Spending Time: The Creeping Horror of Microtransactions in Full Priced Games

Of all the pernicious publisher practices out there, ‘microtransactions’ in games you’ve already paid full price for are surely the worst. In fact let’s dispense with the term ‘microtransactions’ altogether, as it seems to have been designed by committee to make the concept sound as inoffensive as possible. Using the word only legitimises that deception. Most of the time they are anything but micro.

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The average price for various ‘boosts’ in EA’s Dead Space 3 was $5.00 USD. Not a vast amount of cash, certainly, but that’s the trap the designers of these horrible little schemes want you to fall into. Sure, as part of a regular household budget a one-off of $5.00 is pretty damn small. But in the context of videogames, PC games in particular, it can go a whole lot further than a ridiculous time-saving device in a title you already shelled out $50.00 for.

Last weekend on Steam, The Witcher 2 (all of it, mind) cost $5.00.

The Witcher 2 REDKit

Geralt dispenses with someone who’d rather grind faster in Dead Space 3 than buy his game.

To reiterate, this piece is about additional payments (excluding reasonable add-ons and expansions) within full priced games. Free-to-play is its own can of worms, but at least with that model there’s an understanding that the game has to make money somehow. This doesn’t automatically make everything about it acceptable, but sensible, non-exploitative examples do exist. Tim has written a substantial piece about them right here.

Since we’ve already mentioned one act of lexicographical trickery in this article already, isn’t it bizarre that the genre of game known for its aggressive attempts to get money out of people is almost universally referred to as “free-to-play.” That’s some Orwellian genius right there.

But back to the extra payments in full priced titles. For reasons best known to themselves, the full priced games that sneak in additional purchases seem to focus on selling time-saving devices. As well as being pretty poor value for money, these additional ‘packs’ or ‘boosts’ are generally trying to tempt you into spending cash to avoid doing something. Buy this gadget, it’ll making grinding for whatever set of items go faster. Fork out some money for this virtual gun, it’ll make your life easier and you’ll finish the game quicker.

Dead Space 3 (1)

“This game is great fun, I hope it’s over soon!”

This concept makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. DLC can sometimes seem a little on the obnoxious side (in terms of bits and pieces that look like they should just have been in the full release,) but at least it’s always trying to sell you more of a game that you’re presumably enjoying. If you buy any of the time-saving devices in games like Dead Space 3, you’re effectively admitting that the game is boring you to distraction. And if that’s the case, why the hell are you spending more money on it?

From a designer’s point of view, if somebody is willing to spend $5.00 to literally skip a portion of the game it should really be a clue that something has gone a bit wrong in the creative process. Unless, of course, the development team was cynical enough to make a segment boring on purpose in an attempt to drive up additional revenue; another black mark against the practice.

The standard response at this point is to mention that people have a choice. That they don’t have to buy this stuff. Or, in slightly crueller terms, that only idiots would buy it. That may be the case, but it’s always better for everyone if people are making informed choices.

The problem is, a fair percentage of prospective buyers do not have the same access to information or gaming savvy as a lot of veteran games players. I’m an optimistic sort. I think most people, supplied with the same level of information and experience as the average player who wouldn’t be seen dead handing over $5.00 to grind some items slightly faster, would avoid them too.

Dead Space 3 (7)

Not quite pictured: the invisible hand reaching out for your wallet.

By just shrugging this stuff off, the risk is that it proliferates. You might think “So what? It’ll never affect me anyway.” But it probably already is.

Every time someone pulled up the Dead Space 3 crafting menu and couldn’t quite afford something with in-game resources, the option for “downloadable content” popped up.

What a magnificent way to ruin any semblance of atmosphere in your game. I pity the poor artists and sound designers who had to work hard, trying to establish the feelings of alien oppression and player frailty, only to have all their efforts blown wide open by a garish message baring the legend “HEY, JUST REMINDING YOU THIS IS A VIDEOGAME, ALSO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SKIP THIS BORING PART?”

The original Dead Space was heavily influenced by System Shock 2. Imagine how thoroughly shitty it would’ve been to have a similar option to buy medical hypos for real cash from that game’s vending machines. It’s the sort of decision that has a genuine impact on how a game is regarded by history.

I know, this all sounds a bit like the throwing up of hands and wailing “my immersion!” But when game designers and publishers show such little regard for maintaining the tone and atmosphere of the titles they produce, the public will start to respond in kind.

Press X to empty your bank account.

In some ways, they already did. Dead Space 3 came out earlier this year, but last week it could already be found bulking out EA’s charity Humble Bundle; effectively being given away. Granted, we can’t put this down to the in-game purchasing options alone, but they certainly weren’t a beloved feature. Hopefully no-one who picked up that game in the charity Bundle falls for their dubious charms. If you’re tempted, just give more money to a random charity instead.

So are we safe from such schemes in future? Probably not. This article was prompted by the news that Ryse (pictured above) will be another full priced title to include ways to bypass actually playing the co-operative multiplayer in favour of just letting you buy the items you’d earn by doing that. It’s an Xbox One exclusive title (for now,) but it shows that the idea is alive and well in some quarters.

Quite apart from the fact that a $50-60 USD asking price should guarantee that every buyer gets every part of a game, in-game transactions of this nature are almost always poor value for money, ruinous to single player immersion and a tacit admission that part of your game is so boring that people will need to pay to avoid it. For all of those reasons, the despicable practice needs to end.

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