I’m going to guess that many might not see the significance of this article. Microtransactions are a hot topic in the realm of the hated corporate agenda of video games, but I don’t think it’s enough to just “hate” microtransactions or the companies pushing them, I think you should know what they’re trying to do. The nature of experiential microtransactions is simple when compared to real world examples.
Experience as a Product
If you ever have gone to StarBucks you’ll understand what an “experiential” product is. The basic idea is that you’re not just buying a coffee, but buying an experience – the ethnic/exotic music being played, the decorations on the wall (usually dark and warm colors) or the rough wood grained table that feels different under your fingers compared to your regular IKEA table. I don’t want to get weighed down with this point, but Harvard Business Review has a great article expanding on it. Main stream marketing has clued into the fact that people are’t so interested in the utilitarian function of a product anymore – it’s about how the product is experienced that’s the focus of modern marketing.
When I chat about MTX design and examples with friends, I often hear examples pulled from WarCraft and GuildWars. It’s long been the classic standard where you exchange an in-game commodity for real world currency and the value is in how great the “product is”. When there is an agenda to increase sales volume, awesome equipment and items might be put on sale as an incentive for players to buy. Having worked with clients to balance their in game economies, I’ve seen first hand this isn’t a reliable or sustainable model to work with. You can flood the in game economy with epic items but this unbalances other systems and devalues other items, forcing you to find new items to put on sale. This conundrum sparked the desire to put the emphasis off the actual item subject to the microtransaction and more to the experience.
In my series on HearthStone and its monetization strategy I mention how the principle MTX mechanic is purchasing packs of cards is built on the experience of opening the pack. There are flashy visual effects, sounds and even an interactive function to create a “moment” when you’re receiving your cards. I need to dispel the thought that this is just a “random” occurrence – video game design resources on IPs this large are calculated and have a purpose.
An even better example is the Arena mode of gameplay in HearthStone. You pay $2 to make a random deck of cards and see how well it performs. Once you have lost 3 matches you are given prizes in volume based on the number of wins during your Arena run. the picture to the right shows the screen you’re given with your prizes – the experience is so based around earning prizes, the prizes are “wrapped” so you can open them to fully experience the surprise along with flashy animation and sounds. The reason HearthStone marks a landmark in MTX design is the Arena was exclusively designed for users to pay money (or hard to earn game points) to experience. For players who get bored of the regular HearthStone gameplay and want a unique or more challenging game mode they have this experience always ready to purchase. I pretty much see this design as a carnival on a video game. You’re not paying for the crappy prize they give you, you’re paying for the experience of achieving. Worst of all, this fosters the dangerous breeding ground for addictive personalities and takes advantage of video game whales.
The Battlefield series has just implemented a similar system. From a consumer’s view it would seem straight forward to just be able to purchase the specific guns and equipment desired. The regular course of acquiring guns is a long drawn out process and many hardcore clan members would likely pay $2.50 for a given item, but instead players are only given the option of purchasing battlepacks which are filled with random pieces of equipment.
One final example is the new mystery skin gifting in League of Legends. The basic concept is that instead of buying a specific skin for your champion, you can buy a random skin for one of your owned champions. On top of the excitement of randomness in the skin you’ll receive, you might even a rare or legendary skin. You’re able to gift the skins to other players and it becomes a new skin buying experience less about the actual skin but more around the excitement or surprise.
The Historic Method
If you remember back to your first time playing Zelda: Ocarina of Time, your heart would race when you’d see a big chest in the middle of the dungeon. The chest opening animation and music was done in such a specific way – to build anticipation and further the excitement of the player in opening the reward for their progress. This new MTX strategy is putting a coin slot on the experience of achievement. Game design is fundamentally about having players achieve progress and we’re devaluing the process by creating an MTX model around selling progress. Yes, this is nothing new to the arguments against “pay to play”, but what really discourages me here is not that the MTX element exists but that the game systems are adjusted to further incline players to the monetization strategy.
Usually, you make a progression system oriented around having a player feel they’ve earned their reward when they’ve spent sufficient time commensurate with that reward. If the rewards are too low for the time or effort invested, a player will naturally feel unsatisfied. Experiential MTX design relies on this dissatisfaction to push players to spending
What’s always fascinated me about MTX theory is that it has generally mimicked the Western consumer economic theories. If you’re familiar with the idea that the very first goods sold in the historic economies were products which then led to the service based economy you’ll understand how we’re experiencing this exact same thing here.
The Ultimate Dangers of This
These should be super obvious;
1. The excitement in videogames becomes a virtual good bought and sold. I personally wouldn’t be interested in a game where the design is meant for me to be under-satisfied or underwhelmed by the content unless I was willing to pay more than the price to acquire the game. It’s a bait and switch tactic that I find repugnant.
2. Content becomes optimized from a financial perspective creating redundancy. Once the magic formula of what sells the best is found, every developer will just copy it. We’re seeing it happen right now with the major titles all springing to implement random MTX purchases.
3. Game content becomes about the experience of progress rather than the acquisition of achievement. This might sound unimportant, but it means that games will be made in such a way to encourage players to achieve ambigious goals rather than the traditional PvE, PvP or social goals.
Maybe I’m looking at this really subjectively. Do you like the way this works? Do you think this has a positive impact on game development?