Nickels, Dimes, Pennants, Pennies Or Points, Sports Gamers Still Get Value

It didn’t take long after MLB 11 The Show’s release for everyone to notice its microtransactions menu and give it a good public flogging. While I don’t claim that these things are in anyone’s interest other than the publisher’s, gamers do a fantastic job of making this out to be a more odious threat than it really is.

Extra content has strong tradition in sports games, maybe stronger than any other genre. Celebrity teams in NBA Jam, cheats delivering automatic fumbles and 110-yard field goals in Madden, and a wardrobe full of throwback uniforms across any sport can be found in games going back more than a decade, right up to the advent of the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.

Typically, these were unlockable items – prototypes of avatar awards, you might say. You earned them by accumulating points in gameplay, or found a cheat code that handed over all of it. Either way, there was some means of getting to it other than a credit card.

Guess what, there still is. And it’s easier.

MLB 11 The Show does offer, for $US5, a premium pack of old-time baseball stadiums – which, incidentally, are available for free on the PlayStation 2 version of the same game. Every one of these stadiums have been razed to the ground in real life, so they’re not actual venues who support the realism of your franchise’s overall campaign. They’re optional novelties. Still, rooting through titles from the previous console generation, that is the only example I could find of something extra that gamers once got for free and must now pay for.

Throwback uniforms and legendary players are typically the kind of content folks have in mind here. But today, if a game has them available, you can usually find them all in the main menu or in the uniform selection screen. Video games’ NBA and NHL titles, even, publish free mid-season updates unlocking new alternate jerseys once teams use them in competition in real life.

In the past, these things were offered free, but you still had to play the game a good while to amass some number of in-game points necessary to acquire them. Today, for example, all the stadiums and bowl games in the NCAA’s football postseason are immediately available on NCAA Football 11, and have been that way on that series for some time. On the original Xbox and PS2, you’d need “pennants,” acquired with points awarded for gameplay, and even then what you got was a random draw. You could have 750 points, buy up 15 pennants and still not get, say, the right to play in the old GMAC Bowl.

The idea that content we used to get for free, through unlockables or cheat codes, is now behind a microtransaction paywall sounds more like a knee-jerk applause line that plays well to the masses. And why not? Big publishers have put out there that the idea that gamers are willing to spend more money on fewer games, and they’re happy to make their money off of that purchasing habit, too. It’s easy to resent a rich company for nickel-and-diming us.

Well, hold on.

Here’s what nickel-and-diming is: That “handling fee” TicketBastard charges on your self-service transaction over the Web, that’s nickel-and-diming. Major League Baseball charging you to print the goddamn ticket, with your own paper and ink, is nickel-and-diming. Any “out-of-network” fee at an ATM is nickel-and-diming. The nature of nickel-and-diming is that you are charged for essential components of a good, or you’re dinged for “services” that add nothing.

It’s not being charged for optional items or gameplay advantages you think should be free. And that’s what this is. Lets consider the Madden franchise, roundly pilloried as a money-grubbing title. Its pre-Xbox Live content involved dozens of “Madden Cards” that no one ever used, many of them delivering player-specific performance boosts. Only a few offered a special venue – a stadium fitted with a future Super Bowl’s field emblems, for example. All were unlockable.

Madden’s microtransaction content now is entirely a performance boost in its offline Franchise mode, similar to NCAA Football’s microtransaction content, and MLB The Show’s offerings for players created in Road to the Show mode, which I’ve likened to performance-enhancing drugs.

Finally, and most importantly, 2K Sports has not received nearly enough credit for making everything in all of its games freely accessible. No paid DLC, no microtransactions, no unlockables, even. Not since MLB 2K7 has that shop offered premium in-game content for sale. From alternate uniforms to multiplayer access – which EA Sports and THQ subjects to a one-use code – if you own the disc you own everything in their game. If that’s such a bedrock value of hardcore gamers, it’s dispiriting not to see that publisher get more credit for upholding it.

Even so, the idea that sports gamers are getting screwed by microtransaction content is propaganda. If a publisher is limiting its premium catalog to purely optional items serving one’s vanity, impatience, or impulse to cheat, while the cherry on top is still free, I can more than live with that.

I still get to play the entire game with my retail purchase. I’m still getting the usual catalog of optional content – and now I don’t have to play to earn it, or look up a cheat code to unlock it. And people who do buy performance boosts and “accelerators” usually can’t use them outside of offline singleplayer modes.

If you want someone to sneer at, there you go.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games.

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