Virtual items are the mainstay of cash shops alongside extra services for how free-to-play games support themselves. Sometimes, the services offered happen to have expirations attached to them – such as you get +12 slots of inventory for a month then they go away again – but then there’s also expiring items, titles, costumes, and the like. In some ways, services that only last a certain period of time make a sort of parallel to subscription services, just parted out like the game had gone through a chop-shop and sold as part of an itemized experience; but making cash-shop items that expire feels a little bit like being forced to rent something you should get to keep.
The idea of offering items and services for a limited time in the cash shop means that those interested in those parts of the game will keep coming back for them. It’s a means to create a revenue stream similar to a subscription, but offers it at a much lower apparent price than the standard MMO subscription. One of the initial dangers of MMO cash shops has always been an issue of psychological marketing where players might not always pay attention to how much they’re paying per month. After all, usually the lowest transaction for currency in any given free-to-play MMO is often around $5 or $10.
As items and services expire, players keep buying more cash currency in order to renew them. While most games shy away from actual stat-changing equipment of any variety, sometimes cash-shop items do come with something extra – aside from their fairy’s gold characteristic of impermanence. So what you can usually expect is that the items for sale are usually about customizing the look of the character, or their house, or another thing that intersects between the idea of a service and an item for the character.
For example, many of the costumes in Fiesta Online are impermanent, as well as are the dance emotes. They only persist for a month. This is true for everything that you can buy to change your look or your house – although not furniture, but that wears down and must be repaired with another item. Due to the fact that nearly all costume items are impermanent, Fiesta Online does have some permanent ones – although Outspark is a bit capricious and random about releasing such items for purchase.
Rock Hippo’s Brawl Busters has gone a similar direction, items bought from the cash shop have durations of 3, 9, 30, and sometimes 90 days. All said items are cosmetic – and sometimes relate only to a current holiday event such as the Christmas-styled sunglasses or the lucky-green Leprechaun St. Patrick’s Day top hat. All of the costume and accessory items bought with in-game currency, earned by playing the game, are permanent.
Allods Online takes item expiration in a different direction by putting expiration only on consumable items (and not those that you’d expect to be permanent like costumes and mounts.) Essentially, consumable items like scrolls and incense go bad after a 30 days of real world time; this appears to be designed to force players to use what they’ve bought and disallows them from just hording them. Since these cash shop items can also be sold on the in-game market, it means that they have to move quickly. Use it or lose it is the name of the game. A little odd, but it feels more reasonable.
Perfect World Entertainment’s Rusty Hearts uses this only for an XP boost pack (for beginners) and a single title (the words appear above a character’s head when active) called Golden Hearts that confers an attack speed boost and a buff to MP recovery for the duration. Perhaps this will presage further special-titles in the future. All of their costumes are permanent and consumables have no time limit. This presents an extremely minimal use case.
Some games lampshade this impermanence by offering varied lengths of item permanence: a week, a month, or permanent (often at geometrically-increasing amounts of cash needed to purchase the item.)
In a way, expiration dates on items make them a lot more like consumables. Many games have cash shops that offer potions, charms, repair kits, enchantments – items that boost XP gain for a short period of time, refresh health, mana, give a stat buff, etc. Being consumable, the effect is only triggered once the item is consumed by the player thus they have a built in reason for the player to come back and buy more (of course, as above some games have expiring to-be-consumed items as well.)
There’s several ways that an MMO can approach expiring items, especially those with a time limit. They can have the item last a according to the amount of game time played or simply run out a timer and expire on a particular date. The former certainly feels a lot less exploitative than the latter; but it won’t make the MMO as much money from casual players, who might make up a great deal of their paying player base.
Currently, most of the expiring cash shop items that I’ve seen set a date and then disappear then. So, if I want as much bang for my buck as I can get, I better be playing. Of course, that also means that I’ll have reason perhaps to make a similar purchase from their shop again, because I’ll be exposed to the game and the shop more often.
Amid these services and items are the sorts of things that make the game more fun because they take away obstacles or they add customization. Like having more bag space, more bank space, the ability to move about the game world faster – and of course, on the customization side, a special title, different bits of an outfit (perhaps with a particle effect or a halo) to trigger all the effects of social status. Play a game enough and many players look forward to being the belle of the ball in their party with the interesting fashion, standing out from the crowd, and an item that only lasts a week or a month to upkeep that plays well to simple human vanity.
It feels like a thin line must be walked by MMOs to avoid exploiting their player base too heavily using impermanent items or even expiring services. By keeping to cosmetic items (outside of game enhancements, and premium services) the games that currently deploy the tactic of expiring items avoid the worst possible outlook – that renting items only serves to bleed free-to-play players of their money without offering much in return. What’s your opinion on the expiring cash shop items?
By Kyt Dotson