MMO publishers are rushing to embrace virtual currencies and digital wallets. But is this trend good for gamers? We send Gazimoff to investigate
Since the dawn of massively multiplayer gaming we’ve been using credit cards to fund our gaming habits. Whether it’s picking up the boxed game from the local store or running the monthly subscription, the rectangular piece of plastic has been our constant companion throughout our online adventures.
Today we reach for our credit or debit cards for almost every MMO purchase. It’s not just subscriptions either: we’re now pulling out the plastic to cover account services, vanity items and more. But all this may be set to change, with virtual currencies sweeping in to replace them. Led by free-to-play stalwarts such as Nexon and since followed by both Turbine and Cryptic, this approach trades our cash for bundles of points to spend in digital stores.
But are points systems and virtual wallets a good deal to gamers? At first glance they provide the golden combination of security and convenience. The publisher gets the benefit of smaller processing fees, while gamers get a ready balance to spend on whatever we choose. While this is great when there are only a few points schemes to choose from, it’s possible that we’ll have a new digital wallet every time we sign up to a new MMO. As we see our favorite games get sold to new suppliers, tracking our virtual penny pouches could become a minefield.
Demand for this mechanism sits squarely with us gamers, as research firm NewZoo reckons that a whopping 80% of us prefer to use virtual currencies when buying items for our games. We’re also leaving our credit cards tucked firmly in our wallets, with only 20% of us using them for mounts, pets and server transfers in 2011. This represents a 6% drop on credit card usage from 2010, so in many ways publishers and developers are simply responding to player demand.
It’s easy to understand why. In times of economic hardship many of us have set limits on our monthly gaming spending and buying. Bundles of points help with budgeting. We’re also less likely to make impulse purchases if we don’t have the points available. There’s also the security that goes with virtual currency, as we only have the balance to lose if a site gets hacked.
The big unknown starts when we decide to start playing a shiny new MMO. After tearing off the shrink-wrap, installing and creating an account, we’re already thinking about what items to kit out our new characters with. The lure of the item shop is always there, encouraging us to pick up a pile of points and go shopping. But if you decide not to stick with a game for more than a couple of months are you really getting value for money? And what happens with any leftover points – are they preserved for eternity or do they vanish after six months of inactivity? A $5 vanity pet becomes a $20 points bundle, with the balance remaining as digital detritus.
We also tend to be a bit nomadic as gamers, moving from title to title and from developer to developer. Some of us also share our time between games, or try a new release out only to go back to our old favorite after a few months. In these cases the points problem is multiplied: our single wallet with a single card has suddenly become five different wallets for a handful of different games.
There’s also the scenario of what happens when your favorite MMO is sold on to a different publisher. Does your points balance move as well or does it stay with the old one? As we’ve seen in Europe with NCSoft’s Aion and Sony Online Entertainment’s stable of MMOs, this can and does happen. Having uncertainty over your online account is one thing, but the situation is worsened with the addition of a digital wallet.
Publishers have also been known to get the idea behind digital wallets horrendously wrong. The continuing saga surrounding Xbox Live accounts demonstrates the problems faced when a points system remembers your payment details. The shock of finding hundreds of dollars siphoned out of your account to pay for points purchases is enough to shake anyone’s faith in digital shopping.
There are a couple of alternatives to simply cramming a store full of virtual goods, with the greatest example being EVE Online. Players can purchase 30 day subscription tokens, also known as Pilot License Extensions or PLEX. These tokens can then be sold or traded for in-game currency, which can then be used to fund almost anything. It’s led to the economy becoming one of the most developed and closely monitored aspects of the game. Guild Wars 2 is also set to use this model, with ArenaNet’s upcoming MMO including a range of digital items and account services that can be bought for gems. Players can buy these gems for real money direct from ArenaNet, but they can also be traded with other players for gold coins (Guild Wars 2’s standard currency).
A similar approach is being adopted by Blizzard with the introduction of Battle.net Balance. While this wallet can be used to fund in-game pets, mounts and other services in World of Warcraft, it can also be used to buy and sell items on the Real Money Auction House in their upcoming dungeon crawler Diablo III. In a key twist, Blizzard is restricting players from using this digital wallet to fund a World of Warcraft subscription, meaning that your ill-gotten gains from the depths of Hell won’t fund your Friday Night raiding habit. Even so, this hybrid approach of being able to use a virtual currency to buy digital goods from an item shop and play on the in-game market is a trend other MMOs are likely to follow
With virtual currencies and digital wallets likely to become the norm over the next few years, it’s up to gamers to decide how we want to use these new features and how we expect them to work. Developers are waking up to the opportunities around selling all manner of digital content, but we need to make sure the deal isn’t all one-sided.
Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Staff Writer