This will likely be the last and definitely the darkest entry in terms of some of the problems that can arise when microtransactions get introduced or are the main payment component to any game. Allow me to set the stage.
Imagine that you’ve decided to take the plunge and finally get into World of Warcraft. You start the game and take a cursory glimpse around the starting area for whatever class you’ve chosen.
And then you’re killed.
Not by any computer controlled enemies. No, while you were minding your own business, maybe trying out a beginner quest or busy mining for fish (couldn’t resist) you’re suddenly annihilated by someone that’s at least 20 levels higher than you and probably more likely to be 80 or even 90 levels above you with all the requisite gear that comes with being that ridiculous. Every time you try to go out there and do something, you’re accosted by a high level player. Normally the solution would be simply to turn PvP off and give those guys the finger as you now go about your business unharassed.
Except there is no way to turn off PvP.
It seems that your game is over before it even begins. You have no chance to level up or do much of anything without being absolutely destroyed every 5 minutes by someone who can likely incinerate your character as easily as look at them.
But there is hope. There is an item that will let you pass through unharassed, at least for a precious small window of time. At least you can escape to somewhere else, maybe find somewhere that isn’t swarming with high level PvPers. All you have to do is pay for the item, which as mentioned before is limited use only.
This scenario probably sounds nightmarish to most gamers. Surely any game that did this would have most of its fan base leave overnight or never even get started.
Well that’s where you’d be wrong, because the game that I’ve been talking about exists. It’s not WoW. It’s a Chinese MMORPG called ZT Online, and it’s one of the most popular online games in China and still endures to this day.
I found this article talking about some of the elements in ZT Online, and I was shocked by what seemed like one of the endgame scenarios: that of a free to play game that ran microtransactions going completely out of control, with the players willing to pay top dollar bowling over anyone who tries to play the game for free, and literally hundreds of dollars a month needed to remain competitive in the atmosphere that encourages huge power levelling and hours per day spent to maintain any position of influence established.
The thing that struck me was the fact that at one point the article alludes to a player opening over 1,000 treasure chests a day. Like crates in TF2, these cost money to open. Unlike TF2 however, treasure chests seemingly don’t drop, you can open as many as you’d like a day. In fact, ZT Online offers a very sought after prize each day for the person that opens the most chests. You’d think that opening 1,000 a day would be enough to get this player the prize, perhaps even a couple of times. Yet she never got first place for chest opening, not even once.
At this point it isn’t even playing a game anymore, it’s essentially gambling, and as with gambling, the house always wins. Sure, the game was free to play for all comers, but at the point where if you want to take your play “to the next level” you need to start spending some serious cash. The article mentions that this player spent 10,000 RMB (also commonly known as Chinese Yuan). Although it doesn’t mention the period of time, I would like to go out on a limb and hope that sum is spend in a month, rather than a week or even a day, because that translates to roughly 1,500 USD. More money than someone on minimum wage generally makes was spent, and yet it’s not even the most excessive and extravagant amount that people were willing or able to pay in order to remain on top in ZT Online.
It seems utterly ridiculous to us, certainly. But it never starts out seeming that way. At first it’s perhaps a dollar or two a week for a couple of nice little extras here and there. The problem is that when the game has no balancing factors, it quickly becomes an arms race of who can spend the most time and money. Right now it’s not a huge problem because you have at least in most games, some clear differentiation exists between people who want to go PvP, and those that don’t. However, if that gets disregarded for more long term profits at the cost of turning players on each other for more and more increasing gains for the company, then it turns into anarchy.
Vigilance must be taken to ensure that this situation does not crop up with microtransactions becoming more commonplace. The developers must rein themselves in, but it will also take the monitoring of the players, the people that interact with the game on a regular basis and know its ins-and-outs to allow for a balance to take place, for there to be microtransactions, but also a game that is ultimately accessible to everyone whether they want to pay for extras or not.