Micro-transactions in AAA games here to stay?

“You cannot have game and marketing budgets this high while also having used and rental games existing. The numbers do NOT work people.” – Cliff Blezinski, on people complaining about high game prices.

“The PC is going through a wonderful renaissance right now. I think we’re ready to do digital download games all the time.” – Cliff Blezinski, regarding always-online titles.

“It’s an ugly truth of the gaming industry. I’m not the biggest fan of having to do it, but it is one of the unfortunate realities.” – Cliff Blezinski, about on-disc DLC.

“Newsflash. This is why you’re seeing free-to-play and micro-transactions everywhere. The disc-based day-one $60 model is crumbling.” – Cliff Blezinski, on microtransactions and pre-planned DLC.

This isn’t a column about CliffyB, or why people think he’s wrong, or why I sometimes don’t agree with him. He’s just unfortunately the best loudmouth to use for the purposes of this column and in a strange way, has become a blaring megaphone for the gaming industry. For what its worth, Cliff is one of the few prominent people in the industry that represent both the good and bad parts of it.

With next-gen consoles now the new current-gen, how can we expect the industry to change? And will things ever be the same again? Lets look at a few trends that are polarising gamers in both the console and PC camps today.

Microtransactions in every game?

Oblivion's $2 Horse Armor DLC - harbinger of the era of overpriced and useless cosmetic DLC

Oblivion’s $2.50 Horse Armor DLC – harbinger of the era of overpriced and useless cosmetic DLC

Microtransactions became a hot topic with a simple set of $2.50 DLC horse armour released for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006. This was one of the earliest instances of what would become an endemic cosmetic DLC plague. Horse Armor was met with so much derision, that the phrase has become synonymous with overpriced and useless cosmetic DLC.

In 2011, Cracked’s Luke McKinney wrote an article titled, “The 10 Insulting Things Video Games Charged Money For,” and he’s right about some of them. Do you want a new skin for your gun in Gears of War 3? Do you want to do this quest that is in the game already, but requires you to pay money to start it? Do you want to avoid grinding through levels and just add +10 points to your character’s stats? Pony up, then!

Because this trend is increasingly seen in a growing list of AAA titles from publishers like EA, Activision and even 2K Games, it’s become a sore point for gamers who are tired of having their wallets emptied by game sales and DLC. Developers can see the allure of making more money on games they’ve already earned their profits from, and since gamers appear to have mountains of disposable income they’re totally fine with it.

While it’s been a success for many developers who are embracing the idea, gamers have lamented the trend of charging small amounts of money for things that we’d previously enjoyed for free. The monetisation of customising your gaming experience and allowing you some individuality means that to get the most out of any title, you now have to include the extra purchases into the price of the game you were considering to buy.

This ultimately means that our hobbies now become much more expensive when we have to take these kinds of things into account. Suddenly, your free time and spare change becomes a bigger source of income to companies who create games for you, because what they’d really like is for you to keep paying them again and again and again.

Microtransactions in games with grinding

Forza Motorsport 5 Lotus F1 car

Forza Motorsport 5 Lotus F1 car

This trend began with Oblivion. To get the horse armor you had to buy the DLC for $2.50 and your first set of armor was free. Then you had to pay up 500 Gold in-game for whenever you wanted to swap to the other set of armor. So getting the DLC meant paying money and then later paying more in-game money to swap over. Why on Earth did you need to pay more money for this?

It’s a grating idea because it makes no sense to make players grind for the content they’ve already paid for. Forza Motorsport 5 is a prime example of this. On launch, you pay $499 for the Xbox One console and $60 for the game. Then you decide you want the Lotus F1 car, which costs 10,000 Forza tokens, but makes you a tidy sum of in-game credit using your Drivatar online in F1 races. It just so happens that you can buy tokens with real money, but it will cost you over $100 to avoid race grinding for weeks to get to six million credits.

In some cases, where games have this kind of thing built into them, they’re built around them – paying to avoid grinds in a game means that the actual grinding is generally a massive bore. Its made boring intentionally because the developers want to you buy more content and pay just to avoid the grind. At least Gran Turismo 5 included a semi-competent B-spec driver that could earn you money while you went and did something else that’s more fun.

In the case of GTA V, where players who experienced server issues during launch were awarded a 500,000 in-game credit boost to apologise for the delays, it made it all the more obvious that in many cases its just a money printer for the publishers. It costs nothing for Rockstar to give people a million extra credits tomorrow, because they can rearrange the economy on GTA Online to better suit them.

Season passes galore

The Last of Us Season Pass details

The Last of Us Season Pass details

I view season passes in a different way to my friends – it’s almost like a private Kickstarter campaign for game developers. You’re paying for DLC that you may or may not receive in future. There aren’t any guarantees that you’ll see a good return on your investment and the existence of a season pass almost guarentees that there will be a cheaper Game of the Year edition down the line.

Publishers have been fiddling with this concept in the form of things like Premium Access accounts and, once again, there’s little recourse in the event that you don’t get your money’s worth. If you didn’t like Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep for whatever reason (Butt Stallion included), depending on where in the world you live, there isn’t much legal recourse for getting refunded on a digital product.

And this is the way things will continue to be. As long as developers and publishers no longer have to bank on actually making add-on packs enticing to ensure sales, season passes will stay on. Before you blink, they’ll be on mobile games as well.

Pay to Play and Pay to Win will become more prevalent

Survivor - Infestation Stories available on Steam

Survivor – Infestation Stories available on Steam

Before it was Survivor: Infestation Stories, it was called The War Z. An indie game banking on the new-found popularity of emergent gameplay and the immense addictiveness of DayZ, The War Z got off to a really bad start by copying artwork from other games, promising players things that never appeared anywhere in the actual game, misleading gamers on how big the world in The War Z actually was, and making you pay real money in order to get any enjoyment out of it.

On top of asking players to pay $14.99 just for the base game, there are options on Steam to add gold credits to your profile. So when you begin creating your character you have some money to play with to customise him/her and give them a decent start in surviving the Zombie apocalypse, as opposed to starting with nothing because you have no experience points yet. Remember, as in GTA Online, it costs the developers almost nothing to give you the extra gold in-game.

Like DayZ, The War Z is technically a permadeath survival game, only that The War Z requires players to wait hours, sometimes half a day to respawn with their character. Of course, you can pay in gold credits to respawn. What if you have no gold credits? Well, there’s always the option to buy them on the spot with real money.

The term Pay to Win usually gets associated with free-to-play games but now it’s become possible, even acceptable to some people to design a game that you have to purchase around this idea. My guess is that most people, once learning that they have to wait hours for a respawn, would be sorely tempted to just put it into their “money lost to a crap game” pile and go play something better that has more microtransactions in it.

Its a vicious cycle and there’s no getting out of it. Game publishers and developers want your money and Blezinski’s comment that the $60 disc model is dead is completely true – because when looking at how other games manage to coin so much cash from microtransactions, who wouldn’t be tempted to add them in to see a better return on their investment?

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Forum discussion

Join the conversation

  • UltimateNinjaPandaDudeGuy

    It really isn’t a train smash if you ask me… I usually wait for specials on all of these things anyway.

  • Kromas

    Valve got it right. Please refer to DotA2 and/or Team Fortress 2 if you don’t understand.

  • The only thing TF2 really needed was hats anyway.

  • Pur!Fier

    Totally agree with everything. I refuse to pre-order anything these days because I have no idea how it will actually be with all the freakin PR glorification and then after launch and I maybe are interested in the game I have to pay R150 more and then I dont have a DLC that was included in the pre-order for which I have to pay an additional R100. Really pisses me off.

    One example is Company of Heroes. I would like to get it but the whole $10 DLC packs put me off so much and now most people who pre-ordered got the first DLC included and I cant partake in that DLCs activities so now I have to pay even more for a game with very mixed reviews.

    Battlefield 4 is another example. The only reason why I actually got it is, because I utilized BT Games’ membership bonus where I can pay the pre-order price several days after launch and my local BT Games still had the Steel box pre-order version available. Otherwise I would have to once again pay an extra R100 for the China Rising expansion pack that everyone already has. And then we dont even want to start talking about all the launch problems with Battlefield 4.

  • Kromas

    Legend foretells that when a brave hero buys enough hats HL3 will be released.

  • Vorastra

    Half Life 6 confirmed. Wait…

  • Battlefield 4 is actually the most polarising example of this trend today. Either you pony up and play with everyone else, the cool people, on Premium, or you sit with the China Rising pack and the people who didn’t buy Premium, and usually the latter doesn’t fill up servers or set up games as much.

  • B3ware_za

    Actually Battlefield had only one popular expansion to date. And that was the BF2 Special Forces Expansion which lasted for 3 years. In the new BF games most players still tend to play the Base game and the first DLC as these are included with launch. You are in fact not loosing out on anything. It’s only you, the player that feel left out and falling for the trap. So I won’t say BF is a good example of the micro transactions debate.

  • Pur!Fier

    Yea B3ware_za covered it pretty well. After BF3 i feel cheated by premium so I dont plan to invest another R500 into it. Most players return to the base game and if you check south african servers, most play conquest 64 player even though there is like 8 game modes for bf4, so south africa just doesnt have the player base to support all the additional content. Because most people pre-ordered Bf4 though the china rising pack is probably gonna be played most and is what i was looking to score with my purchase to avoid having to pay for it seperately.

  • Herman Leon Erasmus

    Alas i have to agree , the last DLC from DIce ( Vietnam for bad company 2 and most of the DLC`s fro battlefield 3 ) you battled to find local servers that were populated .

Micro-transactions in AAA games here to stay?

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