A Long And Hopefully Interesting Conversation About Microtransactions

If you’re looking for a lengthy, complicated, nuanced conversation about microtransactions in video games—and why they trigger so much rage—then you sure have come to the right place. That’s what this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen is all about.

First, Kirk and I briefly talk about our love for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a big, beautiful game with excellent writing, top-notch combat, and chaotic systems on top of chaotic systems. Then we bring on Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo for some in-depth microtransactions talk (21:43).

Stephen explains how the microtransactions in Odyssey actually work, Kirk elaborates on his ongoing theory of how in-game purchases poison the well because of a fundamental friction between game design and commerce, then we ask all sorts of related questions.

Why do $US60 ($85) games have microtransactions? What is it about ‘commerce design’ and its intersection with game design that can make us feel so ripped off? And what does this all mean for the future of gaming?

You can listen to the whole podcast here, but if you don’t have time for that, I’ve transcribed a lengthy excerpt below. (You really should listen to it all, though!)

Get the MP3 here. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt:

Jason: One of the reasons that I personally have been able to look past the microtransactions store [in Odyssey] and ignore it, beyond the fact that I haven’t felt the need to grind at all and I haven’t found the game too difficult in the 30 hours I’ve played—

Stephen: You’re playing normal or hard?

Jason: Hard. I switched halfway through on Kirk’s recommendation. I found it perfectly balanced and not grindy at all. But the thing I keep coming back to, and the thing I think makes for a distinction between people who have played the game and haven’t, is that for your $US60 ($85), you are getting something really massive. It’s not only a really good game, it’s a humongous game.

And even though I don’t really like to do this, if you’re the type of person who looks at value as correlated to the amount of time you get to spend in a game, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is just the best bang for your buck—this is a humongous game. I’ve seen just a fraction of it. So if you’re looking at the cost of video games over the past couple of decades and the fact that they haven’t changed, you’re getting a pretty good deal by spending $US60 ($85) on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Obviously these microtransactions exist because Ubisoft wants to make more money. It’s hard for me to resent a giant, publicly traded corporation for wanting to make more money. I think it’s important to critique microtransactions and talk about them and discuss them and evaluate whether they’re predatory or feel like they’re cheating you in some way. For me, playing this game, I do not feel like that.

I feel like, this is a great game first of all, but also the amount of stuff that’s in here, the amount you’re getting for your $US60 ($85), compared to other games, it’s just beyond.

Stephen: But you get why people are wary of the XP booster?

Jason: Yeah, of course, it raises that question, and plants that seed in your head, of ‘Is this really tough or tough because they want me to spend money?’ I would certainly be sceptical coming into this, and I was, knowing that the XP booster existed. But my personal experience is that I’ve been having such a good time with this game, and not even thinking about the XP booster. It hasn’t even occurred to me that I might want to use it.

Kirk: Setting [the XP booster] aside and looking at all the other things you can get: So there are all these versions of the game that were also sold, I don’t know how many. Eight or something like that. A thousand.

So this is Ubisoft’s standard practice, you can pre-order them all ... so [some versions included] early access, you could play it on Tuesday instead of Friday. In addition to that, there’s all this extra stuff you can get for paying extra for the game ahead of time that’s sort of in-line with the stuff you can buy in the store.

I think maybe part of the specific bad feeling that people get about this is something Stephen alluded to earlier, which is that none of that stuff actually seems worth it.

It dovetails with what you’re saying, Jason, which I agree with: the base $US60 ($85) version of this game is gigantic and full of amazing shit. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great game. You can just play that version of the game, not pre-order it, not get any of the microtransactions, and you get a ton of good stuff.

And actually, if you buy whatever $US80 ($113) in microtransactions, and you pre-order the $US100 ($141) version of the game, the extra say $US60 ($85), $US80 ($113) worth of stuff you get is vastly inferior to the stuff you get for the base game.

So there’s this feeling of, not only are they charging extra, they’re charging extra for piddly crap that actually sort of mostly sucks. That, also, I think makes people feel like this is manipulative. Because even if there are people who don’t care—“Yeah I like paying extra for stuff and I have a lot of money”—there’s still this feeling that you’re getting ripped off.

You already got this great game for $US60 ($85), why are you paying $US7.50 ($11) for a fucking horse skin? That also factors into this. Compared to, say, charging $US30 ($42) for maybe a really amazing Atlantis DLC pack full of new areas and missions and stuff.

Stephen: Right, if the game makers and their publisher are trying to establish a sense of good faith and good relations with the player, by saying ‘Hey, trust us, we’re giving you good value for your $US60 ($85),’ and then they’re also saying ‘By the way, here’s a $US7.50 ($11) horse thing.’ It’s very incongruent. It feels like I’m being told honest value here, and then being given dishonest value here.

I’m being given overly generous pricing on one and then underly generous pricing on another. It does of course raise this specter of: Is this them trying to do a dance to get around the fact that they probably should be charging more than $US60 ($85) to sell a game that had this many people working on it? Who knows—we probably need to know much more about Canadian tax law to understand how much it actually costs Ubisoft to make these games.

But that’s where I think a lot of this stuff swirls around from, is this sense that there isn’t a value. Of course, Ubisoft says, and I’m wondering what you guys made of this, that XP booster wasn’t influential in the design of the game; if you find the game too tough, you can just lower the difficulty. And they’re using that as proof that the XP booster can’t be a thing that was designed on top of throttled progression. Does that logic hold up to you guys?

Kirk: I think that is a fairly strong response. I think it has one issue in that there’s a slight incongruence in the two systems they’re talking about, which are difficulty and speed at which you move through the game. Those need to be viewed on separate axes.

Yeah, if you find the game too hard you can just kick it down to easy ... but it doesn’t quite hold up when I just put it down and think about it, because changing over to easy and blasting through content with no challenge isn’t the same as getting more XP from doing a single quest and therefore getting more abilities faster. Those are just two different experiences.

From what I’ve read—Chris Plante at Polygon wrote about this, a few people have talked about this, saying, ‘Hey I used the XP booster and it made the game more fun for me.’

Which, fair. I haven’t used the XP booster so I don’t know. But that is a different experience [Ubisoft] is describing. Blasting through the game on easy could be very unsatisfying. Playing the game on hard but just getting abilities and levelling up faster is just not quite the same thing.

So while I think it’s an OK response, it isn’t the same. They’re countering one experience with another, different experience.


Jason: My final thought is basically that. I tweeted about this the other day, and got some irate reactions because I said I didn’t even think about the microtransactions in the game, and I was critiquing the YouTube climate of just getting in front of a camera and screaming about how every microtransaction is predatory, which I certainly don’t believe.

I think it’s important to have nuanced conversations about these things. But yeah, as I’m playing the game, the question is always going to be there, and that kind of ruins the integrity of the game, is you having to wonder, ‘Oh man, is this really supposed to be tough? Am I getting played here?’

It makes me wonder if it’d just be more honest for these companies to be like, ‘Hey we’re gonna charge you $US80 ($113) for this game’ and that’s the end of it and they won’t put anything like this in.

Is that gonna happen? Who knows, maybe, it was one of my predictions this year. But ultimately this is a great game and I’m enjoying it a lot and not thinking about the microtransactions, so that’s why I said that: I want more people to play this game because I’m really glad I did.

Stephen: I want to point out one other thing. Ubisoft classifies the XP booster and the maps you can get and the money booster as time savers. To some people that might be a euphemism, but that’s something.

In the same way that the cost of these things impacts you differently depending how much disposable income you have, and it’s way more stressful to be confronted with these things if you don’t have money to potentially splurge on these than if you do. But there’s also, how much time do you have? I did hear back from some people who said, ‘I appreciate this option exists in this game because I don’t have the time.’

Other people said, well, they should just let you change the XP gain for free.

I was thinking about what Kirk said about multiplayer games, and how there are certain things that aren’t allowed in multiplayer games, because god forbid they allow you to just pay to have a cool weapon. And that leaves a person like me, who doesn’t have enough time to get really good at multiplayer shooters - because I’ve got kids, which I have to mention on every podcast, it’s obligatory - I don’t have time to get good at that stuff.

So I don’t want to mess up the balance of the multiplayer games you’re all playing. But I don’t have the time that you all either have or have willed yourself to have for this. And so I’m excluded. And so from that perspective, when there are opportunities possibly to transfer time into money, I’m not always against that concept.

And there need to be fair ways that is offered, in ways that don’t seem skeevy and don’t raise the question of whether everyone’s play experience has been deprecated in order to sell this thing. But the idea of translating time into money is a thing you will encounter, I find that I’ve encountered the older I get—the less time I have left, I guess; that’s morbid—what ways can I pay.

Jason: But it raises the question of like, if you have to pay to not play parts of a game, then what are you even doing with the game in the first place?

Stephen: But if a Destiny or another shooter creates an elaborate grind to get something that I don’t have to do...

Jason: Yeah, I’m thinking about Destiny specifically—would I pay $US10 ($14) to get ready for the raid? And then I think, ‘Oh my god, that’s gross, I hope they never even think about adding something like that’ because it creates this artificial impediment. Kirk, do you have any final thoughts?

Kirk: Yeah, to actually come down somewhere on this instead of analysing it: I think in the end, the problem here is a multipronged problem with design. You asked before: Are all microtransactions bad? I think my answer is actually maybe yes.

I think the problem is the “micro” part of it. People [who sell games] are always going to be looking for a middle ground. I think the people who make games will always be making some kind a compromise, and nobody will ever ever entirely happy with any decision they make, so they always have to decide, OK, what’s our threshold?

Are people going to get so mad at us that we pull a Shadow of War, and completely rip out all the microtransactions to try to get players back? Or is it gonna be that they’re kinda mad, but it’s like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where the game is still successful?

I think my preference would be for there to be less anger, and I think for that to happen it’d have to move away from the “micro” part of it and more towards just transactions. Bigger, more easily understandable transactions, and less of this atomised, systematised, designed commerce to encourage me to make all these purchases. That is exhausting and frustrating, and I don’t even have a huge stake in this.

For people who really care, it must be infuriating, and that to me is a real problem. The overwhelming rage about this subject that I see tells me that something is off in the way [game companies] are doing it.

Jason: Oh yes.

Kirk: Maybe the solution then is what you said, Jason. Just charge more for games, and get this shit out of there.


    A game needs to feel complete without it's DLC. DLC should always feel like it's adding more to the game, not rebalancing what's there.

    Any time a company wants me to pay to 'skip the grind' that tells me the design has been put aside in order to make people pay. Xp boosters are definitely something they could put in the core game, and can't say they have to charge for it because it took a bunch of extra programmer/artist time.

    Things like paying $10 for a horse skin seems silly to me, but also utterly harmless. If someone really wants to spend that then I have no problem with it. It's clearly something the game doesn't need, but if it employs a few artists and makes some players happy then sure, go for it.

    'Skip the grind' transactions are only acceptable in free-to-play games since that is there entire business model and they don't owe you a balanced game if you haven't given them any money.

    "Paying extra to play the game early" is really "paying extra to NOT play the game late".

    I'm mostly of the opinion that a game should be the game in it's entirety. However much it costs, that should be the one and only total price to play that game fully.

    Any cosmetic stuff that gets added for a price, sure, I'll never spend money on that but it doesn't stop me fully enjoying the game.

    But when you have to pay to get xp to unlock abilities quicker, or pay to win in online multiplayer, I hate that and will actively avoid games that have those transactions.

    Jury is still out on DLC, I don't like it in principle but have bought season packs for some of my favourite games!

    The XP booster thing annoys me... If only because people automatically assume the game was intentionally altered to be grindy to sell XP boosts, as well as a lot of the same people making those assumptions do so without even playing the game.

    There is so much to do in Odyssey it is absurd... I was 50 before I was half way through the map without using any XP boosts.

    And so far all the "I had to grind! This game is designed to sell XP boosts!" complaints I have seen have been from people who chose to ignore like 3/4 of the game in regards to side quests, exploring, etc, and just wanted to blow through the main story quests in record time.

    On that note also, I'd point out that even something like The Witcher 3 (which is held up as the gold standard for games like this) has the same "Too low level to do this... You should stop ignoring side quests, go level up some more and come back later." setup and yet nobody lost their shit and started screaming about how grindy it was.

      Its a psychological prod tho... for folks who enjoy grindy games its not an issue..

      But for most folks the very presence of a "skip" will usually implant a small pyschological seed that i can "skip" this part. And this prod basically excacerbates as someone plays and then gets disengaged from boredom... is it grindy because it IS grindy? Or do you feel its grindy because there is the "skip" option available?

        Or do you feel its grindy because there is the "skip" option available?
        That right there nails it I think, and is what I fully expect is actually going on in a lot of the complaining.

        If there was no XP boost or 'skip' many would likely think nothing of the so-called 'grind'. That and these days people want everything "Now, now, now!" which likely doesn't help the matter either.

        And for what it's worth, I fully expect if Witcher 3 had such a 'skip' people would quite likely level the same complaints at it.

    Even by level 15 I was starting to get five levels over somethings i was doing. With not enough time in the day to do all the things i could do for XP. I saw things like the review from the normally okay Skillup, and felt angry watching it. On one hand he was complaining that he was being forced to grind, on the other he was hating on side missions and that he normally wont do that, yet on another hand he was also hating on the fact that the map was so huge, you never spent time knowing them before moving on, so it should have been smaller.

    So the big map is full of things to do, but he didnt want to do all the things that populated it, so he was roadblocked BY HIS CHOICES but thought this was thoroughly on purpose and the microtransactions were part of grand conspiracy to make people buy XP potions. If he had played the side missions, xp wouldnt be an issue, and if he did them, the huge world he thought was too empty might have been fleshed out, and this drive to buy microtransactions wouldnt even be a thing. Seen so many youtubers conplaining about this. It makes no sense.

    There is not a single part of me that is concerned by them in this game. There is no constant flashing BUY BUY BUY every time I log in. I keep forgetting that they are a thing. I am not running short on xp, loot, or motivation.

      If Odyssey had origins style side quests i would understand the grind complaints. But odyseey has hugely improved the side quests. They are actually animated now, Its not just your character standing infront of an npc while dialog plays.

      There is also no more "grab this person from an enemy camp and carry them right outside the came where they will suddenly regain the ability to walk"

    Hmmmm. If a gaming giant like Ubisoft showed their financial numbers and proved beyond a doubt that what we pay for games isn't covering all their expenses, then AND ONLY THEN would I be happy with a $10/$20 bump in price for the COMPLETE GAME. All DLC, all the bells n whistles. I would definitely feel less ripped off if it played out like that. Til then, microtransactions can GTFO.

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