Somewhere, at some point, someone decided that microtransactions and subscription based game could actually go hand in hand. Champions Online is one of the games that have adopted this philosophy, and one of the justifications that people tend to bring up is that World of Warcraft has been doing something similar for a long time. Blizzard began with server transfers, but these days they offer both complete makeovers and even a faction change for your current characters.
There is a pretty major difference between World of Warcraft and Champions Online, though. Server transfers, faction changes or makeovers are not really needed in a game that only has one shard, one faction and that lets you change your characters whole appearance more or less at will. The major difference is that Champions Online offers the kind of stuff you are used to see in the item shops of free to play games, like Maple Story or Runes of Magic – new costumes, more character slots (which is also something you can buy extra in for example Guild Wars), emblems and action figures (CO’s version of vanity pets).
When I saw the store the first time, I raised an eyebrow since I didn’t think an item shop had a place in a subscription based game. Extra services, fine. Extra items, no. But the same thing can be said for SOE’s item shops in Vanguard or EverQuest II, and since Champions didn’t include things like XP-potions, I didn’t mind much. I would never pay more for costumes in CO (unless it was really, really, really cool – luckily I think CO’s character design is an atrocity towards good taste, so I doubt that would ever be an issue), and I’m fine with few character slots. The stuff in the Champions store had nothing to do with gameplay, so screw it.
Until now, when the store is suddenly offering full retcons for your characters. In more general MMO-terms, it’s a full respecc for your character. That you can buy, for real money, since a full retcon is incredibly expensive using the regular in-game currency.
Now, here’s my problem with the whole thing. I understand why a full retcon is expensive inside the game – it’s a prohibitive cost so that players won’t respecc all the time. It’s a design choice made by the developers, it sends a clear message of the consequences associated with picking your powers. It also frustrates flavor-of-the-month players and min/maxers, which I find funny. I can see where the system goes wrong, especially in a game which has too many powers to balance against each other, but hey – I get it.
By adding the option to buy your way out of this by using your credit card, it feels like Cryptic are saying that the design isn’t that important anyway. Sure, 1000 Champion Points cost $12.50/€10.88, so the cost can still be seen as prohibitive. But the cost outside of the game doesn’t really matter, it’s the effect on gameplay. And obviously full retcons aren’t that much of a deal after all. So why are they still so expensive inside the game?
The second thing is that in Champions Online, you are able to gimp your character by choosing the wrong combination of powers. If you are unlucky, you run the risk of finding a build that either is really hard to play, impossible to use for anything, or utterly worthless in PvP. Depending on your style of play, or if you shift your style of play, you might want to consider a retcon. At that point you have three choices – find the in-game currency to pay for it, pay 1000 CPs and get one straight away or take it like a man/woman and reroll.
The third problem I can see with adding a retcon to the Champions Store is what this might mean for the future development of the title. What if a new producer steps up after Roper and identifies the high cost of retconning as a major problem and wants to take it out? What if that is actually the right choice, compared to how expensive they are now? (I’m not saying that’s the case, it’s hypothetical.) How would Cryptic be able to make that change without majorly upsetting the players who have actually paid that money already?
Cryptic has already been giving out free retcons before, after major patches been made to powers. Will that ever happen again?
The whole thing is a serpent’s nest of potential conflict between Cryptic and the players. And I’ve lost all faith in that the devs have any clue what they are doing. I am not saying that this is all a conspiracy, that this has been planned all along and that prices of retcons in-game was kept high to pave the way for the C-store option. Neither am I saying that this will “kill” Champions Online, I think the retcon will sell and probably quite well. I’m not all gloom and doom.
But I do believe that the current development team is showing signs of being completely lost in the woods. Perhaps Bill Roper is to blame, I don’t know. And perhaps they really should consider what kind of game they are offering here – is it a free-to-play MMO with a fully stocked item shop, or a subscription based game where what happens in the game stays in the game?
Again, feel free to point out things I’ve misunderstood or missed. I am no longer playing Champions Online and I have no intention of logging in either. But please, please, don’t come dragging the age old “if you don’t like it, don’t use it”, since that’s not what this entry is about. If I were playing CO, I would have no problem with the people buying the retcons. That’s not what this entry is about – it’s about what kind of message this sends, or the consequences it can have.