Microtransactions: To Cure, To Kill.

Something about this image is immensely gratifying. I'm not sure why.

Ideas aren’t inherently evil. However, never underestimate the darkness of the human condition…

Here’s a controversial viewpoint; microtransactions are not a bad idea.

When the idea was first conceived, it was considered the de-facto method for smaller studios and publishers to make a living in a sea of big-name publishers and developers, who had grown fat on the domination of the gaming landscape. Offer the game up-front and for free, and charge for smaller items inside the game, allowing people to enjoy the title and the game in question to become self-sustaining. The idea that a game can, in part, continue to make money and survive without too much hassle or outside interference. Money that could be reinvested back into the game. The concept of self-perpetuation, to create the means of its own financial stability and future.

We do, however, face a dark future where big publishers have found the idea of a self-sustaining finance model too tempting to leave alone; the end result has seen the likes of EA and Square-Enix to pump out some of the most heinously anti-consumer titles in recent memory, and has given way for companies like Zynga and King to crush innovation, smaller developers and retain strangleholds on a market like never before. These companies have created monsters – and, as Square-Enix and Zynga have discovered, customers can only tolerate so much before they abandon the market.

This culminated in a study recently that pointed out that 66% of downloaded mobile games are only used for the first day – and much more troubling data besides. Like only 2.2% of users spend money in downloaded games. And half of that spending is done in the first week. These are not surprising revelations – but they make the financial success of companies like King look almost strange.

However, in spite of the study, it reinforced a notion in me that we often get far too focused on the microtransactions; that is to say, distracted. Rarely do people look beyond to find the real reasons so many of these “games” are so awful; poorly designed, cheaply made, quickly knocked-off from other successful or up-and-coming titles in order to make a fast buck, created to liberate money from the pocket in a way that most would consider if not illegal, then at the very least downright immoral. King’s Candy Crush Saga has no end; it’s an endless thing, always tightening the thumbscrews until you cry out for mercy and throw money at them to make the pain go away. EA’s horrific Dungeon Keeper Mobile – makes things take a long time, and if you want to speed it up and actually get anywhere in it – yup, it becomes a game of waiting to see how the users patience cracks; ideally, for us, we’d say deletion of the app. But EA hopes that when they do crack – they’ll pay money. Heck, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest – the title I called the worst game of 2013 (and let’s be frank about it, that’s no mean feat considering what we had last year!) – was designed to tap into the fans; to force them to throw money at the game until they got the characters of choice, and well, they did sort of forget the game part of the actual game to boot but hey, whatever right?

All these games have something in common though; the microtransactions are not the inherent problem. The problem comes in that the whole game is designed AROUND them; the microtransactions were the focal point, the whole core of the development, and everything was designed to ferry people right back towards the gaping maw of that particular beast, in a never-ending cycle, to constantly extract money from the wallets of the gullible and the impatient.

I am reminded of a line in Assassin’s Creed 2; “That which can cure, in large enough doses, can also be made to kill.”

And microtransactions are NOT evil inherently; the whole point of them was to allow for smaller games to fuel themselves. That’s a perfectly sensible business model – but it was not meant to be the WHOLE business model. The conceit of it all is that along the way, the industry has forgotten in a sense that entertainment and enjoyment are their primary goals; customers do offload money, but only when they feel somewhat willing to do so. Creating a whole new market dominated by ONLY the microtransaction has led to an overdose of the idea; there is nothing to dilute it, nothing to ease the potency a little, and as such it has become toxic to the market, let alone customers who are becoming more and more likely to avoid titles with ANY microtransaction in it.

The sad thing is, so focused on the monetary side of things, that we’re beginning to see full-priced retail games attempt to create a microtransaction-fuelled economy; this obviously is a big problem, because it was the full-priced market that necessitated the NEED for smaller studios to come up with these ideas in the first place. And now, blindly, it sups the toxic brew without nary a thought for its own welfare; it believes it is entitled to the same sort of self-sustaining business model as enjoyed by smaller studios. Except, you know, that’s all rubbish, isn’t it? No company, no studio, no publisher and no manufacturer is entitled to anything; least of all our money. They have to provide something in exchange for that money; not withhold content, or stagger content, in order to be more monetarily well-off. And that’s all it wants; and so, we are witnessing the birth of a new monstrous breed of game; commercial titles based on the microtransaction model.

And it will fail. Eventually, the law will sort this one out. It will have to. Consumers will need to be protected; and the end result will be punishing for an industry so desperate to make money, that it has forgotten its whole existence is as an industry to provide entertainment; provide it, and people will shell out the money for it. This is seen in everything from Sony and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (proof a horror game can be financially successful! Woo!) to Nintendo’s smash hit Animal Crossing: New Leaf. We didn’t mock Dead Space 3 for its microtransactions; I personally mocked it for being a not-very-scary and painfully average science fiction game. I personally found EA’s insistence on not letting people rate the game below five-stars from inside Dungeon Keeper Mobile far more poisonous and lethal to its credibility than the microtransactions.

The problem isn’t microtransactions; there are ways to use it that don’t involve poisoning the whole pond. But we have an industry desperately scrambling around, trying to make money and seemingly having forgotten thirty years worth of lessons and experience. We have people running these companies who are entirely focused on the bottom line, generating profit no matter the cost. They have grabbed hold of microtransactions and rather than take the time to integrate it inside a game which is worth spending money on, they design products fuelled entirely by those microtransactions. We are seeing people take an idea, and use too much of it, in some cases using it neat. The end result is an unpleasant stench and the corrosion of consumer trust and goodwill.

Microtransactions were once heralded as the cure to a section of the market that struggled to compete with bigger names; MMO’s couldn’t compete with World of Warcraft, but they still had to make money somehow. Even in this sphere, we’ve watched as companies have moved in to milk it as hard and as fast as they can; ruining otherwise lovely games like Champions Online, and creating horrible things like Neverwinter, yet another title that was built entirely around microtransactions. We’ve sat back and despite the protestations, somehow the industry has continued to forge ahead, often against the will of its customer base, into dangerous territory.

But still I see the blame entirely laid at the foot of the microtransaction. And that’s a little unfair, I think. Because it’s one business model among many; companies have many other avenues to explore. But they choose to go down this road because they still believe that it can be their fountain of youth; their panacea. Instead of finding a way to make both game and model coexist, they focus on one at the expense of the other, and often they focus more on their own bottom line than the entertainment of the consumer. People have forgotten that balance is needed; they are not entitled to financial success, it is earned and indeed, takes expertise and experience to juggle the finances of the company in order to keep the wheels moving.

This is the modern world; we learn from experience how to handle our finances. Knowing when to spend, when to save, when to invest and when to treat ourselves. But some expect everything; and these people generally speaking will end up with nothing. We can’t keep blaming one business model for the ills of the industry – the industry itself often embraces the poison with both hands, and then acts all surprised when people abandon ship. Until it learns that it needs to temper business models with actual content for consumers to enjoy and be entertained by, many more will fall by the wayside. It’s a terrible shame, but such lessons are obvious and can be readily learned from. Unless they are willing to learn, trying to negotiate or reason with them is a fruitless endeavour.

My advice? Let them do it. Just don’t buy into them. Let them make the mistakes – and reap what they sow. We have some truly great games to look forward to in the coming months; many of which will be deserving of respect and adulation. Let others simply fall by the wayside. Until the industry is ready to change – like Square-Enix, in its brief and suddenly acute case of common sense – we can argue all we like. The industry believes this is the future. Their future. Their financial future.

It can only lead to rack and ruin, but sometimes you can’t save people from their own stupidity. These mistakes are theirs to make. Just… remember that microtransactions are a tool. A device. Like any weapon, it’s how the user wields it that denotes how lethal it is.

Me? I’ll just get out of the way… not my problem if it takes its own eye out…

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