For a long time I’ve held the belief that the best kind of game format to purchase is a physical one. There’s something about having a physical box that contains a game that just strokes my materialistic side. You can display them with the same pride as one would books in a library, plus there’s something pleasing to the ear when you hear the cracking of the game box opening up to reveal the little disc containing what will be entertaining you for the next couple of hours. But that was all before I got a stable internet connection and a data usage cap that isn’t so small you’d accidentally swallow it by breathing in.
Within the last year or so, I’d estimate that about 80% of my game purchases were done over a console’s digital storefront. My previously mentioned reasons definitely played a hand in this, but I think I started leaning towards buying games digitally after a two week long incident involving buying a copy of Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360. During this time I ended up first buying a copy that would always stop thirty minutes into the game before crashing, which was replaced by a Japanese copy that wouldn’t work on an Australian console before finally getting a third copy that worked. Safe to say, my interest in playing the game at that point was completely shot and left me with sour taste for trying to buy physical copies of games. To me these days, digital purchases just seem smarter. There’s a large library of games that may not even be accessible on store shelves, there are frequent sales that slash costs of games by a decent amount, and you don’t need to plan a day out just to pick a game up from the store and come home. But most of importantly of all: you don’t get a goddamn off-region copy to replace a broken copy and need to visit three different stores and wait two weeks to get a game that actually works!
Perhaps that experience got to me a little more than I expected. Let’s just say that there’s also a lot less hassle to deal with if the game’s physical disc is broken, scratched or smudged.
That being said, I’ve more recently noticed something I find kind of baffling on digital storefronts when I’m buying games. The two examples from my recent purchases that illustrate this are Ubisoft’s Child of Light and Bandai’s Tales of Xillia, single-player games which both contained microtransactions. Some of these were fairly understandable, being sometimes odd but interesting and cosmetic costume DLCs. Others however, were for consumable in-game items such as healing items, crafting materials and, more bafflingly in Tales of Xillia’s case, significantly large amounts of in-game currency and level boosters for all of the game’s playable characters, each of which could be purchased up to three times. They seemed like incredibly pointless things to have available as microtransactions to me, especially considering that from my point of view on RPGs, the main draw of their gameplay is to explore the in-game world and gather these resources through loot from chests and enemy encounters, giving the player a sense of accomplishment in doing so. With these microtransactions, the instant collection of resources feels somewhat empty, even if it does save the player a certain amount of time.
I guess that this was a well-timed observation in the long-run, since I’ve been meaning to answer some questions that a friend of mine asked me when Ready Players first started up which, in a way, addressed similar pointless or unnecessary microtransactions. He asked us “Why are there so many microtransactions in games these days?” and “Can microtransactions even be implemented into games successfully or does the games industry need to lose the model entirely because it just doesn’t work?”
I think it’s fair to say that at this point in modern gaming, the word “microtransactions” has reached the same level of eye-rolling contempt as “on-disc DLC”. Considering their less-than-stellar reputation over the last eight years or so, I can understand why. They’ve been used in business models in free-to-play mobile games that border on evil genius levels of greed, preying on the easily addicted and impatient through Skinner box mechanics and slapping timers that gate off progress until they’ve been fed cash. And once they found their way onto AAA games, not many people were exactly thrilled at the idea of shelling over extra cash on top of a game’s $60+ price tag in order to purchase content that could have just been unlockable anyway.
But I feel that, at least in some cases, this groaning attitude towards microtransactions is a little unfair. I remember back when Bravely Default was released in 2012, reviewers praised the game as an amazing JRPG and a throwback to the type of game Square Enix used to be famous for before the Final Fantasy XIII era that nobody shall ever speak of again. But in every review I ever read or watched about the game, each one had the same negative point: the game contained microtransactions to give the player access to extra turns in combat. A point that, when spoken about, was stated with the same tone one would use when they found a small piece of dog crap on their shoe. Which I felt was a little unfair considering that it was a single, completely optional micotransaction for a game mechanic that was not only very rarely used, but also fairly easily unlocked in the game anyway.
To answer the first part of the question, I think there’s a very good reason as to why microtransactions are so prominent in games. From a publisher’s viewpoint, they are a smart business model. Making a game free-to-play allows a wider customer base and, if players are given the right incentives to hand over money for bonus content, such as the lunchboxes in Fallout Shelter, can incrementally make up for the game’s development costs over fairly short period of time. In AAA games, they’re an inexpensive way for the game to make additional money post-launch by allowing players to purchase extra pre-existing content such as consumable items. As opposed to the singular purchase of DLC per customer, microtransactions for consumable items allow for infinite purchases per customer and therefore better in the eyes of the publisher. At least that’s how it appears to seem anyway.
If they’ve stuck around, my guess would that it’s because they’re still being purchased to this day. As a result, they’ve become the dominant business model for free-to-play social media and mobile games. They’ve also become the motivation for AAA developers to create games based on free-to-play design for PC and Console games, such as Team Fortress 2, DOTA 2 and League of Legends.
As for the second part of the question, I can understand why he thinks microtransaction models don’t seem to work. More often than not, we see more bad press about them, as I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the system has been abused in the past by lazy and/or greedy developers and publishers in astronomically poor ways. For example, games which rely on the “Free-To-Wait” microtransaction model by forcing players to wait for things to happen unless they pay for an immediate reward like are designed purely to target “whales”, a term given to the 10% or so of the a free-to-play game’s audience whom are willing to drop hundreds if not thousands on microtransactions. Games like The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Dungeon Keeper Mobile (the biggest franchise ruiner since Highlander 2: The Quickening) rely on slapping arbitrary and often ridiculous timers that can last for days, if not weeks on their mechanics. They pit the audience’s patience against their wallets, rubbing their index fingers and thumbs together while telling the player that if they hand over just a little bit of money, they can make the timer reduced to a more sensible amount if not remove it all together. They are games purely designed to have money spent on them and absolutely nothing else, they are simply vacuums dressed up as games.
And let’s not even get started on how Microsoft added a bloody “premium subscription” service to motherfucking SOLITARE and MINESWEEPER on Windows 10 so that each new game isn’t interrupted by ads.
Despite a decent amount of examples that show off how microtransactions can be used in such a greedy way that stretches the concept of human morality as thin as a string of spaghetti, there are great examples of how microtransaction models have been used not only effectively, but also in a way that makes players actually WANT to spend money on these games.
Valve’s free-to-play MOBA Dota 2 offers players cosmetic skins and announcer voice packs that affect the gameplay in no way whatsoever. Everything on the store is clearly labelled in terms of real-money costs, rather than in-game currency and the profits from the in-game store are shared with the creators of the items. As a result, the game offers a microtransaction model that not only rewards being involved and productive in the community, but it also allows for highly competitive play without making players pay a single cent of their money. An alternative, but similar model that works just as well can also be seen in League of Legends, another free-to-play MOBA developed by Riot Games. Similar to Dota 2’s model, players can purchase cosmetic skins for their favourite characters, as well as purchase characters for unlimited use outside of the set amount of free characters. What’s interesting about the character purchasing model, however, is that rather than keeping the same set of free characters for players not interested in paying money, the set number of free characters on offer rotates weekly. This not only offers weekly variety for players happy to keep League of Legends a free game, but it also gives players a feeling of “try-before-you-buy”. As a result, players can easily get a feeling for these characters; giving them motivation to buy a character they liked playing with in order to keep them permanently if they so choose.
Turn-based RPG/Collectable Card Game hybrid Card Hunter also has a pretty well-built microtransaction model. Once again, you can buy cosmetic skins for characters, but you can also spend money on getting better loot at the end of combat encounters. Normally this model would be used to punish players that didn’t spend money and reward those who did with helpful items, but here it’s treated more like a nice little addition to what’s already on offer. This is because the game already offers players pretty good loot through regular gameplay anyway. It’s simply on offer as an optional bonus for players who like the game and want to see what premium loot the game has on offer as well. The game also offers expansions and additional campaigns for the player to purchase, but as the free game offers a challenging and fun set of campaigns to play through, it again ends up giving players that feeling of “try-before-you-buy”. It feels like a great demo to a game that gives you a good chance to see what’s on offer before you buy the whole pack.
I feel like I could list off a good few more examples of great microtransaction models seen in games like Hearthstone and Guild Wars 2, but I think I should sum up before this article becomes an advertisement. Microtransactions can be implemented into games successfully. The model doesn’t need to be thrown out, it needs to be revised. The reasons why the models found in the games I mentioned before work is because they all follow one important rule of microtransaction model design: The player needs to find enjoyment spending money on the game if they wish to.
It shouldn’t matter to them if they’ve spent their money on in-game cosmetic items or on an experience via additional quests. They should feel happy and satisfied on a personal level because they spent that money on something they wanted, as opposed to resenting the game for forcing them to spend money in order to get the most out of it. These games are perfectly fine on their own without the player needing to fork out cash to have a good time.
Microtransaction models can work amazingly well when they simply offer to enhance the player’s personal gameplay experience should they wish to spend any money, rather than improve on it. That’s the important lesson that companies need to learn if they want to get people to spend extra cash on their games and not react with blind resentment when they see models like this:
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