Homo Solvens

I have a little pile of essays – half-complete, or little more than topics – and since I am overburned with free time I thought I should turn my attentions to them.

One of these was a blog post from two years ago, saved in my draft folder, containing nothing more than the title: “Microtransactions in Games.” Well, as they say – there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

For those of you blessed creatures who don’t know about this, here’s the skinny:

Some games – computer, console, tablet or smartphone – you pay for. You buy the DVD, or the cartridge, or you just pay to download them. Some games cost more, some cost less.

Some games are free. These are mostly games that you download or play in a browser. Either they were meant to be free, or they sold so poorly that they’re now being given away, or they are so old that it seems quite silly to charge for them.

Of the games that were meant to be free, some were just made by someone for fun and are released as such. Some are meant to showcase the creator’s talent, in the hopes that this will lead to other opportunities for them – one man’s free game is another’s free advertising. Some are so bad that nobody would ever ever charge for them.

And then there are some which are only mostly free. Games like World of Warcraft, which costs $0 to install but requires that you pay a monthly fee to play – the free game is like a free needle and spoon, but the smack they’re selling will still cost you. (I would draw a comparison to why Amazon’s ereaders are always on sale; even if they lose money on the sale of each Kindle, they make money on the ebooks that they are then able to sell through the Kindle Store.)

There are variations on the mostly-free model. There are games where the single player is free, but to play with strangers you have to pay a little extra, either as a one-time or as a monthly cost. Or there are games where the initial game is free, but the expansion packs cost money – which seems perfectly reasonable until you realize that there are also many games where the purchase of the base game entitles you to all future expansions and updates for free.

Then we get to the microtransactions, which I would define as “any opportunity to purchase, not a game or the ability to play it, but something within the game and the ability to play with it.”

The oldest example, I would argue, is the 900-number help line. Got stuck playing King’s Quest IV? You call a number and some kindly operator tell you how to get unstuck. You pay $.99/minute for the privilege.

Supporters of the paid help line noted that it let people solve puzzles that they couldn’t solve on their own – things that would otherwise prevent them from finishing the game. Detractors noted that you were basically paying for a game, and then paying more for the privilege of not playing it. Sierra’s directors were content to note that they were making more money from the help line than from sales of the game itself.

This was, essentially, paid cheating. This concept was advanced, particularly in free-to-play browser games, with the idea of purchasing treasure chests. Sure you could play the game, all the way through, and all for free… but if you wanted a little boost, a little shortcut, you could pay for it. Say it’d take you a week to earn a thousand gold. Instead, pay a dollar, and: presto! For some people, the exchange of real money for fake saved them time, aggravation, or both. It was a rational use of their money. Not the smartest, perhaps, but rational.

Then someone somewhere came up with the bright idea of making things in the game available only if you paid for them.

The first of these microtransactions were purely cosmetic – ‘aesthetic microtransactions’ – or, colloquially, ‘hats.’ The idea being: hey, you’re going to spends hours (if not hundreds) (if not thousands) playing a multiplayer game. People will see your avatar. They will see it every day. Is it worth it to you to spend a dollar to customize your avatar? Quite possibly. If it’s worth thousands of hours of your life, it’s worth a dollar, right? Some people spend a hundred dollars on a shirt that they won’t wear for a thousand hours. Some people spend a thousand dollars on a dress they’ll wear once. Sure this is just a pile of 0s and 1s, inherently nonscarce: but someone had to take the time to design the thing, implement the code, make sure it works in the game. And beside, this isn’t a thousand dollars. It’s just a buck. You can afford a buck. Right?

But there are some things that are more than hats. Some items or powers within a game make you better at the game. Ask any one who’s ever played a roleplaying game, digital or tabletop: Items Matter. Sure you could spend hours and hours camping a rare drop. Or you could spend a dollar and use all those freed hours to go outside and get fresh air and cure diseases and sleep with attractive people. That’s totally what you did, right? Right?

These weren’t cosmetic hats – these were ‘unlocks’. They actually let you be better at the game. They were cheating – they were cheat codes where you swiped a credit card instead of typing a phrase. “This big gun isn’t necessary to kill people, but it sure does make it easier” – as true in video games as it is real life.

And then we came to the final act: unlocks that were necessary to advance the game. A weapon that you needed to win, and to get it you needed to pay. “To open this door you must buy the Red Key!” – this is common, right now, in games. And not just in free games, either: to add insult to insult to insult, there are ‘necessary unlocks’ incorporated into AAA games which cost $69.99 to purchase. Making the purchase price of the game reflective of only a fraction of the necessary expenditure required to complete the game: meaning that the price you pay in the store is actually just a fraction of the true MSRP.

This is not only unnecessary, and unscrupulous, but it is also underhanded. You may well not know that the game you’re buying is only half the game until you’ve already bought it, gotten home, and maybe even played dozens of hours. This is absolutely no different from buying a new car, driving it for 10,000 miles, and then learning that you’ll need to pay half the purchase price to keep driving. And then, in ten thousand miles, half the purchase price again. Until you… get bored with driving?

There is one further egregiousness that must be mentioned: loot crates. You don’t pay for the thing you want; you pay for a crate which has a (say) 1 in 3 chance of containing the ‘hat’ or ‘unlock’. Or 1 in 10. Or 1 in Whatever They Say. This is artificial scarcity three layers deep. This is gambling, pure and simple.

Personally, I would never spend one thin dime on any of these things. But I’m not a good person to ask, since I haven’t paid for a game – or any other piece of software – probably in my entire life, come to think of it. And yet, if I paid full price for a game from the store, and found that it wanted more money from me, I would be very skeptical. If it wanted more money before I could complete the game, I would consider this highway robbery. I would be angry. I would demand my money back.

Enter EA.

This matter has recently come to a head in the case of Star Wars Battlefront II, made by Electronic Arts. This game contains pretty much all the elements listed above, from the fact that you can’t play as most actual Star Wars characters until you’ve paid preposterous amounts of money, to the fact that loot crates turns the whole adventure into Las Vegas unregulated by the Gaming Commission.

When asked about this, an EA employee gave the following response:

“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment[…]”

This is what games are supposed to offer – but by the playing of them, not by the pissing away of money.

It is thus not surprising that the comment quotes above is the single most downvoted comment in Reddit history; or that EA has lost (by all accounts) millions of dollars in cancelled preorders and promised boycotts; or that ‘loot crates’ are being investigated by some EU nations as a form of illegal gambling; or the fact that maybe, just maybe, people are beginning to wise up, and will voluntarily refrain from so poorly disposing of their money.


And yet, I could not call myself a business consultant without asking: is there such a thing as a good microtransaction?

After some skull-sweat, I have come up with the following types of microtransactions that I might consider to be worth the money:

-Undeveloped content. You like the game? Pay us more and we’ll make more of it! This is simply paid DLC in a nutshell.

Purely aesthetic content (‘hats’). They do not affect gameplay, nor do they unlock new elements of gameplay. They are cosmetic, and nothing more.

-Directed development. In a nutshell, this is the Kickstarter model grown within a game. Want to pay for the DLC? That’s fine. Knock yourself out. Want to determine what is in the DLC? If you pay for the privilege of choosing spaceship over submarine, or having a character named after your childhood iguana: throw us a few bucks and we shall make it so. These changes might be more than cosmetic; the differences are that, A) nobody would have to pay for them; B) they would, in the end, give everyone the same gameplay experience – no special treatment, no cheating, nothing unfair.

I should point out that there is limitless potential within these three areas. The only real problem is, it places the game designers and developers at the mercy of the players. However, if you consider this a problem, I would beg that you refrain from working in the gamespace – go out to pasture with John Romero and never program again.

Nonscarce content.

This, I think, is the most interesting idea. This would give people the opportunity to pay for things which are objectively worth paying for, insofar as they are of limited quantity and require actual cost to produce.

These things are traditionally known as ‘feelies’. These are the things that come in a game box, alongside the manual and the disc. These might include a booklet, with higher production values than a simple manual; a map of the game world; a little plastic such-and-such to keep on your desk; in short, any little tchatchke which an avid gamer might wish to purchase and keep; in short, a feelie is just a hat irl.

Most of these items are crap. But some are not – and there is no need for them to be. For everyone who has spent a thousand dollars on a hand-made copy of a sword from the Lord Of The Rings, there is no reason why that could not be associated with the Lord Of The Rings video game that they also assuredly play. Or a sword from Skyrim. Or a sword from WoW. Or a sword from whatever game you’ve just made. Life imitates art… or at least, something real is modeled after something that the game developer has already modeled.

Yet these are all examples of a real-world item being based on the game developer’s choice. The true potential, here, lies in the real-world item being based on the player’s choice.

The earliest example of this that I can think of are the photo stickers from Pokemon Snap. The game was about taking pictures. You chose your favorite, went to Blockbuster, and had them printed out.

This was recently aped by Firewatch, a stunning indie video game that is one part murder mystery and one part hiking simulator. The aesthetic seeks to answer the question “What if a 1940s National Parks poster were three-dimensional and you could walk in it?” I think the game is simply beautiful. And like Pokemon Snap, the game includes a built-in camera system: you bring the camera to your eye, you focus, you take the shot, and you even then spin the little wheel to advance the film. After you beat the game, you can print out any of the pictures you want – at a high definition, and for a reasonable fee.

But this, I say, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no reason that it need be limited to something so passive as appreciating the scenery. Let’s say there’s a game where you can customize your character’s facial appearance. No reason you couldn’t order a printout of your character’s face – or a computer-assisted oil painting – or a hand oil painting – or one of a hundred types of 3D models, to scale, full-size, from hot out of the MakerBot to chiseled from Catarra marble to… well, I’m not going to suggest ‘inflatable,’ but I expect that such an option would be as profitable as a loot crate. If not more so.

Anything that you can make within a game, could be available outside of the game. The more customization allowed by the game, the more fun it will be, and the more profit potential exists. A Lego set for your Fallout 4 settlement? A blacksmithing mini-game that yields an actual sword? The sky is the limit – and if you’re not careful, you won’t have just improved upon the microtransaction; you’ll have trained a bunch of people to use AutoCAD, and they will have had fun doing it.


~ by davekov on 9 December 2017.

2 Responses to “Homo Solvens”

  1. Have you seen FigurePrints? http://www.figureprints.com/wow/Help/FAQ.aspx

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