Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Reading: Valve’s ‘Mann Store’

hatcontestJust last thursday, PC gaming giant Valve announced it would be rolling out an in-game store for its popular shooter Team Fortress 2.  This is yet another major change to the game, following three years of free support and upgrades from the developer.  The so-called Mann Store will allow players to purchase (with real money, mind you) equippable items both cosmetic and game-altering, items that were previously available only through the game’s time-consuming crafting system.

As reported by Gamasutra, TF2’s lead designer Robin Walker told PC Gamer, “...InTF2, the time you take to find an item is the cost you pay. Not everyone has time, though, and by allowing customers to purchase items directly, we’re still not allowing them to avoid a cost. It’s just that in this case, the cost is money, not time.”

Shifting their extremely successful multiplayer game to a microtransaction-supported business model is ruffling the feathers of many TF2 purists.  In a piece exploring the larger implications of this move, GameSetWatch’s Kris Graft attempts to explain the anti-microtransaction mindset:  “Many core gamers really hate anything that resembles microtransactions, for reasons ranging from gameplay balance concerns to a sense of pride of earning content through skill or time investment. (Or just a misguided "anti-casual" mindset.)”

There’s truth in Graft’s assertion.  Microtransactions work fine in games like FarmVille, where competition is the least of anyone’s concern.  A competitive game based on skill, however, might feel imbalanced by the ability to leapfrog up the ladder just by reaching into your e-wallet.  Unfortunately, the immense time sink required to obtain meaningful upgrades in games like TF2 can be its own version of rung-jumping.  

There’s no easy answer here, and Valve’s move points toward a future of Activision CEO Bobby Kotick’s dreams.  If the Mann Store succeeds, gamers will likely see more microtransactions in their big budget shooters, and we’ll likely be told it’s the only way avoid raising prices across the board or some such nonsense. 

Remember when paying for games was a one-step deal?  Those days are all but gone.