A Microtransaction Rant

There has been a lot of discussion in various circles regarding microtransactions in games (mostly aimed at EA’s repulsive practices, particularly with the big-name games.) The discussion generally devolves into two camps. The “All microtransactions must die” camp and the “nobody is forcing you to spend money” camp. I think both camps actually miss the point.

I don’t have an issue with the concept of microtransactions. I’ve spent plenty of money over the years on cosmetic items (going all the way back to vanity pet purchases for WOW, Hutt Cartel packs from SWtOR, and unique homes for ESO). If I am enjoying a game, I genuinely don’t mind supporting the game with a few purchases here and there for vanity items.

The issue comes into play when the game becomes “pay-to-win.” And, no, it really isn’t just a matter of “nobody is forcing you to spend money.” Because the practice is approaching critical mass in the industry and allowing it to get to a point where you just don’t play the games that employ the tactic can end up driving people away from gaming completely. And while some people engage in their tribalism and don’t see a problem with a shrinking customer base, anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of economics understands the issue with driving away customers.

When someone drops $60 on NBA2K 2019 only to discover that there is really no way to fully enjoy the game without also spending addition money on microtransactions to purchase the virtual currency needed to unlock the bulk of the content, that isn’t just a matter of “don’t play.” That is borderline fraud. The push to add microtransactions to games has also had the effect of driving developers away from single-player games and into multiplayer.

I fully believe the real reason for the Fallout 76 debacle is that the developers were forced to create a multiplayer game so that EA could add microtransactions to do what fan modders have been doing for the Fallout franchise forever. A franchise was destroyed in order to add microtransactions where they were not needed. That is no longer a matter of “nobody is forcing you to spend money.” This is a “my favorite franchises are being destroyed to the point that they are unplayable.”

Of course, all of this got its start with mobile gaming, where “free to play” games routinely end up forcing you to spend money just to accomplish the most basic tasks. And recently, a particular mobile game really got under my skin to the point where I decided to write this article.

But first, to repeat, I am not opposed to microtransactions in general. Below I’ll highlight some mobile games that I play where I have happily spent money.

In my option, microtransactions are fine when:

  1. They allow for vanity customizations without providing an advantage in game over other players
  2. It doesn’t put what should be basic functionality behind a paywall.
  3. Virtual currency for premium purchases can be earned through normal in game actions at a reasonable rate
  4. Price structure of purchasing premium items is consistent with the rate in which virtual currency can be earned through normal game actions.

Best Practices

Fallout Shelter by Bethesda: The best mobile game I’ve played. I have never felt obligated to spend money in order to progress in game. Unlike most mobile games, there are no ads and no constant pop ups “reminding” you of all the premium items you should be spending money on. Once in a while, when there is a holiday event going on or a sale, you will see a single promo ad. Otherwise, load up the game and play.

You can spend money on premium items like loot boxes (which can include caps, resources, weapons, armor, and special characters), Mister Handy robots (which collect resources on the floor for you and help defend the vault), pets (which give your dwellers special bonuses to various activities), and Nuka-Cola (allowing you to speed up certain activities like training or returning from a quest), but the game rewards all of these things rather generously by completing various actions, so you never feel like you have to spend money. And the pricing for premium items is on the micro-side (you can get 40 lunchboxes, each with five items, for $20). That is a LOT of lunchboxes.

Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations: This wonderfully morbid game isn’t actually “free to play” (it costs 99 cents). But it is such a low one-time cost as to not matter. It allows you to design diseases with which to destroy humanity. Successfully destroying humanity with one disease unlocks the next. Each step is more challenging, and you can pay to unlock them all if you wish. But you aren’t forced to and there is a sense of accomplishment when you unlock a new step on your own. There are premium “diseases” available for purchase, such as vampire or zombie epidemics. I believe you can unlock all the premium diseases for under $10. But you can happily go about causing destruction without spending a dime.

Good Practices

Resort Tycoon by AppOn: This is a mindless little game that I find strangely relaxing. Though now that I have unlocked the four available resorts I sort of feel like there is nothing else to do. It requires gems to complete certain activities, like upgrading resort rooms, but awards ample free ones so that with patience you can still complete objectives. You get 25 gems for watching an ad, and you can watch multiple ads a day. You can pretty much earn enough premium currency through watching ads or completing certain objectives to pay for upgrades with no issues.

Problematic Practices

Dragon City by Socialpoint: I like Dragon City as they have a lot of different things to do (special events, group challenges, league battles, etc). But there are times where you hit a wall and can’t complete certain actions without premium currency. Dragon City isn’t stingy with awarding their currency, and with patience you can build up a “hoard” of gems to save for when there are time-sensitive special events.

You get a gem a day with the Jewelem’s tower. Watch an ad to earn a gem (occasionally they have special events where you can watch multiple ads in a row to earn more gems). Earn additional gems from league battles. While acquiring gems is slow, it isn’t impossible to get enough gems to do things like unlock new islands to expand in a reasonable time.

This is the downside with Dragon City. The gems can impact gameplay against other players. This is particularly a problem with the Heroic Race events, where you complete against other players to win Heroic dragons. Because of the number of timers on certain activities and artificial restrictions on harvesting, you pretty much have to be willing to spend gems to complete certain goals in a reasonable time to have a chance at winning the race. For example, you are capped at the number of farms you can have to produce food. So if a node requires you to harvest X amount of food, you may have to wait through multiple timers to harvest enough to move forward. Or you can spend gems to automatically complete the node. This gives an unfair advantage to people willing to spend money.

Should Be Illegal practices

Zoo 2: Animal Park by Upjers

When I first started playing this game, I LOVED it. It doesn’t just have generic activities to complete, but actual story lines and non-traditional characters. There is a cute little “romance” story line between two senior citizens. There is a gay character. There are a lot of good things going for this game, but it is ruined by the horrible push for microtranactions. After two months, I have hit a wall where I cannot progress in the story without spending money. And it is no small amount of money.

I currently have seven active quests in my log for this game. Five of those quests require items or actions that need blue gems to complete.

Rising Moon: Moon Bear requires 125 gems. Ten pink Hibiscus requires 150 gems

Little Gil: Blue wooden bench requires 12 gems

A Dream Forsaken: Two tapir requires 230 gems

Small Climbers: To breed the baby baboon, the breeding shelter needs to be level three, which costs 288 gems

Komodo Dragon: Komodo Dragon costs 95 gems

900 gems. A bundle of 700 gems costs $48.99

And this game is stingy with the premium currency you can earn in game. All of the quests that require gems? The rewards don’t even include any gems. You get a single gem when you level, which takes a long time once you get pass level 20. You can get one gem for watching ten ads. Few of the quests reward gems, and when they do it is a low amount (often only one). Even if by some miracle I was able to earn three gems a day, it would take TEN MONTHS to earn enough gems to cover completing the quests in my quest log.

Meanwhile, to buy land to expand your zoo costs gems (some plots are gold, while others are gems. But the gem plots are often between the gold plots, so you either build AROUND those gem plots and hopefully don’t run out of room or you have to buy the gem plots, which cost a lot of gems in their own right. Way too many items in this game require premium currency, and the ability to get premium currency without spending money is so bad that the game doesn’t even qualify as “free to play.”

What can gamers do?

At the end of the day, the power we have is to vote with our wallets. Support the games that do it right while avoiding the games that don’t. Microtransactions are not going to go away, but we can make sure to warn fellow gamers of the worst abuses and hold developers accountable. And it might be time to start submitting complaint tickets to Amazon and other retailers to report “poor customer experiences” with certain games. Because retailers have a vested interest in these games as well, the last thing they want is to have their customers driven away by shady practices.