In years gone by, video games used to be released complete, with no opportunity for patches and post-release content. Any extra content that was added later on would be sold as an expansion, usually adding new content, balancing gameplay, and making graphical fixes, among other changes. This was because, in the era of dialup internet, most users did not have time to download patch after patch worth of fixes. Digital releases were simply unfeasible outside of browser games. Usually, the only mandatory patches for games were included in expansions, or were minor ones required for multiplayer balancing.
The advent of microtransactions coincided with the growth of the smartphone era. According to TVtropes.org, “Microtransactions, also called Micropayments, are small transactions found in online games and services where a user pays a one-time fee for access to a piece of exclusive content”. Micropayments made free-to-play applications for developers financially viable, which enticed customers with the idea to ‘try before you buy’, instead of paying full price upfront and no refunds, as well as charging less money for smaller updates at the time of, and after, release. What started as a novel idea promptly exploded into the public sphere. If you look at the most profitable apps for 2016, almost all of them are free-to-play. These games make more money than full-priced games by operating on the same principle as gambling. Instead of forcing players to grind their way to the end of a game, like sharpening a very blunt axe on a mill, these apps offer microtransactions to speed up gameplay, as well as offering in-game currency to buy more powerful items to help with gameplay. Faster gameplay and easier winning provide dopamine spikes in the user’s brain, encouraging them to seek more ‘dope’. Just like winning on a slot machine.
Those microtransactions are now making their way into the mainstream gaming world too. In 2013, gaming YouTuber Daniel Hardcastle criticised Mass Effect 3 in his video Nerd’s Poop Games of 2013, arguing that because there were multiplayer microtransactions for upgrades, and because the multiplayer results were tied into the outcome of the single player game, he saw it as the beginning of single player pay-to-win. Later that year, Dead Space 3 was released and featured microtransactions to buy in-game items in the single player campaign;
you couldn’t even access these items in-game without paying real money. The increasing level of microtransactions available within new, full-price games is concerning. Game developers have taken the concept to the next level, charging for various items both at time of release and afterwards for more money — companies take a $100 game, cut it down, sell the base game for $80 and then charge customers $30 for the season pass to gain all downloadable content (DLC), no matter how pointless or trivial they are.
Electronic Arts (EA) is one of the most profitable and also one of the most derided gaming publishers today. EA are infamous among video gamers for acquiring and shutting down beloved game developers of the past such as Maxis (SimCity and The Sims series, two of the best-selling series in video game history), as well as Westwood studios (the original Command and Conquer, widely regarded as one of the most popular real-time strategy games of all time). Journalist Lisa Eadiccio reported in her article in the International Business Times that, “EA [was] at the forefront of some of the most annoying practices in the industry to date, such as restrictive DRM, seemingly abusive DLC and appearing to trade creativity for cash”. EA’s Chief Financial Officer, Blake Jorgenson, infamously said that, “The next and much bigger piece [of the business] 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”.
In the firestorm of online criticism that followed, Polygon journalist Brian Crecente reported that Jorgenson later backtracked, stating, “I made a statement in the conference along the lines of ‘We’ll have microtransactions in our games’ and the community read that to mean all our games, and that’s really not true. All of our mobile games will have microtransactions in them, because almost all of them are going to a world where they are play for free.”
That same article was reporting on EA’s price-gouging in their mobile phone remake of a classic video game from 1997, Dungeon Keeper. This mobile port/remake would see EA investigated under the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trade, as the “content gouging done in a disingenuous way is no longer going to be tolerated”. It is most likely that
Jorgenson was only making statements such as he did, in order to forestall a public relations disaster. Nevertheless, this still foresees a very dark future for AAA gaming.
Vote with your wallet.
Words by Damian T. Brown*
*FedPress’s Raoul Duke