Opinion: Microtransactions have officially drifted into the darkest timeline

Shadows of War. Deus Ex. Destiny.

These are just a few of the beloved franchises that have introduced (or re-introduced) microtransactions to the latest title in the series—and people are pissed about it.

Shadow of Mordor’s sequel, Shadow of War, has introduced a marketplace where you can buy everything from new enemies, new equipment and experience boosts. It has yet to be released.

Deus Ex: Mankind Evolved has a store accessible through the main menu that took real-world money and supply you with anything your heart might desire, including PRAXIS kits, used to ‘level up’ your character.

The original Destiny had microtransactions, and were relegated to purely cosmetic changes. In Destiny 2, however, it appears that the creators have included some new items that might favour players who are willing to spend a little more.

A change in paradigm

Other than microtransactions, what all these games have in common that players were, or are, expected to pay full AAA game price in order to get their hands on the ‘base’ game: $60USD.

We may now be living in a time where it is common, or even expected, that microtransactions are in every game.

Where microtransactions were once only used in multiplayer, free-to-play games, to various levels of success, they have now made the leap to paid, AAA singleplayer games. We may now be living in a time where it is common, or even expected, that microtransactions are in every game: large or small, novice or professional, paid or free-to-play.

That makes this the darkest timeline for gaming. And there are a few simple reasons why.

1. A question of balance

One of the defining differences between “good” microtransations and “bad” microtransactions is whether the purchase actually affects the gameplay. Take two big names as examples: Overwatch and Call of Duty.

In Overwatch, the microtransactions are entirely based around cosmetics. You pay to open up a loot box, and you might get an emote, a skin, something that makes your character look different, but not play differently.

In Call of Duty Black Ops 3, on the other hand, the same process results in weaponry that is objectively better than free unlocked weaponry. That gives people who decide to pay beyond the existing $60USD price tag a leg up. The more you pay, the better equipment you have.

Both of these cases have microtransactions, but the game is affected differently. The community reacted differently too. Overwatch fans didn’t really seem to care, though there was a bit of grumbling in regards to drop rates.

Call of Duty fans threw up their hands and collectively said “fuck this“.

That’s because they disrupt the balance of the game.

It’s just become a battle of wallets.

When you’ve already spent a hefty amount of money to play a game, particularly a multiplayer game, it’s a real kick in the teeth to get online and find out you’ve already been left behind on launch day by the people with more money to burn.

It’s not a matter of “don’t like it, don’t buy it”, it’s a case of you will literally be walked all over every time you step into the arena. There’s only so gud you can git when newbies can just buy their way to victory.

That’s anathema to a competitive game like Call of Duty, where the fun is based fundamentally around a battle of skill. Now, it’s just become a battle of wallets.

Microtransactions that disrupt the balance in this way ruin the game for the majority of players, preferring to pander to those who are willing to spend more.

2. The disappearance of cheat codes

There’s the age-old excuse that gets trotted out every time a developer (or more often, a publisher) decides to squeeze their consumer just a little more through the implementation of micotransactions: that it gives people an “opportunity to speed up the game”, to get to the “good bits” faster.

Cheat codes have been essentially monetized.

These problems used to be solved by cheat codes. Level too hard? God mode. Want more cash? Motherlode. Want to just complete the game? Level skips. These were free developer tools that were left in the game for consumers to play around with.

Now, cheat codes have been essentially monetized.

3. To the grindstone

When you are trying to get people to buy something from you, you have every incentive to make playing the game without purchasing it as difficult as possible.

You ramp up the difficulty, or increase the grind, always floating that tantalising purchase just inches away from the player. It’s ironic really. The developers could end up spending more time making things that are intentionally boring rather than quality sections just to push microtransactions.

Hopefully, all that would do is result in people not buying the game. Indie developers have always been ready to fill the holes that AAA devs have been unable or unwilling to fill.

The developers could end up spending more time making things that are intentionally boring rather than quality sections just to push microtransactions.

But then consider the predatory practices that many microtransactions work on, such as the gambling mechanics of loot boxes (still unregulated as gambling) designed to make a game addictive rather than good.

Publishers might not care if the majority of the playerbase quits, so long as they get their ‘whales’ (a dehumanising term if ever I heard one) keep playing and buying. It’s much like a casino that feeds on addicts. Maybe that next loot box will have the jackpot within…

Summary

The examples I’ve presented here assume the worst, that we’ve stepped into the darkest timeline. A timeline where the games of the future are $60USD to buy, but a lot more to actually enjoy, unbalanced towards those with smaller wallets and full of boring content and predatory mechanics designed primarily not to give you entertainment, but to suck your wallet dry.

We have a choice. We, as consumers, can vote with our wallets and take our business to indies and other devs that don’t have microtransactions, or we can continue with the status quo and continue to watch the gaming industry slip into the most insipid kind of corporatism and anti-consumerism.

There’s room in the industry for microtransactions. It just sure as hell isn’t in full-price AAA titles.

 

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