With Gotham City Impostors going free-to-play on Steam, I’m reminded of why part of me despises micro-transactions in games.
The eternal argument will always be free-to-play versus pay-to-win.
Monolith Studios and Warner Bros are not the first offenders on my list. The day Electronic Arts started selling kit unlocks on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was the day part of my gaming spirit died.
Let me first say that I do actually feel that there is a purpose/place for micro-transactions in gaming and not just in regards to the selling of expanded content. If you look at MMOs, in the end it all comes down to the “haves” and “have nots”. The people with rare epic gear versus those running around in crappy armor sets.
Gaming involves more motivation than most care to admit. The hardcore gamers are those individuals who strive to see all the content they have paid for and be the best. To take advantage of that obsession, early gaming entrepreneurs turned to selling items and accounts online. At first publishers fought against this practice until they finally decided that the best way to handle it was to join in on the act themselves. Sony was one of the first adopters when they created a store to sell Everquest equipment. In a sense, micro-transactions is an evolution of that base desire to obtain the best virtual items.
If someone wants to buy unique clothing or weapon skins and have the disposable income to do so, then by all means I feel that a publisher is justified in selling goods based off the concept of supply and demand. My problem is when a virtual purchase lets you circumvent skill. Most hardcore MMO gamers can tell the difference between someone who leveled their character from 1 to max versus some noob who bought a high level character so they didn’t have to waste time leveling. Their lack of skill and understanding of how to use the content they acquired is its own detriment. While that epic sword someone purchased may be the most powerful weapon available at the moment, it’s only a matter of time before the next patch makes it obsolete. New virtual sales models are giving gamers an advantage by not only circumventing skill but breaking the very rules of the game.
Gotham City Impostors employs an ‘unlock system’ similar to what is currently used in Call of Duty and even includes their own version of “prestiging” referred to as “promotion”. Like in COD, doing so gives you a unique rank but at the cost of everything you have unlocked to that point. The prestige concept came about as a way to give console gamers extra replayability in COD: Modern Warfare to address the lack of community generated content as a motivator for sustained long term play. With the move to free-to-play, Gotham City Impostors are allowing gamers to not only unlock every aspect of the game, but to maintain the unlocks when promoting. All the power and glamour with none of the hardship! This is what micro-transactions have reduced gaming to, victory via your bank account instead of your skill.
There is an alternative to all this that would still allow publishers and developers to profit from micro-transactions without sacrificing the gaming experience for all.
While publishers like EA mock gamer skill via virtual purchases, companies like Valve take the effect virtual items will have on game play into consideration. Team Fortress 2 is arguably the king of micro-transactions with the sale of hats, weapons, and novelty items galore. The reason why virtual sales don’t break the game play of TF2 is because every item is able to drop in your inventory randomly in game, is tradable, and nothing gives an advantage over anything else. While the various weapons have different stats, their strengths are offset by added weaknesses and effects. Valve works to maintain a balance so that no matter how much money a player has to spend, all they will in essence do is acquire an item that provides a new style of play but does not give an advantage. In that way the micro-transactions of TF2 serve as an expansion of game play, one that can be completely experienced without a dime spent by the gamer.
Valve’s approach requires massive support from their development team and the community that helps to design and test items. For many developers that approach is more trouble than it’s worth. Micro-transactions are the salvation of many games but the jury is still out on whether they represent a boon or bane for the gaming community.