The Digital Continuum: Business as unusual
Selling cosmetic and grinding-assisting items has long since become the norm for Asian MMOs, but only recently have we seen the tide shift from 100% subscription based to a blend in the western world.
At first only the eastern companies such as Nexon were attempting to make any progress with western gamers. Most of their success was found in the yet-to-become-stubborn youth with games like Maple Story, Combat Arms and Mabinogi. It wasn't until titles such as City of Heroes and Guild Wars from NCsoft began offering its own microstransactions that you could say any headway was made into the more traditional space.
Shortly after NCsoft found a great deal of success with their games, Sony Online Entertainment made a move to position their lineup with options aplenty for those looking to make tiny purchases for the sake of some cool looking items or a little experience boost. More recently Free Realms has marked SOE's major entry into the realm of pay-when-you-like, although even it comes with an optional five bucks a month membership plan.
And now it looks as though Cryptic is going the same route with Champions Online, and there have been rumors of Star Wars: The Old Republic experimenting with microtransaction concepts as well. Some see these things happening and only want to see big evil corporations -- obviously 100-500 people constitute a massive entity -- trying to wring money from their pockets.
I'm a fan of Occam's razor, which basically states that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation. In the case of microtransactions, the simplest reasoning would be that a company must remain flexible and open to new business models in order to stay competitive. Without an edge in any competition -- be it in nature or business -- you will die out, leaving your opposition to reap all the reward.
Another popular argument concerns itself with perceived value, which is an illusion to begin with when looking at the perceived value of a subscription model. Say you get a free content update every three months on schedule -- and that time and the amount of content can vary depending on subscribers and other factors -- but let's got with that original concept. That means the average subscriber is paying, in essence, 45 bucks for that "free" additional content. Pull any of it aside for server upkeep or employee pay and you're still talking about money that ultimately goes into helping deliver said "free" content. It's all about perception.
Even assuming that someone doesn't play for those three months and only comes back when that content comes out, it's an ambiguous way to determine what players want. By releasing some new content in smaller pay-as-you-like packs, it allows a developer to have at least some understanding of exactly what people are willing to spend cash on, which is a boon for all.
Frankly speaking, I highly doubt that the future of western MMOs lies solely with microtransactions. Rather, the future is going to be some kind of blend throughout the entire market. Some games will remain mostly subscription based, with a few innocent five or ten dollar mini-expansions here or there. Other games will lean the other direction, offering a very cheap membership fee or possibly none at all. And finally, some games will sit somewhere in the middle.
I think that superhero MMOs have a wonderful opportunity to find this middle-ground, and City of Heroes is probably the first. So it really seems not too surprising the Champions Online will be doing the same, and with SOE's open imperative to support the microtransaction model we can already assume DC Universe Online will be doing the same.
Change is already here and more is yet to come, but isn't such a bad thing. Don't listen to the fear mongers out there, most of whom don't really believe in what they're spouting off anyhow. The fact is, if someone doesn't like paying a dollar here or there when they want to, that option is available to them. It's already here, and it's not going anywhere.
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