It’s time for another bout of Isarii vs Monetization, the epic, windmill-tilting saga of one man shouting into a gale force of increasingly common industry practices. Today we return to The Elder Scrolls Online, a game uniquely dear to my heart as the original starting point of this whole internet wordsmithing thing, which has continued its ever-trundling encroachment into a quagmire of whale-hunting cash shop fuckery.
In part one of our story, I rode out to battle against what now feels like the absolutely quaint notion that barraging the game’s community with media hyping future cash shop products that conspicuously excludes pricing, then releasing those products at absurd price points with only a few days of availability was a predatory and anti-consumer way to market a product that leveraged fear of missing out to take advantage of players of a certain mindset. I didn’t consider it to be a game breaking problem – it was just something that felt was, for lack of a better term, ethically “icky”.
In truth, there already exists a part two, at least spiritually. In Why MMO Cosmetics Matter, I took a look at the concept of over-monetization, holding up The Elder Scrolls Online as something of a worst case scenario. Since its launch, 100% of mounts and pets introduced to the game have entered in a cavalcade through the game’s cash shop, leaving players motivated by collectibles high and dry in terms of in-game content rewards as the cash shop continues to be overdeveloped in comparison to actual game systems. As I said at the time: the cash shop has revolving seasons with unique rewards, and PvP does not. That’s a problem.
But not a problem even close in scope to the changes ZeniMax Online Studios has implemented since.
Gamble real money, get digital rewards
Of course I’m going to have to talk about lockboxes in this article, so let’s just get it out of the way now. I know, I know. Everyone and their mother has already done it, so I’m going to keep this short.
Cash shop lockboxes, digital crates bought with real money and containing a random assortment of in-game items of varying rarity, have long been a staple of dumpster-tier MMOs. It goes without saying that all of the items anyone actually wants are incredibly rare, and the average lockbox is full of consumables and garbage that no one actually wants.
And boy, if you thought spending a month hyping up adding a reskinned mount to the cash shop with “surprise, it’s $40 and you only have 3 days to buy it before it goes away forever!” was predatory, man oh man is straight up gambling bad.
The best part of this is that there’s no variable cost associated with this, as these are all digital items. I’d compare it to going to a casino in meatspace and spending real money to win photocopies of varying denominations of dollar bills, but the truth is that making those copies would cost the casino more than it costs ZeniMax to automatically change a 0 to a 1 in your account page.
The Elder Scrolls Online also holds the dubious distinction of being the only MMO I’m aware of where lockbox items aren’t tradeable, so there’s no gameplay created for people that would like to earn these unique items through success in the in-game economy. In my book, that’s synonymous with being the worst lockbox system, though at least there’s no game-wide announcement every time someone receives a rare item from one.
Now lockboxes are pretty bad, but unfortunately we’ve all long since been conditioned to tolerate their existence. If you want something truly groundbreakingly heinous, read on.
Cash shop crafting styles with cash shop reagents
With the release of the New Life Festival events for the holiday, The Elder Scrolls Online added new crafting motifs to its cash shop. Crafting motifs are items which teach the player how to craft armor or weapons in a specific visual style. When crafting those items, a crafting reagent specific to that style is required, and is consumed when the item is created. In the past, ZeniMax introduced a consumable, cash shop exclusive item called a “mimic stone”, which can be consumed in place of the usual reagent for any crafting style. So far so good.
For the newest cash shop crafting styles, mimic stones are the only way to craft the item; there is no style material available in game. Mimic stones are not tradeable, cannot be earned in game (there is also no method of in-game currency to cash shop currency conversion), and the best part? The purchase of the style motif does not include enough mimic stones to craft a full set of armor, instead supplying enough for only five out seven armor slots. If you want to actually use the item you just bought, you have to pay up again. And again. And again. Every single time.
This may be the most blatant display of disdain by a game company for its customer base that I’ve ever seen. For a double-dipping, anti-consumer cash-grab of this magnitude, there is no hyperbole. It’s absolutely disgusting.
Normally I don’t find subscriber benefits to be particularly flustering. Taken on their own, ZeniMax’s decision to lock new game features like crafting bags (dedicated and functionally unlimited storage for crafting materials) and costume dyeing behind paying the subscription wouldn’t really bother me that much. But throwing this emphasis on paying the subscription on top of charging a box price for a game whose cash shop is increasingly filled with some of the worst the market has to offer (though it mercifully falls short of full-on P2W) strikes me as wrong – and also completely unnecessary, considering The Elder Scrolls Online‘s subscription already boasts some of the best value of any out there (including access to all DLC in addition to a cash shop stipend equivalent to the cost of the subscription itself).
If The Elder Scrolls Online still thinks of itself as a premium box price + subscription title, that makes everything else we’ve discussed all the more absurd. Sometimes I’m guilty of expecting the best of both worlds as a consumer, but ZeniMax is asking us all to tolerate the absolute worst of both worlds, and it’s becoming too much to bear.
If you don’t like it, don’t buy it – and other internet comments
I feel like I have to write this on every article where I discuss monetization. I don’t have a problem not buying something. That doesn’t mean I have to smile and nod while a company takes advantage of its customers with increasingly predatory tactics.
It’s easy to think of the cash shop as this separate entity that exists individually from the game itself, but that’s not the case. A game is an ecosystem and the cash shop is a part of it. Much of the time, when a company decides to monetize something, it’s a feature that could have been added to actual gameplay instead. I discussed this in length with collectible systems specifically in my recent article Why MMO Cosmetics Matter, but it’s even more true with the aforementioned new subscriber features. If the developers think the game would be better with crafting bags, wouldn’t it be better if they were just added to the base game instead of locked behind a paywall?
Maybe the ship has sailed for those of us that prefer box price + subscription only titles. Maybe we’re stuck with cash shops and their ilk from here on out. But it would be nice if triple A companies didn’t so often continually pull from the darkest, most brackish dregs of the worst that model has to offer.