Whereby I reconcile myself with micro-transactions

EVE Online is dead. It died on June 2011 when CCP introduced their virtual store with the patch for Incarna. Or so some say. RMT for virtual goods of purely cosmetic value. The player base has been ablaze, some proclaiming the end of EVE Online as we know it. Others not so much, as long as the items bought by real money aren’t game-changing, who cares? Well, plenty of people did judging from the controversy this stirred while oddly enough, the new items were not strictly speaking a first in terms of turning real money into potential ingame profits (hello Plex system). But then, EVE is srs bsns, not like the rest of them lowly MMOs out there, EVE players have standards!

I’ve never been a fan of RMT MMOs. I think one big reason for this is that the stereotype there is an FTP game with cheap graphics, horrible controls and dead servers. There are not exactly a lot of positive examples for RMT-based MMOs out there and even less of them manage to include the system in a way that won’t boil down to a divided society of those that choose to buy frequently and those that will not. Many of us feel that they make the better bargain paying subscriptions which ensure complete access to a game. Never mind that over the years we probably payed just as much in terms of fees, collector’s editions, server transfers, mini-pets et cetera. The psychological factor is huge. Also, ingame shops take self-control and we’re already spending enough money on Amazon.

One prime reason why players strongly dislike RMT though is when “game-altering” items come into play: re-sellables that might impact on the server economy, special guild features, raid power-ups or epic gear. We feel this messes up server “harmony”; we want a level ground between players and so do competitive guilds. Not that such harmony were existant in the first place in any MMO; we do never have an equal situation between individual players nor raid guilds, RMT or not. Or would you ever have called a game as merciless and elitist as EVE Online harmonic?

The classist fallacy

I’ve actually heard micro-transactions being called classist, as if virtual goods were somehow representative for the social rifts and injustices on this planet. As if there were truly poor MMO players, as if we were not all of us already among the most privileged, sitting in front of our PCs at night in comfy chairs, with our high-speed internet connections, our active subs and second accounts, enjoying free time in the safety of a warm home. There’s not one single WoW player out there right now who could not just as well afford to play an RMT-based MMO if he so chose. The classist argument is dramatic humbug and frankly offensive to those who are truly socially disadvantaged in this world. If you believe the lack of a shiny pixel horse makes you inferior to other players, you don’t have issues worth mentioning. Let’s forget too, that players who don’t buy pets don’t buy pets because they don’t want to buy pets. Duhh.

MMO “communities” have always been classist, always will be – but RMT has very little to do with it. Top guilds with high reqs are classist; hardmodes are classist; any sort of rare title/gear/achievement is classist. And a great deal of people think they are classist when they’re really just jerks with inferiority issues. As one commenter on an EO board added:

I’m sick of being beaten by people with more time than I have, more people skills than I have, having simply typed “spaced based mmo” into google before I did, or just plain old better game skill than I have.
Let me use my financial superiority to crush some of them into the ground. [*]

And while I don’t exactly agree with him because time spent should still have its place for me in an MMO, I fully understand his perspective. He is being out-classed and there’s little he can do subjectively. So, would the introduction of an item-shop in EVE, even a game-altering one, unhinge social justice? No, it wouldn’t. Would there suddenly be traumatic, social rifts because some can and some cannot afford a 10 dollar rucksack? Hardly. People will pay for these things if they want to.

Let’s be honest, if we don’t spend that money ingame, it means we’re spending it somewhere else like we do every single day. Maybe we’d buy an album less on iTunes in order to get that special armor, maybe we’d skip a cinema visit or buying that 5th pair of shoes. Outrageous? Maybe we’d even cut down to smoking half a pack per day instead of a whole one – you could do worse than that, I think. It’s a matter of perspective, more than competitiveness. You don’t “have to” buy tons and tons of items in an RMT-based game either, just like you don’t “have to” collect 400k gold in WoW in order to partake and compete. Developers want you to play their games long-term, they will always aim at a tolerable balance.

What the current, obvious trend of selling virtual goods in the MMO industry really is doing, is challenging players to deal with a new reality. Not a classist concept, certainly not in the sense of a more or less capitalist one – but a huge shift in paradigm. We used to pay for playtime, or so we thought. The new generation of games makes us pay for goods instead (or additionally), more explicitly than before. The acceptance of this indirect change is difficult to stomach. Really now, how’s 10 dollars spent on a mini-pet you enjoy for months “worse” than spending them on a movie ticket? Have we not continuously fought for the acceptance of our online worlds, adventures and friendships, pointing out how they are just as real as real life experiences because of the way they make us feel? Why wouldn’t / shouldn’t we pay for this more explicitly, when we’re already paying for it indirectly? And why can my co-worker spend a few hundred bucks each month for her horse-riding without wasting similar thoughts?

These are questions I have to face and frankly I’m running out of arguments. Am I a fan of micro-transactions all of a sudden? Hell no, my old-school heart is having troubles adjusting. Do I think that money could be spent much worse than on virtual goods? Absolutely.

Why the narrator in me keeps hyping Guild Wars 2

Blizzard recently dropped their bomb about introducing a real-money AH in Diablo III which, while “optional”, will impact on things like player progress in the game. My initial reaction was negative – that was before I actually pondered all the points listed in the above paragraph. It’s certainly not surprising in terms of where Blizzard has been going for years now and it’s a small step away from their Blizzstore and the virtual goods that already exist for WoW. Even if developers like to point out how items are purely for “vanity”, you could argue that things like a special mount are in fact game-altering. They undermine the achievement that used to be acquiring expensive, fast or rare mounts in the game, y’know back in a time when that was true. Mounts are loot and loot is social prestige. Now that prestige can be achieved by real currency as much as virtual, our two worlds collide.

Sucker for narrative and setting that I am for my MMOs, I actually still have a problem here: real money presents players with short-cuts. I’m not fond of that in the slightest. I would argue though that there’s a big difference between a sub-based MMO that introduces more and more RMT late into the game in order to make extra profits and one that is fundamentally created around that system. The fact that Blizzard promotes the feature as a purely optional yet powerful alternative, makes things worse in my eyes. Either we have an MMO where players are all meant to buy certain goods and that therefore balances content focus around it, or we don’t. To add the feature into a game as loot-/item-centric as WoW is worlds more problematic than for an MMO where the main focus lies on things like cooperative play or narrative for example. If epics are what your world revolves around, you don’t want a shop to sell more and more purples.

This is where my enthusiasm for Guild Wars 2 kicks in again. Already, GW2 has the complete looks, style and package to become the next AAA+ MMORPG and it comes free of subscription. Players will pay for modules/expansions and there will be micro-transactions. From everything I have seen, read and heard so far, NC Soft has every intention to heavily re-focus the game from the current classic MMO course out there. What added fuel to my excitement was a video I recently watched on youtube, summarizing pretty much every single reason why I personally look forward to GW2. I couldn’t agree more with all 10 points presented there, but see for yourself! I am a little weary of just how appealing the game is to me at this stage, I haven’t been excited like that ever since World of Warcraft. Beautiful art and music, dynamic content, no holy trinity, cooperative focus, a vast world with no flying mounts – music to my ears!

And yes, Guild Wars 2 will feature virtual goods. If the final game is nearly as good as it’s promising, I couldn’t care less.


  1. I almost can’t help but think that people are being overly pessimistic about the RMT AH in Diablo 3. Even on the ladders, RMT was absolutely HUGE in Diablo 2, and that’s something that simply isn’t going away. Blizzard has taken a good stance towards it in WoW; quash it at every turn as they are able to in an effective manner. But in Diablo, where it is arguably far more prevalent, they’re taking a different tack by embracing it.

    Personally, I can see both sides of the argument; those who have no interest in RMT for varying reasons, be they moral(RMT is viewed as cheating) or fiscal(lacking the money to take advantage or the time to get money out) and Blizzard’s, where they’ve acccepted and acknowledged that it’s going to happen. People will spend real money on fake things to be a little better or because they want a specific set of gear. So, instead of trying to fight a publicly acknowledged uphill battle, they’ve embraced it where they can(Diablo 3) and will be acting as the intermediary to hopefully curtail the usage of third party RMT, which presents a customer service nightmare for them, as the majority of CS interactions deal with account hacking/closures due to RMT.

    Ultimately, I feel that given the fact that people *will* engage in RMT in modern multiplayer games, Blizzard’s approach with Diablo 3 is probably one that more companies should start looking at.

  2. I also hated the F2P model until LoTRO and DDO switched to said model. I can’t say I’m thrilled with every aspect of their set-up (want a mount/class/special trinket–pay for it), I like that it allowed me to stay involved in those games.

    I miss playing multiple games, but I love MMO’s. This way I can choose where my cash goes and prioritize different goals in different games based on cash on hand and other social obligations. Surprisingly enough, my spouse and I spend much less in our F2P games annually than our combined monthly fee, so it’s actually a money saving model for us.

    I also wanted to say, thanks so much for the GW2 link. I haven’t looked at any news because I assumed that it was an entirely PvP or resource acquisition type game. This actually looks quite interesting.

  3. @JThelen
    I think too that I have been too one-sided or negative about RMT in the past; while I’ve played a couple of gpotato MMOs, I’ve never played them long enough to get a complete picture, and I’m actually quite sure that if a developer cares to do it “right”, you can balance things in a way that works like a valid alternative to subs. as always, a lot depends on the ‘if’ and ‘how’.

    You’re also making some very good points about the dilemma of developers and their side of the coin which I omitted in my own post. there’s reasons why this model is becoming more and more popular and while it might challenge the player base, it’s a new thing and challenge to them too. Pretty sure Age of Conan was never intended to be FTP, but after years and years Funcom finally reacted to what seems to be the inevitable in many places.
    as you said, there are pros and potential here for both sides though once we’re willing to overcome old bias and consider new concepts seriously.

    This is why it’s so nice to get comments on a topic – I was hoping a few readers might add their own experiences with RMT games and shed some light on the financial factor! it’s just not plausible (and not affordable for a developer) to make their game “too expensive” to play; your own input confirms what I already suspected. you can even save on money, it’s really up to the individual whether playing stays relatively cheap or not. I think many are however willing to pay more these days.

    Interesting thing too is the option to direct your playtime and focus more concretely by RMT. I had not yet considered this much, so this is food for thought, cheers!
    Glad you enjoyed that clip. I do think most want to keep a close eye on GW2 from now on – it really appears to try and cater to much wider an audience than its predecessor.

  4. “The fact that Blizzard sells the feature as a purely optional yet powerful alternative, makes things worse in my eyes. Either we have an MMO where players are all meant to buy certain goods and that therefore balances content focus around it, or we don’t.”

    Thank you! This I feel is the core point with regards to this issue.

    The direction Blizzard is going with more and more vanity pets and threats of premium features being aired makes me scared.
    It would be irresponsible of me to spend any more money on WoW than the sub, based my budget. I’m therefore dreading the day where their premium feature or some addition to the shop is crucial enough to be a disadvantage in some way, I just won’t be able to buy it.

  5. @ironyca

    Indeed, just adding features like these later on, into a game that wasn’t initially designed to include them, is problematic. I think generally players don’t appreciate MMOs that want it all – pay for the game, pay for the sub, pay for items. so far at least, we associate RMT with FTPs, although the borders are beginning to blur here too.

    I do hold to my impression though that with the increasing popularity and acceptance of MMOs, we will see gamers willingly spend more and more money on them in the future. I don’t see an issue with that as long as they feel the game is delivering the experience they seek. and if not, there’s an easy answer.

    as for budget, I see your point, but I will be as bold as to assume that if you really wanted to, you could re-budget to afford virtual goods on top of a sub? you know, prioritize differently, maybe skip another expense in favor of it. still assuming that’s what you want – we tend to make it work if we want to! I have long given up resisting that temptation, I already spend a lot less on my hobbies than other people, damnit!! 😛

  6. In my opinion, the role RMTs should play in MMOs is allowing people to pay with money for things that would otherwise cost them time.

    Plex is a prime example of doing this right. You can pay real-money for play time or you can pay game-money. There’s no difference in the product and nobody need know how you paid for it. Diablo promises a similar approach with the RMT AH.

    Doing it wrong is offering items for sale that aren’t available to grind. Seems to me that this is where a lot of the player angst around RMT comes from: that everyone would be “forced” to spend real money cash on the Awesome Sword of Awesomeness because there’s no way to spend time to get it.

    It doesn’t help that developers seem drawn to the idea that they need to offer something unique or people won’t spend the money. I hope they’ll gain more confidence that players really will pay for time.

  7. @ Anon
    But time is the essence of MMO’s. Without it it’s just a 1 month job to peak it and people would unsubcribe.
    If you’re not willing to spend time working towards upgrades etc, then you’re just decking out a doll for admiration.
    (this reminds me of Syl’s travel & time post – “it’s also about the journey, not just the end station”)

    I do believe not everything should be an open grind where it’s a matter of who’s got the most free time (which is why there are weekly lockout and caps) but the “buy- time” approach seems to be detrimental to everything MMO’s are about – games that never end.

  8. @Anon

    That is indeed a very important distinction; most people are less opposed to the idea of alternative ways for the same items, as to special items that are shop-exclusive. in a pure RMT game that is to be expected ofc (whereas I still think it wasn’t a wise move for WoW for example).

    I second your notion that what we really buy with the real money is not so much the items, but time itself; if you already pay for a sub as well though, that means they are making you pay twice for the same thing.

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