View From the Road

View From the Road
A View from the Road: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Microtransaction

John Funk | 3 Aug 2009 17:00
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I don't mind subscription fees. I've never understood the vehemence with which some people refuse to ever consider paying a recurring fee - a much lower cost-per-dollar than the vast majority of non-subscription games, let alone for one with constantly updated content? It seems like a no-brainer, really.

But then again, I didn't understand the mindset behind free-to-play (F2P), microtransaction-based MMOGs, either. More to the point, I didn't understand how they could actually exist. You see, MMOGs tend to be pretty pricey to operate: Not only do you need to pay artists, programmers, and designers to continually produce new content, but the upkeep costs are higher - bandwith costs money, servers and server maintenance cost money, and customer support doesn't come for free, either.

What's worse is that these costs are directly proportional to how many people are playing the game. For a game that runs on a subscription model, this is a non-issue - if you get a million subscribers, every single one of them is paying their share every month to help absorb the additional upkeep cost. In a F2P game, though - if you get a million subscribers, I thought, how would you ever get them to shell out some hard-earned cash for a little trinket? How could you ever ensure that they'd pay to play?

The entire model seemed entirely infeasible - at least until a year ago when my crippling love of giant robots led me to check out NCSoft's Exteel on a whim. While not the first F2P game I'd ever tried my hand at, it was the first I'd ever seen with a genuinely compelling microtransaction system.

Let me reverse a bit - there are some conflicting ideologies regarding the use and implementation of microtransactions in MMOGs and other online games (Exteel being more like Team Fortress 2 than World of Warcraft.) On the one hand, there's the argument that the only things microtransactions are used for should be purely cosmetic; no player should ever have an advantage over another player purely because they have real-world money to burn: Your microtransaction-bought sword might burst into flame with every swing, but it won't do any more damage than a regular sword of the same level.

Then there's the argument that says, "Nuh-uh, these folks are the ones keeping our game afloat! Since they're the ones paying for development, we'll develop stuff for them!" This model rewards those who pay with additional exclusive content, and their special Sword of Burning Flame will absolutely do more damage than an equivalent weapon dropped by a random monster. Between the two, the former model is most often found in subscription-based games that feature an additional microtransaction format, while the latter reigns supreme in F2P - after all, there's more risk in pissing off (and losing) a customer who pays every month as opposed to someone who is literally nothing but extra bandwidth and disk space.

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