The Major Difference Between Honest And Dishonest Micro-Transactions

Let us just be honest for a moment with each other. We like to make money. Am I right? Capitalism is the “American way” that we want the rest of the world to follow. Free enterprise equalizes the economy. It stabilizes social order, and keeps the balance of a country’s health upright. I could continue clamoring on, but I am not quite sure we all can fully buy into what I was selling. Heck, I don’t fully believe it myself. There are reasons we have rules and regulations that keep our economy in check, rules that outlaw things like monopolies, insider trading, and unregulated gambling. I will tip my hand and say that I firmly believe that if Micro-transactions are here to stay, that we must have a healthy set of rules in place whether stated by company or by governing body to keep them from running amuck. How do we make them palatable so that the gaming industry can evolve as it should without leaving a bloody trail of gamer’s hearts behind them?

Micro-transactions started in free to play games and subscription games back in the late 2000’s. They found somewhat of their final form as they are known now because of games like the smartphone game “Candy Crush” and console  games such as NHL, NBA 2k, and FIFA sports franchises. Micro-transaction is a business model where users can purchase virtual goods via micro-payments. Micro-transactions are often used in free-to-play games to provide a revenue source for the developers (Wiki). While wiki should never be used for factual purposes due to its lack of factual integrity, for a cultural definition as we are seeking to find its purposes will serve our needs. In 2013 Micro-transactions took over as the most effective tool for monetizing a video game where “free-to-play” games overtook the premium game market for the first time.

Micro-transactions allow players to carve out their own ideas and opinion of a game’s value through the level of involvement. What could go wrong with a model like this you might say? Well plenty. Please allow me a couple of moments to outline some of the weaknesses of Micro-transactions before I delve into what could be some of the possible solutions to the market problem as well as one company who, in my opinion, gets it right. Micro-transactions in their current state are bad for gaming. While, yes, the idea of the player determining the worth of a game is a dreamy state of affairs in some gamer’s minds, the unfortunate truth is that the level of transparency from the gaming industry is simply not there right now. A player could buy a certain premium game today without the clear understanding of what will be free, what will cost extra, and what will be actually included with the game.

I had my own personal horror story with micro-transactions 3 years ago with a certain sports franchise I wont name here. Sufficed to say, the only way to compete in the online portion of the game at a high level was to have the best players, which only came through opening an absurd amount of micro-transaction enhanced packs in game. Yes, the packs were available to be earned without the micro-transactions but at a fraction of the rate. When one could simply spend and extra four or five dollars for a pack what could be the harm in that? The harm comes in two forms. First, the packs were completely disproportionately priced for the content determined by the user rating of the experience. We know this because third party bot services popped up widely on the internet that began to regulate an open economy pricing of the packs. Outside of the company’s control, the prices of packs were driven deeply down, but not to a point where these online entities were not making money hand over fist. The market still worked, but drew eventual fixes from the developer so that the market’s existence is now null by comparison. After spending for more money than I care to share at a basic gamble, I swore off randomly generated micro-transactions forever. I’m a 29 year old adult completely capable of making mature decisions about my family and income, but what would happen if a child with a credit card belonging to his or her parents had to make some of these same decisions at eleven or twelve years of age?

This leads me to my second harm that has resulted from unregulated in game micro-transactions. Children are not ready to make mature gambling decisions. There’s a reason why consenting adults are only allowed to play the slots or table in certain hotels in Vegas. Recently one young adolescent racked up $4,500 dollars worth of purchases in the FIFA franchises flagship game on pack purchases. The money was refunded to the parent, but I cannot imagine the developer EA was thrilled at the prospect. How many other children have been the victims of their own immaturity that no one knows about? How many parents have grieved over something that they did not even know to which their children had access?

Until gaming companies are able to tell people up front what they should be expecting when they purchase a game from day one, and transparency becomes a staple of the micro-transaction movement, there will continue to be disappointments. A second problem destroying the micro-transaction market is a lack of regulation amongst gaming developers or the government. I have absolutely no desire for the government to ever get involved with the gaming industry, so I hope that those who make the calls at the high level of these powerful companies will step in before it is too late. We need only to look to the right and see the state of free to play fantasy games to see where things could soon be headed if we are not careful.

The final pitfall of the micro-transaction market deals with DLC to be released later. With last week’s release of Street Fighter V, we see yet another game in a long line of games holding back content which probably should have been initially released with the full game in the past, held back to be released later at an additional cost. Games like 2015’s “Battlefront”, 2014’s “Destiny”, and many others have been guilty of this to the point that some developers are being accused of becoming lazy. If this trend continues to grow worse, I fear for the future of gaming.

I promised earlier that after looking through some of the negatives, I believe there is one company doing things the right way, and hopefully the way that these games will trend. While games like Call of Duty and Battlefield have locked certain guns behind micro-transaction walls, Rainbow Six Siege has gone a different route. Each of the characters in Siege has a different set of skills and guns attainable as soon as the character is purchased with earned credit called “renown.” Players who purchased the game’s season pass received access to the new operators a week early and at no extra renown cost. The beauty of the system is that none of the operators is designed to be any stronger than another. They work much like a sophisticated game of rock paper scissors. This allows for the player to not feel at a disadvantage if they do not have the newest gear because they still have arguably the best gear in the game from day one. Earning renown can unlock certain cosmetics and scopes throughout the game as well. No scopes, guns, or gear can be earned any faster no matter how much money you might be willing to spend. This is not to say that the game does not have micro-transactions, but that the micro-transactions are reserved for certain things like gun skins. The final thing that Rainbow Six did to build a healthy culture of micro-transactions is by carefully outlining their plan and standards.

Players knew before the game’s release that there would be additional operators after purchase but they were told how they would be available and what to expect with the purchase of a season pass. Essentially they had a meticulous plan that they worked to perfection and the player base has responded responsibly and beautifully in return. They gave healthy expectations for the player experience that other companies would do well to look for in the future. Rainbow Six, I would venture a guess, still brings in a fair amount of financial surplus judging by the rare gun skins that I see through the kill cam as I go down for the umpteenth time. My question for everyone else is, what are you waiting for? Let’s put a plan together and save an industry we love.

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  1. The problem with the gaming industry regulating micro-transactions is that the consumer is willing to spend money on such items and services. If the consumer did not spend money on these things, micro-transactions would not exist. However, such things exist because gamers want instant gratification and/or they value their time more than their money. Long before micro-transactions found a place in gaming, gamers supported the illegal trading of currency and items in online PC games for real money. This happened even when gamers would likely be banned for making such purchases, whereby they would lose potentially thousands of hours invested into that game. While there was a risk involved, gamers could also save themselves hundreds of hours of grinding content in order to get ahead. Game developers decided that rather than third-party sellers profiting from such transactions, they could implement an in-game store for additional profits.

    It is not the gaming industry’s responsibility to ensure that children aren’t using credit cards to make huge purchases; that is the responsibility of parents. It also does not seem unfair for companies to offer items or currency for real money when they could be obtained for free given a certain length of time. The problem exists only when the items or currency cannot be achieved through normal in-game means. If an individual spending more real money helps them to enjoy the game more thoroughly, and companies can profit, why should such a system not exist? For example, Blizzard offers level 100 character boosts for $60. This boost could save a player 50-100 hours of repeating content they have potentially completed multiple times, allowing them to immediate participate in fresh, relevant content. Clearly, people are willing to pay that amount or the option would be decreased or eliminated completely.

    I do not think that DLC or expansions should be included within the discussion regarding micro-transactions, as they are one time payments that provide access to immediate content. If a consumer is unhappy with the amount of content available within a certain expansion, the consumer should not purchase future content from that developer. However, the value of this content is based on how much the consumer values the content. I would not be likely to spend $60 on a 10-20 hour action/adventure game, but I would be fine spending that amount on a 40+ hour RPG. Similarly, if I get 40+ hours of gameplay from an expansion like Destiny’s The Taken King, why should I feel slighted if I am getting the same time value for my funds? However, other gamers feel quite comfortable paying full price for the newest game. Should the gaming industry regulate the estimated play time per game in order to set the initial price at $60? Such a practice would be ridiculous. The value a costumer is willing to pay for the level of enjoyment + the number of hours of enjoyment is the value of the game.

    While more content might have been available at release in previous games, ongoing support was not provided. Games could contain bugs or glitches with no opportunity for patches or fixes, and gamers did not have that expectation. This is how the subscription based system for games like Everquest and World of Warcraft developed. Ongoing support was required, and so an ongoing subscription was also required. Modern games receive constant support. Competitive online games are especially in need of constant patches for balancing, match-making, and bug fixes. This new type of attention costs the developer hundreds of hours of labor which must be accounted for in some way. If we hope to see continued support to games after release, we can expect the initial release to have less content with additional paid DLC to come later. If you are not okay with that, speak with your wallet and do not give the company your money (or wait until some GOTY edition that includes all DLC).

    While a game that provides cosmetic (and other non-pay-to-win; see Hearthstone, League of Legends,or almost any MMO) micro-transactions could offer such content upon release, other games could create an equitable micro-transaction market by simply time-gating these purchases. For example, do not release new guns for real money until one year after the game’s release after many loyal players have already achieved similar gear/progression. Another possibility is that you must achieve a certain level or state within the progression system to have access to purchases of that kind.

    However, at the end of the day, if gamers are unhappy with the gaming industry, the best way to make that known is to stop supporting an undesirable system and stop paying for games. I did not purchase Star Wars: Battlefront (as much as I love Star Wars) because I did not think I would get the time value out of the game based on how much I enjoy playing FPS (which is to say, not much).

    • Seth, I understand several of the points you make, and they bear great merit, but part of the conversation has to be about healthy expectations and the unwritten contract between gamers and developers. I purchased COD Ghosts two years ago with excitement over the content I had been receiving up unto that point, but after the game started releasing weapons that were only available Via micro transactions, my frustration abounded. I understand time gating some things, and I believe there is a right way to do it, hence why I use the example of Rainbow Six. They time gated but because of the way in which the game is built, not having that class for a certain time does not place one at a disadvantage.

      To the point about what is available to children, I think here we might differ significantly. There is a certain level of involvement and activity that parents can have in their children’s lives. If I send my teenage daughter off to the movies with her friends, I am glad that there are movie ratings to keep them from delving into something they should not be without an adult present. If I were to be on a cruise with my family, I wouldn’t want my 15 year old to have the ability to charge a late night casino run to the room. There are certain reasons we need to keep dangerous things like this out of the hands of children. Certain mobile apps are now putting barriers in place to keep children from making purchases without their parent’s consent and I could not be happier about it. Are these barriers replacements for good parenting? Surely not, but they are an extra set of boundaries to keep my children safe if they wander outside of my watchful eye. And let’s face it, there are simply some parents that are not as active in their children’s lives as they probably should be, and someone has to be looking out for their wellbeing.

      The DLC issue comes into play because I feel like my own contract with games have been violated by this. This is, after all, an opinion piece. I decided some time ago to start voting with my wallet, and this is part of my hope that others will do the same. Your testimonial about Battlefront is a great example of where I hope this will begin to work. Games like Evolve are a complete train wreck however when you look at the DLC model. $60 base game that under delivered on content followed by $25 DLC packs and $15 special monster packs made the game a laughing stock in many circles. Players that got invested ahead of time, however, were not given a clear picture of what awaited them and were out a significant amount of money without knowing what to expect.

      The final thing I would say about some of the time gated material is that if my 5-10 year old child wants to play a game in moderation, I do not want them to be punished for not being a die hard gamer devoting 20+ hours a week to a game. When my daughter puts in “Minnie Mouse’s latest adventure” I don’t want her to only have access to 1/2 of the game because she has not bought the DLC yet. She cannot understand some things at that age like “we did buy this part sweety” when clearly we just dropped $60 on a product and it’s already on the disk. These things frustrate me not only as a gamer but as a father.

  2. Seth, I understand several of the points you make, and they bear great merit, but part of the conversation has to be about healthy expectations and the unwritten contract between gamers and developers. I purchased COD Ghosts two years ago with excitement over the content I had been receiving up unto that point, but after the game started releasing weapons that were only available Via micro transactions, my frustration abounded. I understand time gating some things, and I believe there is a right way to do it, hence why I use the example of Rainbow Six. They time gated but because of the way in which the game is built, not having that class for a certain time does not place one at a disadvantage.

    To the point about what is available to children, I think here we might differ significantly. There is a certain level of involvement and activity that parents can have in their children’s lives. If I send my teenage daughter off to the movies with her friends, I am glad that there are movie ratings to keep them from delving into something they should not be without an adult present. If I were to be on a cruise with my family, I wouldn’t want my 15 year old to have the ability to charge a late night casino run to the room. There are certain reasons we need to keep dangerous things like this out of the hands of children. Certain mobile apps are now putting barriers in place to keep children from making purchases without their parent’s consent and I could not be happier about it. Are these barriers replacements for good parenting? Surely not, but they are an extra set of boundaries to keep my children safe if they wander outside of my watchful eye. And let’s face it, there are simply some parents that are not as active in their children’s lives as they probably should be, and someone has to be looking out for their wellbeing.

    The DLC issue comes into play because I feel like my own contract with games have been violated by this. This is, after all, an opinion piece. I decided some time ago to start voting with my wallet, and this is part of my hope that others will do the same. Your testimonial about Battlefront is a great example of where I hope this will begin to work. Games like Evolve are a complete train wreck however when you look at the DLC model. $60 base game that under delivered on content followed by $25 DLC packs and $15 special monster packs made the game a laughing stock in many circles. Players that got invested ahead of time, however, were not given a clear picture of what awaited them and were out a significant amount of money without knowing what to expect.

    The final thing I would say about some of the time gated material is that if my 5-10 year old child wants to play a game in moderation, I do not want them to be punished for not being a die hard gamer devoting 20+ hours a week to a game. When my daughter puts in “Minnie Mouse’s latest adventure” I don’t want her to only have access to 1/2 of the game because she has not bought the DLC yet. She cannot understand some things at that age like “we did buy this part sweety” when clearly we just dropped $60 on a product and it’s already on the disk. These things frustrate me not only as a gamer but as a father.

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