The microtransaction is one of the most maligned elements of modern gaming. Its mere mention in the vicinity of any major release generates Metacritic bombing and poorly-spelled Twitter rows. But is it always entirely fair?
The gaming community has a bit of a reputation for fits of pique, but in this case the reaction might be justified. The closest approximation to gaming microtransactions, in recent memory, would be the PC-based expansion packs for strategy and casual games like The Sims. These were one-off additional purchases, which typically gave a handful of extra hours of gameplay for an acceptable price.
Despite the comparison, there seems to be something less tangible and fulfilling about modern microtransactions, where the value of unpredictable rewards against the cost of the transaction causes tensions. For example, the loot box.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War has been rocked with controversy for introducing some chests locked by Gold, a currency primarily acquired by buying it with real money. This set up for a game already costing upwards of £40, has struck many players as another step too far for micropayments, which have for years now been denying content to those who don’t want to pay extra.
The 2014 remake of Bullfrog’s classic Dungeon Keeper is a case in point. Far from the fun puzzle-strategy mix of the original game, Dungeon Keeper’s remake was near unplayable without expensive, temporary microtransactions costing up to £69.99. Meanwhile, the full original version of Dungeon Keeper is available on Good Old Games for under £5.
Even the game’s original creator Peter Molyneux weighed in against EA’s actions. “I felt myself turning round saying, ‘What? This is ridiculous. I just want to make a dungeon. I don’t want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped’”, he told the BBC at the time.
However, developers like Valve generally seem to have found a way to generate a continuous revenue stream without upsetting the fans. While Team Fortress 2 is heavily reliant on loot boxes for its income, the game is free and perfectly playable – if limited – without spending any money. Indeed, other optional or cosmetic microtransactions seem not to have caused great consternation from players. It tends to be when these transactions prove necessary for gameplay that the kickback arises.
For mobile game developers, microtransactions can be unavoidable. Many games are free and charging any flat price for entry is a big commercial risk which can cause otherwise perfectly good games to be passed over.
The semi-legendary battle between Threes and 2048 is an obvious example. Using virtually the same mechanics – slide tiles together to stack up ever increasing numbers – Threes had cute characters, a charming soundtrack and lovely presentation, but charged £2.39 for the game. 2048, missing the extras, was free and stacked up five times as many downloads.
In an environment where charging to buy mobile games is discouraged, microtransactions and ads are the only way for a development team to make its money back. The typical method which seems to raise little customer backlash is to allow a one-off in-game payment to remove ads and unlock all the content. This works similarly to the way demos did in the offline world, with players getting to try before they buy.
Microtransactions are subject to less scrutiny through reviews and criticism than games are as a whole. If you want to know if your addiction to idle games will see you forking out £40 for boosts in Tap My Katamari, there are precious few places to look save YouTube reviews.
The counterpoint is that many of these channels have young audiences. Content creators opening loot boxes in particular has been criticised as promoting a form of gambling. It’s difficult to say whether loot boxes fall within the technical definition of gambling. Yes the customer pays for a purchase, but there is no chance of coming away empty handed.
Importantly however, there are no safeguards in place, and it’s undeniable that mechanics like loot boxes are an extra level of compulsion on top of games that are already designed to keep players from signing out.
The row over microtransactions is a small part of the larger conversation that gaming needs to have over consumer rights and ownership in the next few years. It’s no longer as clear cut as paying one price for a disc full of data which you then own. The industry has to decide if it’s going to take the Netflix model – small regular payments for access to effectively rented content – or to continue as it is.
With development costs continuing to rise, players and developers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can abstain from microtransactions, fund games with high cover prices and risk low sales and consumer backlash. Or, they can support them with microtransactions, risking boycotts and bigger consumer backlash.
For now, microtransactions run rampant through the upper tiers of gaming and the mobile market. The brutal truth is that they will only stop when consumers stop paying for them.