Two months ago I penned a fairly exhaustive overview of the more egregious avenues of contemporary MMO monetization, the most offensive of which do not make a material appearance in The Elder Scrolls Online. Of course, long time readers will know that I’ve never seen a cash shop I didn’t hate, and if they needed any further proof, this post is going to provide it.
It needs to be stated outright that nothing The Elder Scrolls Online is doing is a deal-breaker. While there are minor elements of competitive pay-to-win, they have literally zero impact on veteran, endgame players, functioning merely as catch-up mechanisms for those willing to shell out the cash. I still don’t like it, but these sales aren’t doing anything to negatively impact anyone’s play, either. Thanks to its origins as a premium, subscription title, The Elder Scrolls Online also features minimal fun-pain oriented monetization. These were developed by taking advantage of existing opportunities instead of designing the game around the infliction of said pain. What little is present can still be unlocked with a minimal investment of in-game currency per the original design, and in the end no offense is really created.
So what’s rotten in Tamriel? An increasingly insidious cycle of coercive marketing meant to hook players on purchases before they have all the facts.
One of the more controversial features of recent cash shops (Guild Wars 2 springs immediately to mind) is the idea of a limited time release, wherein players are only afforded a few days to make a purchase.
The Elder Scrolls Online has proved quite fond of these and honestly, they aren’t all bad. Limited releases introduce an artificial scarcity to digital goods, adding value to them by, for example, ensuring that you don’t end up with everyone riding the same mount. The perceived value of retired items can increase with age, as players view them as indicative of veteran status for inhabitants of the game’s virtual world. This increases the value of these items to the players that purchased them, and I can only characterize that as a good thing.
On the other hand, it does create an exigent pressure to buy now, preying heavily on players’ fear of missing out. This isn’t a new advertising technique by any means, but there’s just something slimy about relying on a customer’s fear of regret to coerce them into making a purchase.
Slimy as it may be, this technique is only a small cog in the marketing machine comprising my issue with The Elder Scrolls Online‘s monetization.
The Hype Machine Rolls Ever Onward
I’ve noticed a recent trend of MMO games hyping cash shop releases as if they were actual feature releases. The Elder Scrolls Online is not alone in this practice (Guild Wars 2, again), but its latest deep-dive into its upcoming Dark Brotherhood update breaks away from the peloton to secure a definitive lead.
This is a “deep dive” for upcoming cash shop updates, published during a series of deep dives into features coming with the Dark Brotherhood update. Keep in mind that this particular deep dive comes in addition to the regular Crown Store Showcase news releases, which already exist to promote upcoming cash shop content.
The purpose here is fairly straight forward: to build hype for cash shop updates so that players are ready to buy when the virtual items are finally released. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except for one minor, extremely troubling detail.
Notice what’s missing in their extensive coverage of upcoming cash shop releases? Pricing.
The Other Shoe Drops
That glowing mount on the top of the page? That’s $40. That’s ridiculous, and debuts at an unprecedented high for The Elder Scrolls Online. Worse yet, it’s only on the store for five days.
If You Don’t Like It, Just Don’t Buy It?
There’s nothing inherently insidious about overpriced cash shop items. The problem is the marketing surrounding those items. Players are given all the hype without any pricing information, and when that information is finally made available to them at the item’s release, they’re pressured into making the purchase immediately due it being a limited time offering.
This is an unabashedly predatory tactic. Selling players on cash shop products while deliberately withholding the price of the item until the last minute, then putting a timer on the sale is a tactic that would make even a used car salesman blush with embarrassment at the audacity of the technique.
The good news is that the Dro m’Athra Senche is just a cosmetic item. So yeah, if you don’t like it, absolutely don’t buy it. Your gameplay won’t be affected at all, and the rest of us won’t have to look at you riding around on that ostentatious, out-of-place, immersion breaking ode to the modern gamer’s lack of impulse control.
So far this marketing scheme has only been applied to cosmetic items that don’t affect gameplay, and I don’t see any indications that this is going to change. All things considered, The Elder Scrolls Online has a fairly inoffensive cash shop, made even better by their subscriber benefits generously including $15 of cash shop currency for each month in addition to the other incentives. Viewed holistically, this game’s cash shop is nowhere near being egregious enough to put me off of the game.
As for the Dro m’Athra Senche, I don’t like it, so I’m not buying it. My personal decision making process was as simple as that.
So why write this? I guess it’s just to raise awareness of how these game companies are manipulating us as consumers. When you next read a news piece from The Elder Scrolls Online or some other MMO promoting its cash shop updates, I want you to think: where is the pricing? If you don’t see it, don’t buy into the hype. Because you never know when that price is going to be 40 goddamn dollars.