March 14, 2013, 16:30

Pure Waffle #7 – Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

By Dave Irwin, Sub-Editor

Dave Irwin’s views do not necessarily represent those of One Hit Pixel.

I would like to thank the following people for helping me with this article: Steam Users Tikindi and Neilpern; and Grinding Gear Games’ Brian Weissman and Chris Wilson.

When writing the last Pure Waffle, there was a nugget of information that I alluded to that upon subsequent reflection bothered me. Here was a game, developed by a high-end studio famous for the likes of Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, and Portal; being developed in a new and fresh genre, with an entry price tag of nothing. I mentioned that I felt that I was essentially robbing Valve from revenue they wholly deserved, thus buying a voice-pack to show my appreciation of this game. Yet at the same time, these games were getting revenue from the tournament scene, people buying entry tickets into online championships with the allure of money and fame should they somehow manage to succeed. As an average consumer, not interested in getting involved with the current meta-game, I felt that I couldn’t contribute in that way. The likes of League of Legends and DotA2 have this going for them, but what about the rest of the free-to-play market?

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

Traditionally, free-to-play as a price structure has got a bit of a stigma attached to it like a horrible disfigurement on an otherwise ordinary business model. We see a whole lot of MMORPGs use this as an entry-level demo to entice gamers into its silky web, before slapping on a premium subscription once they reach the level limit. Usually, unless the game was designed with that business model in mind, it is at the end of its life. In some cases, it is an indication of age, such as when World of Warcraft went down the same road years after its release; but when the likes of Star Wars: The Old Republic go down that route mere months after launch, you know things are looking rough.

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

Then there are those designed specifically to be “Free-To-Play” that evidently are only in it for the money. Those types of games are everywhere and usually are slapped on with a big corporate company’s logo. EA are probably the worst offenders, with its combination of “Pay-To-Win” microtransactions present in games such as Dead Space 3 and various Facebook and mobile titles feeling like you’re being drained of all your money just to get ahead. EA initially announced that games in some way, shape, and form  will feature microtransactions – even those which are sold at full retail price. This is because ever since releasing The Simpsons Tapped Out on mobile platforms, EA have made $25 million (as of February 27, 2013). That statement has since been hopefully retracted, but it does make you wonder whether or not the future of titles from big names will feature “pay-to-win” strategies at the expense of consumer’s wallets.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Perhaps the most successful free-to-play game of all time is one that wasn’t originally intended for that market. Team Fortress 2 was originally released as part of The Orange Box, before gaining a solo release on the Steam platform. Given its popularity with its assorted cast of misfits and miscreants, it was an utterly charming game with just one drawback. Online multiplayer shooters were evolving into the rank-based modern military shooters we see flood our game stores year on year, so the age of the objective-based deathmatch shooter was on the way out. In order to entice new players, Valve made the rather gutsy move to move the game to the free-to-play platform, with its sole source of income being… hats.

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

You know what? If you looked at this announcement like I first did years ago, you probably would have laughed this one out of the building. But within nine months of the move, Valve reported that revenues from Team Fortress 2 had increased twelve times from what they previously had seen before the switch. That is an insane amount of hats indeed, and given that several pre-order bonuses on Steam include exclusive hats for free, that is an incentive and a half to keep on playing the game; all while wearing a spiffing new hat each time.

Recently, a game was recommended to be by some good friends of mine that bared the “free-to-play” label. Initially I dismissed it on the grounds that I barely had enough time to play retail releases, let alone a free downloadable title, but eventually I was persuaded to give it a shot. Path of Exile, developed by New Zealand developer Grinding Gear Games, may look like your regular Diablo clone on the surface, but in many ways it is the game that Blizzard’s Diablo III should have been. The dark and gloomy atmosphere combined with a passive skill tree to make Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid progression blush, and its multitude of active skills in interchangeable gems; make this game a highly playable action RPG that feels fair, not just in gameplay but also our wallets too.

Naturally, I was intrigued to see that the free-to-play business model for Path of Exile was purely cosmetic in its approach, with the only real beneficial content to purchase being more storage in your stack. This made me curious to know about how successful the company has been in their endeavours. I reached out to Grinding Gear Games for comment on how their strategy has worked out for them. Their response came from Managing Director of Grinding Gear Games and Lead Developer on Path of Exile – Chris Wilson, with the words supplied by Grinding Gear Games co-founder Brian Weissman.

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

One Hit Pixel: How successful have you found your Free-To-Play strategy to be, and what plans are there in place for the future to entice more players to purchase content for the game?

Brian Weissman – Co-founder of Grinding Gear Games: “We’ve been quite successful, probably more so than we even expected. It was pretty evident from our Closed Beta fundraising that our players were quite willing to support our financial model. We raised approximately $2.5 million dollars between April 2012 and late January 2013, entirely from fans of our design goals.

This trend has continued during our Open Beta period. We’ve been selling a steady amount of our “ethical microtransactions”, enough to cover our server fees and our ongoing development costs. We believe we owe a fair amount of our success to our Free-to-Play model, especially since it helped us spread the word in the early going. In this age of $1.99 mobile applications, it’s quite difficult for a brand new studio to get people to pay a full retail price for a PC game.

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

As far as future plans go, we have two primary routes to encourage our players to continue their support. The first is constantly updating, polishing, and improving the game. When players see that you truly care for their enjoyment, that you are receptive to their concerns and ideas, they are much more willing to help fund development. Reception to Path of Exile has been almost universally positive across the board, from our forums, to game review sites, to ARPG-oriented fan sites across the web. The game gets better every day, and this fact should compel people to continue purchasing microtransactions.

The second route is to broaden the scope of what we’re selling. We launched Open Beta with only a small amount of things to buy in the shop, but we’re steadily rolling out new cosmetics. In three to four months, we should have far more things for players to buy, enough to keep even the most dedicated supporters busy. We have many, many different types of microtransactions under development, and we expect players to happily embrace the variety.”

Pure Waffle #7   Can Microtransactions Be Ethical?

When the game goes from its current beta status to “release build”, what will change in terms of the price structure?

“This is a difficult question to answer, because it involves so many things that haven’t been ironed out. My gut reaction is that little will change. We’re pretty happy with our current system for microtransactions and it seems that our players agree. We’ve done our best to offer a wide range of things to buy, providing stuff for people on a budget, and people with deeper pockets.

Still, we’re fairly new to the microtransactions game; it’s definitely a learning process. I can’t say that things will remain 100% the same as we go further into development and it’s truly hard to predict what things will be like six months or 12 months from now. I can promise that Path of Exile will always remain free to download and play.”

Free-to-play and microtransations have a long way to go before they can be viable across the board, so there will always be major success stories and abysmal failures. One way we can influence this is by supporting the ones that are smartly designed, ones that don’t feel like leeches sapping away at your wallet. As I have shown today, there are those that do this by appealing to the competitive market by hosting tournaments for a small admission fee like the various MOBA style games; and there are those like Path of Exile and Team Fortress 2 that sell items that have minimal impact on the actual gameplay but make the game feel tailored to you. We can actively avoid paying money to companies such as EA who seem hell-bent on extracting our money like a vampire guzzles blood. Support those who use microtransactions ethically and shun those that don’t.