The Dark Side of SWTOR's Cartel Market
Marketing can be a tricky business. This is especially true in MMOs, and particularly when the carrot of "Free-to-Play" is dangled in front of us, leading us down a path cobbled with microtransactions. Since Star Wars: The Old Republic switched to Free-to-Play and the cash shop that would go with it, they have been dangling a number of carrots-on-sticks to keep us interested and get us spending money on their product. There's nothing really wrong with that - that's what marketing is supposed to do - but when the time to eat the carrot finally arrives, and the carrot turns out to be a scratch ticket with the words "Sorry, Try Again!" in big, friendly letters, that's a problem.
Since the announcement of the Cartel Market, BioWare has been promoting a select handful of items that would be available in the cash shop: the Carbonite Chamber, the Mask of Nihilus social armor, the Kowakian Monkey-Lizard pet, and the Meditation Throne speeder. Images of these four items appeared over and over in their promotions. Back in the summer, there was even a page on the SWTOR website that gave a few more details about each of the pieces. It appeared that these were items you would be able to purchase when the store went live.
When servers came back up after the F2P patch, a lot of players flooded in looking for these items, only to discover that only one of them - the Carbonite Chamber - was actually available for direct purchase. In order to get the mask, the pet or the speeder-throne, the other big-ticket items that BioWare has been promoting all along (and images of which they continue to use for promoting the store), you have to buy Crime Lord's Cartel Packs for 360 Cartel Coins (roughly $3.25 or so, figuring on an average of about 0.9 cents per point), or the cheaper Black Market Cartel Packs for 180 (about $1.60). These Cartel Packs are "surprise packs" of randomly-generated loot with a very small chance of actually generating any of the big-ticket items. The more expensive pack has a slightly higher chance of generating desirable loot, plus a few other items not included in the cheap packs.
In other words, if you want any of the cool stuff they've been luring you with, you have to gamble. That's exactly what it is - a gamble. Each roll of the dice gives you a super-slim chance of winning the item you actually want, like spinning the roulette wheel and betting your money on double-zeroes. This seems like kind of a bait-and-switch. We were promised one thing (items we could buy) and given something else (items we could spend money on and probably not get).
And even that wouldn't be so sleazy if the odds were a little better. Obviously, these are premium items and the rarity is part of the attraction... but if one person can spend literally hundreds of dollars on coins and never win one (seriously, I know a guy who really, really wants the throne speeder), but the next person can get one with his first purchase using only his monthly "allowance," that doesn't seem right.
Personally, I spent around 60 bucks on coins and got nothing I wanted. Out of around 25 Crime Lord packs, I got the following items:
- around 15 or so speeders, all of which are essentially repaints of existing speeders, which I distributed among my alts or donated to the guild
- a pile of Rank 5 companion gifts, which I can easily get without paying for by running crew skill missions
- two Pink-Purple Endurance crystals and one Pink-Purple War-Hero crystal, all of which I gave away or sold because pink-purple is the most hideous color imaginable
- two full sets of the female-only adaptable armor, plus an additional top and hat. The character who got them is male.
- a hat from another adaptable armor set, but no other pieces from that set.
- a bare-chest adaptable armor piece. All of these orange armor items are sitting in my vault. They have no mods in them, the market is totally flooded with them, and I certainly have no use for them.
- loads of XP enhancers... for my level 50 Juggernaut. Donated most of these to the guild, kept a few for low-level alts.
- a level 35 artifact-quality blaster rifle, an item my Juggernaut couldn't use but which was bound to him for a day and a half. Eventually sent to my Operative because I wasn't able to trade it up for anything interesting.
- a level 35 artifact-quality lightsaber with an interesting glow effect. This is the most valuable item I've found out of 25 Cartel Packs, but it still took me about a week to trade it up for something I actually wanted.
- plenty of rare top-tier crafting materials, all of which I donated to my guild.
- a handful of mini-pets - a mini probe droid, a couple of lizardbats and a fairly common horranth, but not the Ruddyscale Kowakian Monkeylizard, which is the only pet I want.
- five "Ball Toss" items, which can be used to perform an emote but take up inventory room.
- two banner items - one Republic, one Imperial - that also take up inventory room.
- two "glowing eyes" items, one red and one gold. These also take up inventory room.
- three emotes - two "Intimidate" and one "Menace." I actually used these.
- three or four "credit boost" items that rewarded me a few thousand credits when used. Which is fine and all, but running dailies nets me about half a million, and I'm not paying a couple bucks a shot for those.
This is not 60 bucks' worth of awesome loot. This is 50 bucks' worth of guild donations, and around 10 dollars' worth of so-so stuff I ended up keeping, mostly for my alts.
I don't have a problem with "surprise packs" in general. A couple of bucks for a shot at a premium item plus some other junk isn't a terrible idea. But when it's the sole means of acquiring the items used in the advertising (besides buying them for outrageously exploitative prices on the GTN), that seems unethical. I'm not a lawyer or anything, but I know BS when I see it.
The thing is, I would happily pay money for those items. I paid cash money for equally-ridiculous things in the Lord of the Rings Online. Back in the day, I bought a Steed of Night for my Hunter, which cost around 20 bucks (1995 Turbine Points). And a Steed of Minas Ithil for my Guardian. And a bunch of the class steeds for my other characters, all of which cost around 20 dollars each. And, more recently, a Dwarf-only shirtless cosmetic item that cost about 10 bucks (995 TP). I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff, and I'm absolutely not alone.
I'd do the same for the premium items in SWTOR. The Mask of Nihilus would look awesome on my Sorcerer, because I dislike most of the other light-armor headgear. The Meditation Throne would go great with my tyrannical Juggernaut. The Kowakian Monkeylizard would make a fine companion for my Powertech. To me, those items are worth 10 - 20 bucks apiece. When I first logged in after the update, that's more or less what I was expecting to pay for them. Instead, I paid the same amount of money I would have spent on them had they been available for direct purchase, and didn't get them because of an unfortunate random number generator. I didn't get what I paid for, and that is a pretty lousy way to satisfy customers.
By all means, BioWare should keep selling the Cartel Packs. At 360 Cartel Coins each, they're a fun little gamble. But they should also be offering the items they have been selling us on since the summer for direct purchase. People will buy them, and they will keep buying the Cartel Packs. There's no way selling the premium items directly won't make money. And if demand drops off in a few months, you can repaint it and sell it again, and suckers like me will keep on buying it. Just ask Turbine.