The Creeping Influence of Microtransactions in Sports Games

Konami would do well to learn from the difficulties experienced by NBA 2K14 in implementing microtransactions.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

"If you don't have a lot of time, then with microtransactions you can go buy a lot of players that you want."

Those words were spoken by the head of Konami's European Studio James Cox in an interview with IGN, but they could have come out of the mouth of pretty much any publishing executive from the past five years or so. His plan for Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 looks a lot like the plan for NBA 2K, which in turn looks a lot like the plan for mobile games. Microtransactions, as usual, are inevitable. It's only a question of what form they take.

In this case, Cox is pitching accelerants—a form of microtransaction that speeds up grinding (I feel more and more like I'm writing about drugs as I type this). The idea is to allow players to either grind Game Points for their favorite players or to allow them to simply buy that player outright.

"The exact final mechanic is all still being tuned, but yes—if you want to buy Ronaldo, one way or another, you will be able to do that," Cox acknowledges. "And you will be happy with what you spend your money on."

In introducing microtransactions, Konami is hoping to finally get in on the gold rush that began with the introduction of Ultimate Team several years ago and has steadily grown with each passing year. More than anything else, microtransactions are what fuel sports games, enabling executives to look past the high cost of development and licensing fees. For that reason, it's no surprise that Konami wants a piece of the pie for themselves.

What is surprising is how they are going about it. Personally, I can't stand Ultimate Team because I have no interest in building my team out of packs of cards (I never was much of a TCG player), but it's always been relatively easy to ignore in games like FIFA and Madden. I just tune out the barrage of Ultimate Team ads and focus on franchise mode and superstar mode like I always have.

Konami seems to be taking a different approach though. From the sound of it, they plan to supplant the traditional Master League mode—Pro Evolution's answer to franchise mode—with the microtransaction-driven MyClub. Instead of bargaining with a player on the transfer market, you can just buy them straight-up. In that, they are taking an approach not unlike that of NBA 2K, which similarly introduced Virtual Currency in its MyPlayer and MyGM modes by making it possible to purchase stat upgrades with real world currency.

In trying to encourage players to spend extra money on their games, Visual Concepts inadvertently damaged NBA 2K's balance, turning into a grindfest for anyone who didn't want to purchase VC.

Unfortunately for 2K (and maybe Konami as well), Virtual Currency was a fiasco. Even simple tasks like adjusting a lineup required VC, which often took a great deal of grinding to accumulate. 2K soon realized the error of their ways and started handing out free VC left and right; but by then, the damage was done. In trying to encourage players to spend extra money on their games, Visual Concepts inadvertently damaged NBA 2K's balance, turning into a grindfest for anyone who didn't want to purchase VC.

What Konami is proposing for PES 2015 isn't precisely the same; but the fact that microtransactions are infiltrating the offline Master League mode should still give some people pause. The transfer markets in Pro Evolution Soccer have never been especially well-balanced, and it's easy to imagine a scenario in which it's simply impossible to purchase high-level players like Ronaldo without spending extra money. Given that much of the appeal of the GM mode is bound up in building a super team (I had Suarez and Ibrahimovic on West Ham in FIFA 14), that could be a problem.

From my own experience, microtransactions that directly effect in-game mechanics are rarely optional. Inevitably, you will hit that wall where you are sick of grinding Gamer Points or VC and simply want to keep progressing. In Ultimate Team, you can at least earn points by selling cards you don't want on the open market. PES 2015 is in real danger of being a full-on grind.

Ultimately though, this is where sports games as a whole are going. EA Sports has shown a remarkable degree of restraint in keeping microtransactions out of the flagship modes in Madden NFL, FIFA, and NHL, but I wonder how long that will last. With the amount of money that Ultimate Team brings in, it's just inevitable that EA's executives will keep attempting to introduce more revenue streams until the proverbial golden goose is cooked. This is true across almost every genre, from RPGs to shooters, but sports games seem especially vulnerable given their mainstream audience and the precedent that has already been set.

Sports game publishers would do well to rein in their worst impulses though and resist the temptation to keep monetizing the gameplay. And if microtransactions are inevitable, then development teams should find more constructive ways to make money. For instance, I would happily buy the 1998 Minneseota Vikings. I wouldn't mind spending money on vanity items like special stadiums, either. I'll happily spend five bucks on early access to the new Minnesota Vikings stadium now under construction in Minneapolis.

Contrary to popular belief, microtransactions needn't be poisonous. League of Legends has proven that much. But the second that they start infiltrating the general gameplay, problems begin to develop. We've already seen that happen with NBA 2K. Hopefully it won't happen with the rest of sports games as well.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #1 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    Meanwhile...deep in Konami Headquarters...

    "Wait, we still have a series other than MGS? Oh, PES. Yes, yes, now I remember our goal with that one: make it worse and worse with every iteration."
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  • Avatar for metalangel #2 metalangel 3 years ago
    Remember a few years ago, when MS and Sony both got hacked and people were finding the card details associated with their accounts had been used to buy stuff?

    I knew a few people who got hacked. In every case, their details were used to buy lots and lots of Ultimate Team packs.

    Just so Konami knows the sort of delightful customers this business practice will attract.
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  • Avatar for aros #3 aros 3 years ago
    Sony's baseball games get an easy ride on purchasing stat upgrades.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #4 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @aros That's because it's pretty easy to ignore.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #5 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Did you actually get Suarez to play for West Ham, or was he too busy chewing on the other players?
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