Microtransactions, DLC, and in-game currency have seen a notable increase this year, while the axles have come off digital console pricing. VG247's Dave Cook recaps what have been a costly few months.
”You can, naturally, pay a fee to stop the adverts and videos but again that – in my humble opinion – pisses on the definition of the word ‘free.’ You’re essentially paying money to stop the advertisers coercing you into paying money. Do you see the problem yet?”
What is the value of a dollar online? We've endured DLC models for over a generation now and yet there appears to be a lack of consensus among the industry when accurate and fair pricing is involved. How could there be, given the various business practices and ethics found across the board? While some studios seem perfectly happy to support titles with free DLC and updates, others see these long-tail content streams as a golden business opportunity.
Some of you can't stand the season pass format of post-launch expansion, while others are perfectly happy to invest extra dollars into a game they enjoy. It's a subjective issue of course, like many things in this market, so it's likely you have your own view on the area of monetisation. It's your money after all. You've earned it, and you can choose to spend it how you see fit. Lately however, some studios seem to have over-stepped the mark, blurring the line between a good deal and the illusion of value.
I recently started playing Candy Crush Saga as research for an interview feature you'll find on these very pages soon. It started off promising, with no real obligation to buy any of the in-app purchases, such as extra moves and candy-smashing boosters. It seemed that I'd be able to finish the whole thing without having to spend a penny, but at around about stage 25 things started to go horribly wrong. It was at that point the word 'free' became a misnomer.
Some levels are barely passable without paid boosters. In several instances the game will task you with clearing a set number of jelly blocks within a move limit, or reaching a score cap before the timer expires. That's fine, but given the random placement of candies and the wholly unpredictable nature of combo chaining as new sweets cascade into the grid, there is no real strategy that can ensure victory. It's a game of chance, unless you'e willing to pay for power-ups to help complete a stage. Being told the game is free is tantamount to a half-truth.
I failed the same stage five times in one day which depleted my lives. What happens when you run out of lives? You have to wait 16 minutes for them to replenish. Fail again and you have to wait longer, until eventually you can't play the game until the next again day. You can, naturally, pay for more lives or request them from your mates on Facebook or over SMS, but am I hell going to start spamming people for help. That's the kind of annoying message I delete from my social networking inboxes straight away, no questions asked.
Needless to say I amn't going back. I refuse to pay to pass a stage just because the studio made it barely passable without purchase. Several of my followers on Twitter both agreed and disagreed with me on this matter recently, and we had a very productive and interesting discussion about what had happened. Some of them argued that I shouldn't be so down on the game, seeing as it's free, while others agreed that while King's initial offering is indeed generous, the payment model becomes more of a necessary crutch for some players as you progress.
I then mentioned Sonic Dash, the free-to-play Android clone of Temple Run. The game also features microtransactions in abundance but it isn't so heavy-handed as other game out there. It has an option to revive on the spot if you watch an advert video though, which hasn't gone down too well in customer reviewers on Google Play. Does watching a ten second advert fare better than paying money to revive yourself in other games?
I'm not exactly sure, but I for one amn't a big fan of being constantly peddled to. I could perhaps make an exception if it's a game I'm really enjoying, but it still leaves a sour taste. You can, naturally, pay a fee to stop the adverts and videos but again that - in my humble opinion - pisses on the definition of the word 'free.' You're essentially paying money to stop the advertisers coercing you into paying money. Do you see the problem yet?
One school of thought is that monetisation keeps these games - and their studios - alive, while allowing titles to remain free in the first instance. I've seen enough metrics to know that non-free games on App Store often die a quick death after they stop being featured in the new section on iTunes. Not every game pushed out on Google Play becomes the next Angry Birds, and many of then die before they've had much of a fighting chance. The toss up between visibility, securing sales and monetisation models doesn't appear to be taken lightly, and it seems the industry is still figuring out which models work, and which are met with scorn. Some are doing this better than others.
Which brings me to Angry Birds Go. Based on Pocket Gamer's recent preview, Rovio's latest appears utterly diseased with in-app purchases and models designed to force hands in pockets. It has an energy system that expires after five races, a go-kart that costs £70 and a gem -based currency system. You can find gems in races but they're so sparse that you reportedly have to grind the same two tracks for a long time before having enough of them to unlock new circuits. But then you have to upgrade your cart to a suitable level before racing extra races, which costs more gems.
Grinding in free games is a cruel joke. Again, the content is initially free and that - I guess - is somewhat generous, but how many people are willing to repeat the same content for hours, if not days, just to unlock a new track? Too many it seems, because the format keeps rearing its ugly head. It's a method that works, and who knows? Perhaps this entire article can be summed up as the rambling of a man who was born in a decade out of sync with the way things are today?
It was a time that saw games released on cassette tape or cartridges as a full product with no obligation to pay extra, without missing content released on day-one, no advertising or PR nonsense-speak clouding reality, and without the insufferable, drip-fed maketing campaigns that serve to mis-sell and over-hype the product. I miss those days, and it seems that now, finally, even the console market is tuning into the mobile mind-set of monetisation. The last bastion has been breached.
I recently wrote about how Forza Motorsport 5's thin content and payment model clearly paves the way for microtransactions. Perhaps this was Microsoft's way of dipping a toe in the in-game purchase model? It could even have just been a grave error of judgement on Turn10's part.
I know what some of you re thinking, and yes, you don't have to pay anything above that initial price of entry if you don't want to. But again, the career mode's events require increasingly expensive cars to enter as you progress. You get that money by grinding 14 tracks over and over until you either give up, pay for XP boosters, buy the car with real money, or manage it without any additional purchase. If 14 tracks sounds like a lot, then consider that Forza 4 had over 20 on day one. The repetition honestly does start to wear over time.
Creative Director Dan Greenawalt recently said that it's a skill-based system, seeing as you get a higher pay out as you turn driving assists off. What happens if you're not good enough to race unaided? Should less-skilled players be penalized to an intolerable grind just because they aren't that good? Is that fair, considering these people will have shelled out £50 for the privilege of the base game? It's a solid racer, make no mistake, but it wears monetisation on its sleeve.
Then there's the little matter of EA charging £63 for FIFA 14, Battlefield 4 and Need for Speed: Rivals on the PS4 store. That's £8 more than the same games on Xbox One. Why? Why did this happen to begin with? Many people have suggested, 'It's the game's RRP.' So what? Here's something to leave you with; say tomorrow, you wake up to the news report that all bricks and mortar game stores have mysteriously disappeared off the face of the planet, and the only way to buy console games is now via PSN, XBLA, Origin and the like.
Would you be happy with being held to ransom by publishers simply because there is no alternative? If Origin was the only way to buy Battlefield 4 on this Earth and EA decided to charge you £70, would you pay it, knowing that it was that, or nothing?
Seriously, think about that for a moment.