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The Guns of Navarro: Would You Like Another Microtransaction?

Alex wanders through the wild and woolly hinterland of microtransactions, only to come away with an all-too-familiar feeling.

When a publisher like EA says things out loud to its various investors, there is a habit among the gaming audience (the press included) to seize onto whatever sounds even remotely insidious. This is, of course, because EA has become our favorite punching bag of late. Thanks to a series of strange, sometimes blatantly consumer-unfriendly decisions over recent years, we apparently don't like EA very much these days. Actually, I'm really quite fine with them, but I recognize them for what they are: business people. EA has ample creative talent, but it has taken up a similar mantle to Activision, one of profit through whatever nefarious-sounding means their marketing and revenue people can dream up. Activision still holds a similar title, but it has been doing this kind of thing for so long that any ugly decision the publisher makes is now greeted with little more than a casual shrug. EA though, EA is still somewhat freshly offensive, which leads to a lot of people freaking out when they do things like, say, announce that they're embracing microtransactions for all games going forward.

People have expressed irritation with new microtransaction models, like Dead Space 3's weapon crafting system. There are reasons to be concerned, but we shouldn't freak out yet.
People have expressed irritation with new microtransaction models, like Dead Space 3's weapon crafting system. There are reasons to be concerned, but we shouldn't freak out yet.

Microtransactions in every game? How dare they, bastions of big business that they are, attempt to funnel more cash out of gamers' pockets through this method of digital fleecing. At least, this is the attitude I've seen in numerous forum threads and comment sections of stories dedicated to a quote from EA CFO Blake Jorgensen, which started all this nonsense.

What did he say that was so offensive? “The next and much bigger piece is microtransactions within games … we’re building into all of our games the ability to pay for things along the way, either to get to a higher level to buy a new character, to buy a truck, a gun, whatever it might be, and consumers are enjoying and embracing that way of the business.”

This was in response to an investor. You know, investors! They're those funny little people who put their own money into a public business and expect to see money come back in their general direction at some point. Of course he would say something like that to them, because he's trying to demonstrate to them that EA has their financial interests at heart. But he's also being truthful. After all, we've seen this shift toward something similar to the free-to-play microtransaction model in $60 games like Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3 recently.

This idea, of building content purchasing into the company's entire gaming infrastructure, set off a lot of angry comments. This is maybe a bit familiar to me, since I feel like I remember a lot of the same vitriol directed at publishers who embraced the downloadable content model however many years back. Yes, the situations are quite similar, perhaps more than we'd like to admit. Those map packs you bought for Call of Duty? All those extra cars you bought for Forza? The uncounted scores of Rock Band songs you bought to fill out your music library? Yep, those are all microtransactions, after a fashion. And if by some miracle you have been holding out on all of these things as some kind of protest to the concept, well then, you've been angry for a very long time, haven't you?

Of course, there is a difference between the kind of free-to-play modeled in-game shopping mechanisms seen in Dead Space 3, and the mundane act of simply buying DLC. The former is a more invasive procedure, wherein players are accosted at some point during their gaming experience with the tantalizing prospect of buying more things (or speeding up various in-game processes) with actual money. The latter is more passive, and supplementary. A DLC store that functions outside of a game, and primarily provides additional content, is obviously less annoying than something that provides potential roadblocks to content within the core game. But with this key difference in mind, let's be realistic. DLC is still a microtransaction-based economy, one that we've been engaging for years. In fact, if this console generation is remembered for anything, I expect it will be as the period in which publishers experimented the most wildly, and broadly, in finding new ways to extract money from the consumer.

Understand, I'm not saying there's no cause for future concern. Just because we ought to be somewhat used to this sort of thing doesn't mean there isn't still room for ample abuse. EA has not exactly proven itself capable of exercising restraint where it might be to their benefit, for instance. As Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report noted earlier this week, EA's mobile division can be particularly wanton in its attacks on players wallets, especially in the very recent case of Real Racing 3. That game is, theoretically, a pretty brilliant racing simulation (as iPad games go) that is nonetheless kneecapped by a highly invasive microtransaction scheme. As in the "grind for nearly 500 hours to unlock all these cars, or pay up to $500 to unlock them all," kind of invasive.

Real Racing 3 might be the most egregious microtransaction example of recent memory, a nifty racing sim kneecapped by ridiculous car unlock and repair costs.
Real Racing 3 might be the most egregious microtransaction example of recent memory, a nifty racing sim kneecapped by ridiculous car unlock and repair costs.

And of course there are the recent blockbuster examples, like Dead Space 3. As was noted by our lovely and talented Bradley Shoemaker in his review of the game, Dead Space 3's item crafting system is predicated on the idea that people won't want to be bothered with all the resource gathering and wait times and just pay some money to make it all go. And as TIME's Matt Peckham noted in his write-up, many have expressed the concern that this system is why the game's resource reward balance feels out-of-whack.

It was Peckham's piece that inspired me to write about this in the first place. One, I happen to agree with a lot of his points--especially his notion that all these microtransactions are really just a more sophisticated version of the coin-op business models of classic arcades. But there is one aspect in which I think Peckham is mistaken. Earlier in the piece, he notes that Jorgensen's claim that evidence shows audiences are "enjoying" and "embracing" the model are not necessarily true. Later, as he writes of the trickiness of getting this balance between game and monetization of said game correct, Peckham asks us to "Imagine the damage done if this new microtransaction imperative alienated EA’s core sports-franchise audience. Rejection of a single title in one of the big franchises, say Madden, could be crippling."

He's not wrong, but he's also a little bit behind. EA has already been doing this with Madden, and this past year, in its NHL series as well, via the Ultimate Team mode. In it, you build custom teams using (eventually) all-star players you collect as player cards. These cards can be acquired using in-game currency earned by playing all facets of Madden or NHL, or--yup, you guessed it--you can just pay a little money to get all sorts of nifty new cards for your team. This has been around for years. It's not new, nor untested, and one might argue that EA's continued incursion with the microtransaction model has been a direct result of systems like this being tested successfully in the wild. Now, if his point is that further evolution of this model into the structure of the game--say, franchise mode and online gameplay functionality being tied into a microtransaction-based model--might alienate further players, then I'd certainly be inclined to agree. But in terms of what EA's already been up to with these sports titles, there's no evidence to suggest it hasn't been successfully received.

Regardless of what might worry us, the market is dictating to EA that they should keep going with this microtransaction thing. Or at least that's what they think the market is dictating to them. I've bagged on EA for a number of its strange business decisions over the years, but I don't think they'd do something like this unless they really had seen positive results. EA needs positive results. These are hardly the salad days for game publishing, and EA has taken a few very public baths on some major releases in recent years. It's fighting to keep its head above water, and if it has to pull a few franchises into the microtransactive muck to stay afloat, it won't think twice about doing so.

As the venerable Cliff Bleszinski noted via his own blog this week, EA is a business, and right now, the microtransaction business is--at least, according to them--a profitable one for the publisher. I share his pragmatism about the situation, though I think deep down, despite what they're saying out loud, many of those out there who profess to hate this proliferation of digital content sold piecemeal are more annoyed about the lack of regulation in the digital marketplace than the actual existence of such a thing. It's the constant testing, and pushing by publishers of new, bizarre ways to charge that sets off alarm bells, not the mere existence of additional content purchasing options.

That stuff takes time to work itself out. There is perhaps no more perfect example of free market capitalism left to police itself than that of digital content sales. Pricing is nearly always in the hands of the publisher, though most shop owners usually have the ability to set certain limits. And publishers, wont as they are to do, will test those limits. They'll try to bend the tolerance of the players to the point of breaking, but the second they sense said tolerance is about to snap, they'll recoil. That's how these marketplaces have traditionally worked. Those who go too far tend to immediately reverse course. They'll do what the market dictates they do.

EA's been doing the optional microtransaction thing with Madden's Ultimate Team mode for years now, and apparently has been quite successful with it.
EA's been doing the optional microtransaction thing with Madden's Ultimate Team mode for years now, and apparently has been quite successful with it.

And when/if what the market seems to be dictating to them fails, EA will just go back to business as usual. That's all we really have to do, you know. Don't buy the games if they're abusive in their demands for your cash. Not getting money is pretty much the only thing a company like EA will truly respond to. Case in point: remember just a couple of years ago, when Sony was pushing stereoscopic 3D in PlayStation 3 games as the next big thing? When it was pushing 3D televisions at the behest of its consumer electronics division? Now, Sony isn't even addressing that sort of thing. The market dictated that this 3D push wasn't going to be a success, so they dropped it, simple as that.

As of now, there's certainly reason to be concerned about an increased volley of microtransactions in games, but let's not make this a more far-reaching issue than it needs to be. We've been dealing with all sorts of crap, from on-disc DLC, to increasingly greedy free-to-play models, for years now. EA's comment, outside of its explicitness in dictating the company's apparent direction, is not really anything newly worrisome.

It's stuff like this that just distracts us from the truly important issues out there currently plaguing the video game landscape. Like the continued use of the painfully redundant term "digital download," for instance. I mean, how stupid is that, right?

--A

Alex Navarro on Google+