I like the idea of content creators getting money for their creations. I like the idea of players being able to experience that content for free. Unfortunately, for these two positions to exist, the money has to come from somewhere. Alternative one: we either have creators starving because they don’t charge for their games, which is ridiculous. Alternative two: we have players paying a fee to play games – people buy the game, and, in an oversaturated mobile market with very little content control, players sometimes lose money on uninformed purchases.
Neither of the above alternatives are ideal.
There are three more alternatives, and these all delve into the realm of what is broadly as “free to play”. Advertisers pay creators to place adverts in the game, effectively selling private data to people who can use that data to target them for marketing, or sell them products directly. Creators release demos of the product, before allowing for purchase after a set period with the game. Or, creators release their entire game for free with the option of purchasing additional content piecemeal.
Of all of these options, the most morally fraught is the last one – microtransactions.
Microtransactions have a whole lot of potential to enable players to experience content for relatively low amounts, while also allowing creators to receive income. The issue, naturally, is in how these payments are implemented in game.
The most consumer friendly implementations are undoubtedly those that leave core gameplay untouched by microtransactions. Games like Team Fortress 2 that let you play the entire game, completely unobstructed, entirely for free embrace microtransactions for purely cosmetic items. Buying a hat for small change makes zero gameplay difference, apart from looking pretty/silly. Sure, a bunch of people won’t buy anything, but some will, and with a userbase that can instantly expand due to the game being entirely free, someone’s making the cash it costs to provide the constant updates.
Other games play mostly normally, but provide microtransactions as a form of expedited unlock system. Tribes Ascend, for example, allows for normal play, gaining experience to unlock different weapons, items, and classes. While experience gain is perhaps a little slower than it might have been in a non-free to play game, it’s still entirely possible to obtain everything given enough time and play. Purchasing gold will instantly enable unlocks, cutting down the grind. Again, the developers get money from the people who want to purchase their desired loadouts instantly, and provide a free experience to a potential install base.
But the worst type of microtransaction is the one that is required for game progression. A game that gates off gameplay through timers of some sort. These can be literal timers, counting down until you are able to take actions. Or, they can be disguised as commodities, which are earned over time. Perhaps the most infamous example is Smurfs’ Village’s Smurfberries. Smurfberries generate over time, and are used to purchase things in game. However, you can buy Smurfberries for real cash instantly opening up gameplay. Without spending money, the base game limits the actual options available to players, meaning people either have to wait extended amounts of time before playing, or spend real money on in game items. It is, in essence, pay to play.
Needless to say, gauging the player with constant microtransactions to facilitate “normal” gameplay is not a great way to handle the funding model.
And now, we have Dungeon Keeper.
The “remake” of the classic PC game, Dungeon Keeper falls into the last of the three models. Buying Gems with real money instantly enables gameplay, which otherwise would take days of time to wait for. Naturally, critics and fans slammed this move, labelling it as greedy and detrimental to the core game.
But it asks an interesting question – how do you do microtransactions right?
For multiplayer games, the answer is easy – either provide cosmetic items, or unlock boosts. Microtransactions seem especially difficult to implement in single player games, though, and doubly so on mobile platforms. After all, a fancy hat is useless if you have nobody else to show it off to. And, with the expected low price of a mobile release, charging a nominal fee instead of a microtransaction is often perceived as detrimental, automatically eliminating a wide userbase used to free games. So we inevitably get the timer control model – in game commodities that can be earned given time, gating off gameplay to arbitrary extents – some worse than others.
So how do we fix it for single player games? If I knew I’d probably be a millionaire. Since I am obviously not a millionaire, I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to answer that question.
The bottom line is, free to play is not inherently bad. There are some fantastic free to play games that do not exploit hapless players with excessive or forced microtransactions. There are also terribly exploitative and cynical implementations of microtransactions that should be avoided like Dungeon Keeper. The free to play model is a potentially lucrative and ethical way of feeding developers and providing gamers with entertainment. The real trick is walking that fine line.