Sunday, 26 April 2015

Go On, Treat Yourself !


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.

That must be hard. These last few years it's been a rare MMO that's chosen to launch with no Cash Shop of any kind even if the game started out with a subscription. The all-but-inevitable conversion to a more open payment model can be a painful transition for players for whom one of the significant attractions of the game in the first place was its supposed reluctance to dip its paws into players' pockets.

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.

There's a very good argument to be made that the focus on cosmetic product for direct sale has lead to more damage to the immersive integrity of MMORPGs than an honest sale of power could ever have achieved. Given some of the unmitigated visual atrocities available as rewards for completing in-game content, though, I feel that cause was lost already.

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.

10 comments:

  1. The first game I played that had a cash shop was Runes of Magic, but Asian MMOs had been working with them for a while at that point. Silk Road Online (the game, not the drug selling site) came over as a subscription MMO, went free, and opted for a cash shop back in 2005 or so. In the west, Dungeons & Dragons Online was the first "major success" in transitioning to a cash shop game, though information that has come out recently seems to indicate that it wasn't as big a deal as Turbine made it seem.

    Somebody should do a study on the rise of the cash shop. I am not sure I would be a good person as games that lean heavily on their cash shops for revenue tend to be games I do not enjoy playing.

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    1. The more I think about it, the weirder it seems. My brain is stuffed to bursting with true facts and false memories from my many years of playing MMOs but on this particular, rather significant, topic there's almost nothing. I don't, for instance, have any recollection at all of the Station Store being introduced. Presumably that was a big deal at the time? I played RoM in beta and I have no memory whatsoever of a cash shop there.

      I think the earliest example I can specifically remember is Allods (because of the huge controversy it caused) but that was (looking it up...) less than five years ago. I may have to research this a bit more.

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    2. Station Cash showed up in December 2008... and I was immediately complaining about there being nothing worth buying.

      Like I have said before, this is why I write a blog; so I can keep track of these things.

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    3. Another great link! I'm pretty sure that 2008 was *just* before I began reading MMO blogs so all those posts on the arrival of SC were new to me. I would, however, have been active on the forums around then... Those armors that Tipa goes into so much detail about do ring a vague bell.

      Clearly it didn't make much of an impact on me so I imagine my reaction was much like yours - meh. And we tend not to remember many "mehs".

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  2. I think the first time I became aware of MMO cash shops was the RoM horse controversy Wilhelm mentioned above. (Here's his post about it from July 2009). Then in April 2010 WoW introduced its "sparkle pony" and that was basically that, because even if people didn't like it, hundreds of thosands of others did and were happy to put down the money and it's hard to argue with that kind of public statement. I remember being vaguely annoyed by the sheer abundance of people who were running around with the same ugly mount for a while (sounds similar to your magic carpet situation in EQ2), though I don't think it really factored into me quitting.

    I was still mildly put out when SWTOR went free to play and added a cash shop, but I think I've grown used to it since then. And like you say, as soon as you find something in there that you would be willing to pay for yourself, none of it seems quite so bad anymore.

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    1. What a great link! Look, there I am, third comment down! Just goes to show how unreliable memory is (one of my favorite hobbyhorses). And of course, now I'm reminded of it, I do remember Darren The Common Sense Gamer's $10 horse rant, although, even reminded of it, I would not have been able to recall that the horse in question was on sale in Runes of Magic...

      I'm very pleased to see that I still agree with everything I said in that comment - an unusual degree of consistency there! The line "In a few years from now this discussion about the horse is going to seem so quaint and naive." is particularly apposite, as is the last paragraph

      "The golden days of MMOs as a “hobby”, with a hobbyist’s club rules, are almost over. For those who want that, it will be on offer in niche games, but for the mass market it will be “who pays wins”. After all, that’s what happens to every other aspect of life, so why would MMOs be any different?"

      That has completely come to pass already, I think, with Kickstarter providing the backing for those niche games and all the majors blithely motoring as fast as they can towards the money.

      Okay, done patting myself on the back now...

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  3. Lol, at the irony. Very good article!

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  4. I think the Runes of Magic horse is certainly when the concept of microtransactions in an MMO played in the West spread to the blogsosphere, and the WoW sparkle pony threw it to mainstream public consciousness, true...

    ...but I also recall earlier examples, most as Wilhelm says, coming from the more Asian-influenced MMOs. Ragnarok Online was something I didn't play, but other friends did, and some googling says their Kakra Shop was introduced in 2007 when their free-to-play servers started opening. That's two years earlier than Common Sense Gamer's 2009 blog post about the RoM horse.

    Puzzle Pirates was something Tesh was busy playing, and googling reveals that their doubloon ocean payment model came in 2005.

    Perfect World launched some time in 2005-2006 apparently, and it was a F2P MMO from the beginning, so I'm assuming that the cash shop came attached right at the start.

    If we go back a bit further and define 'cash shop' as in-game items sold for additional money (directly via the developers, so that we escape the underground black market of RMT) that players can choose to buy, A Tale in the Desert had really expensive pets like cats and monkeys for players who wanted to a) support the devs further, b) pay for a ticket to their reunion meetup, c) have a vanity pet in-game.

    Spreading out to browser games, Kingdom of Loathing started in 2003 and used a "donation item" model, aka one buyable 'cash shop?' item known as a Mr. Accessory for US$10, that could be exchanged for a special item with fun extras that would change every month, a mix of power, vanity, extra options.

    Then we could also go right back to MUDs in the 1997-1998+ era. I'm not sure of the exact names and payment models, but checking out how the commercial MUDs like Achaea, Gemstone, Threshold made their money might be instructive. Probably all some variant of object sales for power or in-game unlocks or vanity items.

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    1. That's brilliant! Thanks for doing my research for me! As far as Cash Shops in the form we now understand them, it's surprisingly late, isn't it? Wilhelm mentions Silk Road Online above. We played that in beta and Mrs Bhagpuss liked it a lot. Again, though, I have no memory of a Cash Shop there.

      My feeling is that, prior to the $10 horse and the Sparkle Pony, these things existed but companies didn't push them very hard. After that watershed they moved from the background to the foreground and it became much harder not to know (or to pretend you didn't know) that they were there.

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  5. I think my first exposure to cash shops and free to play games in general was Runes of Magic. I never spent and money, let alone time, in that game.

    My first actual cash shop purchase was i believe in Lord of the Rings Online. If my memory serves me, i bought an amazing looking cloak.

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