I know this isn’t completely fair but I really like the idea of pointing the finger directly at Apple when it comes to the rise of the free-to-play model and microtransactions in general. Without the iOS app-store I feel that the gaming landscape might be a vastly different one. Of course you might also be able to point the finger at the guy who originally authored the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft 3. I won’t hold you in suspense over my feelings on the matter; I’m not a huge fan of either free-to-play, or microtransactions in general. That’s not to say I don’t play any free-to-play games, or that I’ve never made a microtransaction purchase, but that doesn’t mean that I have to wave my hands in support of either model. Before we go any further I’d like to be clear that microtransactions and the free-to-play model, while often linked conceptual, aren’t necessarily the same thing at all. Some games are truly free-to-play. Other games are pay-to-play and still feature microtransactions. Let’s first start with free-to-play.
The free-to-play problem.
Most people who actively dislike free-to-play games seem to have a problem identifying in detail what it is about those experiences that turns them off. I believe that this vagueness is an intentional part of the design of these types of games, and a big reason why free-to-play games tend not to hook the “real gamer” crowd as much as the casuals. Let me clarify… Free-to-play games take money to make and they need revenue from somewhere so they need you to do one of two things. You either need to view some ads or you need to buy some in-game stuff. Both of these options require that you enjoy the game to a high enough degree that you feel justified in doing one of those things. This leads to designers creating games that have an addictive nature, for obvious reasons. There are fantastic games out there that I’d gladly play for free if you forced me to watch a few commercials every fifteen minutes. If you told me that I could get my hands on Batman: Arkham Knight for free today, I’d watch your ads. The thing is, Batman: Arkham Knight is expensive to make and it’s gameplay hook isn’t nearly as deceptively addictive. By contrast, Candy Crush Saga is easy to make, comparatively cheap, and has an enormous install base to draw from. The point here is that the free-to-play model discourages developers from creating robust player experiences like those found on regular prices console and PC games and instead encourages them to adopt the same type of mentality that casino game designers employ. In fact, many of the most popular free-to-play games on the iOS store are, in fact, casino games. Not only are they casino games, but they’re slot machine style games that don’t even allow for real money pay outs. That doesn’t preclude them from offering microtransactions though.
Let’s stop for a second here and analyze the utter insanity of those last couple of sentences. In this world there exists virtual slot machines. These virtual slot machines offer zero chance for actual payout. People still pay real money to buy chips to plunk into said virtual slot machines so that they can continue to win not-real money. What? I’m having visions of that kid after his dentist appointment, coming down from his high saying, “Is this real life?” This, dear readers, is why gamers have such trouble getting on board with the free-to-play model. The free-to-play model, by it’s very nature, requires much more engagement of the player than traditional games. If I went out and purchased Batman: Arkham Knight I could bring it home and play it…or not. Rock Steady doesn’t care one way or the other what I do at that point. I’ve already purchased their product and I’m free to engage with it however and whenever I want. Free-to-play games on the other hand, need you to engage on a regular basis. That’s why addictive gameplay hooks are so popular. It’s also why “waiting” games are so popular.
Playing the “waiting” game.
I’m defining waiting games as that whole sub-genre of semi-RTS games where after the first 30 or so minutes of gameplay everything requires you to wait for it’s completion. Games like Game of War, Clash of Clans, and even Fallout Shelter all fit this model. These titles are popular for similar reasons that the casino-style games are; they’re addictive. They add another devious hook though. They require immense amounts of patience…or some money. No one enjoys the part of waiting games where you wait. We want our structures to be built and our troops to be trained now. And we can have that, we need only plunk down a few bucks for some coins or gems or galactic credits. Sure, there is a certain amount of waiting in a traditional RTS, but typically you’re micromanaging many other aspects of the game while you’re waiting for one building, so you’re not left with nothing to do. Waiting games give you a taste of something moderately interesting, hook you in, and then bash you over the head with speed-up tokens.
So yeah, free-to-play is kind of gross.
All of this adds up to free-to-play often feeling oddly icky, especially if you’re a traditional gamer. If you’ve console or PC games for any length of time longer than say, two years, you’re aware of a period in time when you could buy a game and count on it at least being…something. Sure, some games were still terrible, but they were still attempting to do things. It’s not that those games don’t exist anymore either, obviously they still do. But that’s why free-to-play feels so odd. It’s not the norm for us gaming traditionalists. We’re looking for proper, packaged experiences that feel something tangible. Not some shell simply made to manipulate us into spending money.
Microtransactions and the thin gray line.
Ironically enough, I don’t necessarily have a problem with microtransactions, in theory. It feels like a really strange dichotomy, but it’s true. Stranger still, I think I prefer microtransactions in pay-to-play games. I know, super weird. The way I see it, free-to-play games need your money to survive, pay-to-play games just want it. When you buy Madden ’15 for instance, you can participate in “Ultimate Team Mode” where you can buy packs of digital trading cards and make your ‘ultimate team’. You don’t need to do that though. The majority of the game is available to you without that. Furthermore, you can earn card packs by playing the game so you don’t have to spend real money. Now, before you chastise me because you can do the same thing with many free-to-play games, realize that it’s hard to earn coins when you’re stuck waiting, or you’re playing a casino game where the odds are stacked against you. In those games, you’re meant to lose. In Madden, you can still have fun playing a football game without all that trading card junk.
Keep in mind that many microtransactions as it relates to pay-to-play games are either cosmetic, or simply shortcuts to things you could otherwise earn without a microtransaction. The cosmetic stuff I have zero problem with, mostly because I’ve never cared all that much about cosmetic stuff in games, period. I can’t think of a single occasion where I’ve gone out of my way to buy any item simply for cosmetic purposes. I could see possibly doing that in The Sims, but then, I don’t play The Sims, so I could care less. The shortcut stuff, is another matter. Personally, if you’re that much of a fan of a game like Battlefield, I don’t understand why you’d buy all that boost stuff anyway. If you play the game a lot, you’ll inevitably collect all of it relatively quickly. That said, I don’t really begrudge anyone a differing opinion on this matter.
Where microtransactions get into a gray area is when they start affecting the design of a game. If a game gives you a set amount of ammunition for you gun that is excessively low, and then prompts you to make a microtransaction to buy more, that’s icky to me. If, on the other hand, a game gives you the option to buy a super-duper-kill-everyone-in-one-shot gun for $5, be my guest. I guess what I’m saying here is; if a publisher wants to give you the keys to ruin your own experience, go for it. If a publisher wants to hinder the experience for everyone for the sake of padding their pockets, that’s not so good.
MMOs and MOBAs.
MMOs and MOBAs fall into a really strange place in all of this because for many, games like Dota 2 and League of Legends are more than the typical free-to-play garbage that we all scoff at. The same can be said for many free-to-play MMO games. So are those games really different, or are they just getting a free pass because they live on platforms that you don’t hold in the palm of your hand. In my opinion, the MOBA stuff is largely fine. Buying cosmetic items, and even buying heroes in free games that you may spend thousands of hours playing seems like a decent trade. I’ve heard people go so far as to say, “I bought something in League simply to support the developer.” Okay. MMOs tend to be a little bit different though.
The difficulty with free-to-play MMOs is that the type of microtransactions available vary from relatively innocuous to down-right egregious. It may have changed, but the last time I checked Star Wars: The Old Republic had locked down virtually every aspect of the game by some form of microtransaction. Even the amount of instanced dungeons you could participate in was limited by some weekly cap (removed by a microtransaction of course). Guild Wars 2 offers XP boosters, crafting boosters, and many other types of “boosts”. Even World of Warcraft, a subscription based MMO, offers a level 90 character boost for an outrageous $60. This stuff feels wrong to me. It feels wrong, not because the developers of these games don’t deserve to make money, but because the way they’ve gone about doing it feels unnecessary.
The bottom line.
Large developers continue to jump on the free-to-play and microtransaction bandwagon because, by and large, it works. For some reason people are willing to pay for fake chips for slot machines they can’t win. They’re willing to buy speed-up tokens to build a building only to wait some more when it needs to be upgraded. I sometimes wonder if I’m wrong about this. I mean, if you love playing the slots, isn’t it better to drop a few bucks at home then blow your paycheck at the river boat? If you like Clash of Clans, who am I to tell you not to pay for something, right? I’m about to get really smug here, but I have to be honest. My problem is that I don’t like gross gameplay habits of these dirty iPhone casuals tainting my gaming experience. Why are there microtransactions in Mortal Kombat X, or Metal Gear Solid 5? It’s certainly not because we as traditionalist gamers begged for it. It’s because some marketing jag got it in his head that if Candy Crush can make hundreds of millions, why not Madden, and the MK, and even Solid Snake. If the iBoners (that’s my new anti-mobile gamer epithet) wouldn’t taint my experience, I wouldn’t care. But they are. So Mom, put down Candy Crush and stop spamming my Facebook account. Also, where is my meatloaf.