Back on the first column I ever wrote about City of Heroes, many moons ago, someone made a comment that's stuck in my head. It wasn't negative, just something that stuck in my mind. They mentioned how the game had been portrayed in a somewhat poor light on the site as a whole, and used as an example that it had been used as the title image for this article about microtransactions and other payment goodies.

Go ahead and take a look at the author of that piece, and you might understand why the comment stuck in my mind.

I don't think that City of Heroes does a bad job with their microtransactions. I actually love their setup and like to point to it alongside Dungeons & Dragons Online as a prime example of how to do an item shop correctly. And I'm fairly sure I'm not the only person who feels that way, although there's doubtlessly the other side of the story that thinks they do an awful job. So strap yourselves in, because today we're going to be diving headfirst into the cash shop and my enthusiastic praise for same.
Here's the thing: there are people who aren't going to be happy with any amount of content you have to pay for in a game with a subscription fee. That's certainly a valid point of view, and while I don't share it, the thinking that informs it is worth examining. As far as this camp is concerned, they're already paying money for content. (It's technically incorrect -- you're paying for access to content -- but it's such a nitpicky area that it's only worth mentioning as an aside.) Asking for more money is like asking you to pay extra money at a movie theater to view all of the scenes in the movie instead of just most scenes.

Of course, the analogy can easily be extended here. Movies don't charge you extra for full access to the film, but you do have to pay more for chips or a drink or other refreshments. So that's what any extra microtransaction items have to be for a subscription game, as far as I'm concerned. They must:
  1. Not be vital in any way to enjoyment of the game. You shouldn't need them for leveling or to experience the full breadth of content, and players who don't buy anything shouldn't feel limited or stifled by not buying them.
  2. Improve a player's experience in an amount proportionate with the cost invested. This is a bit more ornate, and I'll explain more below.
  3. Provide at least some improvement for all of a player's characters, or provide an improvement solely for the player. Buying a Sword +1 for just one character feels like a cheap attempt at yanking money, but buying it for every character on your account feels like an investment.
  4. Be worth purchasing on their own merits and provide something players either want or logically would enjoy.
How does City of Heroes stack up to these criteria? Pretty darn well, I'd say.

Rule 1: Not Vital
The closest thing we get to "vital" in the game's shop is the option to change your model between costumes and access to functionally non-slotted travel powers (either via Ninja Run or the purchasable jet pack). The latter is only "vital" in rare cases, and it's something that the game went without for an insanely long time, so no one really expects it as a baseline feature.

Travel powers are a bit easier to look squinty-eyed about, since reaching level 14 is traditionally the milestone and it also allows players to free up a power slot. However, I've said not-so long ago that travel powers have the benefit of their prerequisites being decent in their own right -- I've seen more people with Hasten than have Super Speed, for example. Virtually no one slots their travel power, so it's only freeing a single power choice. And perhaps most importantly, the power selection and importance in CoH is structured so that you're not one choice away from an awesome build. It's very feasible to have all the powers you need and move on to powers you just sort of want without worrying about that one selection.

Everything else falls unambiguously on the side of being convenient but hardly vital. Mission teleportation and self-destruct are both nice for getting you to your destination or out of debt, but neither one is exactly game-breaking. (If you're dying often enough that not accruing debt once per hour is a big boost, you've probably got debt clear through to level 50.) Having a teleport to Pocket D or the ability to hopefully give a helpful buff is nice, but hardly mandatory.

Of course, if you want to make a cybernetic character then you might argue that Super Booster 1 is vital, but that's part of point 4. Complaining that the costume parts are too awesome and should be free is kind of a weak argument.

Rule 2: Appropriate Pricing
This one is very subjective, and to explain it, I'll need to explain the soda rule.

The soda rule is based upon the fact that I drink a lot of soda over the course of a day. (And a lot of water, juice, et cetera. I get thirsty a lot.) A bottle of soda costs about $1.25, and will provide a couple minutes of enjoyment as well as relief from being thirsty. While it worked better when bottles cost an even dollar, the soda rule is a simple rule of thumb: is enjoying this worth the trade-off of however many bottles of soda I could have bought instead?

I can buy one of the super boosters or the equivalents for $10, roughly a week's worth of soda. In return, I get a neat little add-on for all of my characters and access to parts that can improve several different character concepts. They're not necessarily useful everywhere, but I have a wider breadth of options than if I just had the default character creator bits. And it does vary based on character -- I still don't have Super Booster 3, for instance, because the lab parts don't look like they fit with any concepts I have, and the gender-swapping is just shy of being worth a soda each day.

Everything in the store is priced just enough to be a little add-on that I don't need, but is worth the price for enjoyment. Paying for an extra character slot or extra Mission Architect space? If I'm enjoying it, then yeah, it could be worth a fair amount of stuff to drink.

Rule 3: Universal Boost
There are two categories of purchasable things from CoH -- the packs that add costume bits and powers, and extra character slots or name changes or related. The latter is easy to understand -- only one character gets the benefit of an extra character slot, for instance, but that character wouldn't exist otherwise. In the former, every character gets access to the added powers and the new costume bits, and none of the new abilities are useless even if they're not normal elements of a given character.

Rule 4: Worth Buying
So we come to the crux of the matter. Are the packs worth buying on their own merits? If price weren't an issue, would they be worth purchasing?

I don't think everything you can grab in terms of microtransactions is wholly worth buying in the game, but I haven't bought all of them. I think they're all priced fairly, they're expansions that you don't need in the game but make it more fun, and they're clever little groups of content that most likely wouldn't have been designed if not for the fact that there's extra money in it.

And that's where we come full circle back to that article I linked back at the beginning. (No, you don't have to scroll all the way back up, I'm considerate.) Modeling new costume parts doesn't take a horribly long time, but it takes long enough that there's a blessedly good reason the game doesn't give new costume parts away as a rule. You earn them from play, you pay for them, or you earn them via playing the game for long enough. Or to be more direct, you either experience them as an element of content, or you give the company money (either through steady subscription or just direct payment).

In summary? City of Heroes handles its additional fees quite well. And we can only hope (and expect) that it'll continue well into the future. Unless they decide to suddenly charge money for respecs, but really, who would actually try something that crazy?

This article was originally published on Massively.
GDC10: Massively's picks for the best of GDC