For the uninitiated, MTX stands for microtransactions which have become a topic of somewhat heated discussion over the past few years. The release of Battlefront 2, generally considered the tipping point, sparked a large amount of consumer backlash prompting EA to backpedal on their in-game monetization.
In this post, I’d like to present my personal view on the matter and hopefully clarify some misconceptions.
Let’s start with why we have in-game monetization in the first place, and what changed since Bethesda first offered horse armor for real money all those years ago.
Games are a product
The most decisive and obvious reason is that games exist to make money. They’re a commercial product. If there’s a way to optimize revenue and reduce development costs, which microtransactions have accomplished, we will do just that.
I can only speak for myself, but I vastly prefer this over keeping developer salaries low, outsourcing development to other countries or just shipping worse games.
Games are expensive
Just how expensive are they? Raph Koster has written a comprehensive article on the matter. To summarize: The cost of games has gone up – both due to increasing development costs from creating more and more complex titles and ballooning marketing expenses in an increasingly saturated market.
Even without adjusting for inflation, retail prices however have remained stagnant or gone down. Before you ask…
We can’t raise retail prices
If we could’ve, we would’ve. Most people are not willing to pay over 60 bucks for a game, and raising prices is a highly unpopular endeavour which would result in less overall revenue being generated. Trust us on this, some really smart people got paid a lot of money to run the math on it.
Used games, piracy and keysellers hurt
Consumers are entitled to sell whatever they own at whatever price they desire, which is perfectly fine. That said, we will not see a cent of that money and consider it a lost sale.
Keys you find on sites like G2A are often obtained through credit card fraud and grey market trading. Needless to say, very little of that money will realistically make it to the developers.
Last up are the pirates. I’m not going to take a moral stance on it, but piracy does hurt the bottom line which further incentivizes us to monetize games in ways other than its purchase alone.
Games are becoming a service
Game developers have largely operated on a hit-driven model pouring millions into a project in the hopes of recouping more millions. Coupled with the high development costs, even a few mediocre receptions can bankrupt entire studios which is just not sustainable.
As a result, more and more companies are shifting to a games-as-a-service model, where multiple revenue streams can be active at once over a longer period of time. This is achieved by either by going F2P or monetizing a retail title with post-launch DLC and microtransactions.
Another factor to consider is the massive mobile games sector, which AAA brands had a hard time breaking into as pay-to-play titles tend to earn far less on mobile devices compared to freemium models. I stress this because the number of mobile gamers and the revenue they generate vastly eclipses that of hardcore gamers who, for some bizarre reason, still believe games should be exclusively made for them.
I’ll try to go into the most popular arguments presented against microtransactions and present my take on them. Some of these points may read like I’m building a straw man, but the fact of the matter is that they are used unironically in the greater gaming community.
MTX are pay to win
In-game purchases which lead to a competitive advantage in multiplayer games can and do in some circumstances negatively affect the user experience. Think of games where existing users can completely curb-stomp new players with maxed out equipment, with the caveat that they paid for it instead of grinding it out normally.
It is however largely irrelevant to the discussion around the sustainability and viability of microtransactions, as P2W consumables are a very specific implementation which comes down to preference of the individual player.
Developers cut content to sell as DLC
To paraphrase, microtransactions and DLC make certain players feel like they’re missing out on content as they want the complete package. I can sympathize with this having been a low-budget gamer myself and I think it’s responsible for most of the backlash we’re seeing. But at the end of the day, we worked hard to create this piece of content and support the title post-release, so we’d like to get paid for it.
While we’re on topic: Players often assume that Day 1 DLC is always content cut from the base game, which is factually incorrect. When a title goes gold, it will take time for it to go through certification and land in the hands of retailers. During this time, development will often continue on a day 1 patch including fixes, performance optimizations and DLC.
In any case, it’s a rather weak argument as it comes down to wanting to have something without paying for it, which is why we’re seeing some of the more creative arguments below.
MTX are predatory
Microtransactions are about as predatory as vending machines in an amusement park. We incentivize players to make purchases in the game by making them feel like the experience they’ll have after a purchase is an even better one, not by holding a gun to their head. Have some accountability as a consumer, please.
Lootboxes promote gambling
It’s ethically wrong to use loot boxes to take advantage of those unable to make an informed decision about spending money on them, and legally questionable if used in conjunction with an online marketplace. Disclosing drop rates is a good thing, and so is putting an age limit on them – no argument from me there.
That said, generalizing them as a mechanism causing people to get a disorder in isolation is dishonest, and so is making a direct comparison to actual gambling where the incentive is a financial profit. Kinder eggs, card packs and mystery gifts have existed for decades without issues, and loot boxes are no different.
Think of the children
Last up on the list is my least favorite argument. It’s a common tactic used by politicians who sell unpopular policies by wrapping them in either patriotic or family friendly values. Of course, very few people genuinely care about the children here and use this talking point in an attempt to make a stronger case against microtransactions.
Personally, I find it highly ironic that this cliché is being used by gamers who themselves were subject to the exact same shit not long ago. Remember how video games were supposedly turning kids into school shooters? The NRA remembers.
But to address the point itself: In-game monetization is not aimed at children, because children rarely have a lot of money and privacy laws require us to restrict most of our services to teenagers and adults. If a child manages to acquire money not owned by them and spends it in a game for adults on a device that isn’t theirs, it’s a bit dishonest to blame anyone but the legal guardians. Plus, we do refunds.
Honorable mentions go to complete non-arguments like “MTX do not belong in x type of game”, “players not payers” and “Game companies don’t need more money”.
Microtransactions are here to stay. That said, if you’re a gamer who’s dissatisfied with certain monetization trends in games, there are a few things you can do.
The first is voting with your wallet, which despite being sold as a meme, works. If you support developers you approve of by purchasing their games, you contribute to creating a market segment which, when large enough, we’ll try to tap into. Similarly, if you boycott games you don’t like, you decrease that market segment which may discourage us from utilizing the involved monetization practices.
The second, and perhaps most effective method on an individual level, is providing developers with constructive feedback. With Starborne, we’ve put our monetization cards on the table very early on during development, and through constant iteration fueled by great player feedback we’ve reached a point where the our community happy with what’s being sold, and we’re happy with our KPIs.
The third is raising complaints in comment sections or forum posts, but unless you create a PR shitstorm, this won’t do a thing. While gaming communities consist of some of the most passionate and invested players any of us developers could have, they are and have always been a minority. The silent majority of players, casual or otherwise, are either content or don’t feel strongly enough about it to voice their opinion.
I have to say, it felt a bit odd writing this and essentially defending microtransactions. If I was 10 years younger, I’d be one of the commenters decrying the evils of EA on some of these gaming boards.
Just to be clear, there are terrible monetization practices and even I get disillusioned by certain mobile titles which I perceive to be little more than slot machines with a video game skin. While it doesn’t feel possible in an era where online discourse is shaped by the loudest voices, I do wish we can move on and work together more often when it comes to monetization. At the end of the day, we want to create fun games for our players while making a profit. Thank you for reading!