DLC Cosmetic Gaming: Paying More For Less

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I imagine that question came to light with the advent of the infamous (and probably now long-forgotten) Horse Armor DLC for Elder Scrolls IV, Oblivion. However, as this now affects my most-played game for the past eight years, World of WarCraft, with its addition of a level 90 character boost, I have to question: should gamers actually pay for aesthetic items in games?

It’s a mighty fine question and a mighty fine line that an MMORPG walks between demanding a subscription fee for actual game content and a mild aesthetic touch. Blizzard began dabbling in this much-maligned model through the implementation of pet companions for $10, and eventually mounts for $25. While I appreciate the effort and care it took to make Winged Guardians or Magical Sparkle Horses (note: not real name of horse), I can’t help but think these are quick cash grab. Blizzard dedicates much time and money to keep the WoW train going – obviously, they need to do this for the business’ sake – but why the digital goods?

For one thing, they’re merely for showing off to other players. Not only that, but these are equal-opportunity goods, as all that’s required of you is money. Frankly I’m more impressed with someone showing off a rare mount (Ashes of A’lar, for example) or title (like my very owned well-earned Champion of the Naaru during The Burning Crusade, which isn’t even available to players anymore). There’s a huge gulf between paid items and earned items, and I think it shows. Once the initial feelings of “new thing” wear off, you just spent twenty five dollars on a functionally identical aesthetic enhancement. Sorry for the reduction, folks, but I don’t know how else to put it.

In sum: Blizzard does not offer any tangible, game-related items within their store, and that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want players buying their way to level cap (oh well, I guess I’m wrong about that!) or to raid/high-level PvP quality gear without spending the time and actually effort to get that gear. Still, that may change sometime in the future. Asian regions have shown developers a fertile market for selling digital goods to gamers that change more than your appearance; essentially you need to invest the money to remain competitive in those games. The In-Game Store in all regions only emphasizes this.

Furthermore, the Level 90 Character Boost actually proved a revitalizing force to World of WarCraft, bumping the game from 6.7 million to over 10 million subscribers in a single night. Blizzard came completely unprepared for that influx of new players and launch weekend fell quite short of expectations as a result. I am curious how this will affect the game’s longevity, but so far most people pick up the game quickly and fit right into their desired role. At some point – most likely raiding – things may go south, but at least this aspect seems a minor success. World of WarCraft is such a large game at this point that the boost seems somewhat necessary without having Blizzard redesign the entire lower level play experience, and that won’t happen any time soon.

Still, paying for horses and pets is not exactly a good deal!

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And yet, the inner defender of the free enterprise system says to me more power to them! If Blizzard wants to make money that way, that’s fine and dandy with me.  Blizzard knows they can make money this way, double-dipping on art assets or experience buffs doesn’t seem like a huge deal. If enough people want to buy that stuff, why not take advantage of demand? It’s not as if you’re forced to buy it to level, or to find cool items or gear. Considering they’re available to everyone who can get the money together, it’s just not that interesting to me; I’d rather earn it. Many feel the same way, I’m sure.

It’s not an “A” to “B” situation, as if Blizzard will automatically become a P2P MMO or something. You still need to level to 100, all things considered, and that requires some work. You already get one character boost free upon buying the expansion, so you can jump right into the content you paid money to play. Things don’t move from one extreme to the other, at least our preconceived notions as such; there’s got to be clear warrant on Blizzard’s part to show that this would be the case. Slippery slopes arguments are a logical fallacy, and it’s much more likely that you’d hit a middle ground between subscription fee and paid buff/gear that doesn’t hurt the game. I’d wager that they would alienate their fan-base even more than they already have by doing so; just look at the forums for their games, and that’s pretty clear. When that day does come, though, feel free to point and jeer at me for allowing the slippery slope (or not).

On the other hand, the proponent of good video game development and design says “why would you want players to circumvent your designed experience for money?” Clearly, Chinese gamers suffer a different problem with their model of hourly gaming (a government-mandated fee after the MMO-related deaths), and this looks a great boon for them. Seriously, though, would you rather pay money to skip through the majority of a game’s content? At that point, why bother playing the game at all? Are you paying for entertainment at this point, or have you crossed a line somewhere that equates in-game achievement for real-world success?

It’s up to the WoW community to decide whether or not that’s a good deal, and we finally have the character boost to see if it plays out well. Obviously, mounts and other cosmetic items show us that Blizzard experienced success with those items, but crossing that line may prove more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Blizzard’s been one of the last holdouts for a subscription fee model in the United States – with their gigantic playerbase, they’re the last ones to sustain such a model at all – but one never knows how quickly 10 million subscribers might jump ship. Your flagship games might not exist as the best place to experiment with such a model (hello, Diablo III Real Money Auction House!), and I’d hesitate to make a call either way.

To make an unfair comparison, it’s almost like the myriad number of iOS or Android games that provide pay incentives. You can win if you pay X number of dollars, or play longer, or play earlier. That model hooks player by making a fun game, and then forcing them to pay for a supposed “free” game. That’s how the F2P model works, after all, or even the B2P – they bank on your addiction to a particular product so they can sell you more stuff. Underhanded? Maybe. Successful? Well, it seems that way so far, and many companies make a huge profit off the psychological compulsion to win/own digital stuff. Just look at the Steam Sale’s digital card distribution for buying things on sale – does that seem like a rational reason to buy stuff? Not really, but we tend to give into such compulsions.

In the end, I suppose it comes down to one thing: does said purchase improve the core game substantially enough for a person to purchase it? The answer, most times, is “no”. Skipping that much content, or buying a pretty horse, does not a great game make; there’s so much content in the game already that you wonder why people want to skip things or simply buy a mount functionally identical to every other mount. There’s already so much to do, that sometimes it feels like a shameless cash grab. I have grown over time to be satisfied with such things:

Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake youso that we confidently say,

The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.
What will man do to me?”

Hebrew 13

I guess that is the best way to go about it!

Other companies do it, so why not Blizzard? Or am I thinking about this too hard!? Please sound off in the comments below: what do you think of paying for in-game help?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.