MMO Theorycrafting 14 Comments

Designing an Ethical MMO Cash Shop

If you haven’t yet, perhaps go read my rant from a few weeks ago about cash shops in MMOs. This post is sort of Part Two.


One common response to my rant was a rueful reminder that MMOs need cash shops to survive. MMOs are expensive to maintain and grow, and subscriptions for anything short of WoW-style population numbers don’t generate enough money for that kind of infrastructure. Buy-to-play is in the same boat: nice for making some money upfront, but then there’s no cash for on-going content after the initial rush.

I don’t know how much money it takes to create and run an active MMO. I have worked in tech my whole life, though, so I know that often the answer is “a lot more than you’d think”. Beyond developers and designers and servers, there’s QA and Customer Service and HR and even sometimes *cough* marketing writers. That being said, I’m just not convinced that our choice is really only between the current predatory cash shop model or the end of MMOs as we know it.

Businesses by their nature have a hard time identifying between survival and competition. This is certainly not limited to gaming companies, and kind of a high-level issue that’s more to do with capitalism in general, but often when a business talks in terms of survival what they really mean is growth and competition. Like, it’s not good enough to pay everyone, make a good product, and have some left over — businesses have to constantly be hitting new profit levels and increasing their stock value.

Long story short, capitalism dictates that we can’t trust a business to make a nice bit of money and then stop. They, as a concept, are constantly looking for more efficient ways to get more money out of us, and we as consumers should treat them accordingly as not an enemy exactly but certainly not our gaming buddy who has our best interests at heart.

So what does a non-predatory MMO cash shop model look like? Here’s my definition:

1) Items are account-bound, not character-bound. Unless your game is Final Fantasy 14 where I can do everything on a single character, character-bound items are for jerk stores.

2) Prices are not ridiculous. Yes, Black Desert Online, I am looking at your $30 costumes when I say this.

3) Your game is designed to make me want to buy things because it’s fun, not because I’m frustrated. When you design a game around limited bag space, for example, and then create systems that will give me a great deal of crap to carry around (hello Guild Wars 2), you’re hoping that I give you money out of frustration. If nothing else this just makes me mad about buying something off the store, and I don’t get anything fun out of the deal.

4) There are ways to get things outside of the store. Yes, sell hats, but don’t sell ALL of your hats. Give me ways to grind/quest/loot hats inside of the game.

5) Lockboxes and randomized cash store items can GET IN THE SEA.

Basically, dear game producers, if I like your game and it makes me happy, I will want to give you $5 every now and then. If your game is holding my funtime hostage with design decisions that make my life more miserable to force me to buy things, or prices that are far beyond the norm, or RNG bullshit, then you suck.

Unfortunately, it seems that very few MMOs are okay with actually relying on fun and good gameplay to encourage sales. Perhaps that says something about the quality of these games.

I love MMOs, but if my genre of choice really can’t survive without predatory cash shop practices then… maybe it’s time we seriously rethink their future.

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  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 10:26 am

    I eagerly await the next installment of “Cash Shop Shaming”

  • Reply
    Kiryn Silverwing
    March 10, 2016 at 10:54 am

    #3 is why pay-for-convenience is a bad thing. You can argue that bag upgrades, XP buffs, teleport coupons and the like are just saving players time and aren’t giving them access to anything normal players don’t have, but such systems encourage devs to design the base systems to be so inconvenient and annoying that players feel like they have to buy the convenience items just to do anything at a reasonable speed. You end up with a game where using all of those items is about the same as normal play in a game that doesn’t have them at all.

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 11:44 am

    if I like your game and it makes me happy, I will want to give you $5 every now and then

    When I read this sentence, it was like a klaxon going off in my head! $5 every now and then is just not an attractive proposition when things like adding a new lockbox will get certain people to spend several hundred dollars a month to get all the new items from it…
    Shintar´s last post: Chapter XI: Disappointed

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    The challenge is that we are logical consumers. If you make a game that makes me happy, I will give you some money as a reward.

    I think the real challenge is that the number of people that believe they shouldn’t pay at all because of all the truly free forms of entertainment out there (read any pirating website. People feel entitled to the content for free. They justify it for any number of misguided reasons).

    The second being, the logical consumer doesn’t pay the bills. The “whales” (of which I will never be) really do. So they need those bad cash forms in to suck in the whales to pay the bills. If they happen to make a little here and there from you and me That’s ok for them to (in their eyes.)

    In a utopia games would be made that enough people are willing to pay moderate and fair amounts to fund a project but everything I have read on games that are free to play says the majority of their income comes from a very small pool of players.
    Isey´s last post: Pillars of Looternity

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    *points at ESO’s cash shop and nods sagely*
    Jaedia´s last post: Gaming To-Do List: Woops I Forgot About This

  • Reply
    Wilhelm Arcturus
    March 10, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    -I like the account bound idea. I am not sure it is 100% practical, but it ought to be the rule rather than the exception when possible.
    -I am a bit iffy on pricing. I tend to think bad pricing is its own punishment and that the invisible hand will take care of things. But then I get all, “Who the hell would pay that much for a thing!?!”
    -There are a lot of varying cases for number three. One of the few things I will buy without hesitation is more storage space. I love that option. I am a hoarder in MMOs. But if the base amount of space is too low, I might just walk away before even considering that purchase.
    -I don’t mind exclusives in the shop for people who want something special. I also like EVE Online’s cash shop because people can buy stuff there and then sell it for the in-game currency, which helps stem the illicit RMT aspect of the game and lets people buy stuff with ISK.
    -I detest lock boxes and their evil sibling, card packs. I have since I collected baseball cards for about three months back in 1977. This is as close as cash shops get to predatory in my book. But they don’t get added into every single cash shop eventually because they are bad for the bottom line. And it makes me angry when some dev claims their customers LOVE this sort of thing because “look at all the sales!”

    The problem is that most people just won’t pay unless coerced in some way. Some people are cheap, or don’t have the money, or just want something for free, or see the whole free side of things as the hard mode challenge, the way I do with Candy Crush Saga. There is an essential conflict here between “ethical” (for specific values of the word) and “paying the bills” here that is not easily reconciled. I try to just put my money where my convictions are… which is probably why I don’t play very many new MMOs!
    Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: The Pokemon 20th Anniversary Continues with a Legendary Celebi Download Event and More

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    I think that’s very unfair on GW2’s inventory options. Even the basic allocation is more generous than most MMOs, regardless of payment model.

    On a standard account each character gets five bag slots. You get a 20 slot pack at character creation and you can craft or buy crafted bags up to 20 slots (also there are 20 slot bags from repeatable holiday events). That gives each character 100 inventory slots on their person. An account comes with five character slots so that’s a potential 500 inventory slots.

    You get a 30 slot shared account bank vault. You also get a shared account materials bank that holds stacks of 250 of all crafting mats and many other items. In the olden days before HoT you could also, for free, obtain and upgrade a guild bank to a maximum of 250 slots. Sadly that was changed last Autumn but it was the case for three years.

    That is a LOT of free, default storage by the standards of any MMO but if it’s not enough the one thing you definitely don’t need to do is spend any real money increasing it. Ever. You can expand it simply by converting in-game gold to Gems.

    The real problem, though, isn’t that cash shops are over-priced; it’s that people still buy from them. It’s hard to blame companies from taking money when players are waving it in their faces like that.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      “The real problem, though, isn’t that cash shops are over-priced; it’s that people still buy from them. ”

      I can turn that around by saying the real problem is that over 90% of players are cheap no matter what and don’t want to spend any cash – that’s ‘WHY’ prices are so high. Basically this is also what Wilhelm said above. A company doesn’t just go “hey let’s make it super pricey to annoy everyone” unless they believe there’s more money in that to be made than if it’s much cheaper. And that’s kinda sad and why we have subs in other games that have their pros and cons too.

      I do not believe there are “ethical” cash shops btw, that is a misnomer to me. Some people would argue there’s nothing safe about any kind of ingame cash shop where players can repeatedly buy something. Others find subscription plans out of order because they just want to play 2 days a month. It’s a world of different perspectives and when it comes to moneymaking biz, very little is above reproach anyway. We as players lack most of the important information to even understand why developers make certain decisions.
      That’s why I do the only feasible thing I can do as a consumer, I decide what something is worth it_to me personally_. Is the cash shop pricing high in BDO? – yep. I wouldn’t mind if the shop was the way Liore likes it, either. But I am also getting a hell of a gameplay experience from the game right now, so I will spend a buck wherever I feel it makes sense and is still fair to me. And I am ever the optimist where the shop’s future is concerned; what makes me hopeful is that NA/EU have their own publisher.
      Syl´s last post: Black Desert Online Soundtrack Interview at MMOGames

      • Reply
        March 10, 2016 at 3:50 pm

        tldr: The people paying high prices are not the problem and the people who would pay for lower prices are not the problem. The problem are those that won’t buy no matter what. I just answered my own post’s initial question, yey. :P

        • Reply
          Wilhelm Arcturus
          March 10, 2016 at 6:38 pm

          Well, that depends on what you define as “the problem.”
          I have no doubt, as Bhagpuss is suggesting, that if nobody was willing to purchase, as an example, $30 cosmetic outfits, then the company might feel compelled to lower the price. That would be a problem of economics and price elasticity.
          However, I might argue that the actual “problem” is that in order to fund yet another blandly derivative MMORPG in a market flooded with such games, the company needs to ride initial enthusiasm with high prices as a cash grab in order make the whole thing seem worthwhile in a fiscal sense. When faced with that situation, paying the bills trumps all else and an “ethical” cash shop becomes an unaffordable luxury for the company as they descend into the hard sell and lock boxes and all the tactics with which we have become so familiar in the last six or so years.

          tl;dr – Wake me when somebody makes something new and I’ll get out my wallet.
          Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: The Pokemon 20th Anniversary Continues with a Legendary Celebi Download Event and More

        • Reply
          March 11, 2016 at 1:21 am

          I think the mai issue that the majority won’t spend money is because we have learnt that m,ost mmo’s won’t last. Why the hell would you spend money, and such huge amounts on a game that you are unlikely to stick with, or isn’t going ot be active and around for long. Pricing things high just makes that evaluation worse
          j3w3l´s last post: Cash Shop Bullshit in Black Desert

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    In my opinion, this is where the wallet vote holds the most sway. If you find an acceptable-to-you-ethically cash shop, it behooves you to spend a large amount to support it as a whale or mini-whale.

    Conversely the opposite also applies. As much as it is tempting to pay for convenience or speed your own way, if the cash shop feels unethical to you, don’t pay a cent and/or quit playing the game.

    It still may not make up for the hundreds and thousands who just pay without thinking about the general principles, but well, not much you can do in the face of those, it just means the majority of those playing the game found it acceptable enough to pay for it.

  • Reply
    Market Saturation and the Cash Shop | The Ancient Gaming Noob
    March 11, 2016 at 10:17 am

    […] Is it that the cash shop is too expensive or that people are too cheap or that the whole thing lacks ethics or […]

  • Reply
    The Future of MMOs | Just For Crits
    March 12, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    […] is plenty of debate on the subject of that cash shop, which you can find here, and here, and here, but that’s not necessarily what I wanted to talk about. Instead, I wanted to pick up a thread […]

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