantly male, and men having the same wish to buy nice stuff for themselves, but often less fun going out shopping, buying virtual goods online is often a good solution. Both stuff that is just fun, and items that somewhat compensate the frustrating lack of time, are satisfying buys. This isn't about winning or leaving the people with less money behind in the dust, in fact buying the "I win" button, like the Free Realms weapon, is deeply unsatisfactory. We might want to advance faster, but we don't want to skip right to the end, because the purpose of the game is to have fun playing, not to reach the game over screen.
I recently spent around $200 for a new Playstation Portable. I already owned the first version, but the new PSP 3000 is a lot lighter and has some other improvements, and it was a shiny blue version instead of the boring black. For Atlantica Online I spent $100 on 12,000 Gcoins, the currency then used for microtransactions, and have by now spent around two thirds of that on various items that interested me. It isn't as if I felt obliged to buy this stuff to advance in AO, not any more than I felt obliged to buy a second PSP. It was just that I had the money, didn't need it for anything more essential, and wanted to buy something for myself. Discretionary income coupled with pure self-indulgence. I studied and worked hard in my life, which resulted in me having a good job and financial security, so I feel that I earned that money and deserve all the luxuries of life I can buy with it. That is the capitalist dream. Everybody wants this, only we all have different ideas what superfluous luxury we ultimately want to spend the money on. Few people get to be really rich like Bill Gates, but being able to spend a hundred bucks without having to count your money is already very nice, and something that is in reach for many people. The communist idea of some people working hard and then giving their money to those who didn't was not a success, because it only leads to nobody working hard.
Microtransactions count on the general trend of MMO players getting older and richer. That is good business, because for example Blizzard is unable to capture the full extent of what people would be willing to pay for World of Warcraft. Few of the people who have the money see any advantage of paying for several WoW accounts and doing multi-boxing, so apart from a few exceptions everybody is giving the same money to Blizzard. People who either can't afford $15 per month are excluded, and people who would like to spend more simply can't, unless they spend it on illegit things like RMT and powerleveling, from which Blizzard doesn't profit. Free2Play games with microtransactions have a lot more options, enabling everybody to play, with variable pricing offering a free choice of how much you want to spend, or even play for free. With everyone spending as much money as he wants, ultimately the game company maximizes revenue, which is what drives the development towards microtransactions from the game developer side.
People who do spend money will have access to faster advancement and various luxuries which are harder or impossible to reach for people who play for free. But that is the point of luxury. Railing against microtransactions is just like railing against people driving a Rolls Royce, and has a lot more to do with jealousy than with fairness. The monthly fee model, in which you advance further by spending more time, is not inherently more fair, it just favors a different demographic. That the people who are favored by the existing model want to keep that, and rail against the alternative business model which favors a different group of people, is only natural. That is not going to stop the trend towards MMOs with microtransactions. Because the people who are against it today will probably be older and richer tomorrow, and suddenly $10 for a virtual horse doesn't seem all that outrageously expensive any more. And then of course there is market segmentation: There will always be people with a lot of time and little money, for whom monthly subscriptions are the perfect business model, and thus there will always be games using that business model. The fears that some day there will only be "games for the rich" are unfounded. That there are *some* games favoring players with money is only fair, and as that development is good both for that growing segment of player demographics and the game companies, it is inevitable.
So I do feel that the discussion of "microtransactions, yes or no?" is increasingly luddite. Microtransactions are already here, in various forms, and they are only going to become more, not less, common. The discussion that is more important, and more interesting, now is how microtransactions should be designed. How can items be offered that are useful enough to be desirable, and thus selling well, while at the same time not destroying the balance of the game? How will games be designed *around* microtransactions? What works, what doesn't work? And how do items bought for dollars influence the virtual economies of games? There are so many interesting subjects to discuss around microtransactions. Refusing to acknowledge the trend, or trying to drown any sensible discussion with hypocritical notions of "fairness", isn't going to get us anywhere.