Wednesday, February 19, 2014

About Microtransactions

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor discusses the evils of microtransactions and how it has changed attitudes and practices in the game industry.

Microtransactions have completely fucked the game industry. But first, a couple explanations: for those who may not be aware, microtransactions (also known as "in-game purchases") are most rampant in casual games like Angry Birds Go or Candy Crush Saga, but they exist in more hardcore titles too like Grand Theft Auto Online or Gran Turismo 6. Initially a bridge to cross the gender gap and get more women interested in gaming, casual games tend to be on mobile platforms like smart phones and tablets, though it's not uncommon for them to be in the browser, like Facebook games. Casual gamers tend to only play for a few minutes at a time, and because of this time constraint, developers have dulled down the difficulty, or in some cases, taken it out entirely. This means that casual gamers lack the patience and tenacity hardcore gamers have developed over the years.

Games containing microtransactions are also usually free to download and start playing, and make the purchase system as easy if not more so than the game itself, which fits in perfectly with the parameters of their demographic. And studios are preying on that. Hard. Years ago, microtransactions were usually just for vanity items (different colored armor, etc), but with casual games, you can buy lives, levels... in some you can even buy "beating the game". Yes, that's just what it sounds like. And the cost is usually triple digits, in actual, real world money. And people pay!

"Surely you're just raging and this doesn't actually affect gameplay," you think. "Is just an added feature, if anything at all." Ha! Oh how I wish.... The advent of microtransactions has completely altered everything about the game industry. Yes, money exchanged hands from the beginning, and yes, studios and publishers were businesses. What I'm talking about here, though, is nothing short of Pandora's box. See, people saw the first harmless little microtransactions bring in money and thought it was a decent idea. It was earning a little extra money, money that could go straight into development and help create better games. But, as is human nature, greed kicked in. Soon, developers began to lose their sense of shame and added more and more of these microtransactions to their games. Then, it stopped being just an extra feature. Games began to launch that were nothing more than money-makers; games whose core was microtransactions, and the gameplay was merely a skin. Studios began to employ psychologists to wring out every little penny, and even made some targeted specifically for children to use their parents' credit cards. This in itself had kind of broken the unwritten rules of game development (you know, where players and the experience come first), but oh, it gets worse. Now it's common to find studios who are just re-skinning games and pricing them as if they're new, and indies have mostly abandoned the creation of new in favor of using free assets found online to create the same abominations you see out of King or Zynga... It is everywhere.

You could almost think of it as a real-life Dark Souls, really: the world is in this money-grubbing chaos, and the industry is about to collapse. In order to save the world as we know it, we must defeat microtransactions in both the lands of hardcore and casual gaming. Once we've cleansed these areas, we must fight our Gwyn: greed.

We are in for one hell of a fight.

[This article originally appeared on Gabby Taylor's blog, Journey to Game Design.]

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.


Gregory Avery-Weir said...

Microtransactions have not "completely altered everything about the game industry." Indies have not "mostly abandoned the creation of new in favor of using free assets found online to create the same abominations you see out of King or Zynga."

Steam and shelves are full of new games without microtransactions beyond traditional expansions/DLC. The IGF had hundreds of original entries without microtransactions, and there are many more indie titles made every day using everything from Twine and Puzzlescript to Unity and bespoke code.

Hyperbole and impassioned preaching can be an effective tool in a rant or manifesto, but this piece goes beyond that into absurdity.

Bud Leiser said...

2nd-ing the above reply. :)

Gabby Taylor said...

I can only speak to my own experience, and I've seen that nearly everyone who publishes to the mobile platforms include at least some microtransactions (if they don't outright design around them!). This is a common enough practice that there are conventions centering around how to squeeze every possible penny out of each game (Casual Connect is a big example).

I specified indies because they are especially bad about this (understandable, as they are trying to make a living off it, whereas those working AAA don't get paid quite so proportionally from it).

As for DLC: I believe that it does cross into the same moral territory as microtransactions when you purposefully release a game that is only partially developed, and then release the rest as DLC (a la season passes, day one DLC, etc).

As for the use of free assets in these games, I have personally known several developers who have done this, and have heard of countless more. There are forums dedicated to tearing games apart to use their assets in other games (I've seen many, many games using Mount & Blade assets, as well as those of Arma, TF2, GTA, and a great many other titles). These places openly market themselves as a service "by and for the developers looking for a quick, easy buck". Look at several Facebook and mobile games, and you'll notice that several of them have startling similarities to popular games. On the same note, many games overseas are direct copies of several popular stateside games.

I understand that this sort of thing may be upsetting, since as developers our livelihood comes directly from how well these games fare financially, but being unwilling to see that there are many of us who will do anything to milk every penny out with as little work as possible is just naive. If we want any hope of making games about fun while keeping the lights on, we must first acknowledge the problem.

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