Free for All: The rising cost of early access and exclusivity

Aura Kingdom screenshot
Here I sit, waiting to log into Aura Kingdom, a new Anime MMO by Aeria Games. The beta I am going to log into is the Founder's Beta, an exclusive early-access pre-closed beta that had an entrance fee starting at $19.00 and topping out at $299.00. Yes, 300 US dollars. I'm not trying to appear judgmental in my emphasis, but I do think that this provides more proof to the theory that prices for virtual items are continuing to climb.

And why shouldn't they? I've talked before about selling power and how its slow climb will likely not stop. Just like selling exclusive or early access, selling powerful, useful in-game items most likely makes money. Something like a Founder's Pack offers useful in-game items and exclusivity, a very tempting concoction that many find too hard to resist.

Is it fair to offer early access for such a price, and will other titles have to respond to the success of such sales by creating their own?

Aura Kingdom screenshot
First I should note that I am playing Aura Kingdom this week as part of my Rise and Shiny series. You can see the full results on Sunday, the 22nd of December. Just keep an eye on the Twitter feed or on the Rise and Shiny category.

Next we need to break down what is included in the pack to establish whether players are getting their money's worth.

The first item in the pack is a name reservation. That means that the name the Founder picks during this special testing will be saved for him through the next wave of tests. He's not saving the character, by the way... just the name. The items that come with the Founder's Packs are transferred, however. After that, Founders will get a bundle of loyalty points, a sort of alternative item-shop monetary unit that is accessed in-game alongside the item shop. Normally, players earn the loyalty points by, well, being "loyal" to Aeria titles by defeating monsters, turning in quests, and completing achievements. A diamond founder gets 6500 points to spend on temporary cosmetic items, a handful of permanent weapons and gear, and some consumables.

Next, the Founder gets a necklace and a ring with extra stats, a costume hat, a special title, and a monthly costume membership that grants him a special piece of costume gear for the next three months. The Diamond-level Founder will also get an in-game pet, a fast and colorful wolf mount, additional character slots, a forum title, an additional limited edition pet, and even physical goodies like a plushie.

I like to point out clever marketing, but not because I always agree that it is the smartest marketing or the type that will keep players satisfied once they take the bait. Purchasable, early access like this is downright brilliant for a number of reasons. Think about the items in Aura Kingdom's Founder's Pack. I cannot put a price on them simply because they have not existed before. Sure, I can compare the items in the pack to similar items in other MMOs, but comparing separate worlds with a different playerbase would prove nothing. I'm sure that there is a formula in mind when assigning a cost to something like a digital collector's edition or early access pack, but it's also very possible that the cost assigned was plucked out of thin air.

What matters is how exclusive the item feels. I've been playing Aura Kingdom for several hours now, and although I will save my final judgment for my article, it's safe to say that I am not yet blown away by the game. It hosts a few unique systems and looks nice, but I can't quite understand why the game seems so incredibly busy and packed with players, unless I factor in the excitement and exclusivity that some players cannot resist.

Aura Kingdom chat box screenshot
If the chat box is any indication, these players are most excited to get to the highest level in the shortest amount of time. The real game in an early access is obviously not the game but in the pursuit of a max-level claim to glory. Some players have paid hundreds of dollars to spend many hours while ingesting thousands of calories in energy drinks so that they can try it again after the wipe? I won't pretend to understand the appeal, but I cannot knock it. As long as that players are having fun I wish them well.

But is selling access and exclusivity the same as selling powerful items anything else that many players consider unfair?

The most startling realization for me is that after years of playing games, witnessing players stay online for an entire day in order to kill a boss, and watching players grind out countless levels just to do it again on another character, the trend does not seem to want to stop. The seemingly very successful early access market only appears to be growing, offering players the chance to grind out the entire game in a matter of a week or to lay claim to a limited edition item or title. When you consider the possible cost of creating these virtual items or opening the servers earlier -- yes, there is a cost, however small -- it's easy to see that selling early access or exclusive items might result in pure profit.

Cute Aura Kingdom dragon screenshot
I cannot say if these items take advantage of a certain type of player or are unfair. While it might be easy to cast a developer in a negative light because it offers items like these, I think such a hasty judgment would be unfair and a bit unnecessary. What we should be doing is concentrating on asking questions about the behavior of players. Why does it appear that younger players are even more grind-obsessed than the previous generation, who themselves grew up on and now eschew grind? Does this obsession with obtaining some sort of exclusivity or in-game success encourage developers to create more of the same type of content and to release more of these type of virtual items? If the demand is obviously there, can we blame a developer for continuing to provide it?

However this pans out, I think we can all agree that the prices that once shocked us are becoming standard fare. Remember World of Warcraft's sparkle pony? I remember the outrage that came out of bloggers, podcasters, and guildies when it was announced, yet the items sold well and the developer continues to release more. Not quite four years later, $25.00 seems like a piddly amount, especially when we factor in the cost of paid testing access, virtual packs like Aura Kingdom's, and spaceships that can cost hundreds of dollars.

We should be asking whether it's a good or bad thing, but we should definitely also be asking who is really responsible for the success of the trend.

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 beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.