In-Game Purchases Poison The Well

Illustration by Sam Woolley

Video games will always manipulate us. Each challenge and scenario in a game has been carefully engineered to make us react a certain way. Most of the time, that's what we sign up for. But the moment real money enters the equation, something changes.

In-game purchases, also known as microtransactions, have been at the heart of several colossal fan freakouts over the past few months. Last Friday, Destiny 2 developer Bungie changed the game's experience points system after players discovered it was invisibly throttling their progress, which among other things slowed the pace at which they could earn loot boxes they'd otherwise have to pay for.

A week before that, Star Wars Battlefront II ignited a furious online backlash after pre-release coverage revealed that the game's purchasable loot boxes contained power-ups that made you more effective on the battlefield. A month earlier, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War courted similar controversy with a convoluted loot box scheme that gave players gear and soldiers for their Orc army.

September's NBA 2K18 was so riddled with microtransactions that it significantly detracted from the experience of playing it. Less controversial fall games like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Origins still gave players an option to pay extra money for better in-game gear.

The debate about in-game purchases predates any of those games.

Way back in 2009, my boss, Stephen Totilo, wrote of a microtransaction-laden Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles spin-off: "Is there a dirty trick being played here on gamers? Who knows. There is the possibility. That stinks enough." Today we're still asking that question, even if the particulars have changed.

Viewed up close, the differences between the microtransactions in each of the fall games I mentioned above are manifold and relevant. Randomised loot boxes are inherently more exploitative than direct purchases.

"Pay-to-win" systems that give tangible gameplay advantages are more of an obvious problem than systems that revolve around cosmetic items. Microtransactions in full-priced games leave a more bitter taste than in free-to-play games. Zoom out a bit, however, and those differences matter less. Whatever form in-game purchases take, their mere existence damages the trust between people who play games and people who make them. Like Stephen wrote in 2009, the possibility of dirty tricks stinks enough that the tricks themselves are almost beside the point.

Every game with a microtransaction system is a player revolt waiting to happen.

That's more true of full-priced games than free-to-play ones, but making a game free doesn't necessarily make players feel any less taken advantage of. To see that in action, look no further than Destiny 2, whose Eververse microtransaction hub was generally seen as innocuous until last week's XP revelations. Seemingly overnight, the grumbles of few players about the Eververse amplified into a roar.

The reason is simple: Whenever some aspect of the game is locked behind a real-money paywall, every decision the developers make will be suspect. All games are designed to make us feel one way or another, and most operate according to calculations and algorithms that are hidden from the player's eye. But when real money is involved, those hidden systems take on a more sinister quality. In the wake of the Destiny 2 blow-up, I've seen a common refrain from its players: What else aren't they telling us?

Microtransactions have become so prevalent in mainstream video games that it's easy to forget what unnatural appendages they are. They're not exactly "game design," are they? They're more of a marketplace experiment, albeit one that requires game design to function. It can be helpful to break the concept down to its basics, as a reminder of how in-game purchases can warp a player's relationship with a game.

Imagine a video game boss fight. It's this big monster that you have to beat, and he's really tough. He defeats you over and over again, because he's meant to test your abilities. You keep coming back, gradually learning his patterns and eventually overcoming him. After he goes down, you get a sweet new helmet. You equip the helmet and move on to the next challenge.

Now imagine the same boss fight, with one difference: If you want, you can just buy the helmet for $5. Just like that, the fight seems different. On your third or fourth death, you might begin to question the motives of the people who made it. Why is this boss so hard? Was he designed to be difficult in order to test your skill, or because the designers wanted you to eventually just give in and pay for the helmet? Is the game playing fair, or are you being manipulated?

Those two examples illustrate in the simplest terms the underlying problem with video game microtransactions. They will always have a detrimental effect on games, because they call into question a game's integrity. They may be immensely profitable, and thus a smart business move. They may make it possible for a development studio to stay in business and keep making games. They may even appeal to a subset of gamers who like being able to pay for extra goodies. But in exchange for all that, game developers must be willing to undermine the design of their game on a fundamental level.

Games are built on trust between the designer and the player. We agree to play by the rules and in doing so, agree to trust the people who devised them. That agreement forms the basis for the rest of our relationship with a game, however lengthy or fleeting it may be. In-game purchases call our trust into question.

Some games will add microtransactions the "right" way, and won't kick up much fuss. Others will get it "wrong," prompting the next great Internet backlash. Still others might start out ok before making a change for the worse, or vice-versa. The particulars will always be different. But the moment a player is given the option pay extra for something they'd otherwise have to earn, the damage is done.


    The thing is publishers will absolutely refuse to listen to their customers who do not want this shit in thier games.

    But it's a sad fact that there are huge amount of people who are ok with microtransactions and spending their money, didn't ubisoft come out recently and said that they made more money from MTs than actual game sales?

    The industry has found a new cash cow, unless people vote with their wallets, it won't change any time soon.

      Ubi's last earnings call put 'Recurring Player Investment' (a sanitized way of saying 'microtransactions', or MTX - which not long ago was a sanitized way of saying 'nickel and diming players to death') as half of their digital sales, but that doesn't include physical sales. Take-Two has been making more off it, with what they called, 'recurrent consumer spending opportunities' (my God these cunts make my fists itch) making up just under half of TOTAL revenue. This includes GTA and NBA2KXX. Rest in fucking peace, Red Dead Redemption 2.

      I haven't found data on EA's take from MTX, but did note that FIFA Ultimate 18 apparently took home the better part of a billion dollars on its own, somewhere around $780M in MTX. (Which, y'know.... for perspective: if divided equally between everyone who worked on the project would result in none of them ever having to work another day in their lives, as opposed to facing crunch and lay-offs.)

        EA's CFO, Blake Jorgensen, on the "success" of FIFA's Ultimate Team microtransactions (source):
        Like Battlefield or Battlefront ... we can possibly add a similar mechanic to that. We spend a lot of time thinking about it. Not for tomorrow, but over the next couple of years you’re going to see a lot more of that in our portfolio.

        You can kiss any hopes of EA ever producing a decent Star Wars game goodbye.

          You can kiss any hopes of EA ever producing a decent GAME (Star Wars or otherwise) goodbye. Like the guy said, they're planning to put this shit into EVERYTHING.

            I mean, looking at the EA games I've played in the last 5 years, I don't know why I keep giving them the benefit of the doubt. They haven't published a properly great game since ME3.

              I'm generally pretty happy with the Battlefield games (after a patch or two, at least), although that will likely end as soon as they get microtransactioned up the wazoo.

                "Generally happy"... I mean, Dead Space 3 was good, Crysis 3 was pretty, DA:I was okay, Titanfall 2's campaign was alright, but ME3 was probably the last game they produced that really impressed me.

                I'd be looking forward to Anthem if it were anyone but EA publishing it - it looks really neat, from the little that's been shown, but you just know EA are going to screw the playerbase somehow.

      This is my line in the sand. I never thought I'd give up on games, but honestly I can't support the business models being peddled by the publishers these days.
      Apart from giving publishers access to money, previously only known to casinos and drug dealers, there is no redeeming value for these businesses practices. They do not improve the game, infact they often impede or ruin it. They exploit customers psychologically.

      How can people support them

      I'm looking to become a father soon...
      I was looking forward to exploring one of my favourite hobbies with my children at some point down the line.
      I was going to be responsible and follow earn ratings, but also use games to help explain issues and help them achieve deeper understandings of the world we live in.

      Now I feel like I will have to protect my children from many of today's publishers. Publishers that have created some of the games that made me love the hobby in the first place.

        Hey No more lootboxes,

        I understand how you feel and 100% agree with you.

        I do have a great solution though, switch to board games. They have become amazingly fun lately, will teach your future kids lots of great things that we grew up with in digital games. They will also be able to get more human contact and better social skills, as well as you get to spend more 1 on 1 time with them which they will appreciate when they get older.

        I know board games sound dull, (I thought the exact same thing) but trust me they are actually really fun and interesting now. They're not monopoly or cluedo style games anymore, ( i wouldn't play those).

        Modern board games are like our past video games, and often share the same mechanics and themes. And best of all there's no dlc, gambling loot boxes or any of the predatory crap. I think mechanically, there wont ever be because it won't be possible.

        And being able to see the people you're playing game with is surprisingly fun.
        There's new exciting games released every year by big companies and indies too. It's great!

        Hope that helps.

          If you're not sure where to start , try a board game meetup, you can test out all the games you want and meet some really friendly people.

        Totally agree. If this garbage becomes standard in every game, I stop purchasing games. I've got enough backlog on Steam and GOG to last me years anyway.
        However, I'm hoping I can still rely on reputable companies like CD Projekt Red and Larian to provide decent single-player games without "recurrent consumer spending opportunities" (that amazes me.. they obviously know everyone hates microtransactions so they have to rename it).

    Publishers have already decided they're OK with abandoning integrity for the sake of literally doubling their profits.

    Sure does suck that they hold some of our favourite franchises and studios to ransom.

    there's an interesting dichotomy between real world sports and esports.

    Where in the real world there are many sports where it is expected to buy better gear or equipment to be able to perform better, and in some instances there are different classes that allow for higher budgets at higher tiers.

    would there be a place for an online shooter that had open class component that allowed for paid gear while having a closed class that required the gear to be earned?
    The publisher would seemingly get the best of both worlds, and area where people are okay with pay-to-win (lets face it, there must be some players who are if the DLC is being purchased) and an area where your skill is unquestionably the deciding factor.

    random Loot boxes can still die in a fire though.

      You vastly overstate the similarities between gear used to improve the chances of success in sports and buying in-game gear.

      A better analogy is buying performance enhancing drugs in sports, although regardless, all sports heavily regulate the type of gear that is useable to a very high degree.

      Typically, differences in equipment in sport exist because there are a wide range of manufacturers operating in the space and the sports governing bodies need to balance the need to maintain a competitive marketplace while offering players some capacity to use equipment, or make some sponsorship cash, consistent with their preferred play style.

      Another difference is that sport governing bodies and umpires rarely have any 'skin in the game'. They don't receive any particular increase in profits as a result of players using one item of equipment instead of another.

        you're mistaken that a dichotomy means similarity.

          I didn't make that assumption, I just ran with your usage instead of criticising your English skills. It's you who have posited two similarities.

          Your post claimed that buying better gear for better performance is a factor in sports, and is also a factor in esports. You then go on to speculate that paid perforemance enhancing gear in esports might be separately tagged as "earned" and "unearned" for the pupose of separating matchmaking.

          I also pointed out that you are demonstrably wrong in any practical sense in claiming that in sport competitors are "expected to buy better gear or equipment to be able to perform better".

          Perhaps you had intended to include a "not" in your second paragraph somewhere and this would then explain the use of "dichotomy" in your original comment?

            Your post claimed that buying better gear for better performance is a factor in sports, and is also a factor in esports. You then go on to speculate that paid perforemance enhancing gear in esports might be separately tagged as "earned" and "unearned" for the pupose of separating matchmaking.

            I did not mention buying gear as a factor in esports currently. I posed a question as to whether there is a place for it in the future that aligns with real-world sports though.

            I also pointed out that you are demonstrably wrong in any practical sense in claiming that in sport competitors are "expected to buy better gear or equipment to be able to perform better".

            would you take a kmart racket to wimbledon? a pair of dunlop volleys to the 100m sprint at the Olympics? a stock Honda civic to the WTAC or WEC open class? would an NRL team not spend any money on facilities for training and player health?
            or would all of those players and teams spend the most amount of their budget possible to increase their chances at winning? Would they be expected to do so by their fans and sponsors to the limit of what the rules allow?

            In the real world, there are different levels of advantage due to money in many sports. Definitely not all.

              Which is exactly why all sports, including all those you mention, have detailed regulations as to what technology is permissible to ensure that competitors can compete on a level playing field.

              I'm pretty sure that fans and sponsors would be quite upset if F1 McLaren Hondas were competing against Honda Civics, and nobody would wear dunlop volleys to a 100m sprint because dunlop volleys are a tennis shoe not a running shoe.

              Obviously some sports have a high cost of entry however, just like purchasing a computer game, it's essentially the same cost paid by everyone as a precondition of being able to compete at the highest level.

                You’re nuts if you think all of those sports are completely level with the same cost of entry for everyone. Especially F1.

      A open class with paid gear would be an odd beast, because anyone who is only putting a small amount of money into it would be at an immediate and massive disadvantage, compared to playing the closed class with a level playing field. Why would anyone who isn't splurging want to play in the open class?

    Fantastic read.

    I'm stocked we are talking about this constructively, without it devolving it to a mud fight about other issues.

    Kotaku's been smashing out of the park on this one.

    TBH, I'm fine with MTX as long as they actually produce a good game. Battlefront 2 for instance, added a wee bit more that BF1 however, single player campaign is still a 4 hour long hunk of sh** and multiplayer is what 9 maps of "yay a slightly improved BF1".

    If MTX funded FREE expansions and DLC, or even if they helped to fund the expansions considerably, so you didnt have to pay another $60 for 3 new multiplayer maps you would probably find it could help convince gamers to think it wasn't just lining the pockets of their fat CEOs

      In the case of Battlefront 2, the microtransactions are funding the DLC - all the DLC will be free, there's no season pass or anything.

      And I'd be fine with that as long as the loot boxes were purely cosmetic. It's when they impact game play, especially in a competitive game, that they cross the line. I don't give a toss about cosmetic items in a FPS - why would I when all I see is a pair of hands and a gun anyway. If someone else wants to pay a few bucks to give me a slightly different character model to shoot at, good luck to them. But when it gives them abilities that I don't have because they paid to unlock them and I didn't then it's a problem.

      I actually prefer the paid DLC model to this. If I choose not to buy the DLC, I just keep playing on the default maps against others who also didn't buy it or did buy it but are playing the default maps by choice. But it's still a level playing field - the people who bought the map packs don't have a competitive advantage over those who didn't.

        "Lootboxes are funding free DLC," is a marketing scam that frustrates the hell out of me.

        "Profits will be higher if we don't fragment the playerbase by who has DLC and who doesn't, thus lengthening the sales tail and server pop to increase expoosure to lootboxes as the primary post-launch revenue stream," might be more accurate, and part of how they internally decided to 'make DLC free', but being saddled with exploitative poker-machine-for-power bulshit wasn't some kind of necessary evil that players have to accept to 'fund' the the DLC.

        It's a fucking AAA Star Wars game released in anticipation of the next movie. The box price alone will more than cover the cost of development of the base game and all DLC the devs could ever dream up.

        This is the sneakiest bullshit that marketing has pulled in a while - somehow convincing players that fucking us with something significantly nastier is somehow a better deal than how they were fucking us previously.

          Pretty much this. They aren't funding "free" DLC with lootboxes as a favour to the players. They don't give a shit about the players.

          They did some analysis and decided it would be more profitable to do it this way. The only reason they don't have paid DLC and excessive lootboxes is because their analysis said that it was probably to risky to try it just yet ... but it's a safe bet they will go down that road as soon as they can.

    I think that microtransactions are structurally bad. It's not the idea of paying more for a game that throws me off, it's the specifics of how microtransactions tend to interact with games. They cause the game to be designed in ways that encourage the use of microtransactions, they undermine elements of challenge, and they take the place of more wholesome progression alternatives.

    I wouldn't revolt over paying $20 for a big-budget AAA single-player game, if it was justified by its content or its budget. I wouldn't object to a small subscription fee ($3 a month or so) for continued access to free-DLC shooters like Battlefront 2. The idea of paying more doesn't repulse me, but the microtransaction model absolutely does.

    Last edited 30/11/17 2:20 pm

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