Welcome to the Gamey Geekery Arguments Club. No, we’re not a debating team, that implies a considered, well thought out approach you don’t see on the internet and that we won’t descend to shouting at each other by the end of this. We make no such promises.
“So, what’s the point of the club?” I hear you or one of my multiple personalities ask. Friends (Romans, countrymen), this club will be a challenge, where we delve into the mysterious depths of decision-making and attempt to defend all the things we have come to hate in geekdom. We’ll become the Devil’s advocate and argue the opposite side of the coin in an attempt to find reason for the cash grabbing, the arrogance, and the apathy. Take your seats, today we defend Micro-transactions!
Micro-transactions are among the most hated features of modern gaming, creating a pay-to-win environment that can ruin the playing field of any multiplayer game. They were initially most commonly found in MMO’s and mobile games, where games would often be free and became an alternate way for developers to bring in revenue. However, their rise in popularity has seen the fiscal model seep into a wide array of genres and devices. Both the Uncharted and Assassins Creed series have implemented them in some of their titles.
I bring this up off the back of a heated discussion with Lee, as we spoke about For Honor. Ubisoft’s new game has been in the news for the wrong reasons recently, with a redditor suggesting that if a player bought everything in-game they would spend upwards of $700 on top of the base cost of the game.
I contended, and still do, that video games like every other form of entertainment needs to make money. Some games, hopefully as many as possible, may not be designed with that as a primary driver, but they do have to justify their outlay. Generating revenue is primarily achieved through sales of a ‘base game’ product, but has also expanded to selling additional content and the more contentious micro-transactions. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks of course that sees developers choose to use them in different ways. MMOs can use all of these and have even adopted a subscription model too. Whilst some indie games may only use the sale of their base product.
The biggest issue many have with any of these models but one that micro-transactions seem to suffer with most is deployment.
The use of micro-transactions to sell cosmetic items is a less invasive use of the model and seems to be better received by the gaming community. For games like Rocket League, micro-transactions are a way of supporting the developers. The game launched at a lower price point than most console games, is still running dedicated servers and has had free new content steadily released.
In mobile games, where micro-transactions are rife. The model thrives, and in my opinion, can function in the perfect way. In the main, mobile games are designed to be played in short bursts, grabbing a player’s attention for 5-10 minutes. Micro-transactions often allow faster progression and more play time. The difficulty with the model in managing pricing. Unsurprisingly here is where most upset their player base, focusing on generating maximal revenue rather than appealing to more of their players. In mobile games especially, lower price points would be such an improvement to player experience, but developers often opt to put revenue first.
The approach is similar in MMOs but runs into a much more important problem. If used improperly, or properly depending on intent, it creates a pay-to-win environment. This is what angers players most, in a competitive multiplayer environment, a level playing field is all. MMOs will always struggle to balance the revenue needed to justify the game’s continued existence and to be the balanced game it should be for all players.
With all that said I’d like to return to the initial discussion surrounding For Honor. Whilst it’s easy to demonise the strategy taken by Ubisoft, the criticism is not always entirely fair. Players would have to want to play as every character to the extent of unlocking everything to warrant the $700 investment. It’s akin to playing a fighting game a la Mortal Kombat, and playing as every character all the time or as every class on Battlefield 1. Most players would have a preferred fighter and specialise with them. Meaning the outlay would be much less and time instead of money would be the way most would be happy to unlock the items.
Here we are at the crux it seems. To me, the micro-transaction model should be deployed in a manner that augments pre-existing gameplay. Allowing players to support developers if they wish, unlock content easier if they would rather not invest the time or to acquire cosmetic items to personalise their experience. Not every developer will do it right, nor will they take this line of thought. The balance between player experience and revenue is a tricky one at the best of times and the micro-transaction model highlights that better than the others. Micro-transactions could be a more palatable way to pay for games if only most felt more worthwhile.