Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tyranny of the Cash Store Wallet

Between SOE's facebook promotion and the $5 in "free" credit with the expansion purchase ($40), I currently have $17.50 in credit at SOE's Station Cash store. The new expansion just arrived and, as always, I'm short on tradeskill vitality. With just a few clicks of the mouse, I could have a week's worth of vitality instantly, in the form of a potion that nominally costs $10.

Of course, the catch is that I would never pay $10 for that potion. I didn't pay for the credit I have now, but there might eventually be some other item that I will want badly enough to actually pay for. If I save my balance now, that future purchase might be free, or at least deeply discounted. Any yet, somehow simply having that balance in your wallet encourages you to find a way to spend it.

The Adversarial Design of the Item Shop
Cash stores are ultimately designed to get players to spend money. Even so, one wonders if part of the reason why players are so distrustful of the model is because of all of the tricks these stores employ to try and get players to spend more than they planned to.

In all stores, currency must be purchased in increments of $5. If the items you buy aren't priced in such perfect increments, you may need to top off your account again in order to finish spending your current balance. Unlike some other stores out there, SOE uses an easily interpreted exchange rate (1 cent = 1 SC) and does not require a massive bulk purchase to obtain that best rate. Some games use random numbers to make it hard to figure out the real world cost of the store offerings, and require purchases of as much as $80 at once for players to get the best exchange rate. All of these games are hoping that players will fall into the trap of spending faster than they intended once the real money is loaded into a seemingly less real virtual wallet.

From the perspective of a non-subscription game where 90% of players never pay a dime, I suppose that having a player pay $50 and leave in horror when they realize that they burned through it in a month sounds like just what the bookkeeper ordered. In the long term, though, how much more would that player have spent if the game had not burned them? How much future business is lost from that player's bad word of mouth? The risk that cash store developers run is that all of these little tricks have slowly poisoned the well for ALL cash stores, not just the ones that did a bad job on their pricing research.

As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice and the shame is on me. For me personally, the "once" was the time I spent about $150 in three months on an online trading card game. Ever since then, I've always been very suspicious of item shop models, simply because encouraging that kind of spending is actually part of the game design. I wonder how many other players have already used up their item shop mulligan, and regard the genre with similar distrust as a result.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Cash stores are ultimately designed to get players to spend money.

Correction: commercial games are ultimately designed to get players to spend money. It's just that there are some business models, like subscriptions and expansion sales, that people in western markets are accustomed to.

The same arguments you level against the cash shop can be said for expansions as well. What's to stop a developer from packaging up typical patch content into "mini-expansions" that players have to buy? Nothing except for market forces, meaning people won't put up with having to pay for content all the time. I'm fairly certain that eventually the market forces will put cash shops on a reasonable path.

Green Armadillo said...

"What's to stop a developer from packaging up typical patch content into "mini-expansions" that players have to buy?"

We can go ask Turbine this question sometime, they seem to be having relatively good luck with that model in combination with a free or reduced monthly fee in LOTRO and DDO. The only reason why Cryptic's first attempt at this model for Champions Online failed was because it came so soon after a retail launch that was viewed as not up to market standard in terms of content. The quality standard is the real challenge in getting the market to accept that model. You can produce packs that are worth paying for, but you do so by robbing value from your recurring monthly fee.

The other big difference between the cash store and pay by the content patch is that the patch model - in every incarnation I've seen to date anyway - has a transparent upper limit in terms of the players budget. When I spend the amount I have budgeted for games on your content pack, your response will be "thank you". When I spend the amount I have budgeted for games in a cash store, the response is generally "thanks, but wouldn't you ALSO like...."