The next-gen cash grab

EDGE - - KNOWLEDGE MICROTRANSACTIONS -

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

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From top: Chris Wright is CEO of GamesA­n­a­lyt­ics; Jamie Madi­gan blogs at www.psy­chol­ogy ofgames.com

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