Fearing the micro-transaction future
F2P and paymium are inevitable, and not just for EA - but critics of this future aren't easily dismissed
Electronic Arts plans to build micro-transactions into everything it does in future. If this upsets you, you may not like the future very much. There's no point railing at EA; EA is simply being honest about an approach that just about every publisher on earth is either considering seriously, or already committed to. In the realms of AAA games, the era of paying for a game up-front and never reaching for your wallet again is coming to a close.
It may surprise regular readers to learn that I'm every bit as uncomfortable and worried about that prospect as the rest of you. Accepting its inevitability doesn't mean I think it's entirely a good idea, and it certainly doesn't mean I think things are going to go smoothly. On the contrary - I think the next few years are going to be very, very painful indeed in the core games space.
I'm an advocate of free-to-play and, more cautiously, of the paymium/DLC/in-game purchase model. I co-wrote a book about it, and I'm writing another at the moment. I know that this model can work - that it can be a great way for developers to reach an audience, for consumers to discover new games and experiences, for casual players to skim through a game without making a big financial commitment while devoted fans engage to a degree of time and money that they're comfortable with. It can be good for developers and respectful of players. I'd even go so far as to say that for some kinds of games and some kinds of players, it's a much better, fairer system than the existing $50-up-front model.
"I'd even go so far as to say that for some kinds of games and some kinds of players, it's a much better, fairer system than the existing $50-up-front model."
At the same time, though, even the most ardent advocate of the potential of F2P needs to acknowledge that it's a business model that's ripe for abuse - and that abusive, cynical behaviour is absolutely rampant in it right now. It's a sad reality that many of the most successful games in the F2P market are nasty and exploitative. Companies like Zynga, Gameloft and King.com have made an artform out of building rip-offs of popular games and loading them down with every aggressive psychological trick and monetisation wheeze in the book - and it's an even sadder fact that their games regularly reside in the upper reaches of the "Top Grossing" charts.
Sure, that's capitalism. "The market" sorts this stuff out, we're told with tedious regularity by a certain brand of smugly self-satisfied capitalist who presumably misses the fact that these things aren't called "psychological tricks" for no reason. They're explicitly designed to convince people to spend money on things they don't actually want, and as such they disproportionately target people who are bad at delayed gratification or not educated about such underhanded tactics - which, as any social scientist can tell you with a heavy sigh, basically means that these tricks generally leech money from those who can least afford it at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. There's nothing illegal about that, but there's also nothing creative, uplifting, positive or even morally bright about it - nothing, in other words, that reflects the reasons that any decent human beings have for being involved in games in the first place.
"They're explicitly designed to convince people to spend money on things they don't actually want."
This is the kind of thing that people who recoil as if burnt when micro-transactions and free-to-play are mentioned are thinking about - and I sympathise with that reaction. For a project I'm working on at present, I've ended up filling my phone with a host of the top-grossing free-to-play games of the past year. A handful of them have delighted and entertained me - but a large number were simply such awful, exploitative and soulless experiences that I felt like I should scrub my phone with a brillo pad after uninstalling them, just to make sure that every malign and insidious trace was gone for good.
So yes, it annoys me when people slam F2P under the seeming impression that it begins and ends with Farmville - but when so much of what's being done in the name of F2P is awful (and when so many F2P advocates, "holding the line" against widespread criticism from gamers, seem to be unwilling or unable to call out the awfulness and contrast it with the good titles), I can certainly see why people are horrified at it turning up in their own beloved console and PC titles.
Most of all, they're right to be horrified - because console and PC titles are going to get F2P/paymium terribly wrong, over and over again, before enough lessons are learned to ensure that everyone avoids the most awful mistakes. Paymium, in particular, is going to be insanely difficult and hugely abused. Publishers enthralled by the revenue potential of F2P have been all too keen to bolt the same elements into games that actually still cost $50 up front - and few of them have shown any understanding of the radically different relationship that exists between a player and a game they've bought, compared to a player's relationship to a game they downloaded for free.
"Most of all, they're right to be horrified - because console and PC titles are going to get F2P/paymium terribly wrong, over and over again."
It's not that it's impossible to monetise a paid-for game down the line - but it must be handled with kid gloves, approached with the utmost of generosity and must never lose sight of the fundamental task of making the player feel respected and rewarded. Fail, and you don't just lose out on the possibility of post-sale monetisation - you also lose out on the next $50 the player might have spent on your games.
Perhaps I'm in a pessimistic mood, but I think that in the next three or four years, most PC and console developers and publishers who attempt to strike that balance will get it wrong - in the process, driving a wedge of resistance deeper and deeper in between players and micro-transactions, perhaps even to the extent of ploughing salt into these fields for once and for all.
The main reason I fear this outcome is because right now, much of the evidence points to traditional publishers having grasped only the bare outlines of what microtransactions are and how they work - with the more subtle principles which underline the business model being largely ignored or dismissed. Key among these principles is the notion that a free- to-play game should actually be free to play - it should be possible for a player with a modicum of patience to play and enjoy the game forever without reaching into their pocket. A paymium game, by the same token, should offer the full measure of entertainment the player has paid for; micro-transactions may build on the experience but should be wholly optional, and the building of deliberate friction to encourage purchase in a game the player has already paid for is abhorrent and dishonest.
"In other words, micro-transaction models are designed to generate revenue - lots of revenue - from the people who really love and are deeply engaged in your game."
In other words, micro-transaction models are designed to generate revenue - lots of revenue - from the people who really love and are deeply engaged in your game. The flipside is that a much larger group of people - casually engaged but not fully hooked - are playing for free, or paying nothing over the initial purchase cost - and that's fine. That's more than fine, and you have to be utterly comfortable with it - yet I sense that a great many soi disant F2P designers, mostly from traditional games business backgrounds, really aren't fine with that. They struggle to escape the notion that everyone should be paying, that freeloaders are parasites and leeches - and their design reflects that, with aggressive, pushy monetisation tactics, harsh friction built in from the word go and even the occasional paywall slammed down, demanding money before a single minute more can be played.
This, I fear, is the near-term future of microtransactions. Many companies will get them right, of course, and we're going to see more and more games that dodge the obvious mistakes and create microtransaction models that enhance the game experience rather than detracting from it - but the mistakes and miscalculations are going to be major, high- profile and hugely damaging. Micro-transactions are inevitable; they will, of necessity, be a major part of our industry's future, because right now there isn't really any other way of funding AAA development costs that actually makes sense. Let's not kid ourselves, though - it's going to be a bumpy ride, and while the naysayers will ultimately have no choice, that doesn't mean they don't have a lot of valid arguments which the industry is going to have to work very hard, and think very carefully, to disprove.