Friday, April 18, 2008

Money Transactions in WoW and NCsoft

Two giants in the MMO world have taken steps toward sanctioning the flow of U.S. dollars into their games. First, Blizzard Entertainment is currently hosting in World of Warcraft an Arena-based series of global tournaments hosted on special servers. In this Arena Tournament, players pay $20 to participate and in return get “to instantly create level-70 [the maximum level attainable] characters with epic equipment” and unlimited gold. These newly-created characters will be unable to explore or transfer to regular WoW realms that that host the vast majority of players. Thus, these new level 70 avatars are purely a limited creation and presumably expire with the end of the tournament in October. Nonetheless, the tournament is significant as it marks the first time Blizzard has embraced a money-for-advancement exchange. What is interesting is how Blizzard spins this project in their press release:

The tournaments will take place on special realms that allow competitors to instantly create level-70 characters with epic equipment, placing the focus on tactics and execution rather than normal adventuring.

“eSports is one of the most exciting facets of online gaming today,” said Mike Morhaime, CEO and cofounder of Blizzard Entertainment. “We’re pleased to expand World of Warcraft’s tournament options for players who want to focus mainly on the competitive aspect of the game.” (emphasis added)

Here Blizzard tacitly recognizes the validity of players’ preference to bypass the often-interminable grind required to level up to 70 in order to get to the “competitive aspect of the game.” That seems, to me at least, to be a meaningful concession. One of the most common arguments against RMTs is that they detract from the essence of the game, namely investing time in questing and exploring the world. This statement, it seems, appears to weaken the argument against RMTs.

Granted, players are not transferring money into or out of the game. And this move could very well be a one-time event, never to be replicated or expanded in the future. However, it is also possible that executives at Blizzard will sense a market demand for RMT. There are a significant number of players who want to engage in RMT. Perhaps, at some point, Blizzard might even consider setting up special servers where RMT is permitted.

A second and more significant development is that NCsoft has introduced a virtual currency called NCcoin. NCcoin’s micro-transaction system “will allow customers to use real-world money to purchase in-game items and upgrades.” In this system, one U.S. dollar is equal to 100 NCcoin. Currently, NCcoin is only available in Exteel, a third-person shooter released in 2007 in which players control giant customized mechs called Mechanaughts. However, NCsoft promises to have NCcoin “incorporated globally into many of NCsoft’s existing and upcoming games.”

As with Blizzard, the most interesting aspect of this move is how the company spins its decision. However, while Blizzard has taken the strongest stand against RMTs among MMO operators, NCsoft by comparison appears to be more flexible:

NCsoft’s goal is to bring more and more people into the online gaming market, and part of achieving that goal is to continue to diversify how customers can pay and play,” said Chris Chung, NCsoft North America’s president. “This system will offer our customers much greater flexibility and convenience in paying for content. Micro-transactions are a growing part of the online gaming industry and NCcoin will allow us to support micro-transaction based games efficiently, allowing developers and players to quickly enjoy the benefits of those systems. We will soon be rolling out more contents that leverage the flexibility of NCcoin.” (emphasis added)

NCsoft appears to recognize that they are in the business of meeting customers’ demands. There is no disputing that some, perhaps many, MMORPG players would like the option to at least be able to transfer cash into their games currency (even if outflows are still banned). Many, if not most, MMORPG players are either neutral toward or oppose RMT. NCsoft’s statements above appear to suggest that they are looking for ways to satisfy both types of gamers.

An interesting scenario could arise in which NCsoft incorporates NCcoin into Guild Wars, giving MMORPG players a choice between the two biggest adult-oriented MMORPGs: Guild Wars with RMT versus World of Warcraft with no RMT. Consumers, it is said, vote with their feet and such a situation would give those WoW players who favor RMTs an easy place to emigrate to.

Update 4/23/08: NCsoft has announced that the NCcoin system will not be incorporated into current games, such as Guild Wars. As reported on Massively:
NCcoin will not be retrofitted in games that have business models that do not work with a micro-transaction system. We will, however, work to have NCcoin incorporated in as many of our games as possible. What role NCcoin will play in our future console offerings is yet to be determined.