Free for All: The continued standardization of selling power

EVE Online forum screenshot
Selling power is a much quieter controversy than it used to be. I've been in gaming long enough to remember when selling anything desirable at all was taboo. At the same time, it's always been OK to sell some things like subscriptions or special boxed editions, proving that MMO gamers and others are brilliant at segmenting their rage. If it's a cool, special box with a neat virtual item inside, it somehow does not fall under the same umbrella as selling powerful, useful items in game. I think it does. But geeks in general are good at justifying poor behavior if they get what they want; just ask the hackers and file-swappers.

Still, it doesn't matter how we feel about selling power because the industry is already moving in the direction of selling power, lots of power. EA recently announced that every title it produces from now on will feature microtransactions. While that doesn't guarantee the sale of powerful items, I can promise that it will include some. This train ain't stopping. Sure, the console community seems a bit late to the party when it comes to the power-selling controversy, but that's likely because of MMOs' always-on multiplayer mode.

Wakfu cash-shop screenshot
Cliff Bleszinski, the guy behind the Gears of War games, recently came out in defense of microtransactions on his Tumblr. I think a lot of people were confused or felt hurt by this, but I'm not sure why. He has been in charge of making games for quite some time and goes on to list how obvious it should be when a company wants to make money. He even defends EA, a company I have no love for because of the horrible customer service it offers every time I need something from one of its aging MMOs. He says:
However, it blows my mind that somehow gamers don't seem to get that Valve is a business, just like any other, and when Valve charges 100$ for an engagement ring in Team Fortress 2 it's somehow "cool" yet when EA wants to sell something similar it's seen as "evil." Yes, guys, I hate to break it to you, as awesome as Valve is they're also a company that seeks to make as much money as possible. They're just way better at their image control.
I see "selling or buying power" as a sort of meme, one of these things that people pass around without even knowing what it really means, using it just for effect. "Does this game sell power?" is asked in one of my article's comments section at least several times a year. While I want to answer back, "Do you also need me to come to your house, download it for you and control it while you eat chips?" I usually just ignore the question. It's become a silly one to ask. Why? Let me list a few reasons.

"Power" is a subjective term

Power does not translate only to items that cause damage. Valuable or desirable items, like a special horse or costume, are also under the umbrella of "power," although a lot of players would never consider it. If these players do not understand that there are many, many players who care more about looking good than being good in an MMO, then I can do nothing but hope they eventually get it. Even if we limit the discussion to items that cause damage to another player, there will still be discussions about how powerful that item is, what use it truly has, and how it can be applied only in certain situations. I have not once come across a "win the game" button in any MMO or standalone title. "Win buttons" are called cheat codes, and MMOs don't have those unless you're a hacker.

"These fatpockets (often called whales) are so uncommon that I can promise that they will last no longer on the battlefield than anyone else."

Those who buy power are rare

The people who allegedly spend thousands in Allods Online (yet none of my commenters has even known one so far) or lay waste to all other players using their pocketbooks alone are actually pretty rare. These fatpockets (often called whales) are so uncommon that I can promise that they will last no longer on the battlefield than anyone else. I have a carrier in Battlestar Galactica Online, a massive ship that can carry other players with it into battle. It can cost a couple hundred real-life dollars, so you do not see them in game as much as you see free players' ships. When I show up in my carrier, I am almost immediately slaughtered. After becoming very dead the other day, I hung around without respawning to watch chat. "I guess he didn't have enough money to spend on upgrading his weapons!" someone said. He was right. Most people don't have that kind of money.

Selling power is not providing a cheat

The notion that a player who buys a powerful item is cheating is completely false. A powerful item does not go up for sale only to certain players; it's available to everyone. Of course I mean only to those who have the money to spend on the item, but I think we can all agree that developers have to charge somewhere, and they might as well charge everyone for the same item. As I have always pointed out, cheating is only cheating when someone does something that is not allowed by the game. Lance Armstrong was cheating, but InsaneKilla74 was not cheating when he bought that golden gun.

"Sorry, but if you're over 30, you should really consider your old-school opinions as out of the ordinary at this point."

Mobile is preparing players for buying power

The mobile market is the next big thing. Actually, it's already the current massive thing, thanks to microtransaction sales and freemium models. There are more mobile players coming into the market in recent years -- as many as over 100 million in China alone, outweighing PC gamers -- and they will all find fun games that sell powerful items and will simply grow used to the fact. Younger players are used to it, and they are the next generation of players. Sorry, but if you're over 30 (as I am), you should really consider your old-school opinions as out of the ordinary at this point. Don't worry -- there are still old-school games for those of us who love them.

Selling power is already the norm

I can make you a list of games that sell power, and surely there will be discussions over whether or not these games do just that. I'll name a few, and you can see what you think.

Wakfu sells powerful weapons. EVE Online sells facilitates the purchase of entire fleets and pilots by selling PLEX players can trade to each other for powerful in-game items. Too many MMORTS titles to name sell powerful units, items, and even resources, the lifeblood of most RTS games. EverQuest II, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online and many, many others sell mounts and special items that were once considered unique or were available through gameplay only. All of Spacetime Studios' Legends titles, Wizard101 and Pirate101, All Points Bulletin, Mabinogi, Die2Nite... they all sell powerful access, items, or weapons. The list could literally go on and on. Non-MMOs are notorious for selling powerful or desirable items. Not only will EA's future lineup feature powerful items, but recent "AAA" shooter Dead Space 3 and giant Mass Effect 3 provided microtransaction help. This is nothing shocking or new.

I include non-MMOs in this discussion because they are part of the larger gaming ecosystem. The industry has been selling power since the beginning. Subscriptions, limited editions, and exclusive access have always been the ultimate form of power, but because it was a necessary one at the time, players found a way to justify it. Special content, expansions, allowing players to multi-account -- they are all forms of power that came from money, and none of them is new. Players will try to find a way to justify powerful purchases less and less in the future until the new generation takes over, a generation that simply wants what it wants.

The main reason selling power will stay is that selling powerful or desirable items makes money. I'll leave you with some more of Cliffy's words.
I remember when the rage was pointed at Epic when we allowed users to purchase weapon skins in Gears 3. I replied to an enraged fan on Twitter that "You're more than welcome to not buy the optional cosmetic weapon skins that will make you more visible to the enemy." And you know what? In spite of the uproar, people still bought plenty of them. (I've seen the numbers.)
In other words, get used to it. If you do not want the selling of power to continue to grow, then support the games that do not sell power. That means stepping outside of your comfort zone, however, something that many gamers simply will not do.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.