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Microtransactions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Microtransactions in gaming have been around awhile now, and are likely to be with us for some time.  They’ve been covered in the gaming press over and over, and discussed by gamers on various platforms ad nauseam.  I did find a pretty good breakdown of the history of this practice, the whys and hows that I don’t want to bore you with.

If you want, hop over to the Intelligent Economist and take a look.  Despite what we think of them, there is a purpose to some of them and it isn’t entirely nefarious.  We, as gamers, also have to accept that to a certain extent we are responsible for how widespread they are and how long they’re likely to be around.  They aren’t all bad however, so if you’re expecting me to go on a long-winded tirade about the evils of microtransactions, you’re only half right.

The Good
There is some benefit to microtransactions, believe it or not.  The best example I have in my experience is with Guild Wars 2.  If you aren’t familiar, it’s a popular MMO that’s been around for almost 6 years now.  It has no subscription model, and has been receiving constant updates, improvements, patches, and free content updates all that time.  It also has microtransactions.  They’re all cosmetic and convenience items though; nothing that’s considered pay-to-win.  It’s a necessary function of keeping a game going with constant maintenance and updates and it’s all optional.  If you want another character slot, you can get that.  A cool outfit?  They have that, too.  A better sword that you can only get in the online store?  No, not going to happen.

See, there’s a reason to have either a subscription model or microtransactions in this case.  I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet and online gaming.  When you bought a game in the early years of our hobby, it either worked or it didn’t.  There were no updates on the regular, or added content you could just log in and start playing.  We didn’t have servers maintained by the game company to play on whenever we wanted.  Even in the early days of online shooters like Medal of Honor, most of the servers were paid for and maintained by gaming communities and clans that paid a lot of money sometimes to make the game available to play online.

This was well before World of Warcraft revolutionized online RPGs, but there has always been a cost.  You don’t just make a game, put it out there, and expect the initial sales to fund the ongoing support, updates, and server maintenance.  Even now people still play the original Guild Wars on servers maintained by the company since 2005 with no monthly subscription.  Whether we like it or not, microtransactions in Guild Wars 2 help make that possible 13 years after release.

In these cases, I can’t really fault companies for using this model.  We really only have a couple of options if we want our games to be available with that sort of content and care for a long period of time.  It’s not like a game that’s released, and once purchased has no real contact with the developer any longer unless there’s a patch.  Some of these companies hire dedicated staff to do nothing but update a game while they also try to make new ones.  As long as they aren’t dipping into the pay-to-win or loot box model I don’t really see an issue since it keeps me from having a monthly bill just to play the game.

The Bad
Not all pay-to-win is bad, as long as there is a reasonable time gate sort of option to unlock the same content.  I don’t mind a game company offering early access to weapons or equipment for people who want to burn their money if I can do the same thing over a few hours of gameplay.  In a way, I like the feeling of achievement one gets from unlocking weapons and kits in games like Battlefield 4.  Sure, those higher tier weapons are better, and for a time people who paid to unlock those kits would have an advantage but it seemed like a fair trade off.  I’m going to play the game anyway, and I don’t care to spend any extra money just to have a weapon I’m going to get eventually.  Where it gets bad is when the time to unlock isn’t reasonable.

Battlefront 2 was a good example of this, though I thought the game was garbage before loot boxes were even mentioned.  Not only were there microtransactions, but there was also a randomized element incorporated into the loot boxes.  It was likened to gambling by some and in general it was just a bad idea.  The time it would take to unlock everything through grinding was exorbitant, which would leave players at a disadvantage in game for a lot longer than is reasonable.  The feature was met with a great deal of uproar from gamers, and EA made some temporary changes, but ultimately people still bought the game.  Sales for BF2 did suffer, and it has raised questions about what is acceptable regarding microtransactions.

The Ugly
The ugly truth is as long as people keep buying them, companies will keep doing it.  That’s sort of how the market works.  Companies try different things to make money.  If that thing sells, then the company will believe that is what the market wants.  If it doesn’t, then they try something else.  We can rant and rail all we want, but at the end of the day there’s only one language a business understands.  Will the awful sales of BF2 be enough to deter companies from using this tactic?  I don’t know, it’s too early to tell.  I can tell you if the next game from EA or Activision has microtransactions and people spend money on them, they’ll forget about the Battlefront sales.  It’s not a pleasant thought, but we are partially to blame for this marketing ploy.

The other ugly head of this beast is the manipulative marketing.  It’s one thing to present things for people to buy and let them decide.  It’s entirely another to make it so enjoying the game at all depends on spending more money over the purchase price.  It started with mobile games and the whole, “Pay another 99 cents to unlock 30 minutes of gameplay.”  The worst of what I’ve heard is from Activision recently though.  The idea is that, through matchmaking, they will encourage you to buy in-game items.  Pairing players who have good gear they bought, with those who have not purchased items, in order to trigger purchases through envy.  Manipulating our need to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ so to speak.

Personally, I don’t think I own any games with pay-to-win schemes built in, but if I do I can say for certain I’ve never bought any of the items.  I have purchased some convenience items through the Guild Wars 2 store, but as stated above I don’t see that as an issue in this debate anyway.  I think the only way we’re going to change these practices is to stop feeding the beast.  The publishers certainly aren’t going to just stop offering to take our money if we keep giving it to them.  The whole thing is a mess but we gamers have the means to change it for the better if enough of us want to.

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