MOP reader Randomness recently wrote to us about a Reddit discussion about games with exclusive item shops before the game comes out. The issue was two-fold: First, that an unreleased alpha game has a cash shop at all – in this case, one that’s already sold more items than a comparable game that’s been live eight years – and second, that the exclusive nature of many of the items will ensure an element of inequity whenever launch does happen, even if it’s a merely cosmetic one, thus driving either FOMO now or the regret of missed opportunity later.
“I think this would be an interesting topic for discussion about whether it is good idea to have so many limited time items for a game which is not even out, items which most of the people will never be able to buy even if they want to buy them later,” Randomness wrote.
The game in question was Ashes of Creation (and the comparison live game was Guild Wars 2), but the discussion works more generally, so let’s open it up for this week’s edition of Massively Overthinking. Do alpha cash shops bother you? Or are the exclusives the bigger sin, one that’ll upset potential players who couldn’t buy along the way? Which one is the bigger problem for MMOs and MMO players?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): A big YES to alpha cash shops bothering me. It’s really funny to me when I’m talking to people who actually test bugs for a living and we can talk about reproducing bugs and weird ways we broke games, while other people who talk about doing alphas and betas are like, “It was buggy so I stopped playing.” I could be wrong, but what finished games do we have where alpha had paid access and launch moved the game into a successful and sustainable populated game?
I get that games need money, though. If you’re a super small team and can’t get paid to work, asking for some cash is understandable, though as a consumer it’s scary as heck, especially after seeing so many projects fail. But also asking people to not only pay but also pay for exclusive items in a cash shop? Sorry, but especially after what’s happened with Chronicles of Elyria, it seems scummy. Let’s look no further than Star Citizen, which still isn’t out. It’s hard to decide which sin is worse, as it’s almost like asking, “Do you want to be robbed, or robbed and then kicked?” Kickstarter “preorders” were one thing, but constantly dangling expensive exclusive items during an entire testing phase, especially alpha, is gross.
Maybe this is because I’m an MMO player and my first game had regular updates, but I’d be fine with a game releasing a core gameplay loop and adding on top of that. Even if it feels unfinished (hi pre-trading Pokemon GO), keeping it in beta might be forgivable. Alpha, though? There’s clearly a reason Ashes of Creation doesn’t even make it into my games-of-interest orbit.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have to step a take back here to complain about a third thing before complaining about the first two things because I don’t like cosmetic-driven cash shops to begin with, even in launched games. Yes, cosmetics are less game-breaking than a pay-to-win shop, but it’s never sit right with me to ask one specific player type to subsidize the game for everyone else. Pretty much every MMO does this now, so it’s a bit hard to get away from it, but on principle, it’s problematic.
So no, I don’t think MMOs should be going ham on cosmetics in shop before they even have a game to show for it. That’s even worse. It’s one thing to run an exclusive outfit or mount with an expansion preorder or something; that doesn’t honestly bother me. But these alpha games that are selling pixels to desperate, hopeful people, trying to squeeze their FOMO and hope money drips out? I’m not here for it and they need to stop. I don’t think it’s any different from Star Citizen’s ship sales, except in that Star Citizen is years behind schedule and charges so much more for the trick.
Setting aside the “alpha” portion of all this, though, I have to say that “exclusives” at any stage in a game’s lifespan create problems for the developers, not just the ones people pay real money for. One way or another, studios are going to piss someone off, so they’re just choosing winners and losers here – either the person who bought it early because of the perceived status they’ll get from having it, or the person who came late to the game with a pile of cash but can’t ever “catch up” with the old thing. Studios will always be incentivized to cater to whoever has his wallet open – the first guy early on, then the second guy later and eff the first guy. To me, reneging on the deal is the greater problem, unless we’re talking about so many years down the road that no one remembers or cares. But this is a problem that can be headed off before it begins. Just make sure the exclusive isn’t pay-to-win, and then make more different things to sell. Don’t break your promises. Better yet, don’t make bad promises in the first place.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Games studios are already charging to test games, whether it’s by paid-in alpha or beta or by releasing early access builds, and while I don’t particularly like these models, I also still don’t necessarily despise them either for the most part. Adding mcirotransactions on top of that, however, or even adding MTX in a free-to-play alpha or beta, is a bridge too far. At that point, you’re admitting that the game is primarily feature-complete and is ready to be a profit-driven product that will affect your studio’s or publisher’s bottom line. You’re a launch product. Doesn’t matter that you can update with patches or make major adjustments with build launches or add major components. You’re launched. You’ve launched a game. The game is launched. Whether cash shop items in an alpha/beta/whatever are exclusive isn’t really a big deal to me. Sales happen. Limited-time items are easily dismissed by me. Monetizing an alpha or beta with said cash shop, however, is the bigger sin by leaps and bounds.
Of course, there is an asterisk I want to put on this opinion: If a cash shop’s operation is part of the testing loop, with players given free funny money to use said shop, then it’s OK. It’d even be fine if said funny money items weren’t still available to players after launch, so long as that detail is clearly and succinctly (and repeatedly; trust me, I know first-hand that customers do not read all of an offer’s details at first blush) pointed out. If those items carried over into launch, that’d be a nice gesture, but it isn’t wholly necessary to me.
But alpha cash shop? Git outa here with that. Why do you think we keep dinging Star Citizen over this? Why do you think I keep dinging Star Citizen over this? Me, a person who has supported the game before and who ultimately would still like to see it release?
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): No, they don’t really bother me. It’s a good way to generate the cash to finish the game. Of course, that’s assuming the devs are actually out there trying to make a game rather than scam you. And I’ll take the assumption if the game’s good enough. I think timed lockboxes that contain the cosmetic you want is way worse because not only is there FOMO with it, but there’s always the little problem of, you know, not getting the item you want after spending X amount of cash!
But I don’t buy alpha outfits. Why assume these freaking outfits even carry any sort of clout with them in the future anyway? If the game sucks and will probably not go far past beta, where’s the prestige in owning a cosmetic for a failed game? Some games think that anything they make becomes instantly iconic, which we all know isn’t the case! Time-limited alpha cosmetics are a gamble, especially for unproven franchises. If the game won’t end up becoming an iconic game like, say, the original Guild Wars, then no number of exclusive alpha items is going to make players any more special than someone getting a sticker saying “#1 Sucker” and proudly flaunting it around in an empty MMO.
Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): This question has caused me to emerge from under my rock to shriek, “NO REAL CASH STOP TRANSACTIONS DURING ANY PHASE OF TESTING!” If they want to test the cash shop, they should give you currency to spend to check the functionality, not offer you items for sale. And what ever happened to wiping between phases of testing? Do “alpha” and “beta” mean anything anymore? Are they actually “testing” anything? It’s all a cash grab and it is gross.
Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Alpha cash shops could be a real issue. Even if it’s cosmetic, the idea that you can miss out and never have a chance later on to obtain a digital good is aggravating. Now, I think in moderation the concept that development can continue to earn revenue before launch is good, but I’ve never been a huge fan of full exclusivity. I’m not a fan of the creation of haves and have-nots.
I am still doubtful about a game’s level of success after offering too many alpha cash shop items too. I just struggle to see how the game can keep their old paying playerbase happy and not turn away new gamers or vice versa. On one hand, if you squirrel away too many of the rewards, why as a new player do I want to join when I already know I missed out on so much? On the other hand, if I already put a lot of money and time into a game before launch, how do I not get annoyed that a brand-new person ends up on the same playing field as I am?
Personally I prefer the system where everyone has the same opportunity all around regardless of when they started playing. But I completely understand where people would be coming from when they feel like they are being slighted after feeling like they were personally catered to or helpful to the game’s development.
I’m just not sure. It’s a tough cake to slice.