Desert Nomad: Diving deep into Black Desert’s cash shop
Hello, friends, and welcome back to Desert Nomad. This week, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about a subject that has been the focus of much debate in the wake of Black Desert’s official launch: the cash shop. There’s been more than a little bit of controversy surrounding the implementation of the cash shop in Black Desert, from the relatively extravagant prices of costumes and pets to the advantages conferred by certain cash-shop-exclusive items, most recently the ghillie suit.
Naturally, the debate has been rather impassioned on both sides, with plenty of polemical rhetoric streaming from each. Some players are adamant that Daum is just another avarice-driven company willing to stoop as low as is necessary to separate players from their hard-earned cash, while others hold steadfast to the argument that the cash shop is fine and that Daum is simply trying to turn a profit. In matters like this, however, I think that the truth tends to lie somewhere between the two extremes. The argument is, admittedly, an ultimately subjective one, as every player has his or her own parameters that determine when a game crosses the line into pay-to-win territory, I hope that by taking a closer look at the items on offer in Black Desert’s cash shop, we can at least shed some light on the points of contention and, with any luck, work toward figuring out some solutions to the issues that may prove problematic in the future.
First, let’s establish some conversion rates. All cash-shop items are purchased using a currency called Pearls, which itself is purchased using another currency called Daum Cash, which is itself purchased using another currency called U.S. dollars. Or pounds sterling, or whatever — insert your national currency of choice here. The point is, I’m never particularly thrilled when the cash shop process starts by having me pull out my credit card to buy an in-game currency so that I can then buy another in-game currency. Maybe I just feel threatened by basic arithmetic, but it bothers me that I can’t just look at the price (in in-game currency) of the item(s) I want to buy and then be able to see exactly how much real cash I’m going to need to buy the necessary amount. It feels like they’re relying on me to mess up the math (a safe bet), resulting in my buying more currency than I need — therefore spending more money — or buying less currency than I need and, since I’ve already spent the money and I’m a sucker for the sunk cost fallacy, shelling out for the rest — therefore spending more money.
Thankfully, however, the conversion rates make it clear that the whole “spend cash for currency to buy a different currency” business is just an exemplary demonstration of Hanlon’s Razor, which is to say that it’s just tedium, not trickery. You can buy Daum Cash in increments of 1000, 2000, 3000, 6000, and 10000 for $10, $20, $30, $60, and $100, respectively — all prices in USD, by the by. So that boils down to $10 per 1000 Daum Cash, or $1 per 100 Daum Cash. That’s simple enough for me, which means it’s probably simple enough for anyone. Simpler still, Daum Cash converts to Pearls at a one-to-one ratio, so that 1000 Daum Cash is worth 1000 Pearls. Easy peasy, but that admittedly makes me wonder why, exactly, the whole cash to Daum Cash to Pearls process is even necessary. Beyond my comprehension, I guess.
Anyway, now that we’ve got that established, let me go ahead and lay out my personal opinion on the cash shop so that everything’s out in the open. So far, I’ve logged, according to my in-game log, 4 days, 18 hours, and 8 minutes in the game — that’s a total of roughly 114 hours in the game. Before anyone asks, no, I don’t leave my character AFK-fishing overnight, and yes, I do wonder if I may have a potentially crippling addiction, but we’re not here to talk about that. My point is that, in those 114 hours, I had not spent one cent on Daum Cash until about five minutes ago when I was writing the previous paragraph and wanted to confirm that 1000 Daum Cash was, in fact, $10 flat, which of course means that I’ve purchased nothing from the Pearl shop. I don’t personally feel that my gameplay experience has suffered one bit for my stinginess. But of course, my experience is not necessarily indicative of the experiences of the thousands of other players, and I do feel that many of those who have voiced disapproval of the game’s cash shop have some perfectly valid complaints.
We may as well go ahead and address the (remarkably well camouflaged) elephant in the room: the ghillie suit. Those of you who haven’t heard of it just need to know that the ghillie suit is a costume obtainable exclusively through the pearl shop (its actual name is the Treant Camouflage set, and it sells for 2900 Pearls aka $29 US), and it provides the wearer a +1 increase to the gathering skill and, more notably, hides the character’s nameplate from other players. A +1 to gathering is fairly negligible as far as I can figure, but it’s the nameplate-hiding feature that led to the now-notorious Reddit post wherein a colorblind player sadly states that he or she is leaving the game because the ghillie suit makes PvP unplayable, as the player’s colorblindness makes it impossible to keep track of other players without the aid of their nameplates.
There are a couple of problems that need to be addressed here, but I feel that the main issue has nothing to do with the ghillie suit itself: Simply put, developers frequently fail to provide some crucial yet fairly simple settings options to allow colorblind players to comfortably play the game. Now, I’m no expert on the logistics of the various types of colorblindness, but I know for a fact that it is entirely possible to include options for colorblind gamers. I’m not colorblind myself, but I feel like this is a case of a problem that can be solved with minimal effort, and it’s disappointing that Pearl Abyss/Daum didn’t put forth that effort when developing the game.
Again, I don’t feel like that problem has to do with the ghillie suit itself — it just manifested and exacerbated a larger problem — but in the Reddit thread, a user named paintitbronze (thank you for having a username that’s fit for print, by the way) suggested what I think is a remarkably simple and elegant solution: Simply change the ghillie suit’s functionality so that when you are in combat mode (i.e., when you have your weapons drawn), your nameplate becomes visible. The gathering bonus on the set suggests that it’s intended to be used to evade notice while gathering in hostile territory, and the suggested change would allow it to fulfill that purpose (in addition to the potential secondary purpose of covertly approaching enemies) without proving problematic to colorblind gamers.
The other problem it poses, though, is at once much simpler and infinitely trickier: As far as I know, the ghillie suit is the only (currently available) way to go about making your character’s nameplate invisible. Yes, all players can achieve the same effect by crouching or army-crawling, but both options severely limit your movement speed whereas the ghillie suit lets you keep your nameplate hidden at all times. While I’m not a huge fan of the general concept of cash-shop-exclusive gear with stat benefits, I firmly draw the line at cash-shop-exclusive gear with stat benefits that cannot be acquired through in-game (i.e., non-cash-shop) means.
It’s one thing to give paying players a slight leg up by providing them with a benefit that is perhaps difficult to obtain in-game — I don’t love it, but I can let it slide if the benefit isn’t outrageously imbalancing — but it’s another entirely to provide paying players with a benefit that is completely restricted from those who don’t fork over the dough. It’s also worth mentioning that there is an item in the game (a flare) that counters the nameplate-hiding effect of the ghillie suit, but by my understanding, the only way to get flares in the Western version at the game right now is to receive them as rewards from certain daily quests, as opposed to the Korean version of the game in which they can be crafted.
But enough about the ghillie suit, let’s talk cash-shop gear in general. I’ve seen two primary forms of the anti-cash-shop-gear argument, the most prominent of which centers around the fact that the gear sets purchasable from the cash shop bestow stat bonuses. I think we can all agree that no one really likes it when cash-shop gear grants in-game stat benefits. Some players, myself included, may be willing to turn a blind eye to it as long as the benefits aren’t too extraordinary and don’t significantly affect game balance, but no one in the history of ever has said the words, “Oh, awesome, you can buy gear with stat benefits from the cash shop!” And if anyone has said that, they were either swimming in a pool of money a la Scrooge McDuck at the time or being incredibly sarcastic. The point is, it’s never a good thing, and it’s frequently a bad one.
Now, for the most part, I don’t think that the stat bonuses conferred by the cash-shop outfits and weapons are anything to lose your mind over: a full outfit (2200 Pearls/$22 US) grants the wearer a 10% decrease to death penalty effects, a 10% increase to Amity gained, an increase of 0.5 meters to jump height, a vision range increase of 10 meters, and a 10% increase to combat experience gained. It’s worth noting that outfits (at least in the case of the Warrior outfits; I’m not sure if this differs by class) consist of either two or four actual pieces of gear. On the four-piece set, the first four of those bonuses are spread out among each piece of gear (the helmet grants the vision range increase, the chest grants the death penalty reduction, etc.), while in the two-piece sets, the helmet provides the vision range increase and the “body” piece provides the other three. In both cases, however, the 10% experience increase is granted as a set bonus only when the entire outfit is equipped.
There are also weapons available in the cash shop — for the Warrior it’s a sword and a shield, but I’m assuming that the other classes can likewise get both a primary and a secondary weapon. The primary weapon will run you 750 Pearls ($7.50 US) and the secondary weapon 450 Pearls ($4.50), though they can also be purchased as a package deal with their corresponding outfit set for 2900 Pearls ($29 US), which is a discount of 500 Pearls ($5 US) compared to the 3400 Pearls ($34 US) it would cost to buy the weapons and outfit separately. The sword slows down the rate of weapon durability degradation by 10%, while the shield grants an additional 100 maximum stamina. Also keep in mind that these bonuses are in addition to whatever bonuses are already provided by the player’s actual armor, as these outfits are “only cosmetic” (quotes mine).
Now, I think most everyone can agree that, aside from the 10% combat experience buff from the set bonus, those stat bonuses aren’t particularly imbalanced. I suppose you could argue that an additional 100 stamina is pushing it, especially in the early game, but in my opinion it’s ultimately not worth making a fuss over. And although I don’t personally care about the 10% increase to combat experience because I’m not particularly focused on leveling up quickly, those players for whom reaching max level ASAP is a top priority probably feel like they’re basically required to shell out the $22 for the combat experience buff alone. That is decidedly uncool, Daum. I am a firm believer that players should never feel obligated to spend money just to remain as efficient in core systems, such as earning experience, as players who had the money to spare.
But not everyone is dissatisfied with the cash-shop-exclusive gear just because of the in-game advantages it provides. As any long-time player of MMOs can tell you, the only thing more important than stats is, of course, fashion, and it’s in the name of fashion that many players have added their voices to the outcry. See, many players believe that the armor sets available through purely in-game means are lacking in terms of aesthetic variety and that Daum is attempting to leverage this dearth of wardrobe options into getting players to shell out $22 for some fancier duds. I’ll admit that I was part of this camp until only very recently when I came across a gallery depicting all of the armor sets attainable in-game, for the Valkyrie class at least, and although I’m currently unable to hunt it down again (brownie points to anyone who can help me out in the comments), I was more or less satisfied with the selection available.
That being said, the differences in appearance between many of the armor sets you can earn over the course of the game are often minute, and sometimes you may not even notice that your look has changed if you aren’t paying attention. I, personally, have no real problem with this slower sense of aesthetic progression, as to me it just makes it a bit more meaningful when I get a new set of gear that makes me look just a little more badass than I did before, but I can absolutely understand why other players have an issue with it.
The issue is compounded by the fact that, even if you’re OK with the longer gaps between acquiring fancier-looking armor, there are no armor sets attainable in-game (to my knowledge) that look even half as glamorous as the outfits available in the cash shop. Again, I’m personally fine with this because most of the cash shop outfits are a little too garish and anime-royalty-ish for my liking, and I actually feel that the more understated appearances of the armor sets you acquire in-game are more fitting to the overall tone of the game’s setting. But again, I understand why this is a problem for many people, and it kind of pisses me off just on principle.
It’s in the same vein as what I was saying earlier about how it’s fine to give people who buy gear from the cash shop small mechanical perks that would otherwise be more difficult/time-consuming to obtain through gameplay, but it’s not even remotely fine to make those perks completely unattainable without spending real cash. The same should go for aesthetics, as well. I’m not saying that every single thing that’s sold on the cash shop should be attainable through gameplay, and it’s fine to have some aesthetic items that are cash-shop-exclusive, as long as the price is somewhat reasonable, but the fact of the matter is that there are no armor sets in the game (again, to my knowledge) that even come close to the opulence of the cash-shop-exclusive outfits, and the prices for the latter are far from reasonable.
On that note, just to clear up any confusion, let me plainly state that I think the prices of outfits — and indeed many of the other cash shop items — are completely outlandish. Anyone who thinks it’s even remotely reasonable to expect the average player to shell out $22 (a measly $8 shy of the cost of the game itself) for a fancy outfit, stat-enhancing or otherwise, is out of their gosh-diddly-goddamn mind. I know everyone has their own definitions of what is “expensive,” but to me, $20 is way too much to throw down for a single outfit with some largely mediocre stat bonuses.
But the cash-shop-exclusive outfits and equipment are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another major source of cash-shop-related discontent is the game’s dye system. If there’s one thing that game devs should have learned by now, it’s that the combination of real-money transactions and RNG is a lot like a cocktail of finely aged whiskey and Four Loko. The only people who are going to drink it are the kind of people who would chug laundry detergent if it made ’em tipsy, and even they’re not going to thank you for the experience.
Admittedly, Guild Wars 2 got away with it, but that’s only because of one crucial difference between GW2’s cash-shop dyes and Black Desert’s: The GW2 devs wisely realized that if they made players pay real cash for a random dye that might not be the one they wanted and made each dye single-use only, there would be a riot. No such luck with the folks at Daum; Black Desert’s dyes (which cost $0.50 for a single dye and $1.20 for a pack of three) are good for only one use, then they’re gone. Players are given the small mercy of being able to buy dyes from specific color categories (red, green, blue, etc.), but the specific dye that you’ll get with any given purchase is still a wildcard, so if you need that particular shade of almost-but-not-quite blue to really tie your ensemble together, you’re probably going to have to fork out a decent amount of cash, and heaven help you if you actually want to dye multiple pieces of gear the same color.
Of course, the point has been made that on the list of crucial game elements, having color-coordinated armor doesn’t even rank in the top five, and this is absolutely true. The game isn’t going to be omg literally unplayable just because my character isn’t wearing the season’s hottest color, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving players the option of handing over some money in exchange for a broader palette. The problem, however, is that on top of the fact that each dye is random and single-use, they are acquired obscenely rarely throughout the course of the game, and there’s no reliable way (that I know of) to get enough of them to dye a whole outfit, unless you’re OK with your armor looking like a court jester in full motley.
Now, I’m all for making some dyes harder to get than others, and I’m even down with making some particularly fabulous tints exclusive to the cash shop, but I feel like in this case, the in-game scarcity of dyes makes it feel like Daum is trying to coerce you into spending money just so you can have even the most basic degree of appearance customization. I think a reasonable solution to the whole issue would be to make some dyes craftable, even if they’re only plain, unremarkable colors like standard red, green, blue, and so on. If the devs want to maintain some scarcity on some of the more unusual colors or introduce some truly magnificent dyes as cash-shop-exclusives (I’d totally pay money for some faintly glowing dyes, for what it’s worth), then that’s fine, but again, it puts a bad taste in my mouth to be essentially restricted from an entire facet of character customization — minor though it may be — simply because I don’t feel like straining my perpetually dwindling bank balance.
But OK, enough about outfits and dyes and all that character customization stuff. What else can you get from the cash shop that might strike a nerve with the playerbase? Well, there are a number of cosmetic items, like horse armor (anyone else getting deja vu?) and skins for wagons and boats, and although the wagon and boat skins came with a free wagon or boat in the closed beta — a significant advantage given the amount of time and resources required to build either — to my understanding, this is no longer the case in the launch version of the game. If I’m wrong about that, please correct me in the comments; I’m not shelling out another $10 to pay the 2000 pearls required to find out for myself. You can also purchase some staggeringly opulent furniture with which to decorate your housing, but it provides no significant advantages, and although I’m not sure whether those pieces of furniture can also be acquired through gameplay, there are plenty of varied furniture options available through crafting, so I don’t see this is as a big deal. There are also some convenience-focused consumables, like inventory expansions and skill point resets, but those items can also be purchased with Loyalty Points (which are given as a daily login reward), so there’s nothing untoward there.
The only other cash shop items that in my estimation are somewhat problematic are pets. This subject is particularly tricky, mostly because I’ve found pets to be fairly divisive in terms of players determining whether they’re conveniences or necessities. Pets, which range in price from $9 US (for cats and dogs) to $11 US (for a hawk), don’t just follow you around and look cute; they’re also little loot vacuums who will collect all dropped items within a particular radius at set time intervals. They can also grow and “level up” so to speak, which increases the radius in which items will be gathered and shortens the intervals between each loot gathering.
Now, the argument can be made — with the aid of some transitive-property gymnastics — that automatic AoE looting leads to killing mobs faster and gathering their loot more efficiently, and faster kills and more efficient loot-gathering lead to more combat XP (and therefore faster level progression) and faster silver acquisition, and faster silver acquisition means more money with which to buy better weapons, armor, consumables, and so on, which is technically buying power in some manner of speaking. And there may be something to that, but I’ve personally never felt like being able to pick up loot drops faster would make any significant impact — inventory space has more frequently been the limiting factor in my experience — and while manually collecting every single loot drop can sometimes be tedious when killing large groups of mobs at one time, I don’t think I’m at a significant mechanical disadvantage to players who have pets. I could be wrong, of course, and maybe after this column is done, I’ll use that 1000 Daum Cash I bought earlier to grab a pet and discover that it’s a life-changing experience. But I somehow doubt it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, covers the entirety of Black Desert’s cash shop offerings, with the exception of a very small number of items that I feel are so clearly not problematic as to be completely unworthy of mention. Needless to say, it’s not perfect, and those who have taken issue with certain aspects of Daum’s (not-so-)microtransaction model definitely have plenty of valid complaints. But in my opinion, nothing on offer in the cash shop is particularly gamebreaking, and my biggest problems with it don’t concern what they’re selling so much as how they’re selling it. Black Desert’s cash shop model may not be outrageously imbalancing, but it is, in my opinion, at least bordering on insulting. I understand the devs have to make a profit to cover the costs of ongoing development and whatnot, but there are better ways than conniving players into paying nearly as much as they paid for the game in the first place just so they can get their hands on a fancy outfit or something that literally cannot be obtained in any other way.
It should go without saying that, despite my many criticisms detailed above, I think Black Desert is a great game — I don’t think I would have logged over 100 hours of playtime within two weeks of the game’s launch if I didn’t — but I don’t want prospective players to be put off from the game because of a clumsily implemented cash shop model. I don’t know if Daum has any plans to remedy the situation, or if they even agree that there’s a situation that needs to be remedied in the first place, but I hope that, if nothing else, they will acknowledge and respond to the complaints. I’m not sure what the odds are of that, though. I refuse to believe that they’re ignorant of the community’s outcry, but so far the only thing we’ve gotten was an underwhelming cash shop sale at launch, but perhaps once the post-launch dust settles, we’ll at least know that the devs hear the criticisms, even if they don’t agree. I want Black Desert to be the best game it can possibly be — and it’s already pretty great to begin with — but it’s impossible to improve anything without first acknowledging that everything isn’t perfect, and I think this would be a good place to start. Thanks for reading, as always, and I’ll see you next week, fellow nomads.