There was a time when microtransactions were almost purely relegated to free-to-play games, whether on mobile or on PC. But now it seems many have accepted that microtransactions in games both large and small, paid and free, are here to stay—and despite recent protests, I’m inclined to agree.
Started from the bottom…
MMOs like TERA, Diablo-likes like Path of Exile and mobile title like Plants Versus Zombies all contain or contained microtransactions, and people were generally happy about it. After all, you’re playing the game for free, so the developers and publishers need to make their money from somewhere, right? Some games did it better than others, of course, but generally all seemed right with the world.
However, as time went on, microtransactions became more and more egregious. Games like Counterstrike and Team Fortress II made lootboxes popular, while other games started introducing cosmetic weapon and character packs you could purchase to customise your game and show off to your friends.
They even started to trickle in to AAA games at this stage in the form of DLC. Who could forget the enormous riot that kicked up over the inclusion of Oblivion horse armour, or the more recent changes to Payday 2?
…Now we here
For a long time, this is where microtransactions stayed. Free-to-play MMOs started springing up more frequently, with titles like TERA and Rift including a few small payments here and there. Mobile games like Clash of Clans started getting serious traction among casual players, many of whom were more than happy to front up a few dollars for their favourite title.
But AAA publishers were watching, and the success of microtransactions didn’t go unnoticed.
In recent years, we have had a slew of big-name games that have included microtransactions. Overwatch has taken the lootboxes of Team Fortress II and taken them to the next level—though only cosmetic, for the time being. League of Legends and DOTA II have long had a real-money market for characters and skins, and this continues strong, with LoL making $1.6 billion in 2014 alone.
League of Legends and DOTA II have long had a real-money market for characters and skins, and this continues strong, with LoL making $1.6 billion in 2014 alone.
Even singleplayer titles haven’t escaped the deluge of microtransactions. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided allowed players to purchase Praxis kits to upgrade their own personal version of Jensen, while Dead Space 3 also encouraged players to cough up some cash to improve their chances of surviving the necromorph nightmare.
And, of course, we can’t forget about the paid mods debacle. Bethesda and Steam tried to team up and introduce a marketplace for small additions of content, such as a weapon, a piece of armour or a new companion character. This was met with enormous backlash from the gaming community, saying that the publisher and distributor were simply trying to cut into the up-until-then free additions provided by modders. This has returned in a modified form through the Bethesda Creation Club.
But perhaps most significantly of all, and most fresh in the minds of many player, is the Electronic Arts Battlefront II lootbox controversy. Originally, this new Star Wars title was going to include lootboxes, much like Team Fortress II, but with one major change: some of the items you could get from these lootboxes would improve your character’s damage, give it more health or generally make it ‘better’ than other players.
In other words, players who paid would be more powerful than those who didn’t—in a full-price, AAA game.
Players got pissed, Disney likely has a quiet word with EA about how it was treating the Star Wars license, and EA switched it off. Some claimed this was a huge victory, and many thought that it was a sign that consumers could only be pushed so far before reacting en masse.
Could this reaction and subsequent retraction from EA be a deathknell for microtransactions? Is this as far as they will go in gaming?
What is the future of microtransactions?
As much as I and many other players would wish it weren’t so, microtransactions aren’t dead yet by any means.
Keeping them relegated to free-to-play titles would be generally acceptable, and would be a return to the previous paradigm of the tactic. But it looks like AAA devs and publishers don’t agree.
CEO Strauss Zelnik of Take-Two Interactive, the publishers behind 2K Games and Rockstar, has come out and said that they “aim to have recurrent consumer spending opportunities for every title that we put out at this company.”
“It may not always be an online model, it probably won’t always be a virtual currency model, but there will be some ability to engage in an ongoing basis with our titles after release across the board,” he continued.
In other words, get ready for every iteration of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption to have microtransactions.
Get ready for every iteration of GTA and Red Dead Redemption to have microtransactions.
Meanwhile, Activision of Call of Duty fame has recently patented a brand new way to matchmake players that encourages them to purchase microtransactions. This matchmaking system would deliberately give advantages to the paid player over the non-paid player, subtly hinting to the non-paid player that if they want to win, they have to buy the same equipment that the paid player already has.’
And, last of all, even free-to-play systems have upped the ante on their existing systems, with a Paladins patch attempting to implement a brand new system that some players have accused of being pay-to-win.
Across the board, microtransactions seem to only just be getting started.
From humble beginnings in free-to-play titles and mobile games to their inclusion in AAA blockbusters, no one can doubt that microtransactions have come a long way. Whether that has been a benefit to the industry and the players is up to debate.
In the one hand, players seem to be perfectly comfortable with microtransactions in certain contexts. Cosmetic additions, even in AAA games like Overwatch, seem to be a-okay by most standards, but only if they remain that way and can also be earned through regular gameplay.
On the other hand, as soon as the balance tips in favour of providing paying players with additional power, the grumbling and protests start kicking up. Considering the backlash that EA faced and subsequent removal of the lootbox system, it appears that publishers are, for the time being, listening to their audience.
However, this doesn’t change the fact that microtransactions are incredibly profitable. GTA Online earned of $500 million for Rockstar, while a recent report from Digital River has shown that the games industry value has tripled as a result of DLC and microtransactions.
A recent report from Digital River has shown that the games industry value has tripled as a result of DLC and microtransactions.
With these kinds of numbers, it’s unlikely that microtransactions are going to go away forever. Unless there is an enormous backlash from the majority of gamers (and not just the vocal minority on dedicated gaming sites and forums), the reality is that these are just a part of the industry now,
EA may have backed off temporarily with Battlefront II, but you can bet they will be simply trying to tweak it so the hubbub dies down just enough for their primary user base.
What is the future of microtransactions? As long as a business practice is profitable, no matter how bad an impact it may have on the game itself and its audience, it will always be used by unscrupulous publishers. Their job, after all, is to make money.
Will we ever return to the “good old days” of something as laughable as horse armour DLC, and avoid gameplay-altering microtransactions forever? Will the big publishers ever let go of this bone and give the fans what they actually want?
Unfortunately, probably not.