For anyone unfamiliar with the term ‘Microtransaction’, here’s a brief definition: A small payment made in digital currency which grants the player an advantageous item or booster. For anyone unfamiliar with the term ‘Cheat Code’ (which I’m sure many modern children deeming themselves ‘gamers’ probably are), here’s a brief definition: A secret command inputted which grants the player an advantageous item or booster. They both sound quite alike don’t they? Except, of course, for the fact that you need to pay for one of them. Microtransactions are in essence, paid cheat codes. Turns out they might also be the future bane of gaming as well.
Microtransactions started out with free to play MMORPGs. These games, which arose shortly after the release of World of Warcraft were low to mid quality Korean made MMORPGs which were playable completely free of charge. The way the companies who developed and published these games made money was by implementing a ‘cash shop’ into their games. And in these cash shops, players were able to buy armor, weapons, mounts, experience boosters, and numerous other buffs for a small price. For example, a high end sword (which was most often overpowered in comparison to normal, non-paid weapons) could be bought for $3.50 or a mount faster than any other in the game for $8.00. Sometimes you’d see pieces of armor for cheap: $0.50 for a pair of boots or $0.75 for a chestpiece. The prices varied from item to item, but whatever item was for sale was almost always superior to normal items and often had no free equivalent. And if it did have a free equivalent, the player would have to grind for hours to obtain it.
Although the business model employed by these companies was undesirable and created a massive gap between paying players and free players, the practice was still reasonable and fair. Why? Because the game itself and all the core content was entirely free to download and play. One could go through these games without paying a cent if they chose to. But the games were designed to be monotonous and overly challenging grindfests for those who chose to pay nothing. Without buying an experience booster, it would take three times as long to level up. Without buying one of the overpowered swords with an insane damage rating, mobs would take significantly longer to kill. The developers designed the game so that the player would feel the need to buy items, to buy cheat codes, to feel like an overpowered god among free players simply by spending fifteen dollars or so. But it was just and fair, because the developers had to make money off their games some way, right?
The point where microtransactions become unfair however, is when they are implemented into a game that already has an entry price. This was something that Guild Wars 2, a game costing sixty dollars at launch did. Their shop featured only cosmetic items however; a player could spend thousands of dollars and still have no advantage whatsoever over another player, besides looking snazzier. It was fair, optional, offered no advantage to those who paid and no disadvantage to those who didn’t. What Visceral Games plans to do with Dead Space 3 is implement a quick way to acquire Tungsten (the element used in the game to craft and upgrade weapons), that quick way being microtransactions. Tungsten is found throughout the game and there is thankfully no need to purchase it, but Visceral Games nonetheless wishes to make it available instantly, without the grind, without having to locate it in the game world, via microtransactions.
John Calhoun of Visceral Games explained the concept in his interview with CVG. “There’s a lot of players out there, especially players coming from mobile games, who are accustomed to microtransactions,” Calhoun said. “They’re like, ‘I need this now, I want this now.’ They need instant gratification. So, we included that option in order to attract those players, so that if they’re 5000 Tungsten short of this upgrade, they can have it.” Visceral Games essentially wants to make Dead Space 3 more accessible to the casual crowd and at the same time make money by doing so. So they give the player the option to make themselves overpowered and the game easier by paying cash, real cash that is.
What downright scares me isn’t the fact that a player can overpower themselves for a price. If they are so horrible at the game that they must pay to win, then so be it. I don’t agree with the practice, but so long as it’s entirely optional and doesn’t affect competitive multiplayer, I can live with it. What scares me is what this may unfortunately hold for the future. We are already seeing it with DLC. On-disc DLC is becoming more and more common, as seen with Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil 6, and Gears of War 3. With on-disc DLC, you are buying something you already bought, again. You buy the game for sixty dollars and unlock the locked content located on the disc that you already bought for another fifteen dollars. The practice is greedy, wrong, and flat-out disgusting. But imagine a paid game that did the same with microtransactions and you’ll realize where things could go horribly wrong: “In order to use this weapon you must pay $4.50 for two-handed weapon training”, “Having trouble defeating this boss? Pay $2.50 for a missile launcher!”, “A purchase of $5.00 is required to access this level.” I can see the words now, flashing across my screen, telling me that I need to pay to unlock a level, access a weapon, or progress in the game. At least with on-disc DLC, I’m being ripped off in one lump sum. With microtransactions, developers will put all kinds of locked content on the disc: weapons, levels, armor, boosters, all available for purchase (or should I say ‘repurchase’) throughout the game. If the prices of these games were subsidized or the games made free, such a practice would be partly acceptable, as it was with free MMORPGs. But that won’t happen. Publishers would not drop the price of their games even if developers integrated microtransactions.
Although it would appear that microtransactions were an optional benefit to the player, they would be anything but. The only party which would win in such a case would be the publisher. The player would simply be paying cash for something which should have been unlocked and available to them in the first place. And whats’s most saddening is that it would probably work. Casual gamers (which make up most of the market) would have no qualm with buying items that would give them an edge or ‘extra’ content and so developers would respond by taking away more and more content and putting a small price tag on it. As long as the gamer enjoyed their paid instant gratification they would come back for more, causing the developers to keep siphoning away content and charging extra for it. And before the gamer realized it, they would be paying twice what they did fives years back for the same amount of content. Microtransactions have proven extremely successful with smartphone games and free to play games, so it’s been proven that there is definitely a market for them. And once publishers realize that they will most likely prove successful when implemented into full price games, they’ll stop at nothing to squeeze as much cash out of the player as they can. By then microtransactions will have evolved from paid cheat codes to paid genuine game content.
I can only hope my predictions are wrong. Because if they aren’t, the microtransaction trend will rapidly rise among developers and publishers and the average video game will transition from a one time investment to a convoluted, overpriced mess which publishers use to rip off consumers for extra profit. And the day that that happens is the day I shall put video games down for good.