The ballache: Microtransactions

For the inaugural ballache segment I thought I would do an article on something that I have sat on the fence about for years. And that something is microtransactions in games.

Now I understand the concept behind microtransactions. I understand why a developer/publisher would want to follow the microtransaction supported free to play (f2p) model. After all it means they are gaining a more steady form of profit than selling a game for a one off fixed price. I was happy with that so long as it stayed within the f2p model. And, with that, I pretty much ignored them as these were of no real interest to me. Most f2p games were of a poor quality anyway, when they were first brought over to the UK and US markets, that I didn’t want to play them. But recently I encountered a case of microtransactions been used in a full retail priced, high profile, bought in a shop title. That title was Dead Space 3.

If you are not aware then EA intentionally included a resource gathering mechanic into Dead Space 3. A mechanic that is done in such a way that it would take time and effort to build up enough resources to unlock certain items, doors and weapons. While it is easy enough to build these resources up, a certain area later in game allows for farming, most early sections are devoid of these resources. Thus microtransactions were introduced to allow players to buy enough resources with real world currency.


First of all who in their right mind would start paying for items you can already get in the game? Secondly why charge full retail price, again best part of £40, for a game then include microtransactions to buy resources?

It’s simple really. They know they will generate more profit from people who will be willing to pay for it.

This caused me to re enter the realms of the microtransaction. A world that has become much murkier than when I last entered it. 

My first encounters with microtransactions were with Anarchy Online. When the game was changed to a free to play model, the game was split into a core game then the expansions where locked to those who paid for ‘premium’ membership, they introduced microtransactions that unlocked content that was only available through pre-purchase and special in-game events. This in its self was not bad because you were still allowed to play the full core game but just meant you could get some cool extras at a minimal cost (I recall some been the price of a can of pop). It didn’t interfere with the game. World of Warcraft would also go to try this same model for a while.

My next encounter was with the influx of South Korean MMO’s. Waves of games were been released all under the f2p/microtransaction model. This time the items for sale were not only vanity items but also special limited time and use items. They weren’t game breakers and only had effects like increasing the amount of exp you gained and such. Again this didn’t bother me because you were been given a fully working game to play for free. It was your choice as to if you wanted these items as they weren’t really needed.

More recently though I have seen a much worse change in the f2p/microtransaction model. With the evolution of modern smart phones there has been increased consumption of cheap, disposable games. This has lead to a new wave of f2p games flooding the iOS, android, Microsoft and Blackberry app markets. Games that are limited or even near enough crippled unless you’re willing to spend money on in-game perks and items. One game called Candy Crush, a game my wife is addicted to, I found to be the very standard of the modern f2p market. It’s near enough crippled unless you willing to spend money on items that allow you to complete levels.

Rubbish I hear you say. However playing the game you realise that after about 10 levels, which are considered introduction levels that explain core concepts and special ability items, the game starts throwing boards at you that have no real way of completing unless you spend money on these special in-game items to change the board or alter an outcome in some way. Even depleting lives requires you to wait for a fixed amount of time unless you willing to once again spend real money to get your full life compliment back instantly. Even I was sceptical that a developer would do this until I came across a board on Candy Crush that, with no word of a lie, put me in an unwinnable state unless I used a paid item. Refusing to pay I then spent 3 days, this was with continue timers, trying to beat the board which eventually did provide me with a way of winning.

The more I looked the more I found of these types of game. Games that had timers, special in game items, special unlocks and other miscellaneous ways of crippling a game in order to get people to purchase them with microtransactions. Even the price of microtransactions has increased. But rather than a price per item it’s now in game credit meaning you have to spend a fixed amount for this credit. And this credit doesn’t go far. One EA title had a minimum credit spend of £5. This £5 would get you no more than a few vanity items and in order to purchase actual usable items you were looking at £10 of in game credit.

Some of the games I saw even had amounts of credit that equalled £100 in real world money. And the sad thing is that people are buying the things. People are willing to put money down on these microtransactions in order to get some utterly redundant item for their little theme park. And a scary thing is that these microtransactions only require, in some cases, a simple tap of the screen to purchase and you the start running up a substantial bill. One report even mentioned a child who ran a bill of over £1,000 in microstransactions for some sort of farmvill clone.

I am not against microtransactions but I do think there needs to be more regulation of the industry. Tighter controls need to be in place and some sort of maximum spend should be enforced to prevent people from running up scandalous bills. Simply because of the way they work people do not think that they are doing this. After all in some cases it’s less than a pint of beer. I also feel that it is wrong for companies to be charging full price for a game then putting in microtransactions in order to gain more profit. If they are wanting to add microtransactions to a game then the price of the game should be either free or reduced in order to match the price of the items been purchased in the game.

But then again this is a massive industry and I can’t see the players in that industry going for this somehow when more profit can be made.