Massively Overthinking: MMO cash shop confessions


Do you ever pick up a drink absentmindedly, thinking it’s going to be something, but it’s actually something totally different that you hate? You know that feeling of first surprise and then revulsion? I had this experience with an industry article a few weeks ago. I sat down to read it based on its title, thinking it was going to be filled with interesting insight about how gamers choose to buy stuff in cash shops, but instead, it was basically a giant treatise on how to be exactly the kind of dark patterns marketing guy who is literally the reason we can’t have nice things. First surprise, then revulsion. I’m not even gonna link it. I don’t want to promote it.

But I’m pretty sure we can still do the article I wanted to read! Listen, even those of us who really aren’t a huge fan of MMO business models that are reliant on cash shops probably still buy from them. Some games literally sell their quests and zones right in the cash shop to remove the friction for buying other stuff. It’s hard to avoid, especially since nearly every MMORPG – yes even the ones with subs – has this stuff.

So let’s tackle the why of what we buy in this week’s Massively Overthinking. I’ve asked our writers to examine their MMO cash shop weak spots. What do we find most irresistible in cash shops? Is it a specific type of buyable? Is it a sale? Is it a sales trick you know gets you every time?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Oh god, I feel called out because I just laid down some cash when I realized what this week’s prompt is. My main weaknesses are storage space, customization options (mounts are customization for me!), and special event tickets. Like, I’ll buy boosters once in a while, mostly as a “Hey, I like this update, I’ll give a tip.” But I almost always max out storage space in games… like at the time of this writing. I buy the cool jackets (unless it’s easy enough to earn or buy with non-premium currency), the black mounts, sometimes the hairstyle expansions (I just need true bald 90% of the time), but I need storage space. If players could rent it out, I’d buy it. Just someone’s kid following me around, holding my extra loot until I’m ready to go back to town.

Special event tickets are a killer too though. As long as I don’t have to jump through any huge hoops or pay huge amounts of money for them, I buy them. Sometimes even when my ability to actually do them may be in question. Heck, all of these were basically what got me to resub to SWTOR several times!

Andy McAdams: Is free a weak spot? :-) I tend to jump on the various free promotions in a cash shop. Outside of that, in something like Elder Scrolls Online I spent my crowns from my subscription on character customizations. Haircuts, tattoos, scars – that kind of thing. I also bought a house in ESO. I would probably buy those more often, but they tend to be disproportionately priced, so I only pick one up when it’s deeply discounted. I bought a house or two EverQuest II as well using StationCash from my subscription.

I also like ESO’s approach to being able to purchase chunks of content that you want to play. I’ll usually look for things like that. Basically I look for things with permanence in the game world. If I’m dropping real money on a cash-shop item, it’s gotta be persistent. I can’t bring myself to buy consumables unless they are free. Age of Wushu used to have a cash shop item to buy a horse, but it only lasted for like 24 hours real-time and was like $5 a pop. Yeah, I’m not springing for any of that craziness.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve talked before about how I make lists obsessively, and that extends to wish lists, and those extend even to cash shops. This is one of the reasons I absolutely detest cash shops that rotate their loot in and out because I seldom break my rules for artificial timelines. It stays on the list long enough for me to be sure it’s not a passing whim, and it stays on the list until I have the budget to afford it. So if I’m sure and I have the money and it’s gone from the shop because you were trying to push us into FOMO? Welp, first, you’re disgusting, but second, that’s your loss, not mine.

The things that do make me break my own rules have to be pretty compelling – it usually needs to be something I’ll get immediate and widespread use out of. Something nostalgic or with a personal connection to me can get me too; that plus utility is hard to resist. But not always. The last cash-shop money I spent was actually in LOTRO a few months ago, and while there were a few cosmetics in the mix, most of what I bought was utility: a farming plot for my house, a carry-all for all my cooking mats, a couple of multi-tools. So I guess in that case, it was crafting and storage utility coupled with an internalized sense that these were startup costs for returning to the game, and I was giving myself permission to cover those costs. Something like Guild Wars 2 has to work a lot harder for my money now because I have the startup costs all taken care of by now and am literally just lying in wait for cosmetics that speak to me.

Writing this just made me want to go play LOTRO. Oops?

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube): I honestly didn’t read the whole question because the answer is super easy: miniskirts and high heels. Thank you for attending my TED-Talk.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): First and foremost are good cosmetics. Clothing, emotes, hairstyles, dyes — the more glamorous I can make my paper dolly avatar, the better. I am an absolute clothes horse in MMORPGs and I will slap a dev so fast with my wallet if the cosmetics look good and the price is right.

This, incidentally, ties into a second-place finisher for cash-shop weakness: the battle pass. I actually like these things, hitting a reasonable middle ground for supporting a game without needing to buy a sub, getting some nice free stuff, and having an additional bonus for just simply playing the game. I admit that this can lead to a bit of FOMO-style psychological manipulation at times, but there are certainly worse business models out there.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I have a serious weakness for sales. Put a -75% next to just about anything and I will at least think about buying it, even if it had very little appeal to me before. I actually had to make a rule for myself on Steam and similar platforms that unless I’m going to plan to play this game this week, I won’t allow myself to buy it. Otherwise my backlog would grow even more out of control than it already is. The same goes for cash shops. I love buying cosmetics, but I make myself decide on at least one character, preferably two, who will use the thing right away before I buy. I have lightsabers and mounts sitting in my SWTOR shared bank to this day that taught me that lesson.

Also, character slots. I have an embarrassing number of characters in every MMO I play, even when there’s no real reason to have more than one of each class. ESO actually cut me off and won’t allow me to buy any more. And if character slots are on sale? You better take my credit card away from me.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): My weaknesses are pets, mounts, and deep discounts. A 75% off pet is as good as sold when I open a cash shop. I will also buy permanent utility items and costumes if the price is good enough. (30-day inventory expansion? Get out of here with that rental nonsense.) A cute critter gets me every time, and I am (mostly) not ashamed to admit it.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t typically hate cash shops. Some of them are way too complex with too much crap, though. When you need a comparison table just to understand the different options and which package includes useful items versus extras then it’s gone overboard.

Anyways, for me if your cash shop has any kind of fire or flame themed objects I am sold. I don’t care about anything else specifically, but if you throw some fire mounts or flaming swords then you can consider my money yours. It’s a weakness but I gotta have that fire.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Outfits and weapon/armour skins tend to tempt me the most, but I think what it comes down to more than anything is what fits my character best. I want the cosmetics that best reflect who they are and what their story is. My ESO Bosmer wants tattoos and “barbaric” seeming outfits, all bone and leather. My old main in TSW liked trenchcoats and suits. My Blood Elves in World of Warcraft can never have enough red and gold outfits. When something feels just perfect for one of my characters, that’s when it just has to be mine, whether it’s a mount or an outfit or something else.

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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