MMO Theorycrafting 7 Comments

Sparklepony: Architect of our Cash Shop Fate

Cash shops. Every game’s got one now, particularly MMOs. It doesn’t even matter if the game is free-to-play or subscription — cash shops may have once merely been part of a payment model, but now they’ve broken out into being a feature.

I’ve gone into my dislike of cash shops in general before. I think they can be done well, but rarely actually are. Too often a game is hobbled for non-shop players with extraordinary XP grinds or tiny inventory slots, or relies on some of the more skeevy psychological elements to lead people into buying. (Here is a hint: if we all mocked Zynga for it two years ago, don’t do it now.)

Ellyndrial was ranting in IRC last week about cash shops, as he’s wont to do, and it made me wonder how they ended up being so ubiquitous. Why did everyone suddenly decide that games need cash shops and players will love them? Was there some kind of referendum I missed?

After a little reflection I realized that there was a referendum, and I voted in favor.


This is the sparklepony, known formally as the Celestial Steed. It was released in April, 2010 by Blizzard for World of Warcraft. It was one of the first account-wide mounts in the game (if not the first?). The Steed matched your fastest riding speed, and it sparkled. It was sold for a mere $25 on the Blizzard Store.

The pony made $4 million dollars in the first week. That’s over 140,000 purchases. As I recall at the time, most players mocked themselves for buying it — $25 was more than a month of subscription, after all — but we bought one nonetheless. When I logged on after work the day it was announced, Dalaran was a sea of shiny ponies.

In retrospect, I don’t think I would have bought the Celestial Steed if I had known how much it would galvanize the industry to each create cash shops of their own. We thought we were buying a slightly overpriced horse, but instead we were buying an entirely new payment method.

I don’t much have a point, except it’s funny how little purchasing decisions can become huge industry or genre game-changers.

(Pony image from MMO Champion, natch.)

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  • Reply
    May 13, 2013 at 10:23 am

    I think that WoW was actually relatively late to the digital sales game, they just proved to those not already sold on the notion that it could be massively popular. By the time of Sparkle pony, I believe that the SOE and Turbine shops were in full operation, as well as heavily cash shop oriented free to plays like Runes of Magic. However outside of the MMO world, there had already been cash shops in full operation with micro-transactions on consoles like the XBOX 360.

    So while the sparkle-pony may have been the sounding of the trumpet announcing the beginning of an age… the age had already begun long before then.
    belghast´s last post: Nature Sucks

    • Reply
      May 13, 2013 at 10:31 am

      So after posting I found some dates… looks like Sparklepony happened 4/2010 whereas Lotro went f2p/cash shop in 9/2010. However the Station Cash store in EQ2 opened up in 2008, which is likely why I thought that transition had started long before WoW.
      belghast´s last post: Nature Sucks

    • Reply
      May 13, 2013 at 10:52 am

      Keep in mind, too, that when the sparklepony was released, there was a lot of noise being made that it was “limited time offer” and/or limited in quantity. So even that was a bit different from what cash shops have become. And, as annoying as it is that every game seems to have cash shops or DLC packs or random add-ins or whatever, I’ve been giving “extra” money to games for a long time. I used to pay $20-30 every few months for festival access (albeit live-staffed access) in a MUD on top of my subscription fee.

      I think the difference, though, is that a) I am aware of many more options for most of the types of games I want to play that don’t included ham-fisted “PAY ME NOW” schemes, and b) that “$4 million dollars in a week” number is really damn hard to ignore, if you are at all involved in making money for your game. Which is really unfortunate.
      Ellyndrial´s last post: Random Thoughts

  • Reply
    Wilhelm Arcturus
    May 13, 2013 at 11:09 am

    It is hard to know how much influence the Sparkle Pony (or Greed Steed, as I tried calling it) really had. Yes, that first day rush to get one, where the Blizzard Store was backed up behind 70K orders, was big news. But it was also the first such mount for Blizz in a game where getting mounts was traditionally kind of a pain. Remember all those rep grinds? And you got a Sparkle Pony on all of your characters!

    Since then, mounts have become easier to get and are shared across your account.

    But as Belghast noted, there were already cash shops out there. Runes of Magic was selling a mount for $10, while SOE had their craptastic cosmetic cash shop in EQ2 for ages before hand. And DDO had just gone cash shop driven free to play and was being heralded as a huge success. So Blizz’s venture into the cash shop might have helped put the seal of approval on the idea, but I am not sure how much influence it had. Blizz tends to let others take the lead, examines what they did, then polishes them to a high sheen.

    What is true though is that in a cash shop funded game, what sells dictates what will likely be added. If mounts sell, expect to see more mounts. If game economy ruining crafting materials sell, don’t expect to see them go away.

    And if you aren’t spending money at the cash shop, you have little influence on what gets sold. Forum outrage gets some notice, but if buying patterns indicate something else, then your comment gets set aside.
    Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: Waiting for Civilization

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      May 14, 2013 at 10:49 am

      You’re totally right — it is hard to know how much influence the Greed Steed (hah! love it!) had on the proliferation of cash shops. While they certainly existed before the Pony, my sense is that the wild success of the mount certainly legitimized cash shops for a lot of AAA games that hadn’t previously considered it.

      Cash shops being only directly affected by where the money goes (agree with you there) seems like a big of a mixed bag to me, but that’s the marketplace for ya.

  • Reply
    Pedro S
    May 14, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    No! It all started with Oblivion Horse Armor I say! =P

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