Is Mario Run's Pay-to-Unlock the New Microtransaction?

The definition of what constitutes a video game is ever-shifting, and so too are the ways we engage with them. Joysticks have given way to motion controls, demo discs to DLC, physical copies to digital downloads... innovation manifests on many fronts. I've talked a bit about the nebulous notion of "value" in gaming terms, but I'm also interested in examining the solidity of the video game buying model as we know it.

My primary question is this: Will full-price games continue to be the de facto AAA sales model for the foreseeable future? When I say "full-price," I'm referring to industry standards that put most home console games at $60 and handheld games around $30-40. This model stands in contrast to the free-to-play model, where a game is typically free to download but supplemented by additional in-game purchases (microtransactions) that give players extra content or mechanical advantages. There's another option, however, and it's a hybrid of the two. For ease of reference, I call it the "pay-to-unlock" model.


Two recent releases have brought to my attention the viability of the pay-to-unlock model: Super Mario Run and Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone. You start by downloading limited versions of both of these games for free; in Super Mario Run's case, you get the first few levels, while Project Diva Future Tone grants access to two songs. The key difference between these games and their free-to-play counterparts is that you get to try them out and then if you like them, you can pay a single fee to unlock the rest (in Project Diva Future Tone's case, you can either buy all of the songs in a bundle or pick between two thematically distinct packs). Superficially, this isn't all that different from the standard microtransaction model, but what I like is that the "unlocks" for these games are grouped together as a single package instead of being sold piecemeal. It makes you feel like you're getting a complete experience without the hassle of deciding which content is most worthy of your dollars.

I started to wonder if this approach could be used for other AAA games going forward. Would you be open to paying $5 for the character customization system and the first three hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda if you had the option to purchase the rest for $55 afterwards? It'd be like plunking down the amount you'd normally pay for a pre-order for the opportunity to try the game extensively before you buy it. We've all had buyer's remorse at least once after getting a game that didn't live up to our expectations. The pay-to-unlock model could be a way to circumvent that disappointment, especially if it's offered alongside a standard purchase option.


I can't say that the pay-to-unlock model is a perfect idea that should universally be implemented from here on out, and there is certainly room for abuse by greedy publishers. Timed trials - where the player is given a full game with a limit on how much time they can spend playing it before having to pay to continue - are another alternative that seems to work well enough. But I'm most interested in seeing whether Super Mario Run's way of doing things will catch on in the AAA space. I'm only spitballing here, but as long as we're embracing new ways of playing games, maybe we should embrace new ways of buying them, too.

Derek Heemsbergen
Derek Heemsbergen

Contributing Writer
Date: 01/19/2017

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