Microtransactions: What Are They Good For?

Growing up playing video games, there was never any need to pay more after an initial purchase. You’d walk down to your local Toys”R”Us, pick up your brand new copy of Digimon World 3, plonk it in the disc drive of your scratched up PlayStation and you’d be off. If there was an issue with the game, bad luck – there was no 20GB day one patch to fix the problem, you just dealt with it, and once the game was done, the adventure was over. There was no DLC to continue the story, no new characters to be added at a later date, and certainly no micro-transactions for palette swapped costumes. The days of secrets and unlockables in video games seems to have passed, replaced by a system of easily found extras – you just have to be willing to pay for it first. But are microtransactions really all that bad?

The most recent example that ruffled the feathers of gamers was of course, Injustice 2, with NetherRealm announcing a microtransaction system for new costumes and accessories. While the developer has made it absolutely clear that these new costumes will not affect gameplay in terms of combat, and will not allow a pay-to-win system of gameplay, the inclusion is still baffling. Traditionally, fighting games have included a plethora of alternate costumes, but they are generally unlocked by completing story modes or battles for particular roster characters, with players grinding for hours to achieve them.

Those hoping to collect all the costumes in Injustice 2 will just have to be willing to fork out for them. One particularly egregious example of this system is that Supergirl’s alternate Power Girl costume, which can only be bought, turns her into an entirely new character. Ultimately, it means that you can’t unlock the complete roster without paying for this costume. Another feature exclusive to Injustice 2’s microtransaction system is in-tandem levelling up, which allows you to copy level progress from one character to another using ‘Source Crystals,’ which can be bought. While pricing details have yet to be unveiled, the fact that a full-priced game from a popular developer like NetherRealm contains such trivial payments has a lot of people worried for the future of the games industry.

Microtransactions are more commonly found in mobile games, particularly games using the free-to-play system, where gamers are able to play the game initially, but must pay for other items, levels or accessories. Often, this technique is seen as a cheap way to keep kids addicted to gaming, and put money in the developer’s pockets, but microtransactions are what keeps the mobile games industry afloat. Developers who take on mobile games see very little return for their endeavours, particularly on free-to-play titles. Microtransactions are the only form of income for these mobile developers, but recently, developers of AAA console titles have also adopted the practice. The reason for this is simple, and while gamers have expressed outrage at the change, they’re going to have to get used to it. In fact, EA’s COO Peter Moore stated in 2012 that he believed all video games would adopt microtransaction systems within 5-10 years, and it’s a statement that appears to be coming true. With a new generation of gamers being raised on free-to-play mobile titles, microtransactions will eventually become normalised across all games platforms. But that’s not a bad thing, and in fact, it may even be necessary to prevent the death of the gaming industry.

While some gamers may begrudge developers for including paid DLC and microtransactions within their games, the fact is that it can be a worthwhile tool not only for developers, but also for their games. Developers like CD Projekt Red have proved through their Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine DLCs for 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that extra DLC stories can be worthwhile and valuable, adding a whole lot of content to the original game and providing several more hours of gameplay for lesser development costs. While DLC isn’t always worthwhile, such as in the notorious Asura’s Wrath, which saw the final canon ending hidden behind a pay wall, for the most part, DLC works to expand the game in some way and provides a reason for gamers to return. Sure, there’s also the odd overpriced and seriously unnecessary DLC that allows you to see NPC nipples, or gives your horse some neat but useless armour, but overall, DLC can be a valuable tool for developers and gamers, enriching the story and experience of the main game.

The fact of the matter is that developers are losing money by not including some form of DLC or microtransactions within their game. Despite rising development costs, and particularly the need for much larger, higher skilled development teams numbering in the hundreds, the base prices of video games have stayed around the $80 mark for quite some time. This is despite the rising cost of nearly every other good or service available to consumers. In fact, recently launch prices for games have gone down, with Horizon: Zero Dawn and Mass Effect: Andromeda both launching at a startling $69 in some retail outlets. With this increasingly lowered cost, more games companies are putting out season passes and other DLC in order to cover the rest of the cost of development, marketing and publishing.

The teams of developers required for such prolific franchises are absolutely huge, and so are the costs of creating these games. By purchasing these extras, you are directly contributing to developers and publishers, and allowing them to keep creating the games that we all love and enjoy. While paying for a simple palette swap may seem cheap and unreasonable, and many have been quick to call out NetherRealm for so-called ‘money-grabbing’, these microtransactions have become a necessary evil for developers. Purchasing a game at an average cost of $80 contributes some money to developers, publishers, retail stores, and some to manufacturing and distribution costs. Even then, developers are struggling to make decent money from games that they’ve worked on tirelessly.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is the most recent game to introduce these microtransactions, will pricing bundles starting at around $5 for 500 game points. These points can be spent on new multiplayer packs, which contain some accessories and weapons that can be unlocked normally, but will be unlocked immediately through payment. Unlike Injustice 2, this system will allow for some level of pay-to-win in multiplayer battles, as higher level weapons and armour will be available to players who purchase these multi-player packs, allowing them to gain an advantage over other, non-paying gamers. With this feature being new for the franchise, it will understandably cause some concern, especially with EA considered a reliable and prolific company. If even EA has to include microtransactions to make a game like Mass Effect financially viable, what might a smaller developer need to do? With rising costs, a price ceiling for games, and an increasing lack of support in terms of funding and support, microtransactions are one of the last lifelines for the games industry.

While you may not like microtransactions, it’s clear that they’re here to stay, and while EA COO Peter Moore likely isn’t some kind of techno-seer, his predictions about the advance of microtransactions in the games industry aren’t far off the mark. As gamers, we’ve been raised on a range of brilliant and exciting game, but with the future of the gaming industry in jeopardy, it’s time to buck up, stop complaining, and start giving something back.