It’s slowly becoming more common across the entire games industry to see microtransactions appearing in games. First we had full games that we were able to buy and then play as much as we wanted without any further expense. Then, over the years, we have been treated to the wealth of content released to enhance games through DLC (although, to be honest, this method of expanding games through additional content in reality dates back to the 8-bit era).
Now, a more worrying trend is emerging that is changing the way gamers – and publishers are looking at the market. It’s commonplace on Facebook to find a never-ending range of games that are apparently free to play, luring gamers in with the chance to play the same socially-driven game as countless numbers of their friends. Some are resource management games, others are simplified versions of well known PC games (Facebook versions of The Sims and Sim City, for example) and then there are sci-fi titles, RPGs and even film and TV tie-ins. All share a common theme though – for players to truly be able to progress and keep up with challenges thrown at them (including missions and objectives that are often time-limited), players need to acquire in-game objects and even though these can be collected using currency earned during play, this is very difficult to achieve so most dedicated players need to purchase these using good old hard-earned cash.
Without realising it, these players can build up astonishing bills playing these games. While small purchases may not seem like a great deal, it soon adds up and before players realise it, they could spend a staggering amount on these games. If you compare the typical amount charged for a full-price retail game, compared with the amount spent by a dedicated F2P gamer and the difference would be shocking. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some players could spend a couple of hundred pounds a year playing a single “free” game.
There have been a number of high profile cases recently where children have been playing these games using tablets owned by their parents and have amassed credit card bills approaching a staggering four-figure amount. This is a frightening prospect for any parent to contemplate but for this to be accrued where no physical goods change hands or even actual games are purchased is disturbing. While it is argued that parents should monitor their child’s use of such games that utilise microtransactions, the ease at which payments can be made, especially where payment details are stored is dangerous. What may seem like harmless fun at the time can result in worry, and confusion over who really is at fault.
While it can be argued that parents should take better precautions where their children’s gaming is concerned, it is equally easy for adults to make in-game transactions without realising how much is really being spent, especially where online transactions can be linked to mobile phone accounts and when compared to retail games, these costs can become frighteningly exhorbitant. Certainly without realising it, gamers can spend hundreds of pounds a month depending on the game before realising. Certainly I’ve done this myself and paid for “enhanced” content for free games myself to further progress in games but I’ve always limited this to games that I have genuinely had plenty of enjoyment out of, spent a considerable amount of time playing and have felt that if it were a commercial release I would have been happy paying for.
Where the PlayStation is concerned we have seen this implemented slowly over the last few years. The first on a large scale was PlayStation Home. The virtual world opened up a new area of social interaction between PS3 owners and while access to the service and much of the games was free, there was a notable paid element with clothing, furniture, enhancements to games and other premium content and regular gamers do seem willing to pay for this, ensuring that the basic service is free. In fact, this has spread to the PlayStation Vita with the addition of the PlayStation Home Arcade although in this case it has brought the addition of playable arcade games to the system both in-game for Home and as stand-alone games on the Vita itself.
We’ve also been offered MMORPGs DC Universe Online and Free Realms, again offering premium content at a cost while still offering enjoyable online gaming experiences for all players. Granted, to be able to access premium features, enhanced equipment, storage capacity and functionality micro payments are required and additional missions are available as DLC, the game itself – and it has to be said that this is a vast MMORPG – is free and is populated by plenty of gamers.
While the Vita doesn’t have it’s own MMORPG yet, we do have some F2P titles already. Treasures Of Montezuma Blitz has proven to be a fun and popular puzzler and despite offering a microtransaction option, many gamers haven’t felt this necessary. Sony themselves have released a large number of AR games that have been free, choosing to offering additional content and levels as DLC instead as an option to support the free model. Certainly this seems to work as it encourages gamers to pay for games they actually enjoy playing.
The same has also applied to PlayStation Mobile. We have seen a number of games released freely but with additional levels / game modes locked which can be released for a small charge. Lemmings and Bullion Blitz immediately spring to mind but in the latter, there is an entire game available freely (which will be more that good enough for most players) but the additional modes are available for such a low price that it makes the overall package a steal.
Continuing the trend with the other versions of the game, Halfbrick Studios released the PS Vita version of Jetpack Joyride as a free game but offered in-game currency as paid content. While the game can be played without it, again this can help accelerate progress in-game but unlike many not paying doesn’t affect gameplay in any way. The game itself has proven to be incredibly popular and I dare say that many people have paid for coins just to show their appreciation for the developers.
Where I am concerned is something that is slowly creeping in to both the PS3 and PS Vita… games that are paid for but that also charge for in-game currency. If a game is offering additional content or bonus levels for a small payment then generally gamers don’t seem to object to this (unless this is content that is already incorporated into the game from the offset and players just unlock it). However, being asked to pay for a game and then again for in-game funds seems to be an insult to gamers, especially if not only does that currency give players a considerable advantage over others (with Leaderboard positions, for example) or if some in-game items are unattainable by any other means or incredibly difficult.
One of the worst culprits currently is Hungry Giraffe. While we think that the PS Vita conversion is absolutely superb, the addition of micro-transactions does confuse us somewhat. In a typical game a player may only accrue a few thousand of the game’s currency (calories). To unlock the best items (new skins for the giraffe), you need to use anything up to 400,000! While the game itself may only cost £2.39 from the PSN Store, calorie packs cost anywhere between £0.65 and £10.99. Taking that into consideration, if you want to unlock everything, the game doesn’t quite look as good value for money any more…
Micro transactions do have their place in modern gaming, but there needs to be limitations on their usage. Developers need to set realistic values on their games as if they were sold normally, and then any transactions should be set so players shouldn’t need to pay more that that price to be able to purchase every in-game item. If these payments do go over that amount then there is something fundamentally wrong with the payment models in use and – to be frank – gamers are simply being ripped off. Alternatively, why not simply charge more for the games in the first place and adjust the games so we have access to in-game content more easily?
Will the industry change? Unless gamers vote with their wallets it’s extremely unlikely but we all have a responsibility to let publishers and developers know that there is a limit to how much we are willing to spend on in-game content. Unless we do so now, this could be a trend that could extend across gaming as a whole…