Are Microtransactions Bad For Gaming?

By Adam Ma on July 7, 2011, 3:19AM EDT

When the subject of micro-trasactions come up, it's usually in the form of some drama, with the most recent being EVE Online taking the heat for suggesting that their company may want to search for alternative means of making revenue by implementing the heavily disputed form of sales. But EVE isn't the first game to take the heat, nor is it the first game that thrive off of the sales plan that has players pick and choose what content they would like to buy. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, League of Legends and Dungeons and Dragons Online are just a few of the games that have taken advantage of microtransactions and have flourished as a result. From drawing in millions of dollars overnight to taking a game that was floundering and instead helping it thrive and expand, this new form of pay-to-play is nothing if not a success. So why all the fuss? What exactly are microtransactions and why are they such a big deal to gamers if so many people buy into it?

To keep things simple, a micro-transaction is when a consumer spends money on adding something to their game, without necessarily purchasing an entirely new game or changing anything to the existing gameplay. This ranges from anything to map packs, avatar icons, in-game items and occasionally classes. Just about anything has potential to become a micro-transaction, and therein lies the problem that most gamers have. What exactly is sacred when anything and everything in a digital world may be up for sale?

In the case of EVE Online the concerns were fairly simple, no one really cared about a store that sold avatar goods or apparel that was purely cosmetic, but in a game that's almost entirely defined by its player run economy that offers gamers the potential to simply inject high-end weapons and items with the swipe of a credit card threatened to undermine the balance of everything they worked for. That's not to say that CCP was ever going to make such a decision, but it's certainly understandable how it would be a concern. If you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars simply by making a few hard to earn items purchasable than why would you stop? In fact, a business model such as D&D Online's relies on a players impatience to eventually overcome their time investment in the game. Just about everything in-game is accessible to any player that's willing to take the time and energy to work towards it, and for those who simply want to cut to the chase a few easy payments will unlock all of that work immediately. Unfair? Not really considering that the gaming culture that D&D Online is trying to cultivate is more about exploring content at your own pace, but if you take that exact same example and try to apply it to any other game out there it's easy to see why people are in a panic.

When you boil down the subject from the big picture, that's all the commotion surrounding microtransactions really is: panic. Panic that somehow the developers of the game won't realize that implemented high-end content for a few dollars will somehow undermine the entire purpose of the title, which is pretty ridiculous to assume. In the few instances that MMO titles have shifted over to the pay-to-access content, all of the development teams have worked very hard to ensure that players who decide they simply want to play the game without throwing down additional dollars have full rights to the very same content, if not at a much slower pace. Microtransactions on the MMO front don't exist to outright replace a subscription fee and make players pay more to enjoy the same title, they exist to give new players a chance to experience their game without having to spend a lot of money upfront in addition to starting up another subscription.

Non-RPG titles that adapt the micro-transaction model are in a similar situation, players will often times complain about the general price of things such as map packs and then buy them anyway. The fact of the matter is that despite whatever genre the game is or platform that the game is on, the value of the content being purchased is completely determined by how often the player is going to use (or participate in) it. How overpriced (or underpriced) any add-on is doesn't determine if it will make or break the future of a game, and it's important to note that the best part of microtransactions is that the value is completely determined by the individual buyer. Sure, for some a 15 dollar map pack or 10 dollar grouping of new cars is a waste of money. For others, it's a solid investment well worth putting a few extra dollars into.  If I had to choose between spending money on a product I'm not entirely sure I'll enjoy, and a product that I can sample while investing more if I find that experience to be worthwhile, doesn't it make more sense to always choose the ladder option; or on the same page if I had the chance to pay a few more bucks to expand the horizon of a game I'm already heavily dedicated to, isn't that more worthwhile?

I can understand worrying about the balance of any game whenever a developer says they'll be making changes to the pay structure, or likewise adding more items that are only obtainable through spending cash, but the fact of the matter remains that no developer wants to absolutely shred the balance of their game in one single stroke. Almost every single micro-transaction story out there today is a successful one, and there's a reason for that. Developers aren't looking for a way to actively shun their existing player-base, but instead draw in new players while at the same time retaining old ones. A few years ago that meant releasing an entirely new game. Today, technology has given them the chance to simply update what they have.

So while I really do sympathize with the communities that try to let their developers know exactly how they would like the face of their game to change, it's hard to appreciate where the fans are coming from when they're seemingly against any kind of profit the company would try to make. Not all change is bad, and while it's alright to be wary of the adjustments that a developer may be to any title simply writing off something like microtransactions for gaming because you don't like what an impossible worst case scenario may be; and in the case of a fiasco like the one EVE Online is having lately, try not to assume the worst of of your developers. More often than not, they're fighting on your side.

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