SWTOR: How Not To Run Your Cash Shop

1) Remind Free2Play players what idiots they are for not subscribing at every juncture

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Treating Free 2 Play customers like they are second class citizens makes it obvious that you want them to subscribe. Some may, just so they don’t have to endure all this nonsense. Others will simply give up, not bother, not feel valued enough and voila, you lose the long tail – those who might have kept buying in small amounts and those who just don’t believe in sub games these days but will spend big money on microtransactions.

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Constructive solution? Instead of bashing F2P people with a stick to tell them how horribly -penalized- they are in -reduced- xp because they aren’t subscribers, sing the praises of a subscription BOOST or BONUS. F2P is the baseline and paying customers get it FASTER, doubled, twice as good and so on.

The hardcore will bite, guaranteed. No matter how fast things are, they’ll always want it faster.

2) Promise things your shop doesn’t deliver

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Yeah, well, I really don’t see this item in the shop right now, no matter how hard I look.

This one specifically annoys me because SWTOR feels built to be slow and inconvenient to get around at the default sluggish run speed. I do not really approve of the stick and peer pressure method of getting people to pay up, but I was indeed considering making a token payment of 5 or 10 bucks to get Preferred Customer status and sprint at level 1 instead of level 15 – since it is taking eons to get to 15 and I feel bad that my friend is always waiting up for me.

However, if I am going to give them real money in exchange for shop tokens, I’d like to be able to buy something -attractive- and -desirable- in the shop with them.

Since convenience and speed is a priority for me in this game, so as to get to the quest givers and cutscenes more speedily without endless jogging, I asked myself, “What is the thing I would love to unlock the most?” The answer: Faster recharging Quick Travel.

The Free 2 Play default is 2 hours, and it is way too long for me, being used to zipping around maps with Guild Wars 2. Even at a one hour recharge, rather than the 30min cooldown that subscribers get, this would be a desirable item for me.

Except said permanent reduction time item does not exist, despite the website saying it does.

What does exist is a one-off consumable that costs about 90 cents a pop.

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Screw that.

I don’t do consumables, unless they’re really really cheap. Permanent unlocks for me.

Constructive solution? Well, the ideal would be to offer said item in the shop. If the design decision was made to not offer this and there’s no way it will ever come in, then… for goodness’ sakes, proofread and edit the marketing copy on your website to reflect reality.

3) Offer bundles that contain the same item so that it is not worth it to buy both

OR Confuse customers with lack of clarity and shady tricks of omission

This one confuses me greatly. I have been looking at the two currently discounted bundles that appear to be designed to tempt new players into dropping some cash.

One of these things is just like the others...
One of these things is just like the others…

The Newcomer’s Bundle includes a Quick Travel Pass (I assume this means the 90 CC single use consumable), a Czerka Cruiser Speeder (that I have serious difficulty researching but appears to be a cheap basic mount that costs 8000 credits in-game), 5 minor XP boosts (60CC x 5 each) and the Legacy Perk: Improved Speeder Piloting I (475CC.) Total Discounted Cost of the Bundle – 405 CC.

One of these things is... exactly the same?
One of these things is… exactly the same?!

The Preferred Access Bundle includes one helping of the Inventory unlock of 10 slots (175 CC), a crew skill unlock (420 CC), Legacy Perk: Improved Speeder Piloting I (475CC), and Customization unlocks of Display Title (100CC), Display Legacy Name (100CC) and Unify Colors (350CC.) Total Discounted Cost of Bundle – 972CC.

I note the repeated Legacy Perk: Improved Speeder Piloting I in both packs.

Now one possibility that occurs to me is that this particular item is not account-wide, but only character-wide. But it is certainly not stated in the shop that way and seems rather like selling stuff under false pretenses or convenient omission.

Which then immediately rings alarm bells and makes me wonder which of the other items are only also character-wide, instead of account-wide? I had -assumed- that the crew skill unlock would apply to all characters. The inventory unlock becomes significantly more questionable then as well.

Which results in universal confusion and worry that one is being cheated somehow, and reluctance to buy anything for fear of it being a lemon, rather than temptation to buy both packs and be done with it and get maximum bonuses that way.

Constructive solution? Consistent clarity in your store descriptions please. State clearly if this applies account-wide or character-wide.

What makes it even more confusing, I have discovered, is that each server’s character slots appear to share one Legacy, so in addition to account-wide and character-wide, we need to stick the term server-wide somewhere in there too.

Finding forum posts like these dating back just three months ago, expressing serious confusion over the Improved Speeder Piloting Legacy and its account-wideness (or lack of), does NOT build confidence or trust.

No, seriously, if I buy this thing, how many characters of mine are going to have this? I need the clarity of information in order to make an informed decision to buy or not to buy.

(I’ve bought character-only stuff before, my main in GW2 has easily got four extra bag slots because I use him for high-level farming and dungeons and got tired of my bags constantly filling before I was done. I just need it made clear. This is clear. Just Google it and the second link confirms it. As for this, every webpage I click on gives me conflicting information on whether it is account-wide, legacy-wide, server-wide, character-wide or whatever.)

Update: On re-logging in to check the store ONCE more, I have JUST noticed two teensy tiny icons in the lower left picture of each respective unlock in the bundle. Mousing over those brings up the tooltips that the item can be bought for one character or for all characters in your account.

Ditto mousing over the actual blue or purple item itself, which brings up another tooltip that states it is for the player character only.

So my rant is not quite accurate, but it took me around eight very long fueled-by-suspicion-and-paranoia scrutinies at the store to finally find the very small print. It’s still very deceptive UI. And confusing to new players.

(Nor do I understand yet how to buy it for all characters should I want to. Clicking on the icons doesn’t seem to change the price around any. I guess I will have to Google again at some point.)

4) Give them problems logging into your website, after they’ve decided they may want to buy something off you anyway

Even after maximum confusion, I was still game enough to convince myself that a smoother game experience for five bucks (despite knowing very well the game was designed to be un-smooth so as to part you from your money just to make it nice-to-play) was not really worth agonizing over, cheap cash shop tactics notwithstanding.

After all, the quality of the cutscenes and entertainment value I was deriving out of SWTOR was worth putting down an initial outlay of a Starbucks coffee.

Except when I tried to click on the Add Coins button in-game, it assured me that it would open a browser window.

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But it didn’t.

I switched to Windowed Fullscreen, thinking that Fullscreen might have given the game some trouble. No go. Browser remained closed.

I helpfully opened the browser (Firefox) and clicked the button again. No new tab. No redirect. No nothing.

Um, okay. Nevermind.

I went to the SWTOR.com website itself and clicked on the “Buy Cartel Coins” option and got looped back to the same page. Nada.

Oh, maybe I have to be logged into my account. Makes sense, right?

So I click on the Log-In and type in my username (I have no email linked to the account, the free-to-play page here never asked for one) and my password and…

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…This happens.

Again and again. I switch browsers and try Chrome. Then Internet Explorer. Still nothing.

I’M TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY HERE, GUYS.

Why won’t you let me log in to my account on the website, using the exact same password I just copied and pasted, which worked -fine- in the launcher to get me into the game itself?

No system maintenance or alert messages to suggest the website was under maintenance. The Customer Service FAQ and the forums made no reference of this particular problem I was having, leaving me just staring at the webpage thinking that like it or not, I would remain stuck as an SWTOR free-to-play status player for good.

I got no constructive suggestions for this one – only a semi-snide remark that if you make it difficult for customers to buy anything from you, a good lot of them would be much less persistent than me.

Epilogue

Because I love a good mystery, I sat there trying out various configurations, thinking some of the special characters in my password might have been throwing the website form off.

The irony of this is that when you sign up on their uber-easy free to play page, the tooltip says that some special characters are not allowed, but never tells you which ones. I figured that if I typed in the password and it was accepted, it would be fine. And certainly the launcher accepted my password just fine too.

I did eventually figure out exactly what was perplexing the website.

The sign-up page stated that the password had to be 8-16 characters in length – among other qualifications. Being somewhat paranoid, I entered a pretty long password without counting how many characters were actually in it. I’d assumed that if I exceeded the requirements, it would spit it back out at me as an invalid entry.

Turns out that my password had 18 characters in it.

Sign-up form accepted it just fine. Launcher accepted it just fine. (Perhaps they truncated it automatically.)

Website log-in, on the other hand, was NOT happy.

But typing in the first 16 characters of the password sent me right into the account page.

Go figure.

I just don’t know if I want to give them money anymore.

CoH: Where Do We Draw the Line on Selling Power?

I’m usually not a person that has issues with microtransactions and cash shops on a fundamental level. I’ll look carefully at the cash shop before I start playing a game, to make sure I’m comfortable with the stuff in it, and how the rationale for making the company a profit is derived, and if I’m okay with that, then I don’t mind playing the game.

But we’re seeing something dangerous happen in the cases of both Lord of the Rings Online and City of Heroes.

The gradual sneaky addition of items to the store to test player limits.

And I think what the devs are finding out is that if you introduce a distasteful substance in small amounts, people acclimatise to the taste and rationalize it off to the point that outsiders start raising an eyebrow at what they’re accepting.

Hell, I’m starting to feel a bit like a guinea pig here. It’s like the devs are saying, “LOL, let’s see how far some of these players will go, how much they are willing to pay for phenomenal cosmic power!”

Where exactly do we draw the line?

When is it the time to say “No, this is unacceptable, I won’t play this game as is” and walk away from the game, despite all the temptations of content and prior commitment to it?

From here on, I’ll be talking about City of Heroes as I have less in-depth experience with LOTRO’s store, and I’ll be talking about my personal reactions and feelings in an attempt to figure out where my personal line is. Your mileage may vary.

Things have reached a sort of crisis point in my head with the latest and sneakiest introduction to the Paragon Store, Power Amplifiers.

They come in three flavors: Offense Amplifier, Defense Amplifier and Survival Amplifier.

They last for 1, 4 or 8 hours depending on how much real world money you paid. I only looked at the cost for the 1 hour one, which is 80 paragon points, or $1 USD. I think you can extrapolate from there for the 4 or 8 hours, minus the odd buck or few cents for a discount.

They offer a decent, middling buff. I wouldn’t say it is outright breaking the game in terms of direct power given. But I wouldn’t say it is a negligible buff either.

The most controversial is possibly the defense amplifier, which also offers mag4 mez protection, the equivalent of mez resistance for squishy classes that can’t get it off a normal power toggle like the melee armored classes.

I’m trying to figure out why the introduction of these items to the store disturbs me so.

It doesn’t help that my line has been fogged up and disrupted by all the stuff like Super Packs, which I sorta kinda disapprove of on a moral basis, but confess to finding them addictively fun as long as taken non-seriously in moderation (which I -think- I am capable of budget limiting for myself, but I don’t really know. Isn’t that the slippery slope all gamblers go down?)

The common forums retort is, “Look, they’re optional. You don’t -have- to buy them. What do you care what other people do with their money? The presence of these items on the store shouldn’t affect the way you play, just don’t buy them, leave it as a choice for other people to give money to Paragon Studios so that they can continue development of this cool game we all enjoy.”

But somehow, the presence of the items on the store does affect the way I play.

I can understand EvilGeko’s point here about them cheapening the feeling of having “earnt” something in-game.

But that’s not exactly my beef with the items, it doesn’t quite resonate with me that way. It frankly disturbs me more that other players are so accepting of the items, that they think and feel that it won’t have any effect on the way they play whatsoever because they’re not in competition with other players.

Maybe it’ll help if I start with a story. My first ever encounter with “microtransactions” as it were. It was a MUD. Medievia MUD to be precise, back in the mists of time. I was bored with my regular MUD and had started a habit of MUD hopping (which is kinda like MMO juggling) to sample different innovative systems and maybe, just maybe, find a new MUD that I was interested in and could invest time in learning and playing.

Medievia MUD struck a lot of notes with me. It was big and in-depth. There were systems I had never encountered before, like trade running from place to place, dragon kills and eggs, even their questing system was all different and interesting. My trial alt was about waist-deep into the game and almost ready to commit, when I had the (mis)fortune? to talk frankly with a veteran on the ideal gear for each body location. He gave a lot of helpful suggestions and I was eagerly taking notes on stuff I had to collect, things I had to kill…

…Then matter-of-factly, he said. “Ok, for the two neck locations, the best are two ‘donation’ necklaces that you can buy by donating $50 to Medievia MUD.”

WHOA, friend. Hold your horses there.

I honestly forget if it was $25 for a necklace each and 50 bucks in total. Or if they were $50 each.

All I knew were two things. $50 to play a MUD was more money than I could ever conceive of spending on a MUD at the time – the huge chunk of investment was just inconceivable.

And I loathed with great emotion that the guy was so matter-of-fact about it. It was the standard. It was the baseline. If you want to be competitive, this here is what you’re going to have to do, what you’re going to have to pay.

The game exists. It was a payment model that was doing fine by them. But it wasn’t a game for me. At the time, I was not willing to pay that sum to merely to achieve baseline performance in order to explore the systems that MUD had. There were other free MUDs out there, and I would not be playing any “pay” MUDs.

So then and there (after thanking the veteran naturally and parting ways,) I logged out of the MUD and never came back.

In contrast, nowadays, I’m paying for two subscriptions to A Tale in the Desert. That’s $28 a month. I can afford it now. I’m paying that sum to achieve, how do I put it, “solo” baseline performance in order to explore the systems this MMO has.

You can get by with one character if you are sociable, join groups, are part of a guild, that sort of thing. I’m willing to pay a higher premium for the convenience of not having to wait on another person for a number of things.

They sell vanity cash items like cat pets with no substantial in-game effect or bonuses. I don’t begrudge if people buy them. It doesn’t change the overall baseline of player power, and it gives money to the devs to keep the niche game alive – which it is seriously struggling with these past few years, to be really honest.

Nor do I mind the items sold by Realm of the Mad God in their store. Most of the stuff sold for real money are vanity items. Clothing colors. And you lose them if you die, so it is temporary. You can buy a permanent pet (as long as you store the item that gives you the pet in the vault) but the pet is just for looks. I have no issue with cosmetic stuff in stores.

They have keys that unlock dungeons, but at the cost they’re selling for, it’ll have to be someone with lots of spare cash and little patience buying them. Again, I have no issue with these, mostly because there is an alternate in-game way to get the keys, just kill things and hope for a random drop. In essence, though the keys unlock the possibility of killing a big bad boss for loot, they are a time convenience item to speed up the same thing you can already achieve in game.

They have items that give a temporary boost to stats. The closest to selling power, as it were. But they are seriously temporary. Like 30 seconds temporary or less. Which would make them only valuable on very rare occasions, like killing a big boss and trying to do enough damage to qualify for loot…

…Okay, I’m finding it hard to just say that I’m perfectly okay with these. Let’s put it this way. At my current baseline, I do not see the importance of buying these buffs for real money yet. As such, it is not affecting my gameplay or playstyle and I’m okay with continuing to play the game… up to the point where I discover they are a -necessary- part of the game. If, let’s say, I get all statted up and join some hardcore guild that does lots of dungeons per day, and they tell me, hey, all the pros buy these buffs so they can guarantee their loot dropping, it’s the normal thing to do. That’s probably the point where I will get really squicked out and log off and never come back.

So, here we are, back to City of Heroes, a little bit clearer on where my personal line is.

I think specifically, I have issues with two things. In-store exclusivity and player power baseline normalizing to store-bought items.

I think what disturbs me about other players being so accepting of store items is that it contributes to the normalizing of the baseline up to the level of store bought items.

(I played the Summer Blockbuster event the other day. It was quite fun and I might do a post about it soon. But I was a bit taken aback when we encountered a bug – the mission didn’t teleport us back as normal – and one of the players said, “Oh, it’s a bug. Just self-destruct, hospital and come back.” Totally matter of fact.

Except, self-destruct is a power that comes with the optional costume packs they were selling back in the day. And no doubt, it’s a cash shop power now. I don’t -HAVE- self-destruct, thank you. I didn’t see the need for the costumes or the power at the time, and I still don’t see the need now. But it raises my eyebrows when I see a player assuming that everyone has the same baseline he has.

Conveniently, I was in a part of the map where I could suicide to mobs. If not, I presume I would have to log out and back in and hope the twitchy buggy LFG turnstile system didn’t kick me out of game.)

Take Invention sets. Strictly speaking, it’s optional. You can play up to level 50 in SOs. But if you look around, especially at people doing Incarnate level content, chances are the baseline is that people are kitted out in IOs and the rare person in SOs is just that, a rarity, who isn’t numerically capable of contributing as much as someone in IOs and with set bonuses can. Even Samuel_Tow from the board forums has given in and started to figure out how to use Inventions, because the baseline of Incarnate content is set at a level that assumes you’re in them.

There’s technically optional, and there’s where the normal player baseline is. I think what I’m really not comfortable with, is the lack of choice or alternate option for achieving this baseline.

If the same amplifiers can be bought in-game with an in-game currency, or crafted out of rare items in-game, then the store option is just a time-saving shortcut for lazy people with money they don’t mind throwing away.

If the same amplifiers can be traded on the auction house, then economy takes over, and it is possible to either pay insane X amount of in-game currency or Y amount of real world currency to get them, I probably wouldn’t feel as worried. There would at least be a theoretical way to attain the amplifiers without money, even if most people are not willing to do so. I’m not 100% sure on this last point, I think I’ll have to qualify it by examining the level of buff the power awards before it meets my acceptability criteria.

As of right now though, I don’t think those Power Amplifiers meet any of my criteria.

Sadly, the game doesn’t think I’m running a subscription, I’ve just paid for a month of VIP each month from April to June, so I can’t fill out a subscription canceled survey form and explain the reasons why I’m stopping.

But the VIP access expires in the first week of July, and I’ll be stopping there for the time being.

I hope to be able to finish Night Ward and the other content I haven’t played before then.

I’m also still curious about the Battalion story and such things. Maybe I’ll renew for a month out of curiosity when content hits, despite the better part of my morals and sense.

But for now, a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.