Massively Overthinking: Pay-to-win vs. cosmetics in MMOs and virtual worlds

    
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But no glamour yet.

MOP Patron Avaera has entreated us to debate the problems of pay-to-win and cosmetic gear, and indulge him we shall.

“The idea that good MMOs will diligently avoid ‘pay-to-win’ item shops is almost universally accepted these days by both devs and players,” he posits. “However, I feel like this zealous insistence that only ‘cosmetic’ upgrades be allowed for purchase with real world currency is actually a fundamental misstep, and one of the clearest symptoms of what is deeply wrong with the direction of our virtual worlds.

“It’s no coincidence that the gameplay systems considered sacrosanct from any sort of pay-or-play tradeoff are heavily skewed towards motivations that are often more popular amongst younger, male demographics – using Nick Yee’s categories I’d consider ‘combat/PvP upgrades’ to affect the competition, destruction, and challenge motivations most heavily. On the other hand, putting the most extravagant, expressive, and unique customisations behind paywalls in an item shop belies far lower value placed on the fantasy, design, and completion motivations, which are apparently most favoured by women, non-binary genders and older players generally.”

Avaera is just getting started.

“Why is it that as gamers we still value hand-eye twitch and reaction time in combat as a ‘skill’-based activity that can’t possibly be performed on anything but absolutely mechanically-level playing field (ignoring the very real physical advantages that exist in the real world between gamers), but we don’t value the complex cerebral ‘skill’ that might be involved in designing a home instance, expressing a roleplayed story, or constructing a nuanced identity that plays off the characters around us? How is this not a sign of our genre (and corporate studios particularly) constantly targetting yet again the straight teenage boy demographic, at the expense of mature or women gamers that are desperately needed to make our worlds feel more like a rounded civilisation and less like a toxic schoolyard?

“Obviously I’m not suggesting that item shops are the ideal economic model for MMOs, and nor that every sort of combat advantage should be solely purchaseable with real-world cash. However, if we have to monetise or develop games that have systems that can be ‘won’, let’s at least consider that combat beatdowns aren’t by any means the sole appeal to players of the MMO genre. Can’t we invest in other motivations just as equally? What do you all think?”

It’s a lot to chew on, but I bet the staff has some opinions for Massively Overthinking. Let’s dive in!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’d argue few games aren’t pay-to-win, and I’m not just talking about ones with item shops. I know a few people on staff had/have multiple accounts to make their crafting lives easier (and richer, haha).

Sticking with the point though, if there’s any item shop, you can bet there’s an XP boost at the least, or some way to blow past grinding something boring to access something that’d make you stronger. Yes, cosmetics might be a bigger draw and where we see most of the debate, but as a bit of a min-maxer myself, I can tell you that those things in the item shop that’ll reduce the grind are usually what I’m fighting to not buy. I’ve mentioned it before, but Fire Emblem Heroes is a game I’ve walked away from in the past because it’s gatcha-pon system isn’t just giving units we may want, but all kinds of currencies that lead to additional power. Heck, I’ve played a little Walking Dead: Our World solo and I’ve been tempted to throw down cash for access to more of the building stuff, even though I don’t think anyone near me plays (seriously, I’ll cover it someday, but the game’s mechanics really do it make the most MMO-like ARG I’ve played on mobile yet).

The fact of the matter is that cosmetics have broader appeal, while reducing grinds that lead to power is easier to ignore for most people.

SAVE IT ALL

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I want to start with the sexism/ageism angle because I think it’s going to be the thing that trips up some folks before they get to the heart of the problem: I don’t think that the majority of MMOs intend, even obliquely, to take a piss on women and Olds, by focusing on combat, emphasizing twitch gameplay, and ignoring non-combat content. I’m not saying that studios never do that purposely (plenty of toy/food/car/etc. companies do) or that the end result doesn’t drive Olds and ladies from the field, just that I don’t think most MMORPG studios, and MUD studios before them, design with that end goal in mind, which is why there are so many older players and female players in this genre to begin with.

I honestly believe that we’re looking at a money-first problem more than a culture-first problem. It’s cheaper, by far, to pump out a combat-grinder than a virtual world with dozens of varied non-combat activities. It’s easier to think of, build, illustrate, and market games where fighting is the thing. Easy wins. Over 20 years, the virtual worlds with their creative content have melted away to leave mostly just the murder sims (and a few old worlds and old soul devs that refuse to give up). It is frustrating and depressing and a huge loss for the whole industry, no question, and it does result in demographic shifts – just look at how many gamers over 40 won’t play action-MMOs.

I do agree that cosmetics in the cash shop represent a key symptom of these interlinking problems. Because MMORPGs have become so heavily focused on combat above all else, studios – with varying degrees of success and cynicism – insulate it from the influence of the cash shop, and therefore from pay-to-win. If combat is the “real game,” influencing it is anathema for “fairness,” which doesn’t leave much else to sell besides cosmetics, whether those are hairdos or clothes or houses, which do influence the game – just not the presumed “real game.” And that’s just as much a problem with modern business models as it is combat, since it happens in games without combat too. It should matter, of course; playing dress-up is just as valid as killing pixel rats, and selling anything in a cash shop has the potential for pay-to-win within an MMO’s PvP economy – but then again, when was the last MMO that cared about economy play?

I suppose I’m still here because I remember when the genre was messy but better than all this, and I still believe it can be better again.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The problem here – to the extent that it is a problem, and I’m not sure it is – comes with a nice heaping bowl of quantification! So let’s start there.

Pay-to-win is one of those terms I avowedly hate simply because there’s no such actual thing. No one who rails against “pay-to-win” is really arguing against anything beyond “pay-to-gain-quanitified-advantages” in the long term, because we all know that the only way to “win” an MMO is by having the most public possible ERP session until you get banned by a GM. If Lord of the Rings Online sold a potion that doubled your damage permanently for $40, people would scream that it was pay-to-win not because that enables you to beat the live game forever, but because you have a distinct and permanent advantage over people who never buy it.

When we get to stuff like experience potions or “grind less for the same result,” those generally are accepted to not give a long-term advantage. Sure, you reach the level cap sooner, but that’s it; otherwise you’re just as strong or weak as anyone else. We accept temporary or partial advantage, simply because we accept that there has to be some reason to buy these things in the first place; conferring no advantage means there’s no incentive, and conferring huge quantifiable advantage means that there’s too much incentive.

So let’s talk about cosmetics. How can you quantify those? How can you point to something and say “that look gives me a distinct advantage over someone else?” The reality is that it is, in fact, really hard to do that; you can edge in some corner cases, but the most quanitifable advantage you gain from cash shop garments is “looking unique.” And even that is debatable because it’s a look anyone can have, not one tied to any sort of in-game achievements whatsoever!

As a result, I tend to disagree with the premise of “players who like cosmetics are the ones being charged.” As someone who spends a lot of time in FFXIV trying to assemble character outfits, I’ve never felt as if I lack options in-game to look fantastic; most of the cash shop stuff is stuff that, well, honestly makes no sense to be provided directly in game. Looking good is not monetized; there are just supplements there. And supplementing that is something which is easier to do without providing a quantifiable advantage, since if there are already hundreds of cosmetic options, two more in the cash shop isn’t a big deal.

Some games definitely lean a bit far over into “all the cosmetics are from paying money,” which is one of the things that bothered me about Star Wars: The Old Republic. But as a rule, I don’t tend to agree with the idea that having outfits and cosmetics available is devaluing the skills of people who want to dress up, decorate, and so forth. So long as the game itself provides a wide spread of cosmetic options available without the cash shop, it doesn’t bug me. If it fails to do so… that’s another discussion.

(Full disclaimer: I have actually accepted piles of gil from people on occasion to decorate their houses, so while the game itself might not have rewarded my skill for that, it definitely has some rewards attached to it.)

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I’ve never thought of it that way. To be fair, I really don’t think of it too much period because I don’t care a whole lot about pay-to-win. I don’t play any games to dominate, and I really don’t care if that’s the goal of some others — as long as their dominating doesn’t infringe on my ability to enjoy my play. I don’t mind so much if an item is obtainable in game but people can shortcut using the cash shop; I am used to working hard for what I have. But it is interesting to think about how monetizing cosmetics and things like housing is very much aimed more at my wallet. No, no, the hordes yell — cash shops can’t affect gameplay. But this idea: Isn’t house decorating and all that gameplay? Oh, it isn’t the combat gameplay… oh well then it isn’t really gameplay, or it isn’t important gameplay. Looking at it this way it does feel a bit condescending to those who engage in this gameplay.

Or, I could look at it a different way. Maybe I just always tend to see the good in things (truth), but marketing to the crowd that prefers things like decorating and cosmetics is a crowd that seems more likely to have disposable income as well as staying power within the game, and those are people you do want to market to. Then again, with the lack of robust systems in games for this crowd, maybe not.

Maybe we can just stop the massive influx of player-must-dominate-other-players-centered games and then what would it really matter if there were goodies for all gaming styles in the shop? I am totally down with that idea! Sadly, the games solely focused on non-combat don’t seem to appeal enough. Remember Wander? Or society seems to value competition more than cooperation, and that will always reflect in the games that are made. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy competition; I love sports and I love board and card games. But I also have just as many — if not more — times where I want to accomplish cooperatively.

Your turn!

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David Goodman

It’s harder to quantify how “harmed” a person is by having a cosmetic option available in a cash shop. (let’s say exclusively because it gets even harder to define if the option IS available in-game as well.)

After all, in terms of aesthetic design, it’s almost always purely done for yourself – you’re never judged relative to others, or by any developer-made metric, there’s no ‘hurdle’ to overcome, you simply either think you look good, or you don’t.

I’m not sure you can consider this a “pay to win” argument by that measure. Is it exploitative to people who focus on character fashion over the core gameplay loop for a company to make cosmetics their micro transaction model? Maybe. I guess it depends on if the base game has enough cosmetic value obtainable without spending money to make it worth playing, if that is your preferred style. If it does, then I still do not see a problem with having additional cosmetics available in the store.

If it doesn’t, then I personally wouldn’t play the game at all. I’d wonder what would keep anyone in a game like that – if there wasn’t something else that was drawing them even more strongly. That’s personal to people individually though.

And sometimes, I get a 75% off platinum coupon in Warframe, spent $12 to get 1200 platinum (rough guess, not looking it up), and spend it mostly on color palettes. And it was well worth it too. It helps when a game lets you directly buy what you want so you can make an informed decision based on a desired outcome and not have to gamble for it.

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Utakata

Yep, /agree with the article’s OP. Why do whales only get to play dress-up? /bleh

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squid

“It’s no coincidence that the gameplay systems considered sacrosanct from any sort of pay-or-play tradeoff are heavily skewed towards motivations that are often more popular amongst younger, male demographics – using Nick Yee’s categories I’d consider ‘combat/PvP upgrades’ to affect the competition, destruction, and challenge motivations most heavily. On the other hand, putting the most extravagant, expressive, and unique customisations behind paywalls in an item shop belies far lower value placed on the fantasy, design, and completion motivations, which are apparently most favoured by women, non-binary genders and older players generally.”

Huh…that’s a great point.

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Paul

Agreed – its not something I’ve questioned despite being very much into many of the systems we accept as “non-p2w”.

Which is odd, now I think about it…

I don’t think I’ll change my stance on not wanting to play a game where advantages in combat are purchased on a store but does make me question why I’m happy to spend RL cash for cosmetic items / housing etc which are a large part of my gameplay.

My general p2w stance is I’d rather play a game with a higher sub level, no cash shop, RMT banned (and strictly enforced) and everything available via gameplay only – I’d be willing to pay several times the standard-unchanged-since-2003-despite-costs-inflating-many-times-over subscription level to play in such a game.

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jaif13

Let’s remember that some people have more time than money, and others have more money than time. Neither is bad, but the ends of the spectrum tend to feel slighted by perceived unfairness in things.

There’s also another axis between people who value mechanical skill, vs those who value time spent in-game. The former want no item differences (as an extreme), while the latter want their playtime valued above all else.

So, to the original point : if I have buckets of money but no time, and I love playing space barbie (a term I regard fondly that I heard in STO ), then putting lots of cosmetics in the shop will seem to me, and I’ll be happy. Conversely, if I have tons of time but no money, and I want the best gear score, then a dungeon that I need to grind 100 times for the right drops sounds grand.

We may be able to read something into the developer’s state of mind about all this, but I think it more speaks to the player’s situation than the developer’s.

-Jeff

P.S. Let’s not be too dismissive of people who like to chop up other people and want a level playing field. The phrase “fair play” came long before MMOs, and the customs associated are naturally put into online gaming.

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Avaera

Your last point is a good one, and I do agree – when the gameplay mechanics are almost exclusively about competitive matches between players, fairness absolutely matters. And that’s probably inherited as much from sports and real-world games as makes sense, where the goal is to balance out any external advantages as much as possible so that the game decisions and rules take precedence. (Although I have to admit – I can’t help myself, even there I want to argue about the inherent advantages that are already in sports!)

Personally, I actually quite like the time vs money equation – I’m much more inclined to support games with item shops where everything being sold can equally be earned through gameplay mechanics (or the shop currency can be earned, I guess). So good points all round!

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Avaera

Thanks for the responses, and some thoughtful comments here too!

I kind of want to pick on Eliot’s answer a bit (sorry!), because it goes to the heart of what bugs me about this kind of culture, and I think it’s a direct result of the designs we’re often given.

How can you point to something and say “that look gives me a distinct advantage over someone else?” …the most quantifiable advantage you gain from cash shop garments is “looking unique.” And even that is debatable because it’s a look anyone can have, not one tied to any sort of in-game achievements whatsoever!

First, you’re qualifying the value of these expressive options quite explicitly along competition/ranking axes – but that’s not the only motivations of gameplay in MMORPGs. Just because it doesn’t give you a direct combat advantage in 1v1 PvP doesn’t mean it isn’t something that is valuable and important to some players – for example, if I can only get the island house with 20 extra placement hooks if I pay $30, how do I not have a ‘creative advantage’ over what I can put together if I can afford that while other players are stuck with the freebie hovel?

Second, I think it’s interesting you have equated ‘unique’ (and presumably special/admirable) as something to be obtained from an ‘in-game achievement’ – as opposed to purchasing it from a shop would not be because ‘anyone can have [it]’. Wouldn’t every player who does that achievement also share the same look – making it by definition not unique unless only one player in the whole game can do the achievement? But that’s not what we’ve been conditioned to think of course… if you “work” for it, show the “skill” of beating the game in the way that we’re supposed to, you’ve “earned” the virtual 1s and 0s that make up your imaginary dress, it’s way more valuable and special because you competed against others and achieved a certain ranking. Which is all nonsense – there’s nothing wrong with rewarding certain types of gameplay, but there’s nothing unique about one form compared to another. Why can we monetize expressive play, but not dare paywall competitive combat rewards?

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kgptzac

Sorry for being blunt here… but if your goal is to have a discussion, then excessive use of rhetorical question is not helpful, as they are neither thought-provoking nor do they facilitate debate. On the other hand, if your intention is to have a monologue, then feel free to go on and ignore rest of my post.

Now to address the core of your points… you and Eliot are playing different games. I think Eliot’s points are fair for the games he plays (and we knows what kind of games he plays). While you are essentially complaining that he isn’t playing the same game as you, and implies that he and everyone else *should* be playing the game you play and be bound by the rules and values of your game, which is an absurd point of view.

But I will give you that much: the collective opinion of “cosmetics cash shop items are ok and/because they are not pay2win”, is an arbitrary one. But it works and set a guidance to developers, who must cater to their respective target audience, to develop a successful product. You by your own admissions, however, are not the target audience of the game which Eliot described. I hope that a developer will make a game that caters to you, meanwhile, please stop insinuating that “the majority” is on a morally shaky ground, because it’s both false, and doesn’t help your cause.

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Utakata

Though making tone arguments isn’t exactly winning moves in a discussion either.

Veldan
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Veldan

@MJ Wander is a bad example imo, it wasn’t really a game at all. Just a walking simulator in a mostly empty world.

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feleran

To better the situation we should stop buying not acceptable items or even better not play such games at all. I would never even consider paying 1€ to a game like Black Desert that has p2w items in cash shop. No in game combat abilities should be sold for IRL cash.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

I … feel like you maybe didn’t read the article?

But, I also don’t understand how “not playing a game because it has something YOU consider P2W” but not necessarily everyone does actually solves a problem. The best possible outcome is that you kill the game … so yay? That’ll show that company that’s no longer in business what’s what.

And if we say no in-game combat abilities should be sold for IRL cash – that means classes too right? So Rift with its “Buy X class $Y” would fall into your definition of Pay-2-Win, while it is something that I consider one of the better ways to monetize a game.

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harbinger_kyleran

Not sure what the actual point of this discussion is.

Combat/PvP upgrades do affect the competition, destruction, and challenge motivations of other players, especially if they are sold in a cash shop.

Developers realize there are some who really value their look and will buy it with real cash, and it doesn’t matter to most other player’s at it doesn’t impact the competitiveness of the game, hence it is pushed as being more acceptable.

None of the above has anything to do with what appears to be the real argument by Avaera which is his complaint that developers don’t provide enough focus on providing content which doesn’t focus on combat.

This simply a matter if building content for the largest target demographic which continues to be males 18-34 or something like that.

I’m in the “olds” category and even I don’t care much for content unrelated to progression or competition.

Crafting, building, dress-up, largely irrelevant, and certainly wouldn’t quit a game for selling any of that in a cash shop.

Serrenity
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Serrenity

I think your assumption that main point of the game is competition is largely the point of the discussion, which I don’t think is demonstrably the case, especially in something like an MMO. A pure competition environment – that’s Overwatch, HotS, Fortnite. Even there your argument breaks down because the “dress-up, largely irrelevant” actually becomes part of the game as it’s a symbol of status.

We can talk about “largest target demographic…” but even that is mis-represented by what you posted here.

The average gamer is 34 years old and 72 percent are age 18 or older. Women age 18 and older represent a significantly greater portion of the video game-playing population (33 percent) than boys under age 18 (17 percent).

-source http://www.theesa.com/about-esa/industry-facts/

You also make that assumption that everyone in your chosen “target demographic” plays with the same motivation — which we know isn’t the case. In fact:

The vast majority of players are Socializers. That’s almost 80% of people who play games. Socializers experience fun in their games through their interaction with other players.

Explorers really enjoy the surprise that’s possible in a game, and around 10% of players fit into this category

-source https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/bartle-s-player-types-for-gamification

This actually suggests that MORE people play with the primary goal of socialization as opposed to achiever or killers (it’s important to note that the Bartle scale isn’t absolute values, but instead each gamer has all 4 categories in them – just different degrees of dominance).

So logically speaking based on the numbers above, developers would likely get larger ROI from systems that actively encourage degrees of socialization more than the focusing on the killer / achiever dominated players types. Other systems such as Crafting, building, dress-up are often social endeavors, which would make them more relevant, not irrelevant to the game.

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Davlos

@Serrenity The Bartle Taxonomy is a player type theory which has been around for a quite a while, and it’s not universally accepted among game developers today. Richard Bartle himself spoke at Casual Connect Europe on 2012, warning against the usage of his theory in games other than MUDs (even MMOs). He thought the theory was very likely incomplete anything other than MUDs.

To build upon that, your assumption that playing the numbers game on directly appealing to the casual playerbase was something Bartle disagreed with. In The Decline of MMOs (Bartle, 2013), there was a list of causes and among them was in Player Type Imbalance:

People play MMOs for different reasons which can be characterised as player types (Bartle, 1996). All of these player types are needed if an MMO is to be healthy. For example, an MMO with achievers but no socialisers will shed achievers, because low-level achievers will find that there are no players that they are “better” than and so leave. Likewise, an MMO with socialisers but no achievers will mean players have little to do and will leave. Today’s MMOs have two main sources of type imbalance:

1) Revenue model. The switch from subscription to free-to-play is bad for achievers. It doesn’t matter how much you try to persuade them otherwise, any payment for any gameplay-affecting item or service is pay-to-win. Anything that improves your chances of getting something gameplay-affecting is pay-to-win. Only purely cosmetic items are not seen as pay-to-win (and even some of those are unacceptable if they give the impression you’ve achieved something you haven’t). Pay-to-win attracts socialisers but puts off achievers (except cheating achievers). Achievers are the core audience for MMOs; they’ve long been abandoning them for single-player games. When an MMO is designed around a revenue model rather than around fun, it doesn’t have a long-term future.

2) Elder game. When players reach the end of the levelling game, they start a
new game. This usually involves raiding or player-versus-player, along with daily quest and instance grinding. This elder game is a completely different experience to the levelling game and is not generally appealing to socialisers. Learning various boss dances is rarely fun unless you know everyone involved, and PvP is dispiriting when you get killed over and over by better (or richer) achievers. There are only so many alts socialisers will level up before they leave for pastures new.

Player Expectations were also cited as another cause. Most curiously, look at this particular segment:

Expanding audience. The attempts at inclusiveness in today’s MMOs mean that many casual-style players (unsurprisingly) treat them casually. They see them as limited-period activities that have a player half-life of three months. There’s no point in starting one that has been going awhile because you’ll be so far behind the power curve that you’ll never catch up; it’s better to wait for someone else to bring out a new MMO and try that instead. As a result, players rarely become sufficiently invested in an MMO to play it for long. People used to play text MUDs for two years before they quit (and some never did quit); this is rarely the case for today’s MMOs.

As much as I love to mess around with quant stuff, use autotesting of game builds at work and bash data together, I’m 100% against just looking at the numbers and making conclusions from them without understanding the issues on a deeper level. Bartle’s 2013 paper resonates with me because he emphasized on having healthy ecosystems of different player types and warned against purely appealing to the casual playerbase. His observation of MMOs fading soon after the launch euphoria is accurate, and we see this in the vast majority of MMOs in recent years.

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camelotcrusade

This seems like a good place to wave my cane and complain that cash shops have done more than any other mechanism to turn every one of the games I loved into a cultural and thematic hot mess. I liked it better when the truly ridiculous items were gated behind epic quests or thankless tasks vs. behind 5 dollars. At least then I knew it was important to that player to get it vs. pay-to-(visual)-troll, and if we struck up a conversation there would be a story to tell. If the studios must profit from visual trolling then I’d like to pay for a protection racket, please. How about a cash shop item visibility toggle for 10 dollars? lol

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Robert Mann

Yeah, if a shop exists what I believe it should have is:

Services. If you need a really special service, it can go here.
Content (xpac/dlc stuff) at a reasonable price. If you are selling a $40 xpac on the store, it needs to be worth that money.

THEN I am okay with just for fun stuff. That can be things like silly emotes or dances, items that change size/appearance temporarily, some of the cool clothes but not all, etc. The only requirement there is that is needs to be things that should not be base game material. Some of those could well apply to PvP just like clothes tend not to (for example, a ‘rekt’ emote would probably be popular). So yes, the classic current items can be there, but should not be quite so unilaterally focused on fashion for those seeking that.

That is the limit of what I believe should be on a store, and even then I’d rather just deal with a company that put forth a sub and an agreement with the players that the money was by and large going to be reinvested in the game (say you are taking 10% profit to make back investment, that’s fine!) and follows through on that… because the biggest argument against subs is that the money does not return to the game as it should.