There’s a popular conception among the MMO cognoscenti that irrespective of circumstance, MMO cosmetics monetization is never a problem. There isn’t a fundamental issue with that line of thinking. I would expect everyone could agree on a general tiering of monetization egregiousness with competitive pay-to-win as a capstone and a variety of other methodologies cascading into generally the same order – with some minor variance – but the idea that this lesser evil can never be problematic isn’t one I can fully agree with.
Cosmetics are a major part of a lot of MMOs. In the case of games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, they can play a larger role for many players than even the power progression traditionally regarded as most central to the MMORPG experience. For these many players, collectible systems centering on the gathering of cosmetic unlocks can be seen as a pillar of a game’s content offerings on parity of importance with content like dungeons and PvP – a pillar that’s been plundered for profit by many of the most recent MMOs.
MMO Cosmetics as the Impetus for Gameplay
For a very long time, the assertion that cosmetics don’t affect gameplay has been accepted at face value, which is baffling considering how much of gameplay in MMOs has been driven by them. Let me ask you this: have you ever spent time working towards a cosmetic objective? Have you ever farmed an old raid for transmog, ground a faction’s reputation for a pet, or scoured for a rare spawn to get the perfect mount? Would you have done any of that if it weren’t for the cosmetic reward promised at the end?
The pursuit of this type of cosmetic objective is a massive driver of gameplay, keeping players engaged in the MMO while they strive towards these aesthetic goals for hours on end everywhere in the game that these rewards can be found. Whether you’re pushing through the bleeding edge of progression or going through a raid from an expansion that’s been outdated for three years, cosmetic rewards can always draw players in as they partake in the never-ending pastime of customizing their in-game avatar.
And that’s the true beauty of cosmetics as a gameplay driver: they’re evergreen. No one cares about the gear a raid offers after the next one comes out unless it has an awesome unlockable skin, and a rare mount will keep players farming for years in the hopes of getting that fated drop.
The gameplay problems created by the over-monetization of cosmetics and collectibles are a little difficult to bring into mental focus. It’s not like competitive pay-to-win, where the negatives of monetization have a clear and direct impact on your gameplay experience when someone who emptied their wallet comes up and slaps you in the face with their roided out character. With cosmetics that impact is indirect. It’s opportunity cost; it’s white space; it’s the impression left on your carpet where a piece of furniture used to be. You’re more likely to notice when your cheeseburger comes with a turd in it than when it’s missing ingredients – but one way or another, what you’re getting is kind of crap either way. You have to look at what your game is missing. You have to look at what it could have. That’s what the relentless pursuit of more profit is costing you.
Warcraft versus the World
If you’re even remotely inclined towards collection-based gameplay, there’s simply no game out there that can compete with Warcraft. Its collection offerings run through a staggering array of categories such as transmogrification, mounts, pets, toys, achievements, and more for players to unlock through a variety of in-game accomplishments. Whether you want to unlock everything or simply find joy in visually customizing your character, WoW has it all, and these days, it’s virtually the only game able to boast that.
The magnitude of the benefits afforded by Warcraft‘s attention to healthy cosmetic design cannot be overstated, and they aren’t simply limited to the amount of time players spend chasing cosmetics down. As the previous expansion came to a close, the news that the Grove Warden mount, a reward from completing the final boss of the Hellfire Citadel raid on heroic difficulty, would be leaving the game with Legion‘s launch served as a rallying cry for the community, launching initiatives like the Twitter hashtag #FriendshipMoose aimed at matching players in need with raids who were able and happy to bring them along. The game’s premiere subreddit, /r/WoW, filled a similar role with weekly matchmaking stickies as the deadline for acquisition drew nearer. At that time, the benefits of Warcraft‘s cosmetic collectible systems grew beyond simply being highly engaging time-sinks with an incredibly broad appeal to serve double duty as an event that bolstered the MMO’s gargantuan community.
Where MMOs Are Going Wrong
Elsewhere in the genre, practically every item that would have previously been obtained through gameplay has instead been monetized through the cash shop, a trend notably in development lockstep with the proliferation of the increasingly indistinguishable buy-to-play and free-to-play models. Where Warcraft has literally hundreds of mounts and pets for collection-oriented players to pursue through gameplay, the modern MMO – with only a few rare exceptions – will offer only a handful (while a veritable cavalcade will dressage their way into the game’s cash shop).
One of the MMOs where this harm has become the most blatant is in The Elder Scrolls Online, a title I’ve chosen to pick on for its solid gameplay fundamentals and how classically acceptable its monetization is. Since its launch, TESO has evolved into what’s honestly pretty good game, which makes the drawbacks of its aggressive monetization easier to spot.
The Elder Scrolls Online‘s developers insist on a “do no harm” philosophy, and in the traditional sense, they’ve succeeded; the worst inhabitant of the game’s cash shop is a slightly questionable experience potion, but even that comes with an analog that can be crafted in game. By most generally accepted standards that “do no harm” philosophy has been adhered to – but when you look at the impact of cosmetic monetization on the game, I’m not so sure that harm has actually been avoided.
It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if it can be monetized, The Elder Scrolls Online is going to do that instead of putting it in as a reward for gameplay. Mounts and pets are added exclusively to the cash shop, while costumes make only rare appearances as in-game rewards. Strikingly little makes its way into TESO as a gameplay reward, while the cash shop itself receives far more of the game’s development resources. As I pointed out on a recent episode of the Dungeon Crawler Network’s Tales of Tamriel podcast: after the upcoming addition of RNG cash shop lockboxes to the title, its cash shop will have revolving seasons with unique cosmetic rewards. Its PvP will not. In the end, this type of over-monetization strips away a lot of what players seek out when trying to set long-term goals for themselves, making it a lot harder for the title to keep players engaged in the long stretches between its content update launches.
Now sure, this isn’t happening everywhere in the genre yet, but it’s certainly representative of the overall trending direction since microtransactions reached widespread acceptance what seems like only a short time ago. Following this trend, hours of gameplay are literally being removed from the MMOs we play and the rewards we would have had are being placed in the cash shop instead. That’s not what I want in my MMOs of the future, but it’s what we’re all going to get so long as the “it’s only cosmetics” argument continues to be accepted unchallenged.
Now I know what many of you are thinking: but Isarii, how are you expecting MMO companies to make any money? Thank you, rhetorical person, I’m glad you asked.
One of World of Warcraft‘s load screen tips famously remarks: “Remember to take all things in moderation (even World of Warcraft!)”. This is especially true when it comes to monetization. I’m not saying an MMO can’t have a cash shop. I’m definitely not saying it can’t have cosmetics in it, as this is definitely preferable to pay-to-win and a lot of the more coercive tactics we’ve seen in other games, but there needs to be balance. For every mount Warcraft adds to its cash shop, it adds dozens to the game. Even if that ratio were halved, the game would probably still be safe. With recent games like Black Desert Online and The Elder Scrolls Online throwing balance to the wind and pillaging what could have been in-game rewards to fill their cash shops, it’s easy to worry about the future of the genre.
The masses of MMO players are currently flocking back to Warcraft for the release of its Legion expansion, and many of them – myself included – have been gone for a very long time. As we journey back to Azeroth and soak in everything it has to offer, I hope we can all recognize what an impact cosmetics and collectibles make on our gameplay there, acknowledge exactly how much they can contribute to an MMORPG’s longevity, and settle for nothing less in whatever games the future may lead us to.Related: Article, Black Desert Online, Guild Wars 2, MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online, World of Warcraft