Why EA’s Video Game Microtransactions Do and Don’t Bother Me

When I noticed this morning that Electronic Arts may be planning to add microtransactions to all its future games, my brain went in two directions.

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You probably wouldn’t call putting a coin in the quarter slot of an arcade machine to keep a game going an “in-game microtransaction,” but in a sense, that’s exactly what it was: a way of slowly depriving your jingling pockets of all those little copper-nickel circles you’d just made change for as the timer ticked down and the frozen game screen beckoned. The cost was acceptable because just to play the game only cost $0.25 in the first place, and hey, what’s a quarter here or there?

So when I noticed this morning that Electronic Arts may be planning to add microtransactions to all its future games, my brain went in two directions: One, I’ve never been bothered by the option to spend small amounts of money within the unfolding world of whatever video game so long as it doesn’t throw the gameplay off-balance and the transaction points don’t drag me out of the game; and two, what are the chances a bunch of design-know-nothing shareholders with bottom-line mindsets won’t ensure that’s exactly what happens?

Let’s review: During a Morgan Stanley conference earlier this week (transcribed by Seeking Alpha), EA CFO Blake Jorgensen was asked to talk about his company’s digital revenues. After a hat tip to digital downloads, Jorgensen added, “The next and much bigger piece is microtransactions within games … we’re building into all of our games the ability to pay for things along the way, either to get to a higher level to buy a new character, to buy a truck, a gun, whatever it might be, and consumers are enjoying and embracing that way of the business.”

That’s what’s riling everyone up, partly because without microtransaction sales data and customer attitude survey research it’s really not clear that consumers are “enjoying and embracing” the concept, partly because it’s the first we’ve heard EA lay out what sounds like official microtransaction policy rolling forward.

To be fair, Jorgensen may not have meant “all” future games literally — some people say “all” when they mean “most” or “in general.” But for gamers deeply offended by microtransactions, I’m guessing even a game per year would be one too many. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument then, that this is now EA modus operandi. The nearly-here PC reboot of Maxis’ distinguished city-builder, SimCity, is going to have an in-game store, after all, and Dead Space 3, which came out earlier this month, already offers in-game microtransactions if you want to shortcut weapon customization.

Concerns about microtransactions boil down to a couple points: One, they can be disruptive, say you’re playing a game like Dead Space 3 where world-immersion matters deeply, and two, they can throw a game’s delicate reward-based feedback system off kilter, whether that’s how much time you have to spend meeting some goal in solo play (without spending money) or simply knowing that you’re competing on a level playing field (also without spending money) against others.

Design solutions exist, of course. In Dead Space 3, the microtransaction switch is an unobtrusive button at the bottom of the workbench screen that’s easily ignored — no more immersion-killing than the interface button overlays that, for necessary referential reasons, mimic your gamepad buttons. In fact if you want to get serious and draft a list of immersion-killing aspects in games like Dead Space 3, I’d drop the microtransaction interface down near the bottom.

But getting the interface right isn’t the tough part. Folding microtransactions into a game without unbalancing things takes exponentially more care, and based on the reactions of some (including those of my colleague Jared Newman), this is where Dead Space 3 drops the ball. Common sense suggests a game designed to prize open our wallets would make whatever resource it’s offering up for instant cash-based gratification less available during a spend-free play-through. But in Dead Space 3, EA rolls the other way and overloads you with resources, eliminating a scarcity-based game mechanic once so vital to the series.

Whether that makes Dead Space 3 a bad or just different game — less survival-horror, more rote third-person shooter — is debatable, and whether EA nervously boosted resource availability to preempt consumer microtransaction backlash is speculative. It’s enough to note that series regulars are saying the resource system’s reward frequency feels off, and to worry that the microtransaction system had something to do with it.

We already tolerate in-game microtransactions in massively multiplayer games and when we noodle with free-to-play or nominally expensive time-wasters like Angry Birds and Temple Run. I’ve probably spent $10 or more in little $0.99 chunks goofing around with Temple Run 2 – a mediocre update to an otherwise decent endless runner (the lesson being that I’ll apparently spend money on mediocrity!). Some people genuinely want and arguably deserve the option to buy what in other circumstances we might call “cheat codes,” and why shouldn’t they have that option?

But getting such shortcuts right can be tricky, and as workable as they seem in a simplistic game like Temple Run 2, the latter’s no Dead Space 3 in terms of design complexity (the former’s also precisely $60 less expensive up front). The risk EA runs in foisting mandatory microtransaction systems on its developers and subsidiaries is that it’s now openly and directly meddling with core design principles, forcing potentially titanic design shifts to occur based solely on attention to cash flow (as Jorgensen put it earlier in that Morgan Stanley call: “Call me a traditionalist, but I’m kind of a cash flow guy”). We’re talking high levels of peril here, too: Imagine the damage done if this new microtransaction imperative alienated EA’s core sports-franchise audience. Rejection of a single title in one of the big franchises, say Madden, could be crippling.

That said, EA’s shift to in-game microtransactions is hardly news. Last summer EA Sports honcho Andrew Wilson told Gamasutra that, in so many words, the company was looking to translate its success with microtransactions in the mobile market to console-dom. Said Wilson: “We’ve already demonstrated we have the architecture and the know-how to facilitate that kind of content delivery, that kind of service provision, in a very positive manner, and demonstrated that at a business level, we can do just as well if not better in that kind of model as we do in the regular premium model.”

This was already in the offing, in other words, and other publishers following suit seems inevitable. I’m not convinced that means gaming’s doomed. Instead of griping about how microtransactions are ruining gaming as we know it, let’s address whether these games work well as games despite the microtransaction element. If they don’t, they’ll be rejected and the companies responsible publicly admonished. And if they do (work), well, so be it. I don’t see analogies between microtransactions and, say, “predatory lending” at this point. All other things being equal, if you can’t help but press an innocuous little button tucked away on a subordinate screen to nibble some mini-carrot, who’s really to blame in the end?

VIDEO: Let’s Talk About Microtransactions in Video Games