The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 12
They've been called disgusting, underhanded, and exploitative by critics and consumers alike. The mere mention of them is likely to induce a groan from a good portion of gamers and angry exclamations from just as many more. Are microtransactions really just a cancerous product of the Facebook, iOS gaming boom though? Or can they be a viable part of everyday gaming infrastructure?
A vertical slice out of any specific portion of the industry can be made to say just about anything; platform X is winning, platform Y is dying, game A is the best game in category B. Have microtransactions been used in disgusting, underhanded, and exploitative ways? Yes, of course they have. Will pulling a few games from the places in which the practice has proliferated so far show that? Definitely. I, however, don't think they are necessarily a bad thing provided they're implemented correctly. Unlike most I'm not willing to dismiss the idea without further consideration. There is a very real possibility here for something that benefits both players and publishers, and there's already a game that proves that perfectly.
Despite all the stink that rose around the game like flies around Pigpen thanks to its ending, Mass Effect 3's multiplayer is a perfect example of a working, non-exploitative multiplayer economy that institutes microtransactions. That Mass Effect 3's multiplayer even exists in the state that it does is somewhat of a miracle. EA, following in the footsteps of other publishers, has already introduced microtransactions into their Battlefield series in the form of unlocks, allowing players to skip the standard progression if they don't have the desire or the time to advance through the leveling system. Mass Effect 3's twist on that, while similar, adds a wrinkle that makes it unique among its blockbuster brethren.
Instead of taking that money and using it as nothing more than pocket lining, BioWare has rolled profits into the release of new maps, weapons, items, wave objectives, enemy types and playable characters in small batches at no added cost to the general population; something especially surprising considering the similar Battlefield option is nothing more than added income for EA. The card game like unlock system of Mass Effect 3 lends itself well to the microtransaction model while unlocks remain easily obtainable for those players that don't feel the need for instant gratification. The goal is to keep a solid player base and encourage those that have left to return. The result is a system that has proven beneficial for both players and developers.
Now imagine that same economy for a game like Call of Duty. Instead of needing to convince people to offer up fifteen dollars for a four map pack, provide them with the option to purchase experience points boosts and custom camos while rolling out new maps for free on a more regular basis. After all, that's essentially what the Doritos and Mountain Dew promotions are anyways, minus the benefit of direct income of course. Both Infinity Ward and Treyarch have made no attempt to hide their intent to crack down on those who boost and cheat the system in their games. In light of that it seems odd that Activision sits idly by, wasting the money making opportunity with literally no downside that is offering those people they would normally ban another option. If microtransactions can support the introduction of new content for the general public in something as expensive as an MMO it can certainly at the very least match the output of a yearly title like Call of Duty and win Activision a few fans in the process.
My optimism about the potential of the system isn't without it's reservations however. Like most gamers I'm what might be called "a little less than trustful" of large publishers. Part of me fears a potential future in which significant content is locked away behind one of these systems. While the system itself works great when focused on unnecessary luxury items, there are plenty of examples where it fails miserably. BioWare's own Star War: The Old Republic MMO is especially guilty of implementing microtransactions in a way that detracts from the experience of its players. Though the potential is there, I don't want to see a future in which I spend more time upset about what's locked away on the other side of an online store's virtual glass than I do enjoying the game.
Though I've personally never played anything that involved microtransactions, I largely agree with you in principle. I think that, while probably not a full solution unto itself, the microtransaction model in general is a step in the right direction—specifically, toward more dynamic pricing in the industry.
I'm definitely optimistic about the future, in spite of the fact that, as you mentioned, there will inevitably be instances in which this (or any other) pricing model fails to work well. Overall, developers and publishers will learn from those failed experiments, and over time, we can get to a place where pricing in the industry benefits both sides.