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On Dead Space 3, Tungsten and Microtransactions
by Francisco Souki on 03/08/13 12:21:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The weapons system in Dead Space 3 is actually pretty solid. By introducing crafting and customization they managed to both retain the existing depth and strategy of the staple Dead Space weapons and upgrades AND add a new layer of customization depth. Most importantly, they've eliminated the annoyance of a multitude of ammo types and streamlined the inventory experience by having all their weapons share one type of ammo. It feels both more powerful and more elegant.

The old system already had hints of this unity and customization in the form of Power Nodes: a powerful item that could be used to both upgrade equipment and unlock loot-filled rooms. Power Nodes were mostly found around the world and could also be bought with game credits that Isaac would find by stomping on dead necromorph torsos. Which made no sense. Which is why an economy based on a crafting system makes much more sense for a game where the protagonist is an engineer.

To keep the balancing sane, though, something had to take the place of the Power Nodes. All crafting resources in Dead Space 3 serve a specific purpose and are thematically tied to the items they can be mixed to produce - yet no resource is as special as Tungsten. Like the Power Nodes of yore, Tungsten is tightly tied to the production of pretty much any key item that is worth crafting. Extremely rare to find, Tungsten is a strategic resource that drives most meaningful crafting choices. By rationing the reward rate of Tungsten, developers can effectively balance the main upgrade path for Isaac's weapons and armor. Tungsten is Power Nodes is premium currency.

And like most premium virtual currency, Tungsten can be bought with some of your finest real-world dollars.

Tungsten is an ugly pimple on the awkward face of a teenager in the developing industry of microtransactions. It sticks out and is quite hard to look at. It lurks in a corner of the Dead Space 3 resource shop, waving its $ flag shyly but resolutely. Tungsten vandalized the fourth wall by graffitiing a dollar sign onto it. And the other three walls, by definition, could only watch.

I can understand the arguments for Tungsten. I get that spending $$ is not critical path in the game and so I don't need to worry about it as a player. Yet it's there, staring at me, and so I worry about it. I get that nobody is forcing me to spend my $$. And yet the resource I can buy with real money is the one resource I can use to craft all the items I want. And I super-get that we are living in a time of microtransactions and so we should welcome our new $$ overlords. But there's a time and place for everything, and this hardly seems like the right time and place for Tungsten.

I grew to love the Dead Space franchise because of its atmosphere. While playing Dead Space you never feel safe - anything can happen at any time. Necromorphs attack you at save points, while unarmed, in elevators, in rooms too small for two people, while you're wearing a straitjacket… you name it, Dead Space has it. This game is frickin' creepy, and it keeps you on edge because, at the end of the day, you're role-playing a regular dude who is impaling and mutilating zombies with a line of mining tools that he has fashioned into weaponry. Weaponry that functions with a limited amount of resources that must be carefully rationed.

But here, take my $$ and give me a fully loaded Monster Impaler 3000 please.

I don't (just) have a gripe against Tungsten because it's asking me to leave a 50% tip on an expensive meal. I have a gripe with it because in a game where I give myself into the atmosphere, it's asking me to suspend my belief and take out my credit card. But yes, just as I value immersion, I also value respect for my spent dollars. And so Tungsten offends me because we have grown used to a way of crafting these experiences that doesn't involve any monetary contract other than the one we sign up front. And so when the waiter asks if I want to add extra cheese for $2 I respond that no, that I paid for the carefully crafted 5-course chef's tasting and so why would I even consider adding cheese? Just bring me what I paid for.

The truth is that Tungsten, more than angry, makes me sad. Because out of all the potentially great things that are currently happening in gaming, microtransactions are the one that make me feel most icky. I am literally on record saying that "if Dead Space 2, at the end of a chapter, asked me if I want to send ammo to a friend, I would say yes". But instead it asked me to buy Tungsten. And I said no.

Edit: grammar and correct form of Dead Space. 

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james sadler
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Microtransactions have always felt dirty to me. Whatever people say for it I just don't agree, especially after paying a boatload for the game to begin with. It is almost as dirty as when a game is advertised as free but pushes those microtransaction at the player. It cheapens the experience and lowers my respect for the developers/company.

I can see what you mean about the immersion issue too. It is one of the things I've always loved about the DS franchise and to have something that takes the player away from that is a terrible idea.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Most importantly, they've eliminated the annoyance of a multitude of ammo types and streamlined the inventory experience by having all their weapons share one type of ammo. It feels both more powerful and more elegant."

That's one way to look at it... Pretty hard one to share.

Bart Stewart
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Right now I'm remembering the epic grumbling when Deus Ex: Invisible War replaced the multiple ammo types of the original game with "universal ammo"....

Andrew Woods
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The choice whether or not to use micro transaction still remains, In good game design one can find a rewarding game experience with or without making micro transactions. Cheers!

Wendelin Reich
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Nope, I gotta agree with Francisco, the very existence of the choice destroys the experience.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Microtransactions compromise nearly every game design they are strong-armed into. Usually it's totally obvious, sometimes less so (e.g. mod tools not released in order to protect DLC revenue stream) but it is there.

Offhand I can only name two exceptions where I'm quite sure microtransactions have no negative effect for those who choose to ignore them: World of Warcraft, and Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown.

Wendelin Reich
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Excellent piece!

Although you don't discuss this, I believe there are reasons why any mechanic that (however meekly) introduces pay-to-win breaks immersion. According to a well-known definition by Jane McGonigal and others, games are about "overcoming non-necessary obstacles in a voluntary manner". So a good game makes us *want* to work hard to win/level-up/whatever, although we could just as well clean our kitchen instead. This concept works for Angry Birds, CoD, Journey or Deadspace.

So when a game introduces a mechanic that allows us to circumvent its own incentive structure, it renders the act of "overcoming non-necessary obstacles" meaningless. For a few dollars, you rid yourself of the possibility of failure, or at least you decrease the odds. But then, what point is there in playing and failing?

Actually, things only get worse if pay-to-win is *optional* (as it almost always is). In a hard game without pay-to-win, the reason why you choose to overcome voluntary obstacles is obvious: you want to feel the joy of winning. But if the game has any kind of pay-to-win component, the reason becomes ambiguous. Did you avoid paying because you're stingy? I think thats why such games make you feel cheap.

Francisco Souki
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It would seem like the equation for when we do/don't feel dirty around microtransactions has more variables than developers (and players) have managed to account for. Some of those, and the good points you make, dabble in psychology. I would very interested in reading well-informed research about the psychology of microtransactions.

Wendelin Reich
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Francisco, there is actually a fascinating literature on the psychology of economic transactions and how they define social relationships! Basically, as soon as you introduce money, you reframe a relationship as one of market-based exchange (as opposed to communal sharing or gift-giving). This opens Pandora's box - for instance, you can show with brain scanning that people view the thing you offer them in more instrumental terms, that they regard you less favorably, and that they are more inclined to look for alternatives to the thing you offer. This shouldn't be surprising: money was invented to facilitate exchange, not gift-giving.

The classic (PDF via Google Scholar): AP Fiske, 1992, The four elementary forms of sociality: framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review.

A broader review of how money affects how people think and how they see their relationships is found in Dan Ariely's popular books: Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Rationality. Great reads.

Further references:
- S Pinker, 2007. The evolutionary social psychology of off-record indirect speech acts. Intercultural Pragmatics. (PDF via Google; the second half of this article contains a great explanation of Fiske's theory).
- V Zelizer, 1997. The social meaning of money: Pin money, paychecks, poor relief, and other currencies. (A sociological book on the subject).

jin choung
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microtransactions - incompatible with good taste.

Daniel Miller
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Not to nitpick, but why is this article compacting Dead Space into one word?
It's two words; Dead Space.
Not Deadspace.

Luis Guimaraes
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Because the space, is dead.
(Ok, apologies for that)

Francisco Souki
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Oh, God. Thanks for catching that.

Bart Stewart
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This question -- do microtransactions break immersiveness -- is a good one.

Another way of putting it is: can the "magic circle" that allows the enjoyable suspension of disbelief survive being broken by real-money transactions? Does letting lots of people buy in-game benefits with real-world money make an MMORPG feel much less like a plausible world? How about a single-player RPG? And what about DLC, which is like a microtransaction on steroids?

The people for whom these things are "just a game" won't care about any of this. But it definitely does matter to the people for whom investing in the *feel* of a world is a critical part of what they're paying for.

Allowing the magic circle to be broken by design doesn't matter to every gamer, but it matters a lot to some. So whose preference should be respected more, and under what circumstances? Do people who want their games treated like worlds just have to give up on RPGs when all monetization moves to microtransactions?

Folks were debating this in 2005, if not earlier: . It's even more pressing today.

Wendelin Reich
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Bart, I like your distinction between players who care/don't care about "investing in the feel of a world".

That said, I think you're missing something: pay-to-win oriented microtransactions don't just break immersion (you could argue that HUD's, pause-buttons, controllers etc. all do the same). They render your choice meaningless because their very existence implies that you don't really have to play the game - you can just buy your way through it.

Mike Jenkins
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One million times yes, thank you Francisco.

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I've never understood the concept of game immersion in that way where it seems like people are able to forget that they're playing a game. I don't think I've ever experienced this in my 25+ years of gaming. I've gotten caught up in a game's story and thought to myself, "man this game is awesome," but I'm always aware that it's a game.

If you really do forget that you're playing a game, why do optional microtransactions break it anymore than any menu, on screen stat, points, HUD, title screen, pause menu, or the fact that you're using a controller or mouse/keyboard does?

Bart Stewart
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William, I can't speak for everyone, just myself. But to try to answer what is a perfectly fair question:

Immersion is not the same thing as "forget[ting] that you're playing a game." Performing violent acts in a game doesn't make everyone become a mass murderer in real life. Similarly, enjoying the pretense of acting as a character in a well-rendered imaginary world doesn't cause everyone to somehow lose their grip on reality and believe they actually *are* that character.

Immersion is not about interface (although an intrusive interface can reduce immersion). The pleasure of feeling immersed in a secondary reality -- just like reading a good fiction novel, or getting caught up in a play or a movie -- is about accepting the secondary reality as though it was a real place in order to let it reveal something about human nature.

Immersion is fun for people who like having those insights. Not everyone does, and there's nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of games for gamers who just want to manipulate abstract things for a high score, and that's exactly as it should be.

But some gamers (and I'm one of them) also like games that try to emphasize the fictional reality so that it's easier to pretend to be "in" that world. When the visuals and dialogue and audio and story and architecture and lore and objects and mechanics all come together in a way that is coherent and plausible and unique... that's a special kind of play that just can't be found anywhere else but a computer game. So I think it's also important that games like that get made, too.

Immersion doesn't mean forgetting that it's still only a game, and isn't real. Immersiveness just makes it easier to temporarily treat the world of the game as though it were real, because that's fun.

By that thinking, microtransactions directly oppose that unique kind of fun because they puncture immersiveness. They breach the magic circle and let the magic out. It's like Hamlet suddenly turning to the audience to say, "For another $10, I'll give you more of my real father's backstory."

I'm honestly not entirely sure what to think about that. The interruption to the fiction bugs me... but can I cope with that if it's a way to increase the amount of immersive lore in the gameworld?

Ron Dippold
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You never really think you're actually in the game unless you have a really serious VR setup or issues with reality.

A better way to put it would be 'in the zone'. When you're in the zone and focused on the game to the exclusion of everything else, everything that's not the monitor fades to irrelevance, the controls become almost an extension of your body, you're often doing extremely well (for you) in the game, and if someone taps you on the shoulder you may jump out of your seat because you are not prepared to deal with any external inputs.

I've been in the zone on a game like Waves where I rang up a score 10x anything I have managed since. I was untouchable, one with the ship.

The only problem with the zone is that it's very easy to get bumped out of. Stimulus, response, stimulus, response, all your neural pathways are set up... suddenly you need to pull out your credit card? It's shot. Hands off the controller(s)? Shot. Having it aggressively rubbed in your face that you're ONLY playing a game (which is not at all the same as knowing that you're playing a game)? Certainly degrades it.

In your examples, everything on screen are just part of the stimulus. But pausing would definitely hurt. When you unpause you're going to have to (try to) get back in.

Gaetan Brisson
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Probably just the tipping point of an incoming iceberg. I have seen examples of IGA in the past but that was benign intrusion. Once I entered a free-to-play MMORPG where they tried hard to push me in buying in-game benefits by all kind of tactics. It sucked because, among other things, I then never knew if some co-players were real, if they had gained power by sheer skill or bought it or worse, maybe they were just marketting agents in disguise. That was disgusting experience but then I could just pull the plug with no arm done to my wallet. (I don't like multi-player games anyway...) What next? In-game "Marts" you can pay real money to watch porn, buy stuff, cars and whatnot, with real world hookers and pimps avatars soliciting gamers? Will we have to pay a fee for games free of real world annoyances? Buying Tungsten? In a AAA game? Akin to buying sex in real life to me. No class. I was about buying that game but now that I heard about that, I begin to wonder if this company deserves my support o_O