"I refuse to buy microtransactions in any game. They're trashy, greedy, and their existence shows nothing but disrespect for players. No matter how they're implemented they cause me nothing but unbridled hatred toward whatever marketing department decided to infect an otherwise decent game with the hyper-capitalist video game equivalent of herpes."
When I decided to start consulting in game monetisation, I knew that I was focusing on an increasingly important but increasingly derided section of the industry. Any time I wrote something about free-to-play games, whether for Kotaku, Reddit or Gamasutra, I was guaranteed to inspire comments like the one above. "Microtransactions suck and destroy the quality of games" is a popular opinion. Many gamers will agree with a similar sentiment:"I have a large disdain for mtx. Especially in $60 games. I feel that I paid for the game, now let me 100% that game without the requirement of my wallet. Stop asking for more money. Don't even show me the menu, because it immediately cheapens the whole experience for me."
Meanwhile, the influence of free-to-play has only grown over time. Not only was it the dominant business model on social network and mobile phone games, but its influence could be felt on console and PC, too. Struggling subscription-based MMOs found sustainable success in microtransactions (MTX), Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play and League of Legends conquered the world while selling champions and skins. F2P juggernaut World of Tanks was ported to the 360. And increasingly MTX found its way into AAA premium games, whether through card packs in Mass Effect 3 multiplayer or Helix credits in Assassin's Creed: Unity.
MTX have joined on-disc DLC as one of gamers' most hated elements of modern gaming. At least that is the picture painted in comment sections and article headlines. However, I have long argued that gamers vote with their wallets, not their comments. Publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft certainly care about what you think and say, but at the end of the day your actions as expressed by how you spend your time and money far outweigh the impact of raging in the r/gaming thread on Reddit. To publishers, adding MTX to the mix of digital content they are selling can be an inexpensive way to make additional money with a successful game. Especially considering that a gamer can only ever purchase a DLC pack once, whereas implementing consumable MTX purchases opens the door for items a single gamer can purchase infinitely if they were so inclined.
Last month I ran a survey about gamers' DLC and MTX purchasing habits. Over 2700 gamers answered questions about how they have spent their money in the past 3 months. The results may surprise you.
1 in 10 gamers have purchased MTX in a premium AAA game in the past 3 months.
6 in 10 gamers have played a free-to-play mobile game in the past three months and 1 in 10 have made a MTX purchase in those games.
And make no mistake, these are decidedly core gamers. On average, respondents spent 18 hours gaming a week. These are not Kim Kardashian-loving, candy-crushing soccer mums. These are, on average, 25 to 34-year-old men with full-time jobs making microtransactions inside premium console and free-to-play mobile games.
I've summarised the most interesting findings in this infographic:
Why do gamers buy MTX? "Microtransactions, when done properly, can help someone like me who has a steady job, a wife, and two kids to be able to enjoy a game that would normally be a very tough time sink," reported one respondent. As someone who feels like there is never enough time in the day to juggle work, family, social life and my desire to play the neverending avalanche of games that pique my interest, I can certainly relate.
Some other findings surprised me as well. As I have never done so, I did not expect to find that 55 per cent of respondents had recently pre-ordered a game. Despite how hated retailer exclusive pre-order items are they appear to be working. DLC and season passes are extremely popular, with 51% of gamers buying DLC and 25 per cent of gamers buying a season pass within the past 3 months.
No matter how much gamers may hate on them publicly, 1 out of every 10 of them are silently voting with their wallets when it comes to MTX. Many of you may tell me I am ruining gaming by working as a monetisation design consultant, but enough of you are buying MTX to continue justifying my existence. Games are both an art and a business, and based on the findings of this study, microtransactions are clearly here to stay.
Reading through the comments regarding season passes, pre-orders and microtransactions, it is apparent that, for many, these business practices are having a large, negative impact on gamers' trust of publishers. The issue of trust came up a lot, unsurprising given this holiday season was plagued with buggy game releases. To find out more about how companies gain and lose players' trust, I have put together this short survey. Gamers also vote with their wallets when they choose not to buy a game, and I look forward to sharing how PR overpromises, buggy releases and unpopular business practices are affecting the companies you follow and the games you play.
Ethan Levy is an 12 year veteran game designer and producer who has contributed to over 50 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including Pandemic Studios, EA, BioWare and Playfirst. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a monetization design consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for PC, console, mobile, tablet and web.