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Microtransactions in Games

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Downloadable content. We've all heard of it and at some point we've all probably bought some. But it's definitely now a growing phenomenon. More and more downloadable content is now appearing on all platforms where once it was the exclusive domain of PC games. With this broadening of the target market comes a broadening of the divide between people who are for these kind of transactions and the people who are against them. But are things really so black and white when it comes to so-called "premium content?"

It's not so far in the past that this kind of content just wasn't available. When charges levied on electronic transactions was such that the charge was usually as much, if not more, than the cost of the content, then this kind of delivery mechanism simply wasn't considered. There were the odd, few games that bundled up many small pieces of content and provided them as one larger download periodically (either for free or as a pay-for expansion pack) but the thought of buying small amounts of content was just a pipe dream.

However, this was all soon to change. As the cost of processing so called "micro-transactions" (typically high volume, always low-value transactions) all but disappeared there was suddenly an area of the market that games companies realised they could exploit. Suddenly there was a mechanism for a company to provide an alternative uniform or strip for your favourite team in your favourite sports game, without having to buy outfits for all of the teams in your game at a higher price. But do content micro-transactions make for richer games or richer game companies? Well, that all depends on your point of view, of course …

Electronic Arts "buy unlocks"
One company that seems to have taken the brunt of the outcry on the internet over micro-transactions, and the one company that seems to be labelled as "money-grabbing" when it comes to micro-transactions is Electronic Arts. It has been seen on the XBox 360 in a number of EA titles, where it has started to sell the ability to buy players/items that you could otherwise get for free by playing the game. Let's take an example. In Tiger Woods 2007 on the XBox 360, as you play through the game, you can unlock professional golfers and then play as them. However, you can also "unlock" these players by buying them from the XBox Live Marketplace. So, effectively, you're paying for content that you already could get for free. But why?

Well here I have some sympathy with what EA have tried to achieve. It has said that research it has carried out shows 80 percent of the people who play its games would not normally see this content (as they will have given up before getting far enough to achieve the unlocks). As with so much content, there is a lot of development time and effort that goes into producing it, and therefore it wants this content to be seen by as many players as possible. Therefore, for those players who don't have the time, or the ability, to unlock this content in-game, they can now buy it and experience it and I think the idea has merit. Was this much outcry heard when the first premium-rate telephone line for game hints opened? I think not …

Horse Armor
Of course there is some content that is pretty much seen as a rip-off by everyone. The classic example of this being the Horse Armour for Oblivion. This piece of downloadable content allowed you to buy some armour for your in-game horse. And what effect did this have on your gameplay? Well, your horse looked different, if you count that. Apart from that the effect was zero, zilch, zip. Yet this was something that gamers in their thousands rushed out and paid for. And then complained about. But this brings me on to my next point …

You don't have to buy it…
And I know that this will come as a shock to some people. You see there are some people that believe that every piece of content is needed to fully experience the game in all its glory. So when the Horse Armour 2 is released, that is the same armour just in a different colour, they'll rush out to buy that as well. And then complain. I think I'm starting to spot a trend forming here.

But really people, you do have a choice. If you don't like the look of something then don't buy it. It's no good buying every piece of downloadable content and then complaining about it. If 1 million people download something and 999,999 complain, do you think the games' companies will listen? Of course they won't as they've already got 1 million peoples' money. Seriously, if you went into your nearest supermarket and the cheese that you wanted to buy was mouldy, would you buy it and then complain?

Free content
Of course to counter this there are some companies that are providing free downloadable content for their games. Take Epic for example, with Gears of War. Epic and Cliffy B have always said that they will "look after their existing customers" before they try and convert others. Hence the reason why no Gears of War demo has ever appeared. The developers are too busy working on new content for their existing customers. Not long after the launch of Gears, two new maps were released for multiplayer. At the time of writing, another two maps are due, along with a completely new game mode for multiplayer games – again, all free content.

This is another take on how to squeeze customers for their hard earned cash. And in the long run I think it's a good tactic. Epic now has a reputation of providing free post-launch content, so that must increase the appeal of any game they release in the future. But that does raise one last question…

Is content new or "held-back" from the release?
And this is a tricky one. Do game companies purposely hold back content from their main release so that they can charge for it as a piece of downloadable content at a later date? And that's a tricky one to answer unless you work for a games company. I'd like to think that they don't, and certainly Microsoft is trying to push companies away from doing this (as it knows how much discontent this would cause).

So where does that leave us, the paying customer? Well I have to say that I'm quite cautious with what premium content I download. If I don't like the look of it, I steer well clear. If I do like the look of it I ask myself, "will i actually play this?" If the answer is yes, then the game companies have won and a little more of my hard-earned cash becomes theirs …

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About Graeme Smith