As the popularity of MMORPG games has grown over the years the practice some people have of spending real world cash for virtual items and money has become more common. We’ve even seen companies set up by people hoping to cash in on this trend to no small amount of controversy. Some folks feel that buying items or gold with real money is a form of cheating while others see nothing wrong with it. Game publishers tend to discourage the practice because it makes it harder to control the in-game economy which is a major part of maintaining an MMORPG, but even with banning thousands of accounts at a time and removing millions in money from the in-game economy for violating the terms of service prohibiting this practice most companies have been unable to stop it from taking place. Given how difficult it can be to earn virtual money in some games—World of Warcraft is typical—the popularity of spending real money for virtual goods is likely going to continue to grow.
Considering the growth of this trend it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that many analysts think that non-subscription related revenue (read: buying of virtual crap with real money) could end up being as high as $5 billion by 2011. This gives game developers an incentive to try and cash in on this trend and Sony is one of the first to step up with an authorized means of selling your virtual treasures to other players in Everquest II using their Station Exchange website. Players can list items they want to sell, including complete characters they’ve leveled up, and other players can bid on them with the winner getting the goods through an automated process. The seller gets real cash minus a service fee ($1.00 for each item, $1.00 for coin, and $10 for characters) that goes to the folks at Sony. I’ve not heard how well this is working out for Sony, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t generating a fair amount of income for them. I’m also surprised that Blizzard hasn’t put something similar in place for World of Warcraft.
A couple of other games have gone as far as to eliminate subscription fees altogether in favor of system built entirely on the transfer of real money into virtual money and back again. Now Codemasters is introducing a new wrinkle to this concept that they’re calling PlayPlus. It’s a standard subscription model with a unique twist in the form of bonus virtual money:
Codemasters Online Gaming today announces ‘PlayPLUS’, a revolutionary subscription system for the hugely anticipated MMORPG ArchLord™. The PlayPLUS system will enable players to purchase packages that include both game time and in-game bonus credits. Credits will be redeemable against in-game items and benefits, such as experience bonuses, teleportation spells, health boosts and many other desirable enhancements.
Items obtained using the bonus credits are additional to the standard in-game currency system and are only used as a way of enhancing your character further. Regular in-game items, including weapons, armour, potions, and mounts, will still be freely available through the regular in-game currency system.
David Solari, Vice President & General Manager, Codemasters Online Gaming, commented: “We are very pleased to bring this exciting concept “PlayPLUS” to the MMO market. We believe the ability to utilise items will give players more freedom to develop their characters in the game world and will enhance their overall experience. Coupled with quality gameplay at a very competitive entry price we believe ArchLord is the MMO to get into this year.”
It seems ArchLord will have a three-tiered subscription system that will differ only in how many bonus credits you’re awarded every month. It starts at Squire which costs $9.99 a month and nets you 1,500 bonus credits every month. Next is Knight at $19.99 with 3,400 bonus credits and finally Lord at $39.99 a month earning you 8,000 bonus credits. But that’s not all, if you sign up for multiple months (3 or 6 months) at once you get even better bonuses. Squire at 3 months costs $24.99 with 5,000 bonus credits and at 6 months costs $44.99 with 11,250 bonus credits. At the highest subscription level—Lord for 6 months—you’ll be kicking out $199.99 and netting a cool 60,000 bonus credits a month for your money.
There’s still a few unanswered questions on how this is all going to work starting with: Are the credits usable for any item in the game or just a designated range of items? Followed by: What’s the economy going to look like? 60,000 bonus credits sounds like a lot until you find out that your mount is going to cost you 6 million credits to buy. Note: I’m not saying that mounts will cost 6 million credits, just that it’s hard to say how big a deal this is without some idea of what the in-game economy is like.
Let me use World of Warcraft as a frame of reference: A standard mount in WoW which you can buy at level 40 cost around 90 gold pieces (GP) for many players and that’s a lot of virtual money to come up with as most first time players are lucky to have 20GP by level 40 and then only if they’ve been saving it up, but that’s nothing in comparison to later levels. At level 60 players can purchase an Epic Mount if they wish and they happen to have 900GP laying around and that really is a lot of virtual money. I’ve been playing the game for almost two years now and if we consider all the money held by all 6 of the characters I play regularly together then the most I’ve ever had is 485GP. Making money in WoW can be rough if you’re not part of a big guild that raids all the time so if Blizzard were to suddenly start offering 1,5000 bonus gold with your monthly subscription it would be a very big deal indeed and would radically change the economy of the game. Even if they only offer 100 or 50 bonus gold per month it would still be a pretty big deal as the highest payout I’ve seen from a level 60 quest is 8GP and it was a pain in the ass to do.
Given that the developers of ArchLord are going into it with a bonus system in place they’ve probably already worked out how the in-game economy will deal with it, but it’s still going to be a tricky balancing act. If the bonus credits are restricted to a small subset of items or the prices of things are set high enough to offset the influx of bonus money then no one will sign up for the higher subscription tiers. At the same time if highly desirable virtual treasure is relatively cheap then, again, there’s no reason for someone to spend the extra money on a higher tier. Of course if the game itself sucks then all of this is moot anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out for the folks at Codemasters in the long run.