Are Microtransactions the Future? Or, “OMG RMT!”

If I were smart, I wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole. Luckily for you, I’m not smart, or I’m at least foolish enough to talk about microtransactions. RMT, or Real Money Transfer (or Trading), is the catalyst for some of the most heated debates in MMO development. Is it wrong? Is it right? Is it even a question of wrong or right? Is it the model for the future? Regardless of the answer, almost all of us have a strong opinion about RMT.

I’ll begin by saying that I personally despise the concept as applied to the traditional massively multiplayer game. That is, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, and similar MMORPGs that emphasize achievement, advancement through dedication over time, and generally adhere to the more old school RPG notion of statistics and numbers over direct player skill.

My biggest problem with it? Allowing people to pay real money for something you are supposed to achieve removes what I feel is one of the main draws for even playing the traditional MMORPG–the achievement.

If I can either put forth great effort for a long period of time to get a Hulking Goatsmasher of Ultimate Destiny or spend $50, which one do I choose? I’d like to think that I would choose the former, but I’d almost guarantee you that I’d choose the latter if it were an approved method for acquiring items.

If I DID choose the former, and expended great effort to earn that item, is my achievement cheapened by the ability to purchase the very same item for real cash? I think it is. That achievement should be something I am proud of; it should be immediately communicated to anyone who sees me with my Goatsmasher that I achieved something great. The second you can buy that item, there’s no more achievement.

Okay, before I get too riled up here, let’s take a step in another direction. Let’s assume that you don’t actually let people pay for things that they usually need to achieve–items, levels, coin, etc. Let’s assume that instead, you can spend real money on unlocking dungeon access, allowing people to play certain classes, or other things of that nature that merely expand a player’s options and don’t necessarily infringe upon the foundations of the traditional MMORPG.

I’ll start with a quote from Daniel James: “If you’re charging a subscription fee, you’re either overcharging or undercharging every single one of your users.”

Absolutely true. It’s also true of cable, the internet, and any other subscription service. I get less out of cable than most people do, yet I pay the same. I get more out of the internet than most people do, yet I pay the same. Now, I’m not going to propose a solution to this (other than: charge people less than $15 a month if they play below a certain threshold), but I am going to use it as ammunition.

We’re still assuming that players can pay real money to increase the breadth of their experience or for trivial flavor “stuff,” rather than paying real money as a substitute for achievement. This is all well and good until you realize who will be impacted the most by this situation: the most loyal members of your community.

While some players may be paying nothing and others may be spending less than a normal subscription fee, your most loyal players will be spending significantly more than a normal subscription fee (this has to be the case if you intend to average out to make the same as a subscription-based MMO).

Woops! As soon as these incredibly loyal players realize they are paying out their ears to play your game, they may very well stop playing. And, you know what? These are probably the most important customers you have. These are the core players who must exist if you ever want to see the snowball effect occur in your game. These are the evangelists who will make fansites and get all their friends to play the game. These are the iconic characters of your game world who act as the glue for the community, and you’re basically driving them off.

If you drive off the most influential members of your community by overcharging them, you will also drive off many, if not most, of the members of the community at large. These core players need to exist for the community to truly thrive, but I’d guess they wouldn’t exist for terribly long if they have the option to play just as often and get just as deep and varied an experience in another game for much less money (because it’s using a subscription model).

Are microtransactions the future? I don’t personally believe they are the future in the realm of the traditional massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Is there a bright future for games using the RMT model? Most certainly, but only if the game is developed from the ground-up to support RMT. You will see smash successes for RMT-based MMOs in North America and Europe, but I have my doubts that these smash successes will look anything like your traditional EverQuest and World of Warcraft type games.

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