PAY A LITTLE, LOSE A LOT

Microtransactions are never acceptable outside of a free game. No no no, don’t fight it. You don’t have a leg to stand on. Not now, not any more. That ship has sailed, and come back filled with spiders, used needles, avocados, exercise bikes, all sorts of nasty things. And now we need to sink that ship before it turns on us and those that fed it, and also before this meandering, mixed metaphor makes itself any more messy and muddled. Capiche? No, me neither, so we’ll take it from the top.

Like so many things in the games industry, this is one of those concepts that should be fine, at least in theory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a free game having little elements for which a person can pay. Not only can it work, it has worked in the past. Games like Loadout, Fallout: Shelter or Team Fortress 2, they all offer full game experiences that can be enhanced by putting in a little cash for the developer’s benefit. That’s OK, that’s fine. A small donation to the creator that benefits both him and you, I can boogie down with that, that’s groovy, cool beans, super fresh and so on.

That said, there are limits. Angry Birds 2, Dungeon Keeper Mobile, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, The Simpsons: Tapped Out, they’re some examples of games that took it too far. Not only did they desecrate the legacy of their franchises in order to try and make a quick buck, the model they used was insulting. Essentially, they handed out free software which did bugger all, and in order to “progress” you had to start renting gameplay with real money.

You didn’t get a whole game, because then it would be a demo, and considerably more reasonable as a concept. No, when you shelled out your earnings you basically got to play for about five minutes more, before the whole thing yawned and went back to sleep. Sorry, you can either come back tomorrow or wave a bunch of fives under my nose to wake me up, like I’m a hooker with a gut full of sleeping pills.

Simpsons tapped out town

Come for the gameplay, stay for the outrageous attempts to rob you!

Come on, people. It’s not hard to find that line between reasonably-priced extras and obnoxious paywalls, and I can’t help but think that the more player-friendly option is the best one, even on a financial level.

Why? Because nobody played Dungeon Keeper Mobile and All The Bravest for long. They were so aggressive in their need for cash that people got bored with them fast. Whereas all the games I mentioned positively are doing fine, in some cases they’ve flourished! Fallout: Shelter has, in the few months since E3, made enough money to actually fund a Bethesda-sponsored nuclear apocalypse.

But all the purchases in that game are still for minor things, they’re just little lotteries that give you a random selection of loot and resources. These lotteries aren’t even limited to paying customers, you can get them by completing in-game challenges and you don’t have to pay a bean. But people did buy them, because the game was fun and they felt invested. What do you know? People who like a product will pay for it even if they don’t have to, that’s the power of customer respect.

But here’s the big question – do microtransactions have a place in priced games? Dead Space 3, Mortal Kombat X, GTA V, they all have them, but the key is determining the difference between regular DLC and a microtransaction. That said, there is a very obvious clincher for me – permanence.

When I download, say, “Tiny Tina’s Assault On Dragon Keep” for Borderlands 2, I’m definitely getting DLC. That content will always be available from that point, it will never run out or deplete, there’s no ticking time bomb programmed into it that will force me to buy it again.

But microtransactions aren’t like that, because they usually have a built-in limit. They’re most often something that can be burnt up or used only once, like the jewels in Pokemon Shuffle or the easy fatalities in Mortal Kombat X. Once you’ve bought them and used them, there’s no way to get them back, you can only buy more, and this annoys me like the dickens. In most cases they’re simply ways to reduce challenge, which cheapens the experience and basically puts the player in a position where you can pay the fucking game to play itself!

Mortal Kombat cold balls

In Raiden’s fatality, he just snaps his fingers and has a butler beat you to death with a wad of money.

The issue with usable resources in any game is the regularity with which they appear, and you know that in a game where you can pay to get more of them they’re going to come up slowly. The developers want you to get impatient enough to fetch your credit card, and tease you with incrementally slow progress to hammer home the necessity.

Not that this happens only in the paid games, it happens in the free ones too, but there’s a kind of understanding there. We know that there’s a psychological struggle to balance out the fact that the game is free, that we’re going to get pestered for money every now and then to cover the costs of production. If it’s too craven and desperate it can be a turn off, but in small amounts we’re willing to put up with it.

But it’s more than a little aggravating in a fully-priced game, not least because the games are so often structured to force you towards them. I found GTA Online to be a fairly nasty example of this, as it reduced the rate at which you earned in-game currency to an absolute crawl, all the time taunting you with amazing items that only the most committed, dead-eyed maniac would be able to earn the cash for.

Or, you could skip all that and hand over forty bucks, at which point Rockstar will plop a sack of digital dough in your lap and say “well done for playing the game your way!” Meanwhile, all the others who are desperately capping people for pennies in the next street over don’t have a chance, when Richie Rich can just drive up in a golden tank, or call in his personal chauffeur to drop off a harrier jet to obliterate them with.

Loadout suggestive pose

I’m not going to make any jokes here. It would be too easy.

That’s what bugs me most, the unavoidable nature of these things. It’s not good saying you can ignore these microtransactions, like some reporters have claimed, because so often now the games are created around them. “Oh, it gives you options, it allows you to progress at your rate.” No, it doesn’t! The creators push them as hard as they can, they penalise those who deny them and keep trying to inconvenience players who want to do without. That inconvenience wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t put it there, they’ve driven a spike into your horse’s leg and told you that you can hire them to remove it – for ten minutes at a time.

So microtransactions cheapen the art they’re built into, anger savvy players whilst scamming the less experienced, and twist their host games so that they always lead back to that paywall. DLC is fine (in theory at least, you can still get badly made or poorly priced DLC), and microtransactions are a justifiable evil in a free game if they’re kept in the background, but there isn’t an excuse any more for putting them in expensive, AAA games. Or indie games. Or any games. Or anything ever. Basically, fuck off.

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