Why do people hate microtransactions?
For the (mercifully) uninitiated, microtransactions work in the following fashion: I, Joe Consumer, pay Company X some of my hard-earned, magical “real money” and they give me fake money “credits” which I can then use in their fake environments to buy fake things.
For those readers too young to remember video arcades, this here is my goddamn lawn and the way off of it is that way!
In short, an enterprising young buck such as myself would bike down to the local pizza/video game/makeout spot (not necessarily in that order), feed an often out-of-service “change” machine wrinkly dollar bills scrounged from summers of mowing children and babysitting other people’s yards, and receive battered and begrimed “tokens.” A token was the same size, shape, and weight as a quarter. Four tokens could be had for a dollar, because of the token/real money exchange rate, and if one was lucky, one could chase the goddamned Kaiser across all dickety miles of Old Europe, because the bastard stole our word for “twenty-five.”
The point of the story is that “microtransactions” have existed since the earliest days of public video gaming, and getting all huffy about it now is silly.
In more modern situations, microtransactions find their way into our social gaming via MMOs, Microsoft and Sony’s online experiences, and probably the Wii’s too, but to be honest, I do not even know where the power button is on my Wii anymore.
Several popular (and quite good) online games like Dungeons and Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Runes of Magic all have a “cash store” or microtransaction system. This allows them to be “freemium” games, where the basic experience is free, and players can pay to buy additional character slots, items, mounts, vanity items, and even gear.
The general argument against microtransactions in MMOs goes like this: “people with money will have an inherent advantage over those without money.” For online services like Xbox Live, the argument is again that pay-to-play services favor those people that have money, specifically regularly-disposable income, over those that do not.
Yes, that is generally true of the world. Money enables us to do more.
I find it disingenuous that people who have shelled out enough money to buy an online-connected console (or worse, a gaming-capable PC), a monthly broadband connection with enough down and up speed to be online-gaming viable (not a cheap investment), a $40-$50 game, and so forth, are the same ones that complain about spending $19.95 for twenty-thousand in-game credits.
I am not saying that many gaming-related purchases are not terribly overpriced. I think people can and will pay an appropriate price for a service; for instance, awesome games like Torchlight sell better at lower price points than many major-publisher releases, despite the lack of big marketing. This is because business schools lie to their students and tell them that consumers are idiots that will blindly follow whatever marketing gimmick is currently popular.
The problem is that consumers are idiots, but not that kind of idiot. A consumer wants to have fun, and recognizes that in most instances, fun costs money. The video gamer knows that a certain minimum of equipment is required to play: a machine capable of running a game, input devices, and a display are the barest minimum. Online services also require an Internet connection and the appropriate hardware. More modern games and systems will require appropriately more expensive equipment.
And more money means better equipment; if one wants to “pwn noobs” in Halo, for instance, the laggy “basic broadband” package purveyed by the local phone company will not cut it. Our aspiring “pwner” will be screaming “LAG LAG LAG LAG LAG” all night as he eats grenade after grenade. Why? Because basic internet connection speeds are far too slow for online gaming. They will work alright for checking e-mail and sending photos to Grandma, but they will not hack it for serious, high-bandwidth usage. Similarly, if one is a PC gamer, the bargain-basement shelf model from Wal-Mart will likewise be lackluster. Try running a 25-person raid in WoW without discrete video and lots of RAM. No one gets healed if the healer’s frame rates fluctuate between “still life” and “1998 streaming porn at 1:00 a.m. alone in one’s bedroom hoping one’s parents are asleep.”
Is it fair that those with the income (or debt) large enough to buy the best equipment, get the best connection speeds, and so on have an “advantage?” Of course not, but life is not fair. When I was a young tyke, I played many more outdoor sports. One year, after some particularly bad Disney atrocity, “street hockey” became popular. Well, hockey became popular, but ice does not naturally form in the deserts of West Texas, so we had “street hockey.” I preferred instead to play baseball and football, but the neighborhood kids all wanted to play “hockey.” Their parents, being good suburbanites with more disposable income than sense, bought their snowflakes roller blades, sticks, pads, gloves, balls, etc. All top of the line, all the best they could find. When my brothers and cousins and I wanted to play, our parents broke out dusty hockey sticks that had been moldering in the attic for some time, and scrounged up some roller blades. Our ability to play hockey was limited by our parents’ good sense to see that Texans have no place playing hockey, but their refusal to drop $500 on useless equipment seriously hampered our ability to play. Never fear, we were still better at fist-fighting, which is, I take it, the point of hockey.
I think the DDO/LOTRO model of “freemium” is the future of online gaming. None of the gear, items or other virtual pieces of fluff purchaseable through Turbine’s online store directly affects one’s skill at the game. Being able to buy a starter set of gear for $5, load up on potions, and grab a mount for faster travel only lowers the “barrier to entry” for new players. This is because, especially for older games, the player base is concentrated at the endgame, and new players will lack the social network of support necessary to grind through the early part of the game without being annoying and begging others for help. Potions and decent, but not overpowered, starter gear help ease this a bit. They also allow veteran players to level new characters faster, which keeps people coming back into the game for more. These are all sound business decisions that will “grow” the player base.
Blizzard, true to form, showed just how much business sense this made when it offered the aptly-named “Sparklepony” for sale through its online pet store. The Celestial Steed mount cost a paltry $14, conferred no great in-game benefit that could not be had for a pittance in-game, but did provide a lot of value to customers: some people were looking for achievements that came with collecting over 100 mounts, and this was an easy notch on their belt. Others had a lot of alts, and while the cost of a flying mount may be a drop in the bucket for one player, it becomes significant when someone has all ten character slots filled. With a single $14 purchase, players virtually assured that any future character would have a usable ground and aerial mount.
The mount is not strictly necessary to play the game; it merely makes the game easier from a certain perspective. It is not like players were able to shell out $125 for the latest and greatest armor and weapons (a move I agree would be game-breaking). And yet, every time a company realizes what a gold mine microtransactions are, players cry foul… while still lining up to shell out their money.
This perplexes me; if one is getting something of practical value to the player out of spending money, is that not the point? $20 in my wallet does me little; $20 being used online to buy a spiffy new mount and some healing potions does me a lot, in-game. $20 in my wallet will not feed me; $20 at my local Mongolian grill will get me a freaking awesome stir-fry. Money’s value lies in our ability to use it to get things, things that will then be consumed, used, and forgotten. But, if we obtained a use from them while we were using them, was not our money well-spent?
If one is worried that microtransactions represent “throwing away” money for nothing of tangible value, I must return that the “enjoyment of the moment” and the diversion provided by spending that money was the point. Going to watch a movie at the theatre provides no benefit past the ending credits; the ticket stub is worthless, and all of that Coke will soon be eliminated from one’s body. A sporting event carries no benefit past its ending, and a monthly cable bill… well, even with DVRs, there is only so much TV can do. Diversionary entertainment is a frivolous waste of money, true… but that is the point. If one wants free diversionary entertainment, libraries will loan us books for free. Just be sure to teleport there, because if one drives, walks, or bikes, one must eventually pay for the fuel or upkeep of one’s mode of transportation. And make sure to do it when time is of little consequence, because otherwise that time could be spent on some income-generating activity.
All snarkiness aside, to do things costs money, and most of our money does not even break even, let alone make a return on its investment. But the headache and hassle it saves us, not to mention the fun and diversion it can produce, is something of real and substantial (and, I would argue, truly lasting) value.
So do not despair of microtransactions! Realize that they represent a far fairer-to-the-consumer system than subscription plans and high in-box costs for games. A series of small transactions creates modularity and allows for gamers to customize their payment to their individual needs, rather than forcing everyone to conform to broad “plans” that may underserve some and overserve others. Embrace microtransactions, online gamers.