The Sorry State of Micro-Transactions (How to Do It Right)

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve a single phrase for you which is guaranteed to get you talking; a topic which of late seems custom-tailored to stir up a discussion: Micro-transactions. Already, I’m sure there are some among you who’ve a sick, sinking feeling deep in the pit of your stomach; the sort of physical sensation normally only reserved for those times that you drink ten tequila shots before the biggest job interview of your life. There are a lot of people who hate micro-transactions, and with good reason:

The simple truth is, most micro-transactions are horrible. 

The problem lies not simply with the concept itself, but with the ham-handed way most developers try to shoehorn them into their titles. There’s a fairly large camp of developers and publishers who simply don’t get it – their eyes just light up with dollar signs as they try to puzzle out the most efficient, effective, and underhanded methods of nickel-and-diming gamers.  They don’t understand that there’s a price point they need to meet. They either don’t realize (or don’t care) that micro-transactions only work with a particular type of content (namely, the type that isn’t vital for gameplay). They scoff at the idea that there’s a time and place for them, and trying to insert them where they don’t belong will only aggravate their fan base. 

In short, they’re basically trying to force a round peg into a square hole by bashing their heads against  a wall. 

I don’t like jumping onto any bandwagons – I like to think I’ve at least a little bit of free thought left in my vapid shell of a body – but Electronic Arts is one of the most noteworthy offenders here. From their belief that the entire industry will shift over to a freemium model to their insistence on forcing (poorly designed, expensive, and pointless) micro-purchases into every single game they publish (which, ironically enough, still cost money to purchase in the first place); they are a shining example of exactly how to do micro-transactions if you want to piss off all your customers and look like a loose coalition of out-of-touch twits in the process.

Let’s do a case study of exactly what they’ve done wrong; both past and present: 

  • They lock off large swathes of their games behind content walls, forcing people to shell out for piecemeal content just to get a complete gameplay experience…unless they want to spend countless boring hours grinding for it. Just look at what they did with Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer classes, races, and loadouts – purchasing didn’t even guarantee you’d get what you wanted; you essentially had to ‘play the slots’ every time you pitched in.
  • They force a ‘freemium’ sales model into games that don’t necessarily work with such a model. 
  • They have a very distorted understanding of the ‘micro’ in micro-transactions. Apparently, they think it means “charge what you want.” In other words…EA engages in blatant price-gouging. Coupled with the aforementioned content walls, this very nearly ruins the experience – something which a pricing model should never do.(See Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, Real Racing 3
  • Every single EA game – bar none- which incorporates micro-transactions still has a $40-$60+ price point. The presence of these transactions is not reflected by the price of the game. They are a very obvious, very lazy attempt at a cash grab. Basically, they’re forcing a free-to-play model into games that you still have to pay for
  • They sell additional content which doesn’t legitimately add to the game-play experience based on the price – even in an aesthetic fashion. (See Railworks; Train Simulator 3). A lot of the stuff they sell is completely useless, and can be purchased everywhere. 

EA’s far from the only developer responsible for pulling out bogus micro-transactions. They’re just the biggest name to take the idea, run it into the ground, slaughter it, then incinerate its mangled remains. Sadly, This sort of thing runs completely rampant in the worlds of both social and mobile gaming, and the free to play market is rife with terrible, poorly-conceptualized titles which seem designed for the sole purpose of gouging money out of the players. Take Edgeworld, for example – prices in that game’s store ranged from $10.00 to $400.00

Even worse, these games are arguably the norm. With that in mind, it’s no wonder so many core gamers loathe the very concept of a micro-transaction. The thing is…they aren’t all bad. I’ve got three words for you: League of Legends.

Easily among the most popular games in the world, League of Legends.has more players than WoW has subscribers.Each month, at least a billion hours are logged into the game worldwide. And here’s the kicker…League of Legends uses a ‘freemium’ model. It’s free to play…and includes micro-transactions in the game. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with the title, the League store makes use of two different ‘types’ of currency. Influence Points – gained from playing games – can be used to purchase champions, runes(essentially, items that increase the effectiveness of your champion in-game), and additional rune pages. Riot points, meanwhile, are the ‘paid’ currency. They’re used to purchase champions, skins, additional rune pages, name changes…you get the idea.

Notice anything there? The Riot Points system is integrated into the game in a way that’s completely unobtrusive. All of the purchases you can make are either completely aesthetic in nature (skins) or stuff you’d be able to get simply by playing regularly. In short, Riot points aren’t a necessity…they’re a luxury. Through this, Riot manages to turn a healthy profit.

And all without treating their customers like walking wallets. Shocking, isn’t it? 
With the example of Riot games fresh in our minds, let’s cobble together a list of what makes a winning in-game store: 

  • The title is free – profit is made through micro-transactions. 
  • These transactions are not overly expensive in nature. They’re small, reasonable purchases. Price gouging doesn’t occur.
  • As a corollary to the above; the items that can be purchased are things the players actually want to buy. 
  • All of the items which can be bought are luxury items. They’re either completely aesthetic in nature, or they make the player’s life more convenient. They are not required for regular game-play, nor do they give one player an unfair advantage over the others. “Pay to Win” does not apply.
  • There are no content walls – players are not forced to pay just to play. 

So…there you have it. Now, if only all the developers who can’t see past the haze
of green obscuring their vision would start paying attention, maybe in-game purchases wouldn’t have such a bad rap. You can read a bit more on what makes a good micro-transaction here.

What do you folks think? Is there a place for in-game stores if they’re well-designed, or are micro-transactions simply one more tool to deceptively separate gamers from their hard-earned money? 

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