|Columns: Playing the Price|
The video game industry is under a barrage of complaints and critiques for the growing prominence of micro transactions, both in a gambling formula and in the gating of content behind a paywall. Popular publishers like EA and Blizzard have taken enormous heat, which has in turn caused many gamers to turn and look with a closer eye at their own favourite titles. Guild Wars 2 has, since the release of Heart of Thorns, been slowly creeping deeper in to the micro-transaction pit. Customisation options for Gliders and Mounts, huge selling points for both expansion, are almost entirely gated behind the cash shop, and the RNG and gambling aspect of both the Black Lion Chests and Mount Adoption License have only added fuel to the fire.
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At the launch of the game, Guild Wars 2 promised to be a game that used its cash shop only to provide small, cosmetic enhancements and extremely minor convenience items- all of which you could obtain by farming and converting you gold to gems. Armour skins existed, yes, and a few unique weapons came along at the release of the first and second Living World seasons, but the vast majority of armour and weapon skins came simply from playing the game. This slowly devolved, as with any MMO, gold became more and more abundant as players became more efficient and played for longer hours. In order to maintain an income from the store, pricing for items increased, at the same time so did the Gold > Gem conversion rate, increasing by 400% from July 2013 to July 2014, again by another 80% between 14 and 15. Another 50% increase between 15 and 16 has landed the conversion somewhere in the realm of 30 in game gold to 100 gems- where it has sat steadily (fluctuating higher with the inclusion of popular items) to this day. The popular and most accessible farming area, The Silverwastes, will net you around 10g per hour for an average player. To farm for the cheapest glider skins available at 400 gems, a player would need to play for 12 hours of the same activity. Only 3 glider skins can be obtained in game, a whopping 45 from the Gem Store, and 4 are gated behind RNG rolls in the Black Lion Chests. With only 4 Armour Sets released with the expansion, and a subsequent 8 standalone pieces,this number was dwarfed by the dozens of outfits and standalone pieces that were released in the Gem Store.
Heart of Thorns was the first step away from the play the win model. Prices were rising beyond the reach of many of the game's target audience, casual gamers and gamers with multiple games of the fly, and it became more and more tempting to swipe the credit card than to attempt and play for your rewards. Outfit costs sit around 10 dollars, and for a working gamer, the time investment to get the equivalent gold was simply not worthwhile. But if you weren't going for quantity, and found a few items you liked, you could obtain it at a fairly reasonable cost and move on with other goals in game, such as the few new legendaries available, learning new raids and fractals or experiencing the vast story and open world. With Path of Fire, things escalated at an alarming rate, with both the gambling aspect and prices rising to unseen heights for the franchise. I have nothing but praise for the expansions quantity and quality of in game rewards and events, and thoroughly enjoyed Path of Fire in general. But the most enjoyable feature, and voted Best Feature by the community's sub-reddit, was the mounts. Mount skins are locked entirely behind the Gem Store thus far, and at prices that border on ridiculous compared to both previous pricing and in game time required to obtain them. The Mount Adoption Liscence is a gamble box, rewarding you with 1 mount skin for 400 gems, varying from ordinary, unadorned mounts to flashy, particle fuelled flying sparklers. Whatever your flavour, you have to compete with not only other skins for the mount you want, but skins for every mount. All 30 of these Liscences will set a player back 10,200 Gems, which if we are still using our 10g/Per Hour at the Silverwastes, is around 306 hours of grinding the Silverwastes alone. Even for someone comfortable to spend their hard earned cash, a $130 USD price tag is a steep increase. For standalone mounts, prices have ranged between 1600-2000 gems for highly detailed skins, and other packs have come along for 2000 gems that gives a skin for each mount. But not one mount skin can be obtained in game to date.
This was accompanied by the Black Lion Chests, which until very very recently, have had absolutely no mechanic to allow players to assure they will get the item they want. To get the much desired Jackal Pup Backpack, you could throw $100, $200 or even $1000 at the game and still never see it, putting gambling at the forefront of how to obtain exclusive rewards. To make it worse, developers locked item skins historic to Guild Wars 1 such as the Elemental Sword behind this RNG system, with these types of items always incredibly sort after by a strong chunk of the player base. Completionist players who had never before needed to purchase Black Lion Keys now find themselves in a position where rewards are locked behind an RNG system, throwing thousands away (one player putting over 15000 Gems) with nothing to show for it. Now to appease players, the Black Lion Statuettes have been added to each and every Black Lion Chest at a 100% chance, and you can exchange these for specific items. To take the example of the Elemental Sword again, it costs 60 of these Statuettes for the item, meaning that if you cannot appease RNGesus, you will be paying 5100 Gems (1430 gold) to be certain you will get the skin you want. Thats just for a single item from the chests.
At the end of the day though, all of this is just cosmetic. Players can be competitive in WvW, or in PvE, without spending a dime on the cash shop. You might not be the prettiest person in a raid, but you can definitely be the most effective without ever opening the Gem Store. Your raptor is the same speed as the celestial body, your springer will jump just as high as the arctic bunnies. But if there are no rewards to get from this content, there is almost no incetive to stick around and continue to play the game. So far, lots of players (looking at you, World versus World) have stuck around despite a lack of new rewards and content simply for the amazing gameplay that Guild Wars 2 offers them. But that kind of dedication only lasts so long, with many players starting to look elsewhere, and leaves me deeply concerned for the future health of the game. Where it really hit home was the release of the Garden Plot in the Gem Store. Players can purchase a plot where they plant unique seeds and obtain unique crops, recipes and food, all from their home instance. Features like this belong in the Guild Halls, where guilds can collaborate and work together on communal gardens, and not as pay to play content locked behind the store. For the first time, actual content is completely locked behind the gem store (Living World Episodes being unlocked when you log in, so not strictly counted here) and sets a precedent for more of these types of features. Just like with Glider Skins, Arenanet is testing the waters, dropping a small pebble before they toss in the boulder, and for diehard fans who bought the game and expansions we can only hope that this does not begin to affect the quality or quantity of the content we have paid for.
Like any company, Areanet's first job is to make money. But if these money making methods begin to alienate and drive away players, will it continue to be profitable for the company? Let us know your thoughts on micro-transactions in Guild Wars 2 in the comments below.
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