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Flameseeker Chronicles: Getting what you pay for in Guild Wars 2

Anatoli Ingram

Despite a number of unfortunate sword-clipping issues, it seems that Ellen Kiel is our lead candidate so far in Guild Wars 2's player-decided election! It's close though, and Evon Gnashblade's supporters still have plenty of time to make the push to victory. The playerbase is mired in furious controversy over a number of very pressing concerns: Can the fall of Abaddon possibly live up to our expectations, given that it would take place in a short Fractal? What kind of secrets could the Thaumanova Reactor meltdown hold? Why can Kiel wear her spiffy-lookin' town clothes in combat while we can't?

A more serious problem is how ArenaNet's handling of Aetherized weapon skins has reignited dissatisfaction over the gem store. Granted, it's mostly settled into dark mutterings at this point, but the issue has still been cropping up with nearly every major event. Changes are made to Black Lion chests and event boxes; players give the boxes another chance, hoping to get their money's worth; disappointment follows when that doesn't happen. This is a cycle that's going to keep occurring if we don't acknowledge the reason for its existence.

Money to burn

I'm not going to defend GW2's RNG-based gambling boxes. ArenaNet's stated goal for the gem store was to provide players with things we'd be happy to buy; the Black Lion chests and event-specific coffers are instead a great way to get us to spend more than we would on a direct purchase, whether it makes us happy or not. While I consider it perfectly reasonable to charge for cosmetic fluff, asking players to gamble real money away on pixels while knowing there's a good chance that we won't get one before spending far more than we're OK with is pretty shady. ArenaNet is within its rights to do business this way, but the bottom line is that players want the weapons on offer, and we're usually not permitted to simply fork over our money for them.

I will give credit where it's due: ArenaNet has been responsive to player feedback, and it has made changes to the boxes over time to make them more player-friendly. It's common to see event boxes drop in game now, and the ability to buy the skins off the trading post outright is a huge step forward. However, some players still feel as though they've been tricked into giving the boxes a second chance, since the "common" ticket scrap drops -- meant to let us work toward a skin even if we don't get a lucky full ticket -- are rare enough that obtaining a weapon skin that way will cost a bundle. Similarly, many people bought Rich Dragon Coffers during Dragon Bash because they were advertised as having a "much higher" chance to contain weapon skin claim tickets, and they got burned by a drop rate that was still very low. Maybe it was the players' fault for letting our imaginations fill in the blanks, but making customers feel they've been played for suckers (intentionally or not) hurts in the long run.

Most of this will sound familiar to MMO fans, and lockboxes are popular in so many games because this method works. However, its success is entirely in the hands of players.

There is no conspiracy

If you've been playing or following GW2 for any length of time, you've probably heard whispers (or outright ranting) about NCsoft, ANet's publisher for GW2. You may have also heard mention of Nexon, another South Korean publishing company that is NCsoft's largest shareholder as of last June.

On the slim chance that you've been fortunate enough not to hear any of the conspiracy theories surrounding these companies and GW2, they usually go a little something like this: Nexon, having bought a large amount of stock in NCsoft, now has the power to demand changes in GW2. The changes it wants are anime-influenced character and costume designs, as well as RNG lockboxes, pay-to-win cash shop items, and soul-crushing grind. It has sent one of its employees to assume direct control of all game design decisions, and ArenaNet is powerless to stop it. Because of that, the developers have been creating characters like the Consortium and Evon Gnashblade in order to represent their evil, greedy Nexon and NCsoft overlords and protest the takeover. We are all doomed.

Every single element of this is mindblowingly absurd.

It's one part total misunderstanding of how publishing and investor control works, one part ugly, xenophobic panic, and one part desire to excuse a company the playerbase likes and gives money to from the responsibility of having done unlikable things. I'm not going to spend time picking apart the entire theory to debunk it because it doesn't deserve to be legitimized by an in-depth response. The only reason I bring it up is that it circulates every time ArenaNet makes an unpopular decision regarding the gem shop, and the changes to Black Lion chests are giving it legs again. As the players who buy into it gorge themselves on righteous anger toward something that has nothing to do with reality, the real source of the problem goes comfortably unexamined.

ArenaNet is not selling Black Lion keys and event coffers to vast numbers of Korean players in the North American and European versions of the game. Most international games tailor their cash shops and business models to individual regions because players in different regions are willing to buy different things. It would not make a lick of sense for NCsoft and ArenaNet to push out items for the NA and EU versions of GW2 that the players in those regions absolutely hate and never buy. GW2 hasn't even launched locally in the countries that are supposedly ruining it; the guy I saw in map chat the other day insisting repeatedly that we should "blame the Koreans" because "Black Lion chests are really popular over there" is not only misinformed but an unwitting example of how silly the whole thing is.

Begging for scraps

So who are Black Lion chests really popular with, and whom should we blame for their proliferation? Well, us. We're buying the things we collectively claim to hate, which is why they're still around. Gambling is just as popular in North America as it is in Asia; we tend to forget that we have cities where nearly the entire tourist industry is based around it. We're as susceptible as anyone else to the gamblers' fallacy that makes us think that since we've opened so many boxes, the next one is more likely to contain the thing we want -- and every time there's an event, players flock to the forums to complain about how they came away empty handed after buying tens or even hundreds of boxes. A disappointing box isn't any less profitable for ANet in the short term.

We can fume all we like about the high price of getting a single weapon skin and talk about how much we think they're really worth, but it's important to understand that whatever price we're willing to pay is what the skins are worth. If we want to pay $10, but we end up spending $45 on average to get them, then they're worth $45. The only way to lower their actual worth is to stop spending when we've reached the amount we want to pay, even if that doesn't net us a skin. And if the risk of spending that much for nothing is too high, then we shouldn't buy them at all.

Some of you probably remember EVE Online's infamous leaked developer email and its comment about paying attention to what players do, rather than what they say. Most companies operate that way; the majority of them just don't do it openly. ANet is at least concerned with maintaining player loyalty, and it keeps adjusting the weapon skin distribution model to try to reach a balance where the studio is happy with its profit and we're happy with our purchases. If you're not happy, and you want to send a message, money -- or lack of it -- talks. But we need to speak consistently and in large numbers to see bigger changes.

I think ANet hit the bullseye with the model it used for Kite Fortunes. They drop in game, they always drop at least one of the scraps needed to buy an item, and there's still a rare chance that you'll find a golden ticket and get to skip the whole "collect 10 bazillion" part. Not coincidentally, I bought some of these, whereas the last time I even considered dropping money on an event box in an attempt to actually get a weapon skin was on the 5th of never.

Flameseeker Chronicles Getting what you pay for in Guild Wars 2
This concludes Old Man Toli's video game lecture for the week. In current events, the Zephyr Sanctum will be leaving us soon, but we might be returning to the familiar walls of Divinity's Reach for the next chapter of the living story. A mysterious tent has gone up over the Great Collapse, and so far the only thing we know about it is that it has nothing to do with Cantha (rats!). Got any guesses or wild speculation about what it might be hiding? Sound off in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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