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July 4, 2016

So How Good Are Microtransactions, Really?

I feel like I should start by apologizing for the title, because that would imply that microtransactions -- the scourge of gamers everywhere -- can actually be good.  And I should apologize even more, because there’s a part of me deep down that thinks they actually can be good.

Deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, DEEP down -- but it’s there.  So let’s talk about microtransactions for a bit, and ignore the fact that Word refuses to recognize the term as legitimate.  I, uh, can’t say I blame it.

For those unaware (i.e. those who deserve the entire world’s envy pointed at them like the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass), microtransactions are an increasingly common occurrence in games now.  The idea is that players can spend small amounts of money to get the content that they want -- items, costumes, etc. -- and get back to the game with more stuff to enjoy.  Not everybody has the time or dedication to push through every game and unlock every last trinket, so microtransactions are supposed to offer an easy solution.  Lay down some cash, and you can get the items you crave in an instant.

As far as I know, microtransactions have been a part of the mobile space for a good while now -- via in-app purchases, or something like it.  There are probably plenty of PC, free-to-play games that scrape up some extra dollars by letting players snag the items or features they want.  Of course, one of the more notable entries came from EA and Dead Space 3.  By spending real-world money, players could get the resources they needed to build some fantastic guns.  It caused a big stink for plenty of reasons, least of all because nothing says “immersion” or “horror” like reaching for your wallet.

Leave it to EA to open the floodgates on one of the most maligned features in modern gaming.  What was once a minor and “ignorable” feature in one game has basically become a fixture of plenty of others, especially in the AAA space.  Ubisoft’s made liberal use of them, to the point where Assassin’s Creed Unity had microtransaction options that reached all the way up to the hundred-dollar mark.  Uncharted 4, Halo 5, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Rise of the Tomb Raider all have them -- just to name a few.  That’s on top of the DLC options (upcoming or released) for plenty of games, which are themselves on top of efforts to push for purchases.

As a guy who would rather focus on the merits of the art -- the execution, the creative vision, et al -- I try not to put too much stock into the business side of things.  That’s not to say I ignored or supported microtransactions; it’s just that they’ve been proven to work and have carved a fault line into the face of the gaming industry.  That might change someday, but today is not that day.  Whether it’s in video games or otherwise, I understand that producing art (or “art” in some cases) is just as much about creativity as it is about business.  Profits.  Return of investment.  Given that a lot of budgets can spiral out of control, I can understand why companies need to do whatever they can to make sure they stay afloat.

It’s almost as if some of these companies should manage their budgets better, and not just pump out massive AAA undertakings in a clearly-unsustainable feedback cycle.  But you didn’t hear that from me.  So let’s talk about Overwatch.

It’s no coincidence that I’m talking about microtransactions now, in the face of one of the biggest hits in a good while.  Like a lot of people, I’m enjoying Overwatch.  I think it’s a good game, and it’s doing a very good job of delaying me from suffering through playing Uncharted 4.  But it’s loot/unlock system is hard to ignore -- even for me, a guy who doesn’t typically care about cosmetics.  See, each time you level up in the game, you’ll earn a loot box.  Open up that loot box, and you’ll get four random prizes.  You could get a spray, an icon, an emote, a highlight intro, a voice clip, a costume, or just some in-game currency to spend at your leisure.

The problem is that -- like others have said before -- the system is completely borked.  You have no control over what you’ll get out of a loot box, which means that if you’re a dedicated Hanzo player, you’ve got just as good a chance at getting a little icon for Roadhog as you do just a simple palette swap…and given that there are nearly two dozen characters, the only way to reliably get what you want is to use the ing-ame currency.  Too bad you can gain as much as 25 levels and never see your count rise above the 350 mark.  If that.  So there’s a microtransaction system in place that lets you buy a fixed number of boxes in bulk.  NOT the costumes or items you want, of course, because that would be too easy and beneficial.  No, you only buy the CHANCE to earn what you want.  But for some people, the chance alone is worth every penny.

In the case of Overwatch, I see the appeal.  I understand the urge.  I wouldn’t mind getting some extra costumes for Zarya, since she’s one of my main characters; the bond is strong enough, and pushes me toward the grind.  Sometimes, you just want to represent your hero as best you can.   But if I’m going to do that representation, I’ll do it without taking part in a system that’s built to make me look like a sucker.

Is it tedious as all hell to earn new boxes via leveling up?  Yes, and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.  Is it keeping me from throwing money at a system built around dirty tricks and psychological manipulation? Yes.  Not to wax nostalgic, but I miss the days when I could earn extra content through fair gameplay -- through effort and application (and honing) of skills.  Now it’s all about instant gratification -- and that gratification isn’t even guaranteed.

Jim Sterling has pointed out, again and again, that microtransactions are here to take advantage of players.  In order to do that, they create situations, systems, and scenarios where spending more money will become the preferable option for players.  Essentially, it’s changing the way games are played.  Street Fighter IV and its iterations let you unlock colors and taunts just by using your characters of choice; as good as it is, Street Fighter V spent the past few months trying to figure out how to include in-game purchases…and in the meantime, it asked players to endure the less-than-ideal Survvial Mode to get the colors they want.

In SFV’s defense, it’s far from the worst offender.  You can get every last bit of content by playing through the game normally, such as playing through the character-specific episodes to earn that sweet, sweet Fight Money.  Likewise, upcoming content should provide more ways to earn and collect everything the game has to offer -- with the new story mode “expansion” no doubt promising a pretty penny.  It doesn’t change the fact that some elements of the game were tweaked to get players to drop their guard (or boost their frustration enough to seize their wallets), but it’s something.

So I guess the next question is a basic one: can there ever be a good microtransaction?

It’s not like the idea is a bad one, relatively speaking.  Again, maybe Little Jimmy Xbox doesn’t feel like putting in the work to get this costume or that emote.  So one payment later, he gets exactly what he wants and moves on without pushing himself to the limits of sanity.  Maybe, then, it’s about providing options.  Give players a chance to fairly and casually unlock the stuff they want, but leave the proverbial tip jar in the corner for those that need it.

I’d think that devs and companies these days actually think they’re providing a respite to gamers by featuring microtransactions.  I wouldn’t put it past them.  But their sense of value -- their understanding of time, resources, and even interest -- is seriously skewed.  If they want to provide options, then fine.  We’ll just have to live with that for now, but under one condition.  The regular option -- the one that involves playing the game, and the game already purchased by the player -- has to be viable.  It has to satisfy, provide challenge, offer rewards (concrete or abstract), and generally just be what a game tends to be.  The game shouldn’t kowtow to the microtransaction; if anything, it should be the other way around.  Gameplay is king, after all.

But that’s a basic, incomplete runthrough on the subject.  Microtransactions are cringe-inducing and in dire need of reform, at least in my opinion.  So what’s yours?  Think they’re bad?  Think they’re good?  Ever splurged on one?  Are you a whale, or a whale hunter?  Whatever that means in this context?

Feel free to weigh in at your leisure (for a small fee of $2.99 (but not really)).  Ready?  Set…comment!

You know, I kind of wonder: is there a Stand that creates money out of thin air?  Not to belittle the efforts of Jotaro and others, but…a money-generating stand is just a bit more useful than guys that punch really fast.

On the other hand, the coolness factor is in full effect.

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