Microtransactions – a blight of next-gen?

We’ve covered free-to-play games before, if you don’t remember we decided it’s an exciting new business model that suits certain genres like MMOs particularly well, after the success of Killer Instinct I think we can add fighting games to the list. Lately though there’s been uproar about something similar, microtransactions in full-priced games. Is this the disaster some are making it out to be? Or is it a broadening of options that never really hurts the gamer?

In Fora Motorsport 5 you can buy in-game money with real money. Well it’s not the normal in-game money, it’s tokens. 8000 tokens will set you back around £64.99 and previously the most expensive car in the game – the Formula 1 Lotus E21 cost £32.50 of real money if you wanted to unlock it early. Turn10 have listened to feedback and slashed the price of this car in half, as well as giving everyone who bought the VIP edition the car for free, but some are still worried about the cost. In the upcoming PS3 title Gran Turismo 6 the most expensive car will cost you £119.95 – the Jaguar XJ13. In GT6 this isn’t a system of tokens either, you’re directly buying the same currency you earn in game and whichever way you look at it, both cars require a substantial investment.

But of course that’s not the only way to unlock those cars. In Forza and Gran Turismo you can still unlock cars in exactly the same way you always have (EDIT: a user has reminded me in the comments that you used to unlock cars in Forza by levelling up, and this is no longer the case), you play the game and use your winnings to buy new cars. OF course these cars will take many hours of racing to unlock, but then again they are at the top of a list of potential purchases in a game that many people will spend hundreds of hours on. As anyone who has ‘completed’ a lengthy game like Skyrim or achieved the maximum prestige in Call of Duty will know, once there’s no progression ahead of you, no goal, the game can feel a little empty. These are the highest goals, the ones for players to take on if they are playing regularly over a year, they’ll still have something to do.

The cars aren’t even that much of an upgrade in comparison to other vehicles in the games. People in an E21 or XJ13 aren’t going to be lapping you on LeMans just because they have the last car, other cars can even outpace them and easily equal their laptimes as by the top class so many of the cars are very similar. It’s more of a badge of prestige if anything, a symbol of their commitment to the game. This is what could rub people up the wrong way. If there’s no way to tell if someone got this car through persistence or through cash some players might feel that ‘earning’ the car isn’t really worth it, as any Tom Dick or Harry can just plop down the money and get exactly the same reward. It’s hard to imagine too many people will feel that way though, not enough people care who has which car in driving games, lap times are all that matters.

Microtransactions aren’t limited to driving games so far though. Ryse features a store where you can buy gold to be spent on ‘booster packs’ for the multiplayer co-op mode. The packs you can buy are locked through levelling, and the items you can get in the packs rarely give you more than a boost of a few percent. You unlock enough gold levelling that it’s rare you run out when it’s time to level up and unlok the next pack, so unless you desperately want to complete every item of every set there’s no need to get them.

Developers and publishers have a real need to explore other revenue streams in order to fund more development and of course to secure profits. Games are one of the only products in the market that have dramatically reduced in price as time has gone on (remember £70 Super Nintendo games like Starwing/fox?). Publishers tried putting advertising in their games but that wasn’t particularly popular, they’ve used DLC and that was generally received better as long as it’s worth it. Now they’re trying microtransactions after their success on mobile platforms.

So far we haven’t spent a penny on microtransactions on any of the next-gen games, and that’s fine. We’re lucky enough to have the time to play through the games in the usual way and we enjoy doing that. We might spend some money on some of the free-to-play games and we would have paid for the other characters in Killer Instinct if we hadn’t been given the full game by Microsoft, but then again it’s generally understood that free-to-play games are a different matter. We haven’t felt a push towards buying tokens in Forza, or gold in Ryse. Until all the outcry on media sites we weren’t even aware you could buy tokens for real money in Forza, the game progresses just fine without it, we are steadily earning one or two cars for every series (eight races) that we complete.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have lots of free time to play games. For them, people who often have more disposable income, they can pay a little extra and unlock exactly what they want without spending as much time working towards it. They do that, the developers get some more (much-needed) income and everyone else is unaffected. Everybody’s happy right?

There is a potential problem, although I don’t think we’ve reached it yet. If micro-transactions become an important revenue stream some less scrupulous developers or publishers could start making parts of the game more boring in order to get you to pay up some extra money to skip the grind. In racing games, if you don’t want to race then it’s hard to imagine why you’re playing the game, but if in an adventure game you had to play the same level 20 times to progress or pay £5, that’s artificially holding back your entertainment until you’ve paid a price one way or the other. When that happens, and I’m convinced it will with some less than AAA games, there’ll be justifiable outcry but when you can still play games in the same way you have for years and there’s simply another option available that doesn’t adversely affect you maybe there’s nothing to get angry about.

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