"Microtransactions, subscriptions and other biz models will be the next generation of games," tweeted Avalanche Studios' creative director Christofer Sundberg last week. "It is that simple."
Is it, though? That's somewhat debatable. While it's been abundantly clear for a while now that developers and publishers (emphasis on the latter) are more than delighted to start continually charging players for additional game content -- even when the game costs $60 in the first place -- it's also been abundantly clear for a while that a lot of people don't like this way of doing business.
And yet, it seems, we're still stuck with them.
Recently, it's emerged that mobile kart racer and completely unnecessary Angry Birds spinoff Angry Birds Go would feature not only an energy system -- one of the worst things ever to happen to gaming, as so eloquently argued by Simon Parkin -- but also an array of microtransactions to provide yourself with a game-breaking advantage. The worst of these by far is a car that costs $100 by itself, but you can also pay up for in-game currency to effectively allow you to use in-game powerups indefinitely, thereby removing pretty much any semblance of competition or challenge from the game.
Separately, Microsoft and Turn 10 Studios have been drawing criticism for the presence of microtransactions in Forza Motorsport 5 on Xbox One, allowing players to spend considerable amounts of real-world money on "tokens," used to purchase cars without spending credits earned through gameplay. The game has been particularly heavily criticized for the fact it has changed one of the fundamental aspects of the series' reward structure -- giving players free cars as rewards for completing races and other events -- in favor of a free-to-play-style "grind or pay up" mechanic, and users on NeoGAF have calculated it would cost you somewhere in the region of $1,500-3,000 to buy all the game's cars using the token system, depending on what quantities you buy the virtual currency in.
The teams behind these games claim to be listening to criticisms -- Rovio told our sister site Eurogamer that it would "tweak" the game after it had been heavily criticized for its microtransactions, and Turn 10's Dan Greenawalt told Shacknews that the developer is "monitoring feedback" regarding the in-game economy, and noted that the team would be able to adjust it on the fly. Neither Rovio nor Greenawalt gave convincing explanations as to what changes they were going to make, nor a convincing justification as to why they are in the game in the first place -- though Turn 10's Brian Ekberg did at least attempt to justify the high token cost of some cars by explaining that the team was trying to make the higher-end cars more rare by making them harder to purchase using tokens. But if that's the case, why offer them for sale through real money transactions at all?
Speaking with Kotaku, Microsoft Studios' Phil Spencer noted that the company was "still learning" when it comes to microtransactions.
"It's easy to say something like, 'I'll never allow somebody to buy the win of the game, I won't let them buy victory,' but that's kind of a trite answer," he said. "I'd say, 'yeah, I guess, I have that line, that [we wouldn't have] 'pay five bucks and get 1,000 achievements,' or something stupid like that.' I'm always pushing against that. But, in reality, that's not what the gamers are looking for. They're usually looking for customization and their gameplay style opening up."
Spencer has a point; games where microtransactions are not only tolerated but embraced wholeheartedly include experiences such as Dota 2, League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, where the things you pay for don't impact the gameplay and instead allow you to express yourself through cosmetic items -- or simply "tip" the developer if you're enjoying their game.
EVE Online developer CCP Games has taken this one step further by allowing players to donate "PLEX" to the relief efforts for Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines. PLEX is an item sold for real money that effectively acts as a player's subscription fee to the game; the twist is that it's an item that can be traded in-game for in-game currency, too -- or, in this case, donated to a good cause. In other words, if you're a skilled EVE player who makes a lot of virtual money, you can effectively pay for your game time entirely using in-game currency.
Angry Birds Go and Forza Motorsport are different, though; their microtransactions negatively impact gameplay by gating off content if you don't pay, and unbalancing the game if you do. They're far from the only games to adopt these pricing models, either. Mobile and social gaming can be pointed at as the main culprit in this instance, where a lot of more casual players -- usually those who have come to gaming through mobile rather than those who have grown up with a controller in their hand -- are unwilling to even consider downloading a paid app, but will cheerfully drop up to $100 at a time on consumable in-game items. It seems that as the next generation arises, Microsoft in particular is looking hungrily at the potential additional revenue it can drum up through in-game microtransactions such as those in Forza and Ryse -- and mobile games will continue to get more and more unreasonable.
Is this really the direction we want gaming to continue in? I know I certainly don't.
I put the question in the headline to you, readers; does anybody really like microtransactions?