The Soapbox: Subs and cash shops - Two great tastes that taste awful together

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|08.30.11

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The Soapbox: Subs and cash shops - Two great tastes that taste awful together
Lion dislikes sub + cash shop
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Hoo boy, The Secret World. On the one hand, I was really looking forward to it. On the other hand, it's now joined the likes of EVE Online, pretty much every Sony Online Entertainment title ever made, Star Trek Online, Champions Online, and Funcom's own Age of Conan in my personal double-dipping doghouse.

Yeah, The Secret World is going to have a subscription model (hooray) and a cash shop (boo, hiss, and zomgwtf). This should surprise no one, really, since game industry devs have been going all Gordon Gekko on us for a while now, but it was nonetheless a disappointing reveal on several levels.

Equally disappointing are the folks who defend the subscription-plus-cash-shop model and erroneously refer to it as an example of consumer-friendly choice.

Polar bear dislikes sub + cash shop
The times they are a-changin'

In a nutshell, if you want vanity clothing or who knows what kinds of other items in The Secret World, prepare to shell out in the item store on top of your sub. I'm sure there will be some earnable duds in the game proper, but if Funcom's Age of Conan marketplace is any indication, TSW's cash shop will be crammed full of awesome-looking gear (and bag space upgrades that are basically required) priced at well over the normal sub rate for the whole rest of the game.

The glib forum-warrior response to this is of course: Don't buy the stuff! It's not required! They're just vanity items! The point, though, is that for some gamers it is required.

In the same way that raiders think the world will end if they don't get the top parse, collectors, clothes horses, and completionists (completists?) strive to grab all the outfits, cosmetic items, mounts, and assorted doodads that make up the item tables in your average MMORPG. This is to say nothing of the roleplayers who actually use a lot of this stuff to individualize themselves or use as props for player-driven events and story arcs. Long story short, cosmetic items are gameplay-related and therefore necessary, regardless of whether they're high on your combat-centric list or not.

To be clear, I'm not advocating for the removal of cash shops. Impatient people with money to burn are a big source of revenue for any business. If you're already a subscriber, though, all of the in-game items should be available for you to earn -- wait for it -- in the frickin' game. What a crazy and decidedly retro notion, I know.

There should be no cash-shop exclusives, and I'm not willing to budge on that point. Sure, you may be able to circumvent some grind and buy a piece of gear from the shop right away instead of purchasing it with your time, but you should always have the choice to do it the old-fashioned way.

After all, that's what cash shops are about, right? Choice, choice, and more choice, right? Plenty of options for everyone, right?

Look, I'm not going on an anti-F2P rant here; I recognize that for better or worse, the "freemium" model is here to stay. I'm also not intending to bust any chops with regard to those gamers who like to pay only for what they consume. What I am here to do is dispel the ridiculous notion that subscriptions plus a cash shop equals more choices and better experiences for all. It simply doesn't compute, particularly if you're a completionist (and I can't be the only one of those out there, can I? Guys?...).

Kitty cat dislikes sub + cash shop
Welcome to the jungle

The more new MMOs I play, the more I feel as if I've stepped into some bizarro-world alternate dimension where online gaming has been supplanted by a gigantic flea market. There's a used car huckster around every virtual corner, trying to sell you this or teasing you with visions of a more "convenient" experience if you buy that. The funny thing here is that the folks selling you the more convenient experience are the same ones who are purposefully making your current experience inconvenient in order to entice you to spend more money!

And yet many consumers are like "woo, take my money, sounds great!"

Let me back up a moment and say that I firmly believe that companies should do everything they can to maximize profits. I understand the dev desire to monetize every little aspect of your game, or in the case of non-MMOs, to turn your game into an MMO-lite experience that lends itself to microtransactions.

It's smart business, and it's human nature, but it's also gone too far in a lot of instances. Case in point is the widespread use of company-specific cash shop currency (that is, of course, never sold in increments that allow you to purchase the one item you want).

Raccoon, or is that a koala, dislikes sub + cash shop
Dazed and confused

Ultimately, I'm pretty conflicted about this whole microtransactions boom. On the one hand, yay for the free market, competition, and consumer choice. On the other hand, a thousand boos on price gouging masquerading as choice, and the mob consumer mentality that makes rich men out of the creators of FarmVille, Angry Birds, and World of Missing Features-craft.

The worst offender in this brave new business model world is of course the cash shop in the subscription-based game. Unfortunately, due to consumer apathy and some savvy marketing, it's becoming more and more commonplace. It's also being helped along by forumites who zealously defend it without considering the opposing viewpoint (which, ironically, happens to be the more consumer-friendly viewpoint).

How does this defense play out, and how is it flawed? Well, I'm very glad you asked. First, there's the supposition that MMOs have gotten more expensive to produce, and then there's the sentiment that devs deserve to get paid.

As to the latter part, I really have no argument there; devs do deserve a full day's pay for a full day's work. However, do devs deserve to get paid in perpetuity for work that is already done or that could be easily and cheaply extrapolated from work that was already done? This is a thornier issue because few of us as consumers actually know what goes on inside an MMO dev studio, nor do we know how much (or how little) work is required to, say, add a particle effect to a sword model and drop it in a cash shop.

Maybe the assets are created from scratch, and as such maybe they're worth $4.99 or whatever. But maybe they're left over from the scrap heap of the last expansion, and maybe they're things that, in the pre-cash shop days, would have made their way into the next patch with no additional charge beyond the nominal monthly fee (which, by the way, is commonly understood to provide for maintenance, customer service, and new content development, is it not?).

Every case is different, though, and we don't know which assets are held back, newly created, or recycled in some way. So, it's a gamble as to whether or not we trust developers to be honest, and as sad as this sounds, I'm not inclined to trust anyone I don't know when money, digital content, and livelihoods are at stake. Hell, I wouldn't trust some of the people I do know, either.

Anyway, sure, devs deserve to get paid. Do they deserve to get paid again for things that were previously part of the monthly fee they're already pocketing? I can't say no across the board, but I can't say yes either. Again, it boils down to trust, and trusting a company is foolish.

Weird bear/fox thing dislikes sub + cash shop
Money for nothing

As to the other point, that being that MMOs have gotten more expensive to produce, that's certainly the conventional wisdom. It even makes sense on some level, of course, because there's this thing called inflation and stuff does tend to cost more over time. Here's what I don't get, though.

The games themselves are actually getting simpler as the genre (d)evolves. Some people will roll their eyes at this observation, or trot out the rose-colored glasses logic fail, but reality intervenes and a little bit of research will show that there is no debate about the fact that modern MMOs have fewer features than their predecessors. The merging of the MMORPG with the MOBA and the social networking game is only exacerbating this fact.

So where, exactly, is this uptick in development costs coming from? It's not coming from feature sets because they're being cut (hello combat lobby, the MMO of the future). Also, computer hardware -- from workstations to servers -- is dirt cheap, and likely getting cheaper in this craptastic economy. Furthermore, Jeff Strain famously said that it's simply not accurate to assume that $15 per month is necessary to cover server, bandwidth, and networking costs (translation: a large part of that $15 a month is pure cream, assuming the company hasn't been mismanaged into the ground during the development process). That basically leaves labor costs.

So again, why the huge upsurge? Are devs getting mammoth pay raises every year? Are executives? Is it that the marketing department can't grasp the concept of a budget? Someone help me out here because the MMOs I've been playing over the past several years are inferior to those that came out a decade ago in absolutely every way excepting the graphics. They're certainly not worth $15 a month plus another $20 in the cash shop to get the bells and whistles that I used to get as part of the sub. Where is all this development money going?

Monkey dislikes sub + cash shop
Take the money and run

Another popular sentiment is that "content is expensive." If you look over the comment thread from our Secret World business model post, you'll see that several of the sub-plus-cash-shop supporters hummed a variation on this tune. The funny thing, to me anyway, is that none of these folks really know that "content is expensive" unless they're devs or accountants. All of us on the outside looking in know exactly what we're told by game companies, and said companies aren't in the habit of being transparent about their profit margins.

Gamers just assume that "content is expensive" because it sounds like an intelligent statement when you don't back it up with any facts, figures or context. Really, though, it depends on the content, the game, the prevailing market conditions, and a host of other variables. We as consumers ultimately decide the prices, business models, and everything else related to the money end of an MMORPG. It doesn't matter if an artist or a coder thinks his work is worth X because it's actually worth Y (where Y is whatever the market will bear).

Where am I going with this line of thought? If the cash shop plus sub model truly bothers you, stop supporting the games that feature it (and yes, that unfortunately means the majority of new AAA MMORPGs). A lot of you are supporting these games despite bitching on forums about how they suck, elsewise we wouldn't be seeing this business model take over.

So, really, if you're annoyed enough to post, then play an indie game, or don't play anything, but don't throw up your hands and resign yourself to greed being "the way of the future." Yes, that means skipping The Secret World, or canceling your Old Republic pre-order, and saying thanks but no thanks to the next "omg-must-play" AAA title that brings a sub and a cash shop to the table.

And I know. Realistically, few if any of you will do that.

The more I think about it, though, the more unacceptable the subscription-plus-cash-shop model becomes. I don't mind cash shops, and I don't mind subscriptions, but I do mind them together.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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