Lately we had several heated debates on this blog about micro-transaction-based business models for MMORPGs. My main two arguments against were these:
1) The business models corrupt players and, more importantly, the company.
2) The business models damage the "immersion" and the consistency of the simulation aspect.
During the debates the advocates tried a lot of arguments to convince me. And I like that. I may not always react in an obviously grateful manner, but I wouldn't have a blog with enabled comments if I disliked controversial conversations.
Theoretically, at least, point (1) is easy to defuse. And when it comes to point (2) commenters asked what my opinion is on convenience items. I didn't respond to that immediately which is always a sign that it is a good point.
Let's imagine a WoW-like MMORPG with a leveling game. Does a +25% experience functionality, available for micro-transactions, harm immersion? Well, a bit, sure. But if the developers hid it from me that other players use it; does it harm immersion?
What I know is that my first reaction to this functionality is strongly negative. But it isn't all that easy to find a good reason. One reason might be that other players will inevitably start to talk about it. But since the WoW-like leveling is designed to be a single player experience, that's not that much of a problem really.
Of course, the pure theoretical knowledge that such a thing exists does harm immersion for me. Circumstances matter. But is that really the biggest problem?
After thinking about it really hard I arrived at a rather surprising conclusion: The biggest problem about convenience functionalities, that you can buy for micro-transactions, aren't the micro-transactions! The problem is that they exist in the first place.
Actually, I remember that I wanted to post about this for quite some months: To offer convenience to your players is a terrible, terrible mistake; even if it doesn't cost any €. The reason is that by adding such functionalities (like heirlooms), you send a very clear message to the players.
The message is: "This activity is not meant to be fun!".
Players react to "meant to be"-messages very clearly; especially if they are convincing. For example, telling your players that you don't really care that much about balance, is powerful. It can instantly cut the balance complains in half (no, they won't go away). On the other hand, telling your players that you want to make the perfectly balanced game, will get you into trouble.
Within limits, players subconsciously trust developers. That might not be obvious and I see some developers laughing back there, but it is the truth. It's similar to a politician approaching me and telling me that I am correct about all these problems with Greece, but they thought about it extensively and what they do now is the lesser evil. It is called leadership. It's what will happen when republicans eventually tell their constituency that a small tax increase for the rich was necessary for the greater good and isn't a harbinger of Armageddon.
Players can easily become upset if developers don't meet the goals they set themselves. But we are much more tolerant when it comes to declaring the developers' goals to be wrong.
More powerful than direct messages, however, are indirect messages. The reason is that they are obviously truthful.
If you want to make a new character in WoW, you are confronted with the following question: "Do you want to experience the stories during leveling, or do you want to get it over with as fast as possible".
That's, by the way, a good example for the fact that not every interesting decision is good for your game!
As if it wasn't already bad enough, what's especially harmful is that "getting it over with" costs something. This is what very effectively convinces players that it has to be more fun. (Which it is usually not, by the way.)
This is a problem for any convenience functionality. If players can acquire convenience that is not otherwise justified by, i.e. the simulation, they subconsciously conclude that the only reason for its existence is to remedy inconvenience. And that necessarily means that the developer considers the activity in question to be inconvenient.
This not only automatically motivates the question, why the developer wants them to suffer. 25% faster is not nearly fast enough if the activity is inconvenient! It also very effectively convinces the players that something is not fun, even though they might have had fun before they knew about the convenience functionality.
Summing up: Convenience functionalities very effectively convince players that your game is meant to be inconvenient. That should get you worried.