Massively Overthinking: If an MMO item is buyable with gold, does that excuse its presence in the cash shop?


This week’s Overthinking topic comes from longtime MOP reader and commenter Sally Bowls. It’s about monetization, but it’s a nuanced argument we don’t see all that many people making.

“Does ‘buyable in game’ change the monetization argument? For example, there is a $20 (sigh I’m old, make that $1000) mount in the ca$hshop. But you can also earn ‘gold’ in-game to acquire it. One one hand, $0 players can still get the mount, so their complaints are not that they can’t have it, just that they would feel better if others don’t. Which I have always thought of as shallow; drive a nice car because you like it, not because your neighbors don’t have one as nice. On the other hand, at some point, it feels like a sham – if the $20 item takes 400 hours of grinding to get or worse, each hour of grinding gives you a .25% chance of the item. I join the social media consensus: ‘also buy it with gold’ is a complete defense in games I like and an irrelevant detail in those P2W games I do not like.”

Let’s Overthink it. If something’s buyable inside an MMO with gold, does that excuse its presence in the cash shop? Are you more or less OK with a cash shop that allows this type of regular trading and buying alongside RMT? And which games provide the best example?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It depends on whether the item can be traded. It depends on whether the currency can be bought. Then we need to factor in whether the economy is built with item decay in mind and the decay value on said item. Also, the power of black items because those are the best looking and most sought after.

In all seriousness, I prefer MMOs to allow RMT with trading only if it’s a PvE game without a well thought out economy. That’s also not exactly an MMO that would appeal to me unless my friends were into it, but it’d probably also do better commercially. World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV feel like decent examples of this (no offense to either game).

Andy McAdams: I think this whole gets a lot easier if we stop thinking about MMOs as a competition. Then we bring in all this drama what’s fair, what’s pay-to-excel, what’s a “cash grab.” Nine times out of ten, I don’t care in the slightest about what’s in the RMT shop; 99% of what’s there I don’t want to buy anyway. So sure, kick it out there — if it’s worth the dollar amount for someone to drop on it, wonderful. I’m glad the developer and the player could reach an accord.

I appreciate when items in the RMT shop are available through regular gameplay (whether gold, achievement, grinding out boars, whatever). But I don’t think studios are under any particular obligation to provide them. If they do offer them in game, I think they need to obtainable – maybe not comfortably attainable though. Creating an environment that says, “you can put in a ton of effort here, or you can walk over there any pay for it,” isn’t a negative in my book. At the end of the day, the item that I worked my butt off grinding for will always be more valuable than the item I waltzed into the RMT store to buy.

And the pay for convenience items? I see those as largely “pay to not play the game,” which, again if that’s how you want to spend your money — more power to you. That’s just not why I play games.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): Some have more time then money. Some have more money than time. Making an item available via both cash and time spent grinding is a way of giving your player base the choice to pay using the currency they prefer, time or money. It’s less exclusionary, and in my eyes, a perfectly acceptable way to monetize.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As a general rule, I’ve always felt that offering cash-shop items for sale with in-game gold, and allowing them to be traded freely within the in-game economy, takes a lot of the sting out of a cash shop, which otherwise runs the risk of putting all the “exclusives” there for obvious reasons. I think this is why Guild Wars 2 and yes even Star Wars The Old Republic currently feel less money-grubby than other titles – it’s not really about envy but about really making good on the supposition that the cash shop is merely selling convenience.

On the other hand, I’m with Sally with my big ol’ side-eye for studios that say “but you can buy it with gold!” when they know a $5 item would take a month of grinding to earn. A lie by omission is still a lie.

Is it a complete defense either way? Nah. But it’s nearly impossible to find a perfect business model anymore. If you want to play MMOs, best get used to making concessions and choosing lesser evils.

Ironically, in way too many games, my complaint isn’t about which currency buys what but that there’s too little to buy. Take my money. I want to buy some stuff. I want to support your game in a way that doesn’t support lockboxes. More outfits, please!

(I cut it from the topic, but Sally also joked about my walking around the painted floor of my throne room deciding how to deploy my newfound writing sellswords, remarking that if I had a brother, the joke would be awkward, in true Game of Thrones fashion. Ironically, Sally, I do have a brother, and he is literally a modern sellsword in real life, so there you go. However, I’m Team Tarth and Team Tyrion.)

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I don’t really mind it. If the outfit is nice, I’ll drop the $20 no problem, but that’s because I budget out for my internet funny money.

I think its good to have it available for F2P players, but it would be unrealistic to make the grind for the item less grindy – I’d say a 10 or 15 hour grind would be fair for it. Using money will always be faster.

As for players with that attitude, they can just get on a boat and sail away somewhere. How insecure does a person have to be to gain that amount of meaning from an MMO outfit? That’s a deeper question of where a person derives happiness from. On top of that, this is a video game outfit, not an $820 Gucci fanny pack. So yeah, they can just sail away on a boat.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): About the only line I draw with cash shops — or at least the cash shop item that makes me roll my eyes the hardest — are the potions that let you pay to bypass or smooth the grind. Otherwise, everything else cash shop, including the stuff you can get from slowly raking in whatever funny money they have through in-game means, is just fine by me. Heck, if I like an item hard enough, I’ll happily buy it with real money over grinding my face off. Most of my favorite mounts in WildStar were cash shop mounts, and the faceplant island landing animation that plays in Dauntless is well worth the money.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I have and always will be someone who prefers to work for my things. Note, I say work for, not sell self into eternal indentured servitude for (so no, ridiculous “you can get it in game after months and months of grinding or worse, if the RNG gods finally look favorably upon you after months and months of grinding” does not cut it). I enjoy working toward and earning things, so having cash shop items that some people want to buy with cash available for in game gold is just fine and dandy with me. If that is how people want to use their money, why should I care? I care when it actually affects me: I get annoyed is when items are cash shop only or it infringes on my ability to play the game.

Conversely, this puts me in a weird predicament in that I want to support games I play but I often have few options. Because I prefer to earn things in game and not buy through cash shops (actually it is almost a hang up as I feel the need to earn things and not buy), how do you financially support a game that doesn’t have a sub at all and only the cash shop? I’d usually do this with expansions and the like, but some games give content expansions for free. So now what?

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I generally do not have any problems with items that are buyable inside the game with gold and available via cash shop. Time really is money, right? If you have more time than you have money to spend on a game, then by all means, go forth and grind away. If you have more money to spend on a game than time, then by all means, go forth and buy away. Just enjoy the game. It is so easy to get lost in our own heads thinking about what’s fair and what isn’t fair. We really do need to step outside of that mentality sometimes and remember that these are games. They should be fun. And if that shiny new mount will make it a bit more fun for you to play and you just don’t have the time to grind it out, then just buy it and have some fun.

Tyler Edwards: I’ve always had a high tolerance for various MMO monetization strategies, and that’s only become more true with time. The longer I’ve played these games and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized my problems with cash shops were not based on solid or rational arguments. In practical terms, what developers choose to sell in their cash shops very rarely has any negative impact on my play. The only things that still bug me are crowdfunded games that expect people to pay hundreds for rewards that don’t even exist yet, and games where it’s impossible to keep playing without constantly paying more money — which is just sub games and the most extremely monetized free to play titles.

So offering things for in-game currency is certainly something I think is nice, but since I was already fine with the cash shops, it’s not something that’s going to change my view of a game much.

I will say I think the best way to do this is when most if not all cash shop items are tradeable in-game. This is a roundabout way to let people earn things through gameplay, a legalized form of gold-selling that doesn’t overly disrupt the in-game economy, and a way to foster player interaction all at once. Everybody wins.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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Matt Comstock

I’m on the “complete defense” team so long as it is cosmetics, and maybe some QoL items like exp boost potions. And particularly so in F2P games.

As pointed out, there is generally a dichotomy of players: some have more money but less time, while others have more time and less money. Obviously, there will be exceptions and shades in between, but the money/time dichotomy is a good distillation of the combatants in the endless cash shop war.

People who can afford to buy their virtual goodies through RMT in a game help support the continuation of that game; this in turn helps ensure that the people who cannot afford such RMT still have a game to play.

For good or ill, we are increasingly moving towards F2P with micro-transaction supported MMO games, as well as B2P with micro-transaction supported MMO games, and, we are moving farther away from the subscription supported MMO games. MMO developers are not altruistic entities creating a game solely for everyone else’s enjoyment. One way or another, for an MMO to continue with development and support there needs to be an influx of money from somewhere.

So, as I see it, the folks who enjoy the game but cannot afford RMT for virtual goodies, should quiet down and whine less about RMT, lest they be left without a game to play.

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Tobasco da Gama

Conversely, this puts me in a weird predicament in that I want to support games I play but I often have few options.

I recently had this dilemma with Apex Legends. All the things I can spend money on are either ridiculously overpriced or lootboxes.

So ultimately I just bought a $6 weapon skin for Titanfall 2 instead.


Hmm. It depends on what it is and how it is implemented. Take SWTOR’s lightsaber crystals as an example.

At launch, crafting lightsaber crystals was a cottage industry. Crafters could make good bank on crafting crystals, especially the rare colors, and those not interested in crafting could choose to buy or craft crystals themselves as it wasn’t difficult with the right experience and gathering skill.

And then, Bioware decided to monetize lightsaber crystals, introducing them in the cash shop. The crystals were not bind on pick up so many of them flowed right back into the auction house with all due speed. So, they were available with in-game currency and could still be crafted and attained without purchase.

A win, win? Not at all. Those crafting crystals as a profession were immediately out of business. There was no way to make a profit. Bioware had undercut crafters for the sake of monetization.

And it gets worse. The crystals offered by Bioware were not level locked. The crystals crafted in-game were. The idea initially was to have them level locked to create a continuing market for them while leveling. Heh. Bioware killed that overnight too.

It was disgusting, to be honest. The naked greed was too much. Crafters affected were pissed but nothing could be done because the majority of the player base loved the change.

One of the lessons learned: just because a Cash-shop item is available via in-game currency doesn’t mean it can’t have a devastating impact.

Jim Bergevin Jr

I’m with Andy and Been on this. Plus I’ll go even further. I think that any and all items in a game should be available to get in more than one way – be it an item that only drops in raids, or some tutorial quest item, or a random drop from a monster.

Far too many people pull out the P2W card simply because they think they are entitled to get any and all items in the game for one low monthly cost, and/or claim it taints the game play. That is simply and unsustainable model for today’s MMO genre. It’s like saying everyone has to play the game (and get items) only in the way they think is fun. Having the options allows everyone to play and get items based upon their own concept of what they find fun in a game.

So I would like to see items available in the game via the following methods:
1) Through normal gameplay via questing, combat, etc.
2) Buyable from in game vendors with in game money
3) Trades with other players
4) In the game’s cash shop.

Bruno Brito

Depends on the prices.


If there has to be a cash shop then I will take World of Warcraft shop all day over anything else. They offer cosmetics and services along with just converting them to a month of playtime. I had to limit myself to 1 main and 5 alt’s because I only have a few hours to play a day but I can still farm about 6 tokens a month. If I want the new mount or toy they put up in the last few months I just buy them and all it cost me was time spent in the game.

ESO gives you 15 bucks worth of cash shop but everything else you have to spend and their cash shop stuff is really high in cost.

GW2 locks to much behind the cash shop including things like storage, bank, inventory, teleports, crafting. It is owned by NC Soft so this is why it has a Korean cash shop.

FF14 has one but there is only cash involved and I just do not like the game so it has nothing to offer me.

Games released from Korea like Archage, BDO, AiR, will never get anything from me because anything from this region is PvP focus and power can be had for the right price.

Anton Mochalin

People who want to buy power for the right price do that in WoW quite easily


I feel like its hard to make a statement because its a bit broad. I dont like it if something is 1 dollar on the cash shop, but then takes 6 months of grinding to get in-game. If there’s a balance, then sure. I agree with Ben Griggs that different players have different needs. Some people just dont have the time or energy to grind for something, and if they can spend money to get it and enjoy it, then why not? It doesn’t make me enjoy the version I worked for any less.

I think a lot of people just really want that ego boost of having a hard-to-get item, because I guess it gives them self-worth in some manner. To which I’d say, that doesn’t sound super healthy and you should find a way to enjoy accomplishments even if they don’t come at the expense of others.

And it’s a game. Allow everyone to have fun. Cash shops don’t overly bother me, except if its lootboxes or gameplay locked behind cash. (looking at you, Lotro quest packs. I love ya, but c’mon).

Robert Mann

I actually think quest packs and such are the rough equivalent of cosmetics. In fact, I favor them because of the onus it puts on the developers to produce more content. That said, I do think older content coming down in price more would be a good thing.


Even for gold it disappoints me. I much rather the item be earned via an in-game achievement, a specific quest, or a specific skill. If it’s not, often I will not touch the item (cosmetics in PoE being my main exception).

Instead, when they are available for gold which it is just another way for the studio to make money except this time its essentially through indirectly selling in-game gold to players. Players buy a cashshop item they don’t want, trade it other players for gold, and then bought X amount of gold from the studio with another player being the middle man. This taints any mechanic in the game driven by the gold economy.

Anton Mochalin

To MJ: you can always buy an item in cash shop as a gift for someone (when you want to support a game) and still work towards items for yourself.

A huge mistake is listening to someone calling a game you’re interested in (maybe you like the graphics on screenshots or in “let’s play” videos) a “pay to win” and deciding not to try the game. You can only decide for yourself actually playing the game if it is pay to win for your playstyle.

All the “pay to win” debate is mostly too theoretical – I can have a good time spending $0 in some “totally pay 2 win” game if my playstyle doesn’t need those paid items or services.

One can buy for platinum some very efficient frames not easily available to beginners in Warframe (e.g. Frost which makes all sorts of grind much much easier on lower levels) so the game can be called “pay to win” on lower levels. But I liked the challenge I had when levelling on the lower levels more than bringing a weapon to max level in a single Defense mission lasting less than 15 minutes which is what I have now.

Dankey Kang

I know this has been said a thousand times but cash shops are good for people that want cosmetics but have limited time to play the game. Everything else is probably pay to win.