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Behind the Mask: Two layers of toppings

Patrick Mackey

"Microtransactions" is almost a taboo word in the MMO community. Everyone has a different opinion on it. Even here at Massively, our ideas on microtransactions vary widely. But perhaps even more frightening than the label of "F2P" is "double-dipping." Some games continue to charge a normal subscription, while still having some content featured as microtransactions.

All of Cryptic Studios' current games support a double-dipping model, and Champions Online is no exception. A lot of players think this is a terrible, terrible thing. As a gamer, I understand that players want things to be free. I also understand that developers have to strike a real balance between content that's given for free and content that is sold as paid expansions or unlocked via microtransactions.

More stuff isn't necessarily more fun

In most subscription games (CO included), your subscription pays for basically all of the actual gameplay content. I admit that I was afraid that the powersets unlocked way back in Blood Moon would require a microtransaction purchase, but my fears were put to rest and Celestial is available to everyone.

The games that double-dip on subscriptions and microtransactions generally have convenience or cosmetic items as microtransaction options. As a non-CO example, City of Heroes offers jet packs that can be used before travel powers are normally available for a microtransaction fee. These don't have a huge gameplay impact, but it sure is nice to be able to fly to missions instead of slowly navigating the city streets on foot.

I'll be honest; I've never felt really envious of someone who had more character slots or a few unique costume pieces. I know that if I wanted them, I could plop down my hard-earned USD and get them. You should never play a video game and feel like you have to drop 10 more dollars in order to enjoy yourself. Even in F2P games, playing with people who are loaded with microtransaction items shouldn't detract from your own enjoyment of the game (if you can't enjoy the game because it's designed to milk microtransaction money out of you, I'd suggest quitting).

What makes a game fun isn't how much something costs. You shouldn't feel like you need to have this or that costume pack in order to prove your gamer self-worth.

Game economics is a complicated thing

Most gamers think that video games are for gamers to play and enjoy. However, that is only half true. Games are made with the primary purpose of making money. Because gamers obviously like good games, game development companies should try to make good games that gamers will spend money on.

There's a fine line for the producers of a double-dipping game. The microtransactions shouldn't make the people paying a monthly sub feel like they aren't being treated fairly (whatever that means). If a subscriber feels like he has to pay an extra $10 or $20 in order to enjoy the game, he may quit in anger. This isn't a huge problem in F2P games, since the player has already spent all the money he was going to spend. However, for subscription games, that is the loss of a paying customer.

With all that said, there are a lot of avenues for microtransactions to make money for the producer without upsetting the customer. I think that of the services available in Champions Online, all of them are things that are reasonable purchases. I don't feel like people are getting robbed at the C-Store. In fact, I find that Cryptic is pretty generous in allowing us to get some of the C-Store items for free (character slots and respecs).

  • Costume pieces: Cryptic continues to release the majority of new costume pieces at no cost, so adding a few sets here and there in the C-Store isn't really a big deal. I especially like that players can preview C-Store costume pieces in the tailor without making a purchase. I am actually more upset that I can't buy many of the unlockable sets in the C-Store and instead have to grind for them.
  • More character slots: I'm not sure how many people actually buy these. I think that if you have a stable of lowbie characters, it should be pretty easy to find one to delete, and max level characters grant extra slots. They're also kind of expensive and you have to buy them four at a time. I think if they were individual slots they'd sell better.
  • Full retcon/respec: People are upset that you can't buy respecs for your character with in-game money, but you actually can; it's just awkward. I'd like to see the powerhouse interface changed so you can respec your character a little more easily, and so the cost is more apparent. Nothing is worse than spending all of your money and then finding you need 35g more to get rid of the actual power you want to remove. If the in-game cost to respec to a certain point were more apparent (instead of removing powers one at a time), I think fewer people would complain about these. Also, these are pretty expensive compared to the in-game resource cost.
  • Renames and extra costume slots: I don't think anyone complains about these, because they are services that probably wouldn't exist without microtransactions. My completely unscientific thought is that costume slots sell better than pretty much any other item in the C-Store. They feel like the overall "best" deal.
None of these is gamebreaking, ridiculous, or overpriced; although I'm a pretty big critic of CO, I don't really see how double dipping is such a heinous crime. With the exception of costume pieces, all of the C-Store items are either items available without using Cryptic Points or convenience items that probably wouldn't be available at all without the C-Store. The C-Store seems to be a way to add extra income for Cryptic in a way that doesn't hurt anyone.

Remember, games exist to make money.

What if...

Now, I have a lifetime sub so this really doesn't affect me at all -- but what if CO were free-to-play?

Going F2P generally means getting a bigger and generally younger playerbase, since the barrier to entry is lower. I think there would be a lot more players overall, as CO is a very front-loaded game. Unlike the average F2P grinder, the most interesting parts of CO are roughly between levels 5 and 23.

This is good for getting a lot of people to play, but CO's long-term appeal is kind of low, especially compared to F2P grinders. I think that F2P games need a very compressed, hardcore group of players who spend ridiculous amounts of time on the game and who will spend a lot of money on convenience things like plus-experience consumables. I think that CO is a little too laid back and relaxed at the top levels to really support that kind of player.

I will admit that CO does have a hardcore, compressed group of players who spend lots of time on the game (roleplayers), but I think that going F2P would do more harm than good for that community.

On the other hand, what if the C-Store didn't exist?

I think the biggest grievance would be character slots. I like some of the C-Store exclusive costumes, but I assume we'd get those for free instead. The real question is what would we do with only four costume slots total? I think that would cause more people to stop playing Champions than adding UNITY merits to the C-Store (or something similar).

I had a point, hold on

I think that when people jump on "double-dipping," they demonize the idea of making money from video games. Personally, I want game publishers to know that making video games is a profitable venture, so they continue to fund talented development teams to make games.

Jack Emmert mentioned in an interview that putting items in the C-Store is about putting features in that people want, in such a way that keeps Cryptic financially responsible. It would really suck if we couldn't buy as many character slots as we wanted. I'm sure that there are people who don't have a level 40 character, but have 15+ alts. I am actually more upset that some costume pieces must be grinded, and others can only be purchased with in-game resources. On the other hand, charging, say, $25 for an exclusive travel power is being financially irresponsible to your customers.

I may be a pretty big critic of Champions, but I absolutely think that the double-dipping model is the best one for CO.

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