The Worst Case of Microtransactions - Tales of Pirates

Update:We've recently revisited and updated this article. For the new version please click here to be taken to the 2/1/2020 post.

Microtransactions. It's a term that has been coming up a lot lately, and most games today seem to use them. Mobile games ask you to buy gems/stones/crystals so you can use them and hopefully summon your favorite character to use, big name games like Overwatch use them for random draw loot boxes, and some games even flat out let you buy the things you want (or need). It's a system that has had a very mixed reception, and in some cases it is used better than in others. While one game may use microtransactions to fund new content and keep servers running, another may be using it simply as a way to milk the players for more money. Really it's pretty easy to see why some people may not like this, but at the same time it is sometimes needed.

However, today I'd like to share with you all a story of one of the WORST uses I've ever come across. A game that went completely overboard with it's real cash shop, and made it so only the richest of players could continue. A game that would milk you dry, and then take it ALL away from you. This is a tale, of pirates.

Tales of Pirates

Tales of Pirates was the US release of a game known as "Pirate Kings Online." It was a 3D MMORPG mostly played by pointing and clicking with the mouse, with special attacks set to hot keys on the keyboard. The game itself had players creating an anime styled character, choosing a starting island, and then tasked them with taking on the main story quest and side quests to become stronger. This however, was really how far the story went. While it did have a plot to follow, it was very basic, with the main gameplay being focused on exploring the islands, and eventually the sea. The game was clearly inspired by One Piece (it even had costumes ripped directly from the series), and everyone playing it seemed to only care about getting stronger. Of course with a shockingly tactical PvP and DOTA (this was before League of Legends and other MOBAs) style mode, it was no wonder power was the main focus for many, sadly this also meant that players would go to great lengths to achieve it.

It didn't take long for the game's story quest and side quests to become out dated, and leveling soon evolved into a limited, few hour long, weekend only quest. With this quest you could get 1% exp per part, but even that became a very long and drawn out process that could take hundreds of hours (which the quest was only open for a limited time) to reach higher levels, so even this became out dated pretty fast. This was when leveling evolved into farming the same enemies for hours on end during the week, and also when becoming stronger by other means became required.

You see, whoever was able to kill an enemy would get the experience for it. This is common in MMOs, and it was no different here; however, when everyone is racing to be the first to kill the newly spawned enemy, then you have a problem. These enemies only spawned every few minutes, and if you didn't kill it before all the others, then you were out of luck. No EXP for you. To make matters worse, players who had become strong enough could one hit kill whatever spawned in front of them, meaning the stronger players would always level faster. So if you wanted to keep up, you had to become stronger yourself.

Enter the cash shop.

To survive in Tales of Pirates, you had to use the cash shop. Even if you didn't personally use real money to buy items, you had to farm for in game cash and find someone willing to trade the cash shop items you needed. Sometimes it could take weeks to get enough money to buy a $5 cash shop item, but it was worth it if you didn't want to spend the real money yourself. But why exactly did you need to do this? Well, there were many reasons.

Pets -

ToP featured a pet system in the form of fairies. These creatures sat in your inventory and actually acted like a piece of equipment. To get them though, you first had to buy a good pet using real cash, and then you also had to buy the food and level up fruits to increase their stats. Then you would have to wait hours in game for your pet to use up it's energy and gain experience, so that you could feed it stat boosting items or teach it skills. The prices on the pet, food, stat items, and skill books all depended on how good they were, with the higher priced items giving you more bang for your buck, and you would have to buy a lot of them. This got quite expensive, with a fully leveled pet possibly costing hundreds of dollars, and you had to continue paying for food if you wanted to keep using your pet. With them losing 1 energy per minute of use, feeding them became an hourly thing.

Pets were not optional in ToP either. Considering the player character received all stats and skills a pet had learned, it would give them a clear power advantage. One skill even allowed the swordsman class of the game to stay 100% invisible at all times -- a skill key to winning in the arena. Along with the stat increases, there was a clear difference between a character with and a character without a pet, and there was no way around it... Unless you happened to find a maxed out pet laying on the ground for some reason (which I shockingly did)!

The Gear -

While the cash shop allowed you to buy costume items to fuse your equipment into (which also made them stronger), it also sold actual in game equipment. This is where things got really expensive. Although you could buy costumes from players in game for pretty "cheap" prices (maybe a week or so of farming), the actual equipment was a different story. A single piece of a level 55 set could be found in game for 20,000,000 + in gold (possibly half a year of farming), these set pieces were also sold in the online shop. There they would often go for $100 or so and became a main way for players to obtain them. Of course prices only went up from there (max level in game was in the 100s), with the gear being nearly impossible to find by normally playing. But even this, was not enough.

Gems -

Gear on it's own was useless. You had to buy costume pieces for it, buy the materials required to fuse gear into a costume, and then start working on the upgrades. The game used a gem system to bring each piece of gear up to +15, and the gems actually worth using were in the cash shop, and quite expensive... And you had to fuse them...

A gem worked like this:
Level 1 gem + level 1 refining gem = a level 1 gem fused into your gear. To go past level 1 though you had to fuse two of the same gems together, and stack it on top of the gem already fused into the equipment. Meaning your gear had to have a level 1 gem to be upgraded to level 2, and a level 2 to be upgraded to level 3. This went up to level 9 with one gem, with a second type of gem being used for level 10-15. But how this works is where the money really added up.

Level 1 gem + level 1 gem = level 2 gem.
Level 1 refining gem + level 1 refining gem = level 2 refining gem

Fuse this into the equipment and you now have it upgraded to +2. Now time for level 3.

level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 2 + level 2 = 3

Repeat for the refining gem level 3.

Fuse this into the level 2 equipment, and it is now 3. Let's go for 4!

level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 1 + level 1 = 2
level 2 + level 2 = 3
level 2 + level 2 = 3
level 3 + level 3 = 4

Do the same for the refining gem.

Keep in mind that you have to BUY these gems with real cash, and you have no choice but to work your way up. Each time the amount of gems you have to buy doubles. 2 gems for level 1, 4 for level 2, 8 for level 3, 16 a level 4, 32 for a level 5, 64 for a level 6, 128 for a level 7, 256 for a level 8, and finally 512 for a level 9. That's a grand total of 1,020 gems bought with real cash! (Plus another 252 for the second gem you'd need to reach +15)

Sadly, this isn't the end of it. You need to do this for FIVE pieces of equipment (four depending on your class). That's a total of 6,360 gems for a fully decked out character. To make matters even worse? When you fuse a gem there is a high chance it'll FAIL. Yes, all your hard work can blow up in your face, and hundreds of dollars can be gone in an instant. Sure you can pay more to increase your chance of a fusion working, but again... Real cash is required.

So, to put it simply... Even if gems were sold at 1 for a $1 (they weren't, they were more expensive, but sometimes sold in small packs), you'd have to pay around $6,000-$7,000 to even stand a chance against the rest of the players. And people did this. Yes, that's right, there were characters in this game worth more than you could ever imagine.

The Day It Was All Taken Away

With the game falling out of date compared to the private servers that were opening up (which were free and ran by fans), the company behind ToP (IGG) had the bright idea to release a "sequel." This sequel was actually the exact same game, but with some balance changes and new end game content -- which wasn't much. Rather than releasing this as an update though, they decided to make it a stand alone game. All character data from the previous version was deleted, and there was not a refund to those who had fully upgraded characters. Instead, they simply asked that they'd do it again.

Since that day ToP has shut down, but IGG continues to release games. Some still have cash shops that can get pretty bad, but nothing seemingly on this level. Considering the game had less content than even the free trial of Final Fantasy XIV, it's actually pretty amazing to see what people were willing to spend on it. Of course it can still be played on private servers, but honestly the game is out dated. For those who loved it back in the day it could be a nice trip down memory lane, but the rest of the world doesn't have a reason to check it out. Unless you want to see the horror of it's micro transactions without paying a dime.
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