For those that don’t know by now, Microtransactions are defined as small, real money purchases for small amounts of game content, usually with an in-game store.
Of course, they’ve gained a lot of notoriety recently, so I thought I’d ask our Gaming Guru Squee for his thoughts on the subject...
Symphona: Microtransactions are generally linked with the Free To Play game model, which has seen a lot of success in the past in various forms. Firstly, what do you think about Microtransactions as a whole? Is it a viable way to fund a game?
Squee: Funding games is weird. No, let me back up a minute. Money is weird. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I have a weird thing about eBay 'sniping'. If you just put the amount you are willing to pay for an object, then it goes for 20p more than you put in as your bid, you should be fine about it, because it was more than you were willing to spend. Simple.
I see microtransactions in a vaguely similar way. It's more about perceptions than anything else. If you're playing a free-to-play game and it's crazy awesome fun, but then you realise that it would be better if you had a horde of robotic bats to command, but the robotic bats cost a dollar, you freak out because it's 'THE MAN' trying to stealth money out of your pockets. Thing is, you're playing the game and 'THE MAN' currently has nothing to show for his hard development work.
When they first appeared on the scene I was definitely concerned. Which is strange, really, because the earlier versions of the same concept such as DLC, I'm mostly okay with. There was a really ancient game out on the Amiga called Corporation, a prototype first person shooter where you play the part of a secret agent infiltrating a skyscraper. There was this little slip in the game box that you could return with a photo, and they'd digitise your photo and it would appear on your status bar in-game. I wanted that thing so bad!! There's your first (purely cosmetic) microtransaction: 1990.
Sym: Lets look at some popular games: DOTA 2 has only cosmetic items to purchase, meaning the gameplay is never altered, and a day one player has all the gameplay a veteran has; In Tribes: Ascend (before recent patches), it was very hard to earn enough currency to unlock unarguably better weapons; you needed to drop real money if you ever wanted more than one. Would you say that the reason people are so set against Microtransactions is because they seem to disrespect the consumer? Because the games are designed for a “pay to win” scenario?
Squee: I don't know if the difference between cosmetic and mechanical is really the difference between respect and disrespect. I guess DOTA does quite well from the cosmetic stuff - Personally I'd sooner buy horse armour than cosmetic touches for a multiplayer game. Still, I think that if the market for cosmetic microtransactions is there, who are we to try to stand in its way?
'Pay to win' is one of those phrases that gets used in a uniformly negative way, and I understand that it's annoying when someone with more money just waltzes through. What if the differences are minor, though? Let's say, for the sake of argument, a fancy sports car for a racing game. Now just as in real life, the prestige of being able to afford - and then choosing to buy - such a car will certainly impress some people, but it might also make you a target. Who doesn't smile when they see a broken-down Porsche beside the road? Seeing as how in the traditional model you had to pay to even play the game, free-to-play but with paid upgrades doesn't seem so bad - if you put a pot of cash aside for the game, say, the price of a few pints, and then customise the game the way you'd like to play it, is that really so awful?
Many people think we are moving back to how Art was done in the history books; a full work of art was done by an artist, who showed it off for free, and people who liked it gave some money in appreciation. We’ve seen Musicians do the same thing today; is it time for games to head that way?
Well I'm not really sure it's currently working that way, except in a few small cases, such as the Indie Bundles. There is a difference, though, and it's about the money that needs to be poured into a game to get it anywhere near decent. The so-called 'honour' system would be a great thing to see, and it may work - I've not really looked at the economics of it. The success of Kickstarter as a way of funding what would traditionally be considered full-price projects suggests that people are ready to find new ways to support the industry they love. Unfortunately, cynicism and greed can creep into things like this and ruin it for everyone.
To be honest, I'd be surprised if we saw a system like the one you describe, but we do already have a system (in Kickstarter) that is almost like the same thing in reverse (where you pay before the work's even done), so it's anybody's guess really.
Finally then, I think we can say that inherently, Microtransactions aren’t bad. Do you think we’ll see a slowing of games taking up the Microtransaction fad? Will game designers ever truly find the balance between “pay to win" being better, but not overpowered?
Actually, I think that coming up with new and imaginative payment methods is probably easier than creating a game balance that will keep free players and paying players all happy at the same time.
Symphona: So, that's our round up; what are your opinions? Are we going to see more or fewer microtransactions in the future? To the comments!