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The Soapbox: If you want to sell special items, just do it already


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.

I've argued before
about the merits of being an honest cash-shop salesperson. You have to be upfront, blunt, and willing to take some heat. Bigpoint is one of my favorite examples of a cash-shop dependent developer simply because it says what it means and means what it says. It sells items, sometimes powerful items, in several different titles. Granted, the studio usually offers a way to get those same items through in-game means, but that doesn't make for as good a story.

We reported on Bigpoint a while ago when its reps essentially said that if a developer is going to make an effort to sell in-game items, it should do it the right way by making those items have a significant impact on the game by being either powerful or desirable. I cannot agree more. Bigpoint is a car lot that sells beautiful luxury automobiles. It also sells junkers and even gives out a lot of cars for free, but its charity once again does not make for a good dramatic write-up. I tend to think that if you you are going to make a cash-shop, depending on the style of game, of course, you as a developer have got to consider just what sort of impact you want that cash-shop to have on your players, and you can't be afraid to push your idea from the beginning.

But just get on with it.

MilMo screenshot
Before any of you skip to the bottom and leave a comment about how car salespeople have a nasty reputation, remember that we are talking about virtual goods here. They are neither necessary nor essential to getting around in real life. Let's keep things in perspective. What a company like Bigpoint does is tell its players from the beginning that its games are more than likely going to include cash-shop items that some would consider powerful or very desirable. How do the devs let the players know? Well, besides giving interviews like the one I mentioned earlier, the company establishes a long history of making games that often sell wonderful items in their cash-shops. It would take even a brand-new player but a few minutes to glance at the cash shop to see what was in there and a few minutes more to look through other Bigpoint games to understand how the company rolls.

"LotRO has taken special, exclusive items that were once given out as rare drops or at events and then sold them in the cash shop, a shop that, last time I checked, does not even reveal items to players who are not within the level range of the item. Now that's sneaky."

Players can no longer claim ignorance about cash-shop policies, especially with companies like Bigpoint out there. The honest truth is that if you want to find "deceptive" cash-shop practices, you need to look no further than some of the most popular games with of the most nerd-cred. EVE Online is simply a freemium game that offers the most powerful items in the game, ISK and characters, for sale. One of the CEOs even essentially referred to it as a dirty little secret at GDC Online. Lord of the Rings Online has taken special, exclusive items that were once given out as rare drops or at events and then sold them in the cash shop, a shop that, last time I checked, does not even reveal items to players who are not within the level range of the item. Now that's sneaky.

The point is that cash-shop design is often misunderstood. Let's get over that. The cash shop, and shopping for virtual goods, is a safe and cheap alternative to running to the local Best Buy to purchase a brand-new iPad that we do not need. Virtual items officially feel as valuable to us as real items do. Our gaming society is switching to an all-digital playerbase. Collector's editions are still offered, but many of them now come with digital goods for use in-game. Brick and mortar stores and newspapers are becoming a thing of the past because we love the digital. So why aren't more games offering high-dollar goods or special items in their cash shops? I think it's a matter of when, not if.

Wizard 101 screenshot
I want to see the best weapons in the game offered in the cash shop, with or without the option to find it in game. Come on, don't get miffed yet; why are we pretending? Are we truly still holding on to the decade-old idea that somehow all players want to "work hard" to achieve great things? We don't, not all the time. Critics of cash shops also tend to forget that they can simply ignore the cash shop. If that guy over there buys a weapon that is better than yours and kills you in PvP with it, either buy the weapon yourself or move on to another game. There are, I promise you, hundreds and hundreds of titles. Your favorite title is not so special that it cannot be replaced. Trust me. Your favorite band is not the only one you will ever listen to.

Let me stop for a second before I really get going and explain that I am in no way saying that all games should have these sort of high-ticket cash shops built in. That's ridiculous. I couldn't say that because I have played enough games to know that some games do perfectly fine by offering a standard model of subscription and expansion charges or other methods of making cash. I know there are enough titles and that there is enough room for all models. Let's keep in mind that I am not talking about games that do not go the way of the cash shop; I'm talking about games that do.

"Even with my skills and my outfitted carrier, I am still balanced by players who are simply better at combat than I. It all balances out when the guns start blazing."

Bigpoint acknowledges that many of its players love to buy cool items. It recently sold a drone that supposedly cost over a thousand US dollars but could actually cost zero US dollars when the price was offset with in-game funds. It was a luxury item with many payment plans available. It was not a win button, nor did it destroy all balance in PvP. Battlestar Galactica Online recently introduced the carrier class of ships, massive ships that can literally carry smaller player-driven craft inside them around the galaxy. As an owner of a Cylon carrier, I can tell you how much fun they are. Even with my skills and my outfitted carrier, I am still balanced by players who are simply better at combat than I. It all balances out when the guns start blazing.

Am I advocating that game developers start selling win buttons in their cash shops? Not at all. I am saying that if they want to offer special items, developers need to offer those rare special items as soon as they can and be as open about it as possible. Developers create and encourage the culture of their playerbase, so setting a standard or offering standard high-quality goods in the cash shop weeds out those who might have an issue with the prices. If you look at Bigpoint's two main culprits, Battlestar and Dark Orbit, you will see that the studio has managed to hold on to a pretty huge playerbase, and most of the players are not spending thousands of dollars in the cash shop. How? The players know the culture of the game. Just as CCP has created a culture of puffed up dude-bras, Bigpoint has grown a playerbase that is just fine with large virtual purchases.

So let's stop pretending that cash shops need always be some sort of perfectly balanced, inoffensive item vendor. Developers need to be up-front and bold about the items they are selling. If they need to make some cash and want to sell a special mount that is only available in the cash shop, do it. But the sooner it is done, the better. Developers need to stop tip-toeing around the cash-shop issue and quit worrying about offending "hardcore" players who are going to become enraged at every patch anyway. It's time for those players to adapt if the developers want to change.

Like I said, don't worry if this trend bothers you. There are still hundreds of titles out there. I can suggest more than a few that offer all types of access and all styles of play.

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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