If you’re looking for a lengthy, complicated, nuanced conversation about microtransactions in video games—and why they trigger so much rage—then you sure have come to the right place. That’s what this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen is all about.
First, Kirk and I briefly talk about our love for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a big, beautiful game with excellent writing, top-notch combat, and chaotic systems on top of chaotic systems. Then we bring on Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo for some in-depth microtransactions talk (21:43). Stephen explains how the microtransactions in Odyssey actually work, Kirk elaborates on his ongoing theory of how in-game purchases poison the well because of a fundamental friction between game design and commerce, then we ask all sorts of related questions. Why do £50 games have microtransactions? What is it about ‘commerce design’ and its intersection with game design that can make us feel so ripped off? And what does this all mean for the future of gaming?
If you don’t have time to listen to the whole podcast right now, I’ve transcribed a lengthy excerpt below. (You really should listen to it all, though!)
Get the MP3 here. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt:
Jason: One of the reasons that I personally have been able to look past the microtransactions store [in Odyssey] and ignore it, beyond the fact that I haven’t felt the need to grind at all and I haven’t found the game too difficult in the 30 hours I’ve played—
Stephen: You’re playing normal or hard?
Jason: Hard. I switched halfway through on Kirk’s recommendation. I found it perfectly balanced and not grindy at all. But the thing I keep coming back to, and the thing I think makes for a distinction between people who have played the game and haven’t, is that for your $60, you are getting something really massive. It’s not only a really good game, it’s a humongous game. And even though I don’t really like to do this, if you’re the type of person who looks at value as correlated to the amount of time you get to spend in a game, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is just the best bang for your buck—this is a humongous game. I’ve seen just a fraction of it. So if you’re looking at the cost of video games over the past couple of decades and the fact that they haven’t changed, you’re getting a pretty good deal by spending $60 on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Obviously these microtransactions exist because Ubisoft wants to make more money. It’s hard for me to resent a giant, publicly traded corporation for wanting to make more money. I think it’s important to critique microtransactions and talk about them and discuss them and evaluate whether they’re predatory or feel like they’re cheating you in some way. For me, playing this game, I do not feel like that. I feel like, this is a great game first of all, but also the amount of stuff that’s in here, the amount you’re getting for your $60, compared to other games, it’s just beyond.
Stephen: But you get why people are wary of the XP booster?
Jason: Yeah, of course, it raises that question, and plants that seed in your head, of ‘Is this really tough or tough because they want me to spend money?’ I would certainly be sceptical coming into this, and I was, knowing that the XP booster existed. But my personal experience is that I’ve been having such a good time with this game, and not even thinking about the XP booster. It hasn’t even occurred to me that I might want to use it.
Kirk: Setting [the XP booster] aside and looking at all the other things you can get: So there are all these versions of the game that were also sold, I don’t know how many. Eight or something like that. A thousand. So this is Ubisoft’s standard practice, you can pre-order them all... so [some versions included] early access, you could play it on Tuesday instead of Friday. In addition to that, there’s all this extra stuff you can get for paying extra for the game ahead of time that’s sort of in-line with the stuff you can buy in the store. I think maybe part of the specific bad feeling that people get about this is something Stephen alluded to earlier, which is that none of that stuff actually seems worth it.
It dovetails with what you’re saying, Jason, which I agree with: the base $60 version of this game is gigantic and full of amazing shit. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great game. You can just play that version of the game, not pre-order it, not get any of the microtransactions, and you get a ton of good stuff. And actually, if you buy whatever $80 in microtransactions, and you pre-order the $100 version of the game, the extra say $60, $80 worth of stuff you get is vastly inferior to the stuff you get for the base game.
So there’s this feeling of, not only are they charging extra, they’re charging extra for piddly crap that actually sort of mostly sucks. That, also, I think makes people feel like this is manipulative. Because even if there are people who don’t care—“Yeah I like paying extra for stuff and I have a lot of money”—there’s still this feeling that you’re getting ripped off. You already got this great game for $60, why are you paying $7.50 for a fucking horse skin? That also factors into this. Compared to, say, charging $30 for maybe a really amazing Atlantis DLC pack full of new areas and missions and stuff.
Stephen: Right, if the game makers and their publisher are trying to establish a sense of good faith and good relations with the player, by saying ‘Hey, trust us, we’re giving you good value for your $60,’ and then they’re also saying ‘By the way, here’s a $7.50 horse thing.’ It’s very incongruent. It feels like I’m being told honest value here, and then being given dishonest value here. I’m being given overly generous pricing on one and then underly generous pricing on another. It does of course raise this spectre of: Is this them trying to do a dance to get around the fact that they probably should be charging more than $60 to sell a game that had this many people working on it? Who knows—we probably need to know much more about Canadian tax law to understand how much it actually costs Ubisoft to make these games.
But that’s where I think a lot of this stuff swirls around from, is this sense that there isn’t a value. Of course, Ubisoft says, and I’m wondering what you guys made of this, that XP booster wasn’t influential in the design of the game; if you find the game too tough, you can just lower the difficulty. And they’re using that as proof that the XP booster can’t be a thing that was designed on top of throttled progression. Does that logic hold up to you guys?
Kirk: I think that is a fairly strong response. I think it has one issue in that there’s a slight incongruence in the two systems they’re talking about, which are difficulty and speed at which you move through the game. Those need to be viewed on separate axes. Yeah, if you find the game too hard you can just kick it down to easy... but it doesn’t quite hold up when I just put it down and think about it, because changing over to easy and blasting through content with no challenge isn’t the same as getting more XP from doing a single quest and therefore getting more abilities faster. Those are just two different experiences.
From what I’ve read—Chris Plante at Polygon wrote about this, a few people have talked about this, saying, ‘Hey I used the XP booster and it made the game more fun for me.’ Which, fair. I haven’t used the XP booster so I don’t know. But that is a different experience [Ubisoft] is describing. Blasting through the game on easy could be very unsatisfying. Playing the game on hard but just getting abilities and levelling up faster is just not quite the same thing. So while I think it’s an OK response, it isn’t the same. They’re countering one experience with another, different experience.
Jason: My final thought is basically that. I tweeted about this the other day, and got some irate reactions because I said I didn’t even think about the microtransactions in the game, and I was critiquing the YouTube climate of just getting in front of a camera and screaming about how every microtransaction is predatory, which I certainly don’t believe. I think it’s important to have nuanced conversations about these things. But yeah, as I’m playing the game, the question is always going to be there, and that kind of ruins the integrity of the game, is you having to wonder, ‘Oh man, is this really supposed to be tough? Am I getting played here?’
It makes me wonder if it’d just be more honest for these companies to be like, ‘Hey we’re gonna charge you $80 for this game,’ and that’s the end of it and they won’t put anything like this in. Is that gonna happen? Who knows, maybe, it was one of my predictions this year. But ultimately this is a great game and I’m enjoying it a lot and not thinking about the microtransactions, so that’s why I said that: I want more people to play this game because I’m really glad I did.
Stephen: I want to point out one other thing. Ubisoft classifies the XP booster and the maps you can get and the money booster as time savers. To some people that might be a euphemism, but that’s something— In the same way that the cost of these things impacts you differently depending how much disposable income you have, and it’s way more stressful to be confronted with these things if you don’t have money to potentially splurge on these than if you do. But there’s also, how much time do you have? I did hear back from some people who said, ‘I appreciate this option exists in this game because I don’t have the time.’ Other people said, well, they should just let you change the XP gain for free.
I was thinking about what Kirk said about multiplayer games, and how there are certain things that aren’t allowed in multiplayer games, because god forbid they allow you to just pay to have a cool weapon. And that leaves a person like me, who doesn’t have enough time to get really good at multiplayer shooters—because I’ve got kids, which I have to mention on every podcast, it’s obligatory—I don’t have time to get good at that stuff.
So I don’t want to mess up the balance of the multiplayer games you’re all playing. But I don’t have the time that you all either have or have willed yourself to have for this. And so I’m excluded. And so from that perspective, when there are opportunities possibly to transfer time into money, I’m not always against that concept. And there need to be fair ways that is offered, in ways that don’t seem skeevy and don’t raise the question of whether everyone’s play experience has been deprecated in order to sell this thing. But the idea of translating time into money is a thing you will encounter, I find that I’ve encountered the older I get—the less time I have left, I guess; that’s morbid—what ways can I pay.
Jason: But it raises the question of like, if you have to pay to not play parts of a game, then what are you even doing with the game in the first place?
Stephen: But if a Destiny or another shooter creates an elaborate grind to get something that I don’t have to do...
Jason: Yeah, I’m thinking about Destiny specifically—would I pay $10 to get ready for the raid? And then I think, ‘Oh my god, that’s gross, I hope they never even think about adding something like that’ because it creates this artificial impediment. Kirk, do you have any final thoughts?
Kirk: Yeah, to actually come down somewhere on this instead of analysing it: I think in the end, the problem here is a multipronged problem with design. You asked before: Are all microtransactions bad? I think my answer is actually maybe yes. I think the problem is the “micro” part of it. People [who sell games] are always going to be looking for a middle ground. I think the people who make games will always be making some kind a compromise, and nobody will ever ever entirely happy with any decision they make, so they always have to decide, OK, what’s our threshold? Are people going to get so mad at us that we pull a Shadow of War, and completely rip out all the microtransactions to try to get players back? Or is it gonna be that they’re kinda mad, but it’s like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where the game is still successful?
I think my preference would be for there to be less anger, and I think for that to happen it’d have to move away from the “micro” part of it and more towards just transactions. Bigger, more easily understandable transactions, and less of this atomised, systematised, designed commerce to encourage me to make all these purchases. That is exhausting and frustrating, and I don’t even have a huge stake in this. For people who really care, it must be infuriating, and that to me is a real problem. The overwhelming rage about this subject that I see tells me that something is off in the way [game companies] are doing it.
Jason: Oh yes.
Kirk: Maybe the solution then is what you said, Jason. Just charge more for games, and get this shit out of there.