Play to Pay

Play to Pay
Virtual Item Sales

Christina González | 18 Dec 2007 12:12
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The introduction of the NC Mall caused a storm of protests among the community, which rage on even today. A protest site became a popular link on Digg, and various players decided to quit. Many saw the feature as another broken promise, going back to Powell and Williams' vow that the site would always remain free. Supporters of the system were quick to point out that participation was completely optional. The team also assured players that the mall's introduction was carefully designed to not provide anyone an unfair advantage. The FAQ states that these items "do not in any way effect [sic] the game play on the site."

However, the discovery that a "Winged Talisman" sold in the mall granted gameplay advantages within one minigame threw gas on the fire. Eventually the item was removed from the mall, and the dev team reassured players in the August 3 news that they were aware of the community's concern about the unbalancing effect such items can have. "We can think about these things until our brains implode and not know what exactly will happen with certain items, so this was a very informative accident," part of the statement read. This echoes the uncertainty expressed by Reppen at the VGS: "This is something that, clearly, we're going to be listening and learning as we go." That said, two other functional items have appeared but have not yet been available for sale. One allows a player to choose his or her own minigame of the day, thereby theoretically granting an advantage, since "Neopoints," Neopets' original virtual currency, on the featured game are doubled.

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As far as market-wide acceptance goes, the dev team hopes players' emotional investment in their activities and the virtual world will convert into financial investments. Reppen believes selling virtual items is a logical extension for a loyal audience this young. "The emotional connection makes the pixels go away, and it's about these experiences," she said.

As part of the Neopets community, I witnessed the anger and sense of betrayal a lot of the younger members expressed. Children, who may only see their virtual pets and not fully understand the need for a company to generate revenue, may protest the sudden introduction of a microtransaction feature merely because it's a change. But that same kid might snap up the latest Neopets licensed toy, not realizing they are two sides of the same coin. There was a real sense of division between mall-using members and those without the means to engage in microtransactions: Since mall items are nontransferable, those who paid got more items, and there was no way for someone who couldn't pay to catch up.

Or that was the case until September, when a minigame that allows all players a chance at winning 150 Neocash (the equivalent of $1.50) appeared on the site. This made it possible for those under 18, without credit cards or who simply didn't want to pay to obtain NC Mall items. The game seems to have eased some of the controversy over the stratification between those with and without credit card access, though the debates over the mall continue.

Going into the microtransaction business, the Neopets team knew the community was loyal and wanted to utilize that in a way that would grow revenue without alienating the user base. Along the way, they hit a major hiccup by barring much of their players from accessing new content, but ultimately found a way to make money and give everyone a chance to enjoy the whole game without spending a dime.

Christina González may be found at http://christinagonzalez.net.

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