The Tattered Notebook: Looking back at RMT through a futuristic monocle

As I logged into EverQuest II this past week, I was greeted with a promo to redeem my free festive sparker. Sorry, make that my FREE festive sparkler. Anyway, as part of the promotion, I could visit the Marketplace, scoop up my sparkler, and then use it to participate in the lighting of fireworks at the major cities in Norrath to receive place-able fireworks for my house or guild hall.

I have to say, it was an odd moment. First off, I had to pause to make sure I hadn't accidentally logged into my Free Realms account that I play with the kids because sparklers and fireworks seem more appropriate there. Second, I was trying to recall a time in EverQuest II when an in-game quest, tied to a live event no less, actually required possession of an item from the Marketplace.

In EQII, we've come a long way when it comes to cash shops and microtransactions, and EVE Online's recent controversy surrounding the Noble Exchange really puts things into perspective. In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll look back on EQII's RMT evolution -- through EVE's ill-fated monocle.

When it comes to cash shops, what EverQuest II players have gone through compared to EVE players is vastly different. If both communities were lobsters, EverQuest II players were eased into a nice cool pot of water to be slowly cooked over time, while EVE players were tossed into a scalding-hot, bubbling vat of boiling water, left to scream and flail around in anger and helplessness over the predicament. Make no mistake, the path that EverQuest II players took in the microtransaction path was full of emotional, multi-page threads and much debate, but it's been a gradual process that started years ago. In typical EVE fashion, the learning curve surrounding cash shops pretty much resembles the EVE Online learning curve in general.

EQII's path to the cash shop started back in 2005 with the Station Exchange, a separate server dedicated to the buying and selling of items and characters for real money. While there wasn't a cash shop yet, this was one of the first times that players had to deal with the idea that RMT was officially in the game. It wasn't met with much happiness, but it was generally accepted because it was kept isolated on a separate server.

Over the years, players were slowly exposed to more and more change. The Legends of Norrath trading card game brought in-game loot cards such as rent-free homes and a special key that allowed you entrance to a unique instance with unique gear drops. Then Station Cash and the Marketplace arrived, officially nudging players into the land of the cash shop and launching a flame-filled discussion thread on the forums. As in EVE, the original cash shop only offered a meager selection of vanity items, but today it offers everything from appearance gear to unique mounts to services such as name changes or character transfers.

When EverQuest II announced its new free-to-play server last year, it came with a more robust cash shop that included stat-based gear and many items that gave players in-game advantages. But once again, it was kept on a separate server, away from the rest of the game, and the resulting discussion thread was less heated than past threads on RMT issues. Perhaps isolating it helped ease concerns, or perhaps players have gone through the emotional debate of RMT so much that they've actually built up a tolerance to it, but whatever the reason, EQII succeeded in doing what few would have predicted years ago.

Players in EVE were upset at a number of things regarding the new cash shop, but what really seemed to push them over the edge was the wording of dev blogs that and leaked emails, which said things like "this is one of the moments where we look at what our players do and less of what they say." But that was pretty much standard operating procedure for EverQuest II, and the game stands as proof that the approach worked. Time after time, players were introduced to incremental additions of RMT, and each time, there were epic-length threads on the official forums in protest of the changes. But after a week or two, discussion tapered off, and life continued on in-game with the new changes still in place.

If I were to turn back the clock a year or two and make a post on the official EQII forums suggesting that such class-defining abilities as track, evac, or teleport be given to everyone, I doubt I'd win much support. Heck, even today, I doubt a post like that would sit well with players. But all three of those abilities are on the Marketplace, purchasable by any player for a price, and there's been hardly a complaint by the players. In fact, you can't even assert that the live server Marketplace is free of game-changing items that give players advantages for real money. For a price, players can buy top-speed mounts, enormous bags, faster experience gain, and even the Freeblood player race that comes a unique set of combat abilities.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm of two minds on the issue of microtransactions in MMOs. I look at EverQuest II and I see a game that's survived several tumultuous moments in its RMT evolution and has offered some terrific dungeon and raid content, unparalleled tradeskill content, and some in-game tools and utilities that few other MMOs provide. And yet, at the same time, I have these "FREE sparkler" moments and I can't help but think that it just doesn't fit in the world of Norrath. Monocles and sparklers look much more appropriate on my Free Realms character (and I have the screenshot to prove it!).

All of this isn't enough to make me protest and unsubscribe, but it somehow lessens the experience that I have in the game. We can't turn back the clock, so it seems that we'll have to accept the reality of cash shops in our favorite MMOs. In the meantime, I think I'll spend some money on something a little more real -- like lobster!

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.