Saturday, 2 March 2013

Electronic Arts Announces Micro-Transactions For All Future Games, Cliff Bleszinski Defends Decision

Yes they’re really doing this.

In a recent announcement in the Morgan Stanley Technology Media & Telecom Conference, Electronic Arts CFO Blake Jorgensen has stated plans for all future titles to include micro-transaction markets and options. Jorgensen claims that “consumers are enjoying and embracing that way of the business” and wholeheartedly supporting the idea of micro-transactions within video games. He specified that “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 may be.” all of which strongly suggests a pay-to-win mentality on the part of EA in their decision to include these within the title.

This was something I didn’t get into in the review of Dead Space 3. In fact I omitted the sections I wrote on it because it nearly doubled the length of the review and quickly devolved into an unprofessional foaming rant. Also I tried to completely ignore it while playing through the game. Apparently the reaction to its inclusion in that title was similarly negative with reports in Eurogamer and GamesIndustry commenting upon the company racking up criticism for their inclusion and its unpopularity. As such allow me to talk for a moment as to why such a feature in these games is a bad idea using Dead Space 3 as an example.

The first big problem is this is exactly the same thing as Day One DLC. This is content in which development time has been taken out of creating the initial title to make. It will have been developed alongside it, using the game’s budget but it’s been set aside to have you pay more for it. You are effectively paying for something you have rightfully already paid for with buying the initial game.

The second issue is balance. A game’s developers will now be trying to have trouble to account for this inclusion on EA’s part and create difficulty within the title. Dead Space 3 had this issue as you were capable of purchasing things which would allow you to effectively stroll through the game without any difficulty. An infamous one which was repeatedly brought up involved Dead Space’s scavenger drones. Giving options to purchase what were effectively cheats to decrease the time in which they spent searching for usable resources and doubling their carrying capacity, allowing for you to advance far faster than you normally should.

In this case it made things easier by offering you greater resources you would otherwise not have, but trying to compensate for this problem could cause other major problems. For example, keeping with the drones what if developers started to increase the amount of time drones would take and halved their carrying capacity prior to purchase in anticipation of everyone buying the micro-transaction. Now take this further. What if future titles had them turning enemies into bullet sponges because a micro-transaction allowed for permanent increased damage with all weapons. What if the game came with extremely ineffective medikits and health items because a micro-transaction could boost their effectiveness by 30%. It would make the games far harder and with the developers creating arbitrary difficulty enhancers just to account for their presence, without even considering the possibility of EA intentionally enforcing a higher difficulty to get more cash out of their customers. And this is just considering single player, imagine what could end up being included with games with a heavy multiplayer community such as the Call of Duty series.

And finally, this is something we used to get for free a couple of console generations ago. You might remember them back with games like Goldeneye and Medal of Honor: Frontline where things which made the game broken and funny bits were included. They were called cheats. Where you had to either beat levels on a certain difficulty and unlocked them or tapped in some hidden code. Dead Space 3 has these, both amusing additions and corner cutting bonuses, the only difference is you have to give more cash for them now.

Moving away from Dead Space examples and back to the news, what makes this especially interesting is the game Jorgensen references as an example of how successful micro-transactions can be. One with the title of The Simpsons: Tapped Out which is a IOS and Android game, which is quite simply a Cow Clicker game and is by no means any valid basis for introducing them to a AAA FPS title. For one thing Tapped Out lacks any ongoing plotline or competitive difficulty and there is really little which can actually be changed by their inclusion. No long term plotlines or even many actual video game aspects which would usually be found in most genres. What’s more is there’s no real challenge or mechanics which can be ruined by their inclusion, unlike the vast majority of licences which are currently under EA’s control.

Some which in game’s industry have come to the defence of early criticism of this decision such as former Gears of War developer Cliff Bleszinski. Arguing how Valve has been doing exactly the same thing in games such as Team Fortress 2 with hats and criticise Electronic Arts for its inclusion: “It blows my mind that somehow gamers don’t seem to get that Valve is a business, just like any other, ans when Valve charges $100 for an engagement ring in Team Fortress 2, it’s somehow ‘cool’[…] Yet when EA want  to sell something similar, it’s seen as ‘evil.’”

This unfortunately ignores that these work in largely different ways. The transactions in Team Fortress 2, the aforementioned hats, are superficial additions to skins and customisations, and are unique offerings per purchase. They will not affect the gameplay experience. Much of what was found offered up in Dead Space 3 consisted of things you would get later on in the game but you would get instantly, or easier, without the grinding involved. Further contrasts could be made such as pointing out how Valve is privately owned by long time gamers and developers whereas Electronic Arts has shareholders to answer to, the fact EA has driven a large number of franchises into the ground by directly interfering with their development such as with Command and Conquer 4, but that would require a small essay to cover properly.

Only time will tell if EA will back off on its decision to include this, but given its apparent lack of concern for positive PR amongst gamers it seems very unlikely.

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