There is a saying in my home country: “Nebun nu e ala care cere, ci ala care da” – this perfectly summarizes the state of microtransactions within the games industry. It translates to “crazy is not the one who sets the price, it’s the one who pays it”.
I was reading my daily gaming news this morning when my eyes lay upon the following article from PC Gamer: “Assassin’s Creed Unity will let players “fast track” unlocks with microtransactions”. Excellent! Yet another game being completely annihilated by greed. Anybody here remember when Ubisoft used to be cool?
For those who don’t know, microtransactions are small real-money payments that you can make within a game to obtain a specific in-game item, skill or bonus.
At the risk of creating controversy I will go ahead and state the following: “not all microtransactions are born equal”. The integration of these in the game is extremely important and you can easily tell when microtransactions are being used as a source of revenue as opposed to an added source of income.
If you are already familiar with all the problems and benefits of microtransactions, skip The Bad and The Good and go straight to The Ugly
In any case, let’s start with:
Microtransactions themselves are not inherently bad, it’s their greedy implementation that makes them bad. I will briefly talk about a different way in which you can completely destroy a good game by being too greedy with the use of an auction house.
Here’s how microtransactions destroy games. It all started with web-based casual titles, advertised as free to play, that will allow you to speed up the gameplay by buying specific in-game items with real money. FarmVille is one of the first to implement this technique successfully: Every time you would build a new patch of land / house / farm / tractor it would take a preset amount of time before it becomes available to you. However if you wanted to speed up the process you could pay a very small amount of money to make the timer go away for that specific building and have it instantly.
Initially nobody in the hard-core gaming scene cared much about this, the problem did not affect them, it affected the casual market but, by not doing anything about it, Zynga and King were born.
When there are dollar signs to be seen, all companies will attempt to get a piece of the action. Under the excuse of “you don’t have to pay to win, we’re just giving busy customer the option to progress through the game faster”, titles started including this form of payment and everything escalated up to the point where now you buy a game for 60$ or your regional equivalent to find out that the most powerful items in the game are only available if you purchase them for an additional charge… on a game you’ve already spent money on!
Concrete example: Forza Motorsport 5 is an XBOX ONE exclusive that costs $60 retail price. It is by all means a AAA game costing full price and in theory you can play the whole game without spending one extra cent; HOWEVER, “you can progress a lot easier by buying boosters, which will give you the ability to unlock the cars that you want to drive”. But that’s not really how it works, as the game has been made annoyingly grindy and difficult to unlock the cars through gameplay, thus if you want to drive your desired vehicle without spending money it will take a lot of hours going in circles around a track to raise the in-game points.
This concept was also excruciatingly obvious in Diablo III once the real-money auction house was launched. When the player would reach Inferno difficulty, all the items they’ve obtained up to that point became useless. A new session of grinding was necessary in order to progress in the game, spending hours/days to hopefully get the item(s) you needed. Or you could casually stroll into the auction house, drop $10-$20-$30 up to $250 for a legendary item that a player was selling to make your life easier. Did I mention that Blizzard would pocket a percentage of every transaction? Although this didn’t contain direct micro-transactions the effect was the same: you can choose to do a mindless repetitive and boring task for hours on end or you could drop more money and progress.
Update: As I was writing this, a friend kindly pointed me to the following BBC article titled “Mobile firm EE introduces queue jumping charge”. Here’s an extract of it: ” Mobile phone company EE has introduced a charge for jumping the queue on customer service calls. Callers are invited by an automated message to use the priority service for a flat fee of 50 pence.” – This is getting ridiculous on a whole new level.
Finally I would like to make a very brief list of IPs that has fallen prey to this form of “payment”. In their downfall they’ve caused a lot of pain to a lot of people, including myself, that really enjoyed these series:
- Dead Space 3
- Forza Motorsport 5
- RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 – You probably don’t even know this exists. Yep! It’s a mobile title now
- Dungeon Keeper for mobile
- Real Racing 3 – From my undisclosed source from EA, you needed around $300 to unlock all the cars in the game or an equivalent of 200+ hours of gameplay
- Assassin’s Creed Unity: According to the previous mentioned article, at the beginning of the game the fast-travel system is going to be activated via microtransactions. Should this prove to be true in the final release I am willing to bet an arm and a leg that every objective you have to reach be will be at least one fast travel point away from your quest giver. Why? Because Money!
Ok then when are microtransactions acceptable? So far it seems that they have utterly destroyed and keep destroying classic and future titles.
Two words: Cosmetic enhancements. As long as the item bought does not affect gameplay in any way for everyone else participating in the action, then they present no problems.
League of Legends, although not perfect, implement a very fair microtransactions model. The game is truly free to play and the experience is not less in any way for the user that doesn’t have the funds to participate. You can buy skins, that change the cosmetic aspect of your heroes but not the functionality. You can buy experience boosters that will give your account more leveling per match to progress faster to higher-level games, however this does not affect the gameplay within a match in any way. All the heroes within the game can be grinded for and there is no locked content for free players.
Defense of the Ancients (DoTA) 2. Same exact principles as above with the added bonus that the community can create their own cosmetic enhancements and sell them on the store for a small profit, but these do not affect gameplay in any way.
Elite: Dangerous – this one is a bit controversial. The title is not F2P, it has a retail price of £35/50$ and is still in Beta, yet this did not stop them to create an online store where you can buy decals for your ship. The reason I’m giving it a pass is because the things you can buy, so far, are purely cosmetic and if the developer has invested man-hours to create hundreds of custom decals that look truly premium then it can be reasonable to ask a small price for them. However, the second the statement above is no longer true, we have a huge problem.
This form of microtransactions can be good! The developer obtains extra revenue to further enhance the game and pay for server maintenance, all the users get the same gameplay experience with the whole game remaining fair to all other players and the supporters have a reason to feel special.
But all these titles are threading a very fine and dangerous line…
These payments have their pros and cons unfortunately the negatives are outweighing the positives by a huge margin. More and more good titles are being injected with this virus and it is very rarely in the non-impacting way.
Why is this happening? Because of the saying at the beginning of the article. They are not crazy/stupid for making the games with paywalls, pay-to-win methods and so on… It’s our fault for buying them!
Since they are implementing these penny-grabbing methods in these games and all we do as consumers is complain, there is nothing stopping developers and publishers from implementing them in the future. Bad reputation is not something bothering them too much. Their main concern is money and no matter how much we complain, if the cash flow doesn’t stop we’re just going to get more of the same.
The only surefire way to make this type of system stop is to completely boycott those games. It has been suggested before by multiple popular game reviewers (NerdCubed,TotalBiscuit) and I am here to say it again: Stop buying these games! Buying them and not participating in microtransactions is not a solution as the publishers still make money on these titles. Just stop buying them altogether! Chances are the game is already ruined due to this micro-payment system by being too much boring and repetitive work.
Share this idea with every gamer you know! Share this with your friends! Share it with your mom if she’s a casual gamer as we need to all stop taking part in these types of payment abuse. It will drive this form of entertainment to its end, sacrificing the actual gameplay for profit and this is not what any of us want. Stop being the crazy one!
Share this article on your news feed if you think that it will convince people, or share totalbiscuit’s video, or nerdcubed’s video. Doesn’t really matter which, just get the idea out, that we will not put up with this anymore! Because the longer we accept it, the more embedded it becomes in gaming culture and sets itself as a standard.
Remember: Crazy is not the one who sets the price, it’s the one who pays it!