Games have changed. Since the early 80′s, which is when my own personal recollection of the industry really starts to kick in, the medium has gone from bedroom developers and simple budgets to become this charging, multi-billion dollar wave of AAA monsters.
And over the next few weeks I’ll explore exactly how it’s all changed by way of specific titles that illustrate key aspects of the shift. First up was a blog about Damocles, a 16-bit space adventure that still embarrasses modern, so-called open world titles.
Part one: The Magic Wishing Crystal.
This week? Once more into the murky world of microtransactions.
A confession. Remember Need For Speed: Carbon? I bought the R34 with real cash (or, at least, Microsoft Points). Not because it’s my all time favourite car (it is) or that I had a bit of spare cash lying around (i did) but because I couldn’t be bothered grinding my way through the game, the trickle feed of cash, spare parts and engine enhancements a little too boring. My Ellipse could only go so far.
So, 80 Microsoft Points down, I had a tier 3 car that could take me to the end of the game, right from the beginning. And it did. Am I a cheat? Am I a failure? Is all this moaning about Dead Space 3 just a repressed, conflicting feeling of deep guilt and embarrassment?
Nope, because it was right for me at the time. It was right for EA, too – the total cost of the DLC for Carbon was around $100, but it was, according to EA CEO at the time Larry Probst, a success. “It’s generating a lot of money through microtransactions,” he said of the game. “So it’s a learning process, it’s iterative and we’ll get better about it as we go.”
“Need for Speed is the first example of getting smarter about it.”
Indeed it was. Whilst Carbon then offered a rather unique take on the pay-to-cheat model, nowadays it’s commonplace enough that we no longer bat much of an eye-lid. In this case those microtransactions were pretty much all attainable from playing the game regularly – you didn’t actually have to buy anything. It was carefully done, but for those that wanted to avoid the boring churn, a way ahead was offered up for a minimal charge.
And, presumably, lapped up by countless punters (including myself) who just wanted a quicker way through the game. It’s essentially lazy, but it’s also paying to cheat, and it’s ridiculously smart on the part of the publisher. But is this method of financial extraction actually new? Did EA really kickstart this whole idea?
Retro gaming: all happy smiles with whimsical tales of overly generous bedroom developers wanting to give out free birthday cakes to everyone that bought their games, right? Rose tinted glasses can mess with your memory: whilst it’s true that the genesis of gaming was about exactly that, it didn’t take long before players were asked to part with their cash if they wanted a leg-up. It just wasn’t known as microtransactions.
Chances are you’ll have forgotten about premium rate phone numbers designed to coax the struggling gamer to pick up the phone and spend a good few quid listening to the entire solution to whatever was the game of the month just to get to the bit you were currently having issues with. And that’s after you’d bought the magazine that housed back pages packed with such greedy money-grabbing nonsense.
You’ll be needing a map, Mister Mole.
And if your dad wasn’t keen on you hogging the phoneline with dodgy looking numbers, magazines were the only source of decent cheats back then. Before BBS’s appeared and newsgroups flourished, it was either Crash! magazine or the word of your mates. Getting my hands on a proper map for Auf Wiedersehen Monty (above) was a life saver, but you’d be the cost of a magazine down for your troubles. Yes, I’m aware that the concept isn’t exactly black and white here, but you get the idea.
As the web started to gain traction, certain publishers took the initiative to try something different. Square attempted to leverage the internet with their own PlayOnline service (an online portal that kicked off with Final Fantasy IX) but the pages didn’t stay around for long – try finding a guide for a game older than XI.
But mostly, and I think I’m right in saying this, cheat codes – the ones you actually typed in to get goodies in return – were plentiful. Nobody could stop one person passing on a code to another, they weren’t specific to a game and they weren’t tied to anyone’s account. I still remember all of DOOM’s letter for letter (or at least the good ones), I immediately fire in WRITETYPER whenever I play Jet Set Willy, and the rather naughty one that helps the player no end in cutesy platformer The New Zealand Story is forever etched in my brain.
Some cheat codes are legion – think of the Konami code (still used by Netflix) – but there are others for sure, and ones like Colossal Cave Adventure’s XYZZY are still used much more recently: that one appeared in Deus Ex, for example. Perhaps the most fondly remembered though are Grand Theft Auto 3’s – a series of codes that dramatically changed the game and meant you never really had to bother with the main campaign for maximum fun.
There’s at least two sites still dedicated to the transmission of such codes. Cheats are still big business, but the landscape is changing dramatically and it’s now rare to find a game with simple controller input codes built in. The point is that once publishers found a way to grant cheats via the Xbox Live Marketplace and the PSN Store, history was changed forever.
The latest game to fall under the spotlight of the gaming press is EA’s Dead Space 3, which features about $40 of DLC. It’s been blasted from some quarters but not necessarily for the fact that there’s paid for cheat codes.
Rather, Isaac’s latest adventure is peppered by something altogether different: repeated transactions – as the game progresses the player will be prompted to part with real cash in exchange for in-game resources, as often as the situation arises. I’ve not played the game yet and so don’t now the regularity of this, but it’s a brave new world for the publisher, and it’s something they’ve done so that smartphone gamers (who are used to this constant trickle of purchases in certain games) don’t feel alienated. Well, that’s really nice.
Dead Space 3, out very soon.
The publisher is keen to stress that gamers don’t have to go down this route – they can scavenge for resources in the game itself and that the system is only in place for those that want to just push through the story and buy up the better weapons quickly, but if it works, like Carbon, this will be everywhere very quickly.
Whether or not that’s an issue depends on your viewpoint on whether a £40 game should be bold enough to then attempt to charge you again and again. It’s my personal opinion that whilst cashing out for the Skyline in Need For Speed showed a lack of control (and perhaps time) I’m going to stay very clear of boosting my resources in Dead Space 3. That may be tricky, as it’s clear from the other DLC – there are three $5 downloads that boost the abilities of the bot that is used to scavenge resources – that EA really want to see how this works.
There’s also the issue over whether this is really paying for a cheat. One could argue that it’s not – you’re paying for in-game currency with which you can spend on whatever you want – but it’s paying for something and that’s where the issues are.
DLC and microtransactions are no longer alien to gamers. They’re there in the majority of games and we’ve gotten used to them. The ones that offer us something tangible, like an expansion pack in a free-roaming adventure or even new costumes for a fighting game, aren’t normally the subject of much discussion. The ones that are basically cheat codes and unlocks aren’t met with as much grace from consumers, even though they can be (mostly) ignored.
It’s a curious quandary, and it feels like Project $10 (the online pass system) all over again. Is the age of the type-in cheat dead and buried? Are we as gamers now reluctantly (or otherwise) okay with throwing the publisher a dollar or two to boost our way through their latest game? Have we just accepted that we’re going to be nickle and dimed for pretty much everything going forward?
I’m keen to see where EA’s latest venture goes. If it’s widely accepted and the microtransactions flow their way, it’ll be interesting to see how similar ideas will be echoed in other games. Fuel for your car? Bullets for your gun? Another life when you’ve expended the ones you were given at the start? It’s all about choice just now, but anyone who follows the smartphone gaming world closely will know that ultimately that choice gets taken away.