Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Pernicious Perils of Paying to Play

I'll agree, a minor fee to pay for cosmetic features like character appearance sounds harmless. People want to pay for their funky pink haircuts and flapping angel wings, more power to them. But the counter-argument here would be the slippery slope.

The thing is that microtransactions like these is that they're a foot in the door. A gateway to more and more sweeping features down the line. Now it's just just buying useless cosmetic crap that gives you that fleeting feeling of worth, deep down inside. But the mere presence of such an option establishes that it's alright for a game to charge more than “just” a subscription. Just like subscriptions are now a given when once, back upon the day, companies just used to dive into your wallet once, when you bought your box. And maybe again when you got the expansion. But they figured out a way to milk and milk again. And before long, consumers were paying not just for the game but for server transfers. Then it was name changes. Now it's a fancy haircut.

How long, then, before it's not just appearances that developers find a segment of their customers are willing to pay for? How long before it's custom mounts? After all, a different skin on a mount isn't giving anyone a real advantage, so that's alright. How long, then, before it's custom skins on your gear? As long as it's still the same +5 sword of awesomeness, just that it goes “parp” instead of “sproing”, who's really going to care?

How long before it stops being perks and privileges and start being actual content? People already pay to level faster, to acquire gold faster, and some of them will pay for even more. How long before someone starts thinking that it's alright to sell access to special zones or farming grounds with their own unique drops? Or for weapons with better stat bonuses? Or even just to roll up an alt (Hell, Guild Wars, among others, already lets you pay for more character slots if you happen to run out of the initial limited supply.). Because if there's going to be micropayments for cosmetic features, then we're one step further along that road.

If you happen to think, as I do, that it's alright for people to pay their way through games, that's fine. I don't have a problem with people investing in these things – it's no different from gearheads who sink money into their hot rods or collectors who snap up all sort of war gaming figurines, people will spend ridiculous sums on their hobbies. I also think there are plenty of opportunities to monetize parts of these games we so like to play and direct even more resources towards the people who make them. Most of it's going to go to their investors but, I hope, at least a little of it will go towards making these games even better. Microtransactions and increasing attempts to wring money out of consumer's tightly clenched hands are inevitable. And I'm fine with that as long as there's still a way from those who don't want to make such investments to at least play along.

But if you're worried about the trend, then I think you have reason to be concerned here.

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