The free-to-play model, micro transactions, and DLC are all great things for gamers, and we should be embracing them. Unfortunately, all three leave a little bit of a sour taste in most gamers’ mouths. With the announcement of Dead Space 3’s use of microtransactions, all of my gamer friends simultaneously cringed. While I also feel that microtransactions have no place in Dead Space 3, I thought it was time to analyze why various methods of content delivery turn off gamers. How did these excellent ideas turn into money grabs for the publishers and developers?
When an MMO goes free-to-play, many gamers assume it either failed to maintain a subscriber base or is cheaply made. When a game contains microtransactions, many gamers assume that it’s just a giant money grab and the majority of the decent content is behind a paywall, or that they can’t win the game without paying. When many gamers hear about DLC, they assume it’s a studio just trying to get more money out of us for content that should have been released with the game. In a lot of cases, they aren’t wrong. Leave it to EA and Activision to piss in the lemonade and spoil a good thing before there’s a chance for it to fulfill its potential.
DLC has become a normal part of a game’s life cycle. Some have it day one. Some release it months after. Regardless of scheduling, pretty much every game has it, for better or for worse. On paper, DLC is one of the best things to happen to gaming. Think about it. You really enjoyed a game, but you want more story, or more of the game in general. DLC allows gamers to extend that pleasure even longer. Of course, this assumes that the initial release of the game is not effected by the DLC. This assumes that content wasn’t withheld from the original game and saved specifically to be DLC. This assumes that the DLC isn’t right on the disk with the full game, just waiting to be unlocked. This assumes that the DLC isn’t free to some people who pre-order or purchase the game from a specific vendor.
Mass Effect 3 is the perfect example of DLC done wrong–hell, most Bioware games go about DLC all wrong. Mass Effect 3 is the perfect example, though. Some would say that the ending of Mass Effect 3 was very lackluster. People are upset that the finale seemed rushed. It seemed like Bioware just wanted to get the game out, but what was waiting for Mass Effect fans on release day? DLC that people could purchase. Many gamers argue that Bioware could have not released this DLC and spent more time improving the ending and they would have enjoyed the game more. I don’t disagree with that opinion. The first rule of good DLC is that the game itself should not suffer from the DLC. If I remember correctly, this DLC was right there on the disc, too! It wasn’t created after the game went gold, when the team had nothing else to work on; this DLC was put on the disc and required an extra cost to unlock.
It isn’t all bad, though. Besthesda consistently does DLC right. We are going to ignore the Oblivion horse armor incident; DLC was very new at the time, and no one knew who was willing to buy what and how much it should cost. Since those first steps, Besthesda has mastered the formula. Release a high quality game, and then wait for people to beat it. After people have had their time with the game, release DLC that adds another high quality storyline to the game. They did it with Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Skyrim. With Skyrim, they went a step further by adding Steam Workshop integration that enabled modders to make even more content for the game. On top of all of that, Bethesda released a higher quality skin package, for those who could run it…for free! That’s better than getting 4 new guns for Mass Effect for $4.99. Bethesda has also continued to release improvements to the Skyrim, including spell finishers and other small things that make the game better. While Bethesda had a rocky start with DLC–because they were the only ones trying it way back then–they should be the model for everyone looking to release DLC. Their DLC doesn’t get in the way of the initial release of a game, their games and their additional content is high quality, and they continue to make improvements to their games for free.
An MMO only truly fails when it’s forced to go free-to-play and the developers didn’t anticipate it. I have broken down exactly why your MMO will fail and I suggested that developers looking to break into that market do so with a well made free-to-play game supported by microtransactions. MMOs aren’t the only games that are free-to-play; many titles, including first person shooters and MOBA games, have embraced the model, and some are getting it right.
If there is one thing MMO developers consistently fail at, it’s innovation. They release the same old games with the same tired business model and almost always see the same result. We had to go outside the MMO world to get free-to-play right. The biggest juggernaut in that world is League of Legends, but Planetside 2 and Tribes: Ascend are hitting it out of the park, too. No one is nearly as perfect at free-to-play as League of Legends, but other games at least understand why it works.
The problem with most MMOs going free-to-play is that it wasn’t intended to work that way in the first place. It is very hard for a game to transition from a subscription model to a free-to-play model. The Old Republic is seeing these growing pains. Since the game was intended to open the full experience to everyone because everyone was paying, the developers never expected to have to limit content. Now that the game has gone free-to-play, Bioware is putting a giant wall in front of players who choose to not pay for the game. Why bother if you aren’t going to get the whole experience?
I experienced a similar situation with Everquest 2. I was an Everquest player back in the day, and I really enjoyed it. When EQ2 went free-to-play, I wanted to try it out and see how it was. The limitations on me were so strict, I didn’t even make it into the game before saying “fuck this!” I wanted to play a monk style brawler, but the class was locked unless I forked over money. Right from the start you are going to try and get money from me? You aren’t going to let me at least find out if I enjoy the game first? This isn’t free-to-play. Many companies still don’t understand that the more customers you have, the more potential conversions you will have on paid transactions. Make people want to play your game first, then make them want to give you money.
There are two types of free-to-play games. They are very similar, but I feel like I need to make the distinction. There is the game like an MMO that would traditionally have a monthy fee attached to the game. There is still an upfront cost to the game, but you can play as much as you want after that cost. Many failed MMOs enter this realm, and they are ill-equipped to handle it. The second type is purely free-to-play. A game like League of Legends can be downloaded for free, and you can play the game without spending a dollar on the game. Of course, these set varying levels of access for free players. League of Legends, however, lets you play as many games as you wish without spending any money whatsoever, and if you play enough, you can unlock everything you want. Many MMOs, like my Everquest example, may be free to download, but you can never gain access to the entire game without spending real money.
Free-to-play games are supported by typically microtransactions. Many such titles don’t have an initial cost, and for MMOs, they don’t have a monthly fee. Many casual games thrive using microtransactions, including iOS games like Infinity Blade and Facebook games like Farmville. They are making money hand over fist without charging gamers much–if anything–up front. Hardcore gamers look at games like Farmville as dirty, casual games, and many of them don’t want to play it, so when microtransactions similar to those that support Farmville invade their more serious games, they are not pleased.
This brings me to Dead Space 3. Dead Space 3 will cost $60 up front, like most games do nowadays. On top of that, developer Visceral Games is adding microtransactions that sell weapon upgrades. This feels so dirty to me; this is not the place for microtransactions. This is a single player game where the progression should be linear; you should gain access to upgrades as you need them. You shouldn’t be able to purchase them up front with real money, because that takes the fun out of the game. I am actually interested in meeting someone who actually finds this lack of challenge fun, someone who is willing to spend more money, on top of the purchase cost of the game, to be stronger in a solo experience. Is there really a market for this? With all of that said, I am assuming that the game will still reward players with upgrades as they need them, and they will not be required to purchase upgrades to progress, like in Diablo 3. If that is the case, Dead Space 3 is going to be a lasting example of how exactly not to do microtransactions.
While Dead Space 3 is double dipping into our pockets with a purchase cost and then the potential of microtransactions, there is a game that did it worse: The Secret World. Not only did the game have a purchase cost, not only did the game have a monthly subscription, it also included microtransactions. I am not really surprised though, this coming from the company that made Age of Conan–but this is some dirty shit nonetheless. At least it didn’t include blocking micro transactions that hide content behind additional pay walls, or a pay-to-win model. To no one’s surprise, The Secret World did not suceed with the triple pay-to-play model. They have since gone free-to-play, removing the monthly subscription while dropping the initial price to $29.99. Developer Funcom might actually be getting it: if you increase the overall number of people playing your game, you increase the number of people who may make a transaction, giving you money.
I know, this is supposed to be an article that is positive about microtransactions, and there are some games that have gotten it right. I know I mention League of Legends more than any other game, but they truely get microtransactions right. Another example, in the MMO world, is Guild Wars 2. I have been playing the game a fair amount, and let me start by saying it is a quality game. I am enjoying it a lot. The game had an initial cost to buy and then is supported by microtransactions. There is no monthly fee required. This isn’t as bad as Dead Space 3 charging users twice because Guild Wars 2, as an MMO, requires more upkeep of servers. Through my entire time playing the game, I have not once lost out on something because I have not spent real money. Sure, my bank slots are a little tight and my bags are smaller than those who pay for them, but honestly, the it didn’t feel like I needed to pay for anything at all. I have made it to max level, I have run some of the end game content, and I still don’t feel like I need to pay to keep up or pay to win. Like League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend, if you give me a quality game that I enjoy playing, I will give you my money. It’s when a game forces me to give them money to have fun that I get annoyed.
In closing, I do believe that DLC, free-to-play and microtransactions are all good things for gamers. It’s just the publishers and the developers who are doing it wrong. There are some who are doing it right, though, and we should applaud them and gladly hand them our money for quality products. Moving forward, I would like to see the gaming industry finally understand that you can’t just throw microtransactions into a single player game and expect us to pay to upgrade our weapons. You can’t make a game that requires a purchase, a monthly fee, and microtransactions to experience everything. You can, however, make a free-to-play game and become one of the most played games out there while making money hand over fist. You can make money on an MMO without a monthly fee and rewards gamers for playing it. You can produce DLC that people want to buy, and that people won’t get upset with–that means dumping the day one crap and the retailer exclusives. As gamers, we truly need to start speaking with our wallets. We need to play the games that do it the right way, and we need to ignore the games that do it the wrong way. Only then will the industry learn that we are willing to pay for games, DLC, and microtransactions, but only the games that do it the right way, the games that are actually fun to play.