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Opinion: In-game purchases poison the well

By Julio Franco · 16 replies
Nov 30, 2017
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  1. Video games will always manipulate us. Each challenge and scenario in a game has been carefully engineered to make us react a certain way. Most of the time, that’s what we sign up for. But the moment real money enters the equation, something changes.

    In-game purchases, also known as microtransactions, have been at the heart of several colossal fan freakouts over the past few months. Last Friday, Destiny 2developer Bungie changed the game’s experience points system after players discovered it was invisibly throttling their progress, which among other things slowed the pace at which they could earn loot boxes they’d otherwise have to pay for. A week before that, Star Wars Battlefront II ignited a furious online backlash after pre-release coverage revealed that the game’s purchasable loot boxes contained power-ups that made you more effective on the battlefield.

    A month earlier, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War courted similar controversy with a convoluted loot box scheme that gave players gear and soldiers for their Orc army. September’s NBA 2K18 was so riddled with microtransactions that it significantly detracted from the experience of playing it. Less controversial fall games like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Origins still gave players an option to pay extra money for better in-game gear.

    The debate about in-game purchases predates any of those games. Way back in 2009, my boss, Stephen Totilo, wrote of a microtransaction-laden Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles spin-off: “Is there a dirty trick being played here on gamers? Who knows. There is the possibility. That stinks enough.” Today we’re still asking that question, even if the particulars have changed.

    Viewed up close, the differences between the microtransactions in each of the fall games I mentioned above are manifold and relevant. Randomized loot boxes are inherently more exploitative than direct purchases. “Pay-to-win” systems that give tangible gameplay advantages are more of an obvious problem than systems that revolve around cosmetic items. Microtransactions in full-priced games leave a more bitter taste than in free-to-play games. Zoom out a bit, however, and those differences matter less. Whatever form in-game purchases take, their mere existence damages the trust between people who play games and people who make them. Like Stephen wrote in 2009, the possibility of dirty tricks stinks enough that the tricks themselves are almost beside the point.

    Every game with a microtransaction system is a player revolt waiting to happen. That’s more true of full-priced games than free-to-play ones, but making a game free doesn’t necessarily make players feel any less taken advantage of. To see that in action, look no further than Destiny 2, whose Eververse microtransaction hub was generally seen as innocuous until last week’s XP revelations. Seemingly overnight, the grumbles of few players about the Eververse amplified into a roar.

    The reason is simple: whenever some aspect of the game is locked behind a real-money paywall, every decision the developers make will be suspect. All games are designed to make us feel one way or another, and most operate according to calculations and algorithms that are hidden from the player’s eye. But when real money is involved, those hidden systems take on a more sinister quality. In the wake of the Destiny 2 blow-up, I’ve seen a common refrain from its players: What else aren’t they telling us?

    Every game with a microtransaction system is a player revolt waiting to happen.

    Microtransactions have become so prevalent in mainstream video games that it’s easy to forget what unnatural appendages they are. They’re not exactly “game design,” are they? They’re more of a marketplace experiment, albeit one that requires game design to function. It can be helpful to break the concept down to its basics, as a reminder of how in-game purchases can warp a player’s relationship with a game.

    Imagine a video game boss fight. It’s this big monster that you have to beat, and he’s really tough. He defeats you over and over again, because he’s meant to test your abilities. You keep coming back, gradually learning his patterns and eventually overcoming him. After he goes down, you get a sweet new helmet. You equip the helmet and move on to the next challenge.

    Now imagine the same boss fight, with one difference: if you want, you can just buy the helmet for $5. Just like that, the fight seems different. On your third or fourth death, you might begin to question the motives of the people who made it. Why is this boss so hard? Was he designed to be difficult in order to test your skill, or because the designers wanted you to eventually just give in and pay for the helmet? Is the game playing fair, or are you being manipulated?

    Those two examples illustrate in the simplest terms the underlying problem with video game microtransactions. They will always have a detrimental effect on games, because they call into question a game’s integrity. They may be immensely profitable, and thus a smart business move. They may make it possible for a development studio to stay in business and keep making games. They may even appeal to a subset of gamers who like being able to pay for extra goodies. But in exchange for all that, game developers must be willing to undermine the design of their game on a fundamental level.

    Games are built on trust between the designer and the player. We agree to play by the rules and in doing so, agree to trust the people who devised them. That agreement forms the basis for the rest of our relationship with a game, however lengthy or fleeting it may be. In-game purchases call our trust into question.

    Some games will add microtransactions the “right” way, and won’t kick up much fuss. Others will get it “wrong,” prompting the next great Internet backlash. Still others might start out okay before making a change for the worse, or vice-versa. The particulars will always be different. But the moment a player is given the option to pay extra for something they’d otherwise have to earn, the damage is done.

    Permalink to story.

  2. BSim500

    BSim500 TS Evangelist Posts: 607   +1,222

    ^ Nailed it in that sentence alone. Good article. The excuse "If you can complete the game without them then it doesn't matter" has always been totally bogus, as the mere presence of MT's puts irresistible pressure on the devs to "shape" the base gameplay to be more grindy / "fake-hard" for everyone (whether you buy them or not) to "encourage" the purchase of de-grind MT's. Likewise, mechanic-altering MT's can themselves be altered at any time so their "innocence" at launch may not remain so and positive week one reviews can easily become misleading.

    Expect to see more games that try and hide the effect of their MT's during launch-week only to quietly add them in at a later date. Battlefront 2's "removal and introduction at a later date" is ultimately nothing more than an admission to wanting to skew early post-release reviews or give them an excuse to delete negative reviews en-masse that comment on MT's because "we haven't put them in yet", and perfectly highlights just what EA has turned into. As mentioned yesterday - "Boycott the lot, stand firm and don't let up until this trash is removed completely".
    Reehahs and psycros like this.
  3. Kibaruk

    Kibaruk TechSpot Paladin Posts: 3,766   +1,160

    I think with this article they are just putting all games out there into a bad bad bad bag of games and I don't feel that way.

    There are unscrupulous designers who will make games P2W, but there are so many good games that uses micro-transactions the right way and I doubt anyone is mad about it, like for example popular F2P game that used to charge for the base game, Guild Wars 2. How about Heroes of the Storm, or League of Legends. Sure, you can buy experience boosters and things of that sort but in no way it will give an edge of 1 player who has never payed for anything versus another that has payed, this systems are visual overlays for your hero, your gear, portraits, heck... a lot of things and none of those are game breakers or give you any advantage.
    Stark and wiyosaya like this.
  4. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,387   +5,015

    Until Micro-transactions can be standardized and managed, I'm not buying into them at all regardless of the game.
    Reehahs and psycros like this.
  5. bolski

    bolski TS Booster Posts: 65   +75

    Bravo! Well-written article. Gaming on any platform has been ruined by MTXs. Time to get rid of them, period.
    psycros, wiyosaya and BSim500 like this.
  6. Prosercunus

    Prosercunus TS Maniac Posts: 269   +109

    I still game occasionally but micro transaction really will decide rather I pull the trigger on a game or not.
  7. Where do preorder bonuses fall into this? I'm trying to remember if the bonus units in Empire Total War cost extra or if they were just tied to particular retailers.

    Although CA did do this to Rome 2 where some of the factions could only be bought rather than unlocked.
  8. Slappy McPhee

    Slappy McPhee TS Addict Posts: 161   +84

    That is still part of the root problem. Period. Sure, someone can say it is up to each individual to decide if they want to pay $2 for a new outfit, etc, but it is purely a cash grab and there is no other way around it. The root problem is nailed down very well in the article. The human race sucks and is consumed by greed. For anyone out there that thinks that the excuse "video games cost more and more to produce" they need to do some actual RESEARCH. That is a myth and has been debunked by actual data evidence. If studios are having a hard time staying open because of cash flow problems then it is purely due to mismanagement of funds. Free soda, coffee, energy drinks, etc in the office ring any bells? Don't be fooled...these studios are making money at $60 a game it just depends on how quickly they make it which is a marketing issue and once again if they spend too much money to market that is on the studio for being *****s.

    I am climbing back out of the rabbit hole now.
    Reehahs and psycros like this.
  9. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,712   +2,507

    I get a big laugh every time the industry claims that they need MT to pay for a game cost $200 million to develop. The average big title employs about 200 people from start to finish. You could pay every one of them $100,000 a year - more than enough to do well anywhere in the world - and the total expenditure would be $20 million, not 200. Even if you factor in office rent, equipment, employee benefits and other costs of production you won't get anywhere near the investment they usually claim. So where does all that extra money get spent? Marketing. How often do we see TV ads now for the latest big-name FPS or MOBA? Its incessant on some channels. There's only one reason you spend that kind of cash on advertising and that's if you're trying to pull in the casuals. Research has shown that the casuals spend even more on MT than the competitive gaming crowd. EA and the rest of usual suspects are going to go right on producing pay-to-win games as long as enough jerks keep paying to win. So what's the solution? How about instead of releasing a single new game in a franchise every couple years, release two. One can be the hard-core, old-school test of skill with *NO* P2W and the other can be a theme park cosplaying as a serious game. They can farm out the P2W game if there's not enough resources to handle it in-house. This is already happening with mobile gaming so why not extend this scheme to PC and consoles? Let the kiddies have their playground and let the rest of us have a truly rewarding experience. If the hard-core players decide to stray into the playground they will have to spend nearly as much as the casuals to remain competitive..and if someone is dim enough to blow money on a casual game, let em'.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2017
    Reehahs, LeroN and cliffordcooley like this.
  10. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,387   +5,015

  11. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,712   +2,507

    I respect your position and I feel pretty much the same. I won't even buy cosmetic stuff unless I can do it with in-game currency that I earned. If a multiplayer game lets players spend RM somehow to buy cosmetics, even ones that aren't buyable in-game, I'm fine with it. Same goes for consumables that are *also* buyable in-game. If they allow people to buy in-game currency with cash (or launder it somehow), I'm done with that game. When they start selling things that provide gameplay advantages and can ONLY be bought with RM, that developer goes on my blacklist.
    cliffordcooley likes this.
  12. quadibloc

    quadibloc TS Booster Posts: 83   +53

    As the article noted near the end that some games do microtransactions the right way, and don't create a fuss by players, while it doesn't contradict the article's point that there is always the potential for that to change, it still calls the importance of the point into question.

    A game without microtransactions could potentially add them; a game that does them right could switch to doing them wrong. Is the difference that big?
  13. bolski

    bolski TS Booster Posts: 65   +75


    It's also due to releasing buggy, crappy games. How about putting some actual thought into the play-ability of a game and it's content rather than focusing on the visual aspect of it? We want games that have substance to it's story. Problem is, all are jumping on the MTX band-wagon. It's definitely more prevalent in the free-to-play (aka play-to-stay) mobile games so the backlash against purchased titles is going to hit harder has it did with BF II. Let's hope the backlash continues until these gaming companies get back on track and make excellent titles which we pay for and are not expected to have to pay for additional things to advance and enjoy the game.
    BSim500 likes this.
  14. LeroN

    LeroN TS Enthusiast Posts: 85   +28

    If we buy a game we have a budget for that game and the budget is a price of game.
    But now you buy a game and you are engaged in the microtransactions because you see loosing your money in a competition with players have eganged in microtransactions already. They make you pay because you paid before. What a trap! But a lotterie in the microtransactions is even more evil system because it's unpredictable how much you need to spend to get what you need.
    Today some ftp MMOs on PC with the microtransactions have a pretty balanced economy system when you still get some rewardes even if you are so lucky to get a certain things. Also players can sell and buy almost of things and they define prices of them. So even you got something unecsessary you can sell it for a game exchange and convert your expences into a profit. Wait but I mean Free-To-Play games.
  15. Abraka

    Abraka TS Addict Posts: 176   +54

    World of Tanks uses micro (or macro) transactions, and still you can happily play it for years without ever giving them a dime. I'd rather have that type of game, than a game I pay upfront, or where I have to pay every month.

    If I paid once, then after reaching a certain peak, devs aren't really interested in developing the game further. Because they won't earn anything from me anymore. So the game will die. Or they will release another version, forcing me to buy it, which then basically switches the game to kinda yearly subscription.

    And I don't want yearly of monthly subscription, because maybe I'm playing the game every 15 days, and the subscription looks like a waste of money.

    With microtransactions I play it for free, although I'm tempted to buy this or that upgrade. And it turns out World of Tanks is earning lots of money even if the game is F2P. As long as the management is not too greedy, everyone is happy.
  16. Reehahs

    Reehahs TS Guru Posts: 729   +472

    cliffordcooley likes this.
  17. bolski

    bolski TS Booster Posts: 65   +75

    problem is, most of these MTA games require you to spend if you wish to stay relevant in the game. Mainly these are the PvP type of games. PvE isn't so bad (No Man's Land is a great example if you ask me of how it works well). But in games like Game of War, Mobile Strike, March to War, and now Battlefront II, these MTAs give the whales (big spenders) a completely unfair advantage over those that choose to grind their way up. And some, like Game of War, release new content weekly that the ONLY way you can get it is to spend, and it's usually in $99 packs. And even then, those $99 packs will NOT fully upgrade everything. You'll have to purchase multiple $99 packs. And then you can STILL get zeroed and lose everything that you built up (whether it's through money or pure grinding) which is a waste of money if you spent. And in order to get back to where you were, you have to spend again. THAT is the major issue we have with these MTAs.

    If the MTAs do NOT affect the outcome of the game, especially in a PvP game, then that's one thing. But, if you MUST spend in order to advance, that is wrong, pure and simple.

    Oh, and just because you sink money into a game via MTAs, does NOT guarantee that they will continue to update the game or fix it. I've seen too many games where these great new "updates" did nothing but ruin the game further and made it so out of balance that there was NO way to fix it. Game of War is a perfect example of this.

    No, I prefer purchasing my game outright and earning my way through the game. MTAs to get you the most powerful items immediately is akin to cheating. It defeats the purpose of the game, and actually detracts from the enjoyment. Why would you want to spend money on a game and then finish it in 6 hours of play time because you could add ADDITIONAL money to the developer's pockets to let you bypass a lot of what is required to get it through good old fashioned work?

    That is the problem these days. Instant gratification. The "I want it now" attitude (just like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka who wanted everything now). It's called being spoiled if you ask me when you purchase things to get your way through a game quicker. Again, if it's cosmetic, that's one thing. But again, when it gives you a decided advantage over other people, that is where I feel it crosses the line and the game companies are only doing it due to greed. It has NOTHING to do with enhancing the game play for the players.

    The old days of gaming were filled with games that developers made from the heart. They put their time and imagination into creating a fictional world we could jump into. And in order to advance, you had to figure things out via clues, grinding, etc. None of this "hey give us $5 and we'll give you the best weapon to defeat the bad boss" type of purchases. That is what has ruined a lot of the games these days. Game companies looking to make the quick buck immediately rather than creating a game that has substance that gets excellent reviews and earns it's profits from selling the individual game itself.

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