Red Orbs, Fight Money and Capcom’s continuing struggle with microtransactions

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 25 September 2018 10:41 GMT

As a fresh new wave of glowing Devil May Cry previews dropped, a controversy was brewing. Capcom confirmed the game included ‘shortcut’ microtransactions – and the internet, predictably, went nuts.

As a games critic, it’s always interesting when these events occur while you’re out on the road at events. The end result is always that it becomes a hot topic of discussion: half-cut games media, developers and publishers hashing out where the controversy is and isn’t earned. These debates are almost always interesting, if heated.

For me this particular stumble for Capcom and Devil May Cry 5 was doubly interesting, as it broke both while I was at TGS and in the wake of me thinking a lot about Capcom’s approach to microtransactions in Street Fighter 5. Indeed, the last article draft I scribbled down before I left for Tokyo Game Show was titled “Street Fighter 5 has an in-game currency problem” – and we’ll get to that later on, as seriously, SF5’s in-game currency is a proper cock-up.

‘Pay to progress’: microtransactions as cheat codes

In a sense Capcom’s two microtransaction battles – SF5 and DMC5 – cover the dilemma at both ends of the games revenue problem. SF5 is struggling to balance free DLC and in-game currency, while DMC5 has run into criticism for allowing players to essentially bypass or speed up character progression by handing over some real cash. In both cases I’d argue the problem is relatively minor, but I also realize one’s take on that will vary greatly depending on how you feel about games trying to draw a little extra cash out of certain players with these techniques.

My take is this: video games need to make money. They’re also more expansive and expensive than ever before, and that means many games are having to find new ways to bump up earnings in order to justify their size and scope. In my opinion, elements like this are occasionally a necessary evil: the alternative is for games to either shrink or be less polished, thus lowering budgets – and while I personally love shorter games, neither of those avenues is particularly good for potential metascores or sales.

“It doesn’t matter – you don’t charge £59.99 for a game and then do this,” another critic told me as we sat in a Tokyo airport. That’s the counter argument, and it’s a fair point. I do believe this stuff comes in degrees, however. As FIFA sells well over 20 million year after year while continuing to gouge addicted ultimate team players, it’s difficult to see that practice as anything but evil shit – and that sort of action puts Devil May Cry 5’s microtransaction design into sharp contrast.

Here’s how it works in DMC5: in-game, there’s a shop that sells character upgrades and the like in exchange for red orbs, DMC’s currency. Red orbs can also be used to revive yourself on the spot if you die mid-level. The currency is easily found in the game world; enemies drop them, plus they’re found in large deposits in the environment which can be smashed to pieces to collect their bounty. To Devil May Cry fans this should all be very familiar.

The real money twist in the tale is that you can also spend real cash to obtain additional red orbs. This actually isn’t new: Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition featured the same mechanic, and a similar stir was caused then, too.

For me the question isn’t if this system is inherently evil, but more about its execution. Devil May Cry is a triple-A game, but also not one from a series with barnstorming, industry-shaking sales. It looks and feels amazing, and if something like this helps Capcom to achieve the heady quality they appear to be, it might be a necessary trade-off.

The important thing is that the system is fair. I played the level of DMC5 on show to media at TGS three times (chapter 11, for those wondering once the final game launches), and a scrub through my video capture reveals that each time I played through that level I accrued over 20,000 orbs – and then at the end of the level there are sizable orb bonuses based on your ranking that could well over double those numbers if you’re good at the game.

The lion’s share of abilities in the build I played appeared to cost reasonable amounts in line with that – so off a single play-through of chapter 11 you should be able to comfortably pick up a couple of tier 1 abilities at least, or one tier 2 ability. If you play well, it’ll be more, obviously. DMC5 also seems to make it easy to replay levels – this build of the game had chapter 12 and beyond but we weren’t allowed to play it, so I saw Capcom staff hop out of the menus to send me back to chapter 11 a couple of times.

The point is this, anyway: assuming the balance on display in the demo I played holds up for the rest of the game and it doesn’t go on to get silly with difficulty and so on, it feels like DMC5 will have fun, fair and generally generous character progression and difficulty. Keep in mind we can only judge what we’ve seen, obviously, but what I’ve seen of DMC5 so far seems fine. It doesn’t look as though it’ll be sticking me for any real cash.

The ability to trade cash for red orbs is essentially tantamount to an old cheat code. Yes, in the old days those used to be free, but the average player slicing through demons in DMC5’s standard progression theoretically shouldn’t find themselves forced to part with real cash unless they want to bypass Capcom’s intended progression – and if they want to do that, more fool them.

There doesn’t appear to be that telltale difficulty or price inflation or resource scarcity designed to get you spending. Instead, if you want an example of Capcom getting it wrong, look no further than Street Fighter 5.

Street Fighter 5 has an in-game currency problem

It’s not just Balrog whining about his fight money any more. Street Fighter 5’s in-game economy is a bloody mess.

For those not up to speed, on paper SF5 is pretty generous about its additional content. All post-launch characters are free – that’s an extra six characters for people who buy Arcade Edition and an extra eighteen for vanilla SF5 owners – but you have to buy them with an in-game currency, Fight Money (FM). There’s also other ways to spend that cash to earn costumes, stages and even additional music – and unlike red orbs you can’t trade real money for that currency.

FM can only be earned by playing SF5. Leveling up characters through single-player and online modes will earn you FM, while weekly missions, challenges and limited-time ‘event’ battles give you a chance to beat down an NPC soldier character for a chance to earn additional FM. On paper, all of this is fine. In practice, there’s a problem.

People have been talking about the core problem for a while: there simply aren’t enough chances to earn fight money in the game. Single-player modes like the cinematic story used to pay out guaranteed FM separate from character experience and level gains, but arcade edition cruelly stripped all of that out. Where before earning the 100,000 FM needed to unlock a new character was a daunting but doable task, now it feels nigh impossible. Sure, you can’t exchange real cash for fight money, but the end result of this deliberately designed scarcity is as good as identical – players are pushed towards picking up the premium ‘season pass’ DLC instead, which unlocks the characters for real cash.

Driving this mindset is everything else Capcom is doing with FM. Much of this is theoretically admirable. Extra Battle mode, for instance, is a great idea where weekly events rotate giving fans access to cross-over content and other unlockables, including character costumes based on series’ like Monster Hunter, Mega Man, Devil May Cry and even Haunting Ground.

These items will eventually crop up on the paid costume store for real money, but this is a great way to earn them for ‘free’ – you pay 2500 FM to enter a battle against an NPC. Defeat that NPC once a week for a month to earn the four ‘parts’ of the costume and unlock it for use. That brings the costume cost to just 10,000 FM assuming you win each battle first-time – that’s pretty decent. Music has also been offered for unlock in the same way.

The Mega Man inspired Air Man costume for Rashid.

This is smart stuff. It encourages players to come back to the game regularly and challenges them with facing down special NPC characters who often have unique moves and properties to make the encounter special. It makes SF5 feel alive and ever-changing, and has the same sort of galvanizing impact on the player base that things like Fortnite Challenges do. In turn extra battle becomes a place where players can sink 10,000FM or more a month, wiping out the majority of FM gains from missions.

Depending on how many extra battle events are on the go simultaneously (there’s been as many as four at once) this already makes the earning versus expenditure of fight money a dicey proposition – but matters only got worse in June when the game added Fighting Chance – a new mechanic that is essentially a loot box system.

Again, Fighting Chance is less nefarious than most other loot boxes because you can’t spend real money to get them, only fight money. But this is where things become really, properly frustrating: it’s another currency sink that costs 4500FM for a ten-item draw… and it’s random. Hidden in Fighting Chance as the top prize are special costumes and items for your editable ‘Dojo’ stage, and fans will want this stuff: the first costume was a Cammy costume based on cult hit Dreamcast twin-stick shooter and SF spin-off Cannon Spike. August and September have also featured classic ‘retro’ costumes for Sagat and Balrog based on the original Street Fighter.

A costume-winning Extra Battle draw – but it can be a real FM sink

The issue is that this stuff is random. I’m actually perfectly happy to pay for the yearly character season pass – I do the same in Tekken, after all – and until now I’ve happily been hoarding fight money and using it for extra battle and other exclusive opportunities. Chasing the Cammy costume I ended up pumping in over 60,000FM – most of the way to a character, and over half a year’s worth of one basic SF5 mission rewards. I clawed this back through a lot of grinding and got luckier with the Sagat and Balrog random draws, but the issue remains.

Conceptually this makes sense – fighting chance is a FM sink that in turn encourages players to be more engaged with the game and play more in order to claw back spent FM – but there simply aren’t enough ways to do that. A step back reminds you of the truth: Capcom is forcing FM scarcity in order to ensure players buy the character season pass. At this point, I’d just rather the characters weren’t free at all and the FM system and delivery of the associated content was fun and fair.

This is a system that punishes the most dedicated players worst of all, in fact. The more you play the harder it becomes to earn FM, as higher level characters naturally take more EXP and thus more time to level up, and the previously generous-feeling 1000FM per level starts to feel downright paltry. If we assume we’re due a couple more seasons of SF5, it’s easy to see a situation where soon players who want to access the exclusive FM content won’t be able to access all of it even if they’ve paid cash for the characters and been diligent about completing missions – and that’s not on. In fact, it’s bullshit.

Fighting Chance is a good idea, but in tandem with fight money it feels like a misfire. It’s good that real money can’t be exchanged for fight money, but Capcom seriously needs to rethink how this currency is distributed. I bloody love Street Fighter 5, but this is a growing problem – and this is why even though DMC5 currently seems to be in what I’d argue is a reasonable place, one is right to be concerned: with Street Fighter, things have gotten worse over time. Here’s hoping that Capcom is listening and properly responding to fan concerns with both titles.

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