Cash Shop Woes
We gamers love free to play MMOs and MMORPGs, but we’re not always willing to accept the compromise that comes along with them. Whether you call them cash shops, premium stores, or item malls, they all serve the same purpose — to bring in cash. ‘Free’ games are not run as charities. There is a whole business model built around optional micro-transactions within these virtual worlds. In fact, that market is quite large and still growing rapidly. In 2009, the global virtual goods market clocked in at $5.5 billion. Most of that spending took place in Asia, but companies from all over the world have started expanding into the potentially lucrative North American and Europeans markets.
As foreign companies expand into new territories, they often encounter unforeseen cultural and practical problems. Two shining examples of this were brought to light this past week. The first concerned Allods, a new free to play MMORPG published on Gala-Net’s gPotato gaming portal.
Allods Online has been causing quite a stir since it entered open beta about two weeks ago. First came the awe. With high production value, (mostly) fluid gameplay, and a richly detailed game world, Allods Online quickly proved that it wasn’t just another Asian grinder. Even though it was chided for being yet another ‘WoW clone’, Allods actually offered a very different experience than Blizzard’s premier MMORPG. Within a week, that sense of awe quickly turned to frustration when the game’s cash shop was opened. A player revolt took on the official forums over the high prices. One of the more striking prices included 6 additional bag slots for $20.
Speaking as both an Allods player and veteran gamer with extensive experience in the genre, I feel the gaming media has overblown this whole affair. Who cares if a new bag is expensive? Do you really need 6 extra bag slots? Don’t forget, Nexon’s MapleStory has been charging cash for extra inventory space for some time now. Seeing big ticket items in cash shops is nothing new. It costs around $20 to change your default starting gun in Combat Arms, a 90 days ‘Warriors Package’ in Atlantica Online will set you back nearly $40. Maybe I’m just desensitized to these high prices. Maybe this Allods fiasco will herald a new era of more moderately priced cash shop items that don’t imbalance gameplay. In any case, the publishers issued what seemed like sincere apologies for their failure to collect community feedback before opening the item store. What ever the outcome, Allods is still a great MMORPG with a lot of potential.
The second cash shop story of the week involved a yet unreleased Chinese game by Perfect World Entertainment. Battle of the Immortals was all but ready to enter closed beta testing until the publishers, PWE, sent it back to the developers in Shangai for touch ups. Perfect World learned a lot while operating their Asian MMORPGs in North America for the past few years. Besides their flagship product, they released two other games: Ether Saga Online and Jade Dynasty. All of these games, Battle of the Immortals included, were originally designed for a Chinese audience. The lesson PWE learned through trial and error in America is that Western players are less likely to tolerate premium items that cause unbalanced gameplay. Apparently, this isn’t a major concern in China or Russia where Allods first appeared.
To be fair, Battle of the Immortals needed several other design revisions as well, including added support for Windows 7 and higher resolutions. As they gain experience, Asian developer will start catering to Western play styles. They could learn a lot from Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online which this week surpassed 1 million new player since its relaunch as a free to play game. What’s D&D Online’s secret? Everything in the premium store can be unlocked for free, but only with significant effort. Under this system, the item mall only offers ‘shortcuts’, rather than unbeatable advantages. Runes of Magic, which is published by a European company, employs a similar method. To summarize, cash shops should offer shortcuts and cosmetic items. If powerful weapons or equipment are to be offered, at least give us alternative methods of obtaining them.
Have you played Allods this month? If so, please share your thoughts on the recent item shop debacle. If you have any other examples of overpriced items in a free MMORPG, please share them below.