If you are a human being with working eye balls and access to the internet, chances are you’ve seen something about EA’s microtransaction fiasco. The impetus for this hoopla originates from the business model for the Second Star Wars: Battlefront II, not to be confused with the First Star Wars: Battlefront II, which is the Sequel to the First Star Wars: Battlefront (not the Second Star Wars: Battlefront). To summarize the the issue: a video game with a $60 dollar box price locks a number of features behind an exorbitant amount of gameplay, or a pay wall. I don’t want to address the specific issues of this endeavor or EA (we’d be here for years) but the problem with microtransactions as a concept itself.
What is a microtransaction?
Let us first define microtransactions (as per Oxford Living Dictionary): A very small financial transaction conducted online.
In the non-gaming usage of the term, a microtransaction is basically a way to make revenue through smaller value transactions via large payments into a proprietary currency bank. For example, a site I used frequently in my college years was GoMusic. You would add money to your account with a minimum payment amount, roughly $5-10, and could buy and download songs for $0.08-$0.15 per song. No matter what songs I chose, when or how I purchased them, GoMusic got their $10 from me. I benefited as I did not have to buy a whole CD if I only wanted a single song off of an album. Another similar system are electronic toll transponders. In my Home state of Illinois, having a transponder has the benefit of reducing all tolls by HALF, so I’m paying $0.60 versus $1.20 per toll, but there is a minimum 20 dollar upfront payment into the account. Overall, you give the company your money up front, and you can use said value for smaller, microtransactions that would be somewhat unreasonable for a standard transaction.
Microtransactions in games
Microtransactions in games are extremely different. In general they provide two benefits to the game: Cosmetic and Gameplay Enhancement. Cosmetics are simple: You get a special costume or weapon skin, or a cool particle effect or what not. The Gameplay Enhancement is where I and most sane people should take issue. The idea behind these microtransactions are generally that some facets of gameplay are hard, tedious, or completely inaccessible through normal gameplay. So in order to alleviate these issues, you can pay the company money for benefits such as increased experience/reward gain or better equipment.
In a single player video game, it is you versus the Environment and AI. Having a Gameplay Enhancement does one or two things. It either makes for a game that is made to be intentionally difficult for the sake of making the purchase alluring, or shows that the company has no faith in their product if they are willing to allow people to pay to bypass gameplay. Either way, the end result of you paying for this enhancement results in you playing the game less. If my weak human brain meat recalls correctly, this is generally the exact opposite you want to do when playing video games. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of having to spend money to make something that I normally enjoy doing enjoyable, and also get to do less of it,
In the realm of multiplayer games, microtransactions can be egregious, cosmetic and gameplay enhancement equally so. Cosmetic wise, people like to be unique. The more cosmetic options the better, and while they are optional and do not effect actual gameplay, they are alluring to the player and have a huge impact on an individual’s enjoyment of a game. Gameplay enhancing microtransactions are literally a disease in multiplayer games. More often than not, they provide advantages over your fellow players, either by reducing the time cost of progression, or granting access to features completely inaccessible without paying. This results in “Pay-to-win” gameplay where the game becomes less about of how good you are at the game, but how much money you are willing to pump into said game.
Why is this bad for gaming?
Microtransactions do a disservice to gamers and to gaming as a form of entertainment. As a consumer, playing a game which has additional costs that effect standard gameplay makes gaming less about enjoying the game and more about managing your time and money. Do you spend 3 hours fighting the same poorly designed boss over and over that’s preventing you from playing the rest of the game, or do you buy some items or buffs which make it a breeze? Do you want your only hour free to play games to consist of signing on to a multiplayer game and getting one-shot by the person who spent $100 for in-game currency? There has to be an incentive for you to purchase microtransactions, and the only way to do that is to either to make the game unpleasant or unplayable without them, or to provide instant gratification to those with the money to pay for it.
Companies that follow these models will only see dollar signs. Given the slightest hint that these types of business models work and are profitable (the former, without a doubt, is) they will expand them and make them even more invasive. You thought having to purchase stamina to keep playing the quirky mobile game you downloaded for free was annoying? Well look no further than ArcheAge, an MMO that not only locks one of its most unique aspects (owning non-instanced farms and houses) behind a subscription, but also requires labor (which only regenerates by 10 every 5 minutes) to farm and craft. Don’t worry! You can purchase labor potions (as one could expect) from their microtransaction shop! So a precedent has been set, and has already been met with mild success.
Having microtransactions distorts the game’s value and culture. They create financial tiers of gameplay where, in order to experience gameplay in a certain form or fashion, you have to use your money, not your time or your skill. To make matters worse, in some games you can’t even outright buy the item you want. Microtransactions often come in the form of random loot crates/gachapons, where the content is random. Meaning that even after you spend your money, there’s a chance you won’t get anything worthwhile. One can only hope that you don’t have an addiction to gaming AND gambling.
What about DLC?
Defenders of microtransactions will claim that it they are no different than DLC, for which I strenuously disagree. Proper downloadable content (IE content that is made available sometime post release and not just locked from the start) allows a developer to extend the life of a game. Time and effort by developers post release goes into these updates and more often than not are worthy of the price.
Imagine its 1991. You purchased The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and you’ve beaten the game. You got all the heart containers, every item and found every secret. Imagine that for an extra 15 bucks, you get to download a new small overworld area with 2 new dungeons a year down the line. Now compare that to releasing a brand new Legend of Zelda game where you can only find half as many heart containers as usual, but for every hour of play time, you get a “free” 1/16th of a heart piece, but you can also buy a loot crate which has a chance to contain 1 to 8 heart pieces, rupees, bombs, or arrows, or a less than .01% chance to contain a sword better than the Master Sword. One of these things shows pride and confidence in the product, the other shows half-assed attempts to nickle and dime.
For a modern, real life example, let’s look at Destiny 2 and Friday the 13th. Destiny 2 has Engrams, which can be bought with real money to randomly get a reward from a loot table, which could consist of cosmetic items, emotes, and combat upgrades unique to the mechanic. Sure, you can get engrams through gameplay, but you’ll have to be really lucky (or rich) to get what you want without spending an unreasonable amount of time playing the game. With this in mind, no matter how much time or money you spend, there is a high probability that there is content that you will never, ever see, and you’ve already paid for the game. Friday the 13th on the other hand, you’ve got 3 DLC options so far: Halloween costumes, Swim Wear, and Dance Emotes. Each one unlocks it’s benefit for all characters. There is no rolling of the dice. You buy it and it is yours.
Not all DLC is created equal however, and there is bad DLC. A good example is the Multiplayer DLC for Final Fantasy XV: Comrades. It adds a completely new experience to players who have finished the original single player game. A bad and problematic example is the day one editions of Middle Earth: Shadows of War, where the standard box price gets you a fraction of the game the company developed.
What can we do about it?
The easiest way to combat companies that attempt to use invasive microtransactions is to not buy the game, at all. Even buying the game and not buying anything additional lets them know that you’re OK with them being in your game. If there is a specific game you want and the company has decided to add microtransactions, let them know you will not be purchasing their game for that exact reason. Encourage your friends to do the same. As consumers we have more power than we think, as no matter what a company sells or how much they sell it for, it means nothing if they can’t get consumers to buy it.