Microtransactions: The good, the bad, and the ugly

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Microtransactions: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Iron Skyreaver Mount on Store
News surfaced last week, thanks to the Blizzard Jobs Directory, that the company is seeking microtransaction specialists. While it's highly likely that these potential new recruits will not be set to work exclusively on Blizzard's only sub game, it seems only logical that they will examine the current offerings. As Sarah Pine mentioned, while WoW is currently running from a sub-based model, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.

Over the weekend, I played a good number of hours of a game called Warframe. The movement was great, combat was fluid, it's one of the only games I've played lately that has that instantaneous feel you get from WoW. But the microtransaction and grinding methods that upgrades were behind were pretty sub-optimal. Yes, you could go into this largely PvE-based game and grind out the materials to get an upgrade. But the quantities required to achieve even a low-level upgrade seemed huge, let alone those required to unlock high-end ones, or other classes to play outside the basic three. And it's inspired me to think about WoW, and its transactions. What's bad, what's good, and where does WoW's current system fall in the grand scheme of microtransactions?

Warframe is far, far, far from the worst offender, it just happens to be the one I played the most recently. And, of course, the one that got me thinking about this post. What's among the worst of the worst on PC?

We've all heard about SW:ToR's free-to-play model, and how it limits things like Sprint, bag space, action bar space, content, currency, item equipping, in-game mail, repairs, and much, much more to those who are willing to part with their hard-earned cash, or in some cases those who purchased it prior to free-to-play, paid enough to get to Preferred status, or pay the full subscription. Either way, the free-to-play paywalls are restrictive to the point of extreme frustration.

But it's all a question of where you draw the line. Most players seem to assert that any time you're buying power, microtransactions are bad. They're even worse if you cannot get that additional power through any means other than parting with your hard-earned cash.

Time is money, friend!

However, that's where an interesting balance appears. By adding microtransactions to a game, where you can also get the same item, service, or similar through in-game work, you're putting a value on people's time. The level 90 boost in WoW is a fine example of exactly this -- you can either pay whatever it turns out to cost, or you can spend the time to level your character yourself.

Looking again at Warframe, you can either pay the small $ cost of the upgrades, or farm out the materials etc. yourself. League of Legends is a fine example of microtransactions done well -- for everything except skins you can farm out IP by playing the game, or part with some money to purchase RP. The IP earning rate is fast enough that you don't feel obliged to pay for RP, and the cost, although elevated for IP, is not prohibitive if you're a regular player. All of these are good things, and things where, in many cases, WoW isn't so great. You can't get the pet store items in-game, with the exception of the Guardian Cub which can be bought and re-sold. They just don't exist anywhere but the store.

At what cost?

Cost is another area where WoW falls down, big time. The cost of their "micro" transactions is far too high for them to really be considered micro. For example, in League, $10 worth of Riot Points will buy you one high-cost champion, plus enough left over for other purchases. Or it'll buy you five of the lowest cost champions. In WoW? It'll get you a pet. And that's how League makes its money, too. In WoW you're already paying $40 for an expansion, plus $12.99 per month. When you look at the costs of various services on top of that, it all seems very expensive. Looking at examples like the transmog hats, it seems even worse.

The thing in WoW's favor, of course, is that you don't need any of the items it's selling. You don't need a Fey Dragon to play the game, nor do you need a transmog hat, or an Alterac Brew Pup. You don't even need to get a boosted level 90. But that doesn't stop them being expensive. We don't know what the price for the level 90 boost will be at this point, but I'm betting it's more than we're thinking. With any luck it will be below $50. And that's not cheap. For $50, you could buy another game.

What should change?

So what could these experts fix? What would we like to see? For the longevity of the game, it seems like it might be a good idea for the costs to come down for character services. And if there's going to be microtransactions in a sub game, they need to be genuinely micro. The current shop items and character services all add up when you factor in the sub and box cost.

What's more, introducing ways to earn items in-game that can currently only be bought for real money would be a great step. We've recently seen the Fey Dragon and Iron Skyreaver, as well as what is almost certainly the Digital CE mount introduced. In that time, there's been absolutely no mounts added that can be earned in-game. It just seems, right now, that there's a shift from just running the game to trying to get more and more investment from its players. And that's not something that will retain custom. Pricing is important for a company's self-image, and Blizzard currently isn't doing that well.

What could be OK, then, for genuine micro-transactions in WoW? Nothing that adds power, for some players certain pets and the buy-a-90 are already on the very edge of pay-to-win, and that's not a totally invalid standpoint in my opinion, although it's not a position that I personally agree with. Pay-to-win is the sort of thing that needs to be avoided.

But cosmetic and fun items for less than $5 could be good. What about something like the various toys that can be found on the Timeless Isle? Or perhaps transmog items, part of a set, that aren't $15 a piece? I don't know about you, but man, I'd love invisible shoulders to transmog to. I've waxed lyrical about some of the good and bad systems above, and where I think WoW falls in the scale, what do you think?
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