Thursday, August 09, 2007

Would SOE misuse Micro-Transactions?

While Blizzard was holding its ritual display of product teases and developer roasts called Blizzcon another major MMO publisher was doing the same. I speak of course of SOE's Fan Faire which has been an annual tradition since the early Everquest days. But while Blizzard focused on actual products, SOE introduced yet another method to show how devoted they are to getting your money. Their new plan involves a virtual card game where players can buy booster packs online and compete in a game which sounds a lot like Magic the Gathering.

For those of you who never experienced the money sink that was Magic the Gathering, I'll go ahead and explain the basic premise. Basically players could buy a 15 card package that was guaranteed to have a ratio around 1 rare, 3 uncommon, and 11 uncommon cards. Rare cards were needed if a player wished to have a competitive deck since they tended to be overly convoluted and powerful with effects that often modified the basic rules of the game. If you've every flipped to FOX in the afternoon think of the last card that spikey haired brat, Yugioh, always pulls out at the last second.

Unfortunately for most players half the rare cards in these types of games tend to be useless or only useful in a very specific and unlikely scenario. Thus players are forced to buy more packs or try to trade with other players until they can get the collection of rares they need. Companies have perfected this formula into a science over the years as Magic, Pokemon, Yugioh, and others have robbed players of their cash in 3$ intervals. What makes SOE's online card game one step worse is that players won't even be able to trade cards with each other only buy them in virtual packs from SOE.

The truth of the matter is that if you look closely enough at collectible card games you see the father of the micro-transaction. Anyone can start playing a collectible card game at almost no cost but to actually compete you need to spend a lot of money in small transactions to raise your chances at winning. This is the exact type of payment plan that some MMO publishers would love to push on us if they could get away with it. I see this virtual collectible card game being hosted inside a MMO as SOE testing the waters for a micro-transaction market.

Now I can see some areas where micro-transactions might be a useful payment method. Twitch based MMO's like Auto Assault and probably Tabula Rasa would definitely benefit more from a hourly subscription rate then a standard monthly fee. Other games like Second Life seem to make a decent living by selling virtual land (piece of the golden gate bridge anyone?) and cosmetic changes to their avatars (genitalia anyone?) by using micro-transactions. It works well for games that are based on players only spending a small amount of time in the game each week.

However, the incorporation of micro-transactions into a long term MMO where most players put at least 12 hours a week into the game is only going to result in people having to pay more money to get the same amount of entertainment they get now. They are a million ways a smart and greedy publisher could incorporate micro-transactions into a game without seeming to give an advantage to the rich. Imagine having to pay a quarter every time you killed a boss who dropped loot. You're of course guaranteed one rare item but who knows if its a pair of leather pants of the Bandit or Spirit. One's useless but the other would start a fight to the death between the rogue and feral druid. Sounds a lot like opening a booster pack doesn't it?