Micro-transactions have taken center stage lately as a hot-button controversy in social gaming, particularly on Facebook. But the debate over micro-transactions in other genres, particularly massively multiplayer online (MMO) titles, has been going on for quite some time, even prior to the advent of Facebook. The reaction to micro-transactions as elements of game play in MMOs has often been virulent, with proponents on both sides attempting to sway the other to their point of view.
Why such strong feelings toward one game element? For many MMO players, particularly those in subscription-based games, the use of micro-transactions comes down to a concern about fairness. For the hardcore “raiding guild” players, why put in so much effort and hours of play time into a game, only to have others succeed in the game by buying their way into it? For average MMO players, incorporating micro-transactions into core game play can also create an in-game society of “haves” and “have nots,” with some the players unwilling or unable spend the cash to be a viable part of the game universe.
One could posit the theory that—for Western gamers at least—the issue is really not about fairness, but that micro-transactions violate the virtually sacred principle of what we consider capitalism, or at least its idealized “American Dream” version: “work hard, and ye shall be rewarded.” To many MMO gamers, micro-transactions violate that principle by offering rewards to the user who merely pays extra cash. In some ways, it could be argued that this is a more pragmatic (or realistic) view of capitalism, i.e., “pay money, get what you want.”
It’s not just the players—the micro-transaction debate is an ongoing headache / concern for game designers, particularly those in the West, who have long struggled with the dilemma. In the past, Western designers have steered clear of incorporating micro-transactions into their mass market MMOs to avoid throwing off game play balance and risk losing their loyal customers. However, free-to-play games (F2P), which are supported through micro-transaction purchases such as enhanced character customization, special clothing and weapons, have long been popular in Eastern markets like Korea and China and are now rising in popularity in the Western world. With the increased success of the F2P model, game designers are taking a closer look at this model as a new means of monetization, customer retention and attraction of new users in order to survive in a new era of gaming.
The solution to this dilemma will most likely be a combination of the subscription-based model with a judicious use of micro-transactions, enabling both the idealized and pragmatic versions of in-game capitalism to coexist to the benefit of end users. Ultimately, all successful MMOs will need to include some content in the form of micro-transactions as an additional revenue stream as well as a method by which to obtain and retain users. As an example, one has only to look at Blizzard’s juggernaut World of Warcraft, which recently introduced two vanity pets for purchase (the first micro-transaction that has been offered in this game).
Capitalism in its ideal and real forms can indeed mesh in an MMO economy; by offering convenient and cosmetic enhancements that do not impact core game play on a micro-transaction basis, developers can give gamers the opportunity to purchase items that allow them to express their individuality and personality while still enjoying the fruits of their labor. This solution works for both gamers and game designers, as enhanced content can be added relatively quickly, provide entertainment and ultimately keep the player as a long-term customer.