There are a few subjects that can always be relied upon to start a fight between MMO fans, like casual vs hardcore, trinity vs free-range classes, and WoW vs just about any other game. But there is one topic in particular that works the majority of players into a frenzy: cash shops and microtransactions.
While some players seem to be at peace with microtransactions in their MMOs, the feedback on social media and official forums almost always seems to be negative. Some are merely mildly disappointed at a lack of non-cash options, others are mad as hell about what they see as “pay-to-win”, and most fall somewhere in-between.
But if MMO micro (and macro!) transactions are such a divisive subject that can potentially kill interest in a game, why do they keep becoming a more and more important part of new MMO models? It’s simple: cash shops work.
MMOs Are Expensive
A substantial challenge for every MMO producer is that they’re an expensive genre of games to maintain. Server farms are not cheap, particularly if you need them to be incredibly stable. They require hardware, software, power, and internet, along with educated and experienced staff to keep all of that running in peak condition.
Not only that, but most MMOs also commit to releasing new content on a regular basis. A single-player RPG might put out a couple of DLC each year, featuring some outfits or a new questline, but MMOs are often expected to release the equivalent of an entirely new game every 12-18 months. That’s an expensive proposition that requires programmers, designers, writers and quality assurance teams.
And that’s not even touching on the greater organizational infrastructure that comes with having all of these staff and resources, like renting office space, having an HR team, providing medical benefits, and simply keeping the place clean.
Once you get over a certain size – the kind of size that is implied with the term “massively” – an MMO publisher needs to maintain a constant stream of money to grow and survive. Generally today’s MMO players have no patience for subscriptions, so what is a publisher to do? Enter microtransactions.
Microtransactions Are Effective
While not every case of microtransactions or a cash shop is a success (just look at the recent news from Carbine Studios), they can be extremely effective.
The vast majority of cash shop customers might spend $5 or $10 occasionally, but in many cases that’s not actually enough to sustain an MMO. Instead, publishers rely on “whales”, or a handful of players who will spend literally thousands of dollars in pursuit of the latest and greatest items. Maybe it’s just a costume that looks cool, or maybe it’s a hat that gives the player advantageous stats.
A blog post on Gamasutra last year described the pursuit of these whales’ dollars from the perspective of a mobile game producer, and the amount of effort made to capture their attention is shocking to most players. Game companies will research their “whales” and create cash shop items with them specifically in mind, such as a cosmetic item in the colors of their favorite hockey team, or something for exact the class and spec that they play.
And again, it works. For example, a hot topic in MMO circles right now is Black Desert Online and its arguably “pay-to-win” ghillie suit in the cash shop. If you look on the BDO forums or subreddit, you’ll find a vocal group of players speaking out against the cash shop. And while we don’t know exactly how much Daum Games has made from the North American playerbase yet, we do know last year they made $2 million dollars in a single week on Korean servers. Everywhere you go in-game right now you can find a player with a pet, the vast majority of which were bought on the cash shop.
EA, one of the largest game publishers in the world, can also vouch for the success of cash shops. According to CFO Blake Jorgensen, the company made over $1.3 billion in 2015 from sales of “extra content”, which is DLC and microtransactions. Jorgensen also gave his explanation for why so many people buy extra items from games: “[Players will] typically pay money to beat their friends.”
Practice What You Preach
So, if a large quantity of MMO players are so against microtransactions then why are they so successful?
Certainly there are the whales to consider – it’s possible that the majority of transactions come from a tiny segment of the population, and probably not one that’s speaking out against cash shops. It’s also possible that those expressing a dislike of cash shop policies, whether it’s mild disappointment or outright anger, are just a small vocal minority of players.
It’s unfortunate that publishers are reluctant to share their profit data, so those of us on the other side of the screen are left to merely speculate about the numbers. However, that being said, my hypothesis is that many of us players complain about cash shops while simultaneously buying things.
I understand. I’ve written enough anti-cash shop screeds on my personal blog to garner a bit of a reputation as the “anti-cash-shop lady.” And yet, I have the winged glider in Guild Wars 2. My Blade & Soul character is sporting an awesome pair of sunglasses. I own more than one mount and pet from the Blizzard store, including the infamous “sparklepony.”
I haven’t bought anything in Black Desert Online (yet?), but most of my friends have and some of them had previously even written anti-microtransactions rants of their own. They feel shame, but… at the end of the day, the glamour or convenience of a cash shop item outweighed their concern over the business model.
And that’s where it stands. We players often like to talk about how a poorly designed cash shop can ruin our favorite game, and gnash our virtual teeth and wonder why we need them at all, but the answer lies in the numbers. If you don’t want microtransactions then stop paying them. Otherwise, you can’t blame publishers for taking us up on our will give them billions of additional dollars.Related: Black Desert Online, Cash Shop, F2P, Industry, Microtransactions