A discussion of microtransactions and game design.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This is a script from my Youtube video discussing Microtransactions and Game design. If you prefer the video, feel free to watch the video below, though this is provided so you can read the text as desired.
Let’s talk about microtransactions and what they do with game design. Hello, I’m Kinglink and I’m back again with another discussion. This is probably the most discussed topic about gaming recently especially with the recent Star Wars: Battlefront 2 kerfuffle. But I really don’t want to just say microtransactions are bad from a consumer standpoint. I mean it’s obvious I think.
Before we get into it, I’m going to showcase four games here. We’ll start with Injustice 2, a very quick look Rapture Rejects. I mean, you’ll see why, Shadow of War, and finally, a game that does pieces of this right, Warhammer Vermintide 2. Now being featured here has NOTHING to do with the quality of the game, but just food for thought, and cool games. Right?
So, I get the mentality as a consumer, all games should be free, and I should have my great idea made into a game. That’s a normal consumer mentality, and I get it. But I feel while this might be what a consumer should hope for, but it’s not realistic. People make games, people deserve money for their work. I do, you do, so let’s not go that route. Still, the consumer/developer microtransaction discussion has been to death.
I know a lot of people have heard of the whale and all terminology, and yes, I’ll try to avoid that, because again well-tread terrain, if you haven’t heard about that, just realize microtransactions, especially loot boxes, can be like gambling, not everyone will pay for it, but some people will pay entirely too much and others nothing. If you want to know more, I could do another video from the inside but like I said, well covered already.
Instead, let’s look at microtransactions, what they are, the path to get here, and what they do to game design and production because I think ultimately they are a problem even if well-meaning companies are the ones who put them in place.
As I said before I have been a developer and I can at least talk a little about behind the scenes. This … it’s a touchy area and I feel awkward because unlike Realism in video games, this isn’t a positive topic necessarily, but still we’ll dive deeper I hope.
I’m going to take a big scope here to start. Microtransactions really started at the time of the infamous Horse Armors…. Which honestly have become normalized by this point. If you don’t know, the short version is Elder Scrolls: Oblivion offered the ability to buy horse armor on consoles, and even PC, and … well, it wasn’t met with love, and probably shouldn’t have been. People assumed that the horse armor should have been part of the game, or should be moddable from other users. Just realize this is where we start, I’ll get back here of course. But it’s important to realize how this slope has worked. Horse armor as a cosmetic was bad, not many people defended it… But that’s DLC, right?
The line between a true microtransaction and DLC is blurry. I really think there are two types of purchases in my mind. Expansion packs, and microtransactions. Even there, it’s blurry when companies give single missions or small pieces of gameplay, but to avoid having too much to talk about, let’s focus purely on microtransactions to buy currency, progression, cosmetic changes, and loot boxes.
Now I know there are people out there who are going to claim that cosmetics are fine, loot boxes can be, progression is a choice, and currency is fine. I could have made those arguments but the more I play games recently I start to notice a trend of how they’re being used. Recently I played games like Middle-Earth Shadow Of War, Rapture Rejects, The Division, Injustice 2, let’s look at them but first a couple of generalities for almost all microtransactions.
First, EVERY developer who puts microtransactions in a game expects them to be used in some form. This sounds obvious, but I know I’ve seen people defending microtransactions in that the developer doesn’t want people to use it. That doesn’t happen.
Everything in a video game costs time, and money, For money it’s usually in the form of paying a developer a salary and microtransactions take time that they could spend elsewhere in the game to put something in. Video game developers don’t like to waste time, and putting microtransactions of any type in a game costs a significant amount of time and thus money. That’s just to put in the market, entitlement system, or just the UI. Even on sequels if nothing changed, there’s testing time, new products to put in the marketplace, and maintenance.
Companies wouldn’t spend time making microtransactions unless they expected to recoup that cost, and when they work you recoup huge percentages of that time. That’s the goal of all video game development.
The point though is if there’s a microtransaction in the game, it’s assumed that someone somewhere will pay for it. It doesn’t have to be you, but it’s intended to be used by someone, it’s not there just because it’s window dressing.
Second, microtransactions change how games are designed.
If I’m making a game and let’s say I’m well-meaning, I design an amazing game, but I want to add some extra content that I have to charge for, and I make a deal where I say, every time I sell that, I’ll give the creator 1 dollar for it. So as a developer I make the charge 2 dollars to the user, so I make a profit of a single dollar per sale, and I make ten thousand sales, that seem fine on a million dollar product. The creator made money, I made money for the work I put in, and the game didn’t get hurt. That’s the theory.
But it’s time for me to make a sequel, and now even as a well-meaning person or company I realize I could make that same deal with another creator, or multiple creators, and let’s say it was a hat , so rather than have 10 or 12 free hats, I might put 4 free hats in the sequel and this time have 8 different 2 dollar hats for people to buy. That’s consumer choice, right? I might make eighty thousand dollars, I might make more, I might make less, the whole point though is because there’s enhanced profitability I start designing the game to assist that.
That doesn’t mean this is always aggressively done. Sometimes, it’s just one or two people who realize there’s more money to be made, and sometimes it’s just something that comes up in the back of people’s minds. But other times it’s more direct.
I’ve worked at companies that have microtransactions and have talked to people in other companies privately, and I’ve heard some rather iffy things said. I’ve also seen a change in the attitude of a studio where resources are being allocated. If you have three modes in the game, and two modes don’t have microtransactions, questions get asked such as “How do we get microtransactions in the other modes”, even offline modes. In addition, decisions can be made to enhance the microtransaction modes even more because those changes will be more profitable or they want to drive the user there.
This idea doesn’t touch on loot boxes or duplicitous microtransactions, I want to talk about that, but the point is even well-meaning companies will incentivize using microtransactions or at least design so they’re useful.
Finally A third point. Microtransactions CAN be free. I’ve yet to see a microtransaction that cost the developer money. I’m sure there are some out there. I’m sure there’s licensing deals, but at the same time, those deals exist for all the cars already in Forza, all the licensed music in every game and more, and those are paid out of the 60 dollars or whatever price you pay for a game.
Leveling up a character to 100, or giving you a new loot box of virtual items, or a special key, doesn’t actually cost money. In a lot of cases, it’s just adding a single digit or bit, to a database in the correct place on a server. Yes, there’s a cost to adding a new item into the game.
But really if a game like Overwatch which is ridiculously popular and profitable, couldn’t find a way to give us all the gear they have released, maybe they could have for 80 dollars instead of between 40-60. But let’s not kid ourselves, Overwatch is profitable and probably very profitable, there’s no need for microtransactions in that game. Most games that have microtransactions are profitable before they have them, but even if they aren’t, if the game is worth it, ask for more upfront, don’t hide it in microtransactions.
If somehow a game can’t be profitable at 60, raise the price, or make better decisions. The fact that I hear companies NEED more money isn’t a problem, but switching to microtransactions hurts the product, even if it makes the product more profitable.
The loot boxes aren’t the problem in Overwatch, the problem is they can be bought and they take a long time to earn for free. Players could get a loot box or item per match similar to Rocket League, but they wouldn’t feel as incentivized for buying the loot boxes. Instead, we the players get a slow drip, with the possibility of throwing money at the problem and getting a lot of them.
If I played Injustice 2 and had the ability to just make my character level 30, I’m fine but instead, they have a system where you can grind out a lot of wins for XP, have the AI play for you for 4 hours, or pay about 5 dollars to max level a character. That’s not a good choice, and maybe that third one should have just been an option for free.
Finally, me being Grandpa gamer, wants to remind people, we once would just get free mods, and skins. Anyone back at the beginning of Minecraft, like the real alpha beginning, remembers there were no paid mods, you bought a cheap game and then added skins as you wanted. Texture packs and more are free there. Developers would do it as well in patches and such. So charging for what was once free doesn’t mean it has to be a paid transaction to get a new skin. In fact, maybe it shouldn’t.
Those are three big points I wanted to start with. To make them clear let’s say them one more time.
Point One: Microtransactions exist to be used.
Point Two: Microtransactions change how games are designed.
Point Three: Microtransactions can be free.
Now I’m not totally against microtransactions, though I think as gamers we’ve accepted them in Free to Play games, which have rather problematic reasons, mostly because of Point two, that it changes how games are designed, at least there, people have some ability to play the game for free. The problem is buying a full experience for 60 dollars and then getting asked for more money.
The bigger issue is that, while well-meaning Free to Play companies aren’t that bad. Pokemon Go is a complex discussion in itself and it’s not too bad for microtransactions though there are problems there, mostly due to incubators. There are games like Lord of the Rings Online, and Everquest 1 and 2 now that are free to play with some microtransactions and they mostly try to keep it light.
But when a company decides to go all in on microtransactions, or even partially so, you start to notice flaws in the game itself directly tied to it.
Games like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War or Injustice 2 start to design game systems to have a lot more grinding parts. Now I think I want to talk about grind as gameplay before long, but for the purpose of microtransactions, Middle-Earth Shadow of War has the ability to just get high ranked Orcs in the game. Players don’t have to do this but during the very long end game, they can just pay for loot boxes and gear. Suddenly the long process of getting the gear is shortened and the player doesn’t have to do the boring parts of the game.
But as a game designer, why have those boring parts in any game if you think people will pay to avoid them? I think that question answers itself. And I know people have defended Shadow of War, and other games, saying it doesn’t affect the game or they don’t feel a pull. Point 1, and Point 2 both refute that but… also, WB and Monolith did so also. They literally pulled the Microtransactions out Shadow of War and then said they have rebalanced the game without them.
So, why does a game need to be rebalanced if Microtransactions didn’t affect the game? Another response is that “now the game is fair, microtransactions didn’t do anything to the current game.” Except that’s wrong. The dev team didn’t turn off the game system they designed for microtransactions, they just made them fairer, but bad designs to incentivize the microtransactions still feel like, well, bad designs. They’re part of the game because they were core designs of Shadow of War. You can rebalance skinner boxes, but they’re still skinner boxes. It takes a lot more effort and design to remove them entirely, and the best solution is to never add them in the first place.
This is all true for Injustice 2 as well. It’s a fun game, but the grind to get gear and get up to level 30 is significant. It’s probably possible to get a level 30 character in 4 hours letting the AI fight for you, but that’s not that fun… 38 characters, 4 hours a piece, that’s 152 hours of letting the gameplay for itself to max levels, and you want and maybe need to get those levels for a lot of reasons. Those levels affect what you can fight, how powerful you are, even parts of the multiplayer. Again this isn’t good game design or fighter design, but you buy those source crystals for about 5 bucks to max a character, or get better gear, or so on… Now I’m not complaining about DLC characters, you know… I’m ok-ish with them at least a lot more ok than microtransactions.
I can talk about The Division which locks away skins and outfits and Rapture Reject that gives you a lot of tickets at first to drive the desire and then dries up almost immediately instead of just giving you a great variety of outfits to choose from, but it’s all the same story.
So the point of this video is that I hate microtransaction and you should too? Actually, yeah… that’s about it. At least understand what they’re doing.
And thus any game with microtransactions are bad, right? Let’s boycott every single one? Whoa, hold up, I didn’t say that.
Injustice 2 is a great fighter with flaws. I have issues with the multiverse, I have issues with the AI at times, but the story is excellent, the graphics are great, the fighting is fantastic. It’s a good game. But I’m not happy with the microtransactions in it. On the other hand, Rapture Rejects, well, it’s a 1/5 and I don’t like it, but my problems with it was a very low player count where 10 people are in the room playing a game made for 100. Neither of those are microtransaction discussions. Btw, it’s down to sub 10 players concurrent. Ouch.
So, microtransactions are bad, but honestly, most of them don’t ruin the game they’re in. But they do change the game and make each game worse off. Yes, the level system and speed of leveling in Injustice 2 is probably a direct piece of the microtransactions, bad design followed bad choice, but I still enjoy the game. Sometimes the microtransactions will hurt the final score for me, sometimes not, such as The Division.
As I write this, I’m playing Warhammer Vermintide 2, it actually doesn’t have microtransactions but has loot boxes, and in fact really fair rules for them. There’s luck, but you always get loot around your highest level, so you’re always progressing in addition to opening loot boxes. This is a great system and shows what can be done with these systems if the goal isn’t to try to make more money with it.
The thing is, microtransactions aren’t needed. Sony last year has produced some GREAT games, God of War, and Spiderman are just fantastic and they didn’t need microtransactions to make great games. Sony avoided it and made amazing games, and the rest of the industry dip their toe… or in EA, Ubisoft and Activision’s case dived head first in.
Really, I’m probably not talking to the decision makers, here. I do know there’s a number of devs who listen to me, some of them are my friends, Hey guys. And there’s a lot of consumers who hopefully will see this, what can we do? Unfortunately, this is the bad part of the discussion.
Now my buddies are not the guys making these decisions, choices about microtransactions tend to come from on high, sometimes publishers, sometimes managers, once in a while leads, usually designers and it takes a single person to start down this path, or a single person to make a well-meaning company with acceptable practices go the wrong way. If they’re working on a game with microtransactions they probably know some of this and have seen far worse, but that’s just where they are and I won’t complain. I was there too.
Microtransactions are here to stay, and some games will always have them. I can’t tell you it’ll get better, but we need to start making smart choices as consumers. If a game comes out and says no microtransactions, and another one has them, consider getting the no microtransaction game because the lack of them means the game should have better design because they’re not bogged down in these systems. That doesn’t mean it’s always the case, but also pay attention to the design of the game and microtransaction systems in it, because often you’ll see a subtle or not so subtle push to them.
Also, make it clear you don’t like them. Boycotts really don’t work, I mean I know the Battlefront 2 outcry worked ish…. But Anthem still has microtransactions just not loot boxes… yet. These systems will be here for a long time.
The thing is, you don’t have to hate these games, you don’t have to have little tirades about microtransactions every day or every release, but at least consider what they are doing to games you and I love. What design decisions are being made to support microtransactions, and let’s all make smarter choices. If a game is grindy with an option to skip the grind as a purchase, maybe just skip the game. If a game has great gameplay like Overwatch with cosmetic loot boxes, make the decisions based on the gameplay not the microtransaction parts of the game.
Of course, try to avoid stat or skill based microtransactions those are always bad. And you know… just make smart choices.
And also don’t try to defend Overwatch loot boxes, because “They’re cosmetic” or “You don’t feel the pull”. Because that allows developers to continue down this path. If we drew a line in the sand at horse armor, we wouldn’t see the wealth of every game demanding more money for rather normal stuff. We’ve probably lost the day with DLC, but at least let’s try to hold back microtransactions.
You can disagree about Overwatch’s loot boxes, and complain about them, without having to give up Overwatch. It’s a fun game, enjoy it but express your displeasure about the loot boxes or microtransactions when you have it and can. Expect more from the developers and publishers, because they can be better. Microtransactions are not required in purchased games.
I’ll try not to keep bringing this topic up every five minutes, but I have a feeling microtransactions will continue to grow in ways we don’t expect so we’ll be back here soon. Winter’s no longer coming, it’s here. But luckily there are still bright spots out there and thank god we can find developers who have avoided this pitfall.
With all that said, I hope I’ve helped to get you to think more about what microtransactions are doing or have done in games you do like. Again these discussions are not about fixing the industry, I just don’t think we can do that in 30 minutes. But being aware of what microtransactions do to games you do play hopefully will be helpful for your own enjoyment or at least understanding of what microtransactions are doing.
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Of course, I’ll be back soon with more reviews, I’m planning to talk more about Vermintide soon so that should be here before long, and hopefully, we’ll do another discussion. If you have any suggestions for topics to tackle leave a comment or send me an email.
With all that said, I’m Kinglink and thank you very much for watching.