The Soapbox: The hidden perils of Guild Wars 2's microtransactions

Guild Wars 2 screenshot
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

The ArenaNet post about microtransactions in Guild Wars 2 reveals that the "gems" currency will be bought with real money and be available for purchase with in-game gold in GW2. But people seem to have forgetten that Runes of Magic's cash shop operated this way three years ago. I've been playing RoM since closed beta, and the cash shop is one of the reasons RoM is so different from other F2P MMOs of its era.

Frogster eventually removed the ability to buy diamonds with gold because of fraud, so I'm curious to see how ArenaNet handles that issue. My time in RoM has shown me that there are other issues involved here, issues of security, players gaming the system, botting, and pay-to-win debates. In other words, there's more at stake here than whether cash shops sell gear or items toward gaining power.

Guild Wars 2 screenshotSecurity and botting

There is nothing inherent to an integrated cash shop that will curtail or dissuade gold-sellers. In fact, this system is just another sandbox within a sandbox for gold-sellers and buyers to play in. I know the argument is that the cash shop won't sell power (so the desire to buy gold will be lessened) or that it cuts out the middle-man, but ArenaNet wants you to buy. It doesn't matter what's being sold; the company wants you to buy it. If the studio's done its job well, which I'm assuming it did, based on all the videos and hype, then there's a good chance that you will want what it's selling, and that's the fuel that keeps gold-sellers in business. It's about creating value and selling what is valuable. Up until now, the point of contention has always been about power-oriented items, or more accurately, items related to combat, and we may see a shift in where GW2 places value, but that value will still be sold at a price.

Gold-sellers won't be daunted by the idea that power will be in the players' hands, either. There were always gold-sellers in RoM. Gold-sellers will just sell competitively, competing with the official cash shop. Many of them have no overhead cost, so undercutting ArenaNet will still be profitable.

I'm also not convinced that supply-and-demand alone will keep prices in check. Fraud and gold-selling, among other possibly unknown factors, could affect the economy. RoM's diamonds used to sell for around 10,000 gold each. That price has fluctuated slightly over the years, but more recently the economy blew up, sending prices skyrocketing to over 100,000 gold per diamond. Prices are settling down, after months, to around 50,000 each, but the new price drop could also be due to Frogster's direct intervention with the NPC gold sinks and well-timed cash-shop sales.

Frogster claimed to be removing diamonds from the auction house because of fraud. For a long time, the company kept giving updates to players about looking for a third-party option or trying to figure out an option on its own. The team might still be working on the issue, but news has gone silent and diamonds still aren't back in the auction house. I will be very interested to see how ArenaNet handles the security side of this. Be on the look out for low-stack items selling for ridiculous amounts of in-game gold. It's a sign that a gold-seller is using the auction house to shunt money around. Every once in a while, I'll see a listing for one low-level healing pot, craft rune or other common but worthless item that's selling for millions of gold.

Guild Wars 2 screenshotGaming the system

Hand-in-hand with security issue is what this system allows players to do. Players will be able to earn gold in-game to buy gems and thus purchase items from the cash shop. If there's one thing anyone has learned about any MMO, it's that players are wily, resourceful, and patient. Players in RoM, for example, started using Lua to script addons that helped them gather resources and perform other tasks ad nauseam. There will be players rushing into farm mode for, dare I say, eight or more hours a day. For that reason, I'm waiting to see whether there will be daily or weekly caps on the quantity of items and resources a player can accumulate in GW2. And this will add to the never-ending debate over pay-to-win. If some players can spend hours a day, every day, and quickly amass a mountain of a particular goody while others just don't have the time, arguments will ensue.

Pay-to-win

If players aren't given some kind of limitation on how much they can farm (and I don't think they will because limitations didn't go over so well in Final Fantasy XIV), some players will simply start alts, playing until the sun comes up and getting gold as fast as they can across their stable of characters. They'll turn the game into a meta-game of purchasing diamonds or gold, and gold hoarding will become a way to affect current and future prices and disrupt the economy, which will be seen as unfair by at least some members of the playerbase. Also, ArenaNet did mention offering strictly account services and convenience items, a plan very similar to Frogster's philosophy back when RoM was just being released. Those with more money than time will be able to level the playing field with those with less money but more time, and the diamonds' presence in the auction house will facilitate the two, often to the dismay of one side or the other.

This issue has blown the roof off the pay-to-win debate, but it will never be settled. Players never stopped debating it when RoM allowed diamond buying in its auction house, and the issue won't be settled when GW2 is released, either.

What's really interesting about this drama is that it suggests "pay-to-win" is a faulty idea. The mechanisms that drive players have shown, through RoM's and now GW2's integrated cash shops, that players ultimately find the actual source of the unfairness to be other players, not the game systems themselves.

Guild Wars 2 screenshotConclusion

I can't wait to get into GW2 and start snooping around all the hidden corners, trying to dissect the philosophy of its game design. What tiny changes did ANet make to how cash-shop items interact with the game? How will these almost-imperceptible changes make me want another item in the game, and how will it make me satisfied to go about obtaining a reward? Will I even care about rewards in the game?

I don't think I'm the only one disappointed that Frogster never reinstated diamonds into RoM's auction house, but I'm really excited to see another MMO trying this type of system with a F2P business model. I love the unseen potential in providing really fun gameplay by experimenting with different F2P models, but many MMOs haven't spread their cash-shop wings. It looks like GW2 is preparing to change not only how the game plays but how you pay for it. Be prepared for imperfection and even chaos, but enjoy the game for the creative and entertaining (though not unique) choices the cash-shop system allows.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every week as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.