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Microtransactions – Good or Evil?

Tamsin Oxford
Features, Microtransactions

Microtransactions – Good or Evil?

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.

Microtransactions – Good or Evil?

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.

Microtransactions – Good or Evil?

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.

Microtransactions – Good or Evil?

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?

Add a comment8 comments
Emma Kelly  Dec. 10, 2009 at 14:02

I've not yet played a game that has prompted for payment for extra goodies. Although I think I would be one of the bunch that had to have the best of the best...

I keep seeing a load of Facebook friends adding cows and crap to Farmville... definitely not going there!

Gunn  Dec. 10, 2009 at 14:42

I'm against the model myself, but then I'm sceptical about DLC too, it can sound like a great idea but then a part of me wonders, have they just held back this feature so they can earn more money....

I like the idea of just paying a fixed amount for a game and all the content is there for you, if you put the time in you can get it. Paying to advance your stats etc sounds like a cheat or a bad game design.
Still if companies want to avoid piracy I can see them being interested in it, but it's our job to vote with our feet as they say and if we don;t like it then games that go for that model will sink fast.

John McLaggan  Dec. 10, 2009 at 15:14

I'm not very keen on the idea of microtransactions, I do have to admit I'm a fairly keen player of Mafia Wars on Facebook which the Farmville system is derived from and I have been tempted to fork out some real money to speed things up. I have managed to resist every time and have a self imposed ban on paying for anything like that!

The idea of microtransations just isn't something that appeals to me, I don't like playing a game knowing I have to pay more to get certain features or items. I prefer being able to play the game as I wish after purchase and then if additional content is added in the form of DLC then buying that as a chunk.


Tamsin  Dec. 11, 2009 at 21:44

I agree. I'm really in two minds about it but it HAS to be done right. I don't like feeling scammed into buying more stuff.

Matt Gardner  Dec. 12, 2009 at 04:05

I can see how pay-as-you-play might be a good thing for the industry, but to me it all just smacks a little of opportunist capitalism.

EA's about-turn with Battlefield: Heroes is thoroughly contemptible, and the system in general mirrors a commercial template that borders on a feudal pyramid. Transferring a gaming commitment into a business plan might be how the financial side of gaming works, but it doesn't have to be so blatant and overt about it. Do we really want economic conservatism creeping into every facet of gaming?

Dragon Age's DLC irritated me greatly as you could initiate the quest conversations to start off the extra missions, but then you'd find yourself blocked until further payment had been carried out.

A Chilli Mondo  Dec. 16, 2009 at 14:43

I have zero interest in micro-transactions or DLC.

As you said, they give the opportunity to empower the gamer but they are being introduced by corporations - and they have little concern for empowering the gamer. For them keeping the gamer dependent on them is how they will make money from this concept.

I'll buy games that are complete and unlikely to come with any/much DLC and no chance for micro-transactions. Once this stops being a possibility then I'll explore the games of the late 80s-late 90s that I missed.


Moha  Jun. 27, 2011 at 10:46

Micro transactions are evil and ruined every game i played in the end, the temptation to go P2W ( pay to win ) is way too great for a corporation to resist, the result in most cases is a dead game no body want to compete with some rich kid moms credit card

LanceVance  Jun. 27, 2011 at 11:23

It would not be so bad if they were "micro" transactions. The fact is most stuff is way overpriced. Some games end up being twice the price just because of the DLC/addons!


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