DIGITAL DABBLINGS #25 – The Dreaded Paywall

By William M. Noetling, PWTorch Specialist


I think by now most people understand the concept of a paywall in mobile apps.  Basically it’s the point where in a game you can’t really get much farther without paying something to the developers to buy a power-up or level-up that will get you past a certain point in the game.  In gaming there’s also the concept of “pay-to-win”, which is definitely a factor in the Topps WWE Slam Digital Trading Card App as well.

Seth Rollins latest signature card – “Road to Wrestlemania”

For the first year or so in the app (the app began mid-July 2016) the paywall really wasn’t quite that bad.  There were some packs that could only be purchased with a same day coin purchase, but the barrier to entry there was only a 99 cent price point for a small coin package.  Many players, including myself, would stock up on coins via Tapjoy offers and Video watches. In fact, during the first year of the app there were weekends where you could earn limited edition Lime Green or Bronze cards for competing in Tapjoy contests (the top 10 coin earners would get a 10cc card, the 200 players who did the most offers would get a 200cc card, and everyone who did one offer would get a third unlimited cc card).

Every once in a while during the pre-diamond era Topps would throw out a special card with either a large CC bundle or a “coin subscription” which would double your daily coins for a week.  These were typically base set variations in Purple or other colors.

Outside of these areas, most of the in-game cards were available for all free-to-play players.  With the advent of diamonds midway through 2017, Topps slowly but surely started to release content that was only available in packs that could be purchased with Diamonds, and thus the true paywall was born.

Johnny Wrestling Relic, also from the “Road to Wrestlemania” Set

 

Initially, and now most often, a diamond pack will provide the only access to the highest tier (or lowest limited edition) of an insert variant.  Meaning that the coin packs will have the lowest tier and perhaps the middle tier of an insert set, while the diamond pack will offer all of the variants of the set and in fact will guarantee a copy of the lowest tier.

Pay-per-view sets were the most affected by Diamonds.  Previously the high end PPV content would be available only in very high priced coin packs that were only available if you purchased coins that day.  For example, the Survivor Series 2016 Signatures and lowest CC base variants were in a pack that cost 750,000 coins and you had to purchase coins that day to get access.  OR the highest end content would be in special cash only bundles alongside coins.

Now PPV sets usually come in three or four pack varieties.  For coin-only packs you have access to only the lowest two tiers of base cards, and perhaps if the set has a third component you might be able to pull one of those (by third component I mean a posters, or legends set, not the sigs).  The highest tier content, which is now limited to 500cc, and the signature content will only be found in diamond packs, typically costing 100 diamonds for a chance at a sig, and 3000 diamonds for a guaranteed low tier sig and chances at higher tier sigs.  The 500cc high tier base set will usually sell out in minutes, which then pulls the diamond packs for a few hours while players have to sit and wait and try to trade for content that should theoretically still be in packs. When the packs return the sold out content will not generate a discount, the packs will still cost the same, just your guaranteed base cards or signatures won’t be in them.  Add in a super-low cc base variant and additional signature variants for the “big four” and you’ll see that Topps is making a ton of money off of these paywall only items.

It would be inevitable that sooner or later Topps would release standard insert sets that were only available in diamond packs and in fact they’ve been doing more and more of this type of release.  While these cards definitely are more rare in game and will command much more on the secondary market, it’s difficult to discern what their long-term investment potential really is, because of the low CC numbers and limited purchases.

Topps will even paywall only certain cards within an insert set, such as in the case of the Rob Schamberger Illustrated releases.  In those sets about half of any given release is only available in coin packs, while the rest are in diamond packs. You do need all of the cards still to obtain the award, so while there are thousands of the non-paywall cards, there are less than 200 of any given paywall card, including the award.  The super-popular paywall cards are still running $5-10 apiece, with awards fetching as much as $20 (though more often they’re closer to $10).

Most recently Topps has decided to go back to the paying cash for a specific insert set paradigm with “VECTOR”.  For $10 you get that week’s card and 1000 diamonds. This really seems like a slap in the face to paying players because Topps is basically forcing those who want to collect that set to spend cash on each and every card.  Of course the overall award for completing Vector is an Alexa Bliss. It’s a 9 card set broken up in 3 waves of 3 cards apiece with an award after each wave and the aforementioned Alexa overall award. The first wave award is Kofi Kingston, the second is Dusty Rhodes.

Setting aside the cost of the cards, the first three performers chosen for the set were incredibly lackluster, starting with Chris Jericho (who let’s remember doesn’t even have a current contract with WWE), moving to Zack Ryder (who hadn’t appeared on live TV since Wrestlemania) and finishing with Dean Ambrose, who’s currently injured.  While yes I bought the Jericho to keep up with my performer collection, I won’t be buying any further, unless again I need them for my P.C. Wave 2 started with Naomi and Natalya.

A further critique on these cards is that the design is very bland, the poses are reused, and the actual execution of said bland design is lackluster to say the least.  These are selling in the low 200’s right now, with Jericho at 271 cc which is the highest. Secondary market wise, only the Jericho has any verifiable sales/trades currently going for about $7.50 in cash or trade.

“Vector Chris Jericho – ‘for spending $10 on this card you just made the list!'”

 

This brings up another facet of the paywall debate, the secondary market availability and value.  Given that most paywall cards end up being sold in much less quantity than coin-pack cards (virtually every one of them ends up under 500cc) and the proclivity for those who purchase paywall cards not to purchase extras for trading, the availability of paywall cards for sale or trade is significantly less than non-paywall cards.  When they are available at all the prices tend to be much much higher than your non-paywall cards, even for cards with similar CC.

When you’re looking at cards available in coin-packs a general pattern tends to emerge.  The lowest tier, highest CC cards end up selling for $1-2. The next tier up general go for $2-4 and the highest tier, lowest CC cards usually go for $4+, given the usual caveats (i.e. women sell better than men, active performers sell better than legends).  Paywall cards usually start at $5 and can go up from there. Bundle cards at the $100 price point tend to sell for between $25 and $50 on the secondary market. Key performers from popular sets end up closer to $10 than $5 (we’re talking Finn, Alexa, Sasha, Becky, AJ, Seth).

Further still exacerbating the problem is that Topps keeps raising the prices on the most popular sets.  The most recent iteration of Personified saw both pack prices increasing and the odds decreasing, creating a lose-lose situation for fans of those sets.  Personified has a hard CC limit of 750 for each card and packs are available until they sell out. As of this writing Topps has released 5 of the latest wave of personified, and only ONE has actually sold out so far.  Fans just aren’t buying these packs anymore.

“Personified AJ Styles, his second Personified card this year.”

 

Sunday Showcase used to be a quality insert set during the first year of the app, every card released sold out within the first day of release.  Now packs are sitting there unopened and cards aren’t selling out, for weeks at a time.

Sunday Showcase Roman Reigns. The gimmick here is that it moves, unlike Roman’s popularity with fans.”

 

The player base is eroding there’s no doubt about that.  By my estimation there are currently just about 15,000 daily users of the app, and that’s down about 1,000 users in just under a month (see my last column on how I calculate number of users).  The hemorrhaging is going to continue if Topps keeps following the same patterns they’ve followed on their other popular apps. The Star Wars app is so full of premium sets it’s difficult to find anything at all that’s available to free players.  The sports apps don’t appear to be as affected, there’s still plenty of non-premium content, but even there, the best stuff is still behind the dreaded paywall.

Each collector has to choose what feels comfortable when it comes to how much money they’re willing to put into these apps.  The micro-pay paradigm in apps proves that to be successful all an app really needs is to have a few hundred paying players (and a couple of whales).  Clearly Topps is successful with WWE Slam given that much of the premium content sells out at astonishing speed, especially the larger PPV and “box” sets.  Fatigue will set in though, with the app entering its third full year of existence in July, many players are asking themselves why they’re still involved. Especially when it’s clearer and clearer that Topps doesn’t care about FTPers and is only interested in placating the paying players.

Don’t forget you can find me in game at GRENDELSEN, and I’m always happy to trade or answer any questions you might have.  Leave questions or concerns here and I’ll see you next time.

My Collecting Blog – The Budget Collector

The Daily WiLL – http://willaday.blogspot.com/

NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE: DIGITAL DABBLINGS #24 – Top Selling Cards

1 Comment on DIGITAL DABBLINGS #25 – The Dreaded Paywall

  1. An addition here – since I wrote this there have been two more sales of Vector cards, a Naomi sold for $7 and a Natalya sold for $6.50. Also a pre-order for all 3 wave 2 cards sold for $20.

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