The growth of the microtransaction model in PC gaming has had both positive and negative feedback from the serious gamer. As this is still in its infancy does it have the potential to become a solid gaming business model?
Microtransactions are essentially in-game payments made by players to purchase goods, services, upgrades and other such features. These can be structured in a variety of different ways. In some cases, the game is free but extra content has to be paid for; in others you buy services or features to bulk up your character. The permutations are varied and impact the gaming experience in their own ways.
Microtransactions are considered to be one way of limiting the impact of gaming piracy on the industry. Over the past few years, the future of PC gaming has been under the spotlight with many experts believing that piracy is one of the main reasons for its decline. If the games are given away for free and companies make their money from selling in-game content, then piracy should theoretically hit a dead end.
This model is by no means perfect. Plenty of situations have seen it kill a game or irk players to the extent that they no longer play. However, if you manage it well, companies have the potential to make sufficient profit while gamers only pay small amounts in incremental stages.
On Gamasutra journalist Daniel Kromand interviews core gamers to find out how they feel about the idea and comes up with plenty of excellent ways in which it can be used well.
However, take a look at the recent announcement by EA Games about their changes to Battlefield: Heroes. You can play the game for free but you need to buy items in order to give your player that extra oomph - or you can spend hours in the grind cycle laboriously working to get them for free. The choice was yours. Now, however, EA have changed their pricing structure so that if you want to have any kind of competitive edge in the game then you’re going to have to pay. A lot.
You’ll be able to play for free if you want to, but you won’t get to have fun with the big boys without forking out a sum or three. You could still grind, however it would demand hideous man-hours playing the game for very little lasting reward. The outcry from gamers has been phenomenal.
This is, I think, a case of microtransactions going sour. What Kromand made very clear in his article is that the goods “must be designed to both offer a strong value proposition for the potential consumer, while not alienating the player that does not purchase the goods.” Erm, EA?
Interestingly, social games like Farmville on Facebook have made excellent use of this business model. You don’t need to spend money to enjoy the game but if you wished, if you were in the mood, you could spend a little bit of cash here and there to up your ante. Its success speaks volumes. Nobody’s farm is going to implode without that extra cow but addicted players love being able to add personal touches here and there.
What I like about this fledgling concept (although it’s been put to good use internationally and in other forms of gaming like card collecting), is that, if introduced properly, it gives gamers the power.
You are free to choose how and when you upgrade your character and how much money you’re prepared to spend. For those who don’t have massive amounts of cash the option of paying small amounts every now and again is a good one. I must repeat that my one concern is that the rich get better results – that the game experience is dependent on your expenditure. It would be a case of art imitating life when the rich get richer and the poor stay crap.
Kromand’s interviewees also mentioned an element of peer pressure. When your online mates are all specced up to the gills or have the best weapons on earth, you’re going to feel obliged to do the same. Otherwise you may as well leave. This happens enough in MMOs like WoW when those who don’t have the time to invest heavily in end-game content are usually the ones who don’t get to enjoy it as much.
“Sorry, noob, you haz no epix.”
Ultimately the inclusion of microtransactions in a game needs to enhance the title, to expand gameplay in such a way that players feel excited about handing over their wages. The game needs to offer them some measure of reward that goes beyond a mere shiny sword or hat. How this is to be achieved or whether it can be achieved is something only a greater mind than mine can answer. All I know is that I’m fascinated and will watch this space closely.
What do you think? Sink or swim?