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.