Response to Cliffy: Micro-Transactions Make Game Design Worse

Now that Cliff Bleszinksi, one of the fathers of Gears of War, has cut loose from Epic Games, he has time to be more opinionated and vocal on the Internet. That’s good for us — Bleszinski offers some interesting perspectives on a lot of video game issues — but when it comes to his defense of micro-transactions, I must disagree.

Cliffy B, as he’s often known, published a blog post this week in which he defends the micro-transaction model and game publishers at large as they continue in their never-ending quest to make money. In it, he takes the point that players complaining about micro-transactions are complaining for no reason.

“Those companies that put these products out? They’re for profit businesses. They exist to produce, market, and ship great games ultimately for one purpose. First, for money, then, for acclaim. …And when those companies are publicly traded on the stock market they’re forced to answer to their shareholders. …To produce a high quality game it takes tens of millions of dollars, and when you add in marketing that can get up to 100+ million. …Adjusted for inflation, your average video game is actually cheaper than it ever has been. …Another factor to consider is the fact that many game development studios are in places like the San Francisco bay area, where the cost of living is extraordinarily high. … Those talented artists, programmers, designers, and producers that spent their time building the game you love? They need to eat and feed their families. (Something that the hipster/boomerang kid generation seems to forget all too often.)”

I don’t disagree on the ins and outs of capitalism, but rather, the means through which the games industry means to capitalize on us, the player population. We’ve already had the discussion of whether it’s okay for developers and publishers to cut back the value of games by walling off some content after selling consumers a game on a disc. From a cost perspective, Bleszinski seems to think this is inevitable; games are expensive and will get more expensive, and publishers and developers will search for ways to make paying for games palatable to consumers. What I think he misses about this discussion is that micro-transactions (MTX for short), Day One DLC and other practices in this vein actually hurt the quality of games. We see this all the time on the mobile front: Games that are made worse through design as a means of forcing players to pay more for them, with designers putting in systems that make games less fun on purpose. That’s the real threat of the micro-transaction, Day One DLC future.

Let’s take for example Dead Space 3. This is a game that includes a huge and robust crafting system and is overflowing with various resources throughout the game, all of which factor into that weapon-crafting mechanic. It’s also a game that implements MTX well; that is to say, players don’t trip over micro-transactions if they don’t want to. MTX is implemented as an option for players who want to speed up their progress through the game, for whom time might be limited, or who are willing to spend a little more for the opportunity to d–k around with powerful gear. In this case, in theory, this is fine. Visceral Games supports another option for players to engage with the game on their own terms.

But publisher Electronic Arts, which owns Visceral, has said that every game it publishes going forward will include MTX, and that’s where things get problematic. In the case of Dead Space 3, these transactions allow players to spend real money in order to speed their progress through the game — you can pay to remove what is ostensibly a barrier to fun. It’s a speedier path through the game that avoids grinding. But if players prove to EA that they’re willing to pay for the chance to skip over searching for resources to get better weapons, doesn’t that give EA a financial incentive to put other things into their game that players will want to skip? It might not be bad in Dead Space 3, but if EA is adding these transactions into every game it ships, how long until it succumbs to the temptation to start adding un-fun systems to entice players to spend?

In mobile titles such as Real Racing 3, another EA game that just released for free for iOS and Android mobile platforms, premium currency paid for through MTX allows players to speed up a number of timers that pop up through the course of play. As you use your race cars in the game, they wear down and must be maintained and repaired, and each of those repairs activates a timer that players must wait through before they can play again. This is the free-to-play model a number of mobile and social games use — the game allows you to play it for a while, then literally stops you and forces you to wait, unless you’re willing to give it some money to play again.

Think about it: In order to entice people to pay for Real Racing 3, its developers have actively tried to inhibit players from having fun. They’ve made the game worse, hoping you’ll pay to make it better. Critics reviewing Real Racing 3 say MTX ruins this entry into a much-lauded series. But at least that game is free to download — how long until we’re seeing a similar model in EA’s PC and console games, as, brick by brick, they’re slipped into the design? We’re already seeing MTX in a crafting system; maybe next time, Dead Space’s resources will be a little scarcer and the micro-transactions a little more enticing.

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13 Comments on Response to Cliffy: Micro-Transactions Make Game Design Worse

Jay

On March 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Micro transaction games can either be a nice alternative to those who have expendable income and can’t be hassled with some of the nounces of a particular game… Or make a game look like nothing but a cash grab that milks it’s players for all it’s worth. All to often it strays towards the latter, and that’s why micro transactions generally suck.

I get that people want more money, want to find new ways to extend the lives of there product, and reduce the used game market, but micro transactions kill games more often than not.

Tiagonal

On March 1, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I wanted to comment something interesting from this conference but I’m not sure what it was, there’s no such thing as procrastination on weekends tho’ so you might just: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByBVbP4IKuo

1st Lt Jasta

On March 1, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Thanks Phil
I absolutely agree!

Besides the quality and fairness arguments theres another point to it.
Young people get conditioned to spend money for an instand reward of joy, resulting in a reduced impulse control. Drug dealers profit from that very same mechanic.

Lets see where this will lead.
But luckily EA is not the only company on that market.

michael

On March 1, 2013 at 5:06 pm

I will say this right now. The next console cycle will be the one that ends it. All these companies keep trying to stick there fingers in our wallets. For example the PS4 will not be able to play your PS3 games the DLC’s and all the PSN games you purchased for. But the are going to resell to you the consumer the same thing again for the new console.

Remember the days when you purchased a game popped it into the machine and you actually started playing without these stupid banners they have for social medias. Why cant I have that again. I dont need Netflix, facebook, hulu etc on my machine. I should be given the CHOICE to have that on my machine or not..

R.J.

On March 2, 2013 at 12:40 am

Thank you, Game Front!.

When I read Cllff’s comments yesterday, I was hoping to see a prompt response on this site. Cliff acts like it’s only the players’ fault for buying into the idea of microtransactions or day-1 DLC. Sure, to some extent it is the fault of gamers who buy those things. However, multimillion-dollar companies that strive only to make a buck can afford to put things behind a pay wall and let gamers wonder what they’re missing. Seriously, who is going to be able to wait longer, the fan who has followed a series for years, or the company that only looks at the game as a chance to make money?

Cliff is quick to point out that games are a product made for profit, which is entirely true, but as Jim Sterling so adequately put it, the quest for a profit doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a jerk about it. EA is quick to point out that we don’t need to pay for microtransactions in DS3, which is very true. However, they also talk about it like they are doing the customer a favor by allowing them to pay to speed up a game, when just a few years ago, we could do the exact same things via FREE cheat codes. I probably wouldn’t even mind the system if they didn’t take such a pompous attitude toward it. Companies do things like this or including DLC that is proven to be on the disc, and then dare to call gamers “entitled.” As much as Cliffy might be right that gamers are partly to blame for allowing these practices to continue, he conveniently ignores that more and more we are being asked to pay for the things that would have been included last console generation.

Goner

On March 2, 2013 at 4:33 am

@ Tiagonal you do great with this video.This guy says every thing had in mind , so no need to says more.

Jam

On March 2, 2013 at 4:36 am

People like CliffyB are killing the golden goose with their greed.

GazH

On March 2, 2013 at 8:51 am

“They exist to produce, market, and ship great games ultimately for one purpose. First, for money, then, for acclaim.”

Personally, I think if you’re in the business of creating games just for the cash you can make, then you need to get out of it and find something else to do. People should be creating games for the sake of creation, building something they dreamed about or thought up one long weekend, they should want to see their ideas come to life, become everything they wanted it to be. Then, and only then, should they be thinking about the money they’ll be making from it.

This is the problem with modern gaming, it’s all so cut and paste because it’s these people looking at what’s popular and making a copy of it so they can have a slice of the money pie. That’s why so many MMO’s are copies of World of Warcraft, or shooters are copies of Call of Duty. It’s all about making money instead of making a new and quality product.

I used to want to be in the business of creating video games. I’m so glad I never followed that plan.

Derek

On March 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Micro transactions influence game design, therefore they are evil. I do not know anyone who has a single positive thing to say about micro transactions in video games.

Naug

On March 3, 2013 at 4:04 am

League of Legends does microtransactions well. They don’t sell power. They sell costumes and time “next 10 wins double points” kind off boosts. None are required to compete in the game and the game itself is free-to-play. This combination of accessability and not catering to the biggest wallet has made The League the huge success story it is today.

So MTXs -can- be implemented well. In the vast majority of the cases though, it’s just the producer trying to milk some extra dollars out of the player. I personally dislike all DLCs for single player story driven games like Mass Effect. While I think DLCs are reasonable in replay-oriented games like Civilization V. Every time I start CiV I feel the effects of the DLC I bought. But I’m really not inclined to replay a story driven game. I’ve already seen the story!

psycros

On March 3, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Can anyone name a single game franchise that has been improved by MTX?

Can anyone name a single game franchise that *isn’t* the worse in some way for including it?

Didn’t think so.

Aggrokragg

On March 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

Couldn’t agree more on this. Mircro-transactions should be implemented on a game-by-game basis if there is a way to make them a system that enhances the core product. “Sweeping legislation” like EA supposedly has in the works to just shoehorn it into every title they put out seems like a bad road to head down.

pooleboy87

On March 5, 2013 at 11:36 am

The other distinction that sweet lil’ CliffyB so conveniently forgets is that Valve’s TF2 has been out for 6 years, has no expansions or DLC, and for the last couple of years has supported itself SOLELY through those vanity micro-transactions.

Meanwhile, EA has released yearly iterations of games and tacked on handfuls of DLC that usually equal or better the price of the original game (for, ultimately, a smaller amount of actual content) and is now going to be tacking on MTXs to those yearly iterations.

Yet he wants to seriously suggest that EA is exactly like Valve, just with less “image control”? Please…that’s absolutely naive at best, and disingenuous at worst. I know which one I think he is.