Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Force is controlled by millions of microtransactions...

Yesterday, Joystiq reported an announcement made to investors by Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello that the much-hyped Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO would be "a mid-session game, microtransaction-based." Apparently "mid-session" is a term that EA uses for microtransaction-based games and indicates that it may attempt to eschew a subscription model. No word yet on how this additional (or possibly integral) content will affect gameplay.

I for one have never paid for additional content outside of the - as I see it - conventional model of the expansion pack. When I was playing Halo 2 regularly, I refused to pay for maps I knew Bungie was going to give me for free anyway. While the maps ended up being enjoyable, I knew I wasn’t a Halo fanatic who needed to get my ass handed to me on Sanctuary pronto. However, despite not owning an applicable console, I tacitly support the Rock Band/Guitar Hero DLC model (as do a shit ton of other people, apparently) since those licenses have to be acquired individually and it ends up resembling an iTunes-with-benefits. This seems a more benign version of the microtransaction serpent that has been growing in strength while it lurks in our internet tubes.

The subscription versus microtransaction debate has been raging for quite a while. In June, Gamasutra ran a round-table piece that included, among others, Mark Jacobs, VP of EA Mythic, whose Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning works on a subscription model. He argues that "If your game doesn't have the production values of a leading-edge game…okay…but if you're investing as much time and money as we are on our MMOGs…subscriptions are the only way to go." When he talks about not having AAA-title production values, he is addressing games such as MapleStory and Gunbound, games with huge followings in Asia. If you’ve never seen any of these games, consider the difference between their system requirements: MapleStory asks for a 500MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, and 750 MB of your hard drive while Warhammer demands a 2.5 GHz processor, a Gig of RAM, a 128 MB Video Card, and at least 15 GB of hard drive space. The main difference here is that fans of big name IPs (Warcraft, Warhammer, Final Fantasy) expect their MMOs to truly feel massive, with production values rivaling that of other AAA titles like Halo or Gears of War. The less demanding MMOs flourish in Asian markets where a majority of gamers play in internet cafes, which cannot be counted on to equip their machines with the latest GeForce or Radeon video card. The overhead on these games is lower and thus a free-to-play model with microtransactions makes sense. Now I’ve played Gunbound. It’s effectively a Worms clone, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. What makes it less fun is that some people are willing to spend $30 outfitting their spider with a flaming ax thus making some people impossible to beat if you don’t sink money or months into the game. So I quit.

What does this mean for George Lucas’s, or should I say, Bioware’s big MMO baby? It means I doubt this thing will be able to survive on microtransactions alone. Gamers looking to erase bad Star Wars: Galaxies memories are expecting something huge. BioWare’s developing the game on Simutronics’ HeroEngine, which, aside from looking beautiful, has won awards for its collaborative development tools that allow programmers to build different parts of the game simultaneously while seeing each other’s work in real-time. Star Wars + Acclaimed Developer + Award-Winning Engine ≠ frugality. If microtransactions do survive the development process, expect them to supplement your monthly subscription with access to purple lightsabers, more midichlorians, or whatever other stupid shitty thing Lucas has invented to ruin a cultural landmark.