The (mis)use of Microtransactions
In the last few weeks, a disturbing and ugly trend has reared it’s head. I’ve followed the arrival of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and I can’t help notice that a lot of games coming out for these systems are increasingly (mis)using Microtransactions. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Microtransactions in videogames are a form of monetization sells the player an item (usually in-game currency) for a small cost. These are most commonly seen in Free-to-Play games such as Farmville and Plants vs. Zombies 2, but have also found their way into more hardcore games such as Team Fortress 2 and Mass Effect 3’s Multiplayer.
Microtransactions are an alternate method of making money from a videogame. Instead of selling a game up front, the game is accessible for free, the trade-off is that certain items will be unavailable to the player unless they purchase them. Proper use of microtransactions require a game to be designed around them from the ground up. If the in-game items up for sale are too important to progressing through the game, it makes the experience tedious. If the items are meaningless, no one will buy them and the developer won’t make money. I bring this up, because the microtransactions present in next-gen titles such as Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome, are horrible examples of microtransactions.
First, let me show you how this method can actually be beneficial to gamers. In Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, an in-game currency is used to purchase random unlocks. This can range from weapons, to classes to upgrades. The packs are completely random, and the player can purchase more expensive packs to significantly increase the chance of getting rarer unlocks. The player can also purchase these unlock packs with their own money. The trade-off however, wouldn’t have been possible using another method. Over the course of 2012, Bioware released 4 DLC packs adding extra maps, classes, weapons and even an extra enemy type. All of these DLC packs were free because the microtransactions essentially already paid for them. This is near-perfect use of this method.
Earlier this year, EA became quite fond of this method of monetization. Dead Space 3, aside from being a $60 game, allowed the player to buy weapon upgrades for a small fee. These upgrades could also found throughout the game; this is a gross misuse of this method. The player gains nothing from buying this upgrade aside from not having to play the game they’ve already bought. It’s like buying a movie and then paying someone else to watch part of it. It’s obvious that EA is just trying to milk as much money from their players as possible.
Forza Motorsport 5 not only repeats this mistake, it makes it even worse. Apparently, a large portion of cars are locked away from the player and it takes a ridiculously long time to unlock everything. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that certain race events require certain cars so if you want to progress further in the game without paying more money, expect to play the same race over and over. With Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, repetition is expected (it pretty much defines multiplayer ) but Forza Motorsport 5 is a single player experience, good racing games are designed around progress, not repetition.
Microtransactions have no place in a game that is already worth $60. There’s no decency in forcing someone to pay twice for the same thing. Imagine if you went to see a movie and in addition to paying for your ticket, you were charged $5 every time you got out of your seat. Would that seem fair to you? Because that’s exactly what’s going on here.
What’s truly sad is what this trend represents. I’m not naïve enough to believe that making money isn’t the priority for videogame developers, but does nothing else matter anymore? Videogames have the potential to be an artistic expression, just look at this past year in gaming. Look at the social commentary in Bioshock: Infinite or the depiction of society in The Last of Us. These games are the products of people who work hard to both entertain us and teach us about the world we live in. That’s the power of videogames, it’s the power that medium holds over it’s audience. Is making money at all costs, the only thing that matters? Is this the future of videogames?
I was excited to see how games would evolve with the arrival of the PS4 and XB1, but I sure as hell hope this is not the direction videogames are heading towards.