Microtransactions in all future EA games: a step too far?

Feature Ryan Lambie 28 Feb 2013 - 06:57

As EA unveils its plans to introduce microtransactions in all its future games, Ryan wonders if it'll do more harm to its sales than good...

As the current generation of consoles gives way to the next, the games industry finds itself in a state of transition. Aside from the new batch of hardware on the horizon from Microsoft and Sony, we're also seeing a huge shift in the way games are bought and paid for. Mobile phones and tablets are continuing to eat into the market traditionally ruled by dedicated handheld consoles. Sales of games in boxes are on the cusp of being overtaken by downloads. And at the same time, publishers are beginning to adopt new means of making profits from their games.

Yesterday, EA revealed its intention to introduce microtransactions in all its future titles, as announced by its CFO Blake Jorgensen.

"The next and much bigger piece [of the business] is microtransactions within games," Jorgensen said. "We're building into all of our games the ability to pay for things along the way, either to get to a higher level to buy a new character, to buy a truck, a gun, whatever it might be, and consumers are enjoying and embracing that way of the business."

EA caused a certain amount of controversy with Dead Space 3, which introduced microtransactions to the franchise for the first time; as part of its weapon crafting system, certain resources can either be mined by scavenger bots, or alternatively, purchased via an in-game marketplace with real-world cash.

Now, this is a principle which has been knocking around for years in online games - usually of the free-to-play variety - where revenue is earned through the sale of items rather than a large up-front payment from players. The controversy, of course, comes from applying microtransactions to a game which costs anywhere between £30 to £40.

On one hand, EA has faced accusations of shameless money grabbing. On the other, there's the argument that such microtransactions are optional, and that they merely tax those who - for whatever reason - want to speed through the game more quickly. Eurogamer's Tom Philips has argued that the service is only a little different from one of those old cheat hotlines you used to see in the back of instruction booklets.

Whatever your opinion on microtransactions in full-price games, it seems they're the future as far as EA's concerned, and may be as prevalent in its future output as DLC and map packs have been in its games of the past five-or-so years.

Games: from a product to a service

EA's announcement is a sign, perhaps, of the industry's changing attitude to what games are. Where they were once considered to be a product - the same as a console or any other sellable item, which is sold in exchange for money - they're increasingly becoming a service, where a regular stream of updates is offered for months or years after its initial release.

This in turn has led to a new way of thinking about how games can be packaged and monetised. Content can be sold in small morsels rather than one large chunk. Extra revenue can be earned from optional weapons, items and multiplayer maps. And up until now, many players have enjoyed the relatively new world of free-to-play games, which have experimented with ways of introducing these approaches in a way that satisfies both the end user and those hoping to make a tidy profit - sometimes disastrously, sometimes with great success.

There's a major difference, however, between a free-to-play MMO or a cheap mobile app and a full-priced game like Dead Space 3. While microtransaction defenders have argued that they needn't have a negative impact on the end product, many reviewers have already found fault with the process of having to grind through certain parts of the game rather than pay for resources.

"... there were plenty of moments where I fell just short of what was needed," Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead wrote of Dead Space 3's newly-added resource management gameplay aspect. "I scraped through, but faced with an uncertain journey to the next workbench, it's easy to see how the temptation [to pay for resources] would be hard to resist, especially when certain resources are conspicuously less common than others."

Dead Space 3 has earned decent reviews, but the series has seen a rapid change from a survival horror experience to a co-op shooter with RPG elements and, yes, optional microtransactions. It begs the question: how will EA's other franchises reinvent themselves in order to accommodate this additional revenue stream? Will we be faced with the choice of either winning 40 races or paying before a new track's unlocked in a Need For Speed sequel, for example?

Such cynicism aside, we have to allow the possibility that EA - and any other publisher thinking of introducing microtransactions - will be able to integrate this new business model without upsetting end users. And this is something it'll have to implement very carefully, particularly when it comes to full-price games.

With sales of Dead Space 3 reportedly 26 per cent lower than the previous entry, it's just possible that gamers are already voting with their wallets.

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