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GW2, Microtransactions, and Fairness


March 27 2012

It's been about a year since I last talked about the free-to-play (F2P) trend, and it has continued to grow dramatically in that time. All of SOE's offerings are going F2P except PlanetSide, and that is getting a F2P sequel. We still see the odd subscription-only MMORPG, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, but it now seems to the exception rather than the rule.

ArenaNet's Guild Wars series has always taken a different approach by selling the game client at about the average price of high-end release on the PC, and include unlimited gameplay at no additional cost. It's a revenue model that has served them well, but not many other online RPGs have tried it. Of course, they've also always charged for certain extras, such as costumes and character name changes.

ArenaNet is rethinking their microtransaction system for Guild Wars 2 and they've recently acquainted us with their views on microtransaction content for the game. This quote from Mike O'Brien on the ArenaNet blog has been widely discussed by the GW2 community this week:

"Here’s our philosophy on microtransactions: We think players should have the opportunity to spend money on items that provide visual distinction and offer more ways to express themselves. They should also be able to spend money on account services and on time-saving convenience items. But it’s never OK for players to buy a game and not be able to enjoy what they paid for without additional purchases, and it’s never OK for players who spend money to have an unfair advantage over players who spend time."

Having played Guild Wars, I have a lot of confidence that ArenaNet will get this right, although I'm sure some people would consider any "time-saving convenience" to be an "unfair advantage." Nor are we likely to find much agreement on where the line falls between fair and unfair. Nevertheless, if items play as small a role in GW2 as they did in the original, it's not likely to be an issue.

Of course, ArenaNet benefits from sales of the client, so it doesn't rely entirely on a cash shop for revenue like most F2P titles. They are planning to sell in-game currency directly to players in an effort to undermine illegitimate real-money trade, much like Eve's PLEX system, which is a step further than they've gone with the first Guild Wars.

As I've said before, the devil is in the details when it comes to F2P pricing. Some companies do it well, while others seem to be committed to the "pay-to-win" approach. I also fear that this revenue model is on its way to becoming a Farmville-like exercise in data analysis and marketing. After all, how do you compete on price after you've made your game available for nothing? What happens when purely cosmetic items are no longer enticing enough to bring in the necessary funds?

Then the industry heads down the slippery slope of selling advantages. They're often small advantages that are obscured by game mechanics, but if they weren't advantages, it's not likely that they would sell. Gold ammo in World of Tanks is a good example, although it may seem insignificant when used only by one player in a public match. However, it could well be the decided factor if a few platoons on your team are using it. Granted, the matchmaking in WoT is terrible enough that it would be extremely difficult to assess the benefits of gold ammo in public matches.

I've seen enough F2P shenanigans that I'm still hoping the subscription model isn't completely dead.

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