Have you ever looked over the DLC for your favorite game and tried to justify the price? Man, it sure would be nice to have that rainbow colored lancer skin in Gears of War 3, but, seriously, you want me to pay for it? I already spent $60 on the game, $30 on the season pass, and now you want to juice me for ANOTHER 320 points (however much that is)! Can’t we work out some kind of deal here? Look, I’ll tell ya what: I’ll promise to play three online matches every night for the next couple of weeks, doing what I enjoy while propping up your player base, and you agree to give me the stupid rainbow chainsaw gun. Deal?
Not likely, right?
The odds on striking the above arrangement seem even less likely when we look at the free-to-play arena. Commercial games have the income provided by retail sales. Obviously, this does not apply to titles who give away their base product. No one in their right mind would give away all of the little micro-transaction goodies that cover the ongoing expenses of servers operation, bandwidth, and employee costs. Yet Star Trek Online does exactly that.
So what manner of mental illness has afflicted Cryptic Studios and Perfect World International, the companies behind the free-to-play MMO of Trekkers dreams?
Sporting AAA production values, a hugely popular franchise license, and, now, a low entry price of free, Star Trek Online breaks the micro-transaction mold in allowing players to buy ‘premium currency’ (points bought with real-world money) using in-game money. What’s the cost of converting your in-game booty to points for the skin or pet of your dreams? Strangely enough, that’s up to the players.
Here’s how it works:
Star Trek Online (STO) features, confusingly, four types of cash. Energy Credits, the common form of in-game money used for most stuff, the practically useless Gold-Pressed Latinum won from gambling, Dilithium, paid out for completing special events and used for purchasing high level goods, and, finally, C-Points, the stuff you buy with a credit card. It’s these later two we are concerned with.
As stated above, Dilithium is earned by completing daily events such as an academy scavenger hunt or Borg invasion. A number of repeatable meta-missions also pay out the pink stuff. “Explore Strange New Worlds” gives a reward for completing any one of a list of exploration missions while “Investigate Officer Reports” serves up the goods for playing three user created missions built with STO’s rather revolutionary mission creator, The Foundry. Star base defenses, satellite repair, and even correctly answering a daily Trek trivia question also yield Dilithium based rewards.
So, you’ve got yourself a big pile of virtual pink rocks and want to turn it into a lovely little cat lady for your bridge crew, but how? The answer is just as revolutionary as the concept.
STO features a player run stock market called the Dilithium Exchange where gamers trade premium item purchasing C-Points for the rare in-game Dilithium currency. Just like any other capitalist market, the prices Dilithium Exchange fluctuate with supply and demand. When Cryptic gave away free starships for its birthday celebration the C-Point to Dilithium price crashed to 1:165 as players traded in points for Dilithium to purchase gear and officers for their new ships. The following promotion introduced a Lock Box full of mystery goodies that needed a key purchased with C-Points to open. The exchange rate bounced back up to 1:220.
But does it work? Fascinated by the concept of a player run economy that potentially pays out in free DLC, I attempted an experiment: Could I gather enough Dilithium and play the market to score one of the most expensive pieces of downloadable content available in the game without paying one red cent in a reasonable amount of time. Checking the C-Store, I set my sights on the Guramba Siege Destroyer priced at 2,000 C-Points ($25), one of the most expensive starships currently offered.
Playing both Dilithium rewarding missions and Star Trek Stock Tycoon, I succeeded in less than two months of playing three or four hours on most nights, mostly thanks to a sudden swing in the market that offset earlier mistakes learning the systems. Even better, the variety of missions offering Dilithium rewards kept the full breadth of STO’s gameplay styles open the whole time preventing the treadmill from ever feeling like a grind. I also found the experience of being a Star Trek day trader rather entertaining in its own right.
Star Trek Online’s system truly delivers on a free-to-play promise to players. Heck, it pays better than indie blogging and generates less spam! As a business model… Well, we’ll just have to see how Cryptic and Perfect World fares but considering Perfect World’s success with the free-to-play model thus far, they must know what they’re doing.
Here’s to the end of traditional economics in video games. Good riddance! I got a few ideas about where Epic can put that rainbow colored chainsaw gun now.