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Microtransactions: Why the dirtiest word in games is here to stay

Real Racing 3 feedback will educate developers, not put them off, writes Rob Crossley

"It's all just a bit soulless, really," is what a weathered game developer confessed last year during industry event dedicated entirely to free-to-play games.

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He wasn't talking about the conference specifically, but the speaker session that we had both just walked out of. Behind the doors we just exited, a director from a fairly well-known UK studio was speaking to an audience of developers, offering tips on making the most money possible via microtransactions.

Three such examples were:

  • Always make your purchase button green; the colour most associated with words like "go".
  • Never offer just one item for sale - always place two or three offers next to each other, that way the gamer will look at the least expensive of the three and subconsciously consider it a good deal. (If you offer just one thing, then the item will be judged on price alone).
  • Disassociate real cash from in-game currency. Don't tell people how much a spade costs in terms of real money, because it'll likely seem too expensive. Instead, show them how much in-game currency they can acquire with real cash; that way you are essentially offering them the freedom to buy things, and it's the freedom to shop that people enjoy the most.

Throughout the twenty minutes of the talk, I noticed numerous developers in attendance jot down the tips in their notepads, as well as copy the speaker's list of recommended economics books.

"It's all just a bit soulless, really. We used to come to events like this to learn how to do multiplayer," the developer said as we both walked out.

"Now we're all learning how to turn our games into shops."

The person in question had, in fact, played an important role in the creation of the 2010 racing title Split Second. That game, one of those old triple-A juggernauts of huge budgets and intense risk, ultimately flopped. Disney closed the studio, Black Rock, in 2011.

Left without a job - and during what was a terrifying time for the UK games industry when a major studio would close down at the rate of one per month - the former Black Rock developer decided to open his own studio and start making games featuring all those familiar buzzwords: freemium, social, mobile, and of course microtransactions.

His story is a remarkably familiar one. It has happened to hundreds of developers dotted across Britain in the past few years and a sad long line of triple-A studios have been emptied of their talent. (You know that groundswell of voices on Twitter who say that triple-A is a declining business and that consoles will die out? That's them).

What the world probably didn't expect is that the story of these indie developers also happened at EA. Once a gargantuan publisher of product, Electronic Arts buckled under its own weight at the turn of the current console cycle.

As chief executive John Riccitiello recently recalled: "In 2007, I held a meeting and told [EA] employees we were in a do-or-die situation. We were failing. We could invest and retool for radical change, or we could accept a shrinking share of a shrinking pie and eventually die."

Five years later, the group's annual games slate looked like this:

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EA released three core games over the Christmas quarter last year, and in the same three-month period, it published eighteen social, mobile and free-to-play games.

How did they perform? EA was the worldwide number one games publisher on iOS last year and its top-grossing game, The Simpsons: Tapped Out, made $23 million in free-to-play money alone. The corporation's pile of money from digital business is now half as big as its pile from boxed games.

Let's be clear, Riccitiello and his team are not saying that triple-A games are all threatened by extinction, it's just that the market has become an intensely competitive hit-or-miss affair. There is simply too much risk. EA's triple-A output is defined by the new credo: "fewer, better, bigger".

That's why EA is trying to grow its digital pile of money as fast as possible, and why its free-to-play games are starting to creep into your view, and ultimately why it inadvertently triggered a medium-sized shitstorm this week.

On Thursday, EA's gorgeous iOS sim Real Racing 3 launched on the App Store. Its constant reliance on microtransactions instantly sparked uproar among core gamer traditionalists. Gamers screamed into these imaginary underground pipes we call the internet to condemn EA in the same tone as they would denounce someone for pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs.

One CVG regular simply wrote: "EA should go bankrupt".

The problem for them is that the opposite is happening - EA's digital business ideas are saving the company. As margins for profit on boxed triple-A games become so hazardously small, new ways to generate money are being sought by all publishers.

Strategies that made games like The Simpsons Tapped Out such huge successes won't be ignored by publishers. They won't be reserved to just one side of the business either. They will be tested across a growing number of core games.

You'll probably hate reading this but I feel EA is actually ahead of the curve here. Just look at what Sony is doing with Uncharted 3 to see how the world is catching onto these ideas some three years later.

Don't shoot the messenger: The kind of experiences that core gamers want these days are creeping towards the point of becoming financially untenable.

Creating these gargantuan blockbusters of immense quality could soon simply cost more than the addressable games market can pay off. Post-release revenue is thus a necessity in the new age. First it was DLC, then it was season passes, soon it will be microtransactions.

Of course there is a debate to be had on whether Real Racing 3, which supposedly pesters gamers for money at every turn, has become exemplary of everything that's wrong with microtransactions in games.

But bear in mind that the most successful free-to-play games, including EA's own Tapped Out, aren't so bothersome. There is a line between encouragement and harassment that most developers know not to cross, if only to ensure its audience don't flee.

It may be disheartening to witness games developers be lectured on economics at "soulless" industry events, but it is becoming increasingly clear that those who attend have little other choice. The world has changed. Let's hope that, in future, developers will also be shown games like Real Racing 3 as examples of how to do it wrong.

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