The word "microtransaction" evokes a vivid picture: A board room full of suited executives, salivating over profit margins and pondering how they can become the next Clash of Clans. Pair this nasty term with other provocative buzzwords like "pay-to-win" and "Activision" and you've got a guaranteed way to get gamers angry.
That's for good reason, of course. With game development costs on a meteoric rise — and the price of new games remaining at $100 despite inflation — big publishers like EA and Ubisoft have devised all sorts of ways to make up that money, from fancy collector's editions to in-game purchases. One particularly devious plan, dreamed up by Konami for Metal Gear Solid V, actually lets you pay real money as insurance to prevent your bases from getting destroyed by enemy attacks — attacks that are unavoidable, even in single-player, unless you're playing offline.
It's safe to say the climate is unfriendly.
Cut to this week. Yesterday, Destiny got its very own microtransaction store, where you can buy emotes and dance moves ranging from $US2 to $US5 a pop. All of these emotes are solely cosmetic, and while the idea of Destiny getting any sort of microtransactions raised some eyebrows, it was also hard to find a PVP match last night without people doing the Carlton.
But! Not long after the store launched, players discovered an odd message in the "returns" section of the interface: "Consumable Items are nonreturnable." The implication, of course, is that soon the Eververse Trading Company will expand beyond funny gestures and into more practical, consumable items. Items that affect gameplay, perhaps.
Then, word came out that intrepid Destiny database miners had discovered consumable buffs that aren't in the game yet — stuff that boosts raid drops, levels up subclasses, etc. — and suddenly the world was on fire, with commenters throwing around gems like "slippery slope" and "pay to win" and "lol you still play Destiny?"
Destiny creative lead Luke Smith was quick to shoot down part of what had become a suddenly substantial rumour, explaining that those raid drop buffs were cut from the game and will never be sold for real money. But he said nothing about the three other types of items that have been dug up:
1) A level booster, not unlike the one that came with The Taken King, that bumps a character up to experience level 25.
2) A booster that fully unlocks any subclass.
3) Temporary experience buffs from different types of enemies.
Now we're in an interesting place. Last week, when I broke the microtransaction news, I wrote that I'd heard they were sticking to cosmetics. I wrote that the developers at Bungie had changed their DLC plans for this year, and that the revenue from these microtransactions would allow them to dole out free globs of content until "Destiny 2" comes out next fall. A source who worked on Destiny told me this: "The requirement is to do only cosmetic shit. They don't wanna do pay for power or pay to win. That's absolutely the antithesis of what they're after."
That said, the sweet sweet fragrance of MTX profits can entice even the most resilient of noses. Maybe there was a change of plans. Maybe they don't consider level boosters to be "pay-to-win." Or maybe none of this is true and we're all speculating over nothing. (I've reached out both to Bungie and to other sources in hopes of getting clarification on this — I'll keep you guys updated as I know more.)
A number of fans and gaming sites have made a big stink about this whole thing, but really, anyone who actually plays Destiny knows that these particular consumables would not have much of an effect on the game. Even if Bungie does start selling level and subclass boosters, all they're offering is a way for new players to hit the endgame faster or experiment with alternate characters. This is not uncommon in MMORPGs — World of Warcraft, for example, sells instant character boosters that give you stacks of experience, gear, and food.
The bigger concern, fuelled by the current gaming climate, is that Bungie has now opened Pandora's Box. By launching a microtransaction store, the folks behind Destiny have signalled that all options are on the table. Right now it's just dances, but soon it could be level boosters. And what's next? High-light armour? Guns? Do we trust Activision to maintain sanctity and refuse to sell anything that could affect the balance of high-level play?
That's what this is about. Trust. When jumping into something like Destiny — an all-encompassing, life-consuming game — players need to be able to trust that they're not wasting their time. We need to know that the developers are as committed to this thing as we are. Players who have played Destiny since day one stuck with it because we recognised that Bungie built the foundation of something great, and we put faith in them to eventually fix what they'd gotten wrong. With The Taken King, Bungie rewarded that faith. And with the microtransaction store, they have got us uneasy again, evoking that malaise that's been slowly building thanks to a culture of Assassin's Creed treasure chests and FOB insurance and all the other bullshit that's become as much a fixture of gaming as Mario's overalls and Valve's hats.
Maybe — hopefully! — Destiny's microtransactions will stick to cosmetics and, sure, whatever, even experience boosts. But those of us who have stuck to the game will now have to trust that Activision and Bungie don't take things too much further. That's a lot to ask.