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Cryptic Cash Shop (C-Store)
The Cash Shop, or C-Store used by Cryptic for Champions Online is very similar to the Star Trek Online C-Store. They use similar systems and pricing.
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Champions Online - Not Just Double Dipping, Triple Dipping
Champions Online has a "triple dipping" business plan where they charge an up front fee for the game ($50), a monthly fee ($15 per month), and also have a "cash shop" for additional content. From the beginning, this has been cause for concern among potential players of Champions Online. But until some actual items were made available in the C-Store, it was impossible to really make an informed judgement. Now that some real game affecting options are in the C-Store, the concept can be reviewed and analyzed.
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The Currency - Cryptic Points
Before we can look at the cost of individual items, first we have to look at the currency. Champions Online uses something called "Cryptic Points." 400 Cryptic Points were included along with most pre-order deals. Beyond that, you buy them directly from Cryptic. Cryptic points basically cost 1.25 cents per point. (1000 points costs $12.50).
Most of the items have a cost that is either a multiple of 100 (each 100 points costs $1.25) or a multiple of 80 (each 80 points costs $1.00).
Keeping all of that in mind will help as we look at the specific items in the C-Store.
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Full Retcon (Respec) - $12.50
We might as well jump right into it with the most contentious of the C-Store items. The full retcon is one of the more expensive items in the C-Store, and it is certainly the most worrisome of them all. It also gives us the best look into the motivations of Executive Producer Bill Roper and Cryptic as far as this C-Store concept.
Since its release, the issue of full respecs (called retcons) in Champions Online has been a controversial one. CO has a fully open ability/skill system, which means you can choose any powers, stat boosts, and power advantages you want for your character. There are no paths, templates, classes, or anything of that nature to guide you. The system is very flexible, but it is also extremely easy to ruin your character through a few unfortunate choices. If you do not spend tens of hours studying powers and builds via forums and character builders, you will almost surely make a few level up choices you will regret later.
The only remedy for that is a good respec/retcon system. In Champions Online, changing things you picked recently is not that costly, but going back more than 10 or 15 levels is cost prohibitive. By the time you are level 40, it is easier to simply start a new character from scratch than it is to earn the money you'd need to change something early in your build.
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Full Retcon (Respec) - $12.50
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Full Retcon continued - $12.50 each
Furthermore, Cryptic is dramatically changing powers in weekly patches. Twice they have given unstackable free respecs, but most weeks they give nothing even when many powers are significantly altered. To say full respecs are needed in Champions Online is an understatement. The open advancement system effectively requires a robust respec system that allows frequent and significant tweaking and adjusting.
It is evident that charging for full retcons was part of the business plan from the start. Bill Roper saying "The heroic, thematic intention is not to just let players constantly change their fundamental character concept" in interviews was clearly just a smoke screen. If the game was not designed for them, they wouldn't be selling them for $12.50 in their cash shop.
In other MMOs with some type of character specing or building, respecs are readily available. In World of Warcraft, they start off very cheap and max out at 50 gold (which takes 30 minutes or less to earn at level 80). In City of Heroes, you can do a series of missions that takes about an hour, you earn them every few months as vetern rewards, or you can buy them from the auction house. In Primordiax, skills can be untrained via xp as often and in any way you like.
But in Champions Online, you are looking at 60-100+ hours of money farming to pay for a single retcon, or $12.50 in real life money. It is pretty clear what direction they want you to go.
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Costume Sets - $3.00 Each
There are a number of new costume sets available in the C-Store. At release, three of them are Halloween themed, and there is also a samurai set and a bestial cyborg set. Surely they will add many more in the future. There are two major problems with this feature and the cost:
1) $3.00 is a bit much for a single costume set. We are talking about only 6-9 actual costume pieces in each set. That's very, very little.
2) The bigger problem is the way this will effect Cryptic's decision making process. They have a financial responsibility to their customers to add new costume sets as part of the $15 monthly fee. How will they decide which ones are part of that $15 a month, and which ones cost extra? It would not be effective to charge extra for basic stuff, so one can logically deduce that the "coolest" and most elaborate costumes will be those that cost extra. This has already happened in City of Heroes, and it is really the only logical possibility here as well. I am sure subscribers will get a few occasional "cool" new custome options just so Cryptic can claim they don't hold the best stuff for the C-Store. But that is going to be token at best.
If you are going to charge extra for costumes, you would be better off charging $14 a month, $1 per costume set, and then only release new costumes through the C-Store. At least then people could pick 1 new costume set a month that they actually wanted, and then spend the same amount of money as a regular subscription fee. Those who wanted more could pay more. At least then people wouldn't feel like they paid for stuff they didn't want when the inevitable mediocre costumes get released to all subscribers.
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Emblem Packs - $1.00
Why they are even offering these in the C-Store confuses me. Emblems are basically little decals you can stick onto a piece of your character's costume. They have no statistical effect, and barely any visual effect. Few people make use of them as they rarely line up right and often look weird. For people who do use them, the ones that already exist are pretty sufficient. Charging extra for these is almost like a punishment for the few people who use these emblems. And while $1.00 is a small amount of money, these probably took an artist 30 minutes or less to create. It almost seems like these were thrown onto the C-Store just to have something available that is cheap.
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Four Additional Character Slots - $15.00
A basic account has 8 character slots. For $15 you can increase this to 12. Since this is a permanent account upgrade, this is not too bad of a deal. The only downside here is that it appears that Champions Online is going in the same alt-oriented direction that City of Heroes went. That means the only way to fool yourself into doing something new or different is to make lots and lots of alts. In that regard, extra character slots starts to be more of a necessity than an option.
Furthermore, while other MMOs let you create characters on multiple servers, CO only has one server. This limits you to 8 characters total. Again, comparing to City of Heroes, you could make 8 characters on each server if you wanted. When you consider all these details, this is not quite as good of a deal as it first appears to be.
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Character Rename - $3.50
This is another C-Store item that is firmly in the "why bother?" category. In Champions Online, the name that appears in all forms of chat is a combination of your character name and your account handle. So if your character's name was Batman, and your account handle was CopyrightViolator, your name would appear in chat as [email protected]. The result of this is that any number of characters can have the same "name", since they won't be the same once combined with the account handle.
You cannot change your account handle, which is the most important part of your name anyway. So this is an option of dubious value. While $3.50 is not a huge amount of money, it still seems pretty expensive for a very simple change to a single database field. This happens in a microsecond and requires absolutely no staff involvement. There is really no good reason for this to cost more than 50 cents or $1.00 tops.
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Two Additional Costume Slots - $5.00
By level 40, you can earn up to four costume slots. For most people, this is more than enough. But some people might really want to give their character a lot of appearance options. For them, this might be a worthwhile C-Store option.
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Collectible Action Figures - $1.00 each
Collectible action figures in Champions Online are basically non-combat pets. Most of them have enlarged heads that are like bobble-head dolls. They have no function nor do they have special emotes or other actions. They just follow you around. You can find or earn a lot of them in game via perks, missions, or a couple of in-game shops.
I must admit that I rarely ever see them in use. $1.00 is pretty cheap, and perhaps Cryptic has no interest in selling anything for less than $1.00. But considering what you are getting, it is impossible to rate this higher than average.
If they gave these pets some fun emotes or something, then perhaps they would be more fun and more worthwhile. Most of them look really, really bad too. That certainly does not help.
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Final Conclusions and Overall Rating
The general idea to have a microtransaction cash shop along with an up front, full price box ($50) and a monthly subscription ($15 per month) was a pretty terrible plan right out of the gate. Sadly, the implementation in Champions Online is even worse. Smart customers are going to look at other games in the industry and see that everyone else is making a choice: subscriptions (WoW, LOTRO, Eve), or free to play with microtransactions (Runes of Magic, Primordiax) - not both.
It is difficult not to see parallels to Bill Roper's last game, Hellgate: London. Roper was founder and CEO of Flagship, the now defunct company that created HG:L. Despite the fact that the game was a classic Diablo-style action RPG, Roper felt his game warranted not just a $50 box price, but a monthly subscription. Interestingly, he also fought and argued against respecs for that game. In less than a year, the company was out of business and the game had utterly failed.
For the sake of the MMO industry and gamers who enjoy Champions Online, one can only hope that Roper does not lead Champions Online down that same dark path. But the impression created by the C-Store certainly makes it look like runaway greed is dominating over smart business and game design.