TL;DR: Are Microtransactions Yet Another Necessary Evil?

Posted By: In: Blog, Gaming News On: 01 Mar

TL;DR: Are Microtransactions Yet Another Necessary Evil?

It has been a major topic for the past few years; game companies trying every “dirty” tactic in the book to nickel-and-dime consumers. EA, Capcom, Namco Bandai. The mere mention of these names can often incite a blood lust in some that sends them down a rabbit hole of frustration and despair. But, in a market of casual, free-to-play, indie, and used games, what’s a game company to do? How can they possibly break even, let alone turn a profit to impress their shareholders? In this installment of tl;dr, we’re staring the game industry’s most criticized practices right in the eye and, if we’re lucky, we’ll come out the other side with our heads held high. Or, we might be turned to stone, I really can’t say. So those of you with weak constitutions may want to turn around now, because we’re about to cross the RPG cliché “point of no return” from which there are only two outcomes: Game over or victory.

Before we can make an informed decision, let’s take a look at the facts and commonly-held viewpoints on the issue. In one corner, we have semi-retired ex-Epic designer Cliff Bleszinksi, who recently championed a strong defense for the existence of microtransactions on his Tumblr blog. In the other corner, we have the infamous, love-him-or-hate-him critic extraordinaire Jim Sterling. He has made a strong case in recent months debating against the industry’s current business tactics, with a particular focus on microtransactions. Now that we’ve drawn a line in the sand, let’s take a look at some of the points both sides are arguing.

Taking snippets of his recent blog post, here is an overview of Bleszinski’s main points:

“The video game industry is just that.

An industry.

Which means that it exists in a capitalistic world. You know, a free market. A place where you’re welcome to spend your money on whatever you please… or to refrain from spending that money.

Those companies that put these products out? They’re for profit businesses. They exist to produce, market, and ship great games ultimately for one purpose. First, for money, then, for acclaim.

I’ve seen a lot of comments online about microtransactions. They’re a dirty word lately, it seems. Gamers are upset that publishers/developers are “nickel and diming them.” They’re raging at “big and evil corporations who are clueless and trying to steal their money.”

I’m going to come right out and say it. I’m tired of EA being seen as “the bad guy.” I think it’s bull**** that EA has the “scumbag EA” memes on Reddit and that Good Guy Valve can Do No Wrong.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Gabe and co most everything they do. (Remember, I bought that custom portal turret that took over the internet a while back and I have friends over there.) However, it blows my mind that somehow gamers don’t seem to get that Valve is a business, just like any other, and when Valve charges 100$ for an engagement ring in Team Fortress 2 it’s somehow “cool” yet when EA wants to sell something similar it’s seen as “evil.” Yes, guys, I hate to break it to you, as awesome as Valve is they’re also a company that seeks to make as much money as possible.

They’re just way better at their image control.

EA is NOT the bad guy. Also, Inspector Gadget was the real villain all along!

EA is NOT the bad guy. Also, Inspector Gadget was the real villain all along!

If you don’t like EA, don’t buy their games. If you don’t like their microtransactions, don’t spend money on them. It’s that simple. EA has many smart people working for them (Hi, Frank, JR, and Patrick!) and they wouldn’t attempt these things if they didn’t work. Turns out, they do. I assure you there are teams of analysts studying the numbers behind consumer behavior over there that are studying how you, the gamer, spends his hard earned cash.

If you’re currently raging about this on GAF, or on the IGN forums, or on Gamespot, guess what? You’re the vocal minority. Your average guy that buys just Madden and GTA every year doesn’t know, nor does he care. He has no problem throwing a few bucks more at a game because, hey, why not?

The market as I have previously stated is in such a sense of turmoil that the old business model is either evolving, growing, or dying. No one really knows. “Free to play” aka “Free to spend 4 grand on it” is here to stay, like it or not. Everyone gets a Smurfberry! Every single developer out there is trying to solve the mystery of this new model. Every console game MUST have a steady stream of DLC because, otherwise, guess what? It becomes traded in, or it’s just rented. In the console space you need to do anything to make sure that that disc stays in the tray.

Remember, if everyone bought their games used there would be no more games. I don’t mean to knock you if you’re cash strapped – hell, when I was a kid and I had my paper route I would have bought the hell out of used games. But understand that when faced with this issue those that fund and produce those games you love have to come up with all sorts of creative ways for the business to remain viable and yes, profitable.

People like to act like we should go back to “the good ol’ days” before microtransactions but they forget that arcades were the original change munchers. Those games were designed to make you lose so that you had to keep spending money on them. Ask any of the old Midway vets about their design techniques. The second to last boss in Mortal Kombat 2 was harder than the last boss, because when you see the last boss that’s sometimes enough for a gamer. The Pleasure Dome didn’t really exist in the original Total Carnage. Donkey Kong was hard as hell on purpose.”

Now, let’s compare that to some points Jim Sterling has made about companies existing for the sole purpose of making money:

“Even if it’s true, that companies exist to make money, that doesn’t protect them. Class A drugs exist to make money, human trafficking exists to make money; since when did making money become so f***ing glorious an ideal, you get a free pass.

Hey, look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money. Valve’s a company, and it makes money, and I’m not mad that Valve wants to do that. Having an interface with the community, protecting quality games, protecting digital rights without making customers jump through hoops and Steam sales means that Valve makes its money without customers crying foul.

Clearly a man of elegant tastes, Mr. Sterling's hobbies include cosplaying and... Willem Dafoe.

Clearly a man of elegant tastes, Mr. Sterling’s hobbies include cosplaying and… Willem Dafoe.

Yeah, sure, [companies] exist to [make money], but they don’t exist to be reckless, short-sighted, industry-crushing… and that’s what people are pissed about. Plenty of companies make money without punishing paying consumers without DRM, without trying to cripple the used game market which has never actually been proven to lose a game’s sales. without putting free-to-play business models in $60 games, and without being Capcom.

There’s a way to do your job while respecting customers and treating them with the same loyalty you expect from them. Acting like any company has to do the things EA has done over the years is off base, illogical, and evidently, not true.”

Sterling isn’t shy about his feelings of microtransactions in $60 dollar games either. For proof, just take a look at some of his tweets on the subject.

Now, let’s take a look at the exact business tactics currently being used by companies in an effort to maximize profits. Almost every publisher is currently using online passes to help combat used game sales, requiring folks who don’t buy a game new to spend additional money to unlock multiplayer components. Everything from Assassin’s Creed to Darksiders 2 and even Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has made use of online passes. Then there is the controversial on-disc DLC that is locked behind paywalls. Capcom is the most notorious of offenders in this scenario; locking content that ranges from additional characters to post-campaign content and even some multiplayer modes in their various games. Most recently, we now have the addition of microtransactions in full-priced, $60 games. Dead Space 3 is coming under fire, with EA being used as a shield, as the title to put the idea into practice, but both EA and Ubisoft have made it very clear in recent months that microtransactions will be a major component of all of their releases going forward.

Okay, so now that we have a clear representation of where the industry is at, it’s time to offer some analysis. Are companies truly in the wrong for just trying to make money? And is there a happy medium between profitability and quality customer relations? How do we solve these issues?

On the subject of microtransactions, I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not angry with EA for putting microtransactions in Dead Space 3. Their inclusion doesn’t do anything to hinder my experience as a player, and that’s really the key factor here. Where I take issue is in the free-to-play market. I think there should be a difference between games that are free-to-play (F2P) and games that are pay-to-win. Currently, this issue predominantly applies to the casual and mobile markets, but with the next-generation of consoles potentially releasing titles at different price tiers, including F2P, it will soon be relevant to the console market as well. Take the earth-shattering Angry Birds, for example. The free version of the game contains intrusive, obnoxious ads; but at no point do they actually prevent you from completing the game. You can play Angry Birds from start to finish, collecting every golden egg and three-starring every single stage, without ever paying a dime. And yet, Rovio has found ways to turn a profit. Contrast this with the popular Marvel Avengers Alliance, a game available through both Facebook and Playdom. While the story-mode of Avengers Alliance can be completed without paying money, players are forced to shell out some serious cash if they want any hope of unlocking rewards and characters awarded as prizes during the game’s player-vs-player mode (PvP). Considering the game’s strong focus on PvP as a predominant feature, forcing players to spend money to keep up with those willing to spend money on stat-enhancing items and upgraded equipment is unfair.

Did you really think we'd have this discussion without including this?

Did you really think we’d have this discussion without including this?

If the game you’re developing is pay-to-win, it should be labeled as such. Don’t waste my time as a consumer investing a few hours into a game, only to have me discover I can’t advance any further without paying for something I was told at checkout was “free”. Can you imagine going to a “free” screening of a new movie, only to have the action pause during the climax of the film so that the ushers can come around and demand money before resuming the scene-in-progress? No, because labeling something as “free-to-play” that isn’t actually free to play is deceptive, deviant, and a sleazy business tactic. If a game is only free-to-try and pay-to-win, I want to know ahead of time before I spend the effort to emotionally invest in the experience.

On-disc DLC is another major issue. Keeping content that shipped on the disc I’ve already paid for behind a paywall is a tricky issue to tackle. I certainly don’t support the idea that content developed prior to release should be kept out of consumer hands for the sole purpose of charging them extra post-release. But, as with most things in life, it’s really depends on the circumstance. Let’s think about it in terms of DLC characters. If there are fully playable characters and completed stages already on the disc at launch with nothing stopping me from using them aside from the developer asking for more money, that’s not right. However, if the characters are unfinished and the assets are simply shipping with the disc to enable smaller file downloads at a later date, then that’s fine. I fully support DLC as a way to extend a game’s shelf life. I personally hope for DLC when I’m finished with a great game that I’d like to continue playing. The difference is, I support content that is developed after a game has “gone gold”, meaning that the “master” CD has been delivered for manufacturing and is complete. Content that developers create after the game is finished should obviously be considered additional content, and I have no problem paying them for the extra work they’ve done. However, content that is created before the game is finished, with the intention of being kept hidden from players to increase profits, is simply not acceptable. Can separate, splinter teams develop post-launch content parallel with the master game’s development? Sure. Can content that was created for the main game be locked away behind a paywall for no reason aside from profits? Absolutely not.

Things like online passes and day-one free DLC for those who buy games new are an uninspired way to combat used games. But at the same time, since they aren’t actually costing me anything, since they’re not penalizing me for purchasing new, I don’t have a problem with it. I believe that developers should see a percentage of profits from used game sales, and if online passes are a way of making some money off a used game purchase, since clearly GameStop has no intention of sharing profits with the guys who actually made the game, then so be it. So long as it says somewhere on the box that an online pass is required, allowing the consumer to make an informed decision, I don’t have a problem with it.

So, if these current tactics are frustrating consumers and inspiring boycotts and petitions, what are some possible solutions? How do we take a narrow-minded industry that’s been backing itself into this corner for years, and find a way to expand publisher’s minds? To start, we have to be willing to vote with our wallet. If you legitimately have a problem with on-disc DLC, and the next Call of Duty is packed to the brim with content that’s blocked behind a paywall, you have to stop buying Call of Duty. It doesn’t matter that “all your friends are playing it” or that “one sale isn’t going to make a difference”. If you want to inspire change, you have to make sacrifices. Convince your friends to play something else together. Find an online community that shares your opinion and form a gaming group with them. The PS4 is all about social connectivity, so let’s turn their innovation back on them and use it to our advantage. Let’s form communities and better plan petitions and boycotts, using our consoles to reach as broad an audience as possible. Let’s get our Call of Duty fix from watching those that do buy it live-stream their efforts while we play a game that doesn’t nickel-and-dime you. (Remember I’m just using Call of Duty as a hypothetical here and not pointing a finger at them.)

Additionally, we have to buy the kinds of DLC we support, and reject the ones we don’t. Stop paying $5 for a character costume, even if it’s one you really want. Even if you only intend to “just buy one”, don’t. Don’t let the industry charge you five dollars for something that doesn’t justify such a high price tag. You might want that leopard print bikini really badly, but choosing NOT to buy it is the sacrifice you and everyone else has to make. Otherwise, we’re telling the industry to keep bending us over. We’re showing them it’s okay to put the burden of appeasing the shareholders on consumers. We’re showing them that it’s not their obligation to come up with innovative solutions to THEIR problems, when they can just pass their financial woes down to us. And that’s not okay. In fact, it’s unacceptable. So if you really care about the way the industry is treating you, do something about it. Otherwise, just shut up and let them take your money. Hopefully, you choose the former. Because businesses do actually exist to make money, and until you prove to them they’re in the wrong by cutting off the profits they oh so desperately need to survive, they have no incentive to change.

But... it's Christmas! I'll just get this on- STOP IT!

But… it’s Christmas! I’ll just get this on- STOP IT!

And so, here we are again, at the ending of another longwinded analysis of the gaming industry. While there is always a right way and a wrong way to do things, clearly the industry has to make some changes if it wants to get back into gamer’s good graces. Microtransactions certainly have a place in the realm of gaming, but there’s a difference between paying for something because you want it, and paying for something because you need it. The latter has no place in games you’ve already spent $60 on, and that’s something we need to make sure developers know BEFORE they start thinking they can get away with it; a trend that’s already begun in the free-to-play market.

Finally, here’s the obligatory final paragraph where I ask you fine folks to offer your opinions and analysis. What are your thoughts on the subject of microtransactions? Do you believe companies are entitled to make money by any means necessary, no matter the burden they’re placing on consumers? Where do you draw the line when it comes to DLC? Most importantly, would you be willing to stop purchasing your favorite franchise games if the company implemented poor business tactics to increase profitability? Make your voice heard in the comments below.

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  1. Here’s my two cents on it. On disk DLC is garbage. If you have coded it, and included it WITH the product, don’t make your customers pay to unlock it. If you don’t want it to be included with your product, don’t include it. A micro-transaction in a $60 game? Only acceptable as long as you feel that your game will receive enough play time to actually /justify/ that transaction. If you’re going to be playing an MMO for hundreds of hours and you paid $60 for it, maybe that $3-5 in game beer hat is worth it. Sure. But if you’re going to sell me a skin for a character in a game that has NO replay value and I’m going to get at most 20 or 30 hours out of it, that $5 hat suddenly doesn’t mean so much to me. Micro transactions on free to play games? Completely justified. Obviously the game is free to play so you have to make profit from somewhere, plus if properly implemented, it gives the end user a chance to pay what they want, and only for content that they’ll actually be using. For example, League of Legends, one of my favorite games. Perfectly playable in the casual scene by using free week champions, and provides a slower way of unlocking characters without money. Many people will only unlock a handful of champs that they want and leave the rest untouched. While many people, like myself, prefer to have the full cast of characters available to use as characters become more powerful after buffs or weaker after nerfs. I have spent a few hundred dollars on LoL and I don’t feel bad at all as I have also spent hundreds and hundreds of hours playing it. $400 maybe a lot of money if you look at it as one sum. But when you say “I’ll spend $30 a month and probably put in 100 hours this month into this game” The value of the product changes.

    Comment by Jessie Adkins / 04 Mar / 1:05 pm
  2. I’ll agree with you most of the way. Especially on the justification of microtransaction on free to play. People who don’t get that are plain old stupid and don’t understand that game developers put a lot of time and effort into game production and of course need wages like everyone else.
    However I think League of Legends lacks 1 thing: Being able to purchase the whole game at a reasonable price. I personally purchased HoN, which is very similiar when it was in beta and 30$ for the full game. I have all characters. Now it’s the same thing as LoL, charging 3-5$ pr. champion, which means if people want to purchase the full game today it would cost them ~500$ which is absolutely outrageous!!
    F2P games using these models should definitely have a “complete purchase” option available for 50-60$ or something reasonable.
    If you had to pay 5$ for each weapon/item in Call of Duty that would be bullshit too.

    Comment by Mads / 13 Mar / 6:56 pm
  3. Wow, $400 is an impressive sum to pour into any game. But I agree with your justification, the value changes based on how much satisfaction and replayability the game offers each individual player.

    To be clear, I completely support microtransactions in free-to-play games. My point was more targeted at developers who block access to games halfway through play behind a paywall or such a spike in difficulty that players cannot progress without purchasing upgrades. I have no issue with microtransactions as a way of allowing users to “power up” early, especially in a single-player game, if they so choose. I also don’t mind seeing ads pop up if the developers offer a free version alongside a paid version of their game. Totally reasonable. So long as developers provide the casual experience for free, I have nothing to complain about; but a game that’s pay-to-win due to reasons mentioned above should be labeled as such somewhere in their description, so I know what I’m getting into.

    Comment by Vinny Parisi / 14 Mar / 9:16 am
  4. If microtransactions are “necessary” for the survival of the industry, how come the industry not only survived but grew and evolved in 20+ years before microtransactions? It’s obvious developers want the most money they can grab from us. I understand they want to fight piracy and used games but day-1 DLC (aka content-removed-from-game-to-be-sold-later)? That’s a little too much. Now they sell a “Season Pass” for around $30, plus the game $60 go for a total of $90 for the “full” experience, that’s a slap in the face of consumers.

    Of course, we are in no obligation to purchase the DLC, but developers always find a way to force or at least tempt us, e.g. I’m a completionist, I love to get 100% trophies on my games, and I can’t because each DLC gets their own trophies, and I end feeling like I was scammed after paying $50-60 for a game, now I need to pay more to get the “full” experience. I prefer to wait a couple years for a GOTY or complete edition that includes everything for a reasonable price, yes, I’ll playing old games, but the savings are VERY worth it.

    I’m not against DLC, as long as they are just additional content not related to the story or gameplay that doesn’t affect the game experience, e.g., costume/avatar/themes or multiplayer stuff, I bet developers can pocket some nice money with those kinds of DLC, but please, stop abusing us gamers a bit.

    Comment by GB / 22 Mar / 1:43 am

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