Just a Thought: The Cost of Microtransactions & DLC

Should we be worried about the abundance of microtransactions and DLC in recent games?

The Internet age has dramatically changed the way we consume products. Largely gone are the days where you would wander into your local game store and swap a couple of Nintendo games in for $5 off Super Smash Bros. Now many of us are connected to the internet 24/7 through our phones; we buy clothes, books, rhinestones, and basically anything online. Even movie hire stores are shutting down because we can get much better value from Netflix. Games are following this trend, and their heavy online presence is having a profound impact on the genre.

Largely gone are the days where you would buy a game and actually get the entire thing.

This may sound cynical, and perhaps it is, but the ease with which we purchase online goodies can be prayed upon, as much as it makes our lives easier and our gaming more fun.

Don’t get me wrong, microtransactions and paid DLC are not only valid business models, but they can be great for both developer and consumer alike. The microtransactions model basically arose to combat the weariness gamers felt paying subscriptions, and entices players under the allure of free-to-play. It means that a good free-to-play game can get people hooked enough to pay for it, as a pseudo-pay-what-you-want scheme. You may also choose not to pay if you don’t want to, though often your enjoyment may suffer by design. These payments are often small and provide you with loot, level or vanity.

DLC, which is larger and often includes new characters and missions, is the perfect way of rewarding someone who has bought the game by giving them new content. Obviously you have to pay for the developer’s time, but if it comes in the form of new missions, or extra ways of playing a game you love, it is worth it, and it is another way of showing appreciation for the developer’s work.

The problem is that we are mixing potential revenue streams with businesses, and it can be a recipe for exploitation.

You can understand why all games would like to include microtransactions – even in full-price games – after the revelation that Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5 made them $500m in microtransactions alone. There is serious money in this model. This is why, in 2014, EA were targeting $1 billion profit from DLC and microtransactions. With that sort of money being thrown around, it would be naïve to expect anything other than an increase, even on what we already see.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Well, it could become a very bad thing, but in theory this could add a lot to our games. Think about it. With post-purchase revenue becoming more important, the onus would be on developers to create games that would engage its audiences and make them want to invest their hard-earned cash. Paragons of lost generations like Knights of the Old Republic, Kingdom Hearts, GTA 3, or Battlefront 2, could have all enjoyed consistent extra content for years after release and we, as the players, could enjoy these wonderful games for so much longer.

That’s the theory, but it is not the reality.

The simple reason is that paid DLC can be one of two things. It can be addition to a full game, giving you 125% or 150% of a game if you buy it. However, it can also mean publishers hiding pieces that should be included in the game behind a paywall. So if you want 100% of a game – for example – you have to spend as much as you spent on the game for a season pass. 1 for the price of 2. They ship half a game and make you pay double for the whole thing.

It’s a clear issue, and it has to stop, but I thought it might be worth investigating the best game of 2015 (and for my mind one of the best of all time), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Developer CD Projekt Red was adamant that their DLC would be free, and the only downloadable content that would be paid for would be ‘expansions,’ or 10-20 hour stand-alone stories. The rest of their DLC – in the form of armour sets, new looks for certain characters, extra missions, extra hairstyles etc. – was completely free. It was an act of goodwill that truly endeared themselves to the fans in a climate ever filling with cash grabs. So while the base game made them money from its plentiful sales, they must have lost out to the potential revenue options. That’s not stopping them from making their new games, and the income from their expansions will be helping fund the company as they work on their next project.

However, I would not complain one bit if they decided to charge for their DLC. The core game, the one I paid full price for, was complete and satisfying, so I have no problem throwing a couple of dollars at a new batch of hairstyles, for example. The most important factor is that they have not kept anything integral to the gaming experience from those who only use the vanilla version. Here is the core of the issue for microtransactions and DLC. We’ve paid for a full game, therefore we should be able to experience a full game, but the allure of making us pay for a full game, and then having a lot of the fun and replayablity in downloads, expansions and season passes is too much for some companies. CD Projekt Red gave us free DLC as a show of good faith, but their true act of good faith came in selling us a game that was whole and complete, leaving us with minimal compulsion to buy more.

The problem is when a game’s mechanic is incredibly enjoyable, but there is not enough content to sustain your enjoyment without spending more money. This is integral to the success of free-to-play games, for their revenue comes through the fact that the game is fun but limited enough you will pay for more. This is absolutely fair, because people have put their time into a game, and deserve some payment for your enjoyment of it.

But some of them like to double-dip.

I actually first saw this blatant double-dipping tactic when I eagerly picked up a copy of The Sims 3, quite a few years ago now. The formula of The Sims is highly beloved and profitable, and the second iteration of the game ranks highly in the memory of much of my generation. EA knew that number three would be a big seller by offering the same experience as number two, but expand it. That’s what they did, by no longer limiting your Sims to their house, allowing them to explore a whole neighbourhood. The problem was that The Sims is a franchise built on customisation. Your characters live normal lives only limited by your imagination, except the base version of the game shipped with a distinct lack of content. It was clearly built as a scaffold upon which to stick on various expansion packs; university, pets, night-life. It meant that people who paid full price did not receive a full game.

It’s like if you were to buy a house, for full price, but all you get are walls, a floor and ceilings. Doors are extra, white goods are extra, lights are extra, air con is extra. Things you would expect a house to come with, especially considering how much you paid. That’s what The Sims 3 did. It ignites your imagination, but any sort of variation after making and slaughtering two or three houses was all in expensive expansions, expansions that actually added very little overall gameplay for their comparative cost. As of 2016, you can buy The Sims 3 for $30, and spend over $600 on expansions and extra content. Sure, each expansion is only $20, but that’s the allure of microtransactions and DLC; death by a thousand cuts. Did EA spend over six times the number of resources on The Sims 3 as – say – CD Projekt Red did on The Witcher 3? Of course not. What you see here is a distinct strategy to suck more money out of customers with games that retailed for full price on release.

The Sims is by no means alone. I think most of us at this point are aware of the issues surrounding Star Wars: Battlefront, but at its base it is no different. The core gameplay is fantastic, the design aesthetic wonderful, but the content is not there. They have been called lazy, but it is likely something more deliberate. Even sports games like FIFA are not immune from this, as for the last few years resources had been allocated from other game modes into Ultimate Team, hence funneling players into that mode too. Coincidentally (or not) the Ultimate Team mode is the one where you can spend your real money in order to build your team. In fact, in order to compete with all the other people who have spent real world money to build their teams, you basically have to. It’s a vicious cycle, and EA knows exactly what they are doing.

I know it seems like I’m picking on just one publisher, but these are a few of the most egregious examples I could think of, and they just happen to be orchestrated by the same company.

Here’s the thing, EA doesn’t want to make bad games. In fact, its existence relies upon making fun games, but in order to fully enjoy them, you have to give them a lot more money than you would be willing to pay up-front. Players balk at a $60 season pass, but happily drop $10 on a new weapon and a couple of emotes. It is designed to suck as much money out of us as possible, and it has to stop.

But it wont.

There is actually almost nothing we can do at this point, because the microtransaction system works. People will pay for things and companies will take their money. All we can really do is put our money where we see value, and accept that some games will be hollow experiences that other people can spend their money to enjoy fully.

However, people who make games do it by choice. Everyone slaving 70 hours a week, working away so that you can have something to enjoy are doing it because they want to make games. They want to entertain. They don’t want to suck your money out of your pocket. They just want you to enjoy their product. Their intention is to create something that you can enjoy, so please don’t blame developers for poor DLC and microtransaction decisions, because it probably isn’t their choice.

Unfortunately, however, microtransactions make developers and their publishers more money, so we will certainly see a lot more of it in years to come. All we can do is hope that they will mostly add something to our games, not plug holes that should have already been filled.

Hopefully.

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Profile photo of Aidan Kyval
22 years old and living in Melbourne, I am writer, musician and lover of anything fantasy. I’ve been hooked on video games since Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue in 2000, and I love anything Lord of the Rings related.

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