We’re always being told that if something looks too good to be true, then there’s probably a catch. Worryingly this warning has seldom been better illustrated than in the video games industry right now.
So-called ‘free-to-play’ software is implied to be for the good of the casual gamer. The principle allows those with less time, patience or skill to progress faster by making in-app purchases, thereby offering a wider freedom of choice in how to play. The trouble is that the games that impliment this model are often designed to deliberately frustrate.
Restrictive and unbalanced gameplay can be seen to actively encourage the use of microtransactions, and of course undermines the quality of the game itself. This means that to play the majority of the games anywhere close to the way they should be played, requires that you give in to the constant cajoling for cash. Free to play they most certainly are not.
It’s this kind of deceptive marketing that has also got parents up in arms, with cases of children spending small fortunes on games marked as free. However, when utilised in an unobtrusive and fair way for already cheap mobile games, the concept can be seen as a reasonable option. But unfortunately microtransactions are not just affecting the mobile market.
When the industry at large spots faster ways of making profit, you can be sure the ripples will spread far and wide. Recently a growing number of publishers have adopted various schemes associated with the free-to-play model, which has also negatively impacted on some notable home console titles. With sales psychology being increasingly prioritised over game design, what follows is a list of some of the worst offenders.
Candy Crush Saga
Incredibly Candy Crush Saga has been downloaded over 500 million times and currently makes around £576,000 in revenues every day. Now that’s not bad for a game that’s free. Even with the kind of profit margins that would have Rockstar turn green with envy, only about 30% of users have ever spent any money to play it. In terms of begging, Candy Crush is actually one of the least aggressive, but its financial success and overwhelming popularity may well have created a monster.
A perfect example of a game that has had its very soul devoured by the constant need to pay to make any progress, Theme Park is certainly no joy-ride. If you choose not to pay every time you attempt something as basic as building a new ride, then you’ll have to wait a day until you’re permitted to do so. If that represents freedom of choice, then so does gouging your eyes out with either a spoon or a fork.
Gran Turismo 6
Watching microtransactions infiltrate the home console market is one of the most disturbing sights in the industry today, partly because the initial outlay for the game is already full price. Gran Turismo 6 was one of the more high profile titles that had the audacity to ask for outrageous sums of money just for an extra that should become available through your achievements rather than your wallet. Paying for horse armour in Skyrim might take the crown of ridiculousness, but £170 to unlock a Jaguar XJ13 (three times the cost of the game itself) stretches what constitutes ‘micro’ in microtransaction more than ever.
Forza Motorsport 5
Forza Motorsport 5 represents a depressing glimpse into the future of this new generation of consoles should things continue as they are. The way in which you unlock new cars is all done through in-game credits, which predictably can be bought with real money to speed things along. More so than in GT6, grinding for credits has very obviously been made deliberately time-consuming, thus making it very expensive to fully experience what the game has to offer without it all becoming one laborious slog.
The Simpsons Tapped Out
Not only does The Simpsons Tapped Out slow your progress to a virtual crawl unless you keep spending, but it also apparently targets vulnerable children at the same time. The Office of Fair Trading deemed the method of encouragement worthy of investigation, but whether it’s unfairly manipulative or not, such practices are certainly not isolated to any one game. In fact, since the protests of parents and subsequent refunding for some of the more extreme cases, things have got even worse. Doh!
Angry Birds Go!
Using the popular Angry Birds name to attract even more customers to the Rovio cash cow makes good business sense. Except this particular cow has udders so bloated with offensive monetisation schemes, its milk leaves an extremely sour taste in the mouth. Originally charging £70 to unlock one of the racing karts, Rovio have since reduced the price to something closer to what they can get away with. However, they haven’t reduced the necessity to use microtransactions in order to get your bird to recover after a race, nor the distracting amount of advertising at every turn.
If fans of Bullfrog were upset over what EA did to Theme Park when porting it to mobile devices, then they’ll be inconsolable when they play this. I say ‘play’, but really that is meant in the loosest sense possible. A fondly remembered classic that helped define the real-time-strategy genre, Dungeon Keeper has truly been cast to the depths of hell. Even the smallest tasks take hours to complete without a microtransaction, which are incessantly touted like a one-legged prostitute. And if you run out of gems to pay for your ‘reward’, don’t worry because an extra 14,000 will only set you back £70.
Getting past the microtransactions are one thing, but even then you’ll find a seriously dumbed-down version of the original. To make matters worse, EA are doing their utmost to ensure it’s as difficult as possible to award the game with anything less than five stars. Unless you go directly to the product page yourself, a one to four rating requires that you write an email to EA, whereas a five star rating is immediately accepted.
The greatest worry of all is that if all of these underhand tactics mentioned above are accepted by the paying public, then the way everyone plays video games will change for the worse. Microtransactions are becoming more widespread simply because people are paying for them. Even if the majority who do so are casual gamers who mostly play on smart phones, such a passive attitude is clearly having a damaging effect on gameplay and game design across the entire industry.
Ultimately, it will be the consumers who choose what is right or wrong, and what the future of video games will be.