Microtransaction stores killed the modern MMORPG.
Yeah, I know, some people will fight with me about this, and I have had lengthy arguments on the topic. The free-to-play model has indeed created opportunities for less fortunate players to get countless hours out of games, while even potentially profiting off the wealthier players. In some cases, it’s a win-win, and there are games which don’t abuse RNG mechanics, or gate content behind paid progression. Path of Exile is a solid example of this, and I managed to pump ~140 hours into it without spending a dime. When I do eventually decide to spend, it’ll probably only be around $40, which I’d say is pretty worth it for hundreds of hours of play time.
That said, if microtransaction stores and free-to-play models were made extinct tomorrow, I would not lament their demise. More often than not, they are exploitative casinos, or at the very least, include gated content and limited progression in a way which encourages spending just to have a little more fun. Fun and general progress should not be gated content.
If a game is otherwise slower, more tedious and less enjoyable because you don’t spend $200/month in the microtransaction store, then the game’s model fails. If the existence of “whales” (those who will spend thousands or more) is not only acceptable, but encouraged and tempered, then the game’s model fails. Genshin Impact is a prime example of a game that many love, but has a dark side of exploiting people who will empty their bank accounts regularly just to stay ahead.
While some may argue that this is a personal choice of the player/consumer, the fact is that these mechanics are introduced at a very young age to children who have no concept of responsible spending, or how gambling affects your chemical reward system. It’s literally gambling for kids, regardless how you package it. These mechanics are especially prevalent in mobile games.
Ok, ok so I know some of you definitely agree that microtransactions can be exploitative–and EA is even fighting a class action lawsuit as we speak–I can also agree that games like Path of Exile can do it responsibly. So, there is room for free-to-play with some oversight, and especially if we can just do away with cash-shop lootboxes entirely.
That said, I still believe a pure subscription model is the least exploitative and gives you the best potential bang-for-buck from a “game-as-a-service.”
While it’s easy to look back at some of the classic MMOs with rose-coloured glasses–since it’s hard to emulate nostalgia without pandering, and it’s equally hard to compare modern experiences as an adult with past experiences as a teenager–there is still something to be said for the rise in classic MMOs compared to how quickly new ones lose players.
WoW Classic is huge and was a massive return for a lot of players. EverQuest Classic has over 80k monthly active players, and even the City of Heroes private server continues to live on. So there is clearly a demand for classic style MMOs, and not just because of the gameplay, but because you rarely had to consider your wallet when expecting new content. While you’d occasionally have to pay for an expansion every few years, and some games still had cosmetic shops–most of the time you could expect to have the same experience as everyone else, and could always expect a consistent flourish of new content.
It’s true that the argument existed, and even to some extent still does, that free-to-play allows for a much larger potential contingent of players, and especially casual players who may still drop $20-30 or even up to $100, when they wouldn’t even have considered paying a monthly subscription.
But these days, I don’t see that narrative holding up when everything is becoming subscription based. Aside from the rise in streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, Prime, Disney+, et al, we are even seeing a rise in game-based subscription services as well. Like Microsoft’s Game Pass, which is making waves with a solid library of games, and even recently added EA Play’s basic plan to it, effectively giving you two subscriptions in one. Along with Sony’s PS Now game streaming, and growing support for Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Google’s Stadia platforms, it’s hard to argue that people are unwilling to pay a monthly subscription for content.
So why should it be hard to sell a grand MMO with a monthly sub? If the game actually delivers content that isn’t arbitrarily gated, has consistent updates and regularly rewards players with events and surprises, then what is the hard sell? Sure, EVE and WoW have technically free-to-play content, but the majority of players pay the subscription. Same with Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online and even SWTOR you ultimately want to pay the monthly sub if you want to get the complete experience. The oldest and most prestigious MMOs still seem to get away with a subscription model for the most part, so why are new MMOs so hesitant?
I’m weary of New World’s current lack of a funding model beyond the initial purchase price, because this often leads to dramatic changes in expected player funding either near, or post-launch. MMOs require constant upkeep and maintenance. They are the original, “game-as-a-service.” I can’t see it being profitable long-term without either, frequent paid content updates, a cash shop, or a subscription. It’s not to say that Amazon doesn’t have the runway to keep a game running in the red for a while, but how long would it be sustainable?
It seems to me that corporate targeted nostalgia and inspiration often misses the things that made older online games good: and that was their general lack of structure and ability to immerse the player without reminding them to buy something. Because even in a game like Path of Exile, where immersion is high, and advertising is minimal, there’s still a wall when you start to run out of inventory space in the late game. Even if it is a less obtrusive and arbitrary wall, it’s still a wall. It’s still a line you have to cross in order to make your continued game experience more convenient, less tedious, and thereby, more fun.
I just can’t get behind the idea of paying extra for gated fun. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe nostalgia’s call for the glory days of participating in grand space battles with dramatic political ramifications in EVE, or the sprawling freedom afforded in the open world of Ultima Online has summoned in me the opinion that it never got any better than that.
It’s not to say that I didn’t find fun in more modern MMOs with micro-transaction schemes, and shady lootbox systems like ArcheAge and Black Desert Online, but eventually it was those very systems that burned me out–even more so than the tedious gear and level grind they presented. I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
Maybe I’m a relic of the past who needs to get with the times and forget about the whales who probably have more money than brains anyway–but I still feel like my empathy for those with addiction problems or children who simply don’t know any better still gets the best of me.
Maybe I just think the consumer deserves better.