It seems microtransactions are the talk of the town. Star Wars Battlefront II’s review bomb definitely showed that the disdain for microtransactions are not only shared by hard-core gamers but almost everyone. They frequently ruin a game or at the very least, the public’s opinion of the game. Are they all bad, though? Microtransactions come in all different flavors and varieties. I believe, when they are handled correctly, they can actually be a great thing. Conversely, when they are handled poorly, they can be extremely disgusting. Here I’ll attempt to outline the differences and discuss which microtransactions are acceptable and which are nefarious in my opinion.
Free to Play
Microtransactions got their mainstream appeal to developers and publishers from free to play games. Developing and publishing a game is no easy feat. Jason Schrier outlined the difficulty in making games in his book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. In the book, Schrier discussed how difficult the process is. He talked about how delays in games are almost inevitable for many developers. The point he drove home was how every game’s completion is nothing less than a miracle. For a game that costs no money to a consumer, would it really be fair to expect nothing in return?
Warframe is a great example of a free to play game with financial incentives done well. It focuses a lot on team-aspects. In essence, you can play the game completely without spending a dime. However, if you aren’t opposed to spending money, you can increase your gear at an accelerated rate. Every aspect of the game is available for free. However, you could save some time by making purchases. This could, in turn, further benefit your team. The game is constantly praised for its lack of randomness in its in-game store infrastructure. The player knows exactly what they are getting when making a purchase.
Hearthstone is similar to Warframe is that you are not required to spend money in order to properly compete with other players. If you’d like to play the game less, you’d benefit from spending money-yet the game gives you daily quests which allow you to earn gold the old-fashioned way. The in-game purchases don’t take the fun away from those who don’t want to spend a dime. Unlike Warframe, however, Hearthstone uses its randomness to its advantage. It’s a deck building game, and much like buying pokemon cards, you never know what you’re going to get. Thus, it diverts as much as possible from the dreaded “pay to win” moniker.
Many times, a game is supplemented by advertisements or small purchases. This business model is most common in mobile games. We all know how it goes. “Purchase more coins to unlock this item early.” I think this process is acceptable, as games are a commodity, games need to make money for developers to make back their investment of both time and resources needed to create a virtual experience. When a game goes “free to play” I’ve come to expect the implementations of microtransactions. For free experiences, I believe these types of microtransactions are almost required.
Many games are supported for years based solely on cosmetic microtransactions alone. An example of this would be Team Fortress 2 (free to play). The game wasn’t always free to play, but when it went free to play the developers implemented more cosmetic microtransactions into the game. The game released in 2007, and it is still being supported to this day. This is a great thing for gamers. Those who enjoy this game, don’t have to worry about the servers being shut down, as there is a continuous revenue stream funneling into the game’s infrastructure. This point is proven by the fact that patches are still being released for the game; the most recent was released about a week ago. It’s a great example of the good microtransactions can do.
Counter-Strike: GO uses its gun skins to finance the developer’s support. Many of these skins can sell for huge amounts of money (from marketplaces not supported by the developers). For many gamers, their gun can make a statement about their prestige. These skins bring them a sense of pride, without causing harm to the overall fun of the game.
$60 Retail Game-Changers
If not cosmetic, this is never okay in my opinion. Star Wars Battlefront II’s entire progression system is based on microtransactions. The whole system was built from the ground up under the assumption that players would be making purchases to facilitate their progression. EA has received a lot of flack for this. Publishers will hopefully use EA has a martyr to help them understand that consumers are not going to put up with these kinds of predatory business practices.
Games under this umbrella are typically referred to as “pay to win.” When microtransactions are used as a way to increase a particular player’s strategic advantage, it is a huge problem. This takes the fun away from players who refuse to pay money on top of their $60 USD purchase. Can you blame them for refusing? The price of retail games is too high for publishers to expect consumers to pay anything else (excluding DLC). As much as many seem to believe, it’s not just Star Wars: Battlefront II that has done this. Yet, Star Wars: Battlefront II just received the most negative publicity from this.
Another example of this business model would be in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. The game uses it’s prequel’s nemesis interface. Yet, this time it’s built around microtransactions. Those who have played the previous installment in the franchise could be disappointed by the new game’s heavy-emphasis on microtransactions. In order to build an army, players are encouraged to purchase in-game loot boxes, experience boosts, and War Chests. The fact being this is a single player game with microtransactions, it received a lot of backlash from consumers. The fun of the game, for many, is ruined by this predatory practice not uncommon for a free to play game. The difference is Middle-Earth: Shadow of War’s $60 USD price tag.
CD Projekt Red uses other companies’ use of microtransactions to its advantage. They have great public perception regarding their ethical business models. Many believe when you purchase a game from CD Projekt Red, you get your money’s worth. The company constantly discusses how none of its games will use any type of microtransaction infrastructure. The Witcher 3 is currently one of the best-selling games on Steam. There isn’t a dime one must spend following their retail purchase.
What Can We Do?
I think it is important to be able to tell the difference between these types of microtransactions. Consumers should not put all microtransactions under the same umbrella. Some are bad, but I believe some can be very beneficial. It seems there are two camps. Those who say “there are microtransactions, not interested.” And those who say “what’s a microtransaction?” Although holding companies accountable is important, it’s also important to understand the differences among in-game purchases. Not all are created equal.