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Xbox One's launch exclusives foreshadow a dystopian future for microtransactions

Last week, Avalanche Studios founder Christofer Sundberg tweeted that "Micro-Transactions, subscriptions and other biz models will be the next generation of games. It is that simple." I understand why he feels that way--developers are looking at wildly lucrative F2P giants like League of Legends and World of Tanks and hoping to find a way to dive in. But unless the console market adjusts, it's not going to be able to make this work, because so far, console gaming has fucked this up tremendously.

My first taste of the next generation of consoles holding me upside down and shaking me until the quarters fell out came in Ryse: Son of Rome. Every so often you'll earn enough experience to upgrade your soldier and though the rewards you can purchase aren’t all that significant you might as well spend your in-game experience on something, right? But hit the wrong button and you'll be thrown violently from the game into the Xbox Marketplace and asked to spend real money on fake coins to buy unimportant upgrades for your digital soldier.

Welcome to the next generation of gaming.

Ryse's monetization scheme isn’t all devious, or particularly innovative. Playing off the time-value of money, the game lets you eventually unlock everything through experience, or you can accelerate this process by buying and spending coins. They're more important in multiplayer, where you can earn coins by battling and spend them on booster packs full of items. But while Ryse’s microtransaction model doesn't feel outright malicious, it’s part of a much, much bigger trend with Xbox One games: nearly every single one has some sort of method of getting you to spend money after you’ve already bought the game.

This is a problem, mainly because of how poorly it's implemented across the board. Crimson Dragon's microtransactions hold back features that could have helped it rise above mediocrity. The game's confusing UI and emphasis on downloadable content genuinely made me afraid to click anything for fear of mistakenly spending money on crystals. Powerstar Golf's booster packs are less offensive, but definitely make you feel like a cheapskate when you're able to spend cash to earn unlimited items. Meanwhile, Killer Instinct's free-to-play version is so bare-bones it might turn you off on the game entirely.

Then there's Forza 5's "Accelerator," which lets you spend money to double your experience gain (and rubs it in your face non-stop if you don't). Forza, in particular, feels the most compromised of the bunch--progression has been slowed to a crawl unless you buy the Accelerator, as if Turn 10's inspiration was a free-to-play Korean MMO circa 2006.

While none of the games are outright broken, they work together to paint a depressing future for this next generation, especially if Sundberg's prognosticating is to be believed. Right now, Microsoft is doing a piss poor job of giving you incentive to microtransact--they're saying you're paying for convenience when, in reality, you're paying not to be inconvenienced. It's a slight difference, to be sure, but it makes for a totally different attitude. They're intentionally gimping their games just enough to funnel you towards spending a few dollars more, but you do it with resentment. Microtransactions can be done well, and when they are, you feel like you're investing in an experience you enjoy. When they're not, you click "purchase" with the knowledge that you're being ripped off, begrudgingly spending more money than you should because you don't want to admit the game you bought is missing something.

I don't think Sundberg is wrong in thinking that subscriptions and microtransactions are going to play a huge part in the future of games, but I definitely feel like the industry needs to be more careful as it moves in that direction. Sure, F2P ended up becoming viable, but it took years to burst the stigma that was (rightfully) placed on it after a decade or so of exploitative business practices. If games find a way to reward playing for spending extra, then it won't be long before gaming is a healthier place--but if developers keep asking us to buy coins to Accelerate our Roman Dragon's golf clubs, we're going to start to hate the people that make our games.

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33 comments

  • dpaz - January 30, 2014 7:50 a.m.

    You know, I used to hate microtransactions, but then I got over it. I realized it was the specific implementations I hated, because I found them morally reprehensible. In that way, I wholeheartedly agree with this article. There are some truly terrible executions out there, including some very insidious ones that slowly but surely funnel you to a point where playing without paying is just too frustrating. But some do get it right. Mild to moderate bonuses with a reasonable price tag is the way to go. If you'll give me a 5-10% speed boost for a few races in a racing game, that may be reasonable. If you'll give me an extra 5-10% shield for a limited time in a FPS, that may be reasonable as well. The key is mild bonuses that do not represent a completely game changing experience. Just that "extra push" for if/when I feel I need it, to help me through the already complete and fun game I should be playing. Do that, and I will harbor no ill will toward your game and will not withhold my money out of spite. Do it any other way, and I will avoid your games like the plague, leaving you to prey on fools and addicts. Just my two cents.
  • FoxdenRacing - December 2, 2013 9:21 a.m.

    Hey Coop: This reeks of an industry, or at least a segment thereof, expecting to 'turn the corner' and find some 'great new monetization innovation' that will save the industry from itself...to rein in out-of-control budget growth once and for all, in a way that expansion packs, DLC, online passes, and aesthetic items all proved to be little more than temporary band-aids for. And like the others, this is doomed to failure, as we're talking about saving something from itself. The old parable of leading a horse to water rings true...The thinkers in the industry can come up with countless ways to make more money from a title, but until the horse wants to drink...until the industry is willing to accept that there is no magical ambrosia that will save their balance sheets, the cycle will repeat. New monetization idea pops up, industry 'embraces' it, idea dies of a combination of 'too much of a good thing' and 'worst execution ever', lather, rinse, repeat. Is it just me, or do you see it too? Me, I mourn for the days where having a bunch of time to put into a game was rewarded, rather than nowadays where the inability to do the same is punished [typically with a real-money fine]. You didn't need to finish whatever came after Sparda Must Die mode in the original DMC to get a full experience with the game; those modes were created to reward the most dedicated players with variants on their subsequent experiences, not to pad the total cost of ownership of an otherwise woefully thin product.
  • alsita - November 27, 2013 2:28 p.m.

    Dude...Get an XBOX One free here! http://www.freexboxone.org/c/179750 #freexboxone #xboxone #ps4 #battlefield4 #callofdutyghost #xbox
  • rob-tonge - November 26, 2013 8:15 p.m.

    This just in: Peggle 2 is Xbox one exclusive, cost 15 to purchase and then every shot you take on game is a dollar a pop. Wanna exit the game? 3 bucks. Delete it? 50 bucks to pay out your contract. Also Xbox live is required if you wish to pause to take a pee break. I keed, I keed.
  • Talvari - November 26, 2013 3:22 p.m.

    I think I've only ever participated in console DLC once and that was for FFXIII-2 for the story DLC and a couple of arena battles. While the arena DLC was definately overpriced it was a lot of fun and pushed the battle system and the way you customized your characters really well (and Valhalla Lightning is awesome :D). Never really liked DLC since it started becoming a thing, and the same has happened for micro transactions. Some companies don't abuse it, but a lot maybe will start once they see the big guys doing it... ;.; Imma just continue my trend of never buying into micro transactions in the vague hope they stop. That Forza crap is insane.
  • udUbdaWgz - November 26, 2013 1:26 p.m.

    like i always say: there are enuf games out there to last me until the day i die. great games i've never played. systems (all playstation) i've never bought. computer games. i will never knowingly participate in micro's nor support their putrid stink. i despise others who do, as well. this industry better shape up or it will lose millions of individual consumers. and, i'll happily be first in line.
  • Rhymenocerous - November 26, 2013 9:13 a.m.

    I never, ever, ever buy microtransactions or DLC. Never have, never will. Even free stuff that I get with pre-orders I ignore. Whatever's on the disc, in the box, that's the game right there. That is it. I absolutely will not change my stance on this, ever. Also, I'm not that old, and wasn't even born when the NES came out, just in case Microsoft are reading, and think I'm an old dinosaur, ready to hang up my controller and retire from gaming or something.
  • Christopia86 - November 26, 2013 9:30 a.m.

    I agree with you to a point, but I do think some dlc is worthwhile. The Dragon Born DLC for Skyrim added a few hours extra gameplay to a game I'd already played to death long after the release date. I do belive that, provided it isn't just gameplay cut from the disk, DLC can be a good way to get extra content to the fans between games. The pre order DLC always seems to break the game a bit, it's either far to powerful, or horribly tacky. Golden weapons do not look good.
  • Rhymenocerous - November 26, 2013 11:08 a.m.

    Yeah, I don't mind the "Extra Chapters" sort of DLC, that sort of sits outside the main campaign of a game, and compliments it but isn't a necessary, or large focus away from the main story - it's developed long after the main game is in stores. (The Last of Us is a good example). What I AM against is... Well.... Killer Instinct. Fighting games used to have ALL available characters on the disc. How did you unlock them? Complete the game (that you've already paid for). Not keep buying each character as a separate purchase... That's just... Ugh. What shocks me is people are willing to swallow it these days, for some reason. That is not progress.
  • Christopia86 - November 26, 2013 11:50 a.m.

    I couldn't agree more about fighting games, extra characters are a reward for beating the game, not somthing to buy.
  • udUbdaWgz - November 26, 2013 1:28 p.m.

    there is a HUGE difference between quality dlc that comes out months down the road vs. micro's and day one dlc garbage.
  • Eightboll812 - November 26, 2013 10:11 a.m.

    I'm a lot older than you and surprisingly I'm less hardcore about this than you are. Maybe it's the long-time PC game player in me, because PC games having expansions is something that goes way, way, way back to when they were called, er, "expansions". Back then, in the beginning, it really was a complete game and later with an expanded game play. I don't believe it was part of a master plan from the beginning to have certain packs. A game got expansions by being very popular and having customer demand for "more". You can see how that evolved quickly into planned expansions in order to make more money. Where I'm a little less hardcore about it than you is I will buy some DLC, but I'm very selective about it. Most I won't even touch. And I'm right there with you on the microtransactions. Won't do them. In fact, I mostly avoid games that offer gameplay elements involving microtransactions. Every time I give the genre another chance, I end up regretting it.
  • ClassicL337 - November 26, 2013 6:08 a.m.

    This article kind of made me chuckle. As someone who played Forza and Ryse, I never felt like I was "held upside down and had the quarters shook out of me." Micro transactions in these games are 100% optional, and not neccessary to finish the game. These games represent micro-transactions done right. They are there if you want them, but you never have to use them (at least true gamers don't). If you are still "ranting" about micro-transactions, then you need to wake up - because whether we like it or not they are here to stay. So I recommend focusing on the positives, because this is outside of our control. I only play the games that make them optional, and I never feel the need to purchase them, but instead conquer games by working hard at them, and continuing to try repeatedly until I do it. Maybe that is the old school gamer in me who grew up playing atari and nes - where games were not handed to you on a platter without effort.
  • FoxdenRacing - November 26, 2013 3:10 p.m.

    That's a bit "It doesn't affect me, so screw the rest of you", isn't it? Being able to finish the game shouldn't be the only criteria. There's a delicate balance between 'optional', 'encouraged', and 'expected', as well as a delicate balance between genre and minimum investment [be it time, or now bought-with-real-money not-currency] to reach the breadth of experience. I have plenty of time to dump into games, and grew up on Nintendo Hard, too...but also understand that my friends with wives and kids still deserve to get the full experience from their games as well, without having to shell out above and beyond the $60 asking price. In the past, modes like Forza's Free Play represented the best of all worlds. Those without the time to invest could drive whatever, whenever, no limits. Those with could save up and personalize their car. There was a reward for putting time into the game, rather than a punishment [or fine] for not. Or are you suggesting $30-$60 for the privilege of driving a single car [and no refunds if you don't like it] is a reasonable price for those who don't have more than 50-60 hours for a single title...once the hallmark of a genre-defining RPG...to spend on a single element of said game?
  • rob-tonge - November 26, 2013 7:50 p.m.

    What he was saying was with the amount of Xbox one titles that have micro transactions it leads one to believe that this will be the norm going forward, the problem being for the 3 that get it right 10 get it wrong and release pay gated experiences that offer little you can get or progress without exponentially increased time and effort. In competitive play this can be a huge problem maintaining a balanced community. I don't see any of that being positive. Also it's not out of our control, we vote with our wallets. We don't buy it, it eventually becomes more trouble to produce for the limited return. The ONLY way this will be out of control is if every gamer adopts your attitude towards the practice.
  • Swedish_Chef - November 25, 2013 9:13 p.m.

    Surprised there's no mention of Killer Instinct in this article, that game has a great system for buying content.
  • Eightboll812 - November 25, 2013 9:20 p.m.

    You missed it then: "Meanwhile, Killer Instinct's free-to-play version is so bare-bones it might turn you off on the game entirely."
  • Shigeruken - November 25, 2013 8:54 p.m.

    I bet they're going to make us pay for the mk VI in Halo 5
  • shawksta - November 25, 2013 8:25 p.m.

    I really hope for the better, the game industry didnt kick its ass and revive itself just for this, they need to do it right or drop it entirely.
  • mark-cottrell - November 26, 2013 11:33 a.m.

    I am pretty the video game industry has yet to have a collapse in order for it to revive itself, especially when you have Christofer Sundberg saying things like: "find new ways to monetize the players" taken from his views on "COD:Ghosts". When your mind set is to "monetize the players" when that have spent £55 (or $60) on your game, then there is clearly a problem with the industry that needs to be sorted before you can think it has revived its self.

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