The current episode of DDOCast discussed whether there could be ways for players to gift or trade Turbine Points in the future. Could such a system be implemented? Perhaps, but it’s not quite so simple in practice.
The role of free players in a game with item shop trading
There are games out there that allow players to gift or trade items that are obtained via real currency. For example, Eve Online allows players to purchase in-game time-cards that can be sold to other players for in-game currency, allowing them to finance their subscriptions with the proceeds of their gaming efforts. In another example, Kingdom of Loathing allows players to sell or trade anything out of the game’s item shop.
These approaches have a major advantage – they allow the developers to monetize players who can’t or won’t pay directly. Players who have money to spare pay the developers for items that they can then sell off, purchases that they would not have made if the items were not tradeable. These players can then get their hands on in-game resources that they would not have wanted to farm or grind for on their own. Finally, cash shop items make their way into the hands of non-payers, who in turn are valuable to the developers because their presence in the economy drives sales by creating a secondary market for cash shop items.
Undercutters, Farmers, Botters and Fraudsters
Unfortunately, this type of plan does not work very well with free samples and sales. If Turbine points were tradeable players could potentially stock up during a sale and undercut Turbine’s own prices when things return to their normal price. In that case, money that would have gone to Turbine from players who were willing to pay instead winds up in the hands of resellers (who might also turn out to be fraudsters who pocket players’ money, as we’ve seen in WoW).
Another issue is with free samples. Each new Turbine account can pretty easily obtain almost 1000 Turbine Points ($10 at the most favorable non-sale exchange rate) just by making new characters on each server and advancing to level 4 or so. I’ve been doing just that recently, because I would have tried out those alts anyway, but the cost benefit in my view drops off very quickly once you’ve obtained those low-hanging fruit.
Even so, there are guilds right now that speed level additional characters to 100 favor for the 25 Turbine points (which can be repeated indefinitely). You’re talking about maybe $0.50/hour under ideal conditions, which is less than I value my time at, but that apparently does not go for everyone. Those numbers would only increase if the points could be resold, and, given the history of MMORPG’s, a large number of those farmers would probably be botting.
Finally, there’s a major account security issue in allowing players to trade their Turbine points in a system where credit cards are associated with your store account. If Turbine opens the door to point transfers, there’s be a major incentive for hackers to target DDO accounts and run up a balance on the account’s credit card.
This type of fraud apparently ended Runes of Magic's currency sales, which had been permitted via the in-game auction house until people started buying gold with which to buy item shop currency.
The Value Of Trading Vs Samples
Ultimately, I’d argue that the operator of a free to play game has a choice. You can go with free samples and free points, to show potential customers what they’re missing, along with sales to encourage impulse purchases, which is how DDO runs their store. Alternately, you can open up the cash store items to trading, in the hopes that this will improve the value of the potentially large majority of players who opt not to pay.
Personally, I have a slight preference for the latter model, because it feels more democratic; the risk with an optional payment system is that the non-payers become a less valuable demographic, and that creates incentives for the developers not to care about a major segment of the playerbase. Either way you go, though, mixing the two seems like a difficult task indeed.