Gamers who have been around for a few years won’t have a hard time remembering the heyday of arcades. Bring enough quarters, and the world was your oyster. Titles like Gauntlet were built to get as many of those quarters as possible. Your health ticked down. Food was hard to find. Monsters became more plentiful the longer you played. Gauntlet, and games like it, thrived because they were fun, but also because arcades needed the money they brought in. They were built to take your quarters. Whether we acknowledge it or not, microtransactions offer a return to a similar model. Like Gauntlet, some games manage to implement microtransactions that are additive on top of an already fun game. Other titles are built from the ground up to manipulate basic psychology and squeeze as much money as possible from a user, and that’s reason to worry. 

Before anyone cries foul, let’s be clear: Not every game with microtransactions is out to scam its users. In fact, I’ve encountered titles in recent years where small in-game purchases enhance an already quality experience. To highlight a recent winner, the first few weeks of Guild Wars 2 have been a revelation for many MMO players. Not only is it a full-featured game without a subscription fee, but its in-game store doesn’t feel exploitative. Additional cosmetic items let players express themselves above and beyond an already excellent array of free clothing and color options. The game offers ample inventory space, but gives you the option of buying additional slots. In short, Guild Wars 2 and games like it establish a functional and fun game in their own right, but give users the option to pay for individual features that are important to them. Players purchase additional items because they already love what they’re playing, and they want to customize or expand the experience into something they’ll enjoy even more.

Exploitative microtransactions are built around a different model. Some emerging design philosophies seem to be structured to elicit money over providing meaningful and entertaining experiences. That’s disturbing, both on ethical grounds and because of what it could mean for the future of gaming. 

Many core gamers scoff at the dangers of microtransaction-fueled social gaming because they know better. Better games are readily available, so why waste time on Farmville? However, that’s the problem. For many, these casual games are a first introduction to gaming, and the players don’t know any better. I may not be throwing money away to shorten how long I must wait before I can harvest crops in a Facebook game, but I’m not necessarily ecstatic about that little psychological ploy being put in front of my kid nephew.  

Moreover, many new mobile and social titles target small, susceptible populations for large percentages of their revenue. If ninety-five people all play a freemium game without spending money, but five people each pour $100 or more in to obtain virtual currency, the designer can break even. These five individuals are what the industry calls whales, and we tend not to be too concerned with how they’re being used in the equation. While the scale and potential financial ruin is of a different magnitude, a similar profitability model governs casino gambling, and that’s not a direction I’m happy to see trending in video games. 

So what? Parents should watch their kids more carefully, and people need to be more careful with their money, right? Beyond any ethical concerns, the metrics-led design that fuels these exploitative practices is a bad idea. In relative terms, gaming is still a young entertainment medium. The rules of design are being created and refined as we speak. Game design education, intuition, innovation, and thorough testing are the bedrocks on which the best games in history have been laid, and they should remain the foundation for the medium’s growth. In contrast, metrics-led game design shifts to a model where spreadsheets might determine the arc of upgrade advancement or the value of an in-game item. Under that style of game creation, microtransactions become a tool to get the most money out of a user rather than deliver a fun experience. For publicly traded game publishing companies, that’s a tough deal to turn down. And that’s exactly why we’re likely to see more, and not fewer, attempts to build games that way. The danger is that innovation may get left behind in the shuffle to capture gamer dollars, and existing mechanics will suffer under the drive to draw in some extra profit. Do we really want the difficulty curve of a game to be dictated by how much money we’re willing to spend?

Ultimately, game companies are concerned with making money, and it’s important that we don’t vilify them for fulfilling that purpose. Some microtransactions may cross a line by providing a subpar game built around using operant conditioning to farm its users. But can’t a similar argument be made against marketing and selling a full price $60 game to a player that isn’t any good? That’s certainly a sordid way to do business, but I think there’s a distinction, and it lies in the intent of the developer and publisher of the game. Once you’ve purchased a game through traditional means, it’s in the best interest of the game maker that you enjoy the product, so you’ll come back for more. The formula is flipped with a microtransaction model; if the game is too fun for free, why pay more money? We can hope that a game designer would make such a great game that people would be happy to pay additional money, and some game makers do just that. Unfortunately, numerous products on the market choose the easier path of relying on users with poor impulse control to bring in the money, even when the game itself is little more than a virtual Skinner box

For all my concerns about microtransactions, I’m hopeful. Though many casual games I’ve encountered utilize unfortunate psychological tricks against their users, there’s no denying how many new players have entered the fold in recent years, partially in thanks to those same game titles. An optimistic view finds those fledgling gamers slowly uncovering the wealth of great gaming experiences provided by other types of games. Ten years from now, many of those players could be sharing in the fun of great games built with entertainment in mind, and that’s great for the whole gaming community. The alternative is unpleasant; it finds an industry built on a mountain of 99-cent purchases, and games whose primary concern is making you add to the pile.