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The Digital Continuum: Microtransaction stigma

Kyle Horner

There's been a lot of news about microtransactions this week, and because of that I felt it was as good a time as any to discuss the topic. Are they good or bad, useful or useless and are they really the future of the MMO industry? The subject of business models is certainly a hot issue, with some players abhorring the idea of microtransactions while others refuse to pay a standard monthly subscription for any sort of game. All of this amounts to a good deal to discuss, so let's get started.

The stigma that constantly rears its ugly head when it comes to microtransactions is that their presence will both break the game and overcharge players. The first line of thought sprouts from a misconception of what micro-payments used to purchase. The answer to what can be purchased, is well, anything. Look at Blizzard in this week's news for instance. They've introduced re-customization as a new service and for 15 dollars players can pick a new gender, hair style, hair color, skin, accessory and face. This is a microtransaction service plain and simple. Just because companies have the option to nickle and dime their players, doesn't necessarily mean they will chose to do so -- in fact if they want to keep their players, they most certainly won't.

Or look at it another way: Why do you pay 15 bucks a month to play a game, isn't that an arbitrary number? This is no different than paying one dollar for a new hairstyle or weapon glow in your favorite color.

By keeping to optional cosmetic changes at reasonable prices, developers and publishers risk nothing more than making extra cash off people who're all about extra customization. And there's nothing wrong with that.

So what about additional content such as weapons, armor and new in-game features? It's pretty straight-foward, actually. Allowing players to buy better equipment is beyond a slippery slope -- it's the bottom where all the slime and gunk bubbles. Most companies will either steer clear of this, or learn the hard way that players don't appreciate it. As for things like allowing players to pay for faster leveling, well that's actually fine in cases where old content is something veteran players want to bypass. Case in point: World of Warcraft's refer a friend program gives you and a buddy triple experience for kills and quests. That's a huge boost! It's essentially a power-leveling service that's posing as a "play with a buddy" program. Blizzard is allowing multi-boxers -- of which there are many -- to grind up new characters at blazing speeds.

Why not just let a player spend 20 bucks one time, then give all current and future characters on their account triple experience from level 1 to 60 for X amount of days, or better yet forever? It's completely optional, and if someone feels it's too much they don't have to pay it -- just like they don't even have to pay 15 a month to play the game in the first place.

All this posturing and arguing over which model is better or worse seems like a waste of everyone's time. Both subscriptions and microtransactions can be abused by companies and what all of us should really be doing is making sure prices are fair no matter what model is in use. As for future games, there's especially no point in arguing over it until we know the business model and price. The reason? It's a circular argument without any hard facts. "Would you like to pay 5 bucks for a blue weapon?" can easily be countered with, "Would you like to pay 20 bucks a month this time around, or how about 15 bucks every 15 days?" Besides, ultimately we're headed down a road where the two models are going to merge together in various ways. So experience the business model is going to be unavoidable anyhow.

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