I just received a poll from Turbine asking me what premium services I’d be willing to pay extra for. Would I pay $5 for an extra character slot? How about $20 for more pack space? And so on. Apparently the poll is being sent out randomly to players of DDO and LOTRO.
I’m happy to see a major MMO company investigating these kinds of upsell options because their research can often be applied directly to smaller games, too. But I don’t think Turbine has thought about the likely reaction to this poll. I predict several days of forum posters screaming, “YOU WANT ME TO PAY EXTRA FOR THINGS YOU SHOULD HAVE INCLUDED FOR FREE? ARE YOU $#%!$^%$#, TURD-BIN?” To be sure, Turbine was going to get some of that anyway, but with a bit of care they could have avoided a lot of it. The secret is arming your fanboys. When you ask a loaded question like this, you have to give enough background info for your fans to help defend you. It doesn’t take but an extra sentence or two — maybe a line about what the money would be used for, or a couple words about how the influx of cash would benefit players.
Anyway, while I was taking the poll, I had my own idea about how to scrape up some extra cash for an MMO. Call it “Gandalf’s Magic Beans.” (Okay, don’t really call it that! Especially if you aren’t LOTRO. Actually, not even if you are LOTRO.) You could buy these items on the game’s website. They’re impulse items or minor gifts. Are you having a bad day? Buy a bean. Did the raid’s healer do really well last night? Buy him a bean as a gift! Is your son impossible to birthday shop for? How about a dozen beans?
Beans might sell for $.99. Purchasing one from the website gives you an in-game “bean”, which you could then eat (or plant in the ground, or something), and poof, a random item appears. A lot of the beans give random housing decorations. Others give cool hats, special appearance “skins” that make your armor and weapons look different, and so on. All of the items should involve new art. An occasional rare bean might give you an extra-slot bag, a special-looking mount, or something else that is very cool but that doesn’t affect combat mechanics. Players could trade these items among all the characters on their account, but not across accounts.
Cosmetic changes should be the brunt of what players are getting, but beans should also give a little in-game boost too, to help make beans appeal to a larger portion of the player base. So perhaps every time you use a bean, you also get a half-hour buff — maybe your health recovers faster while you’re out of combat, or maybe you get 15% extra XP from killing monsters. Nothing huge, and nothing that directly enhances your combat ability, but something that makes you feel special for a while.
Note where we draw the line here, because it’s important: purchased items can mildly affect out-of-combat gameplay such as travel options, downtime, or even XP earned from monsters (if it’s not overdone), but unless you have a very unusual audience, these items shouldn’t meaningfully affect the outcome of battles. This is the line you shouldn’t cross with Western MMO audiences. Players think of their character’s ability to kill others as their character’s “true” power level — they compare classes and characters by what (and who) they can kill. If you sell players more “killing power,” you’re making them stronger on this crucial axis. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but a lot of MMO players find the idea extremely upsetting.
Sure, some players will cry foul anyway. Even the slightest in-game advantage is enough to set some of your more vocal players off. But the whimsical nature and the very low price will keep a large percentage of players from being too upset. And when you launch the service, give everybody a few free magic beans. If the service is interrupted or bad things happen to the servers, give everybody a few more free beans. Beans make great gifts for all occasions!
Be ready to take your lumps for “nickel-and-diming” or “selling out” or whatever else players accuse you of. After all, you are in fact nickel-and-diming them. But as long as the rewards are fun and entertaining, the angry hate letters will drop off after a short while, and you’ll make the money you need. But you have to keep it whimsical and cheap. Selling pack space for $20 feels mercenary, but selling a funky new hat and a 30-minute buff for $1 seems less so.
PS: I have no idea what a good lore name would be for these items, and I am afraid to research it. My brain is still full of Star Trek trivia from my days on STO. Sometimes I’ll say things like, “Shaka, when the walls fell!” and receive only blank looks. I expect spouting Elvish would be even worse…