Microtransactions – The OK, The Bad and The Greedy
Dean talks about everyone's favorite nickel and dime phenomenon, and instances both offensive and passable.
Microtransactions, eh? We’ve all been subject to them at some time or another, especially in recent years as it has become an increasingly growing trend. It’s pretty much a given fact that if you put £50.00 down for a new title, you will have the option to buy more content for the game. They can be trivial little things, weapon and armour packs, but you knew that going in, didn’t you? And dependent on your tastes and budget, you had already decided whether to partake in the additional purchase. As much as they’ve become a cynical aspect of this bizarre hobby of ours, we know microtransactions are a thing and, provided the developer is upfront about their inclusion, we’re able to make informed decisions as consumers.
But then there are those sneaky developers. The ones who cosy up to you, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “We won’t do that,” they say, wrapping their arm around your shoulder. “We’re not like the others. What you see is what you get with us.”
Then they do it, don’t they? A few months down the line, they slide a bit of paid content in. You want a pink skin for that neat assault rifle, do you? Well, it’s yours. What’s that? What gameplay skills do you have to utilise to unlock it? Well, you don’t have to do anything like that. All you do is go into the menu and press ‘e-shop,’ then you open your wallet, and make it rain.
The analogy of an abusive lover, saying what you, as a consumer who is disenfranchised with the microtransaction culture that has enveloped the videogame industry, want to hear to get a sale, is maybe a bit dramatic. It’s not the most sinister betrayal you’ll have in your life (or if you’re lucky, it is) but it’s jarring to believe you’ve purchased the complete package only to find that, months later, they were holding back all along. However, it is not dramatic to call the tactic of including microtransactions into a game, months after release and with no prior stated intent, anti-consumer behaviour.
Spending £50.00 on a video game is a big ask and you want to ensure that the title will be what you expect. Part of this is to rely on review scores and pre-release coverage from the myriad of video game outlets, to understand what they game will and will not do. It is not fair for a reviewer or video game journalist to provide commentary, or a final verdict on a title they understand is complete, when future content that will enhance the game, or give an advantage to players, is provided later. Sure, the outlet can edit their review or post an update to include coverage of the paid features to give an idea of how the microtransaction store functions, if the content affects your ability to suitably progress in the game, or if the game economy is justified and proportionate. But for the average Joe – the buyer – it’s often too little too late. You’ve spent the cash.
One of the larger controversies surrounding this issue was when Overkill Software, developers of Payday 2, released microtransactions in 2015, after declaring that the game would not feature any such system prior to launch. The backlash was fierce regarding the “Black Market” update, which introduced randomly dropped safes that required the purchase of a $2.49 drill to open. The safes contained new weapons skins, some of which included special gameplay modifications and stat boosts. Fans of the game felt as though they were being forced into a ‘pay-to-win,’ scenario and a Reddit group titled, “fuck you overkill” was started. Eventually, Overkill Software removed microtransactions.
Microtransactions work within the free-to-play model because there is no required upfront cost. Therefore, it is reasonable, and expected, that microtransactions will feature heavily as the developer needs to recuperate the cost of producing the game. That is the basis of the business model and given no upfront investment is required, it’s hard to feel cheated by this method. But premium titles which cost around £50.00, are a whole different animal. The idea is that by buying the game, the developer will receive money to recuperate the cost of producing the game. Nothing smacks more of disrespect for your purchase than telling you that it essentially is not good enough, and now you must spend more for the ‘complete experience.’
I understand that the cost of designing and producing AAA titles is ever increasing and that video game development is a business. But is it not enough that these companies have been paid for their efforts in the first instance? That arbitrary or, even worse, unfairly advantageous bolt-ons are included with little warning just to make a quick buck is deceptive and, downright disrespecting of the game’s fan base.
What’s worse is there are proven ways to implement these systems and not send your fan base to the Reddit forums or conspire to hack your website, making instances like Overkill’s debacle all the more egregious.
In June 2016, co-founder of Respawn, the developer of the Titanfall franchise, Vince Zampella, confirmed that Titanfall 2 would receive micro-transactions. This, however, was part of a compromise made by Respawn. The thinking behind the decision was that to fund the free map DLC packs, the cost would need to be subsidised by micro-transactions. Speaking to GamesRader, Zampella said: “We’re giving away all the maps and modes [because ] we don’t want to split the community,” Zampella also added:. “We still want to provide post launch content because people want it, but it’s not free to do. If we’re going to support the game that costs money.”
This method is okay, given that the paid-features were not game changing and are mostly cosmetic. It gives those who want that sort of thing the option to buy it whilst keeping the free map packs for all players. Blizzard introduced a similar system with Overwatch where micro-transactions were introduced to fund free map packs. In the case of Overwatch, the micro-transactions did not provide the player with the item outright, but increased the odds of random loot drops – again, with items that were inconsequential to the gameplay and didn’t award an unfair advantage. It gave players interested in the little extras the chance to buy them, whilst keeping the game balanced, and allowed players with no incentive to partake with micro-transactions the chance to play the free maps. Most of all, they were upfront about it.
These are cases of micro-transactions done right. Systems implemented with the player, and the player experience, in mind. It is when we start to move into the territory of introducing these systems late into the game’s lifecycle, just to bleed a fan base of their cash. This isn’t to suggest that any of the developers noted in this piece set out but it is certainly how the players feel when they start to turn on their games and see greyed out sections in load-out menus, key items and features hidden behind paywalls.
To be fair, no one is asking you to buy the extra content. It is intended as optional but it leaves a sour taste to feel that you have been misled or have to pay more to gain additional skills or stat boosts. Just be honest with me, video game developers, don’t tell me lies and break my heart. I’m fragile like that.