Editorial: Microtransgressions

 Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

By Robert Marrujo:: I was floored when I heard the news that EA was ceasing all microtransactions in Star Wars: Battlefront II. Floored because somehow, fans were able to make their voices heard and create actual change within the industry. While I certainly don't agree with the fringe elements of the gaming community hurling death threats at the development team, overall what I heard and saw across social media was a singular, simple message: we've had enough. What EA tried to pull off with Battlefront II was so shameless and blatant in its attempts to suck money from fans' wallets that the company has almost singlehandedly ruined the proverbial microtransaction party for every single publisher and developer in the industry.

Not that it was a party the overwhelming majority of gamers wanted anything to do with. Microtransactions have been a part of the gaming landscape since the early days of free-to-play games began flooding mobile. The concept was simple: throw a game onto the App Store, don't charge anything for it, provide fun gameplay that will keep fans glued to their devices, but then charge them for the privilege to keep playing. Candy Crush does this, where players expend all of their lives in a flash on a level, want to keep playing, and then have to decide if they're willing to fork over some real world cash or wait for the game to give them more lives after a set period of time.

As the years have gone by, developers have grown more and more aggressive in their approach to implementing these in-game purchases. I can vividly remember balking at Angry Birds GO when it first launched. The game was a delight, but also fiendishly set on pushing me to spend money, so much so that it completely killed any of the momentum and immersion it had done such a good job of creating. I'd never before played a game where I had to factor its cost into my assessment of it. So bad was the incorporation of its fees that Angry Birds GO scuttled its own gameplay. Mobile continues to be littered with toxic titles like these that promise fun experiences, but only if players are willing to endlessly invest a steady flow of cash into them.

With home consoles, the transition to this sort of pay model has been slower, but the writing was on the wall if you knew where to look. Back in 2010, Activision made waves when it announced that Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 would be getting a $15 map pack expansion that brought five new arenas to the game's multiplayer mode. The price was outrageous at the time, but compared to the asking price of some season passes today that number looks positively quaint. Flash forward to now and the industry is doing everything in its power, seemingly, to make sure that fans stop paying once for a video game and instead start plunking down on a regular basis.

Here's the problem: to date, virtually every attempt by devs and pubs to facilitate this idea of games as a service has smacked of greed. Let's break this down a bit. A game costs, on average, between $50-$60 at launch. A season pass can go for up to $50 in some cases, but let's call the average $25-$30. That puts the total for playing a game and getting the full experience at roughly $80-$90 so far. If you want to play that game online, you also have to pay for access to either Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. For a year that's $60 apiece. Now we're at $140. You'd think that was enough, but we're still not done doing math.

Start throwing in microtransactions and this $140 can quickly become exponentially more. Buy some loot crates and maybe at the end of the month the total grows to $160. Don't forget those skins though, costumes, gun decals, new characters, and so forth, as well. Suddenly that $160 is $180, or maybe even $200. Before the transactions were shut down, Battlefront II offered a $100 purchase, something that isn't uncommon in the sphere of microtransactions. This last detail is the biggest one that can't be ignored: video game publishers and developers are hoping that fans will keep shelling out cash in perpetuity. This, dear readers, is an out of control dumpster fire that none of us should be throwing fuel onto.

I think the biggest part of my problem with the current situation when it comes to microtransactions is the lack of transparency. Don't tell me I'm buying a game when in reality I'm just paying $60 for a glorified membership card. It's become that countless of these online titles exist simply to nickel and dime players until their bank accounts have gone dry. It's, to repeat, shameless. I can get behind the idea of certain games becoming services; titles like Call of Duty and Madden are so much about carrying over virtually the exact same experience year to year that it makes sense to just have a model where fans buy access to the games at different price tiers that award different levels of content access. $5 a month lets you play online with friends, $10 a month means you can also get access to a wider selection of weapons, and so on.

At least with that setup I know going in what I've signed up for without a shadow of a doubt. It also acknowledges up front to what extent you'll be limited and provides the choice to responsibly and reasonably decide how to budget in accordance with your needs. Right now, though? It's the wild west out there, with every developer and publisher wanting to take a slice from the pie until all that's left for us are crumbs. And if they could, they'd monetize even those. I'm not naive, I understand that developers have to make money off of their games in order to keep the lights on and everyone fed, but there's a difference between making a profit and bleeding people dry. What EA tried to do with Battlefront II was the latter and the gaming community acted in kind.

While alarming, with the catastrophic release of Battlefront II there's at least some precedent now for other developers to look and say, "that's the line we can't cross." Indeed, a number of devs have made social media posts indicating that they have no desire to follow in the footsteps of EA by implementing similarly morally bankrupt pay models in their games. What's key for consumers to understand moving forward is that every dollar they pay to developers and publishers is a vote. Keep paying for microtransactions and you are voting for them to stick around. Businesses big or small speak one language: money. Give them less cash and they're inclined to not do or supply whatever it is you're no longer paying for. Let's hope that fans will continue to make their voices heard (in a peaceful way) and deter video game companies from seeking to make money off of unreasonable microtransactions.

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