Oh, games industry, how far you have fallen. It was once upon a time that you released games that didn’t try to coax extra money out of your players, when you were focused on fun and the joy of players over the profit that could be made from it. Where did your passion go, and why have you resorted to the gaming equivalent of heroin to get players to keep spending money on your terrible paid currencies?
Microtransactions in games are nothing new, of course. I believe the origin of it (at least on the AAA scale) was back in early 2013 with the release of Dead Space 3. Most people remember how the game coined the term ‘fee-to-pay’ (courtesy of Jim Sterling) as a way to describe a game that kept asking for money even after you had already spent a hefty $60 on it in the first place. Before then, the practice of microtransactions was something mostly limited to free mobile games, but EA decided to take that money-making opportunity and run with it. Most gamers were absolutely appalled. Some people justified it, of course, using the argument that “games cost a lot of money to make,” but I’ll get to contesting that later. As a whole, the gaming community then was rightly outraged. While the microtransactions are technically ‘optional,’ it still stands that you are putting yourself into a position for a company to exploit you in order to make a profit, a route that was previously only available to them through carved-out pieces of DLC content. Back then I saw microtransactions as a tactic used only by the very shadiest of companies, something that would catch on in the industry for the next six months or so and then kicked out the door as the gaming community frothed over it, something that would go the way of Online Passes. It was my decision to grin and bear it, to wait for companies to eventually stop as people rallied against them to stop other from being exploited.
But things happened…differently than how they did with Online Passes. Whereas with Online Passes, it was something that affected everybody; microtransactions really only directly impact a select few, the ‘whales.’ It will hurt and annoy those with weak wills who have a hard time resisting the promise of immediate gratification, while some people can ignore them completely. This brought up some white knights on the whole microtransaction issue who defended it because “games cost money, you guys.” But that’s not exactly the point. Ever since microtransactions have been introduced, not only have they become far more common, but it has directly impacted the way that games are designed. Destiny and The Phantom Pain are the most egregious offenders in this scenario, but let me explain how the inclusion of microtransactions in AAA titles (and otherwise) has harmed the industry as a whole, and why it needs to be stop as soon as possible, lest it pick up speed and consume all that lies before it in a maelstrom of wasted money and time.
Back when Dead Space 3 did it, things were surprisingly at their most innocent. Sure, it used the ol’ mobile gaming trick of having you wait for your materials instead of just obtaining them through gameplay, but it was still a legitimate way to play the game. It was something that could potentially be defended in that one instance, something that most people could really just ignore and play normally, as aside from the pop-up every now and again, it mostly stayed out of the picture. People remember it being far worse than it actually was, and while I still find it unforgivable that it was in a single player game in the first place, it may have honestly been blown out of proportion. The problem with the inclusion of these elements in Dead Space 3 was not their implementation, it’s that it set a precedent for what companies could do to wring money out of players and how they could get away with it. It introduced the ‘fee-to-pay’ system into mainstream gaming, and it wasn’t long before other games decided to pick it up.
From what I can recall, it was Ubisoft that picked up the slack next with the Assassin’s Creed series. It introduced an entirely new form of currency that could be purchased instead of earned through natural gameplay, another common tactic utilized on the mobile market as a form of inflation. Pretend that the in-game currency is an equally viable method compared to straight-up buying the alternative currency, but make the common currency harder to obtain, or in some cases, generally useless. Assassin’s Creed stuck with the former, boosting the prices for skills and perks so that the time sink necessary to obtain everything is multiplied. This is one of the more common methods of promoting microtransactions, and as a whole it functions far worse than Dead Space 3 does if only because it functions as an addition to the multiplayer mechanic. Not only are you being coaxed into paying for the only truly ‘useful’ currency, there’s also the chance that the big spenders acquire an edge over other players because of the quick availability of stronger techniques and weapons. It is still common to see this tactic being used in other multiplayer-focused games now, but while this might be the common standard for money-grubbing used by companies nowadays, it is by no means the worst.
That brings me to what I believe to be the most offensive example of the microtransaction concept in gaming: Destiny. This implemented ‘Silver’ currency (which found its way into one of the highest-grossing first person shooters ever made, mind you,) functions nearly the same way as a drug dealer does, with the ‘first one’s free’ principle. Instead of giving you nothing to work with in the form of microtransaction currency and having it simply be a looming presence on the horizon of your gaming experience, Destiny instead gives you some Silver to begin with, giving you a little wiggle room so that you can buy some of the things that Silver is used for. While this may initially seem like an act of goodwill on Bungie’s part to make up for implementing such a controversial tactic in an incredibly profitable game, I believe Activision intended to use it as a method to get more people hooked on their product. By giving people some currency to begin with to buy stupid emotes, it implants in the mind of the player that the currency might not be all that bad. After all, it’s only a few bucks for some silly little skins, right? It’s an extension of the thought process used by the fabled ‘whales’ of the mobile gaming industry, used as a way to create artificial money makers that, while they won’t spend quite as much as those with hundreds of dollars worth of disposable income lying around, might still drop a few bucks here and there for something that is definitely not worth the asking price. For such a tactic to be dropped in such a massively popular game, it was sure to get some bites, and even now some of the most popular add-ons on the Playstation Store and the Xbox Marketplace are Destiny‘s Silver currency. It’s the equivalent of dropping a shrapnel bomb into a school of fish, sure, you’re not going to hit every single fish in the group with the explosion, but you’ll still kill enough of them to get a good meal out of it.
The ‘popularity’ of Silver isn’t because it provides worthwhile content, it’s because it’s a clever business tactic used to get the weak-willed to part with their money. Activision and Bungie have found a way to create whales instead of finding them in the wild, and unlike mobile games that use a similar tactic to get by, they don’t have the excuse of their games being free. This is perhaps my biggest complaint about the whole ordeal, is that such dirty tactics are being used in a market that already makes plenty of money through initial sales and DLC sales alone. Destiny has had three expansion packs that add up to $80 in total, more than the price of the base game, and they still have the gall to try and extort their customers further. It doesn’t matter if it’s cosmetic or not, it’s a disgusting business tactic used to manipulate customers into being cash cows for them without them actually having to do any real work. They’ll make the expansion packs and profit, and in between they’ll continue to extort the gullible who think that buying the Silver currency is doing no harm to the gaming industry. It’s a cycle of profit, a gift from the heavens for Activision but an absolute nightmare for the future of gaming. If this sort of practice becomes the norm, it means that we as consumers have failed. It means we will have allowed companies to manipulate us to the furthest extent they can outside of putting a gun to our heads, and it is by no means something that should be defended.
The most shocking part about all this is that some people are still trying to defend these practices by saying it doesn’t affect them. Well, since we’re all ignoring it, it kind of is. Like I said above, games are getting more crafty with their suggestion methods, getting deeper into your brain to try and convince you that they’re harmless like some kind of dollar-eating alien parasite. The biggest argument I hear in favor of these practices is that games cost too much money to make, but while that might be true that doesn’t necessarily address the root of the problem. You don’t need to hemorrhage money in order to make a AAA video game, and you don’t need to milk customers of all the money in their pockets to make a good game in general. Payday 2 started off as a great game, and it was crafted by a dev team with limited resources that were more focused on crafting an enjoyable experience than they were on profits. People loved them for it, and as soon as they sold out and introduced microtransactions their good PR was instantly flipped on its head. In the games industry, money is honestly not the most important thing, it’s a combination of quality and press that gets you to the top. It’s the reason Nintendo is still so high up on the food chain after all these years, because their games are fun, and they’re still rolling in enough dough to drown a small country even though they don’t resort to these tactics on every single product they release. Simply ‘innovating’ new ways to make money isn’t going to turn out well, just like Online Passes proved.
The kinds of things I mostly agree with in concept, like, say, Early Access and even Season Passes, at least offer up decent ideas, but it needs to be done right for it to be a good thing. Just like the universally hated Online Passes mentioned above, microtransactions aren’t even a good idea in theory, it’s just a way for customers to be extorted into buying those stupid weapon skins for $2.99 over and over again instead of just once. If you want an example of how customers should be treated regarding additional content, look no further than The Witcher III and Bloodborne. I’ve long defended the business practices of CD Projekt Red and FROM Software, as the way they treat their customers is simply superb, and their downloadable content, nay, the way they make money in general, is something to be applauded in the era of corporate greed. For the past few years, the goals of these companies has not been to say “how much money can we suck out of the wallets of our customers?” but instead “what can we make that people will enjoy?” It’s a very consumer-minded thought process, and both their games and their PR have benefited greatly just from taking a more consumer-oriented standpoint, as they understand that the admiration and support of their customers is what keeps them afloat, not the money in general. Hearts of Stone and The Old Hunters may have been additional content after launch, but they were crafted as enhancements, something that they knew people would want, not awful mobile game DLC that tries to trick you into buying something utterly inconsequential. It’s only a matter of time before the stapled-together slapshod money-printer the majority of the AAA industry has built collapses, and when that day comes, it will only be those who garnered goodwill during these years of rampant company greed who rise out of the ashes and continue on their path to greater success.
And I hope to be there to cheer them on.