Things have been really busy for me offline, so I haven't had much time for brainstorming and researching new post topics. Fortunately, my readers have obliged with heated discussion of SOE's latest RMT effort.
Stabs raises the example of the WoW Trading Card Game (TCG) as a subtle form of real money transactions. Though there certainly are some similarities between the TCG and traditional RMT item stores (such as EQ2's Station Cash store), there are some significant differences which I think are worth collecting in one place for future reference.
Rarity and Convenience
The purpose of the in-game items associated with WoW's TCG is to sell cards. This has an important impact on both the rarity and the quality of the items attached to the game. You're not going to sell very many cards if there's a Spectral Tiger in every single pack - people who want one will buy a single pack and never give Upper Deck another dime. Instead, the rewards must be very distinctive and very rare, to encourage players who are willing to spend the money to spend LOTS of money.
The result places the mount out of the price range that most players are going to be willing to spend, both in cash, and in time and convenience (buying a box of booster packs, opening them all and hoping for a tiger). Again, this is alright; the mount is intended to be a rare commodity, not a mass market seller.
On the other hand, when the developer makes items easily accessible via an in-game sales interfaces, priced at a level that the market will bear, the purpose of the in-game items is actually to sell in-game items. Wider distribution means a much wider potential impact on the game.
Balance issues aside, Blizzard isn't going to sell many additional Spectral Tigers if the Tigers were 5% faster than other mounts, so they're not going to feel much pressure to make that change happen. By contrast, a 105% mount that costs $20 is going to be much more popular than a 100% mount that costs $20. Meanwhile, the items are going to be more common in-game due to convenient access, allowing their presence to affect a larger proportion of the playerbase.
Cosmetics and Function
Probably the biggest question that needs an answer when you're talking about RMT is whether the benefits are purely cosmetic or have a function. In a game like Free Realms, which is financed heavily by RMT, it's more acceptable to see RMT items that outshine the best player crafted items, as Tobold reports. In a subscription-based game with more of a time investment grind, on the other hand, players are less happy to discover that they must buy their way to the top.
For the most part, Blizzard has stayed away from items that have an in-game function in their TCG. Technically, having a TCG-exclusive mount or non-combat pet counts towards collection achievements, but I think we can agree that 2% progress towards a 100 mount achievement is not going to drive that many multiple-hundred-dollar transactions on its own.
Likewise, EQ2 has avoided the sale of things like gear and healing potions to date. As I wrote previously, they blurred the line by adding RMT furniture, an otherwise cosmetic feature that becomes a gameplay issue because there is a player carpenter class. Likewise, I'm told that EQ2's own TCG (they had one well before the current station cash store) offers some things that have minor benefits, like wings that give a temporary slowfall effect or a large, rent-free apartment. The place where SOE has really decided to push the envelope in EQ2 is with mass-market RMT experience boosts.
The evolution of RMT exp
WoW's "recruit a friend" program, some form of which appears to have become industry standard, does allow players to gain faster experience from levels 1-60 by purchasing an additional account and 2-boxing. (EQ2's RAF system has largely the same features.) This is technically RMT. However, this process has a few limitations that, I would argue, keep it from being a "mass-market" product.
The RAF bonus experience is limited to pre-expansion levels, which already fly by pretty quickly to begin with, and requires that players be willing and able to two-box. On top of that, a player who creates a new account for this purpose will end up with one or more level 60 alts on a separate account. This means either a paid character transfer (to bring the new character over to the main account), ongoing subscription fees and expansion box purchases (if the player wants to keep a second account, which will not own either of the expansions), or losing a level 60 character outright. Overall, I suspect that the portion of the market willing to go to this much trouble is very small compared to the general market for faster leveling.
EQ2's various and ever widening array of experience potions, such as the subject of my latest post, have instead gone for accessibility. Even RMT supporters seem to agree that the prices on these potions are very high, but we're not seeing any discounts, so I'm presuming that the things are selling. The potions are available at any time, in any quantity (no levels caps or need to create additional accounts), so these really have the potential to hit a broad chunk of the market.
Exclusives, shortcuts, and services
RMT items can take the form of exclusives, items which cannot be obtained in game by any other means. These will obviously frustrate collectors, and will cause balance problems if the items have an in-game function that cannot be obtained elsewhere. There are also services, such as server transfers, name changes, and various character re-customization. Though these services are not obtainable in-game, and can cause problems when players go trying to hide a former bad reputation, I don't really think of changing a character's gender as a game design question. All of the options were available to all characters at creation, and the player simply changed their mind after the fact.
The experience boosts, on the other hand, appear to be more of a short-cut. There are other ways of getting experience, and many existing players are already sitting at the level caps anyway. The issue is that level caps and experience curves move.
The current EQ2 exp curve seems to be balanced towards having players arrive at the level cap with badly sub-par crafting and AA levels. The nominal goal behind the changes was to help new players get to the level cap, and group PVE content, faster. The resulting increased demand for RMT tradeskill and AA exp potions was probably a bonus for this expansion cycle. However, there will be another expansion later this year, and an increased level cap seems like a safe bet.
This is where RMT can really corrupt game design. The numbers almost certainly show that the status quo has resulted in strong sales of RMT potions, or SOE wouldn't be rolling out more of them. Very few players are going to cancel their subscriptions outright because the tradeskill exp curve was a little more grindy than they remembered. By contrast, SOE now has hard data about the portion of its playerbase that will happily open their wallets for a boost when the going gets tough. Why would any company choose NOT to deliberately keep the exp curve out of balance with tradeskills and AA's in that situation?
As a result, the time-saving convenience of this type of RMT has a far greater potential impact than the occasional rare, exclusive item, like a Spectral Tiger. Blizzard was not going to implement something so exotic in the game if they weren't out to sell cards - the world would look pretty silly with hundreds of Spectral Tigers everywhere. Thus, players who choose not to obtain a tiger are not really affected by Blizzard's decision to offer one through the TCG. By contrast, players who choose NOT to consume RMT experience potions will be affected by an experience curve tuned to encourage those players who aren't opposed to the concept to open up their wallets a little more frequently.
An odd contradiction
The strange thing in this situation is where the transaction stop. Depending on how these things stack, a player who was out of tradeskill rested exp might now be able to get as much as triple experience (double by refilling their vitality, and then another 50% of the new, 200% level for the most expensive RMT potion). Such a player would zoom through levels (and, by extension, their just-repurchased tradeskill vitality allowances). SOE is okay with this.
What SOE will NOT do is turn around and sell the experience outright. With maximum RMT, you might be spending only 1/3 as much time crafting per level, but you cannot, for any amount of money, actually purchase the level. Perhaps this is merely the line in the sand that the game cannot cross without alienating its subscribers and, in the process, killing the golden goose that gets players into the game, considering RMT purchases in the first place. Then again, I don't really see a moral difference between selling enough experience to gain a crafting level in exchange for spending an hour crafting and selling the same amount of experience to the same player in exchange for spending an hour doing anything else.
Then again, perhaps the potion of instant level up is merely waiting in line for its turn on next week's Station Cash store update. With SOE pushing the limits of what RMT is allowed to provide each and every week, we never know what they will try next. Such is the brave new world of Norrath in the Station Cash era, and the reason why many players are so inherently suspicious of RMT in general.