Microtransactions: An Analysis of the “Unfortunate Reality of Modern Gaming”

In 2006, Bethesda very briefly became the laughing stock of the video game world. In a move that very few games had done before, they offered a purely cosmetic item in exchange for real world money. As in, the item was included in the game that you paid for, but was only available if you paid an additional five bucks on top of your purchase of the game. This was ridiculous. Absolutely insane. There was no way that this model – so far removed from the completed, games-as-a-good model – would ever gain traction.

In completely unrelated news, Activision-Blizzard announced that over half of their US$7.16b income from last year has come from the purchase of micro-transactions.  Most of these, in an interesting twist, are items that are included in the game that you paid for, but are only available if you paid an additional five bucks on top of your purchase of the game. No correlation.

The dreaded micro-transaction is that conundrum that crops up whenever discussions of value, cost, revenue and the entire economy of video game development come up. There are few that seem to like them, and even fewer still that will stand behind their continued existence. To these few, they are a necessary evil: a secondary revenue stream that was born from our desire to make bigger and better games. To most, they are an extraneous form of greed; a ferreting away of portions of a game you have paid good money for, and sold separately to line the pockets of greedy publishers. It stings even more when those in positions of power discuss the issue. Recently, NBA 2K19’s senior producer Rob Jones turned the blame on the industry and even the players, with a cynical perspective that it was “an unfortunate reality of modern gaming”, and that “people don’t have the patience to work their way to the top.”

Inflammatory remarks, to be sure, but despite the vitriol of the wider internet community, it may hold a small grain of truth. To add context to his comment, let us be clear in saying that he is talking from a perspective of a sports title: something that is expected to have a longevity of longer than a few weeks. With that in mind, there is an onus on the player to not only have a continued grind for more rewards and a continued interest in the game, but to also complete this grind as quickly as possible so as to remain competitive online. Taken this way, Jones’s comments come from a place of offering a two-speed service to players. On the one hand are people that want to earn their rewards through gameplay and dedication, while others are committed to the end game competition and the prestige and challenge that it offers. The same games that have the lion’s share of the microtransactions that we see are ones that have a dedicated multiplayer fanbase – the NBA and FIFA franchises, as well as Blizzard’s Overwatch and Hearthstone, and mobile games like Pokémon GO.

The key here is in the choice. The idea of having a prestige, luxury game-play experience that you pay additional money for is something that I have warmed to over the years. After all, if a player truly wants to spend fifty additional dollars on a video game that gives them that enjoyment, there should be no reason why they should be forced to stop because of some faux moral high ground. The trick here is striking a balance between those that pay money and get an enhanced experience from it, while allowing players that have no desire to do such a thing enjoy the game in their own way.

Hearthstone is an excellent example of this, particularly with their free-to-play single player varieties. If you wish to remain competitive in Ranked, or continue playing the Arena mode, this will invariably cost money to continue. But there are many other ways to take the long way around and experience the game without spending a cent. In an interview with professional player Audrey “Reynad” Yanyuk, he makes it very clear that “if a bad player spends a lot of cash and buys every card in the game and builds what he wants, he’s still going to lose to good players with cheap cards in an efficient deck”.

Of course, Jones’s remarks funnel into the looming question of game design. How can a senior producer claim that everybody else is at fault for making microtransactions what they are today when the design of the game funnels the player towards spending more cash?

One of the most heinous examples of this was in Middle Earth: Shadow Of War, where the last missions of the game were almost impossible without committing to the purchase of one of their “War Chests”, especially when taking into consideration that the idea of simply buying allies cheapens the idea of the revolutionary Nemesis system that was so instrumental to the organic conflicts within the game. And when Metal Gear: Survive had the audacity to charge for their save slots, the question of whether or not microtransactions can be ethically sound ends, and the question of how stacked the deck is begins.

The purpose of microtransactions began from a harmless enough place: as a choice for players to purchase additional cosmetic items that do not harm the gameplay state, or for players to skip to the end of the grind and play at an end-game level. These are reasonable ideas, if done responsibly. The worst microtransactions – the ones that obviously serve no purpose other than to extract more revenue – come with the removal of key in-game experiences, or modifying the in-game grind for items so that microtransactions become the only viable solution to progress. In this comes the immediate question of the season pass, and the model of microtransactions in single player titles, where portions of the narrative – or, in the case of Asura’s Wrath, the final chapters of the entire game – are removed simply out of asinine levels of greed. Again, it is a question of moderation: as long as a game is complete on its own merits without the season pass, the season pass is merely an additional bonus: an extension of the experience for those who want it. This, of course, begs the question of how developers and publishers work together to create these experiences, and the difference between a positive season pass experience and a hokey one.

The horrible truth is that micro-transactions are ingrained too deep to be removed now. The revenue stream of the video game industry has only gotten bigger over the last decade, and it is fair to say that the technology that this money powers makes better games overall. In saying this, the price of video games has remained largely the same, leaving the consumer in a complicated situation. The truth of the matter is that they are a part of our video game economy because of its very design, and the only steps backward for removing them would be to raise the prices of all games to compensate for the difference. This folds into a larger question of the economy of video games, but in terms of the discussion of microtransactions, there must be an increased cost to supply the technologies that fuel our games. If done correctly, microtransactions become a necessary evil. They become the tiny pieces of brick and mortar that keep the revenue engine running, and with the portions of video game players willing to buy a luxury experience through additional in-game purchases, they help to keep prices for games as cheap as possible.

In short, Jones’s blunt comments highlight some of the difficulties of finding a balance in the risky world of microtransactions in video games. If they are so big that they are inevitable, then surely there are ways to make them in such a way that they are additional extras to the gaming experience, and not the mandatory additional batteries that make the machine run. Jones’s comments also highlight something fundamental to the discussion, and that is the consumer. While it may be too late to reverse the systems that are currently in place, the fact that the worst of these systems are being called out is proof that customer feedback is fundamental to this revenue stream’s existence. Voting with your wallet may be all the difference needed in changing a predatory system into a system that offers the two-speed approach that all games could potentially benefit from.

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