So as I've been playing through Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in the past couple of weeks there have been a few discussions on the Bombcast and forums about the microtransactions in Dead Space 3 and how they impact the gameplay. The question that keeps coming up is that if a game is properly balanced and can be enjoyed without buying anything extra, does it impact your play experience if the game also has microtransactions.
Ni No Kuni is a nicely streamlined JRPG experience that still has the need for some degree of grinding in order to progress. I'll admit that when its properly done, I actually enjoy grinding. It does need to be balanced with fun gameplay and there needs to be a solid reward at the end of the tunnel, but I don't think there's anything intrinsically bad about a game that requires some amount of grinding.
However, as I was happily grinding away in Ni No Kuni while listening to the Bombcast, the Dead Space 3 discussions came up and I had to stop and think, how would it affect me if Ni No Kuni was exactly the same game it is now, but it also had microtransactions that would double my experience or give me new leveled up familiars. What if I could pay a buck or two to remove the need to grind?
Traditionally within a game optional activities are flagged as such and will yield optional rewards if you decide to do them. If the game is a good game, it will give you a solid reason within the world of the game why you might want to go for optional stuff. The choice you are left to make is "Do I want to do X (grind) in order to get Y?" and it's a yes or no response. What microtransactions do is give you an optional method to get Y. So now instead of just deciding if you want to go for the extra stuff, you also get to choose how you want to get there--and the kicker is that now one of your options exists outside the game world. It's not a question of "do I want to grind to level up my fighter or grind level up my wizard in order to beat the optional boss" it's now a question of "Do I want to grind level up my fighter or pay two dollars to beat the optional boss". And what that does is that now in order to decide the value of the choice, you have to convert both options into the same world. And so in order to compare you have to convert "grind to level my fighter" into real-world units, which usually ends up being time. So now you're asking, is two hours of my real-world time worth two dollars of my real-world money. And the problem with that is that even before you can answer that question, you've already lost. You are no longer playing and enjoying a game, you are now thinking about time and money and effort and what worth anything has, and you've just ruined your entire play experience.
I remember a professor telling me once that you can dissect and dismember a horse and lay out every piece on a giant tarp and study and catalog every bit so that you can truly understand how a horse works--but the irony is that that horse itself is no longer a horse. You cannot ride it. Gaming can also exist I that precarious place that there is always a danger that if you allow yourself to think about some aspects of it too much, you can break the enjoyment of the game. To continue with the horse analogy, you can pay real money to buy that Horse Armor, but the moment you do you will realize that it doesn't do anything, and no one else can see it because it's a single player game, and oh my god what have I done! The horror, the horror.