The next-gen cash grab
THow in-app purchases fundamentally compromised game design during the introduction of a new generation of home consoles
he name is as ugly as the concept. ‘Paymium’, where you’re encouraged to buy content in a game you’ve already paid for, has been lurking in the shadows for years, but it’s become overt with the arrival of a new generation. This is particularly true on Xbox One, where the model has been embraced wholesale, with developers even compromising design to make the cynical system work.
Almost all of Microsoft’s launch exclusives featured in-app purchases of some kind. Take Forza Motorsport 5. While players could pay real money for virtual vehicles in Forza 4 and Horizon, the system moved to the foreground this generation. Your real cash currency is forever visible in the game’s menus; the value of in-game currency is now limited, with reduced prizes for victory and huge price tags on the most desirable cars; and the Free Play mode has been gutted to force you to spend more money just to sit behind the wheel of a Lotus F1 car.
Internet forums are filled with gamers reacting with indignant horror to the paymium creep, while game sites post hand-wringing editorials on where it will lead. Players’ reactions to Forza 5’ s use of the model were so hostile that the game was patched within a month, slashing car prices by up to two-thirds and upping the prize pots.
The problem is fundamental, though. Paymium means pairing two diametrically opposed business models. In free-to-play titles, there is an understanding that the basic experience is free, but in return the studio can encourage players to pay for certain elements throughout the game. Indeed, free-to-play titles are designed from the ground up as monetised systems, their core compulsion loops built around concepts of friction and conversion. Everything is geared towards getting the player to the point at which they’ll spend.
“We call it the threshold of engagement,” Chris Wright, CEO of research company GamesAnalytics, says. “We have done a lot of work to understand what motivates players to spend money and when that crossover occurs. We find there is an optimum point in all [F2P] games where players who spend money exhibit a very different behaviour. These players will become very engaged in the game, change how they play and often become advocates, driving viral activity. Getting players to this point and not pushing them to spend too early is very important.”
In a retail purchase, the contract is different. You have paid a premium price, which is ostensibly for all the content necessary to enjoy the game. In this context, free-to-play conventions can feel exploitative. “F2P evangelists will insist it’s about player choice,” says Size Five designer Dan Marshall. “They’ll insist that you can skip all this nickel-and-dime stuff if you want, but it’s not even remotely true. Gameplay is bent out of position
From top: Chris Wright is CEO of GamesAnalytics; Jamie Madigan blogs at www.psychology ofgames.com