Thursday, September 03, 2009

Micro Review of Micro-transactions

Bringing up micro-transactions in a blog post is a lot like trying to talk about global warming. Everyone has a different opinion on the matter and their own preferred way of addressing the issue. A lot players hate the idea of micro-transactions and like to pretend that it's not a viable business model. On the other hand you have people who fervently think it’s the wave of the future and ignore its lack of success in the western world. To further complicate matters there are several different ways of implementing micro-transactions in a MMO. Some games use them in conjunction with a subscription fee while others are entirely dependent on the sales of fluff items. For the most part games that micro-transactions based are often designed to cost hardcore players more than casual ones. You know the same audience that mostly blogs and posts the most about MMOS.

Types of Micro-transactions (DIKU based)

The basic micro-transaction plan which a lot of free2play games use. Players straight out buy items for their characters by paying a small fee. Most games make use of a virtual currency for these types of transactions so players are forced to buy (coins, doubloons, and tokens) in bundles. Games that use this model have to be very careful that they don't ruin the illusion of competition. As a result most items in this model are fluff items that just change the appearance of characters or the rate at which they gain experience/money. Unfortunately, a majority of players don't care about these types items and simply play the game for free. At the moment there seems to be two solutions to this problem. Either make the game play very grindy so players are greatly encourage to buy items or add a small subscription fee to stabilize revenue.

This micro-transaction model personally frustrates me, but several new games that use it have enjoyed moderate success in the market. In this model players don't actually buy items, but instead pay a small fee to rent them for a period of time. These items usually give the player special abilities and don't directly increase the stats/gear of their characters. The most common abilities include faster mounts, limited teleportation, increased storage space, and increased experience rates. Most subscription based games have these types of features built into their game design, while the micro-transaction model allows players to pick and choose them ala cart. Problems do occur though when a player tries to rent all the features they are used to having in a subscription based game and realize the micro-transaction one actually costs them more per month.

MMO's that follow the Ebay style of micro-transactions don't worry about maintaining a balance between items that can be bought with time or those that can be bought right away with cash. Items sold in their stores are often equal or more powerful then the best in the game. Free Realms is probably the poster child of this model and was designed to combine the mini-game aspect of websites like Neo-pets with "lite" MMO styled adventuring. This model only seems to work if the customer base doesn't care or is too young to understand that money greatly affects the game play. I suspect this model will always be limited to MMO's targeting children or poorly made Free2Play games that don't worry about balance issues.

My descriptions of the different types of micro-transactions probably reveal that I'm not a fan. However, I'm not going to deny they provide huge advantages to certain types of MMOs. In general, Free2Play MMOs work well with micro-transactions since it allows them to quickly build up a large community and achieve a critical mass of players. However, a lot of times the revenue brought in by micro-transactions aren't enough to support a high quality game. That's why games that use micro-transactions often rely on grindy gameplay to force the use of an item store or small subscription fees. The only micro-transaction model that seems to be able to stand on its own two feet is the one that rents out items. However, this model greatly mirrors the subscription model except that it allows players to pick and choose the features they want to pay for each month.

My preference in payment models is most likely a symptom of my laziness. I don't want to deal with keeping experience potions on my character or tracking when my individual item rentals are going to expire. That's why I'm probably going to stick with subscription based games in the future. However, if I was forced to choose some form of micro-transaction system I would prefer a tiered model where game time and items were bundled into differently priced packages. That way I could have the option of buying a smaller package when I knew I wouldn't have much time to play and I wouldn't have to keep track of everything.


Heartless_ said...

I think you misplaced RoM. The majority of items are bought in the game. There are temporary items, but they are not the majority. Though I've only played at the lower levels and paid for horses only :P

I think you missed a big point not talking about dual-currency systems, which is what makes RoM and Puzzle Pirates work as a business model. Players never have to spend a dime, as they can trade in game goods for a currency that others pay real money for. This allows smart players to go 100% free.

Heartless_ said...

I forgot to mention that I agree, some micro-transaction games get way to confusing. I believe thats what did in The Chronicles of Spellborn, as they were so fucking confusing with a F2P, but subscription, but micro-transactions model.

Relmstein said...

I only played RoM a little bit when they were moving out of beta, but the thing that really made an impression on me was the rental ability for additional storage space and faster mounts. It was the first time I'd seen such a system in a MMO and it stuck in my head more then their other item offerings.

I'm not too familiar with the dual currency part of either Puzzle Pirates or RoM. I had heard RoM had something like daily quests which you could use for their version of the item shop. I liked this idea a lot since as you said it allows people to play 100% free if they want.

Tim said...

How can you try to make a review when you obviously haven't even bothered to download the game and play it? Runes of Magic's item shop is not based on renting. The only things you can rent are mounts and inventory space. The inventory space simply isn't needed and you can buy permanent mounts or rent them for in game gold. Nobody rents mounts for real money in that game. The vast majority of items are purchased permanently and have no option of renting them.

Relmstein said...

This post was more related to how micro-transactions models are evolving and starting to distinguish themselves. I listed Runes of Magic since its the most popular MMO that allows item rentals. The other examples for
"Renting" were mostly smaller F2P games that most people probably hadn't tried. I'll remove the examples so it doesn't look like I'm trying to categorize games.