It was a joke, and everybody got it.
Someone had taken a screenshot of their character attempting to loot one of the best weapons in Everquest from a fallen dragon, and superimposed a fictitious "popup" window over it requiring credit card details. It was brilliant, satirical commentary on Sony Online's recently launched "Premium" server.
On the new server, players paid double the normal monthly fee and were rewarded with significant gameplay bonuses in return. The majority of players in what was a difficult, highly competitive MMO were appalled by the idea and let SOE know it in a torrent of scathing online feedback. Despite this, the server ran successfully for years, proving conclusively perhaps for the first time that significant numbers of players were prepared to pay to win. I remember staring at the picture for long minutes, tickled by the humour yet unable to shake a discomforting sense of the prophetic. But mostly we all laughed and shook our heads.
Noone's laughing now.
Free-to-Play and microtransaction are the new buzzwords of the games industry. Ever since Zynga and their God-forsaken Facebook skinner box, Farmville, roped in untold millions from a deluge of unsuspecting social networkers, companies have been racing breathlessly to catch the gold rush. The payment model itself is not new, and has been used for years with massive success in Asia. One Chinese MMO ZT Online, the owner of which is a genuine billionaire, charges players 1 Yuan (~15 cents) to open chests which have a very small chance of dropping the game's best items. Thousands must be opened every day to maintain coveted leadership positions won at high cost within the game. Because new, ever-increasingly powerful items are released at regular intervals, it's a neverending process.
Brilliant design considering the Asian passion for gambling; brilliant, but evil.
In the West, a grey market has made millionaires out of industrious players who quickly discovered that ingame currency could be bought and sold for real money from players desperate enough to pay for it. One of the first to do so eventually sold his gold selling business for a cool USD$8 million after first buying himself a house and several performance cars with the earnings. But most players in the West eschewed buying game currency, considering it a loser's option and preferring to gain rank and wealth the traditional way. Games companies too generally took a very dim view of the practice, and regularly banned accounts found to be involved.
But the lure of microtransaction money is insidiously persistent. One MMO I was hired to work on changed its business model mid-development to become a Free-to-Play title, funded entirely by ingame purchases. Suddenly all design features in a traditional but potentially ground breaking MMO had to be justified by how they could be monetized. Designers could no longer simply come up with good gameplay. It had to be exploitable gameplay - systems and features that were either directly monetizable, or which funneled players toward those that were. In one foul, fetid swoop we went from game designers to online casino pimps.
"But that's awful," I complained at the time. "We now can't design things because they are fun. We have to design them because they are potentially profitable. What is that?"
"That's what pays your salary," was the blunt reply.
I sat mutely for a long time afterwards, smouldering with distaste and anger.
"That may be what pays your wage in the dystopian future you so cheaply and easily embrace", I fumed internally, "but it's not what is going to pay mine."
I swallowed the words before they could jump out of my mouth, but there was no way I was going to live on money tricked and coerced out of people dishonourably like a digital pickpocket. I sure wasn't going to be part of a system that turned the games I loved into a series of colourful slot machines.
But surely the industry as a whole was - is - different. That sort of design would never fly in the West in serious games, I reasoned.
And then there was Diablo 3.
With the release of the second sequel in their wildly successful, and up until now passionately admired action RPG franchise, Blizzard made the unprecedented move of introducing a real money auction house. The RMAH, as it is known, allows players to buy and sell game gold and items for real money, by-passing the grey marketers who have been conducting similar transactions illegally for years. Players can - and do with perplexing regularity - pay up to USD$250 for single game items. Each transaction Blizzard accrues a 15 percent cut. Fair enough, supporters say. Why not take the profit away from the shady gold farmers and put it back into the hands of the game's owners where it arguably belongs?
I'll tell you why - it destroys the game, changing it irreparably into something else.
Other creative industries recognise something called the fourth wall - a conceptual separation between the medium and the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is recognized almost universally as bad because doing so ruptures the integrity of the piece which exists in a world apart from the real one. The power of the drama is only maintained within the metaphor guarded by the fourth wall. Remove it, and you remove the reason for watching.
As bad as breaking the fourth wall is in theatre or movies, in games it is much worse. A fundamental joy of gaming is living out the fantasies they create. In games, players can be heroic figures from literature and myth and imagination. They are not merely passengers, they are participants. Noone wants to play a sagging, balding, ordinary looking accountant living a mundane 9 to 5 existence; not if that's what they are in real life. We play games to escape from, and to enrich our real lives, not to reproduce them. Noone wants to drag all the desperate economic, social, and political problems from the real world into their gameplay.
Yet that is exactly what happens when you connect ingame economies to real world economics through money transactions. Suddenly what was only gained by ingame effort is gained by real world economic power. The more successful you are in the real world, the more successful you can be in the virtual one as well, removing any effective difference between them. But the real implication is even more serious. Money is grubby. It is smudged and greased with all sorts of uncleanesses that plague our world. The avarice and brutal self interest created by real world economics get sucked directly into the games that trade on money. They become something other than just games. They are emasculated and disempowered of their charm. They become part of the dirt, the menial, and the menace of the real world.
This isn't just hyperbole. The truth of it is already playing out in D3 and players are revolting in droves, filling Blizzard forums with new levels of venom. Some have complained to the FBI over Blizzard's handling of the ingame transactions. The IRS may become involved and keep watch over all monies gained by players. There could be some nasty shocks come tax time, as a result. Class action lawsuits have been mooted over changes to gameplay and items that have significantly reduced the value of player purchases. At least one Asian country has banned the operation of the RMAH entirely after an outcry from gamers there. All this in what began as a (really enjoyable) game. And then there are the many, many problems caused by hackers, gold farmers, cheaters, exploiters, and botters who have been given enormous impetus to do more of what they do by the promise of (now legitimate) financial gain.
Yet the end of such brutal monetization of gameplay is something much worse. The inevitable final result is a reduction of games themselves.
In D3, it is clear to most players after some time playing that the game has been designed from the ground up and tuned to lead them toward the auction houses. It just isn't realistically possible to progress to the game's most difficult levels without resorting to buying items. The game itself is no longer fun just to play as a result. It's a money spinner for some who use it as a way to generate income, and a compulsion for others who feel driven to buy outrageously priced items in order to progress, but the only reason left to play becomes the lure of finding such items to sell. The systems which have been designed to lead to this singular notion of profitability have removed all the joy, the delight, and the enrichment from the gameplay. Where previous iterations were enduring fun, D3 is dull, tedious, and frustrating - and this by design.
All such game monetization has this ultimate result: it forces design in a direction which is antithetical to fun. While companies may get temporarily richer, the games themselves get increasingly poorer.
In the end, I wonder who beyond the gold farmers will be left to play them.