Now, before I go into the broad thrust of the article and before the ACKCHUALLY types turn up, there are some games that utilise microtransactions in a way that aren’t absolutely fucking irritating, such as Rainbow Six: Siege or Guitar Hero Live (whose TV mode works in a way that imitates streaming services like Spotify). These implementations of the microtransactions, which I consider exceptions within the microtransaction trend. I am not talking about those here, I am talking about the more sinister trends. But even though in these games they don’t irritate me too much, it would still be preferable for them to not be there, to put it briefly. Now on with the rest of the piece!
Imagine yourself playing Resident Evil. One of the old ones, with the fixed camera, tank controls and pre-rendered backgrounds. You’re fighting for your life, solving puzzles, managing resources, trying to kill a zombie or running away from it to conserve ammo, flight or fight responses fully engaged. You’ve been hit but don’t know if you should combine the herbs you have or use them or store some in the item box for later but are worried you might not have enough for the next few challenges. Now imagine this scenario, but now the game has microtransactions. Now you can just pay, with real money, to get more of these items. It would defeat the entire purpose of the game.
This is what microtransactions, in general, do. And there is a worrying trend of incorporating them into single player games.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the absolute shitstorm surrounding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the game or every review I have read has nothing but praise for the game itself. However, the game includes a storefront in the main menu which allows you to purchase in game cash or praxis kits (Jim Sterling has detailed videos about this here and here.) According to Sterling, the microtransactions were added in late in development at the behest of Square Enix, so lucky for the sake of Deus Ex players, the game was balanced without the micro transactions in mind, but still, the mere presence of them is repulsive and leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. This has not gone down well for players. A flood of negative reviews on Steam has the game averaging a 6/10, with roughly the same average user score on Metacritic, which has the game sitting at 6.1/10, with the inclusions of microtransactions, or poor performance, or both, often cited as reasons for the negative review with the game itself being praised.While being on the top sellers chart recently in the UK or currently, as of this writing, fourth top seller on Steam, according to Eurogamer, the sales of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which came out five years ago for those keeping score at home, were much better in it’s opening weeks than the most recently. I suspect the microtransaction controversy is a substantive contributor to this relative under performance. I can speak for myself when I say that this is one of the major reason I avoided purchasing the game around launch when I originally intended to purchase around launch.
Microtransactions have become ubiquitous as it has been a wildly successful in the mobile market. And of course the big publishers want to chase that all mighty dollar, even if it damages the reputation of the game or simply ruins the game itself as a piece of entertainment. And implementing such features I suspect is also very low cost with the potential for incredibly high profits. According to PsychGuides.com:
“But freemium games aren’t simply on par with their paid counterparts – these free apps have far surpassed them. In 2013 alone, in-app purchases’ share of the Apple App Store’s total revenue from the top 200 apps grew from 77% to 92%. It’s somewhat unexpected that free games would actually be more profitable than paid games, but when we look at patterns of how users make purchases within these games, the numbers start to add up.
A 2014 study of freemium mobile games found that 67% of in-app purchases were between $1 and $5, but these purchases only made up 27% of total revenue, while 9% of revenue was from purchases of $50 or more. Overall, 50% of mobile gaming revenue came from the top 10% of mobile gamers making purchases. These heavy spenders, termed “whales,” have been directly compared to the “big fish” courted by casinos. To generate vast profits, freemium games don’t have to hook everyone; instead, they only need to attract a small fraction of diehard fans.”
“The makers of the free game Candy Crush Saga made $1.88 billion in revenue in 2013, and the company has stated that only 4% of its users have made purchases through the game. These users, on average, have each paid over $150 while playing. Considered together, the revenue of the world’s 15 biggest mobile game developers grew to over $13 billion in 2013.”
So yeah these profits are huge. And this is all well and good for mobile games which cost nothing to start playing. Even games like Grand Theft Auto V include them in their online mode in the form of shark cards which give you a bunch of in game cash. Some of the shark cards cost more than the game itself. Big multiplayer releases such as Battlefield 1 or Call of Duty Black Ops 3 include these microtransactions. But these are full retail games that cost a full 60 dollars American on release, which also expect players to purchase a season pass as well, effectively doubling the cost of a single game for maximum extraction of profit. A nickel and dimeing,trying to squeeze every penny from players.
Now this is the point where people might say things like “but businesses are there to make money” in the most shrill and patronising fashion. This is less a well thought out position or argument and is instead a mere reflex. This sort of reflex towards any criticism of corporate misdoing,excess and greed. Perhaps good if you’re an investor whose sole concern is profit, but this type of “argument” being made from a consumer perspective is one who is thralled by these corporations either through fanboyism or neoliberal ideology. There’s multitudes of ways businesses can make money and as consumers, we shouldn’t endorse and justify egregious misuse of various practices and business models that blemish the games they’re incorporated into. Backlash works, like when the Xbox One was announced to not support used games and forced kinect on users. The backlash was so tremendous that these anti consumer features were removed and the removal of the kinect requirement made the system cheaper as a result. Other times, this hasn’t worked, especially with how spineless much of the gaming audience is, like when Modern Warfare 2 junked dedicated servers for the PC version and there was a tremendous uproar calling for a boycott but most of the people in the steam boycott group were playing a legitimately purchased version of the game.
CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher series are currently the poster boys for consumer friendly practices, offering free small post launch content for Witcher 3 players, not forcing DRM on PC users and paid content was substantial content that didn’t cost the same amount of money as the base game at launch. In the first half of 2015, the game had made a profit of US$62.5 million. In a nutshell, their business model was a traditional one and the profits were very good. It’s a shame that we have to celebrate their consumer friendly practices as unique, seeing as such an approach should be the norm rather than the exception.
Another argument that might come up is “but it’s optional!” There’s some cases where it’s truly optional, but most of the time it’s technically optional and by technically optional I mean that you might be able to beat the game without these things, but it might be one hell of a grind and psychologically abuse you into paying (see the south park video and psych guides link in this article) It’s clear that major publishers are testing the waters by applying the lucrative freemium model to games you already have to pay money for. It sets a dangerous precedent, especially if publishers believe audiences are ok with them. A fool and his money are easily parted and you don’t want to be a fool, do you?
A final argument I’ve heard justifying microtransactions, which I have heard in real life and not online, was in relation to single player games specifically. It went something like: ‘some people don’t have the time to sit through a game so these microtransactions are good for people who just want to experience the story.’ This view is so baffling that I have difficulty in trying to comprehend the thought processes that occur for one to hold such a position. Let’s think about it for a second. Some people pay full price for a video game and then spend even more money on the game outside of the initial purchase in order to experience less of the game. This might also reinforce the idea for publishers to force developers to balance the games around microtransactions, making this a self fulfilling prophecy through padding and artificial difficulty. But if you’re the type of person to who this actually applies to, then what are you doing purchasing normal video games? If you just want to more or less passively enjoy a story, just stick to Telltale’s offering or things like it. Better yet, just stick to movies and television if you don’t want to engage with the game part of video games.
I thought easy mode was for idiots and children who are unable to get good or for those who just wanted to blast through the game. Back when I was a kid, games also had these things called cheat codes if you wanted to get past a tricky spot in a game with no effort and you didn’t have to whip out yours or your mum’s credit card to do it. I’m going to chalk up the support of microtransactions in single player games, which you have to pay for in the first place, to mere stupidity. No rational consumer would ever assent to such nefarious practices.
This is all very frustrating, seeing video games be degenerated by bad business models. Doubly frustrating if the game itself seems otherwise of high quality. What I want you guys to take away from from this piece in summary is that microtransactions are stupid and that you should avoid being a shill for anti consumer practices.And if you can, resist from actually using microtransactions or purchasing titles whose microtransaction presence is known to you for full price.