Man, who thinks it would be awesome to have this micro-transactions article read to you super-fast by the micro-machines guy? No? Just me? OK then…
The word micro-transaction comes with a negative connotation these days. It’s associated with other phrases like “free-to-play” and “marketplaces,” which, for some gamers, is a sure sign that they’re about to be nickel and dimed to death. I realize that I’ve used that phrase in the past, but let’s face it, what more apropos term is there? Some developers are determined to squeeze blood from a stone. However, does that mean we should completely turn our back on the idea, just because there are those in the industry who would use it purely as a money making proposition? Could micro-transactions, as a baseline system, provide a better way in which to buy our game content in the future?
Let’s explore this a bit, shall we?
As much of this concept hinges on the delivery system (I.e., how developers run it from the inside out), we need to look at the current state of the business model from which this idea springs. Avalanche Studios founder, Creative Director Christofer Sundberg, (and Just Cause developer) recently said on his Twitter page, “Micro-transactions, subscriptions, and other biz models will be the next generation of games. It is that simple…basically that's where we're heading. There will be f-ups for sure. Hopefully we can lower the initial price point and build the game with the community instead."
And he’s probably right. The problem is, I’m not sure the industry itself has a clear vision of how to handle the idea of individual transactions on a larger scale vs. the package based DLC we often see now. Even Microsoft, with its vast R&D resources, is flying blind in that regard. Take the comments Microsoft VP Phil Spector recently made, suggesting that the powerhouse is still trying to find true North on this particular issue. "I want to be able to learn from what we put in. So let's make sure we are crafting the game and the analytics so we can see what the consumers--the gamers--like and don't--if you assume buying habits are a reflection of what people like. So that we can craft the experience better for the gamer….We’re still learning,” he said.
So, as they try and gauge the temperature of what gamers do and don’t want to spend their money on, let’s just break it down for them--right here, right now.
The answer is affordable options. At least, that’ my opinion anyway. Everything in life nowadays comes down to options (some almost limitless). If you were a music lover before the digital age exploded, you’d be forced to buy an entire album or CD. Now, iTunes allows you to purchase just the tracks you want, leaving behind the rest of the filler. There are options just like this you enjoy every day, ones you probably wouldn’t even notice (unless they were taken away that is).
So I ask you; why should our games be any different?
Think about it; the prices of games aren’t cheap. I have (like many of you) spent countless hours in a multiplayer lobby of various Call of Duty games over the years, without spending that much time with the campaign. If they were to, for example, sell me the multiplayer engine as a standalone item for substantially less (and give me the option to buy individual campaign levels as I choose after the fact), well, let’s just say that’s a system I could get behind. Many games on the market are already experimenting with this model--the recent Killer Instinct sequel/remake for the Xbox One being the latest example. Here we see a free-to-play fighter that locks the roster and asks you to buy just the characters you want individually. Also, Need for Speed World operates in a similar fashion, by allowing you access to the world for free, but requiring the purchase of parts, paint, tires, and the vehicles separately. Some may not like taking on this much responsibility in-game, but I distinctly remember feeling like I was standing on the showroom floor of a car lot as I scrolled through all my options. Having power over what I did or did not want for my vehicle (which I also chose myself instead of having one “assigned” to me) felt pretty good.
Imagine if EA built the definitive Madden engine the same way (let’s call it “Madden Core”). Then each year, instead of buying a whole new game, you bought an updated roster or stadium pack. We’ve seen that the fundamentals of the game itself don’t change all that much from year to year.
Now I realize that this model won’t work for every game title, and that’s OK. We don’t need a “one size fits all” approach. It’s just that when I hear a developer say they can “lower the initial price point and build the game with the community,” my spider-sense starts tingling. I truly like the idea of having more control over my gaming experience. I do realize this path is wrought with the possibilities of abuse in pricing, but I don’t think we should let that fear control how this shakes out. Putting the bulk of the consumer buying power back in our hands should help control this a bit. Building my game experience around a set of customized options, then letting me pick and choose what I include and don’t, lets me get exactly what I want with my gaming dollars. I’m not forced to accept the less desirable parts just because of the “all or nothing” model we currently have. If you think along those lines, the term micro-transaction starts sounding a bit sweeter.
Can’t you just see it? Gamers marching down the street with their game in one hand, and their DualShock in the other, as they sound off, “This is my game--there are many like it, but this one is mine!”