Flameseeker Chronicles: Is ArenaNet approaching the pay-to-win line?

The addition of Guild Wars Mercenary Hero Packs to the NCsoft store is the latest step in ArenaNet's effort to highlight Guild Wars "microtransactions." (I am ambivalent about using the word microtransactions in this context -- "micro" in my eyes says under 10 dollars.)

The mercenary heroes are probably the most controversial addition to the current store to date, and the ongoing debate fascinated me. I can see both sides of the argument, so I thought I'd take today and explore this new addition to the store and what it means. Follow along after the jump and let's look at the perceived pros and cons of the newest not-very-micro-transaction in the NCsoft store!

What's the problem here?

The two main arguments against Mercenary Hero Packs are that they are extremely expensive and that they provide an in-game advantage to players who spend real-world cash. I personally feel that the price points are reasonable, but that word "personally" is the core problem with this argument. It is impossible to lay down a blanket definition of what is a good value for someone's entertainment dollar, because it's a completely individual decision. You might feel that $44.99 for eight mercenary heroes is a huge waste of money and a complete ripoff, but there are also people out there who feel that $44.99 for a game is a huge waste of money and a complete ripoff. None of you is wrong until you try to apply your personal feelings on the matter to everyone.

For this reason -- while I can't call this a microtransaction with a straight face -- I view the argument as easily solved, if not completely moot.

The argument that there's a gameplay advantage is much more complicated. One Massively Overpowered member referred to it as the "advantage of choice," a phrase that cuts to the chase of the discussion better than any I've heard. Want to run with six Necro heroes instead of three? No problem, that will be $19.99 please. Players who break out the credit cards absolutely have more hero choices than those who don't.

This raises my next question: So what? You can argue that there's an unfair advantage because those who pay up can run dual Discord heroes, for example, but dual Discord -- and any other meta build -- hasn't always been around. We cleared elite areas before Discord was flavor of the month. Hard mode existed before that. People played the game just fine without meta builds and will continue to do so after the current ones fall out of favor and new ones come in. Mercenary heroes are mostly a vanity item -- you can run with your beloved alts, and you can enjoy a double scoop of whatever the current trendy build is.

However, if you don't have them, you're still fine. I plan to purchase at least three mercenary heroes, but I haven't yet and don't find my gameplay hindered at all. I usually play with guildmates or alliancemates, but I have been spending a lot of quality time with seven-hero parties to get a feel for them and have blown through a decent amount of content with them. I view the entire thing as a typical cash-shop setup. ArenaNet gave us something fantastic free in seven-hero parties and offered something even shinier and more alluring for a price. The price point is definitely higher than what we're used to in typical cash shops, but you're getting up to eight permanent, account-wide convenience and vanity items. Overall, it's not an outrageous setup.

Don't misunderstand me -- I love me some meta builds, and my template window includes more than a few of them. I just don't view them as the be-all and end-all of Guild Wars gameplay.

The downside

I may be able to appreciate and enjoy this new offering, but that doesn't mean I can't see a downside. ArenaNet is trying to walk a very fine line here. I really feel like the devs are experimenting a bit, trying to see what the market will bear, and I'm not sure the company has completely hit it on the mark.

I've said here and there in the past that I think Turbine's business model for Dungeons and Dragons Online and now Lord of the Rings Online is absolutely perfect. It contains everything a business model should contain, including a gameplay alternative for earning cash-shop items. Where is my in-game alternative for earning mercenary heroes? Why can't I buy one with Zaishen Coins? The things are already flagged bound-to-account, so the system could be considered to be in place. This is a gripe I had briefly with the costume packs, and the more I think about it, the more I view it as a missed opportunity on ArenaNet's part. People are willing to pay more when you give them a choice: "Here is a fabulous item that you can earn through hard work and a significant amount of time in game. Don't have the ability or inclination to earn them that way? No problem, we have a shortcut in the game store!" Skill Unlock Packs could be seen as an example of this. Being told "You can have this item through real-world cash or not at all" will invariably add a bit of negativity to the response, because there's a lack of choice.

Second, the mercenary heroes' setup bothers me. They're stuffed into the mold of regular heroes in that their PvE-only skills are disabled, but if they have the disadvantages, why don't they have the advantages as well? More to the point, where is my loot? The wiki states: "Similar to henchmen, heroes take a portion of the loot." If I could access Livia's inventory, I assume I would find gold and items, because she has "taken a portion of the loot." I can access my Mesmer's inventory, so why shouldn't I be able to access the loot she was given while she was running as my hero?

You can make the argument that when you're running with a full-hero party, the loot is simply reduced to 1/8th of normal rather than evenly distributed, but the phrasing put in the game indicates otherwise. Both the description above from the wiki and the announcement when you pick up gold that monsters have dropped indicate that it's all divided equally among you and your heroes.

I can see how what I'm suggesting would cause the howls of "unfair advantage" to increase even more, so I understand why the team made the choice -- in part. My point here isn't just that I want loot, but that ArenaNet seems to be on the verge of falling into the trap of trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.

It's almost like the developers created this offering, realized that people would scream about the unfair advantage, and then crippled it to try to appease those people by removing PvE skills and not offering the "fair share" of loot. I don't know if that was deliberate, but it still feels like the company is waffling a bit as it tries to decide what the market will bear.

Mercenary heroes are a great item and something I'll be purchasing for myself soon enough, and while I don't feel like there is any sort of great gameplay advantage here, I really hope to see the NCsoft store offerings fine-tuned as time goes on.

Now it's your turn -- let's discuss! These are only my thoughts on the biggest points of Mercenary Hero Packs, but I want to hear what you think! Hit the comment button and let me know. And thanks to Fumie and Lady Rhonwyn for allowing photography of their mercenary heroes!

Rubi is a longtime Guild Wars player and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column keeps a close eye on all the events in Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. It's also the home of a weekly summary of the travels of [MVOP], Massively's Guild Wars guild. Email Rubi at rubi@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.