by Al Jackson0
Boiling Gamers: A Brief History of Microtransactions
The Death of Video Games Part IV
If you consider the inroads the Games as a Service Movement has made across the spectrum of gaming markets and the various public statements made by game industry leaders and analysts regarding microtransactions and the future of AAA video games, it becomes clear that video games are undergoing a sea change. Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario for gamers in this upheaval is the best case scenario for those Games as a Service Movement companies who develop pay to win games (games in which the challenges have been replaced by ploys designed to manipulate players into continuously purchasing pricey microtransactions), which is why core gamers need to take this matter in hand, come together on a few basic principles like: ‘we don’t want to be manipulated and charged ten times as much for our video games,’ and put a stop to pay to win games.
It’s important to remember that in our relationship with the gaming industry we are supply and thus in any transaction we are half of the equation. Nothing happens in the long run without both our complicity and hard earned money. By signing your name to the Pay to Win Boycott you are removing your potential capital and your complicity in the success of the pay to win games listed in our boycott. Enough gamers sign and we will stop pay to win games in its tracks.
If you remain on the fence, however, I will do my best to prove to you that pay to win games carry with them the potential of destroying video games as we know them, and that we need to act now if we hope to save them.
Like boiling a frog
To explain the methods and tactics that Games as a Service Movement has adopted, it’s useful to employ the tired but apt ‘how to boil a frog’ metaphor. This is how it works: Say you’re interested in boiling a frog alive for some reason. (maybe you’re a sadist with batrachopphobia) If you simply place the frog in water and turn up the heat, your little froggy is going to pop right out of the pan. But take that same croaker and turn the heat up very slowly, and the little guy will just ribbett away the hour while he’s boiled alive.
You only need to quickly scan the way in which pay to win games are slowly being introduced into core markets to see that Games as a Service companies realize that they are boiling a frog. They understand that if they abruptly introduce the kind of pay to win games that are the mainstay among AAA mobile titles en masse, core gamers will simply leap from the pan, as we have already done (Dead Space 3, Xbox One at last year’ E3, both of which I will get to in a moment). So they’ve adjusted the temperature to a simmer, which manifests itself as the mostly player-friendly free to play PC games and the premium titles with light microtransactions that have recently cropped up on consoles.
If you want to know what the landscape will look like when things start to boil check out Part II and Part III of this series, where you’ll learn about families being stuck with multi-thousand dollar bills run up by young children; guns in shooters that cost $40 apiece, core games broken down into component parts and rented piecemeal that cost players upwards of $150 a week and racing games where the cars cost upwards of $160 apiece. And worst of all, game design that focuses on manipulating players into continuously buying things that are offered for free in real games.
The Dead Space 3 Controversy
The history between core games and microtransactions reveals not only the unflagging motivations of the Games as a Service Movement, and all that it implies, it also places the aforementioned projections and inroads into a larger context, bringing home that fact that pay to win gaming will be part and parcel of all of our core gaming experiences in the near future.
The first time I heard about a clash between core gamers and the Games as a Service Movement was as part of the controversy over EA allegedly overburdening Dead Space 3 with microtransactions. The controversy began in March of last year over an article in VideoGamer.com about EA’s purported decision to axe Dead Space 4. Allegedly based upon an insider account, VideoGamer’s story recounted how the development of both Dead Space 3 and 4 had been in trouble for a while. According to VideoGamer’s source, Dead Space 3 had run into a number of pitfalls centered around the late-stage inclusion of generic ammunition, purportedly adopted to allow for microtransactions sold via pressure tactics. Also, D3’s overall design was allegedly altered to render the title more action-oriented and so broaden its appeal.
While the internet was abuzz with gamers deriding EA for including microtransactions in a core video game, EA vehemently denied VideoGamer’s report, claiming it was a complete fabrication. But while EA might have gotten it right—Dead Space 3 did include microtransactions, yet they were not sold by way of pressure tactics. EA’s protestations of innocence become a bit harder to swallow, however, if one is savvy to EA’s mobile releases. While the Dead Space controversy was still warm, EA released Real Racing 3, which is arguably the best looking mobile racing game and a prime example of pay to win game design at its worst. One of the most expensive mobile titles ever made, Real Racing 3 features race cars that consumers can purchase for more than $160 apiece and an overall design that requires players to continuously purchase parts of the game piecemeal via expensive microtransactions. Players must purchase IAPs (in-app purchases and microtransactions are the exact same thing) to pay for repairs (after every race), to upgrade their cars, to buy new cars and just to race. A gamer could easily spend over $1,000 a week. Tack on the fact that the DS3 that saw release did have microtransactions and was more action-oriented than predecessors and EA’s accusations of lies and fabrications on the part of VideoGamer become a joke at best.
“Ownership is so last gen”
As those of you who follow video game news know, a similar incident occurred with Microsoft and Xbox One. When the first entrants arrived at E3 last year, they were met with huge banners strewn about the place announcing the upcoming release of the Xbox One as well as the new Games as a Service stance MS was taking towards gaming. Written across every banner, above a picture of the new Xbox One were the words: “Ownership is so last gen.”
Countless Xbox fans found it outrageous that Microsoft would expect Xbox fans to forgo owning future games. That MS had chosen to spin it as though it were the hippest thing conceivable was mind boggling. It seemed such an obvious ploy that it remains hard to believe that anyone capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time would expect gamers to buy into it. Among the PR that accompanied the campaign was a list of MS’s new digital rights policies. For those interested in the nuts and bolts, the abridged version of Microsoft’s DRM (digital Rights management) is as follows:
- You do not own the games you buy. You license them.
- 10 people can be authorized to play these games on a different Xbox One via the cloud, but not at the same time, similar to iTunes.
- Publishers decide whether you can trade in your games and may charge for this.
- Publishers decide whether you can give a game you own to someone for free, and this only works if they have been on your friends list for 30 days.
- Your Xbox One must connect to the Internet every 24 hours to keep playing games.
- When playing on another Xbox One with your account, this is reduced to one hour.
Outrage over Microsoft’s DRM
In the weeks following E3, excoriating comments from outraged Xbox fans crowded every Xbox-related forum, message board and article, with countless disgruntled gamers relaying that they would in no way be purchasing an Xbox One. Two weeks later, Microsoft rescinded almost every facet of its proposed policy.
Pay to win = profits multiplied
Why did Microsoft put their mutli-billion dollar project at risk? Undoubtedly Microsoft was motivated by the enormous profit gains pay to win games offer. In the mobile sphere—the only place where freemium titles (free games sold via microtransactions) are the order of the day—pay to win games often enough see their profits multiplied (see Part II). GungHoEntertainment, for example, the makers of the casual freemium game, Puzzles and Dragons, reported last May that it was pulling in almost 4 million dollars a day in Asian markets. The announcement prompted an industry insider to declare that it would be only a few years before similar titles would easily be raking in $10 million a day. A non-microtransaction game on the Play Store’s Top Paid Apps List that is on the exact same level of popularity that Puzzles and Dragons holds on the Top Free Apps List pulled in a flat rate of about $100,000. To be sure, the paid app managed that feat just once, not every day.
Hardcore Gamers are the gold ring
Now, consider the fact that the success of this new type of marketing is in part predicated on gamer involvement. Then, consider that, when successful, games sold via microtransactions carry a track record of multiplying profits, and generate said profits continuously. Now drop yourself into the shoes of someone on the financial end of the Games as a Service Movement and ask yourself: how do you perceive hardcore gamers? Of what value are they to you?
The answer is dirt simple. You are the gold ring. The precious. You are the prize of prizes, and that is why in spite of missteps and genuine consumer blowback, the Games as a Service movement has built sizeable inroads into every major gaming market as well as why IAPs are projected to be part of all of our gaming experiences in the near future. If you think for a moment that the incidents outlined above are examples of complete failures on the part of the Games as a Service Movement, you’re wrong. While Microsoft might have failed and EA may have gotten an undo amount of egg on its face, the Games as a Service Movement was just figuring out the right temperature at which to boil you.
But that was last year, and with the coming of the next-gen console, particularly the Xbox One they got the temperature just about right. The PS4 came out and while it didn’t launch with any egregiously pay to win games, it looks to have a few in the pipeline, including one that some are saying may be the first example of a AAA console title adopting the Apple/iTunes model. Meanwhile a quarter of the Xbox One’s launch titles are heavy with microtransactions, with at least one pay to win title, Crimson Dragon. What’s more it’s expected that the vast majority of next-gen console titles going forward will be driven by microtransactions. Meanwhile industry leaders, insiders and number crunchers are all saying that the reason for this is that the current single sale system of marketing AAA video games can’t hold itself up and that subscriptions and microtransactions are likely the only real solution to the problem. In short, we are beginning to boil. There is already a few console games that we’ve looked at that are clearly pay to win. Again these are games where the primary focus of design is manipulating players into continuously spending more money. Every time we accept a pay to win mechanic or a ploy it sets a precedent. For example, Gran Turismo 6 sells a few of its race cars for over hundred dollars and while you can circumvent paying by grinding through races, the devs designed the grind so that it is significantly longer than the one in GT 5 so that some players are complaining that they could never hope to fill out their collection of race cars through play. To us both ploys set a crap precedent. First off, a single microtransaction that is part of the game that sells for over a hundred dollars is out. Worse yet, charging over a hundred dollars for a vital part of the game and then significantly increasing the grind it takes to earn same said item is an alarming precedent. To the degree that we accept necessary IAPs sold for over a hundred dollars is the degree to which we will see more of them in the future, which is why GT6, like Spartacus Legends, and the Xbox One’s launch title, Crimson Dragon are all on the boycott list. You can visit The List here >>>
What we have already accepted sets a series of precedents, let’s stop now
When it was thought two years ago that Electronic Arts was about to implement IAPS sold via pressure tactics in Dead Space 3, a healthy portion of the gaming community was up in arms, as they were when Microsoft adopted the motto: “Ownership is so Last Gen” or when they proposed their DRM policy. In each case the product that eventually saw the light of day was less offensive, less intrusive then what was originally proposed. On the other hand, in each case the gaming community conceded to the gaming industry and, for example, settled for IAPS in paid core games, with Dead Space 3, to say nothing of Mass effect 3 and a few others. Then we settled for a portion of MS’s proposed DRM policy, and finally for a console that’s rife with games that are paid for with a premium fee and endlessly recurring IAPs. With each conflict we have accepted a new aspect of microtransaction marketing and each time we’ve done so a new precedent was set. Around the time of the D3 controversy, Cliff Bleszinski wrote a now famous blog post defending pay to win games. In it he suggested that the Games as a Service Movement has a “digital road map.” I am pretty sure that this slow creep forward, this setting of precedents piecemeal, this slow boiling of hardcore gamers is the essence of that road map. If you’re a mobile gamer or an Xbox fan you likely have experienced some of what is described here first hand. If you are not, read more about some of the issues we have discussed above and keep your eyes open, and when you see the light, join us.
There is a dynamic trend unfolding in front of us, we can sit back and let it pass us by and end up with games that, if we hope to play them inside and out (as many of us want to do just that) will likely prove as costly as Hawaiian vacation, or we can step in the middle of said trend, dig our collective heels in and say: no. A hundred dollars is too much for a necessary Microtransaction. Cut the crap. If you design such pay to win tiles we won’t go near them. We won’t allow our beloved past time to be turned into a playground exclusive to those with money to burn.
Never Happen. You say. We, hardcore gamers, simply won’t buy core games that are full of pricey and necessary microtransactions.
Well, check this out:
As the above infographic shows, on Android and iOS ( the only two platforms where IAP-heavy games are the order of the day) the entire market is held aloft by 1.5% of gamers. All of the microtransactions are purchased by this tiny 1.5%, and the amounts they are spending is staggering. Consider, for example, that this minuscule 1.5% holds up a multi-billion dollar industry. Consider that if this same dynamic where to transpire in core gaming, your average gamer deciding not to buy game A because it was a money-grubbing pieces of crap wouldn’t matter at all because the whales (this is what game industry analysts call this tiny 1.5%) are in control over what gets made and what does not. If you have your doubts read this article here. Consider, also, as we have shown in Part II and Part III of this series how regularly playing your average pay to win freemium game can easily cost a player over a thousand dollars a month; consider how many children left alone with their parents logins have quickly run up multi-thousand dollar bills playing IAP-heavy games on mobile; and worst of all consider that in mobile gaming the average player is not even an afterthought in the minds of those who decide what games get made and what games don’t, and you will see, as I do, that marketing and design via microtransactions will very likely ruin core video games.
The idea here is that by accepting overly expensive IAPS–by accepting hundred dollar necessary IAPs in Gran Turismo 6, for example, you’ll be facing a 200 dollar IAP tomorrow as you will be helping to change the industry for the worse. By going along we are turning up the heat on ourselves. And if we are not careful we will turn around one day and core gaming will look like mobile gaming in the worst way; and if you understand the degree to which IAPs have destroyed AAA mobile games, then you know, as many of us do, that if we let that happen, we will indeed be boiling.
By joining the pay to win boycott we’ve decided not to engage with games that are designed to make us spend rather than enjoy. What’s more, we demand that entertainment and enjoyment be the purpose of the games we play.
By signing the boycott you’re sending message to the Games as a Service wing of the video game industry that we will not buy, play, download or otherwise engage with pay to win games. And we will pass the word along to the next gamer, as well as to our friends, colleagues and anyone who else will listen.
Save hardcore games