Shame on me. I finally succumbed to purchasing my first Team Fortress 2 item several weeks ago. I justified the transaction by wanting to pad out my Steam wallet with £10 so I could buy A.I. War, while still having enough change left to get my grubby mitts on a vanity item of my choosing. Having sunk hundreds of hours into TF2, absorbing its free content like a sponge in water, I told myself it’s the least I could do to help the good ship Valve.
What surprised me though, was my reluctance to commit to my purchase. Staring at the hat in front of me (very fetching it was too), it did strike me as absolutely ludicrous to hand over several pounds for a graphical item that served no other purpose than to make my Engineer look bloody brilliant. I kindly reminded myself I have for more than ten years (in one form or another) been paying £8 a month to play the most recent MMOG that happened to take my fancy. This one off purchase was but a ripple in the ocean. Several mouse clicks later and I’m in game. I’m the talk of the town in my dazzling new hat, wooing the crowds as they gather round me like flies round shit.
“Thank you!” I reply.
And that was that. Three seconds of adoration from a Heavy called BigWigger. Nice.
But it did have me thinking about micro transactions and their influence on not only the current MMOG market, but that of the single player model.
Guild Wars has been flying the flag of free-to-play MMOG’s for over five years now, having shipped over 6 million units since 2005. 6 million units being enough to fill many studios coffers. Yet ArenaNet continue to draw primary revenue from content purchasable from the in game store. For example, you can for £5.99 unlock every single animal companion in the game, as opposed to heading out into the world and taming them yourself, or for a similar sum you can unlock every single skill, for each class type, again as opposed to visiting every skill-seller and manually purchasing them with in game currency. Fair tradeoffs for those short on time I think we’ll all agree.
The list however goes on: costumes, sex changes, hair changes, total makeovers, mission packs and quests are all available for a pretty price. £5 and upwards are not small price tags, yet justifiable in relation to a monthly subscription, in order to attract that impulse purchase.
Guild Wars 2 has further emphasised the need for keeping up appearances by implementing transmutation stones that allows the user to (funnily enough) transform their existing armour, to the appearance of another, while retaining the statistics. Love the look of your level 1 armour, but your now level 80? That’s fine! Spend your money and you can have the best of both worlds.
It’s a strange scenario that teeters on the ridiculous, yet is consciously justifiable. Inevitably you don’t have to part with your hard earned cash and can continue to play anyway.
Where World of Warcraft differs is the financial contract between you and the game. You have to pay to play and not only that- but you feel you have to play to get your monies worth. Other games go out the window knowing that to not play is tantamount to pouring money down the drain. Yet the revenue Blizzard draw from additional micro transactions only serves to bloat their already eye watering profits. As with Guild Wars the now standard appearance and server changes are all present and correct, but at a price double that of ArenaNet. You only had to see on the day of Cataclysms launch the quantity of people running around as level 80 Worgen or Goblins, having paid to change race, to realise the desirability of these transactions.
Five figure cheques recently handed out by Valve to the Poly Count Pack winners is evidence enough of the market scope and was achieved with only 50% of the revenue handed to the creators (50% retained by Valve) after only one weeks sales- I daren’t think of Valves profit margin on their personal productions.
Turbines recent conversation of Lord of the Rings Online to that of a free-to-play model is further evidence, seeing player numbers increase by 400% and doubling revenue over night. Turbines first experiment saw Dungeons and Dragons online revenue increase by 500% and still remains one of North Americas most played MMOGs.
The impact of these profit increases has evidently tweaked developer interest and as a result has begun to spill over and away from the MMOG market. Capcom (to much grumbling) recently announced that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would contain micro-transactions. Players will be able to purchase additional download content in the form of entirely new characters (Jill Valentine is hotly tipped as a prime example) which surely draws some serious concerns. Eventually, as a result of Capcoms undoubted success into micro-transactions, where will the line be drawn on free content, and paid for?
Having already parted with up to £50 for a game, at what point will developers begin to restrict key content to ensure people part with a few extra pounds. In the case of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, leaving out a popular fighter such as say Spider Man or The Hulk would be a sure fire way to ensure extra revenue, even if you do piss off a few people in the process.
I expect it will be a delicate act to balance and one that has evidently been crafted to perfection within the online arena. Vanity items have become a key source of revenue for MMOGs, with players eager to feel individual. The principals are no different to that of Team Fortress 2. Users want to stand out, and I suspect this is only the beginning of what micro-transactions are about to become.
How long do we suspect it will be until Valve release costumes in Team Fortress 2, or Activision award weapons and customisable equipment in Modern Warfare for a small price?
Not very long I suspect.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What a great article, Lewis, and a great summary of the changes we’re seeing in how games are bought and paid for. It won’t be long, I suspect, before this crosses over into single-player in a big way. And the indicators all suggest that it’s an effective way to maximize revenue.
The trick is whether they choose to keep boxed-product prices the same and introduce microtrans on top. It’s inevitable that microtransactions eventually stop being hats and start being patches, or game content that should have been included in the first place, or security fixes. People will live with that if the original price was fair, but if you’re still paying $50 for the game and find out that you essentially need to pay another $50 in goodies to make it fun, that’s gonna raise some eyebrows.
Big thumbs up to ArenaNet for keeping their prices reasonable.
Finally: this hat of yours. We want to see it.
Great article Lewis. Really enjoyed it, and you bring up many of my concerns.
I remember first hearing (years ago) how Korean MMOGs were all free to get and play, and that they made their money on micro-transactions. At the time I thought it was so clever, and hoped the model came here to the West. Leave it to our people though to combine these with the box price as well.
DLC is one thing, but I’m getting uncomfortable with how it seems like more and more, the content that would have made it into the base game a few years ago is now an extra purchase. Looking at you Dragon Age…
Shame on you indeed brother. But we still have to see the hat.
Very interesting article and I agree with everything you’ve said. I can’t justify sinking money on real life cosmetic stuff never mind virtual cosmetic stuff. I can totally understand people wanting to unlock things instantly though because unfortunately some of us don’t have the time to grind our way to all the things a game has to offer. I’m not entirely convinced that we should have to pay to unlock this stuff early either but having everything available right from the off wouldn’t very rewarding.
We all know the difference between extra stuff (hats and horse armour) and essential stuff (bug fixes and tweaks), the gray area is the content that we’re led to believe would feature in the base game. If we’re charged for the base game then charged for essential stuff masquerading as extra stuff then that’s when people start getting disgruntled.
Funny you mention AI War, Arcen have over the last year or so added to and buffed the base game so much that it’s really quite remarkable that they haven’t charged for some of the larger updates, especially the recent move to 4.0.
I can’t see retail box prices lowering any time soon. Publishers know that we, gamers, crave the drugs, er, games that they put out and that we will pay anything to get them.
You didn’t really see the Call of Duty series take a sales dive when they hiked the price up by $10. I’m afraid to see how far some of them will try to go. Would Black Ops have sold in fewer numbers if the price were, say $79 instead of $59? (speaking CAD, here). I don’t know… part of me doesn’t think so, and that’s worrisome.
Add on top of that the thought of now having to purchase in game items– items that you *need* for the experience to be on par with everyone else’s– and that has me quite bothered.
I don’t like this trend at all, and can only hope it stays in the niche where it currently is.
Great article, brother from another mother.
Max, I’m not sure how much weight the argument holds with regards to COD and it’s price hikes. I’m not sure what the situation was in America, but in the UK there was a huge fuss prior to the MW2 launch about it’s new RRP at £55 (compared to the standard £40 that games usually retail for here). On the day of release, I found it was actually harder to find the game available for the standard £40 price than it was to find it reduced. Infact, I don’t know a single person that paid anymore than £25 for that on launch day. For all the bad press about it’s retail price, competition drove those prices down significantly, as much as by half in many cases. How would MW2 have sold at £55? I don’t know. I’d like to think not as well.. but then again, maybe it would have.
To be honest the paying for content after a games release thing really hasn’t hit home with me.. at all. For no real reason, I just VERY rarely find myself paying for content beyond what comes on the disk. Fallout 3 was an almost totally isolated example, and that was only because the first DLC pack allowed you to continue where the story cruelly cut you off.