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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Micro-transactions in AAA games here to stay?

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