On micro-transactions

If there’s one thing that most gamers seem to despise (besides always online requirements in single player games), it’s micro-transactions. Those little nudges to spend just a little bit of money to play faster or better than normal, or even just to look cooler.

There are some games that are doing it right. They’ve introduced micro-transactions in a non-intrusive way, never making the player feel forced into buying the extra content. Guild Wars 2 is an excellent example of this – it’s free to play, meaning no pesky monthly subscription, but there is plenty you can spend real money on. These are mostly vanity items, like dyes, pets and town outfits, but there are also extra character or bank slots available to purchase. But it gets better – players can earn in-game currency and exchange it for gems, the currency used to buy these special items.

Needless to say, I’ve spent a fair bit of real money to get all the extra character slots I wanted, as well as that all important bank space. And a couple of makeovers for my characters. It’s unlikely that I would have spent this money if I had felt pressured or forced into it, or if there was a monthly subscription.

There are plenty of mobile games that fall into this ‘good’ micro-transaction category. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Pixel People, a cute little iPad game where you build a space colony by cloning different people together. Needless to say, it has a special currency that’s used to speed things up and build better buildings, and you can earn this currency by playing the game. So I’ve spent a few dollars to improve my experience. I’ve done the same where I’ve enjoyed a game and wanted to support the developers.

Then there are the games that give micro-transactions a bad name. I won’t name names, but you know the ones: you’ve barely been playing very long and it’s already becoming clear that the game is not as ‘free to play’ as advertised… Perhaps there are special buildings or other bonuses only available to paying customers. Or worse: limiting your turns/play time/energy unless you pay for more. And my personal nemesis: the game interface is designed so that it is easy for you to accidentally spend your hard-earned gems on stupid things like speeding up building production!

I consider this an underhanded way of going about things. I’d much rather pay for the game upfront than constantly be bombarded with requests to buy more gems/diamonds/etc. I think the problem is worse when the games are aimed at children, who might happily press the ‘buy now’ button and suddenly Daddy’s (or Mommy’s) credit card is $100 lighter…

For better or worse, micro-transactions seem to be here to stay. I just hope the games that use the more ‘honest’ model are the ones who win. They’re certainly the ones who’ll be getting my money!

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