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Not too long ago, online gaming brilliance was kept to those who got good. Now, in the age of microtransactions, it seems that whoever shells out the most, wins.
Just the word “microtransactions” alone is enough to set any game-player’s teeth on edge. The term refers to buying things in-game, usually for negligible amounts of money. Game giant EA just ran into trouble with Battlefront II after announcing that certain parts of the game would only be accessible via microtransactions. They have since gotten rid of that after a huge public outcry from fans of the game.
French Senator Jérôme Durain, among others, has compared these transactions for in-game “loot boxes” to gambling, which is pretty damn close. You buy them hoping that you’ll “win” something exciting, but you can only buy them with in-game currency, which costs you real money to buy.
And this nonsense is ruining gaming.
Now, there are two types of microtransactions, and one more insidious than the other. One type is where you can choose to spend money in order to receive aesthetic bonuses for your in-game character options. For example, you can buy new “skins” for your characters, which makes them look a bit cooler, and lets everyone know you’re “serious” about playing that particular character. You can buy voice lines and sprays, which act as like an “I was here”. This, believe it or not, is the less-insidious form of microtransaction.
A famous example of this is Blizzard’s Overwatch. You can choose to pay only the cost of the game and then never spend a dime on anything in-game. Or you can choose to spend some money on making the characters you play most often cooler looking because, hey, maybe this is the only game you play and, really, there are only so many things you’re likely to want to buy.
The second form, which Durain refers to – rightly – as “pay to win” transactions, is exactly what it sounds like. You can purchase bonuses in-game or other such content that basically pits how much money you have against how much you want to defeat your enemies. All you have to do is read this account of a guy who lost over $9,000 on an iPhone game to realise that microtransactions are a serious problem.
The big issue with pay to win games is that you can only play them without coughing up the cash for so long before they become unplayable. Then you have to spend the money, or else you essentially lose the game.
“At this stage, you can spend five bucks to wipe the floor with anyone who’s still playing for free. You laugh off defeat because the stakes are low. You can easily catch up without spending a dime,” Jason Croghan writes of his playing of Fire Age.
“But, soon, all of those new players you joined with aren’t so new anymore. They’re growing stronger, and, after a few months, the wait times to accomplish anything are so great that if you don’t spend money to keep up with , you’ll be overwhelmed. We’re not talking five bucks anymore – many players will have dropped a couple hundred at this point.”
EA got into hot water because it was essentially flirting with pay to win style microtransactions, making certain segments of the game only available to those that drop the credits on the “extra” content. And for a game that costs $100, the game itself should not be extra content.
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League of Legends kind of mixes these two forms. You can buy new characters with in-game points – which can take forever to accrue if, like yours truly, you aren’t a skilled player – or with “Riot Points”. Now, Riot Points are purchased with real money, because they are the in-game currency. You can buy not only new characters, but skins and runes. Runes make your character’s stats (incrementally) better, but they really do make a difference. These things can be bought with points, earned just by playing the game, but it can take a frustratingly long time.
This type of gameplay favours the wealthy. And the biggest problem with that is you never know who’s dropped the cash on all the bonuses. You could be someone who plays for free, a team of people who have maybe spent a couple of bucks, up against a team of players who have all spent hundreds of dollars on in-game bonuses. It becomes less about skill and more about your ability to pay your way.
The cynic in me is tempted to say something like, “How like life”.
I’m not a total Grinch. I do understand some small transactions, cosmetic or otherwise. Games like Civilization release packs that have new nations to play as. You can pay a couple of dollars for an indie game’s soundtrack and artbook.
Microtransactions are a plague on gaming, and it looks like it’s increasingly the direction that gaming is going in. Real expansion packs still exist, in the vein of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction or StraCraft: Brood War, but they are becoming increasingly rare and are definitely smaller in scale. Everything seems to be released fast and at a price that seems cheap, but is really costing us.