Are Game Developers Stupid NOT To Include Microtransactions?
As part of the modern game industry, microtransactions are tantamount to an all-offending curse word. There's not one consumer you could find or mention the term around that would have a positive response. Nobody smiles or welcomes the addition of a "cosmetic marketplace" or "multiple currencies" when reading the back of a game box, and it's always a disappointment when we find out - after a stellar trailer or gameplay demo - that a given game will be "supporting in-game purchases."
Quite honestly, they're the single most hated part of contemporary game design, and yet... they subsist and continue to exist on voluntary consumer purchases.
Who are these people putting tens or hundreds of notes into their respective games? Have you ever come across one of them? Because I certainly haven't.
Look to the facts though, and GTA Online makes around $5 million dollars a day off its Shark Card implementation - a figure so staggering it forced all of Rockstar and Take Two's Strauss Zelnick to literally re-approach the way they were making GTA VI. Rocket League too is able to offer cash prizes by siphoning off a portion of its in-game proceeds for various tournaments, and you'd be hard-pressed to find any regularly mobile game that isn't free upfront, falling back on paid additions to keep the developers afloat.
Taking these proliferative stats and their implementation, you'd be forgiven for questioning why there's no harmonious resolution. Clearly enough people like to pay for additional bonuses, be they cosmetic or mechanical, so what's the big deal?
Well, like many current problems, all that negativity and deep-set ire started accruing years ago. Across the 2000s, to be exact, when - thanks to digital connections - we began to see developers work on supplementary DLC packs that could bolster a main game post-launch.
Bethesda's godawful "horse armour" didn't help matters, but it exemplified that these "extras" were fundamentally not necessary, or part of the base game. Hell, I even shelled out for an extra gun in the original Crackdown, but I did so because I had exhausted the array of weapons that came on disc.
Over time, a this led to a mix of developer and publishers challenging the expectation of what a "released game" should or could be. The biggest and most notable casualty was Mass Effect 3; a game publicly raked over the coals for abusing its fanbase by locking away the story-centric character Javik behind a paywall.
This is just one notable example, but clearly what was once a "tagged on extra" became essential if you wanted the full picture, and this is the crux of the matter:
Microtransactions represent - to varying degrees - the most recent admonition of a given company to not give you your money's worth. At least, not if you're paying full or any set price, for a given product.
How can your money be well spent, or how can this new game you've bought be "full", if there's a prompt on-screen asking you to cough up even more cash? Whichever way you slice it, that amount of money you put down - which could've been saved up for however long, depending on the person - is now depreciating by the second.
See, there's an assumption born out of customer/manufacturer relations, that something for sale, will work. Will be the full product. Even in artistic endeavours, where the recipient could spend days, weeks, years or entire lifetimes interpreting the work itself, we paid for our ticket, we understand the ride begins and ends, and we're agreeing to step on.
There'd be outrage if a book climaxed with the closing chapters being sold separately, or a movie cutting to black with "Conclusion to be released in three months!" Yet, as gaming can exist with a constant digital connection between consumer and manufacturer, we're seeing an exploration of that relationship.
Unspoken, whether you mind them being in a game or not, it tends to boil down to, "Okay, we see what you're doing, but don't take us for a ride and we'll be okay."
Contrast the stink surrounding Assassin's Creed: Unity's implementation vs. Origins for a stark example of a developer learning how to get it right.
EA's handling of Battlefront II was abusive of this "agreement", and for the first time outside of any number of DLC scandals, we saw government officials and parent groups get involved, lobbying against DICE's implementation of pay-to-win in-game spending. This led to the game underselling by a sizeable margin, and the fallout was so seismic, Disney are apparently thinking of removing EA as head of development on Star Wars video games.
Lately, the fallout can still be felt over on Shadow of War, where Monolith decided to remove that game's incentivised paid progression, dropping the storefronts that let you purchase more powerful orcs and issuing a full apology to fans and consumers.
It's too little, too late in their case, but all contributes to the ongoing conversation.
If - when done well and in a more palatable way - microtransactions can give us something like Fortnite, are developers overreacting by distancing themselves from such ludicrously lucrative business opportunities? On the consumer side, do we want to explore the idea of free video games that sensibly and respectfully roll out paid components alongside a main game mechanic?
Are we - as an assumed readership age of anything past 12 - only annoyed by the existence of microtransactions because we remember when games were released in full, with DLC as extras?
Clearly we can point to both EA and Warner Bros. as being egregiously anti-consumer, but if all these cases were addressed (your Destiny 2 Bright Engrams, your FIFA Ultimate Teams, NBA teams, Need for Speed car parts etc.), could we reach a point where microtransactions are expected, yet they don't devalue our purchase?
I'll leave you with a story that highlights - in a truly resonant way - just how embedded microtransaction mentalities are, when it comes to the next generation of gamers:
So a friend of mine decides he's going to let his son play Dark Souls. The kid is pretty young (around 10 or 11) but there's nothing too scary in there he can't flag, and gore-wise, Souls is pretty tame.
The kid manages to get out the first area, and he's working his way through the Undead Asylum, until he reaches the boss. Within seconds the Asylum Demon has flattened the poor child's character, and after an even shorter amount of time, he looks up to his father and asks,
"How do I buy more souls so I can level up?"