In 1986, Kesmai released Air Warrior, one of the first online flight simulators. For an hourly fee, players could use their 2800 baud modem to dial into the DARPAnet, or whatever, and fight in an online battle arena. Given the technology in play, I can only imagine that it must have been a gigantic train wreck. But it must have been a train wreck with potential, since Kesmai kept improving on the game; releasing sequels, getting it onto mainstream services like America Online, and eventually switching from an hourly fee to a flat monthly fee. By the time I encountered Air Warrior it was a sophisticated product, allowing 256 players to choose from over 40 planes (plus a few ground vehicles) and do battle. For the time, it was groundbreaking. Even today, few games are willing to shove 256 players onto a map.

While Air Warrior’s technology may have been ahead of its time, the Air Warrior business model was anything but: Pay a flat fee, play with planes. There were no experience points, no awards or badges no micro transactions, and no artificial gating. Every plane was available to every player. How the hell were you supposed to monetize that? Kesmai didn’t seem to have a great answer; they were eventually bought out by EA, who did a good job keeping the Kesmai monthly service running up until the point when they didn’t.

Today, Air Warrior is but a memory. Wargaming.net, however, seems intent to fill the gap in our souls with the upcoming World of Warplanes. Not being in the beta, I can’t tell you much about the game, but I’m pretty sure the first time I log in I will not have 40 planes immediately available to choose from. If I want them, I’m going to have to buy them.

After the jump: Becoming a “BargainJaeger”

Like Kesmai, Circuit City failed to adapt to the new business model of the 21st century, and paid the price. However, Circuit City continues to maintain an online presence, which is why I recently descended, vulture-like, onto their online storefront in the hopes of snagging some deeply discounted World of Tanks bonus codes.

World of Tanks has thoroughly adapted to the new business models of modern gaming. Rather than charge a flat monthly fee, the game allows you to buy gold at various rates of exchange. (A dollar will buy roughly 200 gold, depending on the size of the package purchased.) Gold is typically purchased directly from the World of Tanks portal, but can also be acquired through various retail promotions that have, at one time or another, been distributed as boxed sets or pack-ins in an attempt to grow the brand. I’m not sure how successful these efforts have been, since good deals seem to be quickly snapped up by people who already play the game. (Like the underlying game, the “game” of finding good World of Tanks gold prices rewards those who do not flee from basic math.)

Gold is important to World of Tanks players because it is used to avoid the pains and headaches that have been inserted into the game in order to encourage you to spend gold to avoid them. Gold has a large number of uses, the most common of which is to buy “premium” account status, which gives a 50% boost to XP and silver credit generation. While “premium” status is not necessary to play lower tier battles, anyone who dreams of driving a tier X tank will eventually need to either purchase a premium account or learn to cope with a very long grind. Gold also used to buy premium tanks, which earn extra silver income, and to enable a host of conveniences.

World of Tanks does a good job of preventing the gold economy from tainting the purity of individual matches. Premium tanks tend to be underpowered compared to normal tanks, and, with the recent change to premium shells, gold can no longer buy useful in-game advantages. Instead, the gold economy allows players to avoid meta-game obstacles, such as the slow pace of in-game silver generation, or the slow pace of crew training. The gold economy is also indirectly tied to the lack of useful information about secondary skills: If players make a foolish decision (such a prioritizing camouflage skill on a German heavy) they can correct that mistake — for a price.

Players who do not wish to buy large quantities of gold will need to learn the intricacies of the World of Tanks economy, which can be its own sort of game. Almost anything you might want to purchase (with silver or gold) will eventually go on sale for 50% off. A tank or module bought on sale can eventually be sold for its purchase price when you tire of it, preserving your sliver supply. Players can also preserve their crew experience, using silver or gold to efficiently retrain old crews to new tanks of the same class. Good planning will greatly reduce a player’s need for gold.

However, at some point, you’re going to want to buy some gold. I can play World of Tanks without a premium account, but I could not imagine forsaking the gold economy entirely. There are too many small conveniences that gold demands. 10 gold (less than five cents) can move a handy piece of equipment like a Gun Rammer (-10% reload speed) from the tank I am about to sell to another tank. Without gold I would have to sell the rammer for half-price, and then rebuy it on my new tank. These fees are annoying; I would much rather pay a larger flat monthly fee and not have to deal with all of these hassles. But apparently that road leads to the dark fate of Circuit City or Kesmai. Leveling, grinds, and micropayments are the new foundation of online gaming. Welcome to the new economy.

Next: The lessons of the past. (Or: “World War 2 is hell”)

David Lydon has been playing games since he was very young, and hopes to still be playing games when he is very old. This is his first attempt to write about games, unless annoying e-mails to his friends count. David posts on the Quarter to Three forums as Dave47.