Demystifying Micro-Transactions in Champions Online

With the recent announcement that micro-transactions would play a role in the upcoming release of Champions Online, many MMO gamers have expressed concern over just how large a role...
With the recent announcement that micro-transactions would play a role in the upcoming release of Champions Online, many MMO gamers have expressed concern over just how large a role that might ultimately be. Knowing that this can be a touchy subject for fans, Ten Ton Hammer sat down with Bill Roper for an exclusive interview to help put some of the speculation to rest. Read on to learn more about Cryptic’s take on the business model, what type of items you can expect to find through MTs and how the system will be integrated into CO come launch day.

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Ten Ton Hammer: There’s been a lot of speculation about what the Cryptic Store will offer which seems to be sparking quite a bit of controversy recently. Do you think the concept of micro-transactions is something that the western market simply hasn’t completely warmed up to yet?

Bill Roper: Actually I think it really has. I think a great example of that is Rock Band. That game is based wholly on micro-transactions and has a really high cost of entry, you know? With Rock Band you’re not just buying the game, you’re buying all of the peripherals and equipment, so you’re plopping down 150 to 200 bucks on the game, and then people really get into the fact that they can go and download constant content for the game. It’s become so popular that they’re moving into user-generated content now.

So I don’t think it’s something that is beyond the western market. Arguably iTunes does that, besides the fact that people will go online and buy stuff from Amazon. It’s all the fact that they’re OK with saying, “I want to get stuff when I want to get it.” Certainly the idea of micro-transactions has been around a lot longer than that too, where people have paid, for example, even memberships into clubs that would let them get things at a reduced rate. People just have an idea that they’re going to pay for what they want to get.

For us micro-transactions definitely are not the thrust of the business. I’ve seen a lot of people where… everybody in their head when they hear a term they don’t like automatically overlays the absolute worst case scenario on top of it, right? So I think that was something that we really tried to get across to people - and will continue to do so - that the game is not “based” on micro-transactions.

The idea is wanting to be able to have things there that players can get if they want to, but they don’t negatively impact the balance of the game. It’s not like we’re expecting players to go and purchase things through micro-transactions that then give them some huge leg up. All those things I think people get worried about, but really the focus is on having things that are fun, cosmetic or are things that are more account-wide and maintenance based.

World of Warcraft has micro-transactions and people don’t even think about it. Their micro-transactions are fairly steep at times - like $25 to move your character to another realm – and that’s account-wide micro-transactions. WoW also, if you think about it, does micro-transactions through their card games as well, right? It’s an interesting cross-over where it’s a physical product and you’re buying this other game, but that game has cards that can give you effects in-game. And people have gone out and spent a ton of money on that. Granted, they do get a secondary game out of it, but they’re also paying a pretty steep price for that. So they are paying for another game but they kind of have the perks of having in-game items.

Ten Ton Hammer: And SOE has something very similar with the Legends of Norrath game, only in that case even the card game is based on virtual items.

Bill Roper: Right. So for us, the things we’re looking at with micro-transactions are more along the lines of being fun for players to have that aren’t going to be doing anything to disrupt or upset the balance of the game, or give someone who decides to use micro-transactions any kind of leg up on anybody else.

Ten Ton Hammer:  It seems like a main concern centers on the notion that MTs can potentially negate the efforts of tackling high-end content, or that you might be removing certain ‘carrots’ in the game.

Bill Roper: Absolutely not. The thing is there will be a lot of things we’ll never micro-transact. And one of the things we put out there – less because it’s planned, and more because it’s making sure people understood it – was the fact that if we were to ever put anything out that did have a game effect, there would be a way to earn it. I think that’s really important.

If there was some item that had an effect in-game that would give you - I’m going to make something up, so this is not an item in-game or anything – so something that gave you maybe an increased energy regeneration rate or something along those lines, there would be a way for you to get that in the game. I think that the biggest thing though, with the items that people are going to get though micro-transactions there will be some things where maybe that will be the only way you can get them yet none of them are things where you might say, “man, I can’t believe I didn’t get that” whereas there’s tons and tons and tons and tons more things that you can only get by playing the game.

So again, micro-transactions aren’t the focus, a lot of things are simply going to be, I guess you’d say, ‘vanity’ items. But we want to have things like that in the game that players do push for and want to get.

The way I look at it, from a player’s standpoint, there are certain things I’ve wanted in MMOs where I’m like, “man, I really should get that item.” I know that if I was part of a big giant guild and we did raids over and over again, and I got on the list that maybe I’m going to get that item. And it’s not even because that item has a gameplay effect; it’s that cool mount, or that cool pet that is a super rare drop or that kind of thing. I don’t have that kind of gaming time, and I’m not part of a big giant guild so it would be tougher to get some of those kinds of things too. But if I had the opportunity to get something that was similar or something that I felt was equally cool, so not even necessarily the exact same thing, I might say, “Oh cool, I’m going to buy this cool pet for myself.” I don’t think that negates from the enjoyment of my game, or the enjoyment other people have with their game because they’re going to be getting stuff that’s equally as cool if not cooler by playing, but they didn’t have to spend any money on it.

Ten Ton Hammer: So more along the lines of gameplay ‘enhancers’ rather than ‘replacers’.

Bill Roper: I even hesitate to use the term ‘gameplay’ because I think when you use that word people immediately equate that to damage dealt or armor and experience point gain or that kind of stuff, and there’s nothing on my list that’s like that. I think those are valid things to be part of a micro-transaction game, but one that is solely a micro-transaction game. If you’re looking at a game that’s free to download and free to play and its business model is supported by micro-transactions, that’s really where their bread-n-butter is made because it’s more like, yes, you can play the game and be successful but if you really want to kick up the experience gain and do things better or faster you can pick up those kinds of items.

But that’s not Champions Online. That’s not the way the game is structured, that’s not the emphasis for the game and that’s not the desire for us with micro-transactions.

Ten Ton Hammer: With the items that you’d be able to earn in-game that would also be offered through micro-transactions, will you be giving players any kind of information or description within the store for how they could earn that item if they don’t necessarily want to pay for it?

Bill Roper: So the idea with that would be for something that had an in- game effect. Off the top of my head I don’t know that there’s anything like that on the docket, but I think that might be a good idea to do that, or at least have a place for players to find that information pretty easily. But since that hasn’t really been an issue yet that’s not something we’ve looked at.

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Ten Ton Hammer: You mentioned in the latest “State of the Game” that by offering Cryptic Points as part of pre-order programs it will allow players to essentially choose their own rewards for doing the pre-order, which is a pretty cool concept I think. Do you plan on revealing what will be available in the Cryptic Store to coincide with launch, or is there a chance we’ll get a sneak peak at what will be offered during the open beta?

Bill Roper: I don’t have a specific date for when we’re going to be opening that – I still need to coordinate some things with marketing on that as well as the web team working on the store – but I would guess that we’ll have the list of items that will be available at launch out there before the game comes out. So the players who are going to go out and get an in-store campaign that has Cryptic Points associated with it would be able to say, “Oh cool! This is what I’m going to plan to get” – they’ll be able to look at that stuff. So again, I can’t say specifically when they’re going to put that info out, but my guess would be that it will be sometime before launch.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will players be able to access the store from within the game, or will that be something that’s separate or web-based?

Bill Roper: It is web-based, and I also believe you can access it from inside the game, though I’m not positive. I think that depends on how our in-engine web browser support goes since it all gets run through the web browser. I don’t believe we have an in-game interface planned for that, at least not at launch, but at the very least we would have a place that you could go that would launch the web browser externally. I know they’re working on that now, but I don’t know that they’re going to get the in-engine component done on that for launch.

Ten Ton Hammer: You mentioned a bit earlier how the concept of DLC has been embraced a bit more on consoles, and while I know that there hasn’t been an official announcement regarding a console release for Champions yet, do you expect micro-transactions or DLC will play a more vital role for a console release more so than the PC? Or do you expect you’ll be offering the same items for both platforms?

Bill Roper: We haven’t even planned that far ahead really. Certainly I think people are more used to it and there’s more of a standardized interface, like on the 360 for example. So anything we do is going to coincide with player’s expectations and what they’re used to. But again, we haven’t planned anything out though I don’t imagine it would be vastly different than what we’re currently doing. And again, micro-transactions is not the core focus of the game.

Ten Ton Hammer: That about wraps things up for now, but thanks for your time!

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