Thursday, June 29, 2017

Retro Prose: My Thoughts on Microtransactions

In light of another E3 passing and the fact that I want something on this blog other than slowly paced Mass Effect fan fiction before the Fourth of July weekend, I decided to bring up a piece I wrote for OmniGamer last year. It was an opinion piece I had about microtransactions and how complacency in their application in modern gaming would lead to major problems.

The sad thing is how ubiquitous the practice has now become, this article feels like a snapshot of a slightly more innocent time when it was possible for enough outrage to cause studios to backpedal.

Well at least Nintendo haven't caved to the practice just yet.

So once again, enjoy this piece from 2016 last year:

The Complacency of Microtransactions (Originally Posted on

Another E3 has come and gone and with it came the promise of new experiences from the AAA industry. God of War has returned, Crash Bandicoot is coming out of mothballs, the new Legend of Zelda looks amazing and at least two high-profile experiences, Gears of War 4 and Battlefield 1, tried to mask the fact that on top of being sold at retail they were going to include microtransactions. They weren't mentioned directly during the EA or Microsoft conference, but they have been confirmed to exist.

In fact, the terminology used in EA's fourth-quarter earnings report paints a very dire picture. A direct quote from CEO Andrew Wilson contains this unsettling bit of information:

"In Battlefield 1 you will see both macro-monetization opportunities from us, like maps and large scale content, as well as micro-monetization in smaller increments of gameplay," Wilson said. "The former is fairly standard, while the latter could refer to anything from Battlefield 4’s cosmetic-focused Battlepacks, to new guns and classes should they see fit."

That is the head of a major videogame publisher convincing his investors that microtransactions and downloadable map packs are just two sides of the same coin and since DLC has been around for so long, it means to them that microtransactions have always been around in some capacity and that they are just a harmless option for the consumer. Except it's not, and that complacency is dangerous.

All of these practices have been justified of course. The revenue is needed to support servers. The money made will go towards future map packs. There are no direct benefits. The purchases are purely cosmetic. You can just ignore them.

That last excuse is especially offensive because the very psychological manipulation that such a system implements makes it the exact opposite of a choice you can easily ignore. You want a thorough look into what goes into how harmful such a thing can be, ask the Huffington Post.

The damage of what these microtransactions can do has already affected a major high profile game: Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch. First, let the record show that Overwatch is a fantastic team-based online first-person shooter that I have put more time into than any online experience in recent years and will gladly continue to play. However, how it rewards player investment and progression feels way too much like a gambling machine. The game has a leveling system like any modern shooter, except when you hit a new level you are given a loot box full of cosmetic items like skins and emotes for the various different characters distributed at random. There is no way to actively get something for a character you particularly enjoy, as actual in-game currency is itself something you randomly get from the box, and the only way to get items you specifically want is to keep playing and get more lootboxes, or conveniently pay a few more dollars for some extra loot boxes.

That's not a sense of progression, that's a free-to-play slot machine, and every time it is used I can feel my enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment noticeably hindered.

It's a design choice that has lead to a lot of debate amongst critics. Jim Sterling, host of the game criticism video series The Jimquisition on YouTube and head of his own blog of the same name recently stated that due to the inclusion of in-game purchases he would exempt the game from consideration for a Game of the Year award. He said that while the cosmetic skins and emotes don't have a tangible in-game advantage, a guy shooting you is still the same as a guy wearing a different color shirt shooting you after all, the practice still feeds into a community driven haves and have-nots atmosphere that can be alleviated by coughing up some dough and rolling the dice a few times.

This is no surprise considering Sterling's passionate and well-founded thoughts on fee-to-pay elements creeping into more recent productions and his venomous contempt for them as a whole. While there have been a few notable rebuttals to his argument, the sheer knee-jerk reaction from average viewers as a whole seemed to boil down to “get over it, it's not a big deal,” as if the overall quality of Overwatch, which once again is phenomenal, magically gives it immunity to any and all criticism of its progression system.

Then there is the matter of Battleborn imitating this model. Granted its premium currency approach where you can buy any specific item you want is more accessible than Overwatch's random chance, there is still an air of desperation and justification in their inclusion.

"We know what you’re thinking," the website said. "Don’t worry! When we expand the Battleborn Marketplace on June 16, we’ll be offering premium taunts and skins that will not affect gameplay at all (warning: may make your teammates and opponents incredibly jealous). This optional, cosmetic content we’ve created comes in addition to all the skins and taunts we’ve already put in the game. On top of that, the first five Battleborn DLC Packs will have even more skins and taunts that are only unlockable by playing the story operations and will not be sold individually in the marketplace"

Even taking the casual tone into consideration, this reads like someone trying to bury the lede rather than explain a substantial change in direction. For a game that justified a season pass by saying it would help fund future content, what's all this premium currency going towards?

While microtransactions have muddied Overwatch's sense of progression and have been slipped into Battleborn in what can only be assumed as an attempt to keep the lights on, there is still the biggest problem: these games are now made more disposable. The Dead Space games still hold up as entertaining action-horror experiences, yet every single time I return to Dead Space 3, the most notable for being one of the first AAA games to bolt freemium elements into a retail experience, everything about it is tainted by the system. The fresh new game smell is gone but the stench of a system that is all about holding you down and getting you to pay more money is still there and overpowers everything else. By that same token, the last two Assassin's Creed games have only suffered by adding such a system. I can't remember anything about the characters or the story or the gameplay of either, but I do recall Ubisoft thinking I wanted to waste thirty dollars on a fancy digital hood for my forgettable protagonist.

Yet, because we say nothing and have gotten accustomed to these actions with the same excuses publishers have been using for years, we are actively crippling our very medium. Stop asking how we can pay more money for cosmetics and wonder why things have become progressively tedious to unlock them in-game. Stop writing things off as an option when it's clear the design is pressuring you to fork over extra dollars for an experience you bought for in full. Don't let this become the norm unless you want every single big project to go the way of Evolve and Call of Duty.

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