Here's a question. Which MMO was the first to introduce a Cash Shop? And when?
I only ask because I can't remember. They seem to have been with us always, like the Queen and athlete's foot. Perhaps Syp, The Game Archeologist, knows, or Wilhelm, who likes to keep track of this kind of thing.
It seems curious to think that what has become one of the most controversial aspects of the hobby should have arrived with so little impact, at least on my consciousness. By contrast I can remember with disturbing clarity the first time I opened the trade window on one of the vendors outside Darkness Falls, the new dungeon in Dark Age of Camelot about which we were all so excited, and saw for the first time a selection of items I could buy for tokens.
I detested the Token system at first sight and time has served to do little more than dull that outright hostility to a sullen acceptance of the inevitable. Token systems are practical, dull and the definitive antithesis of adventure.
Cash shops, to the contrary, are fun. Or, rather, they can be. It does depend, of course, on what they sell. A store stocked with things you wouldn't give houseroom to as a gift is at best an irrelevance. One person's trash is another's treasure as they say, so opinions on what makes for a well-stocked Cash Shop are going to differ but there's always been a very strong lobby arguing against allowing anything that anyone might find useful finding its way onto the virtual shelves. It's the old argument against selling power, sometimes known as "Pay-To-Win".
SynCaine, not perhaps the most obvious advocate of Cash Shops, sometimes observes that it's not Pay-to-Win per se that's the problem, it's whether or not the game is designed around selling power or advantage from the outset. This makes a lot of sense to me.
On a personal level, though, I don't even have those reservations. I would have little to no problem with most MMORPGs that I enjoy adding items to their Cash Shops that give direct gameplay advantages to players in non-competetive PvE, whether or not the game had been designed with that in mind all along. Over in EQ2, for example, I've recently purchased both crafting materials and a scroll to allow my Berserker to track like a ranger. Very handy and much appreciated but both items whose acceptability has, in the past, been hotly debated for reasons of "fairness".
My own line in the sand would probably come should a game add clear and inarguable credit-card preference to in-game activities that rely directly on competition between players, be that in PvE or PvP. Others, naturally, draw their own lines much farther from the tide - sometimes before they can even see the beach.
Such is the knee-jerk antagonism among the commenting classes for anything that smacks of selling power that even MMOs taking the Free-to-Play road from the off tend to fight shy of putting anything in the Cash Shop if it might draw negative headlines. Not that there's much evidence that it would hurt them financially if they did. If anything the evidence appears to run the other way.
H1Z1 took considerable flak for its paid-for airdrops earlier this year, pulling Smed away from his behind-the-scenes negotiations over the sale of the company and sending him into full damage-control mode back in his natural environment on Twitter. Didn't stop the "pay-to-win zombie survival game" becoming Steam's best-selling game, according to VentureBeat.
What's more, a couple of months after the supposed debacle and the PR storm that surrounded it, H1Z1 had apparently sold in excess of a million copies - that's a million people paying $20 each to play a poorly-reviewed alpha of a game that will, if it's ever finished, officially be "Free To Play". As for those airdrops, "no one buys the drops any more, I haven't seen a plane fly in and drop one for the longest time." reports Eurogamer's zombie expert.
As with most MMO controversies, Pay-to-Win, selling power and Cash Shops create a lot sound and an awful lot of fury but the substantive effect in-game is usually minimal, especially in the long term. The safe option, of course, is to sell only things to which no-one objects but that has its own dangers. If no-one objects to something you're selling there's a good chance it's because no-one cares and if no-one cares then no-one buys.
This supposed self-control, where game developers seek to fill their insubstantial shelves with equally ephemeral goods, while somehow managing to keep their customers excited and buying, leads to wilder and wackier attempts to draw everyone's attention. It's an ever-escalating cosmetic arms race that sees players mounted on flying unicorns, weilding weapons the size of telegraph poles and wearing armor that throws off particle effects like a poorly-designed experiment in the Large Hadron Collider.
Whatever the rights and wrongs we are where we are. Cash Shops are here and they will not be going away. Suits me. I like them. Well, in theory, I like them. In practice I tend to treat them exactly as I do bricks-and-mortar stores or online retailers: I spend hours window-shopping but I only break out my wallet when I see a bargain.
I've been eying both the Sonic Tunneling Tool and the Magic Carpet in GW2's gem shop since they were added long ago. I've admired Mrs Bhagpuss as she drifts past on her carpet and been surprised by her sudden appearance in a cloud of dust beneath my feet often enough to know how much fun these toys can be.
Last week they went on sale. Only 25% off but it was enough. I bought them both. The Sonic digger is a bit of a non-event but the carpet is amazing. It's a mount in a game that famously refuses to consider any possibility of mounts. It looks like a mount, it behaves like a mount. It is a mount.
The irony is it's also the very same mount that, when it was introduced to EQ2 almost a decade ago, became the final straw that led me to abandon Live server Oasis for a full-time move to the sparsely-populated Test Server. I just had to get away from the damn things, which had become the must-have look-at-me item for bank and broker hoggers throughout Norrath.
It all looks very different when you're the one on the magic carpet, I'll tell you that! And that's the thing about Cash Shops: when they're selling something you want to buy they're a fantastic addition to the vibrant culture of the game. When they're not, well they're a threat to all we hold dear. Or just a waste of imaginary real estate.
Glad we got that sorted.