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Behind the Mask: The responsible microtransaction

Patrick Mackey

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It's no surprise to anyone that I am a pro-microtransaction gamer. Microtransactions make lots of money for the publisher and focus more on pleasing the game's core audience instead of relying on the silent majority of its subscriber base. However, microtransactions can quickly feel like exploitation. When a publisher overcharges or underprovides, it can cause cascading failures as the game's core customers become upset.

Champions Online has jumped into the freemium market, and the game itself is pretty fun without the player needing to pay any money at all. Gold subscriptions, which allow for much wider customization and access to numerous fun features, are also a reasonable expenditure. There are quite a few other things to buy in the store... some of which are a little more responsible than others.

What do we even mean?

To me, responsible means fairly priced and of good value. A microtransaction item should be something I want to buy, and if it's not something I want to buy, it should be something that I can see the value of.

To illustrate my point, I'll single out the infinite Super-Magnifier. It's an unlimited-use item that increases the size of your character, but it doesn't work in combat. It's freely tradable, so you can mail it between all of your characters if you get bored of the character you buy it for. Although I don't personally want it, there are plenty of people who love the idea of a giant-sized character. I can see the value in the item, and appropriately, it's one of the game's top sellers.

By comparison, the random gift boxes are known to drop virtually nothing of any value and dispense junk most of the time. At the current moment, they have no value at all; any smart player should just stay away from purchasing them.

The other point is "fairly priced." The Super-Magnifier costs 700 Cryptic points (about $8.75 US), which is kind of expensive. I believe that a purely cosmetic device like that should probably not cost more than $4-5 US, although that's just my opinion. Still, it isn't $50 for a guild name-change -- while it's overpriced, it's not highway robbery.

A better example is the Lightspeed travel power. Lightspeed is a normal travel power that functions as a re-skinned Superspeed. It is flashy, leaving a Tron-like light trail where your character travels, but it is mechanically identical to Superspeed. A lot of my friends have this power, but because it occupies a travel power selection, it is not for everyone (I joked with Ame that I'd buy Lightspeed right away if it were an Acrobatics clone). Lightspeed is similar in most respects to the Super-Magnifier; it unlocks for every character on your account. However, it only costs 420 Cryptic Points (about $5.25 US), which is more in line with what a cosmetic-type item should be.

My basic rule of thumb is that content and gameplay items should cost around $10 US (or sometimes more, depending on how much content there is); permanent, global cosmetic items should cost around $5; and potions and other consumables should cost around $1 for a reasonable stack size.

This is my totally arbitrary personal opinion, but I feel that a stack of five consumable potions is of similar value to a $1 food item (maybe even a $1.50 food item if the consumables are really good). Things like respec tokens and extra character slots are a little tricky. I've mentioned that I think CO overcharges for these things, but the litmus test is how unbalancing things like skill/power resets actually are and how much a game encourages players to roll alts. Because power resets in CO aren't really unbalancing (there's no need for raid specs) and the game encourages alts (for many reasons), both of these items should be inexpensive (in the $4-5 range).

When Cryptic did it to Star Trek, the community rioted

During the F2P launch, I alluded to the fact that certain items were "increased in cost." Character slots literally doubled in price (the item remained the same price, but it unlocks only two slots instead of four, raising the cost from about $3.50 US each to $7 each). Fortunately, there is still a mechanic to unlock character slots for subscribers, so only the most alt-focused subscribers need to worry about buying them.

What really caused a community rampage was the change to costume slots. The price was kept the same, but costume slots were altered to be character-specific. In a game that focuses heavily on rolling alts, this was just an awful maneuver. Before, they were something I would buy just because they were a good deal. If they were on sale, I had to restrain myself from going for my credit card to buy more. Now, I have to think long and hard about which costume I'm going to delete off my character, because if I ever switch my main (and I have done so pretty consistently every few months), I just wasted money on a character I probably won't play much anymore.

There has been a dev response, so Cryptic is aware of the issue. Still, this is a point of contention that has frustrated numerous players since the F2P launch and that has provoked minimal dev reaction. In fact, it was only due to the costume slot sale (which many players openly boycotted) that any attention was given to the issue.

Consumables are good

Costume slots and character slots aside, consumables are the other major problem. Really, they aren't even a problem; it's just that they're too expensive. The new Triumphant Recovery item is a great example. Triumphant Recovery is a self-rez item that refills your health and energy to full. Using it has a five-minute recharge (much like the Rebirth power, which has similar effects). It has no real downside, but it's obviously a C-Store item that costs real money every time you click it. It's a great option for getting back into a fight, especially when your team needs you.

The problem? A single use of the device costs around a dollar. There's nothing wrong with Triumphant Recovery, but the cost is so prohibitive that only people who don't mind throwing money at the game will buy it. This issue is the same with most of the consumable items in the store. They're just too expensive!

The temporary henchmen are nice, for instance -- they're pretty cool and reasonably powerful. However, they cost over $2 for an hour of play. When compared to the pet items in the Mysticism crafting line, that just strikes me as too expensive. Experience boosts are in a similar boat.

Not all consumables in CO are overpriced -- for instance, the teleport devices (which let you teleport your team to you) are reasonable, especially since they are essentially a group version of Triumphant Recovery in many ways. The other items... not so much. This is not an issue with value at all; full heal items are useful, but I can't imagine getting a full lifebar costing more than five or ten cents.

This is more of a shame than anything, since lowering the price of these items would result in more sales in the C-Store; right now they're only for people with tons of disposable income and minimal game knowledge.

Some things are excellent

Out of all the things in the store, these are the ones with the largest issues. Is everything else like this? Absolutely not! Costume unlocks, adventure packs, and archetypes are good deals and available to every character on an account. My only regret with adventure packs is that I can't gift them to friends like I can with consumable items.

Recently, STO made costume slots account-wide. There may be hope yet!

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.

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