Monday, 22 February 2010

The Allods Cash Shop: A Marxist perspective

On Friday popular free-to-play game Allods put all its prices up tenfold in its cash shop which caused it to be come rather less popular. Syp has rounded up some of the reaction here.

This is one of the first widely popular MMOs in the West to deliberately price itself beyond the range of most people's comfort zones. It won't be the last. In fact more such exclusive games for rich players are inevitable and Marxism tells us why.

Marxism recap

Marxism is a way of looking at history through economic development.

Humans started off broadly equal in tribes - if there was food everyone ate and if there was no food everyone starved.

Advances in agriculture and food storage allowed for the emergence of non-producing warrior castes, eventually leading to Feudalism, government by the warrior caste.

Advances in trade and commerce led to the rise of the bourgeoisie leading to government by capitalists.

(And theoretically awareness that they controlled the means of production should have led the workers to govern but it turned out that they'd rather someone else did it much to the surprise of Marxists).

A Marxist history of MMOdom

In the beginning MMOs were for a small elite of privileged players. These were academics, computer engineers, games designers who got into invite-only game systems.

Shortly people paying for these projects realised that income would be rather nice. Services like pay-per-minute Neverwinter Nights emerged and targetted a very small proportion of gamers. Not only did you need to be on the internet but you had to be willing to either play very short times or play for long times and rack up huge bills. This was still not a mass market model.

The next social structure was tribalism. Every player counted in this unproven genre and you too could be one of the tribe for an easily affordable fee of $15 per month. This coincided with widespread internet access. Players of Ultima Online and Everquest started to play for very long periods and enthusiastically evangelise their games.

However some people were unhappy with paying $15/month simply to be one amongst many comparable players. They wanted to stand out. So the illicit RMT market blossomed with companies both in the West and in Asia making vast amounts of real world money.

After all this price model was essentially aimed at the lowest common financial denominator: students, kids, unemployed people.

Developers have waged a war on RMT, designing items that can't be traded for gold, mass banning gold sellers, combating hacks and exploits.

However none of this really touches the underlying issue - that there is a substantial part of the player base that doesn't want to be just one of the tribe. They want to be able to move into a nicer neighbourhood, send their kids to better schools and speak in a more correct accent. They want to be middle class, to be bourgeois.

Enter the cash shop

Cash shops provide a way in which players can spend money to stand out from the rabble. Nicer hats, exotic pets, faster flashier horses all help to show that the consumer of these virtual items is not just one of the hoi-poloi.

However what really matter in games is winning.

As capitalism occludes tribalism in the emerging social structure of MMO communities pay-to-win becomes absolutely necessary. It's what rich players want. It's what game publishers' accountants want.

It may not affect all games. It may not affect your game.

But somewhere someone wants to be better than you because he can spend more. A lot of someones. And their games are starting to arrive.


  1. Workers! Seize the user-generated means of content production!

  2. I like your historical view of the MMO industry. First people are shocked they have to pay; then people are shocked things are free; then people (anew) are shocked they have to pay. Kind of a bummer when you log into a pretend world to find out you can't buy all the cool stuff you'd like... just like real life.

  3. Somewhere someone wants to play an MMO without paying a monthly country club fee. It's not always about spending more.

    (Not disagreeing with you, just pointing out another group of players.)

  4. @ Tesh Yes absolutely. I blogged about cheapskating a while ago and my main current MMOs are DDO and Eve neither of which are likely to cost me a penny any time soon.

    I just think the Allods fiasco showed a lot of people have a very fixed notion of what is the correct pricing for MMOs. And I don't think that notion, that $15/month or close to it will persist - there will be more expensive games and cheaper games to better match what the customers want.

  5. Agreed. That's the natural evolution of a market as it matures. That price curve has a lot of room, after all.