Talking Point: The Slippery Slope of Micro-Transactions

Where will it all end?

We recently shared some news from an investor briefing, in which EA's chief financial officer, Blake J. Jorgensen, outlined EA's plans for a future with micro-transactions in all of its games. It seems pertinent to own up to the fact that the tone of that news article wasn't exactly delighted with the idea — while acknowledging that the gamer ultimately retains the choice of whether to use this system — and it was a topic that prompted a fair bit of debate within the Nintendo Life community. With that in mind, we want to take the chance to look at the issue in a little more detail and, most importantly in our case, consider its future role on Nintendo systems.

As a reminder, EA's CFO made clear that the recent trends of optional micro-transactions in retail games, in titles such as Dead Space 3, isn't going anywhere, with EA now actively stepping up its progress into that marketplace. As the past five years or so have brought an increasing focus on download retail options as well as paid-DLC, micro-transactions are undoubtedly the next logical step in the continuing monetisation of games. EA, and we don't necessarily mean this as a blunt criticism, are often at the forefront — with companies such as Activision and Ubisoft — in exploring every means to increase revenues.

Before we dive off into the potential negatives and pitfalls of this micro-transaction trend, it's important to recognise that, ultimately, developers and publishers need to make as much money as possible to survive. Development costs are higher than ever, and so we have the standard dance between publishers getting as much cash as possible from us, the consumers, without letting the relationship go sour. Some of us may complain about DLC and extras such as the endless "packs" in FIFA Ultimate Team — not included in the latest Wii U version — but these products wouldn't exist without demand.

The distinction between DLC and micro-transactions is that the latter offers small, increasingly minor extras that can be deemed as important in the main game, rather than an optional set of levels, maps or stages. That said, there's something a little worrying about a concept originally conceived for the smartphone/tablet space being increasingly shoe-horned into the conventional gaming market. Nintendo itself is in a somewhat awkward spot in this regard, as it's made necessary moves to ensure that Wii U, in particular, will support micro-transactions, while distancing itself from the idea of using it in its own games.

It's telling that in late 2012, Satoru Iwata tackled the idea of low-cost DLC extras — micro-transactions, in other words — in Animal Crossing: New Leaf; he described the idea of paying money for items in the game as "unwholesome" and "absolutely not being added". The company has, so far, shown enthusiasm for DLC in the form of level-packs and/or maps, as in Fire Emblem: Awakening, but has stayed away from giving fans of the strategic RPG the chance to buy a powerful sword or weapon for 49 cents.

That's ultimately what EA, and others in the industry, are proposing, with paid options for "a truck, a gun, whatever it might be". What's more, we suspect there'll be an audience for this content, as there are plenty of gamers that, whether by choice or limited finances, buy a small number of core triple-A releases and then top up with DLC and online play. Those competitive FPS players, in particular, may find themselves drawn into paying a dollar for a weapon that they're unwilling to grind for, all in order for some better XP and stats.

Two major issues immediately spring to mind. First of all, in the arguably understandable business attitude of profits at any cost, the industry's big players are in danger of encouraging greater devotion to individual games, rather than a wider variety of titles. If a gamer buys FPS "X" and plays as normal, before finding themselves drawn into spending $20 on 'trucks, guns or whatever', perhaps that gamer will opt-out of a purchase of another game due to a lighter wallet. That $20 will serve the big boy's release well, but they'd do well to remember that they're part of a wider eco-system. If certain franchises — such as Call or Duty and FIFA — increase their vice-like grip on the industry further, more medium and small-sized studios could struggle to pick up sales from the same group of consumers. If the traditional games market evolves into little more than a handful of triple-A releases making all of the headlines, we'd argue that more gamers could walk away, which the declining year-on-year industry sales figures show could be happening already.

Earlier we also mentioned that awkward dance between publishers and consumers, as companies like EA try to extract more cash while making it feel worth our while. The practice of DLC — especially the "day one" variety — already irritates some, and if done poorly micro-transactions will take that level of dissatisfaction into a whole new ball-park. The mobile space is a good place to see this in action — and consider that games are criticized for this practice when free, not $60 — and we can point to a recent high profile example. Real Racing 3 is a visually attractive in-depth racer on iOS and Android that's reliant on micro-transactions; published by EA, below is an extract of what Eurogamer has said about the model in this game, before awarding it 3/10.

There's a good game somewhere within Real Racing 3 - and there are plenty of free-to-play games that prove this model can work successfully while respecting the player. Firemonkeys, and perhaps more pertinently EA, have got that balance horribly, horribly wrong, to an extent where the business model becomes the game - with gut-wrenching results.

Let's finish with a little maths. You notice the car you've just bought in a £13.99 pack is suspiciously slow in races, so you want to acquire the first of three engine upgrades that costs 44,000 credits. If you get 3500 credits for winning a race after getting tail-ended just once by another car, get handed a 2855 credit repair bill for the damage and then have to pay another 500 credits to get the oil changed - a job that takes 20 minutes to do, unless you want to hand over a little more cash - what's the final number?

And so we have the inherent danger of this practice, which by its nature can be more cynical and ruthless than standard DLC. Real Racing 3 is reportedly the perfect example of how an "optional" system like this is in practice mandatory, as developers make the in-game currency and resources so scarce or slow to arrive that you either pay up or face a grinding, unsatisfactory experience. If it's aggravating in an inexpensive mobile game, how will it feel in a retail game? It will affect Nintendo gamers, of course, as we're all part of that aforementioned eco-system and, ultimately, multi-platform games that take this approach are likely to do so on Wii U as well.

The sensible thing would be for publishers to start working towards "retail" console games with a much lower price, or free, that then included micro-transaction models. Unfortunately, the great cash-grab of the industry is likely to lead to full-price games that then ask you to buy DLC maps and levels, and then force you into a choice between relentless grinding or putting up more cash. It's not a particularly enticing prospect.

What do you think of micro-transactions in console games, and do you think it will be a positive or negative in future experiences? Let us know what you think in the comments below.