Microtransactions in AAA Video Games: The New Normal?

In the old days, you’d buy a video game and that was it: end of transaction. That’s still possible for most games that cost money up front, but developers are finding new and unique ways to wring extra cash out of customers who have already bought their games. One way is through downloadable content. A more recent trend we’ve seen with AAA games is the addition of “microtransactions,” small payments players might pay to customize the look of their gear or to make certain features of the game easier to unlock.

Microtransactions really kicked off with the advent of free-to-play mobile games sometime around 2010. Not long after the iOS App Store opened, developers realized it was easier to get people to download a game for free, and then sell them in-game items or currency, than it was to get customers to pay money up front. That’s why everyone on the train is playing free games like Candy Crush Saga instead of paid games like Lara Croft GO.

But recently, as major publishers have looked for ways to increase their revenue from AAA console games, they’ve begun to add the microtransaction model to games that cost $60 to buy.

Recently, both Destiny and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 have added small in-game purchases. In Black Ops 3, you can buy “Call of Duty points” that you can spend in-game on things like taunts, outfits, and weapon skins. You can buy Call of Duty points in packages ranging from $2 to $40.

Destiny’s microtransactions might be more accurately described as macrotransactions, because they cost $30. Instead of granting you minor bonuses, they let you purchase a level 25 character of any class, along with a handful of items and a subclass boost. The game’s The Taken King expansion let players boost one character to level 25, but until now, that was the only way you could skip grinding your way through those early levels. Now players have a choice: grind it out or open their wallets.

These are far from the only instances of microtransactions in recent AAA games. Mortal Kombat X lets you pay to unlock characters and even buy “easy fatalities” you can use one at a time if you don’t feel like entering the code to, say, split someone’s head in two. Forza Motorsport 6 added microtransactions in the form of tokens you can buy to things like cars and mod packs.

In recent months, shooters have become the most microtransaction-heavy genre. In Halo 5: Guardians, players can pay real-world money to buy REQ Packs, which contain things like weapons, armor, and special animations. You can earn these just by playing Halo 5’s multiplayer modes, but having a few extra REQ packs never hurt anyone, right?

Rainbow Six Siege offers “R6 Credits” that let you buy weapon skins and other cosmetic additions that don’t affect gameplay. That seems to be the excuse most publishers give for the microtransactions in their AAA games: They grant you no major advantage you can’t get simply by playing the game.

The question is whether the existence of the microtransactions will affect the game’s design. Wouldn’t it benefit the publisher if it takes a little longer than it should to unlock something through gameplay alone? Wouldn’t that give players a little push to spend money on the microtransactions?

Really, it comes down to trust. If you feel like you’re being nickel-and-dimed by a developer or a publisher, you should probably stop buying their games. Presumably no players really like microtransactions in AAA games, but based on how many recent games offer them, there doesn’t seem to be any way around it other than not spending money on them.

Microtransactions: like them or not, it looks like we’re stuck with them.

Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed
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