The Micro-transaction Problem

Micro-transactions are  becoming more pervasive in games these days.  Whether it was the single use Praxis kits in Deus Ex:  Mankind Divided, the VC in NBA 2K17 or the most recent offender, the card packs in Gears of War 4.  I’m not against micro-transactions in theory, just like I’m not against DLC in theory.  The problem comes in when either the developers or the publishers start to balance their games to favor the micro payments over earning the rewards in game via skill.

Most of the younger gamers today probably don’t remember arcades and definitely weren’t alive at their height in the 70s and 80s.  Arcade games were not fair, they weren’t geared to be fair.  Look at Dragon’s Lair as an example of this, that game was designed to take your money until you learned where every trap and jump was located.  Gauntlet is another example of this, in arcade Gauntlet your health slowly ticked down to zero whether you had taken damage or not.  You had to memorize which chests contained food, which contained poison food and which contained the grim reaper and even then it was semi-random.  Now arcade cabinets were expensive to maintain, not as expensive as pinball machines but at twenty five to fifty cents per play, you needed a lot of kids and adults to lose to make money.

In some regards I have seen the arcade model in mobile gaming the idea of buying continues or as a lot of games have renamed it stamina to keep going.  This is no different than putting in two more quarters to keep playing in the arcades.  This is type of micro-transaction that I hope to never see in the PC or console gaming space, but other types of micro-transactions which started on mobile have been appearing on other types of games for some time now.

The first of this which I find the most egregious are the random chance transactions.  Whether you are buying a character pack in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes or purchasing a card pack in Gears of War 4 there is little certainty in what you will get.  You might get a high rank Kylo Ren in Galaxy of Heroes or you might get an ability you have several of for horde mode in Gears of War 4.  This also holds true in the lock boxes for CS:GO or Overwatch, the randomness of the nature makes it something that I have a hard time supporting especially in a game that I just paid full price for and has a DLC season pass in the case of Gears of War.

Another common type of micro-transaction would be costumes.  I don’t have as big of an issue here as the artists are generally done with their work far before the team moves into QA, it’s fairly rare for an artist to do any bug fixing unless it’s a very small team working on the game.  Sadly even this gets abused though, costumes which used to be easter eggs in games that you earned through obscure means have now been made for sale only.  The most recent example of this would be the tux in Metal Gear Solid 5.  The tux was a staple of the Metal Gear franchise and a nod to James Bond.

If you play MMOs the most common type of micro-transactions are boosters or items from an in game shop.  These are generally a mixed bag, if its a PVE experience like Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars The Old Republic than I see no issue with the boosters as they don’t give a player a competitive advantage.  However if you have ever played most free to play MMOs that come out of South Korea then you truly know what pay to win is.  The worst of the worst in this regard that I have ever played was Conquer Online a game where you lost experience and many times levels or items if you died.  The in game cash shop is full of boosters and other items that give you a clear advantage in what is supposed to be a PVP driven MMO.  A more recent bad example of this happened in Rift, you can actually buy weapons and armor in the in game shop and not skins, the gear has stats and is often times better than gear you can earn from questing or normal play.

The last major type of micro-transaction that I have seen are character packs.  Examples of this would be Gaige or Kreiger in Borderlands 2,  any of the character packs in Payday 2 or Cloud from Final Fantasy VII in Super Smash Bros.  This DLC is harder to judge, some are literally skins like the Payday characters.  Others have their own skills like Cloud or Kreiger.  As seen with the Indiegogo campaign for the Skull Girls DLC we know that developing new characters is rather expensive and not something that can easily be implemented as free content later on.

Ultimately I find micro-transactions in theory to be perfectly fine, the problem is how they have been implemented.  The problem is the publishers and developers that have pushed them in games where they make no sense.  Micro-transactions have no place in single player games, its far too easy to unbalance the games to require them.  In multi-player games it can be more justified as a way to pay for server costs as long as the micro-transactions don’t unbalance the game to give playing players a clear advantage.  This is just another case of a system that can easily be used correctly or incorrectly, however history keeps showing that clearly micro-transactions have no place in gaming as the publishers and developers just can’t help themselves.

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