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Anti-Aliased: "Cash shop" shouldn't be a dirty phrase

Seraphina Brennan
Seraphina Brennan|March 4, 2010 7:00 PM
A not so long time ago in an interview located not too far away, one of our intrepid readers asked Alganon's David Allen if they ever considered a free-to-play model for their game. His response was the following:

"Right now, the industry standard is to squeeze as much money as they can out of players by introducing cash shops, and forcing them to pay for things that ought to have been part of the game. We don't want to do that. We want Alganon to be a service. You pay us a subscription so we can continue to develop and run a game that you enjoy playing. It's not a product where you hand us money and we hand you a vanity pet, or mount, or epic sword and then walk away. "

So, David... not to be "that girl" but... um... how's that cash shop working out for ya?

So, now that I've said what pretty much everyone was thinking when they heard that announcement from Quest Online, let's talk about cash shops this week and how we seem to royally keep screwing them up in our culture. Because, as the title says, "cash shop" just shouldn't be a dirty phrase in our industry.
Microtransactions and cash shops aren't bad things

You know, I've said it a couple times now: microtransactions just aren't the devil. For free-to-play games and for subscription free models, these things are the way you make money. Even for premium games that have a subscription fee, we still have "microtransactions" in the form of service options like server transfers. Or, in the case of City of Heroes and Champions Online, costume/power packs.

"It's that style of "popcorn" business that gets people to buy one item, then two items, then three items, and then suddenly they've spent 10 or 15 dollars without realizing it."

In theory, microtransactions aren't bad things. In fact, microtransactions are personally my preferred way to play a game, as they allow you to pay for the content you want per month instead of having to dedicate yourself to a 15 dollar subscription fee and worry about not playing your game. Plus, if I see things I like in your cash shop, I may just spend more than 15 bucks -- an event that won't happen on subscription based games as I always take the 15 dollar a month subscription.

However, in practice, we seem to screw the cash shop up for Western audiences. What should be a convenient and fun way to pay for your favorite games isn't so convenient or fun. The cash shop seems to loom in the corner of the game screen, casting a shadow over your playing experience. It's the black hole of money.

What we need to go over are the three cardinal sins of why current cash shop setups get such bad recommendations, and how we need to evolve to overcome them.

Microtransactions that aren't micro

One of the big problems of some cash shops (especially a certain cash shop that has gotten a lot of attention recently) is that they sometimes like to charge large sums of money for in-game items. Things like 20 dollars for a backpack upgrade or 13.50 for a certain stack of potions that remove a certain death debuff are not in the spirit of microtransactions -- these are macrotransactions. (Edit: It's important to note here that the prices of the Allods shop have since been reduced, and are no longer this high.)

Microtransactions work as a business model because they are sums of money that don't "require thought." When you look at a one or two dollar item that you want in a cash shop, you pretty much click the button without giving it another thought. "Awww, it's a dollar, it's totally worth it for that," you say to yourself when you purchase some of the game's shop currency.

It's that style of "popcorn" business that gets people to buy one item, then two items, then three items, and then suddenly they've spent 10 or 15 dollars without realizing it. Once prices start reaching five, or seven, or ten dollars, people start really considering if the purchase is worth the price. That's bad, and it also makes it look like you're trying to grab as much money as possible from your players. So, not only are you making less money because people aren't buying your items like the dickens, you also look like an asshole to boot. Yay?