We Sure Got Used To Microtransactions And DLC, Huh

Illustration for article titled We Sure Got Used To Microtransactions And DLC, Huh
Photo: Matt Cardy (Getty Images)
The Last GenerationThe Last GenerationA look back at 2013-2020, the age of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

There once was a time—around when Bethesda had the idea to sell armour for a horse back in 2006—that the prospect of buying a video game then paying more money for stuff in the same game would prompt outrage.

When they first started showing up during the PS3/Xbox 360 years it felt like microtransactions and downloadable content were a fundamental threat to the way we bought and enjoyed video games, and if you spent any time on forums at the time you’d recall they were deeply unpopular moves. For those interested in keeping this kind of money-grubbing intrusion out of their games, this was, in many ways, the opening exchange in a war, something that had to be resisted at all costs.

Seven years of the PS4 and Xbox One era—which launched with in-game purchases already part of the landscape but still finding their feet—sure ground the life out of that fight.

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The FIFA series has been at the vanguard of everything that’s popular—and wrong—about modern in-game purchases.
The FIFA series has been at the vanguard of everything that’s popular—and wrong—about modern in-game purchases.
Image: EA Sports

In the late 2000s it used to be some of the biggest news of the year when a fighting game would offer some extra characters, or Call of Duty would try to sell you some new maps. Partly for the news itself, sure, but also for the accompanying unrest.

The arguments against this practice were sound: we’d already paid for this game, stop charging us more money for stuff! If you were making more stuff, just put it on the disc and give it to us all at once, like the good old days.

The arguments for this practice were...also sound, in that nobody was being forced to buy anything, a pipeline of additional content could keep a game active and relevant for years, and the extra revenue companies were raking in from microtransactions was contributing to game prices having stayed relatively stable for over a decade.

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Now, in 2020, after we’ve just completed our first full console cycle with in-game purchases as standard, we’re numb to it. The NBA 2K series is now built around microtransactions at its heart, then some basketball is squeezed in around the edges, and while there are still loads of complaints every year, there are also millions of sales. Shooters will ship with some maps and game modes, then release more of them later, and get you on the hook for all of it up-front with season passes.

Then there are games like Rockstar’s two big releases (or re-releases) of the past console generation, Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2, which were able to pivot entirely from being epic single-player adventures at launch to cash-hungry online playgrounds years down the line.

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This stuff is a lot “worse” than a horse trying to protect itself, but the outrage, if it ever arrives at all these days, is rarely as pointed as it used to be, or is at least targeted towards specific missteps (more on that soon), not the practice itself. In 2020 microtransactions aren’t a threat, they’re just part of what video games are now. Prolonged exposure to the practice has dulled opposition, and the proliferation of mobile games and their free-to-play model has influenced publishers and developers across every platform, not just on phones.

Battlefront II’s infamous crates
Battlefront II’s infamous crates
Image: Anton Grandert
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What does this tell us? I don’t know! I think, though, that the practice has become so sharp, so plugged into the psychology of spending and feeling good, that it has become an irresistible revenue stream for companies who are in the business of making money, and that as companies get smarter about how elegantly they can implement these practices, the more successful they become. Even Nintendo, long opposed to ideas like microtransactions and F2P, now make mobile games and sell Smash Bros. DLC.

If you ever thought you were fighting a war against this stuff, you had already lost, because there was never a war in the first place. Protesting microtransaction’s creep into the fundamentals of game design wasn’t a fight, it was like standing on the beach and shouting at the tide. The gears of the market grind ever onward, an irresistible force.

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A lot of this has been pretty terrible, and there has been backlash in some places, from FIFA’s loot boxes—currently being legislated to hell and back in Europe—to Battlefront II’s crates, which were so egregious that the publisher was forced to walk them back (but only a little). I’m listing two obvious examples here (both from the same publisher!) for the sake of brevity, but I’m sure you’d have no trouble naming your own worst offenders.

Yet there’s something to be said for games designed with later purchases in mind from the outset, and their immense popularity and commercial success. Resistance to the idea of in-game purchases is mostly based around the idea you’re being charged further for content that could/should have been in the main game (and original purchase), but games like Hitmanwhich offered up “episodes” like a TV show would sell seasonal box sets—showed there were ways to ask repeatedly for money and not come off like an asshole.

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League of Legends is free to play, with most purchases being cosmetic items. Same goes for rival DOTA, and while Overwatch isn’t free, its in-game purchases are usually just skins. Fortnite, too, is free and follows a similar business model (albeit one that has lately made the game as much of an ad space as something you play), and those are four of the biggest games on the planet.

Genshin Impact is another game trying out new stuff in this field. Its “half-Zelda, half-F2P phone game nightmare” composition may not be as universally popular as Hitman’s, but it is at least trying to find new spaces with which to experiment. And then there’s the DLC of the past generation, once derided, but now in many cases refined and much more welcome. The Witcher 3's enormous additional quests could have been sequels, Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters was fantastic and the Destiny games have been radically changed with each expansion, just to name three (again, you can probably all come up with your own list of favourites).

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The ever-changing nature of games like this are also evidence that microtransactions were never an intrusion on a codified pattern of game design in the first place. Their emergence was just the latest step in the video game business changing to reflect, for better or worse, the wider economy, its technological advances and its need for constant growth, just as store-bought console games had followed on from quarter-guzzling arcade cabinets.

As the era of the PS4 and Xbox One draws to an end, then, we’re left looking out over a gaming landscape where, thanks the dominant console games like FIFA, Battlefield and Call of Duty being built with additional payments at their core, the video game industry has changed dramatically, and much of the medium’s creative output along with it.

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Microtransactions, DLC and F2P are no longer intrusions, or aberrations. They’re just the new normal.

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Luke Plunkett is a Senior Editor based in Canberra, Australia. He has written a book on cosplay, designed a game about airplanes, and also runs cosplay.kotaku.com.

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DISCUSSION

There’s definitely a thin line for me; one that I actually try to view from 2 different perspectives.

As a gamer, I have to decide if it’s actually expanding or enhancing the experience of the game for me. If it’s something like entirely new levels/campaigns, new game mechanics, then I’m usually fine with it. For example, to my knowledge, there was no outcry over the original Japanese SMB2, even though it was mostly just new levels (aside from some minor new mechanics such as Mario and Luigi’s different “handling”, poison mushrooms, etc.) But you have to wonder if there would have been backlash if there was internet at the time to be able to download it; if people would have complained that it should have been part of the first game.

However, on-disc DLC or other pay-to-unlock is complete bullcrap because you already own the disc/game files, and are being charged to rightfully use it. Skins are another issue, and just have to decide if I care enough; usually I don’t.

As a software developer, I have to consider scope/feature creep about the game. If you don’t properly define the scope and features of a game, development could go on indefinitely. And if too much time/money/resources are spent on development, you risk a terrible ROI for the product. A shorter or smaller game may also be a good test bed for how well it is received. You may consider releasing only the first “episode”/”chapter” at a lower price point if you’re unsure how well it will sell; no sense in extra development time if the game isn’t as well-received as you’d hoped. Also cheaper for the consumer since they’re paying less than the whole package. If I only buy a small part and don’t enjoy it, I cut my losses and save the rest of the money.

Licensing issues might also have to be considered, particularly with crossovers or “guest” characters. Maybe Smash Ultimate couldn’t get the rights to use Minecraft/Joker/whoever until after a certain time, so either those characters had to be DLC, or not be in the game at all. Then their concept woud be relegated to the next Smash game, but the characters might not be relevant anymore.