Microtransactions and Games
Micro-what? Small monetary payments, typically less than £1, used to purchase the rights to view and/or use small amounts of exclusive content - microtransactions. To provide some examples, content
could mean articles or media hosted on pay-per-view websites, downloads of small files such as individual mp3 songs or, and this is where a hint of relevance creeps in, exclusive items or unlockables in games.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Why are microtransactions a relatively new concept? In the past, online credit card payments were an expensive business. Purchasing such small amounts of content was unfeasible because the transaction charges incurred by the customer would have been at least as much as the price of the content being bought (Smith G. , 2007). So what changed? As online payments have become a much more common phenomenon, the methods by which they can be made have become more sophisticated, more widespread and less expensive to run. In fact, schemes have been developed with micropayments specifically in mind, such as South Korea’s mobile billing system (Carless, 2006), which is used extensively by the gaming industry. South Korea is pioneering what many believe to be the future of gaming; a future where microtransactions account for the majority of the revenue of online games; a future, in other words, where MMOs are paid for not by monthly subscriptions but through payments for in-game assets. Under this model online games are free to play but payments are required in order to achieve any feeling of real success. Surprisingly, to Western audiences at least, this model is very much the reality in South Korea, as seven out of ten online games employ it (Carless, 2006).
Now that we know what microtransactions are and how they’re already being used, we come to the central question: what might microtransactions mean for gamers in the future? Phrased another way, how will the manner in which we play and pay for games change?
It seems pertinent to begin by examining some games familiar to a western audience that already employ micropayments to some degree. Exhibit A is Tiger Woods PGA Tour
(2007 onwards), which gives players the option to unlock specific golfers not initially available in the game by paying for them through Xbox Live Marketplace (Smith G. , 2007). So far, so familiar, you might argue. What’s interesting and unique about this system is that these golfers can also be unlocked in the traditional fashion of completing a prerequisite set of goals within the game. This, clearly then, is a move toward making the game more accessible to the “casual market” that we seem to hear so much about these days. Those players that lack either the inclination to spend hours playing the game or the skill to beat the tougher challenges have another option. It’ll cost them, but if they crave those unlockables, the alternative is there.
This brings us to another point to be made about Tiger Woods
’ transaction model – specifically, that it doesn’t make use of true microtransactions. What really happens is that you buy a certain number of Microsoft points
in bulk (a minimum of 500 points for £4.25) and then any “transaction” that you make in the Xbox Live Marketplace isn’t really a transaction at all. Instead, it’s the reduction of a number in one database field in return for a flag in another field which means that you now have the right to download certain files (Koster, 2006). This of course applies to all Marketplace purchases and also to transactions with Nintendo’s Wii points
. Sony’s PlayStation Store, however, utilises payments in real currency and, as such, it is possible for microtransactions in the truest sense to be made.
The previous point notwithstanding, might the idea of paying for content that can also be unlocked simply by playing the game become more commonplace? That depends, naturally, on how successful such a model proves to be. Ask yourself, “would I be willing to spend money on something that I could get for free, albeit with a small amount of effort?” For me, the answer has to be “no”, but then, I would not consider myself to belong to the sect of casual gamers, for whom this must surely hold the greatest appeal. But let’s imagine for a moment that this were employed extensively in all games. Anything that could be unlocked in any game, including levels, characters, items and so on, could also be acquired via a small payment equivalent to, say, a few pence. Whilst this would be great for Mr Casual, I feel that the rest of us would find our interest in games waning. I’ve spent many long hours trying again and again to beat a racer’s staff ghost or to finish a particularly difficult FPS level, mainly for the satisfaction of the accomplishment. Even better, though, is when I’m given a reward for my efforts, be it a new vehicle, level or piece of concept artwork, so that I have something tangible to prove what I’ve achieved. I can’t help feel, then, that my resolve to persevere with in-game challenges would be somewhat dampened if the prizes for completing them could be bought by anyone for just a few pence. The entire experience would be irredeemably cheapened, ironic as that may be.
Another interesting model to consider is that which was intended for the now-scrapped Gran Turismo HD: Classic
. This was to be a game that shipped with no cars or tracks initially available to the player, instead requiring these to be individually bought for small fees (Smith L. , 2006). There was something of an outcry from the gaming community at this proposal, but would it really be so terrible? Let’s conduct an Einsteinian thought experiment. You have the game but you’ve got access to no cars or tracks. The first thing you’re going to do, then, is buy maybe a couple of each. You play online with these for a while (Classic
was intended to be GT’s foray into the online market) but you’re soon yearning to enter some events that require specific motors and you’d like to try out some more tracks. Naturally, you buy a few more of each because you figure that it’s not costing you much at the end of the day. You play a little more but eventually realise that you’d really like to see every track that the game has to offer. You wouldn’t be fully experiencing the game otherwise. That’s 50 tracks at approximately £1.50 each (Smith L. , 2006). Wait, what? £75 just to race on each of the game’s courses? A ridiculously high price and we haven’t even considered the 700 vehicles the game purported to offer. This is exactly what gamers complained about when the idea was put forward and in an isolated case such as this, the words “rip-off” can practically be seen from space. But if several games employed this kind of system, would it be so obvious, or, more importantly, would it stop you playing the game? After all, you wouldn’t have
to spend more than you usually would. The trouble is that, for most people at least, keeping track of how much you’ve actually spent is going to be difficult. It would be all too easy to buy “just one more” whenever you’re getting a bit bored with your current selection and end up spending far more in total than you originally intended.
Studies have found that not only is it possible to overspend with the microtransaction model but that overspending is the trend. MMOs which incorporate microtransactions have been found to generate more revenue per customer than those with monthly subscriptions (Carless, 2006). So clearly, while it is convenient to be able to purchase special in-game items such as swords or armour for small amounts of money, the innocuous nature of these transactions belies the danger inherent to this system.
So far I’ve given microtransactions a lot of negative press. Are there any positives to be taken from what could conceivably be the future of online gaming? Choice is the standout answer to this question. It is the flipside to the problems discussed in the previous paragraph, and, whilst both outcomes are simultaneously possible, a little care and prudence on the part of the gamer will put them in good stead to benefit from the options micropayments provide. For the first time it will be possible to choose precisely how much or little you spend on a game, depending on how seriously you intend to play it. Do you only play occasionally, at weekends perhaps? Now you can choose to spend a third of what a retail game would previously have cost you, reflecting the limited amount of time you have to invest. Alternatively, are you someone who would like to compete with the best in the world, playing games for hours each day? Pay a little more to enjoy the game to its fullest and equip yourself with all the tools you need to succeed. If microtransactions are to work for gamers in this way, then they must strive to keep accurate records of their in-game spending. Achieving this would seriously empower the gamer with real choice.
There are many more points to be made about this fascinating topic, but three articles could easily be filled given the number of ideas to discuss. With this article I sought to draw together disparate concerns and lines of thinking on the matter in order to examine them more closely. Whether microtransactions do indeed take off in the West as they have done in Asia remains to be seen, though it seems likely that they will become more commonplace given their successes so far. They can definitely bring something positive to the table, provided that gamers are aware of the risks and spend their money carefully. In order for them not to be regarded as a malevolent evil, micropayments should be incorporated sparingly and tastefully. As soon as developers and publishers start to get greedy, overpricing in-game assets for example, opinions will quickly turn sour. Whatever your views on them may be, you must concede that they have the power to change gaming, for better or for worse. South Korea is leading the way into a brave new world and we in the West are just, tentatively perhaps, beginning to follow.References
Carless, S. (2006, November 21). Exclusive: How Microtransactions Rule Korea. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from Gamasutra: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_i ... tory=11747
Koster, R. (2006, November 24). Are microtransactions actually the future? Retrieved September 7, 2008, from Raph Koster's Website: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/11/24/ar ... he-future/
Smith, G. (2007, April 6). Microtransactions in Games. Retrieved September 3, 2008, from Blogcritics Magazine: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/04/06/124651.php
Smith, L. (2006, September 20). Gran Turismo HD: Two Versions, Tons Microtransactions. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from 1UP.com: http://www.1up.com/do/newsStory?cId=3153775
All comments and feedback welcome. Thank you.