Microtransactions – the most lucrative way to line investor’s pockets and generate profit in the current gaming landscape. Also, an oft-hated system. While the cash shop model has risen to prominence in the past decade, to the point where the vast majority of MMORPGs have shunned the subscription model in favor of larger profits, it is a system rife with poorly executed versions. That, and at its core, it is a fundamentally profit-driven economic model, which means the wants and needs of a given playerbase are completely ignored in favor of whatever can generate the most income.
While there are some examples of microtransaction systems that work relatively well — I would argue that Elder Scrolls Online is a prime example in this category — the vast majority of them do not. One has to look no further than the recent fiasco surrounding Electronic Arts and their fumbled Battlefront II launch to see a system gone so completely wrong that the company announced that they were suspending microtransactions just prior to the game’s public launch (albeit only temporarily). This, only after the players had risen in anger over EA’s manhandling of their pocketbooks.
In fact, one could say that one needs look no further than EA for a prime example of what not to do if you want to include microtransactions in your games. While they are a profitable company, one that sells games to the masses, they are not, by any sense of the word, a “friendly” company in the eyes of the gamers of the world. Go deep enough into any gaming community and you’ll find a massive segment of those who truly dislike EA and their corporate tactics, and are seen as a public entity that ruins franchises and destroys lauded companies, with Bioware being the prime example used (after the selling off of by and departure of the founders of the company) as a company that was once something great, but has since diminished.
Their recent closer of Visceral Studios and press release surrounding the in-development Star Wars game that so many were looking forward to (a single player, narrative-driven story by Amy Hennig, creative mind behind so many of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games) shows that the company is completely revamping the game to be a multiplayer, microtransaction-friendly title instead. Then you have the same statements regarding the Mass Effect series, and how microtransactions drive the most amount of income. And most recently, we can see CD Projckt making the announcement that Cyberpunk 2077 will include online elements (purely speculative as to whether that will include microtransactions).
The bottom line is that microtransactions are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most profitable way to run a company in the current environment.
If, that is, you are marketing a game to the masses and your primary, underlying goal is to keep your investors happy.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: small, niche titles that have no desire to be a game for the masses, but instead cater to the very narrow, very specific needs of the group of players that play their games. Games like Shroud of the Avatar, Pantheon, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, and other currently in-development MMORPGs. Then there are others, such as Clicker Heroes 2, which are switching away from microtransactions because of what they view as ethical reasons.
Tossed into that mix are a few hybrid models, like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Final Fantasy XIV, which all offer subscription-based games with some elements of microtransactions within.
We’ve said since day one that our game is a subscription-based title. Our belief is that the free-to-play model just doesn’t work for our type of game; we aren’t building a title that is meant for single serving sessions, where players hop on and play for 15 – 20 minutes while they grind out their dailies, pick up their badges, then log off and on to the next title in their library of free-to-play games, repeating the process through each one, and spending a few dollars here and there in the cash shop to make their character “more unique”, in lieu of a monthly subscription. Never talking to other players for more than brief seconds, or minutes at most, never building relationships, never really growing attached to the worlds or the characters they created.
What we are building is a living, breathing world. A tabletop game, with a digital face. Just as much as you generally don’t play micro-sessions when you sit down to a tabletop game (you typically plan your sessions in advance, you meet up with your friends at scheduled sessions, and you play for prolonged periods of time, usually two to four hours, over periods of weeks, months, and years), you don’t play a game like ours without making a significant investment of time into the character that you are giving life to.
The monthly subscription works best with that model. It’s the model we prefer, it’s the model many of us (I would argue most of us us old-school gamers) are familiar with, and it’s this model that offers the most value to the customers: 100% access to 100% of the game for a flat, monthly fee. No hidden charges, no exceptions.
It’s the reason that so many of us still pay monthly fees to the games we enjoy playing, even though many of them have since gone F2P. EverQuest and ESO being great examples; even though these games offer free-to-play alternatives, we still opt to pay for a monthly sub. Why? Because we want 100% access to the games we play, not partial access.
That’s not to say that we’re completely against microtransactions. We’re not. We’ve spent a lot of money on microtransactions (I’ve personally spent a good chunk in SWTOR and ESO for cosmetic items). We feel strongly that ESO is a great example of a game that has, more or less, managed to blend a cash shop relatively well (though not without controversy) into the game, and it is almost entirely based around cosmetics. Which is very important to note: cash shops are at their worst when they offer players some sort of competitive advantage or some type of game-altering buff or effect.
But for the type of game we’re building, we don’t see the microtransaction route being the one that makes the most sense for our MMORPG. Which is why, for better or worse, we’re opting for a subscription-based model.
We’ve heard the arguments against; we’ve had two publishers talk with us who were interested in Saga of Lucimia, but they both wanted us to go free to play and switch to a cash shop. We said no, both times. We’ve heard multiple arguments from players that at some point we’ll have to move to a cash shop, because there just won’t be enough money in the subscription model to keep our lights on.
Our point of view is that if we can’t manage to offer enough of a value for players to feel justified in paying their monthly fee to play our game, then we haven’t done our job as game developers.
10:47 a.m. 11/20/2017: edited to add link + mention of Clicker Heroes 2. Thanks to AdricLives for providing the link!
1:10 p.m. 11/20/2017: edited mention of Cyberpunk 2077 to note that while multiplayer is confirmed, it is purely speculative regarding whether that will include microtransactions.