I posted a few days ago, on the discussion of MTX, that good games do well, and bad games don’t (really a next-level statement if you think about it long enough). While I still stand by that bold proclamation, today I want to break down just what I feel is acceptable MTX in a game today, and what can work for both developers and players. Good MTX is always a long-term thing, where you have a game and support it, with your players making purchases over a long period of time.
I’ll start by repeating that there is no ‘this is good, this is bad’ blanket statement about MTX that holds true, ignoring something like “MTX designed with the intent purpose of deceiving the buyer” of course. For example most games won’t be better by the inclusion of loot-box based pay-4-power items, but would you really want to play a card game like Elder Scroll Legends or Hearthstone without that model?
Instead of opening packs of cards, each game would instead reward you with a currency, and then you would use that currency to buy specific cards, right? This already somewhat exists because we can turn cards to dust, and then use dust to create a specific card, but what would happen if the entire game was like that? Each viable deck would have a ‘dust’ value, as they do today, but each player would need to grind exactly that amount of dust, and the dust/hr rate would be known. That wouldn’t be fun, as players already don’t enjoy knowing just how far away they are from something they want in games like an MMO (raid tokens vs bosses dropping random gear).
But yes, in most games, especially competitive games of skill (LoL, CS:GO, Street Fighter, Madden football), you really really don’t want to sell power, and you especially don’t want to sell power randomly. But as LoL has shown, you can profit immensely using MTX even in such games by offering to sell fluff in the form of skins, badge icons, and emotes. That said, you must ensure that the fluff on sale is deemed high-quality enough to justify the price. For example, a simple reshade really should be cheap, because most players know it was fairly easy to design. On the other hand, players will pay a premium price for truly standout fluff, such as legendary skins in LoL. A purchase should feel good, so that the buyer is open to another, and giving someone quality they deem worthy of the price is key to that.
On that note, another very important factor is to not overly ‘sell’ your MTX. Don’t put more effort into the splash art of your fluff in the store if it won’t match what it really is in-game. That’s going to upset the buyer, and while in the short-term it might net you a few additional sales, in the long term you put effort into the wrong area to sustain long-term revenue (selling the fluff vs putting value into the fluff) . Along with this, your item shop really should do a great job in showing the buy exactly what they are getting. LoL is still fairly poor in this regard, as they don’t show what a skin looks like in-game within the client (you can see all skins on youtube).
Selling items or content is also fine in the right context. Giving a buyer the option to buy more of what they already enjoy in a game is good. So if your core game has 10 levels, and those 10 levels are the full core game (so the ending isn’t missing, or key systems you advertised aren’t shadows until you buy the MTX), selling more levels at a reasonable price is giving gamers what they want. Selling items in a game like Fallout or Skyrim is also fine, because the base games include plenty, and you don’t NEED more to beat and enjoy those games, plus they are single player games so the choice to buy or not only impacts the buyer.
Another key to creating a favorable MTX scene for your game is that you must balance additions to the shop with free ongoing support. The worst-case is when a dev adds more paid content to a shop, but their base game still has crippling bugs, performance issues, or missing core content. That’s going to sour everyone early, and it’s hard to recover from. This drifts back to ‘make a good game’ territory, but it’s true, you can establish a game for long-term success if you don’t first create a quality core to build MTX on top of.
Done right, MTX creates a favorable ‘circle of life’ for everyone involved. Devs continue to get paid while supporting their product, and when done really right, get paid far above the old model of just selling a box. For the players, they not only get a good game, they continue to get more of what they are enjoying. Done right, this also creates a long-term relationship between devs and customers. Today I trust Riot because of my experience with them over the last few years with LoL, just like I trust CCP with how they have handled EVE, and SuperCell thanks to CoC/CR. On the flip side, I don’t touch any Electronic Arts products because of their history with shady MTX, so even if they release the ‘perfect for me and really fun’ game tomorrow, I’m still giving it a pass.