We Sure Got Used To Microtransactions And DLC, Huh

We Sure Got Used To Microtransactions And DLC, Huh
Photo: Matt Cardy, Getty Images
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There once was a time — around when Bethesda had the idea to sell armour for a horse back in 2006 — that the prospect of buying a video game then paying more money for stuff in the same game would prompt outrage.

When they first started showing up during the PS3/Xbox 360 years it felt like microtransactions and downloadable content were a fundamental threat to the way we bought and enjoyed video games, and if you spent any time on forums at the time you’d recall they were deeply unpopular moves. For those interested in keeping this kind of money-grubbing intrusion out of their games, this was, in many ways, the opening exchange in a war, something that had to be resisted at all costs.

Seven years of the PS4 and Xbox One era, which launched with in-game purchases already part of the landscape but still finding their feet, sure ground the life out of that fight.

The FIFA series has been at the vanguard of everything that's popular — and wrong — about modern in-game purchases. (Image: EA Sports) The FIFA series has been at the vanguard of everything that's popular — and wrong — about modern in-game purchases. (Image: EA Sports)

In the late 2000s it used to be some of the biggest news of the year when a fighting game would offer some extra characters, or Call of Duty would try and sell you some new maps. Partly for the news itself, sure, but also for the accompanying unrest.

The arguments against this practice were sound: we’d already paid for this game, stop charging us more money for stuff! If you were making more stuff, just put it on the disc and give it to us all at once, like the good old days.

The arguments for this practice were…also sound, in that nobody was being forced to buy anything, a pipeline of additional content could keep a game active and relevant for years and the extra revenue companies were raking in from microtransactions were contributing to game prices having stayed relatively stable for over a decade.

Now, in 2020, after we’ve just completed our first full console cycle with in-game purchases as standard, we’re numb to it. The NBA 2K series is now built around microtransactions at its heart, then some basketball is squeezed in around the edges, and while there are still loads of complaints every year, there are also millions of sales. Shooters will ship with some maps and game modes, then release more of them later, and get you on the hook for all of it up-front with season passes.

Then there are games like Rockstar’s two big releases (or re-releases) of the past console generation, Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2, which were able to pivot entirely from being epic singleplayer adventures at launch to cash-hungry online playgrounds years down the line.

This stuff is a lot “worse” than a horse trying to protect itself, but the outrage, if it ever arrives at all these days, is rarely as pointed as it used to be, or is at least targeted towards specific missteps (more on that soon), not the practice itself. In 2020 microtransactions aren’t a threat, they’re just part of what video games are now. Prolonged exposure to the practice has dulled opposition, and the proliferation of mobile games and their free-to-play model has influenced publishers and developers across every platform, not just on phones.

What does this tell us? I don’t know! I think, though, that the practice has become so sharp, so plugged into the psychology of spending and feeling good, that it has become an irresistible revenue stream for companies who are in the business of making money, and that as companies get smarter about how elegantly they can implement these practices, the more successful they become. Even Nintendo, long opposed to ideas like microtransactions and F2P, now make mobile games and sell Smash Bros. DLC.

If you ever thought you were fighting a war against this stuff, you had already lost, because there was never a war in the first place. Protesting microtransaction’s creep into the fundamentals of game design wasn’t a fight, it was like standing on the beach and shouting at the tide. The gears of the market grind ever onward, an irresistible force.

A lot of this has been pretty terrible, and there has been backlash in some places, from FIFA’s loot boxes — currently being legislated to hell and back in Europe — to Battlefront II’s crates, which were so egregious that the publisher was forced to walk them back (but only a little). I’m listing two obvious examples here (both from the same publisher!) for the sake of brevity, but I’m sure you’d have no trouble naming your own worst offenders.

Yet there’s something to be said for games designed with later purchases in mind from the outset, and their immense popularity and commercial success. Resistance to the idea of in-game purchases is mostly based around the idea you’re being charged further for content that could/should have been in the main game (and original purchase), but games like Hitman, which offered up “episodes” like a TV show would sell seasonal box sets, showed there were ways to ask repeatedly for money and not come off like an arsehole.

League of Legends is free to play, with most purchases being cosmetic items. Same goes for rival DOTA, and while Overwatch isn’t free, it’s in-game purchases are usually just skins. Fortnite, too, is free and follows a similar business model (albeit one that has lately made the game as much of an ad space as something you play), and those are four of the biggest games on the planet.

Genshin Impact is another game trying out new stuff in this field. Its “half-Zelda, half-F2P phone game nightmare” composition may not be as universally popular as Hitman’s, but it is at least trying to find new spaces with which to experiment. And then there’s the DLC of the past generation, once derided, but now in many cases refined and much more welcome. The Witcher 3’s enormous additional quests could have been sequels, Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters was fantastic and the Destiny games have been radically changed with each expansion, just to name three (again, you can probably all come up with your own list of favourites).

The ever-changing nature of games like this are also evidence that microtransactions were never an intrusion on a codified pattern of game design in the first place. Their emergence was just the latest step in the video game business changing to reflect, for better or worse, the wider economy, its technological advances and its need for constant growth, just as store-bought console games had followed on from quarter-guzzling arcade cabinets.

As the era of the PS4 and Xbox One draws to an end, then, we’re left looking out over a gaming landscape where, thanks the dominant console games like FIFA, Battlefield and Call of Duty being built with additional payments at their core, the video game industry has changed dramatically, and much of the medium’s creative output along with it.

Microtransactions, DLC and F2P are no longer intrusions, or aberrations. They’re just the new normal.

Comments

  • DLC is the best thing to happen to gaming. It’s not like they didn’t exist before, they were just called Expansions and had to be bought separately, physically. The FEAR Extraction Point expansion is an example of a great one. Now it’s as easy as a few clicks, there’s nothing not to like about getting more of a game you love and a way for developers to provide that without having to try to justify and fund a full sequel. The Bioshock Infinite Burial at Sea DLC’s were basically a whole new sequel themselves. Microtransactions can die in a fire though.

  • DLC is great.
    Microtransactions are the opposite of that. Something i never touch outside of F2P games, and even then i havent done any in quite some time.

    • I have bought plenty of DLC and Complete/Gold editions… I like more content in the games I loved to play.

      But never Microtransactions with real money. Never ever, just knowing a game has a predatory level of MTX like time gating or loot boxes will turn me off the whole game, maybe even the developer as a whole.

      • Exactly!
        Only $ ive spent in microtransactions was in the first 6 months of Pokemon Go.
        Will often get complete/Gold editions.
        Though in saying that, theres a few developers who are sure making the bang for your buck DLC editions worse with every new game.
        Im looking at You Ubi/gearbox.

  • I remember when microtransactions really started creeping in and there was a vocal minority yelling to “vote with your wallet” and places like reddit saying how they “won” in such fights like the changes within battlefront 2. Yet in reality, franchises like FIFA, COD, and any other AAA company/ punblisher that implements microtransactions have higher units sold every year. As well as such f2p games like fortnite implementing their microtransactions as skin “currency” for youths who want to brag as schools about having the latest skin due to FOMO.

    At this point it it makes me wonder what’s next? To which i have a feeling it will be video games within subscription services built around that model and implementing huge microtransactions.

    • The problem with “vote with your wallet”… is microtransactions in AAA full price games are profitable with only 2-4% of players buying them cause of “Whales”, who spend hundreds and thousands of dollars a year.

      In a free2play games, the “vote with your wallet” the expectation is an average player will spend maybe $10-20 a month in leiu of a subscription. (Ie they pay the same for netflix) Which most players can self-justify as a bargain… but the profit is still to get that 2-4% whale money.

      When you only need small % vote to win, the people lose to big money.

      • The insidious part is that most of the value those whales get from their purchases is to play against the the 96-98% of people who haven’t spent to get those advantages.

        It’s not always clear that levelling the playing field and asking everyone to pay the same would bring in as much income.

      • The other problem is it’s incredibly hard to actually make the point reach the decision makers when we vote with our wallets. We tend to imagine crystal clarity when it comes to decision making here but most of the time it boils down to someone’s gut and how they think the market is going to look two years after the game launches.
        If they think lootboxes are the future, and they jam them into their next AAA game, and that game fails, they can still walk away insisting that the few lootboxes sold saved an otherwise doomed project from being a total failure.
        Even when it’s undeniable that lootboxes were the problem a hefty chunk of decision makers will shrug and say ‘oh well, I was still right, I’m just ahead of the curve, better do the exact same thing the next time’.

        Granted as gamers we do the same thing. We’ll chalk Battlefront’s failures up to lootbox backlash but there were so many other problems going on there.

  • DLC has essentially been a thing since the early 80s. It just went under the name “Expansion pack”.

    DLC or expansion packs are great. They add more content to the base game and increase its longevity. Microtransactions on the other hand are not.

  • Micro-transactions can die, but I’m also not a huge fan of DLC, although not for the reasons listed here. I still have DLC for some games I loved that I’ve never got round to playing, a perfect example is Horizon Zero Dawn. I played the base game when it came out, completed it and then moved on. The DLC releases later, I buy it, but not having played the game for months and there being a dozen games in-between I felt I needed to start the game all over again to get the hang of it. Which I keep telling myself I will do… some day. But in the meantime new games I want to play keep being released.

    Three years later…

    • Ubisoft is horrible for this. $10-$15 for a gear pack. What a joke. Odyssey has over $200 in MTX. Stuff that could be sold for $1 each and still make millions, mostly because a lot more people seeing that it’s pretty cheap

  • Its fine for me as an adult to avoid games with pay to advance features, do a bit of research on what DLC will be released and make an informed decision before buying a game. I’ve only bought a few DLC for my favourite games and haven’t spent a cent on microtransactions.

    As a parent, I am dreading when they reach gaming age, as I’ve seen friends with older kids posting on Facebook about how much Vbucks they’ve had to buy, I’m sure kids get teased if they only have default skins in other games, or get left out if they haven’t got the latest season pass.

  • “an irresistible revenue stream for companies who are in the business of making money.” – this. There’s companies that make games, and companies that make money, by making games. The latter are almost entirely responsible for the bullshit we see in the microtransaction space.

    • Yeah thats how I see it as well. Not all DLC is good. DLC released in the first month after a games release is a cash grab for example. Why isnt that in the base game? Added features locked behind a paywall, ditto.

      Full expansions 6 months later, not a problem. Even if they’re only a few hours more, its a valid product. Borderlands sort of stuff springs to mind. But when its something thats hidden behind the money solely because they see it as a captive market, no.

      Battle passes are something I cant stand. You’re paying for a base game, then from day one you pay for access to that base games content. Thats not right.

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